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Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Medieval Ideal

Benjamin Franklin once said, “In this world nothing is certain, but death and taxes.” He was wrong. As long as there is life, there is hope. And as long as there is man, there will be war. There are many things you can learn to depend on, but there are few things that are truly dependable. God, in His plan he gives every generation the opportunity to follow Him, depend on Him. Each generation has succeeded in some ways, but failed in others. Speaking cynically, without God, the only thing we can know is that the government will take our money and someday we are going to die, but for Christians who have that hope they can look at the past learn from their mistakes, emulate their successes, and live their lives striving to finish well living according to God’s standards.

Looking back at the Medieval Period when men were men, women were honored, and the Church ruled, God was the center of their culture, unlike now where the Church no longer stands for what is right, but instead yields to the culture, groveling before the Devil, a sycophantic courtesan. Men like Eusebius, Athanatius, Augustine, Boethius, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin made Christ the ruler of their lives. Eusebius wrote about the lives of those who dedicated themselves to Christ, forsaking all to follow Him even life. Athanatius wrote an entire book on the doctrine of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. On the Incarnation centers the focus on the truth simply and succinctly reminding the reader of that amazing mystery of God becoming man maintaining the fullness of each nature. Augustine gives us his own reminder of that place we strive for in City of God. He reminds us of the eternal City that we should be living in our minds where there is no wrong. He discusses the city of man and how no matter how hard we aspire here to get past our fallen world without the grace of God through Jesus Christ, His Son. It is beautiful how this period because of its lack of outside distractions was able to focus on God whole-heartedly in our modern age almost unheard of state.

One of the most different things from our state and the medieval era is the treatment of others courteously, chivalrously. Every knight had a law of chivalry he had to take. It reminded him to live with honor, respect others weaker than him, and to die with courage. Knights such as Roland, relentless, who stood strong in the face of defeat, and died with honor, or the Knight in Chaucer’s tales, who told the tale of two men who in love the same woman fight for her, treating her with honor and dignity. In Shakespeare’s Henry the V, King Henry acts courteously and honorably inspiring others to do the same at the battle of Agincourt. These men always strive to act chivalrously to one another. The best example of knighthood and chivalry in a medieval setting would be Sir Gawain. The poet who penned Sir Gawain and the Green Knight spent a substantial amount of time on the armor and most specifically the shield of Sir Gawain. On the shield was a five-pointed star that represented the Pentangle, a list of things he had to assist him on his quest. He had religion in the five joys of Mary and the five wounds of Christ. He had his natural gifts that all men possess with the five senses and his five fingers. The last point on the Pentangle represented the five virtues: generosity, chivalry, chastity, courtesy, and piety. When he reaches the Castle of Sir Bercilak de Hautdesert, he abandons his religion until he feels guilty for keeping the girdle. Also he lets down his guard and lays around for the better part of his stay, showing that his senses are not as keen and his hand is not at work to promote good. This opens up his five virtues to intense scrutiny. Two of his virtues are pitted against each other in the form of his host’s wife. She requires him to be courteous to her, which would require giving into her will, but this jeopardizes his chastity. He, acting chivalrously, plays innocent to her advances, and strives to maintain her purity and honor and his chivalry as a knight. The chivalry he shows is a purity of thought toward any man, woman, or child always acting in the way that would edify those around him.

Every period in history sets the stage for the next one. We find our own roots in the Middle Ages, a time where men were beginning to develop a more centralized government introducing a new era. The old era of courtly knighthood and chivalry is seen as outdated as a new era is ushered in to its place. Don Quixote, a man who lived after the era of knights errant, in insanity sought to become a knight in a world dead to all forms of romance. Is he insane to follow a high code of conduct and strive to follow it no matter the cost to himself or is he the only sane one in a world of deranged lunatics? The values of our modern state have grossly dilapidated since the end of those times because man has become self- centered and self-serving uncaring for fellow man. Machiavelli wrote his treatise to the Medici lord of Florence telling him how to best control his state and build a larger one in a dictatorial way setting the scene for the great tyrants of our age, Hitler, Stalin, and Tse-Tung. It is not all bad, however. This period opened up literacy to a certain extent, one could get an education as part of the Church and this set the stage for colleges and schools in the following centuries.

As states were being moved and developed there was an increased awareness of the arts and a focus on beauty as an ideal. It was not exclusive to just the murals of DaVinci or the statues of Michaelangelo, but also including the plays of Shakespeare, the tales of Chaucer, and Spencer’s Faerie Queen. Where before beauty was hidden and rarely shown because of the strong ideas of idolatry, now it was displayed for all to see. Authors portrayed outer beauty as a gift from God and gave great importance to it. Spencer’s Gloriana was beautiful even though the woman who inspired her was not physically stunning, Shakespeare’s heroines are described as beautiful, Juliet, Katherine, Cleopatra, Beatrice, Hero, Desdemona, and Lady Macbeth. Dante focuses on the beauty of his lady Beatrice and then in vivid terms describes the beauty of heaven.

Humanism is the idea that the human body and intellect should be the main focus of life. It was depicted in the Art, religion, and literature in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. There are many things both good and bad that came out of this worldview, but anything taken to an extreme is sinful. It can be found in many works, but Paradise Lost, Utopia, and the Damnable Deeds and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus give an excellent taste of humanism.
Mankind has always been egocentric, but at the beginning of the Renaissance in the sixteenth century humanism flourished as Greek ideology was resurrected. Humanism brings about an acute realization of mankind and when used for good our flawed nature. Men like Michelangelo were able to portray the beauty of the human body in an ideal form while showing at the same time the corruption of mankind (The Last Judgment). But on the other end men deified the human mind and body making man the ultimate standard. In Paradise Lost humanism is shown in a good way when God creates man in His own image and sets him as a ruler over all. Milton portrays the body as good and useful for the purpose God created it, but during the fall secular humanism begins with Eve wanting to be a god unto herself and Adam sees the evil actions of men toward others as something to be honored. Michael explains that this is not the case, but many like Adam will see it as such. Also Adam is warned not to worship Eve or deify her, for there is but one God and He is Lord.
In Utopia the search for the ideal society is found. Men want to create a society where they are able to be a law unto themselves and be good in and of themselves. The men who go there are very impressed with the ideal society that verges on making intellect king. These men share the Gospel and the native Utopians accept this and recount that before they had come they had known most of what was told them through there own logic.
In the Damnable Deeds and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus humanism itself is shown as unfulfilling. Faustus knows everything there is to know. He is a lawyer, a scientist, a doctor, and a well studied, well respected, well known man, but the lack of fulfillment is shown when he continues to seek more. He knows he is going to Hell, so He does not seek to change his status with God, but rather become a powerful Lord of the world. He seeks the apex of humanism without God, to be a God unto himself. When he sells his soul to the Devil, he realizes that in the end that egocentric worldview has subjugated him even more than before. Each of these works of literature portrays the hopelessness of uncontrolled humanism, but it is not humanism itself that is evil, but rather what our corrupted sin nature does with humanism. Humanism is good when it causes us to give God more honor, praise and glory, but like anything else when made a religion is condemning.

The Medieval Era brings us many good things, ideals, beauty, chivalry, a new focus on God and His will, but it also brings other things like new worldview and standard a set up for today’s fallen society.

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