Subject: Social changes since middle ages. Summary: The moral advances one throws out in s

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From: turpin@cs.utexas.edu (Russell Turpin) Subject: Social changes since middle ages. Summary: The moral advances one throws out in stepping back to 13th century. Date: 25 Jul 90 03:49:07 GMT ----- People have always tried to change the things that made them unhappy, including a poor choice of mate. If in other times this was less a concern because the problems of poverty, cruelty, and poor health overwhelmed lesser concerns, or it was handled more frequently by desertion, living apart, and prolonged affairs than by the convenience of modern divorce, it is not clear to me that there was really that great a moral change. Similarly, women have always used abortifacients to rid themselves of unwanted pregnancies. Abortion is now easier and safer. While some of the increase in abortion can be attributed to changing morals, some can also be attributed to its better availability and lesser risk. When people see only a difference in technology, material culture, and personal habits between the modern west and feudal Europe, it reflects the truism that people will view as natural and innate the social assumptions in which they have been raised and fail to understand just how different are other times and places. Social relations and ideas about them have changed enormously in the last half millenium. These changes underlie the change in personal habits, and made possible and in turn were influenced by the change in material culture. These changes are things we now take for granted, and have even shaped the language that we use to discuss them. Perhaps the largest change concerns the role of the Church. We take for granted the idea that religious belief is and should be a matter of each person's conscious, and that religious beliefs must compete in "the marketplace of ideas". This analogy between the propagation of ideas and the trade of goods stems from the idea that arguments are freely exchanged, rather than hierarchically handed down. It is taken as a truism that one's choice of religion is most legitimate if one has investigated the various important faiths, and conversely, we would be aghast at the idea that one Church should censor public discourse. Indeed, we no longer think in terms of *the* Church, but in terms of a multitude of churches, all of which are voluntary organizations. This view of Church and belief developed since the reformation and renaissance. It would be completely foreign to the medieval mind. The medieval Church was far from a voluntary organization. The Church enforced ecclesiastical law with soldiers, dungeons, the gibbet and gallows, just as the state enforced the king's law. Sacrilege, blasphemy, heresy, and impiety were all violations that could be punished. People were burned alive for saying and writing things far less radical than the kind of questioning Mr Siemon does publically on the net. It is true that these violations were enforced as politically expedient, but that does not change the role of Church as a powerful authority in the secular world, an authority that did not require the consent of its members. A corresponding change concerns our view of the individual. Most moral discussion today begins with the individual as the important subject of concern. Individuals are equal in moral status, a status that is subject to their behavior, but not to the social position to which they were born. Modern philosophy, law, and even popular entertainment show that individuals should not be casually and unwillingly sacrificed merely because a leader finds it expedient, nor that there is any signficant moral difference accruing to social position. Again, these ideas features are new to the world after the Christian millenium. Then, individual importance was determined by social place, and social place was largely determined by birth. True, souls were individually saved or damned, but this was mediated by the Church which carefully taught the masses what the Church deemed best. It would be considered absurd to suggest that the average individual should weigh and decide for themself questions that the Church and its theologians in its wisdom resolved. What was taught was controlled, as was what took place in public discourse. There was a "natural order" that was shaped by God's will, an order that placed some people on top, and others on bottom, in which some thought about important questions, and others listened to what was said, and in which some people were born to command, and others to follow. This last should NOT be interpreted in terms of innate abilities, but purely in terms of the circumstance into which one comes into the world. One is born to command by virtue of being a peer, not by virtue of one's character. Just as our view of Church and individual has radically changed, so has our view the state. That individuals have rights that the state must observe, that the purpose of the state is to serve its citizens, and that the moral authority of the state proceeds from its citizens would all seem to the medieval mind like a complete turning of the world on its head. To the medieval mind, the state was justified because it was part of the ordained order of things. People were supposed to fit themselves into this order, not change (or create) the order for their sake. Lords enforced law to their convenience, torture was a common method of investigation, and if some innocent peasants or freemen were killed that was no great concern to the peerage. Lords were constrained solely by Church, by tradition, and by the conflicts between themselves. None of these were consistently on the side of the average woman or man. It would be hard to find a phrase in a medieval language that was equivalent to our idea of civil rights. ----- Many of these changes are reflected in the founding documents of our nation. Indeed, some of these writings cannot be well understood without keeping this context in mind. When Jefferson asserted that all "men are created equal", he was not foolishly claiming equal abilities to each, but instead attempting to undermine the idea that the lord is more important than the peasant by virtue of the social position into which he is born. The rest of the Declaration of Independence is similarly revolutionary when viewed against this background. That people should be able to freely discuss and select their religious belief and practice is a radical departure from medieval thought. The first amendment would have drawn amazed stares and condemnation from virtually every European ruler from Constantius to Cromwell, and unfortunately, from many since. Our support for civil rights, including the procedural safeguards given to the accused, the security of our persons and homes, right to jury trial, protection from cruel and unusual punishment, etc, are all radical changes to medieval social relations. It is hard for us to truly consider what it meant that one's mayor, bishop, or lord could sieze a person on mere suspicion, allow them to languish for years in a dungeon, force a confession from them using horrendous torture, and then summarily execute them. The crime that brought on this treatment might be something that we today do in the belief that it is a basic human right. Not only were these things done, but it was accepted as part of the natural order of things, an order that was part of an organic whole with God on top. ----- These are some of the social and moral differences between the medieval world and the modern west. The revolution that brought us here was a humanistic one. It stole the secular authority of the Church and reversed the moral position of government and the individual. It made the secular welfare of individuals the philosophic criterion for measuring social structures. This revolution in thought was the womb of western liberalism. These changes in social order and moral thought are among the most important recorded in history. True, these changes helped bring about (and were influenced by) the material advances of the last half millenium. But when I spoke of the moral advances of our time over the Christian millenium, it was these changes that I meant, not the mere advance of technology. Obviously what one thinks of these changes depends on one's own moral view. But if one would return to the moral and social order of the 13th century, let us be clear about what has changed. Tell us, Mr Buehler, are you really that anxious to throw away the US Constitution and Declaration of Independence? To see executed anyone who might pen such words? To return the power of judge and jury to your bishop, mayor, and other officials who do not have to answer to the people? To see the evolution of state separated from the desires and welfare of its citizens? Actually, I can see the sense of all this if one believes in a literal heaven and hell. One's salvations was safeguarded in the 13th century, even if the body and mind were not. The dignity of the individual, the moral equality of women and men, and freedom of speech and belief all pale in comparison to the issue of eternal salvation or damnation if one believes in these. (Sometimes I am puzzled how Christians who do confess this belief so quickly subordinate the salvation of souls to modern, secular values.) But this provides further evidence of my other claim: that dogmatic belief in a transcendent order is dangerous to a free society. The transcendent order can be religious or secular; its goal can be god, the fatherland, or a proletariat paradise. The danger of such dogmas is their transcendence, their separation of political goals from earthly well-being. The humanist opposes this with a focus on the practical, the known, and the dignity and welfare of individuals. A humanist is not necessarily an atheist, because some people's religious beliefs also support this focus. But humanism does conflict with a belief in a transcendent, superior reality (whether religious or not), because it is this kind of belief that allows people to justify the great harm they wreak on others in *this* life. Burning people alive is morally justified if it truly saves immortal souls, just as killing Jews is justified if one believes it is required for the destiny of the Reich. I reject all such transcendent visions. Russell

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