We've just begun, in our Development of Western Civilization course, to discuss the Middle Ages, and in particular how the monks in those early years, from the German takeover of the western empire in 476, to perhaps the crowning of Otto as Holy Roman Emperor in 962, were the men primarily responsible for preserving the ancient pagan and Christian learning in the west and for extending civilization to the wilds of Germany and beyond. It's a remarkable story, told by Christopher Dawson and others far better than I can tell it. What's most remarkable, though, is not that the men managed such a thing, against some long odds, nor even that, given the antipathy against pagan learning expressed by a minority of influential Christian writers such as Tertullian, they even considered it worthwhile to do in the first place. It's that, apart from a few people who actually study the Middle Ages or the history of the Church, they get no credit for such a prodigious feat; rather they are often accused of the cultural equivalent of setting fire to the library at Alexandria, and this by the very people whose trousers smell of gasoline and who have matches sticking out of their pockets.
I think here of Dante, whose practice in this regard was no different from that of his intellectual master, the great friar Thomas Aquinas, who himself followed a long line of schoolmen, not all of the same philosophical or theological opinions — indeed there was often fiery controversy — who considered pagans such as Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Virgil to be venerable authorities. Dante was far from the first to call Aristotle "The Philosopher," or the Arab Averroes "The Commentator." Granted, not everyone thought that Aristotle was a healthy fellow for a Christian to study, but those who were wary of him were not wary at all of what they knew of Plato. The writers of the Middle Ages were, if anything, a little free with their veneration, so that to read an argument by Chaucer's Pardoner or Wife of Bath or the talking chicken Chaunticleer is to hear citations from one pagan or early Christian author after another, Seneca, Horace, Ovid, Augustine, Cato, Cicero, and so forth. That habit of theirs, really a mark of wise humility, earned them the reproach of being a bit slavish, but a glance at the art and the intellectual works they actually produced shows that they were instead astoundingly original, suorum generum. Dante read all the Roman poetry he could find, and made of Virgil his guide through Hell and Purgatory. He probably had the whole Aeneid committed to memory: from Virgil, his pilgrim namesake says in Inferno, he derived the lovely style that has honored him. Yet there is nothing in the ancient world like the Divine Comedy. There is nothing even close. If we compare Dante with Tasso, or Milton, or Camoens, or other lesser epic poets of the Renaissance, we see the difference. Over and over, in the Renaissance poets — the poets of that age that saw itself as the rebirth of the grandeur of the past — we see the same Virgilian or Homeric topoi repeated, the female warrior who dies mid-epic, the capture of a hero by a dangerously beautiful lady, the speeches of the leader to his crestfallen followers, the funeral games, the wise Nestor who gives good martial advice, the Helen and the Hector and the Turnus and the Achilles. But Dante, who read Virgil to better effect than any of them, has no such, but crafts a work the like of which had never been seen before. Nor is Dante alone. The Gawain poet, Chretien de Troyes, William Langland, Boccaccio, the Provencal troubadours, the Minnesaenger, Snorri Sturlusson, the author of the Nibelungenlied — what we have in the Middle Ages is a wild proliferation of poets who were heirs to pretty much the same pagan and Christian learning, who revered it, and who produced works of surprising originality. We may say much the same thing about their drama and their architecture. The Romanesque is a wholly new style, despite its tenuous relation to ancient Roman building, and then comes the French style, dismissively called "Gothic" by broadminded people of a later age, a style that is endlessly fascinating.
When I was in Sweden with my daughter this summer, we saw some churches with plaster ceilings that were entirely white. But now and then we'd see a shadow beneath the white, and that made me wonder if there hadn't been paintings underneath, whitewashed over. My guess was correct. In the Enlightenment, that period of self-satisfied bigotry, the constriction of the arts, and the consigning of centuries of human learning to the flames, the smart people of the day commissioned the destruction of works of folk art that were learned, intricate, and quite beautiful. It is hardly an isolated instance of the phenomenon of culture-destroying among deistic or antiecclesiastical elites. Francis Bacon consigned Aristotle to irrelevance, but it is much to be doubted whether he actually read such Renaissance Thomists as Suarez and Banez, much less Thomas himself. The smarties of the eighteenth century sniffed with contempt upon things medieval — for almost two hundred years Dante is almost wholly unread outside of Italy. What happened, too, to all the stained glass windows in the cathedrals of France? One wonders how much literature has been lost because the courtiers of the Renaissance, unlike the monks, were simply not interested in preserving medieval manuscripts. John Dewey, despiser of all learning originating in an age before John Dewey's, tried his hardest, and with wonderful success, to eliminate classical learning from American public schools.
And now in our own day, who are the burners of books? I note with real pleasure that homeschoolers, the large majority of them Christian, and those in charge of upstart evangelical and Catholic high schools and colleges, are the ones in the United States who are preserving classical learning. They study Aristotle — with impressive care — at Thomas Aquinas College in California. They learn Latin and Greek at Patrick Henry College, a school whose students are to the typical Ivy Leaguers what linebackers are to waterboys. I could say similar things about the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University, the Great Books program at Baylor, the Catholic Studies Program at the University of Saint Thomas in Minnesota, Thomas More College, and many more such places, but I could not say them about too many other schools.
Meanwhile, at many another school, the secular fires go on burning. This week I met a wonderfully engaging and very smart candidate for a position teaching medieval literature at my school. She told me that she had been informed by her department that they would cease to offer a course in the history of the English language after her departure. That is not because such a course would be unpopular, but because they believed it should not be taught. Why not, you ask? She informed me that in many English departments, the professors believe that study of the older literature, say before 1800, and especially medieval literature, should simply die away. It should not be taught. Again, that's not because Chaucer would be unpopular. On the contrary, the fear is precisely that students would come to love Chaucer, Spenser, and Milton. That's why those authors should die the death. Shakespeare, of course, avoids the ax, mainly by being conscripted into the legions of the politically correct.
So, as has happened before, it will happen again: if Western culture is to be preserved for a better age, the church will have to do it. No one else will.