Medieval Europe versus China

One of the great oddities I think about the traditional reactionary sphere is this weird romanticism about the medieval age. Now, I like a good contrarian argument and, just for the heck of annoying my contemporaries, I have many, many, times defended the monarchical system over democracy and disparage the notion of freedoms and human rights, etc, etc.

However, it is clear that the West was nothing more than a ramshackle collection of barely civilised tribes before the Reformation. The great irony I find is that many reactionary exalts those aspects of Western civilisation which came AFTER the Reformation along with the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment and Romanticism. Besides a couple of token attempts at resurrecting scholastic theology ala Aquinas, nobody believes medieval academics to be exactly the pinnacle of Western science. Likewise nobody really believes that “iconish” crude barely 3-D paintings to be the pinnacle of Western art. Gregorian chants maybe cool, but again, nobody believes them to be the most glorious achievements of Western music.

Let’s look at this historically. In the years preceding the Reformation, the West was merely a collection of squabbling kingdoms, exhausted by perpetual war; China on the other hand was a unified empire. Our learning and technology, our cultural and civilisational development were light years ahead of the West. We would have probably have just sniffed at them as nothing more than a bunch of barbarians (an attitude we would continue to hold until the Opium War when their cannons would persuade us otherwise).

After the Reformation

But all that changed after the Reformation. There was the scientific revolution, the rise of the baroque, the Enlightenment, the abolishment of many superstitions, a more “religiously tolerant” civic polity (I used the word “tolerance” advisedly knowing that this is a trigger word for reactionaries, but I think we can agree that the cessation of the burning of heretics was, and is, a good thing). These gave the West the edge over the rest of the world in science, learning and, eventually, technology. Then there is baroque art and music, the English Renaissance which gave us Shakespeare, Milton, and the KJV. Later Romanticism would give us Beethoven, Chopin, Wagner, etc.

These are the things which truly made the West great; these are the things which even the reactionary celebrates. These were only possible after the Reformation decoupled the Papal imperium from the civic order and prevented a crude form of Christian theocracy from oppressing nature with its superstitious glosses and let nature, which God created good though marred by sin, shine forth in its all glory. And nature did truly shine forth in Western civilisation, in its mathematical order discovered by physicists, in its ability to inspire and comfort human once made in organic unity with nature which the Romantic artists and musicians heightened by concentrating on nature qua nature with an intrinsic goodness endowed by God.

Contemporary Angsts

There is no doubt that the contemporary unravelling of many a common orders and bonds have a disruptive effect upon the psyche of the white man’s mind to cause them to harp after imaginary Golden Ages of lost unities. This reaction is however not unprecedented. We see similar moves by the Victorians in response to the disruptive changes brought about by the industrial revolution and other changes in society which lead to romanticism about the medieval age and the neo-gothic revival.

As much as I understand, even sympathise, with such reactionary moves. I ultimately cannot accept this sort of fantasy idealisation which seeks to escape from contemporary discomforts by retreating into a fictionalised historical narrative.

Natural versus Civil Religion

I think a lot of this has to do with the way that the Western world in general has lost its sense of a “natural religion”. There is a familiar distinction in philosophy, lost today, between “natural religion”, “civil religion” and “revealed religion”. Natural religion is religion which is known from nature and which most people “naturally” practice. Civil religion is religion practiced as part of the civic order often recognised or established by civic authorities. Finally revealed religion is religion directly enacted via immanent divine actions in our historical space-time reality. Whereas natural and civil religion focuses more on “piety”, revealed religion focuses more on “faith”.

Western Christendom in generally has predominantly known two types of religion, the civil and the revealed. Religion as established by civil authorities (whether a Roman emperor or a medieval king), or revealed religion as part of a self-conscious confessional faction or organisation. The general collapse of those today has cause them to harp after imagined unities between religion and society enforced by common theocratic action or papal imperialism.

However, this is not so for most of us in the Far East. We still have a sense for “natural religion”, an immediate access to God via nature and the created orders. As such I don’t feel as acutely the lost of Christendom as most Westerners, since the substance of my piety isn’t particular contingent upon civil or even revealed religion, which I see as merely completing natural religion ala Aquinas’s “grace completing not replacing or superseding nature” and the rejection of doctrine of the donum superadditum.

As such, I really don’t see the appeal of pre-Reformation Christendom with its alleged unity of culture and religion, etc. We already have that in Chinese cultures and civilisations. It could be said, without exaggeration, that Chinese philosophy has probably one of the purest forms of natural theology before the advent of special revelation. This selling point isn’t particularly remarkable, or even appealing to us.

Conclusion: God’s Glory in Western Superiority

What does in fact impress us about Western civilisation is precisely those aspects which came after the Reformation when Western civilisation was finally purged of the remaining contaminations of idolatrous superstitions and this cleansing let nature shine forth in all its glory. It is those aspects which I think is what is truly glorious about Western civilisation. Without the scientific and cultural superiority unleashed by the Reformation, the Enlightenment and Romanticism, we Chinese would probably still treat the West as nothing more than a bunch of savages.

If I may be permitted a bit of speculation about providential motives, I would even go so far to say that after the Chinese, in their cultural arrogance, rejected the Nestorian missionaries, it has pleased God the Father Almighty, to humble the Chinese before the throne of Christ by crushing them under the heel of the barbarous West to whom he was pleased to reveal his Gospel and raise up to worldly greatness, that the Chinese might never more boast of their cultural superiority and learn once and for all that Christ is the true King of kings and no respecter of races, cultures or civilisations.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *