Monday, May 10, 2010

The Ancient and Medieval Thesis: The World is in Continual Decay

My fanaticism around Middle-Earth and all things Tolkien is well-documented, and over the years I've steadily absorbed information about the subject. I have also been influenced by it. Middle-Earth is supported by a deep and complex system of assumptions about the world which is sort of gathered together out of Tolkien's medieval studies as well as his Roman Catholicism.

There is the Kalevala, eddaic literature, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Old and New Testaments (he knew some Greek and Hebrew), Thomas Aquinas and so much more all buried in there, as well as his own syntheses of these many influences in his own thought in ideas like mythopoetics, eucatastrophe, and what is the best thought on fantasy and "fairy stories" to date.

One of the assumptions that suffuses Middle-Earth is that history is the story of a long decline. It was a common assumption of medieval times that the greatness of the past could never be replicated in the present and that the "march of history" is in fact a story of slow, inexorable decay.

Our technological achievements might lure us into dismissing this out of hand, but I am not fully convinced that the corollary is true - that history is a story of steady progress.

Hand in hand with all of our achievements is our growing capacity for abject destruction. Now, I won't get into this argument because it has been said before. We've been shocked aware by two world wars and the threat of nuclear holocaust (weapons only the US has been willing to use, sadly and interestingly) and since the "march of progress" argument has rung a little hollow now and then. For every civil rights victory in the US there is an expansion of child sex slavery or repressive religious regimes or, frankly, a US-sponsored right-wing overthrow of an elected government.

What we don't seem to develop is the moral sensitivity to use our technology wisely. And never before has one nation been able to kill everyone, everywhere, many times over. Is that progress toward anything but absolute ruin? If so, I don't see it.

Perhaps we are heading toward some kind of turn, some realization that has been slowly and secretly building over time. Perhaps we have already set in motion mechanisms which will inevitably destroy us.

Either way, as I have been doing research and listening to lectures on Tolkien's work, and encounter this Medieval paradigm of decay over time again and again, I can't say I have a strong rebuttal ready. We have medicine and technology and information but most of the people on planet Earth don't have access to them anyway. A third of them don't have enough food or clean water. And I'm not clear that we haven't, in aggregate, created more problems than we can solve.


Eddie Louise said...

Very interesting post.

Combine this with Aric's Mother's Day post and you have an interesting line of inquiry:

Is a the decay a manifestation of a male-dominated world with a decided lack of feminine influence in the halls of power?

Not meaning to imply in any way that girls are better than boys. I believe the same would be true in a female dominated society where men were denied input.


Doug Hagler said...

That is interesting. I've read that female CEOs for example (in countries where they have such alien things!) do things like commit sexual harassment at about the same rate as male CEOs - so I agree that the problem is power.

There is also the problem of the connection between power and violence. All of the cultures and societies that have, throughout history, figured out how to live peacefully and with equality tend to be wiped out by the patriarchal, violent societies that come across them.

I would link (and so would Tolkien think) the inevitable decay with the growth of desire for domination. Wherever you go with his writings, you see that the heart of evil, of corruption, of literally everything wrong with the cosmos, is the desire of some for domination over other living things.

And as long as our technological power grows, it seems, our capacity to dominate will also grow...hence a perpetual decay. I mean, what's to say the future won't be a bunch of vat-grown humans with mind-control chips in their brains, all controlled like puppets by whoever was the richest and most ruthless guy around when the technology became available?

So far, we have not demonstrated that we will ever not do something we can do because it is wrong.

Anonymous said...

I agree with a lot you have to say here Doug. I've got to ask - what US-sponsored right-wing overthrows of governments are you referring to?


Doug Hagler said...

During the so-called Cold War (cold for us, hot for many others), it was our policy to support any government that was anti-communist. Some of our proud results include the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, both of which enjoyed our support when it served our purposes. More than once in Latin America, there was a leftist government elected, followed by a right-wing coup which we supported.

We basically fought proxy-wars with the Soviet Union, and where we "won", we left right-wing dictatorships in our wake.

Aric Clark said...

I agree this is really fascinating. I'm curious how we differentiate such broad worldviews from simple pessimism (the future is scary) vs. optimism(the future is bright), or conservatism (the past was good) vs. progressivism (the future will be better).

I mean, every fuddy duddy out there says "remember the golden days" and "boy how things have gone downhill sense then..."

How are these things related? Was the ancient/medieval mindset simply more conservative/older?

Certainly, I agree that the modernist/progressive worldview isn't tenable.

A thought. The Medieval Thesis is that the world is in decay and its sort of beyond our control. The Modernist thesis is that the world is progressing and it is in our control to steer that progression. Neoconservatism would say that the world is in decay and it is in our control to steer us back to a better era.

Might the fourth position be the Christian one - the World is going to change for the better and its beyond our control. The kingdom is coming. The arc of the universe bends toward justice. Jesus will return. And all that.

Doug Hagler said...

Unsurprisingly, I like the cut of your jib, Friar. The world is getting better and it is out of our control. That does seem like the position which combines both hope and humility.

Anonymous said...

As a note, in many cases when we walked away, left-wing (communist) dictators flourished, and they have been every bit as corrupt and bloodthirsty. Iran, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Cuba, etc. I think that Chile was a positive, but I digress.

Great post Aric, but I think that you are both way off on your political stuff again...maybe I'll have more time tomorrow.


Jodie said...


The second law of thermodynamics states that for a closed system, its measure of disorganization will only increase. Decay is a measure of disorganization.

For organization to increase, an outside influence is required.

That's from the 1820s I think.

In Romans 8 Paul mentions that "creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption", which clearly expresses an presumed belief in the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics.

Progress does not happen by itself. Decay does. If we do nothing, things will definitely get worse. Even God knows that.

The good news is that we have a choice. I like having a choice.

Doug Hagler said...

I'm quite certain Paul was not aware of the 2nd law of thermodynamics - as I said in the post, it was a common assumption in the ancient and medieval world that the world was in constant decay - socially, spiritually, intellectually.

I also am not sure that our "doing something" is what forestalls corruption. A lot of the time, what we do speeds the process up.

We do have important choices, however, I agree there. It's just that so many of our choices appear to be wrong in retrospect.

Jodie said...


Sorry Doug, I thought this was Aric's post.

My point is that Paul, the ancients, the medievals, they were all correct. The world IS in constant decay.

But just as small pieces of it can be rescued from decay by outside influences, the totality of it is rescued from decay by the Incarnation. The ultimate outside influence. And here, Paul was right again!

Cosmologically right!

The choice we make is to be a part of the conservative decay or to be a part of the progressive renewal.