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Why Some Conservative Thinkers Seriously Want the Return of the Middle Ages
The Middle Ages see a resurgence of interest among the alt-right and some conservative thinkers.
Of all the political and intellectual surprises that come at us every day now, one of the more unusual is the strange resurgence of the Middle Ages as an influence on our times. A number of conservative thinkers have proposed that as modernity and liberalism led humanity to a dead end, we should look to the medieval period for inspiration on how to remake our world. This idea has been expressed through memes and writings of the alt-right and has found its way all the way up to Presidential advisors.
One reason for the appeal of the Middle Ages can be seen in popular memes spread through alt-right online forums. They feature the Crusader battle call “Deus vult!” which basically translates to “God wills it”. It is used as a Christian version of “Allahu akbar” - a call to action for the Western civilization in its supposed war against Islam.
Another way that the Middle Ages fascinate people has been proposed by a number of conservative blogs and thinkers - they are newly seen as a time of traditional values that celebrated god, masculinity, homogeneity instead of diversity, and traditional gender roles.
The “Middle Ages” is generally considered to be the period of history that goes from the fall of the Roman Empire in the West in 476 CE to the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire in 1453, when Constantinople was sacked. Another way to mark the end of the medieval period is the beginning of the Renaissance in the 14th century.
A Deus Vult meme image.
It’s common to regard the Middle Ages as a dark period in human history, without many accomplishments. The historian Edward Gibbon, who wrote the “Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire,” called the period full of “barbarism and religion”. This historical time is also associated with the terrible epidemic of “Black Death” - the bubonic plague that killed 20 million people in Europe, 30% of its population at the time, in the middle of the 14th century.
This negative point of view on the Middle Ages has been challenged of late, with new scholarship pointing out that the era had some achievements, like the majestic Romanesque and Gothic Cathedrals that sprang all over Europe, leading to architectural and artistic innovation. The period also saw the eventual transformation of feudalism due to factors such as agricultural inventions, leading to increased population in city centers.
People praying for relief from the bubonic plague, circa 1350. Original Artwork: Designed by E Corbould, lithograph by F Howard. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The Middle Ages were also a period of great growth of Islamic power. Muslim armies conquered the Middle East, with the Islamic world becoming three times as big as the Christian one during the height of its influence. The intellectual life that was missing from Europe was thriving in cities like Cairo, Baghdad and Damascus.
The spread of Islamic control resulted in the Catholic Church launching a series of Crusades - military expeditions to rescue the Holy Land from “infidels”. The Crusades were first began in 1095 AD, with Pope Urban II issuing the infamous “Deus Vult!” battle cry for Christians to raise an army and fight Muslims.
The “Deus Vult!” memes that spread through alt-right communities on 4chan, reddit and other social media harken back to the Crusader story. They are essentially calling for a modern-day Crusade against Islam.
The allure of the Crusader narrative is not only demonstrated by the alt-right Crusader memes, but is echoed in conservative intellectual circles.
A Crusade meme image.
Having embraced the alt-right while at Breitbart, President Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon has at times expressed apocalyptic rhetoric that seems to be anticipating a coming religious and class war. It is hard to really know all the nuances of what Mr. Bannon thinks as this somewhat reclusive figure rarely weighs in on events and issues publicly. But considering the access and intellectual heft Mr. Bannon is said to bring to the ear of the President, discerning his views is a very telling endeavor.
To that end, Mr. Bannon has spoken of the current period of time as a point of crisis, with capitalism and Judeo-Christian values under attack, especially from radical Islamists.
Trump Crusader meme.
Bannon’s seemingly strong feelings on this subject were on display during his 2014 talk at the Vatican.
“And we're at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict, of which if … the people in the Church do not bind together and really form what I feel is an aspect of the Church Militant, to really be able to not just stand with our beliefs, but to fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that's starting, that will completely eradicate everything that we've been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years,” said Bannon.
This certainly sounds like Crusader talk. He suggests that the Judeo-Christian idea is facing a grave enemy that can only be fought by armed Christians. Interestingly, in the same speech, he also paints the current age as the Dark Ages, another way the Middle Ages are described.
Bannon also spoke about the appeal of Putin, linking it to the Russian leader’s support of “traditionalist” values, especially as he’s advised by Alexander Dugin, a philosopher who follows the work of the controversial Italian thinker Julius Evola. Bannon’s remarks seemed to indicate that while he does not support Putin’s kind of government, there was some merit in his approach.
“We the Judeo-Christian West really have to look at what he’s [Putin] talking about as far as traditionalism goes — particularly the sense of where it supports the underpinnings of nationalism — and I happen to think that the individual sovereignty of a country is a good thing and a strong thing,” said Bannon.
White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon participates in a conversation during the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center February 23, 2017 in National Harbor, Maryland. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Julius Evola was considered a leading proponent of Traditionalism, a philosophy that sees the idea of equality-oriented liberalism and “progress” as mistaken, advocates traditional gender roles and seeks a return of hierarchical social structures like castes. Evola saw European feudalism during the Middle Ages as a great example of such a society.
Anti-Semitic and sexist Evola is known for inspiring Italian fascists, including Benito Mussolini himself, modern neo-Nazi and nationalist parties in Europe, as well as the far right movements in the United States.
“Julius Evola is one of the most fascinating men of the 20th century,” said the white nationalist leader Richard Spencer.
Mr. Spencer also found it very significant that Mr. Bannon knew who Evola was.
“Even if he hasn’t fully imbibed them and been changed by them, he is at least open to them,” he said. “He at least recognizes that they are there. That is a stark difference to the American conservative movement that either was ignorant of them or attempted to suppress them,” said Spencer.
If you think knowing about Evola is not the same as supporting his ideas, an article by Breitbart from when it was run by Bannon listed Evola as one of the foundational thinkers of the alt-right movement. It was co-written by another alt-right standard bearer - Milo Yiannopoulos.
Alexander Dugin, another philosopher mentioned by Bannon at the Vatican, is called by some “Putin’s Brain.” He is a Russian thinker known for his close associations with the Kremlin. Dugin espouses an Evola-influenced philosophy that also ties into Traditionalist values, seeing the Renaissance and everything that followed, including technological progress, as a debasement of human nature. His goal would be to return to the values of the Middle Ages and restore a Eurasian empire on the basis of the former Soviet Union, with Russia at the head.
“Returning to the Middle Ages or turning to them to look for inspiration, and I am not speaking of merely reproducing – that’s impossible to do. But we have stood on the path of modernity. We’ve stood on the path of modern totalitarianism regardless of whether of the first, second, or third theory. We’ve exhausted all of their possibilities, built all three models. We’ve built liberal civilization, communist civilization as part of such an experiment, and we’ve even built fascism. We can now compare everything before us. And if all of this does not satisfy us, this means that the most important mistake was made not in the 20th century and not even in 1991,” said Dugin in an interview.
While history is always important to study, what does one make of this unexpected brew of racist and sexist ideologies inspired by fascist and radical Russian thinkers combined with American Christian white nationalism? Sounds like an explosive cocktail.
If you don’t have enough Crusader spirit, here’s a video that can get you into just such a state:
Cover image: Circa 1250, A crusader is shot by a Muslim warrior during the Crusades. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
New anthropological research suggests our ancestors enjoyed long slumbers.
- Neanderthal bone fragments discovered in northern Spain mimic hibernating animals like cave bears.
- Thousands of bone fragments, dating back 400,000 years, were discovered in this "pit of bones" 30 years ago.
- The researchers speculate that this physiological function, if true, could prepare us for extended space travel.
Humans have a terrible sense of time. We think in moments, not eons, which accounts for a number of people that still don't believe in evolutionary theory: we simply can't imagine ourselves any differently than we are today.
Thankfully, scientists and researchers have vast imaginations. Their findings often depend on creative problem-solving. Anthropologists are especially adept at this skill, as their job entails imagining a prehistoric world in which humans and our forebears were very different creatures.
A new paper, published in the journal L'Anthropologie, takes a hard look at ancient bone health and arrives at a surprising conclusion: Neanderthals (and possibly early humans) might have endured long, harsh winters by hibernating.
Adaptability is the key to survival. Certain endotherms evolved the ability to depress their metabolism for months at a time; their body temperature and metabolic rate lowered while their breathing and heart rate dropped to nearly imperceptible levels. This handy technique solved a serious resource management problem, as food supplies were notoriously scarce during the frozen months.
While today the wellness industry eschews fat, it has long had an essential evolutionary function: it keeps us alive during times of food scarcity. As autumn months pass, large mammals become hyperphagic (experiencing intense hunger followed by overeating) and store nutrients in fat deposits; smaller animals bury food nearby for when they need a snack. This strategy is critical as hibernating animals can lose over a quarter of their body weight during winter.
For this paper, Antonis Bartsiokas and Juan-Luis Arsuaga, both in the Department of History and Ethnology at Democritus University of Thrace, scoured through remains of a "pit of bones" in northern Spain. In 1976, archaeologists found a 50-foot shaft leading down into a cave in Atapuerca, where thousands of bone fragments have since been discovered. Dating back 400,000 years—some of the fragments may be as old as 600,000 years—researchers believe the bodies were intentionally buried in this cave.
Evidence of ancient human hibernation / human hibernation for space travel | Dr Antonis Bartsiokas
While the fragments have been well studied in the intervening decades, Arsuaga (who led an early excavation in Atapuerca) and Bartsiokas noticed something odd about the bones: they displayed signs of seasonal variations. These proto-humans appear to have experienced annual bone growth disruption, which is indicative of hibernating species.
In fact, the remains of cave bears were also found in this pit, increasing the likelihood that the burial site was reserved for species that shared common features. This could be the result of a dearth of food for bears and Neanderthals alike. The researchers write that modern northerners don't need to sleep for months at a time; an abundance of fish and reindeer didn't exist in Spain, as they do in the Arctic. They write,
"The aridification of Iberia then could not have provided enough fat-rich food for the people of Sima during the harsh winter—making them resort to cave hibernation."
The notion of hibernating humans is appealing, especially to those in cold climates, but some experts don't want to put the cart before the horse. Large mammals don't engage in textbook hibernation; their deep sleep is known as a "torpor." Even then, the demands of human-sized brains could have been too large for extended periods of slumber.
Still, as we continually discover our animalistic origins to better understand how we evolved, the researchers note the potential value of this research.
"The present work provides an innovative approach to the physiological mechanisms of metabolism in early humans that could help determine the life cycle and physiology of extinct human species."
Bartsiokas speculates that this ancient mechanism could be coopted for space travel in the future. If the notion of hibernating humans sounds far-fetched, the idea has been contemplated for years, as NASA began funding research on this topic in 2014. As the saying goes, everything old is new again.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His new book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
It is impossible for science to arrive at ultimate truths, but functional truths are good enough.
- What is truth? This is a very tricky question, trickier than many would like to admit.
- Science does arrive at what we can call functional truth, that is, when it focuses on what something does as opposed to what something is. We know how gravity operates, but not what gravity is, a notion that has changed over time and will probably change again.
- The conclusion is that there are not absolute final truths, only functional truths that are agreed upon by consensus. The essential difference is that scientific truths are agreed upon by factual evidence, while most other truths are based on belief.
Does science tell the truth? The answer to this question is not as simple as it seems, and my 13.8 colleague Adam Frank took a look at it in his article about the complementarity of knowledge. There are many levels of complexity to what truth is or means to a person or a community. Why?
First, "truth" itself is hard to define or even to identify. How do you know for sure that someone is telling you the truth? Do you always tell the truth? In groups, what may be considered true to a culture with a given set of moral values may not be true in another. Examples are easy to come by: the death penalty, abortion rights, animal rights, environmentalism, the ethics of owning weapons, etc.
At the level of human relations, truth is very convoluted. Living in an age where fake news has taken center stage only corroborates this obvious fact. However, not knowing how to differentiate between what is true and what is not leads to fear, insecurity, and ultimately, to what could be called worldview servitude — the subservient adherence to a worldview proposed by someone in power. The results, as the history of the 20th century has shown extensively, can be catastrophic.
Proclamations of final or absolute truths, even in science, shouldn't be trusted.
The goal of science, at least on paper, is to arrive at the truth without recourse to any belief or moral system. Science aims to go beyond the human mess so as to be value-free. The premise here is that Nature doesn't have a moral dimension, and that the goal of science is to describe Nature the best possible way, to arrive at something we could call the "absolute truth." The approach is a typical heir to the Enlightenment notion that it is possible to take human complications out of the equation and have an absolute objective view of the world. However, this is a tall order.
It is tempting to believe that science is the best pathway to truth because, to a spectacular extent, science does triumph at many levels. You trust driving your car because the laws of mechanics and thermodynamics work. NASA scientists and engineers just managed to have the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter — the first man-made device to fly over another planet — hover above the Martian surface all by itself.
We can use the laws of physics to describe the results of countless experiments to amazing levels of accuracy, from the magnetic properties of materials to the position of your car in traffic using GPS locators. In this restricted sense, science does tell the truth. It may not be the absolute truth about Nature, but it's certainly a kind of pragmatic, functional truth at which the scientific community arrives by consensus based on the shared testing of hypotheses and results.
What is truth?
Credit: Sergey Nivens / 242235342
But at a deeper level of scrutiny, the meaning of truth becomes intangible, and we must agree with the pre-Socratic philosopher Democritus who declared, around 400 years BCE, that "truth is in the depths." (Incidentally, Democritus predicted the existence of the atom, something that certainly exists in the depths.)
A look at a dictionary reinforces this view. "Truth: the quality of being true." Now, that's a very circular definition. How do we know what is true? A second definition: "Truth: a fact or belief that is accepted as true." Acceptance is key here. A belief may be accepted to be true, as is the case with religious faith. There is no need for evidence to justify a belief. But note that a fact as well can be accepted as true, even if belief and facts are very different things. This illustrates how the scientific community arrives at a consensus of what is true by acceptance. Sufficient factual evidence supports that a statement is true. (Note that what defines sufficient factual evidence is also accepted by consensus.) At least until we learn more.
Take the example of gravity. We know that an object in free fall will hit the ground, and we can calculate when it does using Galileo's law of free fall (in the absence of friction). This is an example of "functional truth." If you drop one million rocks from the same height, the same law will apply every time, corroborating the factual acceptance of a functional truth, that all objects fall to the ground at the same rate irrespective of their mass (in the absence of friction).
But what if we ask, "What is gravity?" That's an ontological question about what gravity is and not what it does. And here things get trickier. To Galileo, it was an acceleration downward; to Newton a force between two or more massive bodies inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them; to Einstein the curvature of spacetime due to the presence of mass and/or energy. Does Einstein have the final word? Probably not.
Is there an ultimate scientific truth?
Final or absolute scientific truths assume that what we know of Nature can be final, that human knowledge can make absolute proclamations. But we know that this can't really work, for the very nature of scientific knowledge is that it is incomplete and contingent on the accuracy and depth with which we measure Nature with our instruments. The more accuracy and depth our measurements gain, the more they are able to expose the cracks in our current theories, as I illustrated last week with the muon magnetic moment experiments.
So, we must agree with Democritus, that truth is indeed in the depths and that proclamations of final or absolute truths, even in science, shouldn't be trusted. Fortunately, for all practical purposes — flying airplanes or spaceships, measuring the properties of a particle, the rates of chemical reactions, the efficacy of vaccines, or the blood flow in your brain — functional truths do well enough.
Using urinals, psychological collages, and animated furniture to shock us into reality.
- Dada is a provocative and surreal art movement born out of the madness of World War I.
- Tzara, a key Dada theorist, says Dada seeks "to confuse and upset, to shake and jolt" people from their comfort zones.
- Dada, as all avant-garde art, faces a key problem in how to stay true to its philosophy.
In a world gone mad, what can the few sane people left do? What can someone say when there are no words that seem up to the job? How can anyone hope to express ideas so terrible when doing so will only reduce those ideas?
These are some of the things that inspired the Dada movement, and in its absurd, surreal, and chaotic nonsense, we find the voice of the voiceless.
The origin of Dadaism
Dada was a response to the madness of World War I. Reasonable, intelligent, and sensitive people looked at the blood and mud graveyards of the trenches and wondered how any meaning or goodness could ever be found again. How can someone make sense of a world where millions of young, happy, hopeful men were scythed down in a spray of bullets? How could life go back to normal when returning soldiers, blinded and disfigured from gas, lay homeless in the streets? Out of this awful revulsion, there came one bitter voice, and it said: "Everything is nonsense."
Dada is the art of the nihilist. It smashes accepted wisdom, challenges norms and values, and offends, upsets, and provokes us to re-examine everything.
And so, the Dada movement expressed itself in absurdity. Tzara, the closest you get to a Dadaist philosopher, put it like this: "Like everything in life, Dada is useless. Dada is without pretension, as life should be." Dada rejects all systems, all philosophy, all definite answers, and all truth. It is the living embrace of contradictions and nonsense. It seeks "to confuse and upset people, to shake and jolt". It aims to shout down the "shamefaced sex of comfortable compromise and good manners," when actually "everything happens in a completely idiotic way."
In short, Dada is a response to the world when all the usual methods have broken down. It's the recognition that dinner party conversations, Hollywood blockbusters, and Silicon Valley are not how life actually is. This is a false reality and order, like some kind of veneer.
The Dada response to life is to embrace the personal and passionate madness of it all, where "the intensity of a personality is transposed directly, clearly into the work." It's to recognize the unique position of an artist, who can convey ideas and feelings in a way that goes beyond normal understanding. Art goes straight to the soul, but the intensity of it all can be hard to "enjoy" in the strictest sense.
Where is this Dada?
For instance, Dada is seen in the poems of Hugo Ball who wrote in meaningless foreign-sounding words. It's in Hausmann, who wrote works in disconnected phonemes. It's found in Duchamp's iconoclastic "Fountain" that sought to question what art or an artist really meant. It's in Hans Richter's short film "Ghost before Breakfast," which has an incoherent montage of images, loosely connected by the theme of inanimate objects in revolt. And, it's in Kurt Schwitters' "psychological collages" which present fragments of objects, juxtaposed together.
Dada is intended to shock. It's an artistic jolt asking, or demanding, that the viewers reorient themselves in some way. It is designed to make us feel uncomfortable and does not make for easy appreciation. It's only when we're thrown so drastically outside of our comfort zone in this way that Dada asks us to question how things are. It shakes us out of a conformist stupor to look afresh at things.
The paradox of Dadaism
Of course, like all avant-garde art, Dada needs to address one major problem: how do you stay so provocative, so radical, and so anti-establishment when you also seek success? How can maverick rebels stay so as they get a mortgage and want a good school for their kids? The problem is that young, inventive, and idealistic artists are inevitably sucked into the world of profit and commodity.
As Grayson Perry, a British modern artist, wrote: "What starts as a creative revolt soon becomes co-opted as the latest way to make money," and what was once fresh and challenging "falls away to reveal a predatory capitalist robot." With Dada, how long can someone actually live in a world of nonsense and nihilistic absurdity?
But there will always be new blood to keep movements like Dada going. As the revolutionaries of yesterday become the rich mansion-owners of today, there will be hot, young things to come and take up the mantle. There will always be something to challenge and questions to be asked. So, art movements like Dada will always be in the vanguard.
Dada is the art of the nihilist. It smashes accepted wisdom, challenges norms and values, and offends, upsets, and provokes us to re-examine everything. It's an absurd art form that reflects the reality it perceives — that life is nothing more than a dissonant patchwork of egos floating in an abyss of nothing.