a bonobo humanity?

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

the fall – when curiosity was shameful, and miracles abounded

with 25 comments

the benedictine abbey of Gottweig in the Danube Valley, now enjoying more freedom as a guesthouse

the benedictine abbey of Gottweig in the Danube Valley, now enjoying more freedom as a guesthouse

I’ve been reading some medieval literature recently, and I’d like to make a brief comparison here between the writings of Benedict of Nursia (c480-547) and Pope Greg the Great (reigned from 589 to 604), and the Roman writers of a few centuries before, such as Livy, Tacitus, Cicero and Plutarch. It’s maybe a bit unfair as Greg and Ben perhaps weren’t typical writers of the sixth century, I’m hardly medievalist enough to say, but still they capture for me the tragedy of the soi-disant Dark Ages for the development of thought and ideas. I’ll be quoting from the medieval writers, but only referring to the Romans – you’ll just have to take my word for it about their smarts.

Benedict of Nursia is probably better known as Saint Benedict, but I don’t like that appellation – not because he doesn’t deserve it, but because nobody does, as in order to become a saint it must’ve been ‘proven’ that you performed miracles, and such silliness shouldn’t be encouraged. More importantly, this nominatively determined method of severing such individuals from common humanity does us all a disservice. Anyway, Benedict was the founder of 12 monasteries or communities in Italy, and he wrote rules for them which were later adopted in other regions to form the basis of the Benedictine system of monks – though there was never really a strict Benedictine order (monks who live communally under a set of rules are called cenobites). I’ve just read these rules, followed by Pope Gregory’s  hagiography of Benedict, and it gives me a perspective on the closing of the European mind – if that’s not too grandiose a term – associated with the Dark Ages.

Benedict is praised for what Wikipedia calls the ‘balance, moderation and reasonableness’ of his rules, which facilitated their adoption by many European monasteries. However, moderation is a relative term, and as a rabid anti-authoritarian I probably chafe more than most under imposed rules. Still, I reckon most independent-minded modern westerners would find Benedict’s rules deadeningly stifling, and if they were considered moderate for the time, I’d hate to think about the more immoderate rules that the pious were forced to submit to. But judge for yourself.

Benedict states at the outset that ‘we are going to establish a school for the service of the Lord’. This isn’t of course a school in the modern sense, it’s more like certain types of Madrassa, in which nothing outside of sacred texts is studied. The school or institute is to be presided over by an Abbot, chosen for his personal qualities, including self-discipline, firmness, compassion and insight into the ways of the Lord. Recalcitrant souls need to be coaxed or reproved into the narrow path. However,

… bold, proud, hard and disobedient characters he should curb at the very beginning of their ill-doing by stripes and other bodily punishments, knowing that it is written, ‘The fool is not corrected with words’, and again, ‘Beat your son with the rod and you will deliver his soul from death’.

I suppose this isn’t too much worse than a lot of army-style biffo, as depicted in Full Metal Jacket and the like, but there’s more, and monasticism was a life commitment. Benedict goes on a lot about humility and seriousness – he frowns upon laughter. He also insists, ominously, on narrowness, for ‘strait is the gate and narrow is the way’ to salvation, as we all know. Clearly the lives of these life-long penitents are going to be highly circumscribed. Patience, endurance, humility and obedience are the watchwords.

The monks’ days are rigidly ordered. Prayers are to be offered up 7 times a day (more often than in Islam, even) because, according to Benedict, the Prophet says ‘seven times in the day I have rendered praise to you’. Who this prophet was I can’t ascertain, and there’s no such quote in the Bible, though Isaiah and Luke both display a fondness for the number. In any case, Benedict gives instructions about the number and type of psalms to be sung at the Morning Office, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline. Prayers are to be ‘short and pure’, in compliance with the spirit of silence that should inhabit, not to say inhibit, the school. One of the longest chapters is ‘On Humility’, in which Benedict defines 12 different degrees of humility, as the monk becomes more and more cleansed of vice and sin:

The tenth degree of humility is that he be not ready and quick to laugh, for it is written, ‘The fool lifts up his voice in laughter’.

The eleventh degree of humility is that when a monk speaks he do so gently and without laughter, humbly and seriously, in few and sensible words, and that he be not noisy in his speech. It is written, ‘A wise man is known by the fewness of his words.’

Again, Benedict doesn’t tells us where these dubious claims are written, but they don’t seem to come from the Bible. In any case, you get the idea, the fantasy that suppression of all spontaneity and originality leads through the narrow gate unto heaven.

Of course, the microcosm of the monastery doesn’t necessarily reflect the macrocosm of medieval Europe, but in a world of more or less homogenous Christian belief many of these ‘ideals’ would have been prominent. Not that the previous Roman world was that much better, as far as the nurturing of curiosity and intellectual inquiry was concerned. Roman society was also quite rigid in its structure, and philosophically, neither the Stoics nor the Epicureans thought in terms of intellectual progress. But the near-obsessive stifling of curiosity, the obsession with an obedient, humble, slavish attitude before an all-knowing master-god, that was very much a product of the Christianising of the Empire and ultimately of all Europe. The kind of reflective history-writing and philosophising found in the work of Tacitus, Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, dealing with human psychology and conduct in its own right, without reference to divine expectations, all but disappeared for centuries.

Interestingly, along with the fashion for slavishness came a flourishing of credulity. Pope Gregory the Great’s bio of Benedict teems with his miracles and fulfilled prophecies, reminding us that the age of Jesus wasn’t the dimmest for unbelievable beliefs, though it may have sparked the fashion for them. There’s virtually a miracle on every page, so I’ll quote here one of the first, from when he was a youth, having abandoned his studies to serve his Master, to give you a taste:

When Benedict abandoned his studies to go into solitude, he was accompanied by his nurse, who loved him dearly. As they were passing through Affile, a number of devout men invited them to stay there and provided them with lodging near the Church of St Peter. One day, after asking her neighbours to lend her a tray for cleaning wheat, the nurse happened to leave it on the edge of the table and when she came back she found it had slipped off and broken in two. The poor woman burst into tears, she had just borrowed this tray and now it was ruined. Benedict, who had always been a devout and thoughtful boy, felt sorry for his nurse when he saw her weeping. Quietly picking up both the pieces, he knelt down by himself and prayed earnestly to God, even to the point of tears. No sooner had he finished his prayer than he noticed that the two pieces were joined together, without even a mark to show where the tray had been broken. Hurrying back at once, he cheerfully reassured his nurse and handed her the tray in perfect condition.

Of course, this little tale is partly designed to show Benedict’s kindness and attentiveness in small matters, and perhaps that’s the best take-home message, but not all the miracles are so nice, and some display the wish-fulfilling fantasy of bringing down enemies. The point, though, is that these miracles are disseminated by the highest religious authorities in Europe, so that it would amount to sacrilege to deny them. Interestingly, when I was nine years old, my mother bought me a collection of books called ‘Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories’ – about ten books each with about ten stories in them, and every one told of a miracle much like this one (and to be fair to my mother, she hadn’t vetted them first and wasn’t aware that they were Christian propaganda). People had fallen on hard times or had suffered an accident, they prayed to God, their fortunes were miraculously reversed. They were very formulaic stories, and I steamed with annoyance on reading them, but it’s fascinating to find a template for that kind of writing from nearly 1400 years before. How the world has changed and how some aspects of it remain.

What is interesting for me, though, is the connection between credulity and authority that marks the Dark Ages. As a youngster I was free to, and took delight in, spurning the ‘authority’ of Uncle Arthur and his benevolent miracles. I’m a creature of my era and social milieu, as we all are, but there are many social milieux in our world. I’ve just seen a TV clip about the ‘fight of the century’ between one Floyd Mayweather and the Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao. I’m not much into boxing these days (I was a keen follower of the sport in my youth), but I hear this fight is being billed as goodie v baddie, because Mayweather is a convicted wife-beater and apparently something of a self-advertising loudmouth whereas Pacquiao is a member of parliament, charity worker and other respectable things. However, when I just looked at the screen I saw Pacquaio wearing a t-shirt with ‘Jesus is my Lord’ or some such thing emblazoned on it, and I felt a spurt of disgust. I have a visceral reaction to the slavishness and submission of the two most common religions on the planet. The old ‘pagan’ religions certainly engaged in seasonal placatory gestures but they didn’t practice or preach eternal submission to their invisible and undetectable masters. And not only are we supposed to accept our enslavement, but to exalt in our specialness. It’s the most horrible kind of unreality, to me. So there’s still plenty of darkness to deal with, or to avoid. Let’s remember Goethe’s reputed last words – more light.

25 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. […] the fall – when curiosity was shameful, and miracles abounded […]

  2. Benedict’s scriptural references come from the Canon of Scripture of old which the Catholic Church continues, in faithfulness, to use to this day. If you are a follower of Luther, you will not understand Scripture very well since you will not have the whole Word of God. If you want to learn, avoid Wikipedia if you are serious, and take good theology classes from a Vatican-approved Catholic instruction of higher learning ( one with the Pope’s Apostolic blessing). Benedict’s reference to not lifting up one’s voice in laughter comes from Ecclesiastes by the way, one of the books of the full Canon of Scripture…in use even during his life.

    Francis Philip

    May 3, 2015 at 8:13 pm

    • Oh Frankie, so you’ve decided to plague me once more with your smug, self-satisfied catholic claptrap. Of the thousands of supernatural beings humans have worshipped over the years, yours is just one, and no more likely than any other. There’s only one thing all these beings – big gods, little gods, good gods bad gods, gods of the forest, the sky, the sea, the harvest, or almighty gods with no antecedents – have in common, they’re all completely invisible and undetectable by any human senses or instruments. An uncanny co-incidence, that. But the last time you responded to me you told me you didn’t need to prove anything. I have no respect for those who don’t respect evidence. Don’t contact me again until you’ve shown signs of adulthood.

      Stewart henderson

      May 3, 2015 at 9:10 pm

      • There is lots of evidence. But you have to be more scientific than unscientific Wikipedia. Wikipedia for a scientist? Really? You know better, right?

        Francis Philip

        May 3, 2015 at 9:34 pm

      • Just to add to the point about Ecclesiastes, there are two remarks about laughter made in that book. In chapter 2 verse 2 ‘I said of laughter, it is mad, and of pleasure, what use is it?’, and chapter 7 verse 3, ‘sorrow is better than laughter, for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better’ (KJV). There’s no precise reference in that relatively interesting book to lifting up the head in laughter. Of course it doesn’t matter one way or the other, for having been ‘written’ somewhere doesn’t make it true. It’s simply the opinion of a bloke writing centuries ago, someone who prefers sorrow to pleasure. Millions would disagree.

      • There are lots of books and articles on Eucharistic miracles and also on apparitions. Scientists have been engaged in those things over the years…just look for it…you will find it.

        Francis Philip

        May 4, 2015 at 12:37 am

      • Okay I’ve been neglecting this for some days but I must always have the last word. Your response is a lazy hand waving exercise. Of course there are lots of articles about miracles and gods and other religious truths, just as there are articles promoting conspiracy theories, homeopathy, acupuncture and faked moon landings. They don’t constitute evidence. The onus is on you to provide proof of your extraordinary claims, something which has never been done before. Put up or shut up. I’m betting the silence will be deafening

        stewart henderson

        May 8, 2015 at 5:11 pm

      • Not lazy, just strapped for time.

        Francis Philip

        May 8, 2015 at 8:08 pm

      • No time to prove that your god, out of the thousands of competitors, is the only one that really exists? When in providing such proof you’ll be guaranteed everlasting fame? Wow.

        stewart henderson

        May 9, 2015 at 8:12 am

      • Perhaps start here since you like Wikipedia and it is not a biased Catholic site:


        Francis Philip

        May 9, 2015 at 9:46 pm

      • Thanks mate, I’m vaguely familiar with this one. You’ve done the very easy job of pointing to a phenomenon, leaving me the much tougher job of providing the most reasonable explanation, or set of explanations, for it. Leaping from this intriguing event to a supernatural explanation, which allows everything in, including your rather nasty and macho god, would be silly, because a supernatural explanation actually explains nothing. But I haven’t time for this now, and may address the general problem of supernatural causal claims in a later blog piece. Suffice to say you haven’t proven anything yet.

        stewart henderson

        May 10, 2015 at 9:27 am

      • Then you are on your own.

        Francis Philip

        May 10, 2015 at 9:42 am

      • No I’m not on my own, mate, I’m just not with you – there’s a huge difference.

        stewart henderson

        May 10, 2015 at 2:19 pm

      • When I say that you are on your own, I am acknowledging your choice, not sending you away. The way you respond (i.e., choice of disrespectful words) is your choice, and choices have consequences. We believe, for example, that God does not force a child to acknowledge Him, nor does God force a child to live with Him after the child’s earthly life is complete, but because God creates your soul, it is quite necessary for your soul to be cared for by God after your earthly life is over since your soul does not die. God loves, and since we have His Image in our souls, He has made it possible for us to love as well. We are designed to love…to be. Loved and in turn, to love and serve others because we are loved. We must freely choose to accept love, and then when capable, return love. If we do not love, if we refuse, then that is our choice, and we will lose God and lose all chances of eternal happiness and healing.

        Francis Philip

        May 10, 2015 at 7:49 pm

      • And as a note, theology is defined as “faith seeking understanding.” As you are not beginning from a position of faith, there can be no theological dialogue with you at this time. That is why you are on your own. You have much internal healing to do, if you will allow it.

        Francis Philip

        May 10, 2015 at 10:07 am

      • Pope Francis, I don’t do theology, as I’ve said. And you have a lot of emotional and intellectual growing up to do, to rid yourself of your fantasies. As Einstein often said, belief in a personal, prayer-answering God is a kind of childishness. So I’m happy to leave you behind.

        stewart henderson

        May 10, 2015 at 2:26 pm

      • I’m sorry, but I pray that you will find room for your Creator who loves you and whose child you are.

        Francis Philip

        May 10, 2015 at 7:08 pm

      • May I ask why you delve into Christian topics while also expressing your disrespect and unbelief in God?

        Also, may I ask a personal question about your personal situation?

        Francis Philip

        May 10, 2015 at 7:38 pm

      • This is good and true as well. Sorry, but I do not have the scientific accounts…

        Francis Philip

        May 11, 2015 at 9:38 am

      • Dear Francis, let me be serious for a moment.
        I find you a truly tragic figure, lost and locked, as you are, in the chasm of absolute certainty. But you are also tragic for the possible influence you might have on others. The worst, as the poet Yeats says, are full of passionate intensity. And some people, especially the weak, are drawn to such passionate intensity.
        I can help you. The world – the real world, full of blooming buzzing confusion – is a fantastic, amazing place. It isn’t a world of gods who make us as their pets, it’s a world of struggling, creative living entities, who sometimes blunder about and believe in ghosts and godfathers and other phantoms, but when necessity requires it they face the reality of their struggle in this incredibly tiny corner of a universe the vastness of which they’ve only begun to fathom. It’s a heroic struggle, and an extremely difficult one, and the suffering of many of our fellows is very hard to bear, but running away from it into the fantasy of a special relationship with ‘the creator’ will simply not work as a solution to the many and serious problems we face – problems of connection, understanding and right decision-making, involving reason and feeling in right measure.
        I can help you to understand the world, and yourself. You’re as utterly lost as any human being I’ve encountered. I can help you. I can start a real dialogue with you. You really really need it, my friend.

        stewart henderson

        May 11, 2015 at 9:34 pm

      • Apparently, you judge me based upon my posts which are inspirations occurring rarely during prayer or even more rarely in dreams. Don’t you think it is a bit rash to judge me based upon that? I post inspirations in order to inspire others – like passing on a gift to others – not in order to express my identity. Do you understand what I mean?

        Francis Philip

        May 11, 2015 at 10:04 pm

      • Are you more upset with my posts or with my responses to your questions or with Christianity or Catholicism or anything that can not be sensed with the body or something else? I can see how you might think I live in “la la land” but I really don’t. I live a normal life (according to my circumstances) and I have had plenty of hardships and have helped others with plenty of hardships. I don’t think that I have psychosis or am psychotic; if so, I am sure I would have been told by now by my family and friends and others with whom I interact in person.

        Francis Philip

        May 11, 2015 at 10:19 pm

      • You stated: “…but running away from it into the fantasy of a special relationship with ‘the creator’ will simply not work as a solution to the many and serious problems we face – problems of connection, understanding and right decision-making, involving reason and feeling in right measure….”

        I am surprised that you do not know about the thousands of Christian missionaries and billions of dollars that the Catholic Church spends on going out to help others with real world problems – even helping local people with things like homelessness, joblessness, health issues, and so on. A huge number of hospitals and schools in the USA, for example, are here because the Catholic Church built them here. Do you see what I mean? The desire to love (to have compassion and help others) comes from that relationship with the Creator which you do not believe in.

        Francis Philip

        May 11, 2015 at 10:33 pm

  3. […] Source: the fall – when curiosity was shameful, and miracles abounded […]

  4. Dear Francis
    I’m sorry I can’t keep up with all your posts as I have a job to go to and other activities and interests. I’m not upset with you, and I’m afraid I’ve never visited your website or read your posts, I only know you from your comments to me. I’m saddened by your apparent obsession with Catholicism and your ‘heavenly father’. I have no such interest, and I don’t think this god – why is it male, may I ask? – is any more likely to exist than the thousands of others that have been worshipped.
    I’m interested in Christianity because I love history, especially that of my own western culture. I’m particularly excited by the rapidity with which Christianity is being abandoned by that culture. I find religion generally an intriguing subject and I’m interested in the psychological factors that led to its emergence, and that are leading to it being abandoned by the educated classes. But it’s far from being my only interest. I write about many things, and I have more than one blog. I love the complexity of other species and I write about them. I love acquainting myself, through my writing and research, with the latest breakthroughs in medicine, in cosmology, in technology. I have another blog in which I look at the latest possible solutions to global warming, to species depletion, to our energy needs, to poverty and disease, etc etc.
    Of course I know about the activities of the Catholic church. For years, as it happened, I was employed by the Catholics, in fact until quite recently. This was entirely by accident – the institution at which I taught was taken over by the welfare arm of the Catholic church. So for years I attended meetings with other employees of the Catholic welfare sector – though whether they were believers I can’t say, as the topic of religion was never mentioned in all the years I worked there.
    There are of course many organisations working in welfare and human services, though few of them have the resources, infrastructure and tax-exempt status of the Catholic church. I’m happy for them to build schools as long as they don’t try to indoctrinate vulnerable kids. As for missionary work, I have no respect for that.
    I’m sure Catholics are, by and large, no better or worse than non-Catholics or non-Christians. I try to take individuals as I find them. As for the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, I find it arbitrarily authoritarian, misogynistic, homophobic and largely out of touch with the real world. Its response to the long scandal of child abuse continues to be woefully inadequate, and it needs to get rid of the celibacy rule. But all religions are equally based on myth and fantasy, and I find the real world infinitely more interesting. You’re welcome to join it.

    stewart henderson

    May 13, 2015 at 6:36 pm

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: