Through the Agency of Demons: A Small Sketch of the Modern Mind’s Making

“Who does not know that wars, the mighty tempests, the pestilence, all the ills, indeed which afflict the human race, do so through the agency of demons?” (Marc Bloch, Feudal Society, p. 83)  

So wrote the Saxon priest Helmold of Bosau nine centuries ago in his history of Eastern Europe, the Chronica Slavorum.  I came across  Helmold’s words not in the Chronica, but in a very different source  – March Bloch’s excellent account of early Medieval institutions and culture, Feudal Society.*
Bloch uses Helmold’s statement to explain the attitude of dependence that permeated Feudal culture. As Bloch states directly after quoting the Saxon priest:

“Wars, we notice, are mentioned indiscriminately along with tempests; social catastrophe therefore, was placed in the same class as those which we would now call natural. The result was a mental attitude… [of] reliance on the means considered more efficacious than human action.”

And thus we can divine why Helmold would criticize Henry the Lion for starting wars out of greedy intent (as he is famous for doing) yet still blame “all the ills that afflict the human race” on devils. For Helmold, mistakes, misjudgments, and human failings were but the work of malicious and ethereal forces whose influence could not be checked or measured. This fatalistic dismissal of human responsibility – and the passivity in the face of catastrophe that followed from it – was a hallmark of Medieval thought. The attitude is understandable: the world of the Feudal man was a world of perpetual and uncontrollable strife. Agricultural methods of the time required two thirds of all fields to lie fallow; the fields (in in the words of Bloch) “represented hardly more than a provisional and short lived conquest of the wasteland (61). Medieval lives were overwhelmingly provincial; events that transpired outside of a fifty mile radius were the stuff of legend. Invaders (particularly the Arab, Viking, and Magyar raiders who ravaged Western Europe at the beginning of this period) were aliens, their intentions unfathomable, their ways and speech impossible to comprehend.

In such conditions it is little wonder that Helmold and his fellow monks consigned the fate of their communities to the pawn’s part in a monumental battle twixt Heaven and Hell.

This view of the world was not to last. Indeed, the move away from this fatalistic ideology mirrors – or perhaps defines – modernization. Some say the change began in 1455. Others point to 1492. Or 1543. Or perhaps it was 1648, 1712, 1776 or any of a thousand dates that may mark the beginning of the modern world. The particular moment humankind emerged from the abyss and stepped into the hallowed light of modernity is a debate best left to the ivory tower; my concern with this onslaught of dates is of a different nature. Renaissances, reformations, revolutions – each breakthrough was chip off the old order; each eroded away the ancient structure of thought and belief.

It is easy enough to chart this transformation. Having escaped the Malthusian loop that had defined his existence since the days of Olduvai, man passed through the veil and saw his world through new eyes. No longer was it the battle ground for forces all powerful and incomprehensible, but a mutable realm subject to  transformation, experiment, and above all else, description. Man had been reborn as the Nomenclator of Laws. The laws began small – paltry affairs concerning apples and planets – but their scope widened as memories of the old order faded with time. Soon the entirety of human affairs had been reduced to these equations; no more could famines or shortages be called the province of the Gods. In an age of famed rationality such was contrary to Reason itself! Such heresy could not be contemplated. Thus the lawmaking continued. Treatise by treatise the domain of angels and demons receded into irrelevance.

Yet humankind was not entirely satisfied with this arrangement. The rule of all powerful deities and spirits had been replaced with a tyranny of irrevocable and uncaring laws. Man had simply replaced one taskmaster with another. And the new master did not heed prayers.

 This state of affairs did not last for long. It could not – modern man’s transformed frame of mind would not allow it. Traditional ties of kinship, tribe, and aristocratic class were falling away. Revolutions past had cast a new reality; as far as the West was concerned human society had entered a stage of meritocratic transformation. For the first time in historical memory the shackles of disparity had been cast aside in favor of seeming social equality and mobility – in short, democracy. The democratic way of living did not just free man: it empowered him. As the prophet of this new age would declare, their destiny is in their own hands” (Democracy in America, trans. Gerald Bevan, p. 16).

The spirit of the times  rebelled against the very notion of man subservient to laws governing the social sphere: those in control of their destiny do not take kindly to rules that might suggest otherwise. So the rules changed – or the relationship of man to them. What had once been a limit to progress was now a tool to bring about its fruition; knowledge was now called power. Why stop at naming a law when one could use, apply, and manipulate it? It was no longer man’s place to be governed, but to govern, to recreate society with rules of his own creation. 

By the time Bloch published his book this transformation was near completion. As his words betray, it was in “human action” he found  the potential to prevent social catastrophe. In this opinion he was hardly alone; it was his generation who would utter  “never again” with firm fervor and faith that stating such had the power to make it so.

If the trust in the mastery of man was strong in that age, stronger still is it now. Bloch would not list the misery caused by storms and plagues along with his social catastrophes; to the man of this day they are one and the same. Today we think of typhoons, pandemics, droughts, and floods as catastrophes that can be averted, prevented, predicted, and stopped. This is a transformation in thought of proportions few have stopped to consider. For those living in the third millennium, there is no distinction between the environmental and social.  What part of the universe is left to dwell outside of humankind’s ruling domain?

Man: Master of the Universe.

This cultural paradigm has allowed humankind to thrive in the midst of modernity. But as is the case with many a victorious strategy, success has sown the seeds of future defeat. By allowing our understanding of the universe to increase unhindered, the reality man’s reason had mastered revealed an uncomfortable truth: mankind has mastered very little. It turns out that the laws we named were but fictions, history is is a string of uncontrollable accidents , and the greatest challenges of the future  are subject to neither model nor prediction. We have lived by the manta “knowledge is power” only to discover that the ancients were right – the real wisdom is found in the knowledge that we know nothing.

How then shall man face this fact? Where will the modern psyche find solace when faced with naked reality?

Perhaps it is time to consider a more medieval attitude.
*My review of which can be found HERE.

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It takes the wisest of men to know that no one man can know everything. That level of knowledge is reserved for God.