Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Age of Faith

The Age of Faith
© 1980 Will Durant
1200 pages

After centuries of economic decay, political corruption, and relentless outside attack, the glory of Rome finally surrendered to the tides of history some four centuries into the common era. The western empire gave way to a multitude of states ruled by those virile newcomers, a litany of Germanic tribes -- Franks, Normans, Angles, Saxons, Goths -- while in the east,  the classical world was maintained by the Byzantine empire, though more Greek than Roman. What unity remained was to be found in religion, in the Church: having formerly been integrated into the old Roman order, maintained its echo -- but it struggled for power with the many new kings, and even its unity would eventually be fractured. Across the Bosporus, Rome's old enemy Persia stirred -- and further south, in the windswept dunes of Arabia, a man named Muhammad was destined to create a new world power and religion, one which would war with and yet help revive western civilization. Such was the medieval epoch, and in this thousand-year history Durant tells the magnificent story of Europe's formative years.

Durant begins with the death-rattle of Rome and throws a spotlight on Byzantium before moving into the middle east. Although giving Persia and Egypt their time in the sun, it is the rise of Islam which dominates the early portions of the book -- Islam, which fundamentally altered the balance of power around the Mediterranean and  preserved much of the classical knowledge that Christian Europe happily tossed into the flames. After a time spent on medieval Jewry -- which, following the destruction of Herod's Temple, united around the Talmud -- Durant then moves to Europe which claims the bulk of the book aside from occasional check-ups on Byzantium. As with his other works, this is comprehensive history, tracking the growth of not just politics but of art, science, and religion. From where I sit, The Age of Faith is the best in the series so far.

It's been over a year since I read from the Story of Civilization series, and in that time I've forgotten how masterful an author Durant is, especially when reflecting and evaluating on the lessons our history has to offer humanity. The book is a hefty read, but the size is appropriate, allowing Durant to reflect on a multitude of cultures and ideas. His scope is impressive. The political histories and cultural treatments are exciting enough, but after musing on the vagaries of currency exchange and enthusiastically guiding the reader through the transformation of architecture from Romanesque to Gothic and the growth of literature and music,  he sits down with the reader -- perhaps under the shade of one of those awe-inspiring cathedrals which rose in the 13th century -- and ruminates on philosophy and religion, mulling over the different approaches Christians took to their faith. Some fled the world, others engaged it:  mystics held to dogma, while rationalists like Abelard dared to make reason the master of belief.  This book is a positive banquet of the human experience, and I relished dining on it day after day.

Although the medieval period is scorned as an era of darkness between the lights of classical civilization and the Renaissance,  the picture which emerges here makes that a view impossible to maintain. Though the newly empowered Christianity did do irreparable damage to the human experience, destroying "pagan" art and literature, Europe itself recovered -- and did so not by restoring Rome, but by claiming greatness in its own merits. Technology advanced, as did science -- slowly and painfully. While science had to overcome hostility by the clergy,  the medieval Europeans were at least interested in it, far more than the Romans. The Age of Faith bears witness to how much present-day Europe owes to its ridiculed ancestors -- those ancestors who created the universities, who conquered wilderness and marsh and turned them into civilization, who built towns from nothing and filled them with majestic structures which stand today, an enduring legacy. Then too are the fascinating human stories -- love affairs like Peter and Heloise,  philosopher-kings like Frederick II of the Holy Roman Empire, and  philosophers and scientists in both Christianity and Islam who defied orthodoxy.

Although it took me several tries to tackle this book, I'm heartily glad I did. This is definitely one worth reading.


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