The West’s Cultural Continuity: Aristotle at Mont Saint-Michel

Sylvain Gouguenheim’s “Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel: Les racines grecques de l’Europe Chrétienne” reviewed by Thomas F. Bertonneau.

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Long before the late Eduard Said invented “Orientalism” to exalt Arab culture and Islamic society at the expense of the West, bien-pensants like Voltaire inclined to express their rebellion against the dwindling vestiges of Christendom by representing Europeans as bigots or clowns and raising up exotic foreigners – Voltaire himself wrote about Turks and Persians of the Muslim fold – to be the fonts of wisdom and models of refined life in their tracts and stories. The sultan and dervish look with amused tolerance on the gaucheries of the European rubes. The rubes swing their elbows and knock over the pottery. It was the Eighteenth-Century philosophes and illuminati who coined the pejorative term Dark Ages to refer to the centuries immediately following the collapse of the Roman imperial administration in the West under pressure of the Gothic assertions of the Fifth Century. Liberal discourse often casually extends the same term to apply it to all of medieval European civilization up to the Renaissance. Specialist historians have, however, long since demonstrated that no such absolute discontinuity as the term Dark Ages insinuates ever existed, which means that the Enlightenment version of history is at least partly wrong. And yet the usual story retains its currency, as an item in a kind of liberal folklore.

Part of that story is the motif of the Islamic middleman role in the transmission of classical knowledge to Christendom. According to this motif, the West in the Eleventh Century possessed no first-hand knowledge of the Greek and precious little of the Roman classics. Fortunately (so the story goes) the Muslims had translated Plato and Aristotle into Arabic, knew all about them, and bestowed the gift of their lore on the benighted monks of Italy and France. The benefactors under this notion behave suavely and generously, while the beneficiaries are – to paraphrase a line from a David Lean film – ignorant, barbarous, and cruel.

In the spasm of western Islamophilia that followed the terrorist attacks of 2001, the myth of medieval Muslim learnedness and medieval European illiteracy gained strong new power for the Left whose acolytes have disseminated it with vigor from their ensconcement in the colleges and universities. Facts might have dispelled the myth had anyone cared to notice them. For one thing, Europeans never lost contact with the Byzantine Greeks, who blithely went on being scholarly classicists until Mehmet II bloodily vanquished Constantinople in 1453, slaughtering the literate elites and forcing the peasantry to submit to Allah. The Eighth-Century English church-chronicler Bede reports in his Ecclesiastical History that one of the first bishops of Canterbury, Theodore, was an educated Greek. The Twelfth-Century Icelandic myth-collector Snorri Sturlusson suggests in his Edda that the Norse gods were actually Trojan heroes escaping, like Aeneas, from Agamemnon’s destruction of their city – an interpretation that implies his knowledge of the theory called Euhemerism. Eighth-Century England and twelfth-Century Iceland were remote places, but, in Bede and Snorri, one can attest links to the classical tradition.

Facts like these could easily be multiplied – and a man who multiplies them with muscularity and clear-sightedness is the French historian Sylvain Gouguenheim, who documents them in his remarkable new book Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel: Les raciness grecques de l’Europe Chrétienne (Seuil, 2008). [Aristotle at Mont Saint-Michel: the Greek Roots of Christian Europe.] The book is not as yet translated, but it deserves to be known to Anglophone audiences because it brings important truths to many a contemporary conversation.

For American readers, Gouguenheim’s title will have a familiar resonance. Henry Adams called his study of medieval European civilization Mont Saint-Michel and Chartres. Adams took Gothic Christianity, as typified in the discourses of Aquinas and Abelard and in the architecture of the Lady Churches, to have begun its flowering in the monastery at Mont Saint-Michel on the French Atlantic coast that also figures in Gouguenheim’s account. Adams thought of the High Middle Ages as a dynamic, spiritually adventurous, and, in its way, modern period, directly the precursor of our own technically accomplished and intellectually audacious modernity. Gouguenheim has something of Adams’ view of the medieval world’s clear-sightedness and vigor and he begins by addressing the prevalent méconnaissance of those vital centuries, which in his judgment indeed established the kernel, or rather the “roots,” of our own. If, “for a long time, the cultural history of Europe in the High Middle Ages was presented in negative terms,” and if “the fall of the Roman Empire associated with the Germanic conquests had, in the course of the Fifth Century of our era, made a brutal rather than a progressive end to antiquity” – or if that is what people thought, Gouguenheim asserts: yet “in reality, recent work in ancient and medieval history has shown that the period of the Fifth to the Eighth Centuries was not so catastrophic, the effects of dislocation while quite real being mitigated by elements of continuity.” Greek Christendom constituted one such continuity, as already mentioned. It stood in somewhat aloof reserve, but it had the character of a resource capable of responding to western queries.

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