Curtius, Ernst Robert: The Medieval Bases of Western Thought

But to turn back to my subject. What about the medieval bases of Westem thought? The bases of Western thought are classical antiquity and Chnstianity. The function of the Middle Ages was to receive that deposit, to transmit it, and to adapt it. Its most precious legacy, to my mind, is the spirit which it created while performing this task. Edward Kennard Rand has left us a beautiful book entitled The Founders of the Middle Ages. These founders were St.Jerome, St.Ambrose, St.Augustine, and a few others. They belong to the fourth and the fifth century of οur era. They represent the last stage of Greco-Roman antiquity. And this last stage coincides with the first stage of Christianity. The lesson of the Middle Ages is reverent reception and faithful transmission of a precious deposit. This is also the lesson which we may draw from Dante. And it is also the lesson of Goethe, which he taught in his poetry, in his historical and philosophical writings, in his letters and his talks. The nineteenth century produced a type of writer who championed revolutionary ideas and revolutionary poetry. That is a feature which betrays an age of disintegration, to use the formula of Toynbee. It may amount to what he called “a refusal of mimesis.” But the equilibrium of culture will be preserved only if those disrupting forces are balariced by new ways of stating and adapting the legacy which has been entrusted to us by the past.

Tο transmit tradition is not to solidify it into an immovable body of doctrine οr into a fixed choice of canonical books. For the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life. The study of literature ought to be conducted in such a way as to give the student joy and to make him marvel at beauties which he did not even suspect. Devotion and enthusiasm are the keys which will open these hidden treasures. I believe that wide stretches of medieval literature are still waiting for the divining rod which will point to sources of beauty and truth. The books of Miss Helen Waddell have performed such services for a great number of readers. Thanks to her, the songs of the wandering scholars have found new, delighted audiences. Indeed, the studious cloisters pale were also the haunts of high-spirited youth, able to voice in verse its zest for life. One of the most striking things in Dante is his delight in the beautiful structure of the universe, in the glorious spectacles of nature, in the splendor of human life. When he meets acquaintances in Hell οr Purgatory, they talk with longing and love of the sphere of earthly existence to which he is to return and where they wish to be remembered. His poetry teaches a joyful acceptance of οur sojourn here. And yet nobody will dare to accuse him of being blind to the dark sides of humanity. He does not shun pictures of its most terrible degradation. But that does not change his outlook. We might apply to the Middle Ages the words of Miranda in The Tempest:

Ο wonder,

How many goodly creatures are there here!

Hοw beauteous niankind is! Ο brave new wοrld,

That has such people in ‘t!

But the whole domain of the world’s poetry is an enchanted island like Prospero’s. It is enlarged by every great poet. Goethe’s notion of world literature has this meaning, among others. He discovered the beauty of Arab and Persian poetry and proclaimed: “East and West are nο more severed, they both belong to God.” He paid homage to Kalidasa as well as to Hafiz. And he set to posterity the task of expanding European tradition.

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