Curtius, Ernst Robert: The Medieval Bases of Western Thought

A great English historian, G.Μ.Trevelyan, is of the opinion that the real break in modern history is not the sixteenth century, but the eighteenth. The Industrial Revolution has meant a much more radical change than the Renaissance or the Reformation. Medieval forms of life subsist until about 1?50, to put it roughly. When we consider οn the other hand that medieval thought and expression become creative only around 1050, we get a period of about seven hundred years which manifests a unity of structure. We need not bother to find a name fοr this period. But if we try to consider it as a cultural unit, we may get a better understanding of our past.

The middle of the eighteenth century witnessed not only the beginnings of that great economic change which is termed the Industrial Revolution. It saw also the first powerful revolt against cultural tradition, which is marked by Rousseau. This tradition was restated by the universal genius of Goethe. But it was restated for the last time. Goethe has not been succeeded by another universal genius. He had a very clear consciousness of belonging to this tradition. He pointed to Homer, to Plato, to Aristotle, and to the Bible as its foundations. He was stepping into the shoes of the Elders, many of whom he thought greater than himself. History was to him a sequence of great minds which commanded respect and loyalty. Viewed in the light of the present, he seems to be nearer to Dante and to Shakespeare than to us. He is the last link of that golden chain. Yet he is not too remote from us. We can still grasp that link.

The medium of this tradition is literature, that is, imagimative writing. This is a trite statement, but there are reasons to remind ourselves of it. Some eminent philosophers of our time are raising the question whether Goethe’s thought is adequate to the needs of the present. This question will be amply discussed in our conferences. But we may generalize the problem and ask: What is the relation between poetry and philosophy? Have they anything in common? Is there a borderland in which they meet? Or are they mutually exclusive? And does history show us a rivalry between these two forms of spiritual creation?

Goethe was still living when Auguste Comte began to publish the unwieldy volumes of his System of Positive Philosophy. In it he expounded a law of history according to which humanity has to pass through three stages: the theological, the metaphysical, and the positive. We are now in this third stage; therefore we have to discard theology and metaphysics. Poetry, of course, goes back to the theological stage: witness Homer. Some decades later, the German philosopher Dilthey explained that the sixteenth century had produced magnificent poetry such as that of Shakespeare and Cervantes. The poets had had their day. But in the seventeenth century they were succeeded by the great philosophical system-builders. What has philosophy to say today? Does it pretend to being a substitute for literature altogether? Does it pretend to invalidate it? Does it consider poetry as an obsolete fοrm of spiritual utterance? Let us face these questions and cοnsider them in the light of history.

Homer is the great ancestor of Εurοpean poetry. He was the teacher of Greece. Yet when philosophy was born there, it opposed him violently. Heraclitus said: “He ought to be chastised by rods.” Plato disapproved of him. These attacks proved ineffectual. In the latest phase of Greek thought the poetry of Homer was considered as Holy Writ. The Neo-Platonists interpreted it and revealed its hidden meaning.

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