David Brooks seeks escape from the campaign in the wonder of the Middle Ages. He writes:
Over the past 15 months, I’ve been writing pretty regularly about the presidential campaign, which has meant thinking a lot about attack ads, tracking polls and which campaign is renouncing which over-the-line comment from a surrogate that particular day.
But on my desk for much of this period I have kept a short essay, which I stare at longingly from time to time. It’s an essay about how people in the Middle Ages viewed the night sky, and it’s about a mentality so totally removed from the campaign mentality that it’s like a refreshing dip in a cool and cleansing pool.
The essay, which appeared in Books & Culture, is called “C. S. Lewis and the Star of Bethlehem,” by Michael Ward, a chaplain at Peterhouse College at Cambridge. It points out that while we moderns see space as a black, cold, mostly empty vastness, with planets and stars propelled by gravitational and other forces, Europeans in the Middle Ages saw a more intimate and magical place. The heavens, to them, were a ceiling of moving spheres, rippling with signs and symbols, and moved by the love of God. The medieval universe, Lewis wrote, “was tingling with anthropomorphic life, dancing, ceremonial, a festival not a machine.”
If the connection between the Middle Ages and the present campaign Brooks has done such a rotten job of thinking about appears tenuous, you're not alone. But what is even more baffling is his comparison of the view of relatively well educated "Moderns" with uneducated medieval people.
As many historians have written, Europeans in the Middle Ages lived with an almost childlike emotional intensity. There were stark contrasts between daytime and darkness, between summer heat and winter cold, between misery and exuberance, and good and evil. Certain distinctions were less recognized, namely between the sacred and the profane.Material things were consecrated with spiritual powers. God was thought to live in the stones of the cathedrals, and miracles inhered in the bones of the saints.
The world seemed spiritually alive, and the power of spirit could overshadow politics. As Johan Huizinga wrote in “The Autumn of the Middle Ages,” “The most revealing map of Europe in these centuries would be a map, not of political or commercial capitals, but of the constellation of sanctuaries, the points of material contact with the unseen world.”
For educated Europeans in the Middle Ages, such views were as silly as young earth creationism (a view which many educated people believe today).
If you want a world filled with magic and ignorance, in other words, read Bob Herbert's column (in the same paper) about the state of the American educational system–or just continue reading David Brooks's columns.