Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries as the Second Middle Ages

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin

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The fourth quarter of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first herald a period akin, in many respects, to certain stretches of the Middle Ages.

I.                The Monopoly on Violence

The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries witnessed the rise of strong centralized polities replete with a monopoly on (legitimate) violence (Gewaltmonopol des Staates). Private armies, militias, idiosyncratic law, vigilantism, blood feuds, duels, organized crime, and vendettas – staples of the Middle Ages - were all frowned upon and harshly punished. A judicial system of lawyers and courts – coupled with elaborate bureaucracies - provided the exclusive royal-sanctioned means for settling disputes and allocating wealth. The presumption was that – since the realm (as reified by the monarch) belonged to no-one and to everyone – justice was guaranteed in the shape of an objective, equitable, universal, and neutrally-applied Law. This, of course, was never the case, but it still remained the ideal to be asymptotically attained.

The disillusionment with the aristocracies and monarchies in the late eighteenth century was followed by an all-pervasive disenchantment with ideologies and politics in general. By the late 1960s, the state’s erstwhile hold on power was being fast eroded through technological progress which empowered individuals and via the emergence of non-state actors on a national and global scale (such as crime conglomerates, multinationals, non-governmental organizations, private military companies, security firms, banks and credit card companies, and the likes of Wikileaks on the Internet). The state reacted to this worrisome and anarchic regression by annexing more powers and becoming more intrusive (the “nanny-state”).

II.              Demise of the Renaissance Man

The explosion of knowledge and the enhanced role of the state led to the demise of the ideal of the “Renaissance man”: a courtier knowledgeable in all sciences, skilled in all arts and crafts, capable in all sports and combat techniques. Instead, we now worship the “expert”: the one-dimensional brainiac, athlete, or artist whose obsession with his field leads to its ultimate mastery. We treat polymaths with suspicion and derision. In an age of materialism we reward our heroes with women, wine, and wealth. Our lionized Wall-Street mavericks, technology entrepreneurs, and football and rock stars hail back to the much-idolized knights of the Middle Ages: boorish, ignorant, one-track minded, exclusively concerned with sex, power, and money and adept only at fighting.

III.            The Role of Art

The art of the Middle Ages was concerned with religious messages. It subjected and sacrificed form, proportion, perspective, and colour to this over-riding constraint. It paid no heed to nature. This castigation of naturalism also characterizes modern art (starting with the Post-Impressionists). Modern artists are as preoccupied with messages, abstract and cerebral, as much as their medieval predecessors were besotted with epiphanic revelations.

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