Molecular clouds

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A variation of the Ptolemy-Aristotle model of the universe containing the elemental, planetary and metaphysical spheres from a 14th-century French manuscript (Chantilly, Musée Condé, 478)

At its most free, European culture has been very free. At its most unfree, it was still free. 

Stars are born out of molecular clouds, regions of space made up mostly of hydrogen and helium. Stars are formed in space because they have space. Cultural ideas are formed in culture because they also have space.

European culture has always been a kind of molecular cloud, however hermetic it may have seemed at times – or it may still seem today. Most of the star ideas we look up to today started their nucleosynthesis in the medieval period, in art, governance, philosophy, literature or economics.

The cultural medieval clouds in which European ideas were formed were spaces of exploration and freedom. Things never got stuck there because things were from the beginning free to move around. Below I venture a few insights into how European ideas were allowed to proliferate, never to settle into one morphology or another. This was possible because of the vital space provided by the following (in random order):

  • Nominalism and realism: these two fundamentally European philosophical stances were inherited from late antiquity, but they matured in the Middle Ages. Neither was right, neither was wrong, but the clash between them created modern science and dominated the history of Western philosophy. Their opposition prevented European ideas from reaching a deadlock.
  • The four-fold method of interpretation: medieval theologians and thinkers subjected the Bible not to one, but to four types of meaning: literal, typological, tropological, and anagogical. There was something for everyone, for a literalist as well as for an allegorist. This schema moved from theology to secular texts and defined the way we understand art and media. There was freedom of choice.
  • The instability of metaphor: beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and so is meaning. As there was no single understanding of anything, eventually everything went. Metaphor is a construction, and no-one can or should tell you what it is.
  • The double heritage: like stars, medieval European culture ignited through fusion, when the atom of classical antiquity encountered the atom of Christianity. This fusion was never perfect, and instead created a molecular cloud giving rise to the medieval age of faith as well as to the post-Renaissance age of reason.

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