The ancients in exile

For most of the medieval period, to copy books was a sacred duty. Whether in reading or in writing, the word was seen as a divine vehicle, bringing the Kingdom of God closer to humanity and the humanity closer to God. Secular books were not excluded as a matter of principle, as they furthered the project.

Some theologians had opposed the proliferation of ancient secular books, pagan to their eyes, as an obstacle towards redemption, but their opposition was as short-lived as it was unsustainable. St Augustine’s view prevailed in the long run: pre-Christian books were as useful to Christian culture as the Egyptian pots and pans had been to the Israelites on the road. Not an end in themselves but a secular means to a sacred end. And this relativising principle proved far more significant and culture-shaping than any question pertaining to whether the pagan authors had anything to teach the Christians. The modern world was built in the shadow of Augustine’s argument. A failsafe against the casual descent into theocratic thinking.

And however much the Western lab toyed with the idea of repudiating Augustine, it never quite managed to move away from his position. The ancient world found itself in exile for almost a millenium, but when it came home, it was welcomed with open arms like a prodigal son. And it is still with us, however modern we may consider ourselves.

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