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Glenn W. Olsen Why and How to Study the "Middle Ages" The portrait Alasdair Maclntyre draws in AfterVirtue of the modern language ofmorality, and by extension ofmodern language in general , is largely true.1 It is not simply our moral vocabulary that has become disordered, but our language about virtually everything. I had a student looking for a sympathetic ear come into my office last semester to tell me that he had signed up for a course called "Metaphysics ," only to find diat the instructor had no notion ofthe history ofdiat word. The student, one leg up on die instructor in having readAristotle and noticing that his teacher used"metaphysics"in no consistent way, asked for a definition. What he received was some sentence fragments pointing in the direction ofHume and Leibnitz. He knew enough to know that Hume spelled more the end than the beginning ofmetaphysics as the word long hadbeen understood, and dropped the class.2 Many ofus have had some similar experience. The problem unfortunately is more complicated than philosophers not knowing the history of philosophy.3 Everywhere in the West, but especially in the United States, we have built what we call a shared life in society from a series of incommensurate traditions, LOGOS 3:3 SUMMER 2000 WHY AND HOW TO STUDY THE MIDDLE AGES and also on a series of lies and misperceptions about the nature of reality. Instead of possessing a meaningful life in society, we constantly speak at cross-purposes. The mantras ofthe day, above all the call for diversity, only increase the confusion.4 Typically we ignore the fact that the more diversity really is diversity, that is, is disagreement about the nature of the good, true, and beautiful, if not outright denial of such categories, the less likely is a shared language for carrying on a common conversation.5 The mydi we have been formed on is e plurìbus unum, but die reality is profound societal disagreement. If we are Catholic and American, our most prestigious thinkers, Americanists to the bone, have told us that we can be good citizens and succeed in this society simply by keeping religion out ofit.6 It is strong language to speak ofour shared life as built on lies and misperceptions. Let me briefly take up diree illustrations ofthe ways we have come persistently to deny reality: i) our belief in equality, 2) our disbeliefin original sin, and 3) our way ofdefining reason. The Declaration of Independence states, against all empirical evidence, that "all men are created equal." Certainly this can not be in any testable or observable sense true. Ifwe look at the people around us, we must conclude with Plato and Aristotle that "men are by nature unequal." In everything that is measurable, they vary. I dare say we can not save the Declaration by suggesting that when it speaks of equality it must, even ifunawares, be speaking theologically, that is, declaring the ultimate worth of every human being. This is a good suggestion, but the suspicion is that the Declaration is doing something more than, consciously or unconsciously, taking a dieological stance. It seems to be expressing a hope, a counterfactual hope, that in this New Land not just theological equality—affirmation of the infinite dignity of each human person—but some kind of empirical equality might be achieved. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed when he visited die United States in the mid-nineteenth century, the Americans really seemed Í2 LOGOS to have erected a society on such notions as that "one man's opinion is as good as another's." I do not intend to deprecate some of the forms of equality hoped for, equality before the law or equality of opportunity, for instance. But I do mean to suggest that the politics that have flowed from the Declaration have encouraged an "attack on nature" which has not come to terms with Plato's and Aristotle's observation that because we are unequal by nature, society, if it expresses what we naturally are, will be hierarchical.7We might say that instead of a scientific politics, a politics of the ancient or medieval form raised on the notion that politics...


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