Social struggles in the Middle Ages
This part comprises the history of social thought from the fourth to the fourteenth century, and therefore of the Middle Ages proper. The heretical- social movement, which from the eleventh century onwards attracted to an increasing degree the attention of Church and State, is considered in detail. The story is brought up to the period where it commingles with the peasants’ wars and the social struggles in the towns.
These wars form the prelude to modern times and therefore belong to Part III., which comprises the last half of the fourteenth century to the outbreak of the French Revolution. The first part of A General History of Socialism and Social Struggles has already appeared in English under the title of Social Struggles in Antiquity, and Parts III., [V., and V., which complete the work, will subsequently be published in English.
The Communism of Antiquity, as exhibited in the Hellenic speculation and experiments, was chiefly concerned with political and material objects. Plato’s aspirations pointed to the establishment of an efficient Athenian, or Hellenic national State. At their zenith, the Spartans pursued eugenic-social aims: to create a community of supermen was their object.
The Greek utopian dreamers sighed for life without toil; Virgil’s mind was directed upon a return of the Age of Saturn; Seneca yearned for primitive equality. Ancient Communism and Modern Communism are alike in their aims. Generally speaking, the eyes of both are fixed on worldly things. Consequently, it is incomparably easier for moderns to feel at home in late Antiquity than in the atmosphere of medieval life. The ancient and modern mentality is essentially European—logical, rational, scientifically critical.
On the other hand, the mental life of the medieval world has an Oriental, irrational, and mystical strain. The religious thought of Orientals! is scarcely disturbed by logical contradictions and historical anachronisms; they do not scandalize it.
The religious mind does not test the data of history in a critical spirit, or co-ordinate them according to time and space, or subsume them within a common theory. It regards them rather as forming a surface, beneath which metaphysical, divine mysteries are to be discovered. It does not take the Holy Scriptures literally but interprets them allegorically and figuratively. 1The terms “Oriental” and “Occidental” or “European ’”’ are not taken here in a geographical sense; they rather denote the contrast between the religious and the scientific mind.
The Occidental strives for efficiency; the Oriental for holiness. The former aims at material success; the latter seeks eternal values, and therefore easily falls a prey, politically and economically, to the former. Medieval Communism was a social and moral revolt against the growth of private property and the temporal power of the Church, which tended to supplant natural law, primitive Christianity, and the Germanic communal law. Its history is to a large extent dominated by theological and philosophical thought, and by religious and ethical motives.
The Communistic or propertyless mode of life was to be the means of curbing egoism, subduing evil, and establishing social justice. The heroic struggle for Communism and social justice was nourished by religious forces, theological controversies, and spiritual experiences. Parallel and in sympathy with it proceeded a movement for making poverty the basis of a pious life.
What was earthly of these reformers were often burned at the stake. Men sacrificed themselves and died the deaths of martyrs for the cause of evangelical poverty. Can the modern European grasp this without difficulty? Is he able to sympathize with such a state of mind? Hardly! There is, however, some indication that the world war and the social changes that have followed in its wake have stimulated a desire to know something of the religious, ethical, and philosophical world of the communistic monks and heretics.
The history of Medieval Communism transports us into a world of social ethics -and philosophy. Material things are often pushed into the background; the temporal appears as a brief, transitory image, and the spiritual as the eternal reality. Christianity, which—humanly speaking —arose out of an amalgamation of Judzic doctrinal teaching with Alexandrinian philosophy, becomes in the course of its evolution the heir to the mental treasures of Antiquity.
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