Against Adopting a Medieval-Peasant Mindset

I aver that the medieval peasant mindset, much like its Bronze Age predecessor, is one of the new crop of meme ideologies that have so aggressively multiplied in cyberspace over the past few years.

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What Nathaniel Lamansky suggests in his recent Crisis article, “Adopting a Medieval-Peasant Mindset,” is not new. Others have recommended this course of action before. Disconnect, unplug, log off Twitter, yank the data probe out of your headjack, just like Neo did in The Matrix. Go on an “internet detox”; turn off CNN (or ChurchMilitantTV), and focus on the here and now. The world will take care of itself. And as for Mother Church, well, Jesus Christ did promise that the gates of Hell would not prevail against her, did He not? 

And indeed, this type of thinking has long found purchase among Catholics. I suspect it is our awareness of the sacramental nature of reality that predisposes us to attend to the tangible and, therefore, the small and the local. This explains the draw toward the politico-economic model of distributism felt by so many Anglophone Catholics. And, admittedly, there is some merit to this position—not least because it can help break the hold of “doomscrolling.” I know firsthand just how dangerous it is. 

Like any obsessive-compulsive habit, it perpetuates itself: it provokes anger and despair, and it promises that perhaps three screen-lengths down we will finally come upon some good news. But such news is never forthcoming, and so on we scroll. As a self-therapeutic technique, therefore, Lamansky’s suggestion is great. Sometimes we do need to pocket our devices and return to, as he says, “joyfully mind[ing] our business.” 

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Indeed, this is precisely what the secular technique of “mindfulness” prescribes. Now, if Lamansky had stopped here, at the level of prudential advice, all would have been well. But he goes on from there to derive an entire psychical system and behavioral code—which he calls the “medieval peasant mindset.” I do not object to Lamansky’s right to create such a system. I object merely to its contents.

I aver that the medieval peasant mindset, much like its Bronze Age predecessor, is one of the new crop of meme ideologies that have so aggressively multiplied in cyberspace over the past few years. They are as varied as Twitter usernames. The Bronze Age mindset differs from its medieval compatriot mainly in that the latter takes a far grimmer view of brigandage; but, aside from that, they both encourage what I have come to recognize as the termination of thought

For to be successful, an internet meme must be complete. It must be self-contained. It cannot have nuance, and it must not have a context deeper than the merely referential. The reality to which it refers must be intimate and known—or at least immediately accessible. A meme loses its potency when it requires the audience to do homework, or to assemble a metaphysics secondary to or contradictive of that subsistent in reality. (This, incidentally, is why the Left cannot meme.) And so it is with meme ideologies.

But we do not live in a meme. Reality does not have the closed-off, internally-referential quality of a meme. Eudaimonia cannot be achieved, by works or by grace, if we insulate ourselves in the thought-terminating cliches of whichever mindset we chance upon on the timeline. Yet we cannot help but engage with these egregores. They are a part of reality, and as ideologies, they mediate how we apprehend and interact with that reality. Incorrect beliefs frustrate our flourishing (and on occasion kill millions). 

But Lamansky eases our job here by basing his system not on immutable axioms but on observations of facts and a few fair assertions. The first that he points out is that we pay way too much attention to world news these days. This may very well be the case, although I doubt it. A very interesting paper by Helen Birkett indicates that news was as much an obsession in the Middle Ages as it is now. The speed and resolution of transmission differed, to be sure; but the same problems obtained then as they do today. 

Exaggeration, (non-alchemical) transmutation, and the peculiar foreshortening of the event vis-à-vis the context—all these, we find, persist across time. Nor were the medievals any less given to being swayed by news of distant events. Considered as a purely sociological phenomenon, does the Children’s Crusade differ all that much from the hysterical upheavals we have seen since the spring of 2020? 

Be that as it may, it is with the following assertion—that much of our anger at “current events” is “unrighteous and unbridled”—that I take issue. What does he mean by this? What is the point beyond which anger ceases to be righteous? We are told merely that when “anger is consigned to prolonged and bitter passivity[,] it can become sinful resentment.” But how exactly this mutation occurs we are not informed, beyond the fact it correlates to inactivity

But what is more important (here) is that Lamansky thinks that there is a moral threshold here which we must not cross. I do not think it is evident, but the idea is intriguing. Lamansky, however, does not explicate. Quite odd, considering it forms the rhetorical centerpiece of the whole article!

But let us move on to the alternative he offers: that we should invest our attention and energy in “our own communities.” Only in our local communities can we be effective: there we may find ourselves able to correct injustices. The Gordian knot of passivity is cut, and we are somehow spared the sin of resentment. There are a couple of assumptions here that we must address. The underlying geopolitical and socioeconomic belief seems to be that our communities are discrete, self-contained entities, substantially disconnected from the wider world. 

Is this truly so? I have, for the past few years, lived in a university town in the south-east of England, deep in the heart of East Anglian cow country. Very rustic, all things considered (just like Bengal). A few weeks ago, the price of a dozen oranges at my supermarket increased by 75 pence. Now, just a few days before that, the Houthis had stepped up their attacks on international shipping off the coast of Yemen. Is this a coincidence? Of course not. Many such examples abound. 

The fact of the matter is that the world we live in now is connected in ways difficult for our Norman peasant to comprehend. The speed and the fidelity, if not the fact, of instantaneous etheric communication would confound him; as would the ease, safety, and affordability of travel astound. He would also have to recognize the geopolitical consequences that these technological developments have brought. He would have to make peace with the fact that borders mean very little; and physical seclusion is no guarantee of non-interference. 

Nor is the integrity of his body secure anymore. He does not have to wait to be cut down in a chevauchée. Those bearing malice can put xenoestrogens in his aquifer; they have certainly fluoridated it. 

What I am trying to say is that physical distances, and all that they signify, have come to mean less and less. These technologies that abolish the meaning of space also tend to disintegrate that which is local. The local community, which Lamansky rightly believes ought to be among the primary social referents for the individual, has been very thoroughly weakened. Émile Durkheim, the French sociologist and pattern noticer, called it anomie

More and more power has landed in the hands of those that control these technologies at key nodes. Malicious actors can and have utilized this—we need only look at the synthetic opioid crisis now ravaging the United States. We know all this. There need be no surprise at the observation that “local news and global news have switched in their perceived importance.” The medieval peasant, much cannier than he is given credit for, would have recognized this. He would also have realized that wishing this state of affairs away would do absolutely nothingMore and more power has landed in the hands of those that control these technologies at key nodes.Tweet This

For the joyful, saintly peasant of yore was no fool. He knew that he must take heed of rumors “outside one’s own humble slice of this earth.” The order of importance may indeed have stretched from the local to the distant; but sometimes that which is distant does come calling, and he knew then to ward his doors against it. What’s more, he knew that he sometimes had to go on campaign. And, contra Lamansky, that is what we must do. 

We cannot forever fence ourselves in; nor can we fight the enemy where he cannot be reached. Jesus cleared the moneylenders out of the Temple because they were in the Temple. He also asked to render unto Caesar that which was his, not to ignore Caesar’s existence, even though he lived in distant Rome. And, like St. Peter, hie to Rome must we all, eventually.

So, on this day of evil, having put on the full armor of God, our breasts covered with the cuirass of righteousness and our loins girded with the belt of truth, let us tweet. 

Author

  • T. B. Joseph

    T. B. Joseph is a Bengali Catholic convert studying in England. He enjoys reading, going on walks, and sketching. He has an MA in History and is presently finishing up his PhD.

tagged as: Catholic Living

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