The Myth of Modernity

As a child, I greatly enjoyed fantasy fiction.  Dragons, witches, elves, sorcerers, vampires (before Twilight gave those a teen angst transfusion), werewolves, magic swords, ancient curses, were all great fun.  (I wasn’t sure about the gnomes – dangerously curious – but who wouldn’t love the hobbits?)  The movie Willow was the sort of adventure I enjoyed.  Dungeons and Dragons was where I learned social interactions.  (Sad, perhaps, but common enough.)  Of course wiser heads than mine ensured I could distinguish between make-believe and reality, and I never thought such fantasies were real.

The standard story, duly educated into me, was that people used to believe in witches, dragons, alchemy, demons, etc., but the Enlightenment and modern science had shown that there were no such things.  The world revealed by science was sometimes bizarre, certainly (not only quarks are strange), but it bore no resemblance to such legends and medieval superstitions.  “Everyone knows,” I well knew, that “there’s no such thing” as a dragon.

Except, of course, that there is.  The Komodo dragon is the largest lizard in the world (although not the largest reptile: crocodiles get larger).

Now, some may object that Komodo dragons are not “real” dragons, since they neither fly nor breathe fire; perhaps they are called dragons merely by courtesy.  But in fact, the Greek term drako and the Latin draco (from which English “dragon” is derived) do not necessarily mean super-intelligent fire-breathing flying reptiles of various colors who live a thousand years and sleep a lot, preferably on piles of gold.  They really just mean any scarily large non-aquatic reptile, whether it could fly or not.  (The Greeks used “crocodile” or other terms for a scarily large aquatic reptile.)  Medieval depictions of St. George and the Dragon often do not depict the beast flying.  Medieval people believed that very large reptiles roamed over the earth, and in fact modern science has confirmed they were right.  Only, medieval people called them “dragons” (“scary lizards”), whereas modern science uses the term “dinosaurs” (“scary lizards”).  Some dinosaurs, in fact, could fly, like the pterodactyl.  The only points of disagreement are whether any dragons (medieval people did not say all) could breathe fire, and whether they overlapped in time with humans (since most scientists regard all non-bird dinosaurs as wiped out 66 million years ago).  But those are small quibbles compared to the question whether the large reptiles, whatever we call them, exist or not.

Other things that were “old superstition” rejected by the Enlightenment also turn out to be sturdy facts.  There are witches.  I’ve met some.  They hadn’t green skin, foot-long noses, or long pointy hats, of course.  They used brooms for cleaning rather than conveyance.  But I once knew people in a local coven.  One need not endorse either the judicial proceedings of the Salem witch trials or the theories of the Malleus Maleficarum to acknowledge that some people are quite happy to identify as witches today, and some people historically engaged in some of the alleged magical acts of witchcraft for the alleged purposes.  Of course, it is debated whether those magical acts can in fact bear any causal relationship to the desired effects, but people at the time certainly believed in them.  (Secular historians of early modern Europe have realized this since a landmark study was first published in 1973, while a recent attempt to grapple with “agrarian religion” in the early modern Middle East reached similar conclusions.)  Modern psychology has demonstrated the power, under certain circumstances, even of erroneous belief, as seen for example in the placebo effect.  And yet I am repeatedly told that people before the Enlightenment were foolish, ignorant, and superstitious, because they believed in witches, who turn out to really exist.

Alchemy, of course, is fiction: everyone with the barest exposure to chemistry knows the periodic table of elements, and that one metal cannot be transmuted into another.  (Unless, that is, the metal’s radioactive, or you happen to have a particle accelerator handy.  But presumably the old alchemists hadn’t invented those yet.)  And indeed, many alchemists were exposed as frauds and executed long before the periodic table of elements was discovered.  Yet before modern chemistry, a metal was not defined by its atomic number (which was unknown), but by its properties such as color, melting point, and softness.  And those properties can in fact be changed by certain procedures.  It is possible, using an odd concoction of processes and chemicals, to change copper into something that sure looks like gold (watch this YouTube demonstration).  Can you change copper into elemental gold by this procedure?  No, but that changes the terms of question.  The alchemists didn’t know a thing about elemental gold; they were turning copper-colored metal into gold-colored metal.  Now, the “gold” thus acquired behaves differently than elemental gold, and so the alchemists usually failed to satisfy their wealthy patrons (and they never did find an elixir of youth), but anyone with eyes can see that one metal can be transformed into a different metal.

Or what about illness?  Before the Enlightenment, people were very familiar with sicknesses of various kinds, and identified a whole range of causes, including bad food, poison, the moon (“lunacy”), demons, sin, “miasma” (bad air), “night air,” and messy animal bites.  (One sixth-century story described a saint who developed gangrene in his leg after Satan bit him.  Satan’s bites would of course get infected.)  But the “germ theory” of disease concluded that all illnesses were caused by these small organisms called germs (initially bacteria, and then they discovered viruses).  Of course, that initial statement went too far – malnutrition can also make people sick, as can poison – but everyone agreed that the causes of illness identified before the Enlightenment are mere superstition.  There is nothing wrong with air at night (unless it carries mosquitoes bearing malaria, as was formerly widespread throughout the Americas and most of Europe).  Of course messy animal bites might get infected, by germs.  But no one now believes in “miasma,” the bad air which hangs around sick people, corpses, etc, and makes other people sick by breathing it.  Yet we know that many diseases are caused by “airborne pathogens,” including the Black Death, so hanging around sick people and corpses can in fact kill you by breathing.  We have changed the name, but again science has confirmed the reality of medieval “superstitions.”

But surely demons do not cause illness!  But again, rather than getting stuck on unpopular terms, let us consider what precisely is being asserted.  When people asserted that demons caused diseases, they meant that there was an invisible, intelligent, and harmful agent that brought about the illness.  Scientists now believe that most illnesses are caused by an invisible, unintelligent, and harmful agent.  That’s a little different, but not entirely.  Some may object that demons are spiritual and bacteria physical!  Actually, some pre-Enlightenment thinkers speculated that demons (and angels) had “very fine” bodies, which meant that they were normally invisible and could move through cracks and gaps, etc.  The microscopic bodies of bacteria could certainly be described as “very fine.”  Some disagreements remain: whether any disease agents are intelligent, malicious, or able to adopt visible human-like shape.  But again, there is much more overlap than modernity’s advocates would have us believe.

Now, it is not the case that everything disbelieved by the Enlightenment actually exists.  It seems that there are no elves, gnomes, or ghosts (although hanging around long abandoned houses is physically dangerous, in part because they have not been maintained for safety).  I do not believe in faeries.  But neither do I believe in the thoroughly fashionable myth of modernity: that before the Enlightenment people were “benighted” and superstitious, but then that great age “opened our eyes” to our ignorance and enabled humans to throw off their earlier superstitions.  To justify this myth, Enlightenment thinkers and their successors compiled long lists of unbelievable things, things that only “superstitious” people believe in.  But notice in how many cases the Enlightenment advocates declared something incredible, only for subsequent science to rediscover what was always there.  In order to preserve the myth of modernity, scientists discreetly came up with unrelated new names such as “dinosaurs” and “bacteria,” while the critics of earlier “superstition” emphasized the most fantastic side of the old ideas (fire-breathing intelligent dragons, green-skinned flying witches, etc.).  Ideas do change, and there are real disagreements between many contemporary ideas and many older notions.  But we cannot understand those disagreements, what has changed and what has stayed the same, without coming to terms with what our predecessors actually meant by what they said.  And we owe it to them not to caricature their ideas with straw men.


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