The Long View: The Coming Age of Cathedrals

Times Square in 1978

Times Square in 1978

In 2014 I speculated that John Reilly probably knew Richard Landes, because of their common interests. I managed to miss this essay of John's where he talked about meeting with Landes in New York City. I'm not sure how, since I referenced the ideas here in a couple of talks I gave at my local Catholic parish on millennialism

This essay is also an interesting point of contact with my unreleased review of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. By 2004, New York City had begun to decisively move away from the archetype of Gotham City that it had been embodying ever since the 1970s[popularly referred to as the Sixties, this trend really started about 1968 and peaked in 1973]. The fate of Times Square is a synedoche for the city as a whole. The only time I have been to Times Square was in 1998, on a school trip, and it was less seedy than in 1978, but far less clean than John saw it in 2004, or the sanitized version we have now.

The story of how that happened is a fascinating one, and it illuminates the curious nature of American politics at present. But that is a story for another post.

I really like Richard Landes' theory that millennialism is embarrassing to most educated Westerners, while also being absolutely fascinating to almost everyone, even the people who find it embarrassing. John takes that idea here, and links it up with a great many other ideas that he often featured on his blog, and produces a truly great essay on how the idea of historical progress fits in to the broader cultural trends of the West.

Written in 1997, this essay is more optimistic than it would have been in 2017. In 1997, the United States was in the middle of an economic boom, had no serious rivals, and had not yet been humbled by 9/11. An interesting twist to 2017 is that the optimism of 1997 really did manage to leave out a number of Americans from the increasing prosperity, but since they were largely concentrated in the declining industrial heartland, the hidden losers of the dotcom boom, the coastal elites largely ignored them. This was likely helped by a very robust late 90s stock market. Pensions were generally pretty strong then.

For all that, John had enough historical depth to know that good times don't last forever.

The Coming Age of Cathedrals


by John J. Reilly


I rarely have occasion to walk through Times Square in Manhattan. My visits to the city usually have to do with business to the east or south. That was why, when I walked through the area one morning in the summer of 1996 on one of my even rarer visits to Lincoln Center, I was taken aback by how much the place had improved since the last time I saw it. It was still noisy and crowded (it is hard to imagine that location in the city being otherwise), but the area was clean. The facades and many of the buildings were new. If any of the stores specialized in pornography, they were discrete about it. Shabby persons did not wait under the eaves of storefronts to offer goods and services to passersby. There was a cop or security guard on every other corner.

If the dark, dystopic film "Bladerunner" is the popular image of the future American city, then here was a city that was evolving in a different direction. It was not just Times Square, of course. The reason you see few politicians trekking to the South Bronx these days is that the burned-out neighborhoods that provided such dramatic photo opportunities for several election cycles have been substantially torn down and rebuilt. Actually, good news like this seems to crop up more and more these days, in areas ranging from medicine to crime statistics. Like many of the people who pass through Times Square each day, I generally just note the improvement and continue on my way. That morning, however, I was going to a meeting that gave me reason to consider such things in a broader context.

I was in Manhattan to speak to one Richard Landes, a medievalist from Boston University and an authority on the year 1000. With each year's calendar getting closer to the double-millennium figure, this previously obscure subject is becoming increasingly topical. It is already fashionable to attribute this or that event to "millennial fever." (In a way, that is what I am going to do here.) Anyway, we were meeting to talk about several of the academic projects that are in the works in connection with the upcoming turn of the millennium.

Landes is something of a revisionist. Like many revisionists who seek to overturn the accepted wisdom on a subject, his new interpretation is a dialectical synthesis that strongly resembles the view of the matter which preceded the accepted wisdom he is revising. For reasons which I trust I will be able to make clear, his ideas about the 11th century may have a great deal to do with the once and future Times Square.

It was perhaps the nineteenth[-century] historian, Jules Michelet, who was most responsible for popularizing the idea of the "terrors of the year 1000." You can find contemporary, or nearly contemporary, chronicles of the period which describe the people of Western Europe as living in a agony of apocalyptic expectation. There are accounts of civil disturbances, of grotesque acts of mass public repentance, of popular prophets and their crazed followers. All in all, Michelet made the turn of the millennium sound like the sixteenth century on particularly bad day. By the beginning of the twentieth century, historians realized there was something fishy about this picture. For one thing, while these accounts turn up in some historical literature from the period, they do not dominate it. More generally, Western Europe in the decades following the year 1000 really did not act like a society that was paralyzed by fear of the imminent end of the world, or that was disappointed by the failure of its eschatological schedule.

The 11th century was the time when the great cathedrals began to go up and the crusades were launched, following decades of increasing contact with Byzantium and the Levant. Western Christendom in those decades was an expanding, curious, inventive society. To that extent, it did resemble the Western Europe of the sixteenth century. However, this earlier age of discovery and change was not characterized by the dark disasters of the century that followed Columbus and Luther. This perhaps is the chief reason why for nearly a hundred years historians have generally believed that the "terrors of the year 1000" existed largely in the minds of the nineteenth century Romantics.

Well, maybe not. Landes and other medievalists are taking a third look at the primary sources, and finding both more and less in them than did their predecessors. It is true that nothing happened around the beginning of the second millennium on the order of the Peasants' Revolt in sixteenth Germany. (For purposes of eschatological anxiety, by the way, the millennium did not turn in an instant. The year 1033, for instance, was at least as good a year for the Second Coming in the minds of apocalyptic literalists as was the year 1000.) On the other hand, it is not hard to find discussion about questions of universal eschatology in the writings of the period. Evidence of popular interest in these questions is fragmentary, but it is there. More accessible is the scholarly debate which arose about when the age might be expected to end.

Landes believes he detects a degree of censorship among the writers of the period in favor Augustine's model of history. Whatever else might be said of Augustine's ideas about the end of the world, certainly they tended to downplay the catastrophic and revolutionary. (Violent, popular endtime belief is sometimes characterized as "millenarian," to be distinguished from the less dramatic "millennialism" with which Augustine is often associated.) Augustine, in most interpretations of him, preserved the events of the Endtime depicted in Revelation and the Prophets as literal expectations for the indefinite future. However, his system (to the extent he had one) was very wary of any attempts to discern eschatological significance in the events of secular history.

The medieval Latin Church, in its eschatology as in so much else, was at least nominally Augustinian. The Church around the year 1000, however, dealt in two ways with what probably was perceived to be a crisis of apocalyptic expectation. The immediate response was to deal with millenarianism on its own terms. The more long-term and more important response, however, was to transform apocalyptic into theodicy.

The proper Augustinian reaction to millenarian enthusiasm, particularly to enthusiasm sparked by calendrical considerations, is to declare the time of the end to be unknowable. What many of the authorities around the year 1000 did, however, was to quibble about chronology. Thus, accepting for the sake of argument the old thesis that the world would last 6,000 years, they answered doom-mongers with estimates for the age of the world that put the beginning of the seventh millennium a comfortable distance into the future. Such arguments were not always wholly convincing on their merits, and they did have the disadvantage of leaving time bombs for later Augustinians. (The excitement about the year 1000 was perhaps a time bomb planted by Augustine himself.) Be that as it may, such arguments sufficed for the immediate occasion, and they probably did contribute to the pacification of millenarian sentiment, especially among the lower clergy.

On the other hand, there is a great deal more to Augustinian eschatology than the suppression of other people's enthusiasms. Augustine is sometimes called "the father of progress." This view can be exaggerated, as it was perhaps in Robert Nisbet's "History of the Idea of Progress." Certainly St. Augustine's ideas about the future bore little resemblance to those of, say, the Fabian socialists. Nevertheless, there is a great deal to be said for the proposition that his model of time is the basic template on which more specific ideas about history can form, of which progress is simply one instance.

Augustine freed time from the constriction of an imminent eschaton, thereby making history a theater of grace and will. Augustinian history need not be progressive, but it can be. In fact, it has a predilection to be under certain circumstances. The Augustinian view of time is not unique in being linear or in its suspicion of revolutionary enthusiasm. Neo-Confucianism, for instance, has these characteristics. For that matter, Neo-Confucian historiographers, like Landes's turn-of-the-millennium ecclesiastics, did indeed tend to de-emphasize or mischaracterize popular millenarian movements. What makes Augustinianism different is its ability to impart meaning to favorable historical trends.

Although the idea of historical progress has received more than its share of derision in recent years, the fact is that many facets of history, and even whole historical eras, really are progressive. The statistics on population growth and economic output in certain parts of the world often rise steadily for a long time. New arts and sciences appear and are perfected over the course of a few centuries. These things were almost as true of the Hellenistic Age as they were of the West in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Yet notoriously the ancients were without an idea of progress, despite the fact that at least part of their history was progressive by any measure. Other fortunate times and places have suffered from a similar lack of imagination.

Was Western Christendom at the turn of the first millennium the first society to take steps toward giving historical meaning to "progress," to great social enterprises terminating only at a horizon of unguessable distance? Naturally, the classical nineteenth-century idea of progress is no more medieval than it is Hellenistic or Neo-Confucian. However, the cathedrals and the crusades may stand as symbols for a wider cultural assumption that social development can be a moral enterprise, perhaps even a morally necessary enterprise. Such a conviction would be far less deterministic than, for instance, the theology of the Social Gospel. Socially progressive Christianity in this century has demanded progress from history. Augustine merely hoped for it. Perhaps he did not hope for very much, just that the Vandals would go away and that future emperors would be more edifying. Nevertheless, he hoped with good reason.

Whatever the validity of these reflections with respect to the 11th century, certainly this interpretation of Augustine is alive and well and being expounded from the Throne of St. Peter. John Paul II's 1994 encyclical on the celebration of the coming turn of the millennium, "Tertio Millennio Adveniente," can hardly be described as a millenarian document. Nevertheless, it looks forward to the turn of the century as far more than a peculiarly obvious occasion for historical commemoration. For reasons which are perhaps intuitive, the Pope anticipates that the beginning of the next millennium will be a time of novel significance in the history of salvation. The encyclical puts the Second Vatican Council into perspective as a providential event whose true significance was to prepare for this new era. The specifics of the document are concerned with how the Church should ready herself to take advantage of these coming opportunities.

If in fact the next century is another time of constructive hope, future historians who attend to such things will probably see this transformation as in part a reaction to the dark images of the future that have prevailed since the 1960s. While the `60s were a time of exhilaration for the young, we should not forget that one of the tenets of the Counter Culture of that era was the coming collapse of civilization. William Irwin Thompson perhaps best captured the mood of the period in his still-interesting book, "At the Edge of History" (1971). Visiting the Esalen Institute retreat center in the summer of 1967, he learned that the end of civilization was not only expected by hippies of nearby San Francisco, it was devoutly hoped for. Many of the people attending Esalen with him that summer, who like himself would soon become prominent figures in the nascent New Age movement, were of similar if subtler mind. They were less likely than the hippies to put their faith in predictions of world-changing earthquakes or in the public arrival of the flying saucers. Instead, they anticipated salutary effects from the breakdown of American society from more conventional causes. After an era of "broken-back" technocracy, they expected a new spiritual age to emerge. The immediate future did not turn out the way that the budding opinion-makers of those years anticipated, but as with so much else about the Counter Culture, their view of the future became a popular orthodoxy.

The hope for a new spiritual age has waxed and waned, but the expectation of a future with a broken back has shown a quarter century of resilience. Examples of it can be found from before the 1970s, of course. It is related to "post apocalypse" stories, tales built around the idea of a new barbarism that arises after some great catastrophe, usually a world war. H.G. Wells's novel "The Shape of Things to Come" (1933) may be the classic of the genre, despite the fact it antedates the invention of nuclear weapons (which were another one of Wells's ideas, but that is another story). However, while many of these stories, including Wells's, are about the rebuilding of civilization, the broken-back future is about civilization's progressive darkening. It depicts a society in which social chaos often continues to exist with high technology. Among its prominent literary exponents is Doris Lessing, in such novels as "Memoirs of a Survivor" and "Shikasta." It achieved a somewhat cultish respectability in the work of J.G. Ballard. It appeared in the short novels by John Crowley, notably "Engine Summer." As for cinema, we find it in films from "Soylent Green" to the appallingly-influential "Blade Runner." The influence of the "Mad Max" series has, of course, long been inescapable. In fact, in recent years it has become difficult to find fictional presentations of the near future that do not feature decaying cities, a ruthless ruling class, economic collapse and impending ecological catastrophe.

These images have effects beyond the arts. They informed, though of course they did not determine, a great deal of the social and economic thought of the last twenty years. The "declinist" school of geopolitics, most notably associated with Paul Kennedy's provocative book "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers," sometimes seemed to depict a future for America more than a little like the shabby International Style cities of the "Max Headroom" television series. On a more serious level of ethical reflection, John Lukacs' "The End of the Twentieth Century" anticipated a new dark age, in which ethnic nationalisms clash in the twilight like street gangs with national anthems. This image of the geopolitical future is not original with Lukacs. It is close to being the consensus view of the post-Cold War world.

One might be tempted to see these motifs as simply reflections of America as it changed during the Reagan Administration, but they antedate the Reagan years. It is, indeed, quite likely that they affected the way those years were reported. Certainly they affect the way America is perceived by its public officials at this writing. Charles Lane, writing recently in "The New Republic," describes how a group of staffers from the Clinton White House met for a briefing by a German economist to get some international perspective on U.S. economic policy. They had come expecting a lecture on the comparative disadvantages of slovenly American work habits and the lack of coherent U.S. industrial policy. They quickly became highly disoriented. The economist lamented the way things are done in his own country. He came close to depicting the United States as a Shangri-La of job growth and technological innovation. The staffers were at a loss to know what to say.

America is not Shangri-La, nor likely to become such a place anytime soon. However, it is also no longer the country in desperate need of restructuring that it was in 1976. At various levels, the realization that this is the case is gradually seeping into elite opinion. It is, perhaps, even affecting public administration, as projects like the renovation of Times Square illustrate. If you expect Mad Max to rule the future, then you are unsurprised by the decay of public places and disinclined to do much about it. What is perhaps most interesting about America culture today is the revulsion, sometimes inarticulate but with increasing clarity, against the assumption of a dark future.

Regarding the material side of things, the case for a merry beginning to the next millennium was recently put by the economist (and senator's nephew) Michael Moynihan in "The Coming American Renaissance." Even if the title is over-optimistic, nevertheless it is useful to have a handy compendium of good news that is only gradually becoming reportable.

Economics is not everything, of course. If you want a positive image for American society as a whole in the next century, you could do much worse than to consult William Strauss and Neil Howe's "Generations." It appeared in 1991, and it apparently has something of cult. It stays in print for good reason, since its anachronistic forecasts of declining crime rates and rising academic performance have proven remarkably accurate.

The book is another attempt to interpret American history as a recurring sequence of generational psychologies. The elder and younger Arthur Schlesingers tried this with a model using two types of generation, whereas Strauss and Howe use four. The latters' thesis owes its popularity in large part to its description of Generation X as a set of demographic cohorts fated to be misfits and tragic heroes. They are like the Lost Generation of the 1920s, and thus more noble than the be-ringed and be-whiskered zombies they appear to be at first sight. The Xers, it seems, are destined to be the parents of a new "civic" generation, one that could accomplish works of daring and organization in the next century as great as those accomplished by the "civic" generation that began to come of age about 1940. They will be the sort of people who could colonize Mars, create universal peace and end poverty. They will have their faults, just as the World War II generation did. Still, any future they would create would be more in the spirit of the 11th century than in that of "Bladerunner." One hopes that at least the lighting will be brighter than in the film.

Attempts to predict the future are best kept to the briefest of outlines, unless you want to afford amusement to people who live in the future you attempt to describe. Certainly these reflections have been at a sufficiently high level of abstraction to protect them from disconfirmation by grubby facts. All I am suggesting, really, is that if the turn of second millennium is significantly similar to the turn of the first, then we should look for a dynamic century of hope and progress on many levels. On the other hand, these reflections have also been too specific, since they referred mostly to the United States. A millennial future would involve the whole West as well, since all our civilization runs to some degree on the same historical clock.

Many people make a point of ignoring the current pope, including some who work in the same building as he does. In this case, however, I wonder whether he may not have sniffed a change in the eschatological wind. We live at the end of a chaotic interlude. That it was going to end should not have surprised us: few conditions are so ephemeral as chaos. Order always reasserts itself, whether in international politics or in personal mores. This insight is likely to be a commonplace of the other side of what John Paul II calls the "Holy Door" of the year 2000.


Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site