If today we examine the mediaeval worldview – and we rarely do – we find it utterly alien. Church and society were coterminous and the social structure was ordained by God. The place into which each individual was born within the hierarchy was his or her rightful place and the best thing to do was to submit and conform to one’s preordained role in society. The aristocracy were better people than the rest of the population; nobility meant being aristocratic and being a (noble (= good) person. Fortunately, the nobles practised gentilesse; they knew their role was to protect those who were weaker than them. Meanwhile, members of the clergy prayed for everyone and the majority – the peasants – worked for everyone. It was a coherent system in which everybody contributed to society and everyone knew his or her place.
Within this rigid system private hopes and fears were insignificant, the individual was only important as part of society as a whole. In any case the individual didn’t control who he or she was. Character was determined by a complex interplay of class, horoscopy, physiognomy and humours. One’s social role was God-given; nuances were added to the individual as a result of when he or she was born. Moreover, physical deformities were a consequence of spiritual deformities. Finally, imbalances in the basic fluids that ran through the body explained other personal idiosyncrasies. You – your essential being – were predetermined, not self-determined.
The Modern View
Now compare that to the modern Western worldview. The individual is centre-stage today. According to modern individualism, we are each responsible for our own success. We teach children that anyone can do anything with sufficient effort and intelligence and luck. Nobody believes (I hope!) that aristocrats are better people than everybody else.
Yet this worldview is as hollow and nonsensical as the mediaeval one. Society values fame, wealth and status. But the idea that everyone has the opportunity to become a millionaire, a surgeon or a political leader is myth in its purest form. We don’t believe that aristocrats inherit noblesse from their ancestors but we know that the rich, the famous and the socially advantaged inherit unassailable privileges from their parents.
Today we tend to express our individualism by obsessing about a highly specific aspect of life: a sports team, a sport, a hobby. We fuel our individualism by focusing on this one pastime as a way of ignoring the meaninglessness of our existence.
Today we don’t follow a rigid dogma as they did in the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, the nearest we have to a societal value system is an arbitrary series of trite internet memes – hardly an all-encompassing philosophical framework.
At least we no longer believe in physiognomy, right? Except that being considered physically attractive is probably more important today than at any time in history. Being tall for men and being beautiful for women are more important that qualifications in determining success.
But what is success? Ironically given our ‘individualism’, on a day-to-day basis, most of us value ourselves in terms of society’s appraisal. In our day-to-day lives being ‘liked’ on social media is our primary form of self-validation. In the longer term for most people success is working in jobs of increasingly high status and accumulating capital. However, we measure success in terms of consumption. We are considered successful because of the car we drive or where we holiday.
We are complacent in our patronizing attitude to the mediaeval worldview. However, does a society driven by ‘likes’, one that values people because they have bought the very latest iPad, really have a right to feel superior? Moreover, given social trends, our model will become untenable soon. Self-fulfilment cannot come through one’s career in a society in which work is increasingly scarce. For instance, we are told that we will all have to work till at least 70 – in a labour market in which job opportunities begin to decrease rapidly after 50. When the majority have slid back into mere subsistence because of lack of opportunities, will we submit to a permanent state of depression because we have failed according to all modern society’s values? Will our sports team’s occasional victory be enough to give meaning to our lives?
 worldview – philosophy of life
 utterly – completely, totally
 alien (adj.) – unfamiliar, bizarre
 coterminous – one and the same
 within – in
 rightful – appropriate, legitimate
 to submit – capitulate
 aristocracy – (literally) rule of the best
 gentilesse – magnanimity
 meanwhile – at the same time, simultaneously
 to pray – intercede with God
 peasants – rural workers in a feudal system
 humours – (in this case) bodily fluids: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile that supposedly made people sanguine, phlegmatic, melancholic or choleric, respectively
 nuances – subtle differences
 to run through (run-ran-run) – flow through, flow around
 success – triumph, prosperity
 yet – however, nevertheless
 hollow – empty
 nonsensical – ridiculous, meaningless
 wealth – affluence, financial prosperity
 surgeon – medical specialist who performs operations
 to inherit – acquire genetically
 noblesse – nobility, magnanimity
 unassailable – impregnable, absolute
 highly – very
 to fuel – assert, stimulate, confirm
 meaninglessness – futility, purposelessness, triviality
 trite – banal, vapid, clichéd
 hardly – not really, not exactly
 all-encompassing – universal, comprehensive
 framework – structure, system
 appraisal – evaluation, judgement
 studies suggest that most people check their phones over 80 times a day and touch their phones over 2,600 times a day. If that’s not fetishism…
 consumption – what we consume/buy
 patronizing – disdainful, superior
 trends – tendencies
 untenable – unsustainable
 career – (false friend) professional trajectory
 scarce – insufficient, (opposite of ‘abundant’)
 for instance – for example
 to slide back (slide-slid-slid) – descend, decline
 lack of – absence of, deficient
 to submit – acquiesce, accept, tolerate