The Meaning of Life: Mediaeval vs. Modern Perspectives

The Meaning of Life: Mediaeval vs. Modern Perspectives

If today we examine the mediaeval worldview[1] – and we rarely do – we find it utterly[2] alien[3]. Church and society were coterminous[4] and the social structure was ordained by God. The place into which each individual was born within[5] the hierarchy was his or her rightful[6] place and the best thing to do was to submit[7] and conform to one’s preordained role in society. The aristocracy[8] were better people than the rest of the population; nobility meant being aristocratic and being a (noble (= good) person. Fortunately, the nobles practised gentilesse[9]; they knew their role was to protect those who were weaker than them. Meanwhile[10], members of the clergy prayed[11] for everyone and the majority – the peasants[12] – 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[13]. One’s social role was God-given; nuances[14] 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[15] 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[16]. 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[17] this worldview is as hollow[18] and nonsensical[19] as the mediaeval one. Society values fame, wealth[20] and status. But the idea that everyone has the opportunity to become a millionaire, a surgeon[21] or a political leader is myth in its purest form. We don’t believe that aristocrats inherit[22] noblesse[23] from their ancestors but we know that the rich, the famous and the socially advantaged inherit unassailable[24] privileges from their parents.

Today we tend to express our individualism by obsessing about a highly[25] specific aspect of life: a sports team, a sport, a hobby. We fuel[26] our individualism by focusing on this one pastime as a way of ignoring the meaninglessness[27] 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[28] internet memes – hardly[29] an all-encompassing[30] philosophical framework[31].

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[32]. In our day-to-day lives being ‘liked’ on social media is our primary form of self-validation.[33] 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[34]. We are considered successful because of the car we drive or where we holiday.

We are complacent in our patronizing[35] 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[36], our model will become untenable[37] soon. Self-fulfilment cannot come through one’s career[38] in a society in which work is increasingly scarce[39]. For instance[40], 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[41] into mere subsistence because of lack of[42] opportunities, will we submit[43] 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?


[1] worldview – philosophy of life

[2] utterly – completely, totally

[3] alien (adj.) – unfamiliar, bizarre

[4] coterminousone and the same

[5] within – in

[6] rightful – appropriate, legitimate

[7] to submit – capitulate

[8] aristocracy – (literally) rule of the best

[9] gentilesse – magnanimity

[10] meanwhile – at the same time, simultaneously

[11] to pray – intercede with God

[12] peasantsrural workers in a feudal system

[13] humours – (in this case) bodily fluids: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile that supposedly made people sanguine, phlegmatic, melancholic or choleric, respectively

[14] nuancessubtle differences

[15] to run through (run-ran-run) – flow through, flow around

[16] successtriumph, prosperity

[17] yet – however, nevertheless

[18] hollowempty

[19] nonsensical – ridiculous, meaningless

[20] wealthaffluence, financial prosperity

[21] surgeonmedical specialist who performs operations

[22] to inherit – acquire genetically

[23] noblesse – nobility, magnanimity

[24] unassailable – impregnable, absolute

[25] highlyvery

[26] to fuel – assert, stimulate, confirm

[27] meaninglessness – futility, purposelessness, triviality

[28] trite – banal, vapid, clichéd

[29] hardlynot really, not exactly

[30] all-encompassing – universal, comprehensive

[31] frameworkstructure, system

[32] appraisal – evaluation, judgement

[33] 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…

[34] consumptionwhat we consume/buy

[35] patronizing – disdainful, superior

[36] trendstendencies

[37] untenable – unsustainable

[38] career – (false friend) professional trajectory

[39] scarce – insufficient, (opposite of ‘abundant’)

[40] for instance – for example

[41] to slide back (slide-slid-slid) – descend, decline

[42] lack ofabsence of, deficient

[43] to submit – acquiesce, accept, tolerate


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s