I’ve taken my shots at the medieval church. Anyone who knows history has read of the atrocities. Heretics were burned at the stake, scientists were muzzled, and suspected witches were stretched out on the rack, forced to confess to the impossible. Where the church had a firmer grip on the community – in places like Spain and Italy – business and science fell behind the places – like the Netherlands and England – where there was more religious freedom. It was a wonderful thing to emerge from the control of the church. This is, however, a very different statement than saying that it was an awful thing for the West to come under the control of the church.
It’s worth remembering the condition of the West when Christianity became ascendant. I would argue that the church, however evil we now consider it, was an improvement on what came before.
The Roman Empire was powerful and made life comfortable – for a few. The economy and quality of life depended on slaves, conquest, and exploitation. Whatever one might say of the animating beliefs, it is not obvious that one could ascribe the golden rule to Rome: slave holders and colonizers hardly did onto others what they wanted done to themselves. (And this disinterest in the other is a major obstacle to the emergence of markets.)
Tribes like the Huns, Visigoths, and Vandals who gradually dismantled and conquered the Western part of the Roman Empire knew more about conquest than creating and sustaining a society as complex as the Roman Empire. Europe descended into the Dark Ages as Rome disappeared.
So this is the world as it was found by a medieval church with growing authority and influence. This world was awful. It is one thing for armies to know how to raid a village to take the food and women – it is another to know how to raise crops and children. Life was brutal and short and reliant on force. By our standards, the medieval church may have seemed oppressive, but its emphasis on caring for the weak and its insistence on order in thought and deed must have saved many a life.
It was from this starting point that freedom of thought slowly emerged. Order was created by the authority of the church. (In medieval times, the majority of the issues that the pope had to address involved property rights.) Imagine that each landlord or land owner was his own little government and you can begin to imagine the confusion surrounding even the disputation of the smallest conflicts. The church’s generally accepted authority saved many conflicts from becoming violent.
Obviously the religious wars fought in Europe to wrest control from the medieval church (and, initially, put it in the hands of a Protestant church that was typically just as dogmatic and violent) were atrocious. But again, the baseline of comparison was not the level of violence in Berlin or Paris today.
Was the medieval church evil? Only if it was compared to the community that evolved after its rule. But looking at it in the context of what preceded it, it might well be that the West had no better path to progress.
The golden rule might be at the heart of a market economy. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” puts one in the frame of mind of the other. It encourages a kind of empathy that can also be used for commercial gain. “People want a cheaper or better …” involves thinking about the perspective of the other, the consumer, and is the first step in developing a business plan. Concern with – and response to - the other is essential to markets.