A World Lit Only by Blue Light

Of the span of centuries between the fall of the pagan Roman Empire and the dawn of secular humanism with the Renaissance—the Middle Ages, in other words—establishment historians like William Manchester have possessed a dim view. This is probably due, in part, to an ancient, enduring societal affliction, one intrinsic within the modern left despite its claims: elitism.

To the point, Manchester’s A World Lit Only by Fire, a history of that time, has been sparking a firestorm of criticism from scholars and devotees of the Middle Ages since it was first published in 1992. For example, a reviewer atGoodreads, “Gordon,” writes:

William Manchester characterizes the Middle Ages as one of ‘obsession with strange myths and almost impenetrable mindlessness.’ In fact, this is a perfect description of the flaws of his book, which is among the worst works of history I have ever read. Full disclosure: I put it down in disgust after page 102 and did not pick it up again.

Harsh, perhaps, but not unduly unfair.   

In his own assessment, the “Medieval History Geek” puts his finger on the source of the problem with Manchester’s work, namely that the author appears to consider the peasants deplorable: “… where the massive, appalling errors of fact arose is from Manchester taking any tale told by the nobility of those dirty, monstrous peasants, and recounting it here for truth, without any analysis of text or the motivation of those authoring these tales.”

It is easy to imagine Hillary Clinton in 2016 describing the MAGA movement as Manchester did the Medieval peasants: “Shackled in ignorance, disciplined by fear and sheathed in superstition….”

Yet, there is more than a kernel of truth in the title, if not the complete text, of  Manchester’s book.  In varying degrees, firelight curtailed the horizons of all people in Medieval times, be they peasants, nobles, or royals.  Darkness circumscribed when and to what degree human activity could be engaged. Darkness also cloaked the dangers hidden in the world beyond one’s village, manor, or castle.  It was not until the revolutionary technological advance of light—gas and electricity—that humans were able to push back and, ultimately, abolish the boundaries of night. Light freed up human beings’ explorations, imaginations, and capacity for innovation. While the near universality of light was not an unmitigated triumph, overall it was a boon for humans, especially the peasantry.

And yet … what if we take Manchester’s contemptuous, elitist view of peasants not as a reflection on the past but as a prognostication for the future? What if, despite all the technological advances and conveniences of the Industrial Revolution—that same revolution against which the left now seems to be furiously waging a counterrevolution—the mass of humanity is being tempted into embracing the very sordid, selfish, dim, and directionless existence Manchester ascribed to the Medieval peasantry?

Put another way: What is the state of humanity in a world aglow only with blue light?

Per Healthline.com:

Blue light, like other colors of visible light, is all around you. The sun emits blue light. So do fluorescent and incandescent light bulbs. Human beings are exposed to more blue light than ever because of the widespread use of devices that rely on light-emitting diode (LED) technology. Computer and laptop screens, flat-screen televisions, cell phones, and tablets all use LED technologies with high amounts of blue light.

Presently, the consequences of living in a world lit by blue light are all around us. As people continue to turn inward and narrow their focus to their sundry screens, human interactions are diminishing and, ergo, so are societal organizations. From religious to political to business to civic organizations, attendance is declining. Neighbors often no longer know, let alone engage, their neighbors. The temporal world devolves into the virtual world; the concrete disintegrates in cyberspace; and the tenuous threads of civic comity and harmony fade, fray, and die beneath the incessant blue light of a virtual, insular world.

For a republic built upon self-government and, as Alexis de Tocqueville identified, buttressed by voluntary community associations, the dangers are present and patent.  And they will only increase with the eagerly anticipated (in some quarters) advent of artificial intelligence and virtual reality.  Combined with the postmodernist denial of universal verities and virtues, there will remain but will and appetite, fear and greed, to corral the human animal into the sordid, superstitious peasant existence Manchester imagined.

Who will place us would-be peasants into our blue lit, solitary confinement?  It will not be the elitists.

It will be us.

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