We are oarsmen aboard galleys, straining our muscles to keep our ships on a certain azimuth, enduring our labors in foaming and swelling seas, while being buffeted by the storms and waves of Fortune. We hope for placid days, for the sight of a friendly shore, but of these things we have no guarantee. Not for us are the comforting certainties and predictabilities of our forefathers, who had some assurances of their environment’s cultural and social stability, before the second half of the twentieth century cracked the foundations of Western societies’ moral edifices. This is the Age of Turbulence.

It is tempting to envy the certainty of the medieval mind, for in that certainty lay relief from mental turbulence. In that age, Christians, Moslems, and Jews alike believed that they had already found in their respective theologies the ultimate truths of things; they felt no grasping compulsion to probe the mysteries of the natural world, to worship machines and technology, or to question the inherited beliefs of their ancestors. The truth had already been revealed, and it remained only to exalt these truths in art, poetry, architecture, and literature. The medieval mind would have valued the sublime beauty of the spires of Chartres, the buttresses of Notre Dame, the Bayeux tapestry, the arcane mysteries of the Mass, illuminated manuscripts, and heroic poetry, more than he would the clanking pulleys and levers of the engineers, or the obsessive tinkerings of the scientist.

For the medieval man, art and faith were more important than reason. We cannot be sure he was wrong in his choice. Perhaps he was wiser than we, who instead place our faith in iPhones, the internet, and Tinder matches. We have exchanged one God for a multiplicity of false epicurean gods. Whereas our ancestors had the strength of theological certainty, the modern man, following the star of his own avarice and caprice, is tormented by self-doubt and hesitation. Obviously, this certainty came at a certain price.  Yet, we moderns multiply machines on top of machines, every generation more complex than the previous, with little apparent augmenting of wisdom or maturity.

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Louis IX:  He was fortified by his certainty

To see how starkly the differences between us and our ancestors emerge, consider Jean de Joinville’s Life of Saint Louis, a famous monograph about France’s King Louis IX written in 1309. Louis was France’s most pious king, and was the only one of her monarchs to have been canonized. Joinville had known Louis personally, filled his account with stories of Louis’s piety and sincerity.

Joinville relates the following anecdotes. On one occasion, the king sent for him to hold a philosophical discussion.  The dialogue went as follows.[1]

“Tell me, seneschal, which would you prefer:  to be a leper or to have committed a mortal sin?”  And I, who had never lied to him, replied that I would rather have committed thirty mortal sins than become a leper…The next day, he called me to him, making me sit at his feet and said to me:  “Why did you say that to me yesterday?” I told him that I still say it.  “You spoke without thinking, like a fool.  You ought to know that there is no leprosy so foul as being in a state of mortal sin; for the soul in that condition is like the Devil; therefore no leprosy can be so vile…So I beg you…as earnestly as I can, for the love of God, and for love of me, to train your heart to prefer any evil that can happen to the body…rather than let mortal sin take possession of your soul.”

On the king’s certainty, Joinville says:

In the conversations he had with me, this saintly king did everything in his power to give me a firm belief in the principles of Christianity as given us by God.  He used to say that we ought to have such an unshakeable belief in all the articles of faith that neither fear of death nor of any harm that might happen to our bodies should make us willing to go against them in word or deed.[2]

And in a crowning statement of the king’s doctrinal certitude, we are told:

“So I tell you,” said the king, “that no one, unless he is an expert theologian, should venture to argue with these people [i.e., theologians].  But a layman, whenever he hears the Christian religion abused, should not attempt to defend its tenets, except with the sword, and that he should thrust into the scoundrel’s belly, as far as it will enter.”

We may not agree with this last sentiment, but the certainty with which it is expressed is a refreshing antidote to today’s floundering morass of relativism. Our modern society, with its abundance of material comforts and unrelenting smugness, has exchanged masculine conviction and strength for a weak-kneed relativism, in which everything is so perfectly balanced out that we are left paralyzed with inaction. There is power in certainty; relativism paralyzes. By destroying our inherited patrimony and its attendant moral code, modern society exposes us naked to the stormy seas of Fortune. We could also say that our history and its cultural inheritance are like the trees growing on mountainsides, whose roots keep the soil firmly anchored in place; but when the trees are cut down, erosion, denudation, and landslides are the results.

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Pascal: Imagination can produce certainty

What can the rational man do in this Age of Turbulence?  What actions can be taken, until our vessel reaches calmer seas? One answer is the advice offered by the Italian humanist Paolo Giovio in his dialogue Notable Men and Women of Our Time:

Let us endure these hardships of fortune with a strong mind, and let us pick trusted defenses that come from virtue and good studies, which will guard us perfectly from the vicissitudes of fortune.  I think, actually, we should live in the way of clever and honest slaves who, with a humble and cunning intelligence, dissemble as they need to, so that they await their liberty in due course, with a calculated and patient submission.[3]

This is certainly one way of handling an impossible situation. But another, more inward-looking, answer to this question was suggested to me yesterday from a passage in Blaise Pascal’s Pensees. Pascal gives us an interesting thought experiment to chew on.[4]

If we dreamed the same thing every night, he says, it would affect us as much as the things we see every day while awake. If an artisan, for example, dreamed for ten hours per night that he was a king, he would be about as happy as a king who dreamed for ten hours that he was an artisan. In the same way, if we dreamed every day of horrible things, we would dread going to sleep, and would fear these evil things as much as if we encountered them in real life. The traveler who is haunted at night by terrible visions would be afraid of waking up to such mishaps on the road of travel. Thus the world of dreams carries over into the world of the real. And over time, the two worlds begin to overlap. In this way, we can use our dreams to shape our reality. “For life is a dream,” Pascal says, [but] a little less unstable.”

Life is a dream.  Find your dream, and dream your dream with intensity. Believe in it with an overwhelming passion. And over time, as Pascal says, that dream will become part of your reality.  You evolve into your dream, and incorporate it into your guiding vision.  The imagination can indeed shape your external world.

So I say this:  behave in the manner of Giovo’s “patient and honest slave” while you bide your time, and at the same time, dream with the fervent intensity of Blaise Pascal.  This is the way for us to restore some degree of certainty to our minds, some fuel to our muscles, and face the swelling hostile seas of the Age of Turbulence.

Read More: The World Will Teach You


[1] See Shaw, M.R.B., Joinville and Villehardouin: Chronicles of the Crusades, New York: Penguin Books Ltd. 1983, p. 169.

[2] Id. at 173.

[3] Gouwens, Kenneth (ed.), Paolo Giovio, Notable Men and Women of Our Time, Cambridge:  Harvard Univ. Press, 2013, p. 169.  (translation mine).

[4] See Pascal, Blaise, Pensees, Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing Co., 2005, p. 198.