The growth of cities from the 11th century created new centers of intellectual and economic vitality that the church viewed with anxiety and hostility. The church shared the same fears and prejudices as other large landowners in facing a nascent capitalist economy that threatened to swamp the static, agrarian life of feudalism.
Further, the church saw the rise of cities as a menace to its intellectual dominion. The restless spirit of urbanity challenged the existing order, where the church and aristocracy divided all power between themselves. To the conservative church, the existing order also recommended itself because it seemed in harmony with morality and custom.
Whereas those who toiled on manorial estates were serfs, city dwellers had freedom and mobility. The medieval motto “city air makes free” expressed the revolutionary import of urbanization.
The rising bourgeoisie saw the extant social system as one of unjustifiable privilege and ecclesiastical domination. The church lost its monopoly on learning and technical knowledge. Laymen in burgeoning cities increasingly assumed intellectual leadership, first apart from churches and monasteries, then in opposition to them. This dynamic was exactly what the church feared.
Accumulation of wealth permitted the emergence of lay artists, writers, and teachers. This secularization challenged the traditional medieval civilization based upon church dogma and landed power.
The revival of urban life was especially vigorous in Italy in the 13th and 14th centuries. There too came the rebirth of ancient Greek and Roman thought that blossomed into the Renaissance. It began with the intellectual movement called humanism, which was, in essence, a secular replacement for the philosophic unity developed under medieval scholasticism.
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To be born, the church needed Plato. To last, it needed Aristotle. ~ Austrian political scientists William Ebenstein & Alan Ebenstein
For the church to remain relevant, it needed to answer the challenge of emergent humanism and secularism. In enfolding Aristotle, the church enlarged its scope into a coherent and all-encompassing body of thought that was full of common sense, moderate in tone, and adaptable: human, yet universal and timeless.
Augustinian mysticism, with its emphasis on faith leading to grace, was relegated in official church theology, to find revival in late Middle Age sects that sought to resurrect the original character of Christianity. Their themes were later championed by Protestant reformers, who found Aquinas’ Aristotelian spin too much cold logic and too little inspiration.
As a monk, Martin Luther declared that what he had learned of value was found in the Bible and works of Augustine. Luther thought that Aristotle was to theology what darkness is to light.
Only without Aristotle can we become theologians. ~ Martin Luther
Protestantism was thus a return to Christian roots, not only because of its stress on earlier sources, but also owing to its preference to Augustine over Aquinas, of Plato over Aristotle.
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The modern secular view is separation of church and state, stemming from the liberal orthodoxy that developed during the 18th century. Revisionist history saw the contest for power between state and church in the Middle Ages as a struggle between reason and irrationality, between progress and reaction.
Owing to its long association with monarchy, the church was seen as a primary impediment to the development of liberal government. The assumption was that once religion was scoured from political discourse, the progress of reason and liberty would prove irresistible.
This dogma has been disproved by historical events. The experience of 20th century totalitarianism, and 21st century democratic plutocracy, shows that societies which lack an ethical counterbalance to the state may be devoured by despotism, whether politically or economically inspired.