The Specter of Anthropological Pessimism

In my presentation of past articles on the origin of what I call the “age of utopia”–the story of which I’ve been writing in recent months–this one helps establish the context in which the “father of humanism,” Francesco Petrarch, made his breakthrough into modernity. In a real sense it was a reaction against a pessimism that had never sat well within Christendom.

PARADISE AND UTOPIA

What historians call the late middle ages was a difficult period in the history of western Christendom. From about 1300 to about 1500, a series of horrible events occurred including the Black Death and the Hundred Years War.

Illustration of Victims of Bubonic Plague from the Toggenberg Bible Dying Victims of Black Death

As they did, they caused new features of western culture to appear. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that these catastrophes acted as abrasives across the surface of an otherwise verdant Christian culture, exposing stones that had long remained buried beneath it.

One of these long buried stones was what can be called anthropological pessimism, a emphatically negative view of the human condition in this world.

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