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Dr. Larry Arnn and Dr. Ken Calvert Begin A Study Of The Middle Ages

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HH: We are at the last hour of radio of the week and time for the Hillsdale Dialogue. For more than a year and a quarter now, I’ve been spending the last hour of every week with Dr. Larry Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College and/or one of his colleagues or both. In this case, it’s Dr. Ken Calvert, who’s one of his colleagues who’s been with us before talking us through the evolution of the West, the great works of the West, the great movements of the West, the great moments in the West. And it is with no little coincidence as the East Coast suffers through perhaps the worst winter they’ve ever had in thirty years, that I get an outline from Larry Arnn and Ken Calvert that says we’re going to be talking about global cooling today. And Dr. Ken Calvert, welcome, it’s great to have you, but I didn’t see that one coming.

KC: There you go. Yeah, you know, most historians of the Medieval age understand that there was a significant global cooling in Europe especially, from 300-700, which caused all kinds of problem, food problems, crop failure.

HH: We’re going to get into that, but I just think the irony, Dr. Larry Arnn, as Washington D.C. shuts down, and our nation’s financial center in New York collapses under the weight of snow, that Hillsdale is teaching us that nothing is new under the sun.

LA: And the Romans, just like today, founded a company to try to combat it called Solyndra (laughing)

HH: (laughing) All right, now let’s set this up. When last we spoke last week with Dr. Jeff Lehman and Dr. Larry Arnn, we were talking about Augustine and the wonderful City of God. And when we left off, he was writing that on the eve of a terrible period that would last hundreds of years, the collapse of the Roman Empire and what that would mean for the West. So Larry Arnn, I want to begin by asking you if you slough off comparisons between Rome and the United States as simply too imprecise and separated by too much science and too much knowledge to really matter.

LA: Well, first of all, it’s gloomy to compare the United States with Rome, because when somebody brings up, they never say this is at the time of the peak of the Roman Republic. They think this is Rome in its decline. And obviously, there are similarities between what’s going on in the United States and what went on in Rome. And just like the Romans in that time didn’t know what was going to happen in the future, so we don’t, either. And it doesn’t look to me like it’s, was certain to end, and it’s not certain now what’s going to come next. About the similarities, there’s a bunch of them. Rome was richer and in a stronger position than it had ever been, and yet the public sector was always broke. And it was always broke, because the number of claimants upon it had risen to the place where they couldn’t meet it, no matter how rich and how big they got. It happened in Ancient Rome that the military became the charge of a small few, and increasingly of mercenaries, and you know, I’m in favor of the all-volunteer army, but it’s also true that it’s a difference in American society that in my father’s generation, everybody had been in the military.

HH: Yeah.

LA: And today, very few have been.

HH: Yeah.

LA: So there are things going on, and there were in Rome as well, and they are alike. And then a fear, very common in Rome, of a loss of civic virtue. We talked about Augustine, him confronting the argument that Christianity had sapped Rome of its civic virtue. But whether Christianity was responsible or not, there was a consensus that something had done that. And we face similar fears in America today.

HH: Dr. Calvert, when I get to this, I love this. I love the history with you more than perhaps the philosophy with Dr. Arnn, basically every week, because I love history. And I love the fact that we’re talking about…

LA: Hugh, do you like it because it’s simpler?

HH: Yes, I do.

LA: (laughing)

HH: (laughing) It’s much more fun to read. But I am curious among your students, do they react to this period with dread, because they’re going to slog through a thousand years when they’re really not sure what’s going on after the darkness descends. Do they look forward to it? Or is it skipped over?

KC: Well, there is a certain amount of dread and a certain amount of tension, of course, as you talk about the end of this great, great civilization of Rome, but what is important to understand and to explain to them from the beginning that though cultural unity and Rome collapsed, and Dr. Arnn is getting at here, you know, this point that the unity is collapsing upon itself, the Germanic tribes are coming across the border. Any time you have the collapse of something old, you also have all kinds of possibilities for something new. And one thing I explain to them is that you know, modern Europe and ultimately the American republic, our Constitutional government, this would not have emerged without the collapse of Rome.

HH: Oh, expand on that. Why not?

KC: Well, what I would argue is that you have a combination of some of the Germanic experience, the classical experience, that what was left of Ancient Rome, and the infusion of Christian thought, all of this coming together in Western Europe, and eventually leading to the culture that emerges in England and of course in the colonies in North America.

HH: Dr. Arnn, you agree with that?

LA: Sure. You Know, the Dark Ages are probably better called the Middle Ages, because the middle of the Middle or Dark Ages was a time of growth and prosperity, one of the high points in philosophy. We’re going to get to that, although you didn’t want to.

HH: That’s very hard. It’s the Suma.

LA: So there were wonderful things that went on in this period.

HH: Now I’ve got to ask you both. Interestingly enough, when I got the outline from Dr. Calvert, I looked through it to see if we would be talking about the decline and fall of the Roman Empire…

KC: Right.

HH: …not the actual decline and fall of the Roman Empire, but the book. And we’re not. And I’m relieved, because I’ve never read it. And Dr. Calvert why wouldn’t you include that in the outline as something? Is that just out of time and not really about the decline and fall of the Roman Empire?

KC: Well, it is definitely a book that’s written in the 18th Century. It was published in 1776. It had a definite perspective. And at the core of it was something of an accusation that Christianity brought about the end of the Roman Empire, and there’s something do that. But what I would argue is that since that time, there has been more work done, and I think better work, in studying the medieval world.

HH: Do you read it for its literary, if not its historical accuracy or genius, Dr. Larry Arnn or Ken?

KC: Sorry.

LA: Yeah, sure. Well, Winston Churchill loved it, and his two, when he was a boy, when he was a young man and he got serious about his education and gave himself one, the two great historians he read were Macaulay and Gibbon, both brilliant writers. And Macaulay, Churchill thought, and I think, was a liar. And Gibbon was a serious historian. And he presented an apparatus of footnotes that are very amusing. And he’s a brilliant writer. And it is true that he ascribes, you know, because remember when we talked about Augustine, Augustine begins The City Of God by reacting to the claim that the introduction of Christianity into Rome as an official religion had sapped its virtue. And Gibbon gives some color to that.

HH: But I’ve got to pause for a moment, because I think you just said that Winston Churchill loved history more than philosophy.

LA: No, no, not at all. In fact, I can quote you, I’ll show you the place if you want, but here’s what he said. He said Gibbon and Macaulay were great historians, but Aristotle and Plato occupied a peak above them.

HH: Yeah, but that didn’t mean what he, that was non-responsive, as we would say in the law. What did he spend his time reading – philosophy or history?

LA: The answer to that is no, he read both.

HH: (laughing)

LA: I mean, since we’re being all logical (laughing)

HH: Dr. Calvert…

KC: Yeah.

HH: Help me out here. I’m trying to stress, you’re the historian. You must defend the practice. It’s got its beauty and its…

KC: Well, well, yeah, you know, I’m sitting here with my boss.

LA: (laughing)

HH: Okay, now let’s go back, then. Gibbon, Dr. Calvert, do you read it for pleasure, because you can only, I’ve never been able to slog through it.

KC: Well, he is a good historian, and you know, he’s done his research. But he’s also a brilliant and beautiful writer.

HH: But you recommend books that I have read – Peter Brown’s books, The World of Late Antiquity, the Rise of Western Christendom, and one of my favorites, Thomas Cahill, How The Irish Saved Civilization.

KC: Fantastic.

HH: I’m so glad you listed that…

KC: Yeah.

HH: …because some people dismiss it as middlebrow, and I think it’s wonderful.

KC: Actually, he’s done his research.

LA: Wait, wait, was that a contradiction?

HH: It was, but I’m not a PhD, so I get to do that. So anyway, what about Cahill’s book?

KC: Well, Cahill’s book is really well-researched. He does his work. And he goes over the top by saying the Irish saved civilization, but the title drags you into the book, and the book gives you an excellent body of knowledge of how classical and Christian education, and learning actually was preserved in Ireland, because Ireland was outside of the Roman Empire, and therefore did not suffer tremendously or terribly from the collapse on the Germanic invasions. And so the Irish monks and intellectuals and Evangelicals, evangelists, excuse me, went back into England and into Europe to reestablish all of it.

HH: St. Patrick, from England to Ireland and then back again. More of that coming up.

— – – – –

HH: And now we’re going to get down to it. Ken Calvert, when do you begin it? The Battle of Adrianople? When do you actually say the collapse begins?

KC: Well, it’s important to note that Rome began to unravel as soon as its internal political and cultural unity began to unravel, which was actually two hundred years before Adrianople. Adrianople, in 378, when the last real battle of a Roman army, and they’re miserably defeated, really was the period, the exclamation mark put on a long two hundred year period of degradation of political unity, of military unity in the empire. And then you have this horrible cooling period which begins to ruin the crops, and people are hungry. The Germans are being pushed westward by the Huns, the Germans fight with each other, the Germans fight with the Romans, and the Romans are fighting with one another. It really is a real case of serious anarchy.

HH: At this moment when the East Coast is under a blanket of snow, and really just freezing, I’m curious that the historian who’s familiar with that period, that global cooling period, just laughs at the global warming rhetoric, given what you know by virtue of study of history of cycles, Ken Calvert.

KC: That’s right. One of my friends, who’s a scientist, came to me and he said you know, I just found out that there was global cooling in the Middle Ages. And I said we’ll we’ve been talking about that for ages. We know that. And then the period, it’s interesting that at the end of that, around 700, things began to warm up again, and the crop seasons became more regular and more productive. And by the time of Charlemagne in 800, the one reason why Charlemagne is able to lead a great renaissance and recovery in Europe is because they have more consistent food production. And anyone who’s talking about global warming and global cooling has to look back at the various eras in which the temperature rose and fell on the planet.

HH: And Dr. Larry Arnn, history makes you skeptical of many claims. Does global warming fall into that category for you? Or is it science that makes you suspicious?

LA: Well, there’s so many reasons for suspicion about all this. First of all, there’s a centralized funding source, the federal government, that funds a lot of this, and it’s on a side, manifestly. And second, you know, there have been serious people from the beginning of these claims of global warming who have cast doubt upon it. And I can name a bunch of them if you want me to. But then finally, we don’t really have, we’re not worried about global warming anymore. Now it’s climate change.

HH: Now it’s climate change, yeah.

LA: And that’s, you know, isn’t that just a little too easy?

HH: Well, climate change figures, we went from global cooling to climate change in 405 or 406, Dr. Calvert. The Rhine River freezes.

KC: That’s correct.

HH: And you’ve given me a list of the various invasions, the Anglos and the Saxons, the Francs, the Goth, the Visigoths, the Ostrogoths, the Huns and the vandals.

KC: Yes.

HH: And this is over a period of four hundred years, but the Rhine River freezes. That can’t be good if you’re on the wrong side.

KC: It is a particularly disastrous moment, because the Rhine was an important boundary. It was a border. It kept people out. But when it became a bridge when it froze over, tens of thousands of members of a variety of Germanic tribes, anywhere from three to seven, depending on who you’re reading, pour into Gaul and burn cities and basically destroy what’s left of the Roman order there. And the Romans are forced to strip all of their border fortresses and all of their defenses and try and use those troops to sustain this invasion. And really, it is this invasion, 405-406, people date it differently, it is really this invasion that marks a true milestone in the collapse of Western Rome.

HH: And so when the Germans arrive in this unrestricted migration of various groups, are they welcomed by the Romans in the way that America’s always welcomed new peoples?

KC: No. Well, that’s a complicated question. First of all, the Germans had been living on the border with Rome for centuries. And to a great extent, there had been some peaceful interaction. In fact, there were some Germans who considered themselves Roman, there were Romans who were trading and interacting. There was education in certain spheres, you know, Roman education in German society in certain spheres. And so it was not all animosity and anger. But remember that in this period of the Middle Ages, and in Late Antiquity, we’re talking about a Rome that is less confident, they’re collapsing internally, and the Germans who are desperate. Now what we’re dealing with in our society is we still have open arms to immigrants, you know. We want everybody to come and enjoy what America has to offer. There’s really, that is the joy and the beauty of our nation.

HH: Let me ask Dr. Arnn, unrestricted migration of the Germanic tribes led to chaos. What is the conservatives’ view of the history of migrations generally?

LA: You mean, even outside the American context?

HH: Yes.

LA: Well, it changes things, right? And it depends. Like I’m looking at a map right now that I like a lot. I found it last night. And it shows where the people lived who came down and invaded Roman territory. And we’re going to put this up on so people can see it. And the point is two things changed about this. One is those people got desperate up there, but the second was more important. Rome got weaker. And so in America, for example, in the 19th Century, the first immigration law in America was around the turn of the century, and the law was that now, beginning now, ship captains have to give a manifest of the people on their ship. What they’d done before is just land and people got off the ship. Nobody knew who they were or that they’d come. So we started keeping lists. That was the first thing. And the point was those people had to assimilate, right, because…and the country is very strong in its principles. The thing to be is an American. America is a set of practices and beliefs. Anybody who has those practices and beliefs can be an American. One who doesn’t, cannot. We’re in the multicultural age now, and that means that as Rome was not the thing it had been in the late Roman Republic in 400AD, the United States is affected by doctrines that undermine the basis of immigration previous in American history. So the point is, in any great migration of peoples, it matters why the people are coming, and it matters what the people are like to the place where they’re going.

— – – – – –

HH: It is the week, Dr. Arnn, of Lincoln’s birthday. 205 years ago, Abraham Lincoln was born, and I was thinking as I read through Dr. Calvert’s outline that new men arrived with these Germans, and they struggled for and they got power. They pushed aside the old Romans. Lincoln was very much a new man. I was reading Pete Wehner this week talking about how he came out of nowhere and was so unique, this most unrelenting enemy to the project of the confederacy, wrote Lord Charnwood, was the one man who had quite purged his heart and mind from hatred or even anger towards his fellow countrymen of the South. Very unique attitude and disposition. Did anyone see that coming? I mean, that’s, it’s so remarkable that he got to be the president of the United States.

LA: Well, that happened in about three years. It happened because he won the popular vote over Douglas in Illinois, and Illinois was a swing state. And then he came back east and gave a series of speeches. And they just knocked people over. And I keep on my stand up desk in my office here at work my favorite Lincoln story. And he gave a speech three days after the Cooper Union Address, and he used an image in the speech. He said slavery is like a rattlesnake. And what I do about a rattlesnake depends on where I see it. If it’s in the bed with my children, I might leave it alone and not stir it up. But if it’s out in the garden, I’ll get a stick and kill it. And the next day, a journalist is on a train platform, and he sees Lincoln, and says can I ride with you on the train? And Lincoln says fine. And Lincoln says where did you think of that? And I know, Hugh, you personally have done what I’m about to describe. Lincoln said when I was studying law and reading my Blackstone, I kept running across the word demonstrate. And I thought that must mean some extraordinary kind of proof. And I decided to try to learn that. And so I left my station in Springfield and went home, and did not emerge until I could work all of the propositions of Euclid by memory.

HH: Oh…

LA: So you want to know where Abraham Lincoln came from? That’s where he came from.

HH: That is remarkable. Now Dr. Ken Calvert, obviously where I’m going to lead to, Lincoln emerges from an agrarian class that really isn’t property, and doesn’t have any right to be the leader. Did Rome benefit from the Germans coming in? Did they raise up anyone who would lead it effectively from the new people?

KC: Well, actually, yes. There were a number of leaders in the West who emerged from the Germans. One general named Stilicho, who became a great champion of the Roman West and Roman culture, and he was a vandal. There were other leaders. And actually, it’s very interesting that the Germans began to, these Germanic leaders and kings and chieftains began to take on titles like consul, like emperor, began to use the language of Roman government and Roman law.

HH: And to peek ahead a little bit to next week, in England during this period of time, the Danes are coming down on their head, and they are mixing with the Anglos and the Saxons, all to the good if you don’t have to live through it, right?

KC: Right. Actually, the end result is quite remarkable.

LA: People, you know, Hugh, I’ll add, if you look at this map that we’re going to put up, you’ll be able to see these people are, you know, there aren’t that many different kinds of people. They sound like a bewildering array right now, but they start moving around. And the fact that they start moving around has to do with the decline of Rome. And where they go, it’s a mess for them and everybody else. So in England, Churchill reports literacy declines, and life expectancy declines, and education declines. It’s a setback to civilization itself.

HH: And now you know why I oblige all of my first year, first semester Con Law students to read the first volume of Churchill’s History Of The English-Speaking People, because that’s exactly what happens when law recedes and order recedes, is that the chaos comes in after it. But it is, and they always love it. They don’t know any of this stuff. Nobody knows any of this stuff, because I don’t know, Ken Calvert, you must think it’s an unjust, and we have 45 seconds to the break, an unjustified reputation, because it’s a fascinating period of time.

KC: It is fascinating. And actually, it’s as full of recovery of order and recovery of culture and rule of law as it is full of chaos.

— – – – –

HH: But Dr. Calvert, your outline stresses what everyone hates to admit, that but for the Catholic Church, the darkness would have been complete. It was the only institution to survive these invasions.

KC: That’s correct. It really was the only institution that survived, and within it, it had the means to collect records. It had a common language that united all of the officers of the Church, all the clergy, and that was, of course, Latin. It had some modicum of organization focused with the Bishop of Rome at the head. It was the only source for education. They preserved the libraries. They preserved the learning. And they also preserved, of course, some important doctrines of redemption and salvation and forgiveness, and the idea of a rule of law, all of which was needed in that age.

HH: Now Dr. Arnn, Churchill, of course, a Protestant, writes about the Church in a loving way during the course of its life, but of course, he throws in with Elizabeth at the first chance, and that’s understandable. I like to take my friend, Bud, when I was in the Dominican Republic, into the center of Santa Domingo and point to the cathedral there and tell him it was finished before Columbus got to America. And I mean, before the Reformation began, that it had been built by the people who followed in Columbus’ footsteps. Do Protestants give up grudgingly that which the Church is responsible for, which is the keeping of the order and the rekindling of society?

LA: No, well, it depends on, that’s a complicated question. I think there might be two groups. I think anybody who’s interested in the history of the Church, you know, what happened in Christianity after Jesus and until now, anybody who reads about that has got to think that the Roman Catholic Church has been responsible for tremendous things. And I think myself that Pope John Paul II and the one who followed him, Benedict, I think they were tremendous people and did a lot of good. And I think the jury’s out on the new guy. But so yeah, of course, and then there are people who think that Papism is a kind of idolatry, and they may be people who don’t look back into…and then when they listen to your show, they’re confirmed that there’s got to be some problem with it.

HH: Now I want to bring up Pope Gregory the Great, because nobody, you know, talk about a good run, Ken Calvert…

KC: Yeah.

HH: This is an amazing figure about whom very little is widely known.

KC: Right. He should be read by everyone. He wrote a very fine volume on pastoral ministry. It’s guidance to all of the priests and the clergy of the Church. And it’s a magnificent guide. He’s also the guy who sent St. Augustine, not Augustine of Hippo, but Augustine of Canterbury up to missionize among the English and reestablished Christianity there. And this guy was just a down home, just basic central Christian sending out missionaries and evangelists, and encouraging the Church in a very, very broken world to do its most essential work.

HH: And he was there forever. I mean, he was a good, long run.

KC: Yes.

HH: …as the Pope, and the question is, is that what, did good, strong popes make for a good, strong Church that could endure the tumult of this era?

KC: You know, and this is where with the Catholic Church in the West, in a way, you might say that in this period of collapse and turmoil, it was truly at its best, because it provided not only guidance, it provided not only unity and language and that kind of thing, but as I said, a certain set of doctrines, especially forgiveness and the rule of law, and redemption and salvation in a world that was falling apart. And Pope Gregory the Great, that was very much at the core of everything he was doing.

HH: You know, Dr. Arnn, you said the jury’s out on the new guy. Just this week, the new guy appointed one of the most stalwart of serious people in the United States, Charles Chaput, to be on the, the only non-cardinal on the Council of the Laity in the Vatican Curia, the Archbishop of Philadelphia, who may in fact be listening as we speak. And he’s got a lot of complexity to him. It’s an interesting period of time, and what Dr. Calvert just said, church and churches generally matter a lot when the culture’s going to hell, don’t they?

LA: Yeah, and you know, Ken Calvert was guilty of giving short shrift to Gibbon, but one of the things Gibbon does that he gives enormous credit to the Church for the beneficial effect they had on the barbarians coming from the north. They helped them a lot. They taught them things that they needed to know. And people may wonder how does it work, how did it work in the Middle Ages when the law was uncertain? And when the law is uncertain, what that means is a body of armed people might show up any time, and they’re coming from who knows where. And you might not be able to talk with them. And they might just come and kill. And they might take your land, right? And you know, the architecture of the medieval world is remarkable of how even church architecture has a lot in common with a fortress. And so they build these monasteries out in the middle of nowhere, and some of the oldest surviving structures in Europe are monasteries that were built with an ability of defense.

HH: We will begin next week with the Venerable Bede, but that tradition of scholarship was in the fortress as well as the ability to protect people, Ken Calvert.

KC: That’s correct. The Bede and Alcuin, a number of monks in that era, and particularly in England, were preserving education, were preserving learning. There were small renaissances in all of these areas, and really just waiting for the moment when order is restored, and all of this can reemerge.

HH: When we come back next week, we’ll pick it up there where Charlemagne and the restoration of order in England by the agency of the Church, and some great political work, as well as a little bit later in the period some extraordinary philosophy in the form of the great charter, the Magna Carta of 1215. So don’t miss next week’s Hillsdale Dialogue. And if you came in midway through this one, head over to, and you can go back all the way to the beginning of January of last year and work your way up to where we are, the Dark Ages, or you can just pick up anywhere along that way.,

End of interview.


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