Are We Returning to the Dark Ages?

It’s almost an absurd question. Smartphones have put the world’s knowledge at our fingertips. Passenger jets fly us to the other side of the planet in a day. Soon AI will relieve us from all of life’s humdrum tasks.

But in just the space of a few decades, phenomena like slavery, anxiety, mysticism and terror have made alarming comebacks. Are these omens of a new Dark Age? Even as we accumulate the relics of a supermodern world, are the vision, values and humanity that brought us here fading to black?

“Slavery, anxiety, mysticism and terror have made alarming comebacks.”

History’s single greatest lesson is that we don’t learn from history—or in the words of another well-known maxim, those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.

So join me on a time-travelling adventure through the Middle Ages, and let’s see if anything looks familiar.

Passivity and Mysticism

In the medieval world, superstition was rife. Truth wasn’t discovered by the courageous common man; it was dispensed by the church and those wielding power.

Thanks to reformation and renaissance, we have universal literacy. But while generations past treasured this, today’s culture of whatever shrugs it off with apathy. Education systems soften us; university degrees are becoming commodified, mass produced, and shoddy.

“Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.”

Beneath this decline in serious learning lay the crumbling ruins of a Judeo-Christian worldview. We could have restored their foundations, but instead we chose an experiment. Breeding modernism with mysticism, we’ve created a strange beast.

Now alternative everything has gone mainstream, all backed by its own “literature”. Truth can be validated by empiricism, politics or passion—depending on which tickles your fancy. The humanities have seen this for decades; now watch it rise in the sciences too.

Political correctness and its bizarre new morality pose as Pope for our brave new world. Too many are gullibly persuaded by this upstart authority; too few are willing to speak out for fear they’ll be branded with a phobia.

Widening Inequality

Happily, the modern world has set us free from the rule of princes and feudal lords. Each of us has a vote—and along with it, rights, liberties and opportunities never dreamt of by the peasants of a past age.

And while liberal democracy is by far the best system devised, its founding fathers handed it on to us with sobering words. America’s second president John Adams said, “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself,”—and, “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

“Today, one percent of the world’s population owns half the world’s wealth.”

Could it be that we’re experiencing the “any other” he warned of? Consider the widening gap of inequality. A shrinking number of banks and businesses rule the global economy, paying little to no tax. One percent of the world’s population owns half the world’s wealth. Many are now convinced that class mobility is just a dream.

When so much power is held by so few, and when political influence is up for sale to the highest bidder, our vision grows dull and it’s hard to tell businessman from kings, and feudalism from freedom.

Pessimism, Fear and Brutality

The Middle Ages have been called dark because they were a period of cultural and economic decline that eclipsed the glory of Rome. Europe’s idealism gave way to angst, fear of the outside world, and centuries of bloody crusades.

There are remarkable parallels today. Our technology might be advancing, but in other ways we’re going backwards. We’re obsessed with trivia, airbrushed porn, and the cult of celebrity. Popular tastes in music are vulgar. Even hipster nostalgia is growing kitsch.

“Like the medievals, we’ve got little new to say but we’re desperate to defend it.”

Crass arts pepper every age, but what passes as art today raises eyebrows for its grotesqueness as much as its creativity. If you don’t believe me, take a walk through a modern museum.

Like the medievals, we’ve got little new to say but we’re desperate to defend it. It’s us versus them, with ideological borders replacing the old geographical ones. Now the enemy shares our cul-de-sac, but we wouldn’t know it because we’ve never met. Online algorithms have created parallel left-and-right societies where we reinforce our own dogmas and hoist the drawbridge of our minds.

“We’ve enslaved more people than the abolitionists ever set free.”

If the last year is anything to go on, it’s a small step from social fragmentation to cruel violence and rioting in the streets. Maybe these crusades will end after another election. Or maybe they’re just the beginning.

It will all depend on our collective conscience: is it truly wrong to hurt our fellow man? We’ve been desensitised from years of terrorism on the nightly news and Hollywood’s glorified brutality. If that weren’t enough, we’ve murdered millions of the unborn, and enslaved more people than the abolitionists ever set free—all for cheap trinkets and virtual pleasure.

Tyranny Beckons

This is not what the pioneers of the free world dreamed of. They warned us that democracy only works if its people are inwardly restrained by their own morals and manners. As these slip away, will we the people at last prefer tyranny to chaos?

Patrick Henry, another US founding father, said, “It is when people forget God that tyrants forge their chains.” I’m not ready for 1984 just yet. Our civilisation is fading like the dusk, but it’s still the freest on earth, and that makes it worth fighting for.

“Democracy only works if its people are inwardly restrained.”

This month the western hemisphere celebrates the 500th anniversary of the Reformation—the social and spiritual revolution that jolted us out of the Dark Ages and into the modern world.

Call me dramatic, but I think it’s time we had another one.

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Secrets of the Spice Islands

Part 1: Cloves

One small island fascinates me more than any other. This volcano rises like a perfect cone from the emerald sea. Nestled on its eastern shores is a busy township, ever watchful of the belching sulphurous cloud above.

Even before I step off the boat, a sweet, pungent aroma fills my nostrils, carried on the tropical air. It is the smell of cloves drying in the midday sun—green flower buds blushing three days to a deep crimson-brown.

Welcome to Ternate. Before the dawn of modernity, when ships carried giddy explorers to every corner of the globe, this secret paradise and its four near neighbours boasted the world’s only clove forests.

“In Europe, cloves were said to be worth their weight in gold.”

That fact would be a footnote on the pages of history—except that medieval Europe’s hunger for spice was insatiable. To the rich, cloves were the ultimate symbol of affluence.

For three thousand years, this tiny wooden nail had been shipped across the world to flavour foods, preserve meats, numb pain, and infuse perfume. If that weren’t enough, clove was rumoured as a choice aphrodisiac. And more lately, as a cure to Black Death—the bubonic plague that had decimated the continent.

Venice was Europe’s spice gateway, and as a result, the canals of this seaport city dripped with wealth. And merchants all the way from here to Arabia, India and the far-flung Orient held two of the world’s most jealously-guarded secrets.

maluku

The first was the spices’ mysterious origin, believed by many to be the lost Garden of Eden somewhere across the seas. The second was the dizzying profits being made along the spice trail.

Truth really is stranger than fiction: between their source in Asia and the markets of Europe, cloves underwent a one thousand percent markup. In cities like London and Paris, this spice was said to be worth its weight in gold.

“The spices’ mysterious origin was believed to be the lost Garden of Eden.”

These were times of swashbuckling adventures, of pirates, and a yearning for exotic lands. But no kingdom sailed the unmapped world for sport. It was only as Europeans closed in on the spice trade secrets—namely, that wealth unimagined was theirs if they could bypass middle-men and trade directly with Asia—that the Age of Discovery was born.

Portugal had bravely ventured round Africa’s southern cape, and the spices of Asia lay before them. Not to be outdone, Spain surprised the world and sailed west, searching for a quicker route to the Spiceries.

clove

Along the way, they happened upon a continent unexpected, which we now know as America. But this was not the prize. South round the Americas they went, pushing boldly into the uncharted Pacific.

Finally their worm-eaten ships laid anchor at Ternate. These adventurers had done it—they’d sailed to the far side of the world. Cordially welcomed, they traded their gold and textiles for more cloves than they’d ever dreamed of. Then evading the Portuguese through Asia, they limped back home.

“They had just completed the greatest voyage in naval history.”

Three years had passed. When the journey began, their ships numbered five and their crew 237. Alas, scurvy, dysentery and perilous storms had reduced them to 18 haggard sailors on a single carrack. But they had just completed the greatest voyage in naval history, having circumnavigated planet Earth.

More importantly, they’d tapped into the world’s most lucrative market at its source. The single haul of cloves and other spices brought home by the crew would pay for the venture and all its losses several times over.

circumnavigation

This was only the beginning. For the next two hundred years, wars would be fought, empires would rise and fall, and the most unbelievable real estate deal in history would be made—all in a bid for monopoly of the spice trade.

Today a bottle of cloves is sold for just three dollars on a supermarket shelf, yet this spine-tingling tale of the Spice Islands remains one of the greatest stories never told. Now that you’ve heard it, permit me to leave a few thoughts with you.

“Empires would rise and fall, all in a bid for monopoly of the spice trade.”

These bold explorers sacrificed life and limb, braving deadly seas and enemies unknown, all for dried bark, seeds and buds. What about you? As you toil from dawn til dusk each day, what’s the prize you’re seeking? Like these sailors, is it a treasure here on earth, vulnerable to rust, moths and thieves—or will it last eternally?

ternate

Jesus warned that we could gain the whole world and yet forfeit our souls—and that the only way to avoid this greatest of errors was to surrender our lives for his sake. Is this message as forgotten for you as the history of the Spice Islands, or does it ring with warm familiarity?

O, that we would seek God’s kingdom and righteousness with the passion that monarchs and men had for spice.

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Read Part 2 of 2 | Secrets of the Spice Islands: Nutmeg.