Signs of Human Progress

Reading history can be enlightening and nauseating. The latest insight into history comes courtesy of Chapter 19 of the book Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling by Ross King:

The Roman Carnival that took place in February of 1510 was even more jubilant and unruly than usual. All of the familiar entertainments were on show. Bulls were released into the streets and slain by men on horseback armed with lances. Convicted criminals were executed in the Piazza del Popolo by a hangman dressed as a harlequin. South of the piazza, races along the Via del Corso included a competition between prostitutes. An even more popular attraction was the “racing of the Jews”, a contest in which Jews of all ages were forced to don bizarre costumes and then sprint down the street to insults from the crowd and sharp prods and spears of the soldiers galloping behind. Cruelty and bad taste knew no bounds. There were even races between hunchbacks and cripples.

This was Rome nearly five hundred years ago. It was in the midst of this environment that sculptor Michelangelo Buonarroti frescoed the ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. A native of the Republic of Florence, he was arm twisted by Pope Julius II into the Herculean task. This book provides fascinating insight into how the temperamental and reclusive Michelangelo accomplished his four-year long endeavor. That the final product is so magnificent is even more amazing considering he hated the complexity of doing frescos. Michelangelo excelled at sculpture.

The book also provides eye-opening background, like the quotes from Ross King’s work above. Rome in 1510 was a nasty and barbarous place. However, it was not that much different from the rest of Europe. Given the fetid conditions of the city, it was amazing anyone there lived to an old age. It was governed by the temperamental and headstrong Pope Julius II who, incidentally, was married with children. (Presumably priestly celibacy was not a requirement back then.) Moreover, the College of Cardinals was stacked with many of his relatives. Higher clerical positions were routinely given to those with wealth. From reading the book, it is obvious why seven years later Martin Luther nailed those ninety-five theses to the door of the Whittenberg Church. It is a wonder it took so long.

Perhaps I should not be surprised that five hundred years later Christians are still doing evil things. Still, when I look back five hundred years I now realize that I should not to be too hard on modern day Christians because they have come a long way. At least they do not usually go around spearing Jews for sport anymore. Occasionally in places like Kosovo, some purported Christians will engage in ethnic cleansing. Unfortunately, Catholics and Protestants still kill each other from time to time. Yet overall Christians of all types seem to behave in far more of a Christ-like fashion today than they did 500 years ago, or even 100 years ago.

Fortunately, it is not just the Christians that are becoming enlightened, but also much of humanity. Clearly, there is still a long way to go. Yet maybe, in the last five hundred years, humanity has developed something of the soul we assumed we had all along. Granted we sadly remain too skilled in the business of wholesale human slaughtering. Nevertheless, the general trend suggests that this part of our nature is increasingly going deeply into the closet where it belongs. There have been mass murderers since Stalin and Hitler. Pol Pot and Saddam Hussein comes immediately to my mind. However, there are less of these incidents than there were since World War II. In addition, the rest of the civilized world is less likely to tolerate such acts. These are hopeful signs for our species. It may be that only in the last fifty years or so that humanity has largely pulled itself out of its bestial state and into something that suggests our full potential.

I often rail about the many injustices by men against men that are still occur regularly. However, snippets of history like this provide some needed context. Five hundred years is after all but a flash in the pan of the history of our species. Until recently, our history has been a history full of barbarity. Now barbarity, while it still occurs, is more the exception rather than the rule. Perhaps we deserve to give ourselves a round of applause. For while our bestial side always seems to lurk immediately below the surface, we have truly have made enormous strides toward becoming a compassionate race in the last five hundred years.

Perhaps our true age of enlightenment is just beginning to dawn. Perhaps finally we are starting to model the Kingdom of God here on earth. If so, let us keep up the good work.

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