We have all learnt at school the three great historical periods of history: Antiquity, Middle Ages, and Modern times. Antiquity, finishing in 476 with the fall of the Roman Empire, gave way to the religious Middle Ages, which themselves ushered in the Renaissance and modern world in 1492 when Columbus discovered America and started the age of reason. We particularly understand the modern world as a “rediscovery” of the science and knowledge of Antiquity, and therefore as a continuation of Antiquity, with an intermediate period–hence Middle Ages, because they are ‘in-between’–of about a thousand years. This intermediate period can be understood as either an important moment of our history, or, which is a legacy of the Enlightenment, as “a thousand years of decline.” The problems with those statements is that they tell more about whay we think of ourselves than about the past.
While the division of history into periods is not wrong in itself, we must keep in mind that history is first and foremost a human event, and that therefore it does not obey such artificial divisions and oversweeping generalizations. The problem becomes particularly evident when we find ourselves at a loss trying to fit entire portions of history into one of these categories and realize that they do not entirely fit in anywhere.
The first example that comes to mind is the Byzantine Empire. Ignored by Classicists and medievists alike because not entirely fitting in either categories, this period remains to the general public one generally ignored and misunderstood. Is the Empire part of Antiquity? Is it medieval? Rather, the answer is that it is both and neither. The difficulty arises from the fact that the distinction that we make between Antiquity and Middle Ages goes well beyond the fall of the (Western) Roman Empire; it also carries the more profound understanding, in the Western mind, of the end of a certain rationality of the mind and the beginning of an age of religion and emotions.
While there is some truth in this statement, we should not take it at face value either. The period we call the Middle Ages is indeed a very religious one, not however because their predecessors had no faith in any god, but because the influence of the new faith went deeper and reached wider than before. The Christian Church reinvigorated the life of the whole Empire and the successor kingdoms, it reached to all social classes, and all had now the same understanding of the Just and Good. Yet, we are mistaken if we believe both that the people of Antiquity had less faith and more reason, while the people of the Middle Ages had less reason.
We are wrong because we fail to understand that ‘faith’ and ‘reason’ are two concepts that operate at two completely different levels of thought. If, as we usually believe, Ancient philosophy is the axiom of reason, we fail to understand what the object of the philosophical quest was. Socrates, Plato, Proclus, Plotinus, Aristotle, the Cynics, the Stoics, all had as their aim the search for God and the good life, which was precisely what the Christians believed had found.