Podcasts and Prophets

Comedian Louis C.K. garbles the history of Western Civilization.

By Robert Moeller Published on January 25, 2015

One of the more popular podcasts around today is The WTF Podcast, hosted by comedian (and former Air America radio host) Marc Maron. The show — part long form interview and part therapy session — is a bi-weekly stream-of-consciousness conversation between Mr. Maron and various comedians and entertainers conducted in Maron’s converted garage studio just outside Los Angeles. A recovering drug addict, Marc Maron is admirably candid about his struggles and neurotic tendencies, and this honesty helps the famous people he chats with open up about their own quirks and hardships.

WTF is a favorite among entertainment industry types (and those who cover them), and recently Slate dubbed Maron’s interview of fellow comedian Louis C.K. the number one podcast episode of all time. Having listened to that episode when it aired a few years ago, I decided to listen to it again and see how it held up. Many consider Louis C.K. the greatest comedian of his generation, and he has become an accomplished director and television show creator. It is no stretch to say that his is one of the most influential voices in the culture today.

So what did these funny, thoughtful fellas have to say that warranted such high praise from the podcast gurus at Slate?

Modernist Stereotype Distilled

The episode reveals a complex friendship between the two performers spanning multiple decades. In the middle of reminiscing and searching for a metaphor to describe the way that some friends hold on to memories for you that you might have forgotten, Louis C.K. landed on this analogy:

There was a library that Alexander the Great built in Egypt, and it had all the great Greek works of literature and philosophy and art and everything. And then when we became a Christian …West … world, they burned, you know, the Christians burned everything. They burned that library down. I don’t know … I may be wrong about that. I could be wrong.

But we still have a little bit of Plato and Socrates … because the Muslims kept it. Because when the Muslims took … took their run of conquering the world, they kept stuff. They didn’t burn other peoples’ work. They would integrate and save it. So we have all the, uh, Greek literature and wisdom and all of that stuff because the Muslims held on to it. While we were going through the Dark Ages, and forgetting everything and letting this Jesus s*** ruin everything, when we came out of that haze the Muslims were still there saving it for us.

There, in one meandering diatribe, Louis C.K. distills so many of the modernist stereotypes about the history of Western civilization. This is Noam Chomsky meets Charlie Sheen meets The Daily Show meets the angst-ridden loner in your junior college ‘Intro to Civics’ class who has some “interesting YouTube videos” he wants to show you about what temperature the steel in World Trade Center Tower Two should have melted at.

So many in Hollywood and academia loathe and blame Christianity for the “backwardness” of anything that they don’t like about our past. Our Judeo-Christian heritage, invariably, is the thing the world had to overcome to become the enlightened cynics we are. It is unimaginable to such skeptics that Christianity could have played even a minor role in propelling us toward such concepts as human rights, liberty and a sustainable vision of representative government. Where would the average American going through the public school system and consuming even moderate amounts of pop culture ever hear such a thing?

In Louis C.K.’s hypothetical universe, the marauding Muslims of the 7th century apparently knew better than to conform to the book-burning ways of the “old townspeople” living in Dark Ages Europe. Granted, this exchange between Louis C.K. and Maron was only a couple of minutes in a two-hour-long interview, but it’s telling. Even C.K.’s “I could be wrong” speaks volumes. This is no small charge he levies. Think of what a devastating critique of Christianity this anecdote would be if it were accurate. Think of the implications he clearly wishes the listener to absorb.

Yet he moves seamlessly from lobbing a rhetorical grenade at Christianity, to admitting that he’s ignorant of the actual facts involved. Oops! My bad if I’m way off on this one, guys!

But the damage is done. Millions of impressionable minds — of all ages — have had the erroneous idea implanted in their brains. And who is going to extract that? What voice in the culture will be able to give the events in question their proper context? There are so many real examples of humans doing despicable things in the name of Christianity, so why not just add one more that sounds kind of like the repressive, anti-intellectual vibes one picks up on about Christians from pop-culture?

I cannot tell you exactly why Louis C.K. said what he said. While none can fully judge another man’s motivations, we can, as C.K. encouraged us to do, ascertain the validity of his words.

The Mythical Dark Ages

In the 7th and 8th centuries, Muslims swept across the Mediterranean world, offering most of those conquered the choice between conversion or death. Their aim was not to rescue restore Western wisdom and knowledge. As for the library at Alexandria, the first and most devastating attack on it came from pagan Roman legions some fifty years before Christ was even born. That is when most of the great works of literature and philosophy were lost. Christians with Jesus fishes on their mini-vans had nothing to do with this unfortunate loss of artifacts.

But what of Louis C.K.’s general and sweeping claims regarding the backwardness of Christianity?  What, if any, positive impact did Christianity have on the development of Western ideas, ideals and values?

Sociologist Rodney Stark, in his book The Victory of Reason, provides the answer:

Soon after the fall of Rome, Christianity encouraged an era of extraordinary invention and innovation. To appreciate this remarkable achievement it is necessary to confront an incredible lie that long disfigured our knowledge of history.  For the past two or three centuries, every educated person has known that from the fall of Rome until about the fifteenth century Europe was submerged in the “Dark Ages” — centuries of ignorance, superstition, and misery — from which it was suddenly, almost miraculously rescued, first by the the-victory-of-reason_4Renaissance and then by the Enlightenment.

But it didn’t happen that way.  Instead, during the so-called Dark Ages, European technology and science overtook and surpassed the rest of the world!

The idea that Europe fell into the Dark Ages is a hoax originated by antireligious, and bitterly anti-Catholic, eighteenth-century intellectuals who were determined to assert the cultural superiority of their own time and who boosted their claim by denigrating previous centuries as — in the words of Voltaire — a time when “barbarism, superstition, [and] ignorance covered the face of the world.”

Views such as these were repeated so often and so unanimously that, until very recently, even dictionaries and encyclopedias accepted the Dark Ages as an historical fact.  Some writers even seemed to suggest that people living in, say, the ninth century described their own time as one of backwardness and superstition.  Fortunately, in the past few years these views have been so completely discredited that even some dictionaries and encyclopedias have begun to refer to the notion of Dark Ages as mythical.

Unfortunately, the myth has so deeply penetrated our culture that even most scholars continue to take it for granted that — in the words of Edward Gibbon — after Rome fell came the “triumph of barbarism and religion.”

In part this is because no one has provided an adequate summary of what really took place.

The bias of scholars from centuries past finding its way into the ad-libbed monologue of America’s most popular comedian is impressive, if nothing else. This is the world Americans grow up in, and Louis C.K. speaks — directly or indirectly — for the consensus of modern thought on the matter. And as Rodney Stark makes clear, that consensus is, at best, wildly misguided.

Next time Louis C.K. is tempted to blame ancient Christianity for effacing a great cultural heritage (in this case, the Alexandrian library), he should look in the mirror. Propagating a false history of Christendom is a similar effacement — not of a library but of an age.

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