What were the practical results of the medieval approach [i.e., of Christianity]? The Dark Ages were dark on principle. Augustine fought against secular philosophy, science, art; he regarded all of it as an abomination to be swept aside; he cursed science in particular as "the lust of the eyes." … [T]he medievals took religion seriously. They proceeded to create a society that was anti-materialistic and anti-intellectual.... The economic and social results of this kind of value code were inevitable; mass stagnation and abject poverty, ignorance and mass illiteracy, waves of insanity that swept whole towns, a life expectancy in the teens. "Woe unto ye who laugh now," the Sermon on the Mount had said. Well, they were pretty safe on this count. They had precious little to laugh about.
You have to be very ignorant not merely of human nature and sociology, but of history to buy into this explanation of the Dark Ages. Peikoff is basically asserting that the medieval Europe was little more than the practical application of Christian doctrine. The Christians, he claims, “proceeded to create a society that was anti-materialistic and anti-intellectual.” The Dark Ages, then, were an intentional creation: they were the product of the application of a system of ideas (that is, of Christian ideas) to society.
This view of the Dark Ages is hopelessly naive. The political and economic systems prevailing after the collapse of the Western half of the Roman Empire were not the consequences of anyone’s intention, as implied in Peikoff’s statement. They were brought about by causes that had nothing to do with Christian doctrine.
Rome had initially been a conquering peasant state. But after Hannibal decimated the Roman peasantry during the Second Punic War, slave labour became central to the economy of Rome and its expanding territories. But it was a particularly pernicious form of slavery that prevailed in the ancient world. Roman slaves live in collectivist barracks. They had no property, nor did they have families. Consequently, they failed to reproduce themselves. As sociologist Max Weber explained: “The ancient plantation consumed slaves the way a modern blast furnace consumes coal.”
When the Roman Empire ceased to expand in the second century, the supply of fresh slaves, so necessary to replenish the collectivized slave system of the plantations, ceased. This led to an acute shortage of slave labor and the eventual decline of the slave system. Now Rome did not have a terribly flexible or strong market economy. The decline of the slave system led to a corresponding economic decline. Interlocal commerce gradually disappeared; trade “relapsed to the level of peddling left to foreigners.” As a consequence of this, Rome could no longer raise taxes to pay for its mercenary armies. Barbarians from the north over-ran the Empire and assumed political supremacy of a completely demoralized civilization. The Muslims seized control of the Mediterranean, shutting off Western Europe from rest of the civilized world. Thus began the Dark Ages. But Christian doctrine had nothing to do with any of these developments. Rome’s collectivized slave system was the primary cause of the Empire’s fall. When the Empire ceased expanding and no more slaves were captured in war, the Empire went into decline. This decline greatly demoralized society. Intellectual life became vapid and inefficacious. The schools of Athens were hopelessly corrupt by the third century. Their teaching was confined mostly to rhetoric and neo-Platonism. Competition among various Athenian schools for students often lead to brawls and even murder.
Facing the huge challenges of waning economy and a demoralized populace, the Emperor Constantine decided to make Christianity the official religion of the Empire. He did so entirely for political reasons, as a desperate means to consolidate his power and save the Empire. He probably made the right choice. The Christian church was better organized, its members more disciplined, than any of the rival religions. Thes Christian church would help preserve some of the forms of the Roman Empire well into the Dark Ages, so that the re-civilization of Western Europe could begin as early as the Carolingian renaissance.
The Dark Ages were dark because of the complete absence of commercialized trade in Western Europe. Without commerce there can be no cities and without cities there can be no civilization. To again quote Max Weber: “It was only when the mediaeval city developed out of free division of labour and commercial exchange, when the transition to a natural economy made possible the development of burgher freedoms, and when the bonds imposed by outer and inner feudal authorities were cast off, that … the cultural heritage of Antiquity revived in the light of modern bourgeois civilization.”