Have We Ever Been Modern?

Modernity has always been, at best, a shadowy entity. For Stephen Davies “what modernity is and how and why to came about” is today, the “biggest question” facing the social sciences. Modernity, he tells us, constitutes “a marked discontinuity between the experience of human beings living today and in the recent past and that of our ancestors”; a discontinuity so massive, indeed, that it can only be compared to the “advent of agriculture and cities and the even earlier invention complex tools, language and the taming of fire.” This discontinuity begins in the middle of the nineteenth century and would seem, pace Jean-François Lyotard and others, to be with us still. It is characterized by all the usual socio-economic things: population growth, urbanization, the accumulation and spread of knowledge, industrialization, capital accumulation and so on. To these Davies has added a number of cultural and political phenomena: a “change in social behavior and the sense of self”; “the social and political status of women”; a “new sense of self and personal consciousness”; and a transformation in the “nature of government and of ruling classes”.

Much of this is only dubiously true. Without wishing to minimize the immense impact which such changes have had upon the life of the species, I very much doubt that the condition of human beings after the second ice age, and the late 18th century is significantly less than that between then and today. Not every transformation is necessarily a revolution. Certainly the alterations to all human life in what we now call the West have been massive and enduring. But they have not been either as sudden or as all-pervasive as we are being asked to believe. For while my social behavior and sense of self probably differ markedly from those of my remote ancestors, they also differ from that those of my grandparents, or even those of my parents, and St. Augustine’s social behavior and sense of self —  as he well knew — was markedly different from that of Cicero, or Karl Marx’s from that of John Locke. No one would deny that the status of women has improved immeasurably since the nineteenth century (at least in the West). But the differences between the status of even well-born women in, say Athens in the 5th century B.C. and those of women in Paris in the 18 century A.D., were far sharper than the distinctions between, the status of say, Madame de Staël and Ségolène Royal. Then, too, while there have certainly been radical changes in government since the early 19th century., arguably the more enduringly significant ones took place much earlier — in 508 B.C., for instance, when Clisthenes re-organized the means by which Athens was governed, thus, for the first time in human history giving a measure of power (kratos) to the demos. It is also the case that most modern states, and all of those in the western world, owe their origins to the American and French Revolutions which produced the only truly modern form of government: liberal democracy. By contrast, communism, the self-proclaimed progeny of “modernity,” has left nothing in its turbulent wake but a number of archaic, pre-modern autocracies.

All of which might be to say only that the picture is a great deal more complex than either Stephen Davies or most of his chosen auctoritates, represents it as being. However, there is more. What Davies is really searching for are the reasons for what used to be called the “Rise of the West” (although bafflingly and in obvious defiance of his own arguments he concludes by declaring that “European exceptionalism has been blown out of the water”).

His own contribution to this debate — as I understand it — goes roughly as follows. The “world crisis” of the 14th century resulted in heightened competition among the “ruling classes” of Europe and Asia, and a consequent transformation in the methods, and technologies, of warfare. In Asia the outcome of this was the creation of massive land-empires (Russia, the Ottomans, the Mughals, the Safavids, the Ming and the Qing) whose ruling classes resisted any change or innovation as potentially threatening to their survival. In Europe, however, no single ruling class managed to secure control of the entire continent. The Habsburgs struggled with the Valois, the Dutch and the English vied with the Habsburgs and then with each other, the Danes and Swedes battled for control of the Baltics and so on. The outcome of this was that the “ruling élites” of Europe, unlike those in Asia, were “driven to favor and encourage innovation rather than to systematically discourage it”.

This Weberian competition did not, however, have any “dramatic results except in the area of military organization” until they came up against yet another “systemic crisis.” This arrived at the end of the 18th century which, contrary to what most people apparently believe, was a period not of relative tranquility but instead of “global ‘general crisis’ ”. This marked the “real start of what has become a central feature of the modern world”, viz. the willingness of “governments and ruling classes” to encourage economic growth and the development of “experimental science and technological innovation.” The final outcome, sometime around the middle of the following century, was “modernity.” All of which leads to the conclusion that a new periodization of world history is now required. This will divide historical time into three periods (plus an undifferentiated “Antiquity”): one running from the third to the ninth centuries, followed by another from the ninth century until 1780, and the last from then until today.

There is a lot wrong with all this. In the first place the chronologies do not really work. The Safavid Empire was a creation of the late 16th century the Qing of the mid, and the Russian of the late 17th century while the Ottomans had already secured their hold over most of the Byzantine world by 1362, and had reached the effective limits of expansion by 1453. Furthermore neither the Ottomans, nor the Mughals, nor the Safavids or even the Qing were ever truly “hegemonic” for very long. The great Islamic empires fought constantly with each other, and with any number of smaller independent polities, depending on which bit of these four hundred odd years one is looking at; and then, like all empires, they were, throughout their histories, in a constant state of expansion and subsequent contraction.

Neither is it entirely true that theses states “systematically discouraged innovation.” The Ottomans in particular carried out extensive programs of modernization — which meant in effect, westernization — from Selim III’s “New Order” to the Tanzimat, or “Re-ordering” of 1839. What is true is that none of the Asian empires (with the exception of Russia, but then ever since Peter the Great Russia, has always looked upon itself as one of “the civilizations of Europe”), developed any indigenous scientific or technological cultures on a par with those in the West. Even the Ottomans staffed their new European-style academies with French teachers who taught French science — and French law — in French.

Although Stephen Davies is surely right to say that the old periodisation is in need of revision, the one he suggests, although it allows for “an internal break in the late fifteenth century” (presumably to accommodate the Renaissance) sweeps past the changes which engulfed Europe between the mid 16th century and mid-17th century; and although he dutifully grants a degree of importance to the “emergence of the Wesphalian system in 1648,” he nowhere mentions the massive intellectual and confessional struggles which made that system necessary. Nor is any consideration given to what Adam Smith famously called  “the two greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind”: the discovery of America and of the sea-route to India. If there is to be any “internal break” it should surely be from about 1500 to 1700. Nor does the end of Antonine period have much meaning beyond the confines of the Roman World. And what was so special about the 9th century? What about the 7th, which saw the Arab conquest and Islamicization of Iran and, with the seizure of Damsacus in 635, the beginning of the end of the Byzantine Empire? But then periodization has only ever been of much use to the writers of text books, and none can be made to work for the entire world

Perhaps, in Bruno Latour’s catchy phrase, Nous n’avons jamais été moderns. But let us for the sake of argument assume that there was indeed something we can all agree to call “modernity. Then, in broad terms, it might be true to say that persistent internal conflict within what Voltaire called the “great republic of Europe” drove Davies’ shadowy ruling classes who came to power during the late 16th century and early 17th century to encourage innovation, particularly if it had some military, commercial or medical application. This, however, does not explain the origin or nature of the innovations themselves. For the scientific and technological advances of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are decidedly not the sudden progeny of “modernity”; they are the outcome of a long and complex intellectual process whose origins are to be found in the 17th century in what it still makes sense to call the “Scientific Revolution.”

So if, as seems to be generally agreed, the “Rise of the West” was owed to the ascendancy of European science, then we have to ask ourselves why it was that Copernicus, Galileo, Bacon, Descartes, Leibnitz, Pascal, Boyle, Newton, etc. were not Chinese or Mughal or Iranian or Arab. There can of course be no one answer. All of the factors which Davies discusses played their part. But I would contend that the single most important, the one which differentiated Europe most starkly from all of the civilizations of Asia, and the one Davies never mentions, was the advent of secularism. Experimental science and religion do not mix, whatever Pope Benedict XIV might say to the contrary. The wars which tore Europe apart after the Reformation, and which reached an uneasy conclusion in 1648, not only had the effect of laying the basis for the modern nation-state, they also succeeded in driving religion and — more significantly — all theological modes of reasoning forever from the public sphere. Religion, of course, played and continues to play, an important role in the life of many people in the West, but with a few exceptions — stem-cell research for instance — it has rarely, since the 17th century succeeded in stifling scientific inquiry. Nothing similar happened in Asia. Of all the “pre-modern” Islamic states only the Ottomans were able, finally, to shatter the power of the Ulema, and by then they had already been effectively engulfed by the West.

And if this sounds like “classical liberal thinking’ then so be it.


Anthony Pagden is a professor of political science and history at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • How the World Got Modern by Stephen Davies

    In this month’s lead essay, historian Stephen Davies tackles one of the biggest of big questions: How did the world we live in – the modern world – so radically and rapidly diverge from the world of our pre-modern ancestors? Davies starts with a multitude of proposed explanations and winnows them down to three: the advent of empirical science and engineering, a shift in cultural attitudes toward commerce and trade, and the development of the Westphalian system of nation-states. Yet these factors emerged over a century before modernity really took off. Why the lag? Davies argues that the missing ingredient was the unique climate of competition among ruling elites in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, which combined with the other elements to produce the scientific innovation and economic growth that created the modern world.

Response Essays

  • How an Engineering Culture Launched Modernity by Jack Goldstone

    In his reply to Stephen Davies’ lead essay, Jack Goldstone argues that modernity was launched when “elites developed a new ‘engineering culture’ ” that departed sharply from European tradition. In order to gain from the commercial application of new knowledge by private entrepeneurs, Goldstone argues, political rulers were led to allow non-conformity with traditional religious authority and to “give up attempts to control the access of private firms and entrepreneurs to scientific knowledge and to market opportunities.” These developments helped overturn older ideas of absolute royal authority and guild privelege, which in turn contributed to the political and social revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries and a decisive break from prior Western conceptions of society. Though the liberal idea of “a community of free individuals sovereign over a limited state” arose first in the West, political and economic liberalization do not require a commitment to pre-modern Western values, Goldstone concludes.

  • A Little Late to Early Modernity by Jason Kuznicki

    In his reply to Davies, Cato Unbound’s own Jason Kuznicki worries that the alleged gap between the beginning of distinctively modern thinking in the late 17th century and the economic and demographic takeoff in the late eighteenth century is no gap at all. “I’m tempted to invert the supposed gap,” Kuznicki writes, “and to suggest that in the earliest of early modernities … a set of social practices, and substantial concomitant rewards, generally arrived before any modern ideology existed to justify them.” Kuznicki notes that new ideas spread unevenly and over time, and he argues that the early emergence of upwardly mobile English and Dutch middle classes imply that “[i]f there was a modernity gap, its chief dimension was not temporal, but spatial.” Kuznicki suggests that, pace Davies, elites and their new ideas did not precipitate the rise of modernity, but played an intermediate role. Kuznicki challenges Davies to clarifiy “what exactly the elites are doing” in his story.

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