A Little Late to Early Modernity

Steve Davies’ essay suggests just how much integrative work historians have left to do. Decades after the advent of cliometrics, we have yet to square quantitative history with the older ideas-and-statecraft methodology. Both still appear worthwhile, yet they mostly talk past one another.

This is slightly embarrassing, particularly when non-historians turn to us in the hope of learning how we came to be where we are. Today’s historian considers both demographics and ideology — but which one is driving, and which one the driven? Or are other factors at work? If only we knew!

In particular, I fear that Davies makes too much of the putative gap between the advent of identifiably modern thinking, which he dates to roughly the late seventeenth century, and the spectacular demographic takeoff of western society, which certainly begins no sooner than the very end of the eighteenth. He writes,

[W]hile [standard accounts] identify factors that clearly play a major part in the advent of modernity, the factors in question all come into play over a hundred years before the take off occurs. So why did they take so long to have an impact?

I am not sure that I see a gap here at all. In fact, I’m tempted to invert the supposed gap, and to suggest that in the earliest of early modernities — the Dutch Republic and Britain — a set of social practices, and substantial concomitant rewards, generally arrived before any modern ideology existed to justify them. Modern theory only followed after modern practice, and the latter was already making hay long before Locke, Voltaire, Smith, or even Bacon showed up.

Although the population takeoff was still over a century away, modern praxis paid off in other areas. The social practices of the Dutch Republic and Britain produced an unprecedented level of material and intellectual prosperity, albeit generally only in these two societies, and as yet only for an all-too-small small slice of them. But still — this was an important development, one that contemporaries constantly described as unusual, even astonishing.

Before the seventeenth century, the idea of a wealthy commoner was a contradiction in terms. Yet in seventeenth-century Amsterdam and London, well-scrubbed, well-fed middle-class burghers lived in well-furnished townhouses that looked a lot like today’s. They kept their money in banks and bought insurance. They read novels and newspapers. They worried publicly about the trade deficit and the price of stocks, but they thought religion mostly a private matter. They followed new scientific and technical developments. They drank coffee. They hoped personally to rise in the world — itself a fairly original hope — and this, they knew, would come not through preferment or chance, but through hard work and hard bargaining. They saw no shame in either.

Culturally, these people weren’t so different from us. They were a world apart, however, from their neighbors: In France, charging interest was forbidden. The state religion was all anyone could practice. The most interesting newspaper in the capital was illegal. And commerce itself was looked upon as “vile” and “derogatory” — forbidden to anyone who would claim nobility. It shouldn’t surprise us that well-scrubbed, well-fed middle-class burghers were relatively rare.

If there was a modernity gap, its chief dimension was not temporal, but spatial. The intellectual history of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe was tremendously heterogeneous, and not nearly all of it was modern. The last witchcraft trial in the francophone world took place in 1731; the last French king to touch for scrofula was Charles X, in 1825.

This was the world that the great intellectuals of the era confronted, one full of contradictions and rapid changes. The people whom we think of as early modernity’s leading intellectuals generally described or sought to justify the modern elements they found around them, already fully developed by others as practices. They did not invent these things. Instead, they were the chroniclers and apologists of two very unusual societies — societies with quirks that we now recognize as the hallmarks of modernity.

One problem that cliometrics has never been able to solve can be stated very simply: Ideas take varying amounts of time to diffuse, and we don’t know why this is so. Martin Luther and a few fellow-travelers upended all of Europe in roughly a decade. Something a lot like Spinoza’s view of God is common throughout the West today, but unlike Luther’s, this revolution took centuries to achieve. (Dutch modernity, yet again!) We simply do not know why some ideas catch fire immediately, while others languish. It’s possible that we never will.

We shouldn’t necessarily infer from all of this that a ruling class diffuses, or declines to diffuse, various ideas, according to its own rational self-interest, and that the actions of this class tend on the whole to be successful. This I take to be the move Davies wants to make. I’m open to persuading here, at least for some cases, but I’d need to see a lot more evidence before I sign on. In the matter at hand, he’d also have to deal with some annoying counterexamples, as with the temptation toward divine-right absolutism on the part of seventeenth-century British monarchs, or with the selective modernity of a Napoleon or a Bismarck.

I am unsure how to navigate these difficulties. I tend to see modernity arising from the social practices and more or less spontaneous institutions of ordinary people, diffusing through intellectuals, and finally sweeping along the ruling class, often despite that class’s best efforts. (In 1825, the bourgeoisie laughed at poor Charles X, who had arrived a little late to early modernity.)

To sum up, Davies’ account runs, roughly: ideas — practices — reward, in the form of population and economic takeoff. Elites drive the story, and they only innovate because they are forced to. The ordering I’m inclined to follow runs like this: practices — reward (in the form of local wealth) — systematized ideas, followed by propagation of these ideas to other societies and the larger reward of population and economic takeoff. What drives the story? I’d be hard pressed to say, and it might be overly ambitious to offer one simple answer.

It should be no surprise, though, that the complex cache of “modern” ideas — quantified empirical measurement of the natural world, religious toleration, limited government, enhanced status for women, enhanced status for trade and commerce, the modern notion of the self, et cetera et cetera — takes a long time to spread. These aren’t easy things to grasp when one starts out with very different notions, and when “innovation,” as many early modern sources attest, was prima facie evidence of error.

And, even after diffusion, a bill of ideas — particularly a long one, with many interlocking parts, like modernity — may take a long time to be implemented in a society where they did not have clear antecedents in practice. We often see sources objecting to one element of the modern package, merely because it would imply another: “All men are born equal? But that would imply rights for Negroes! And maybe even for women!” And so the whole thing gets thrown out. Even as an elite, one can’t easily take a premodern society, hand it The Rights of Man (or even The Spectator) and say, “here, do this.”

I am therefore unsure what exactly the elites are doing in Davies’ story, and I am unsure how they succeeded at it. Clearly they had the motive — competition with one other — but what was their method? I’d challenge him to think carefully about the role of elites more generally, too: How do we recognize them? What exactly was their understanding of the early-modern epistemic shift we both see as taking place? Do we really need them at all, when the most obvious advantages of modernity fall to the common people? It could well be that we do need them, but I don’t feel compelled by the thesis just yet.

And finally, I would not be a good historian if I did not include a list of qualifiers. Here they are, simply stated.

I don’t want to be understood as saying — as some appear to have suggested — that superior breeding is what made the British and the Dutch catch on first. There’s nothing necessarily Northwest-European about modernity, as Japan’s early modern era demonstrated, and as trans-cultural modernity demonstrates today.

I am also not claiming that the social diffusion of ideas or practices is impossible, or that elites are only ever laggards. Clearly neither is true. Elites can obviously play a significant role, and cultural transmission is just as obviously possible. Twentieth-century Korea demonstrates both points: While South Korea is fully a part of the trans-cultural modern world, borrowing freely from the rest of it, and contributing back to it, North Korea seems to be moving backwards to the era of god-emperors. It is difficult to understand this divergence without elites playing a decisive role.

But what was the role of elites in the eighteenth century?

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and managing editor of Cato Unbound.

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.

  • Have We Ever Been Modern? by Anthony Pagden

    In his reply, UCLA historian Anthony Pagden doubts that the historical discontinuity created by the onset of modernity is “as sudden or as all-pervasive” as Stephen Davies makes it out to be. Pagden points both to much earlier and more recent changes that seem at least as dramatic as the changes between modern and pre-modern Europe, and he questions Davies’ revised periodization of history. Pagden agrees that the emergence of the scientific method partly accounts for “the rise of the West,” but “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.” Pagden submits that the answer is “the advent of secularism” following the post-Reformation sectarian wars, which drove “theological modes of reasoning forever from the public sphere.”

The Conversation