Continuity and Discontinuity

I am delighted to be taking part in such an important and rich conversation with sharp and witty intellectual colleagues — our disagreements here are as stimulating as those things on which we can agree.

I’d like to highlight the odd fact that I disagree entirely with most of what Anthony Pagden says about the nature of modernity; yet I nonetheless find myself in agreement with almost everything he says about how it arose and the special role of the Dutch and British in giving it birth.

I believe Steve Davies is right to point out the immensity of the change in human existence post 1800.  There is no really sharp break, of course; it makes more sense to contrast the world in 1600 with the world in 1915 to understand the immensity of the change, and not worry too much at first about the precise chronology, of its components during the intervening years.  Once we see how much has changed over those three centuries, we can start to track down what precise bits changed where, and in what order.  After all, what changed was conditions of material life, limits on transportation and communication, family structure, education, political systems, gender relations, philosophy, religion, science … and since the changes mostly bubbled up from below by intellectual and political revolutions and social movements, rather than being planned and implemented by any central authority, it should not be surprising that they developed at different rates in different places and with regard to different areas.

But back to modernity.  There is a long tradition, which Pagden seems to still hold to but which Davies and I seek to overturn, of seeing considerable continuity between the democracy of the Greeks and that of our own day, and among the urbane, cosmopolitan debates among literate non-nobles that could be found in the streets of Athens, the Roman forum, the chocolate shops bordering plazas in the republics of Renaissance Italy, Dutch and British coffee-houses, or the meeting halls of today’s think-tanks and policy institutions in Washington, Brussels, or Tokyo.  Similarly, there is continuity seen from the secular philosophizing of Aristotle to that of Hobbes, Machiavelli, and Spinoza, or of formal mathematics and physics from Euclid and Archimedes to Galileo and Newton.

In some respects, of course, it is impossible to doubt such continuity.  Galileo and Newton were trained on Euclid and Archimedes, as were Hobbes, Machiavelli and Spinoza on Aristotle.  Politicians in the 17th and 18th centuries had studied Greek and Roman history and drew their lessons and much of their thinking from it.  Nobles never engaged much in trade, and traders always had a broader view of the world and the impact of war and taxes on trade, and could be found discussing those views wherever traders and merchants congregated.

Most importantly, the human species itself, though raised to a previously unknown level of sophistication by early civilization from the time of the early literate agrarian empires, hardly changed in the subsequent five thousand years.  So when we read Solomon’s love poems, Julius Caesar’s writings on war and ambition, or St. Augustine on a personal crisis of faith, we see no great gap between them and ourselves — or at least we feel we can directly understand their feelings and their predicaments.

Yet despite these continuities, Pagden is quite badly mistaken to think that “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.”   What unites well-born women in 5th century Athens and in 18th century is that whatever their intellectual gifts or talents (barring coming to the throne by failure of a male heir), they had no hope, no conceivable prospect, of a public career, much less of a position of political power.  Aristotle, in The Politics, wrote: “the male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; and the one rules, and the other is ruled.”  This would have been a perfectly acceptable statement in the 18th century, and social practices conformed to it completely.  Madame de Staël, like any well-born and talented woman throughout history before her, could only hope to influence politics through her conversation and intimacy with powerful men.   For Madame de Staël to have thought of becoming a Minister of State in France in her day would not merely have been futile, it would have been deemed absurd.

Yet today, Aristotle’s statement would be deemed embarrassing in educated company, akin to asserting that some people are naturally born to be slaves (oh, Aristotle said that too.) Ségolène Royal is a perfect counter-example to Madame de Staël, for Royal has spent most of her adult life as a professional politician, being elected to the National Assembly, serving as a minister, and eventually as a candidate for President of France.   That a woman could have such a career would have been no less inconceivable in 18th century Holland or Britain than in France, and shows the limits of imputing ‘modernity’ when one sees limited continuity.

The changes between 1600 and 1900 are so staggering that one can barely list them.  In 1600, in even the richest European societies, 85% or more of the population were peasants, who used animal, wind, water power, and human muscle to till their fields, move their products to markets, and process their goods.  Heat from wood or coal (dug by hand and lifted by horse-drawn buckets) warmed their homes and furnaces, and light from oil or tallow lit their homes.  People and messages moved no faster than a horse could carry them (or occasionally as a pigeon could fly).  They lived in houses of hand-baked bricks or hand-hewn wood or hand-cut stone.  They believed almost to a man (and woman) that the earth stood still at the center of the heavens, that Kings had been given dominion over their people by grace of God, that slavery and patriarchy and hereditary distinctions were a natural feature of society, and that divine revelation, tradition, and common sense were the most secure foundations of truth. If they thought about a better future for themselves or their society, it took the form of military victories, good harvests, more moral behavior, and redemption by God either in heaven or in his second coming on earth.

By 1900, fewer than half the population of richer societies worked the land, and few could be called peasants.  In the leading societies, steam-driven machines for tilling, binding, reaping, moving earth, and shaping wood and metal, and meant that machines had taken over from animal or human muscle most of the heaviest tasks.  Energy drawn from coal (now mined in seemingly limitless quantities thanks to machines to circulate air, pump out water, and draw up the coal) in effect put ten times as much energy at the disposal of each person in Britain as had been the case two centuries before.  Railways and steamships moved people and cargo, while the telephone and telegraph created near-instant long-distance communications.  People not only understood gravity and the laws of force and motion, they routinely used them to maximize the efficiency of engines and techniques and design bridges and buildings shaped from machine-made materials.  People considered it unremarkable to choose their own leaders, and perhaps even more striking, their own educations and professions.  If Thucydides had been transported to the court of Louis XIV or the Dutch republic, he would have understood the politicians, their military strategy, and their politics and fit in reasonably well.  Yet if Napoleon were transported to the battlefields of World War I, with troops moved to trenches by railways and forced to fight against barbed wire, machine guns, and chemical gases, I doubt he would have known how to understand or react to what he saw.

Perhaps more important than any of these specific changes, humanity’s outlook toward progress had so radically changed that when in the century after 1900 there followed in quick succession manned flight, automobiles, radio, chemical fertilizers, movies, television, skyscrapers, atomic power, semiconductors, space flight, lasers, computers, and cell phones, to name just a few, all of these were deemed part of the normal and expected progression of things, rather than as the incredible leaps of innovation they in fact were.

I will say little more about how things moved from conditions in 1600 to conditions in 1900; I would rather it sink in how radically ‘modernity’ differs even from late 18th century European notions of ‘normal’ life. However, it should not surprise us that the transition took a bit of time.  Even the development of the steam engine — a pivotal element of this change — was not a sudden invention but a gradual development.  The principles of atmospheric pressure and vacuums were discovered and demonstrated in the 17th century by Robert Boyle, Evangelista Toricelli, and Blaise Pascal.  It took another half century before Boyle’s assistant Denis Papin’s idea of using steam power to do work by creating a vacuum was realized by Thomas Savery in the form of a steam pump that could raise a column of water, and then modified by Thomas Newcomen to create a steam vacuum powered piston pump.  Another half-century passed before James Watt’s research pointed toward the value of an external condenser that increased efficiency four-fold, and Watt developed a steam engine capable of uniform rotary motion, making the steam engine economically useful for a much wider array of mining and production tasks.  But the steam engine was still far too bulky and heavy for use in transportation, until in the early 19th century Richard Trevethick invented and proved the viability of high-pressure steam engines, making them suitable for use in rail and water transport.  It thus took almost two hundred years, from the middle 17th century to the middle 19th century, for the principles and practice of the steam engine to move from the discovery of atmospheric pressure to the deployment of a practical locomotive engine.  So whether you date this aspect of modernity to the 1660s or the 1830s becomes rather arbitrary; it is the process of such changes becoming routine, widespread, expected, and successfully repeated in hundreds of endeavors over many hundreds of years that is the story of modernity. And it is a radical break in human history.

But where I profoundly agree with Pagden is that modernity is entirely due to the creation of a new kind of personal liberty — freedom to think, challenge, invent, market, and succeed or fail based on competition for popular opinion and market-driven rewards, rather than patronage or hereditary privilege or custodianship of a revered ancient tradition.  And, pace Kuznicki, with whom I agree strongly on the nature of modernity, I believe it was brought to us by competition among elites.  Or more precisely, the competition among ruling elites for the traditional spoils of military glory and income to burn created cracks in social and political structures through which different kinds of elites (professional, academic, literary, bureaucratic) could bubble up ideas and movements that fought for this new kind of liberty.

If this sounds like classical liberal thinking — well perhaps, but we still have a huge task of integration to do.  I would point to Steven Pincus marvelous new book on 1688 as pointing the way to understanding the invention of modernity, partly by accident and practice, partly by new theory, partly in reaction to intellectual changes that far preceded that date but also enabling many of the intellectual changes that came after, as a good place to start.   And if I may suggest it, my own little book Why Europe: The Rise of the West 1500-1800 dwells in more detail on how and why Europe managed to have what Pagden rightfully still claims was a ‘scientific revolution,’ building on the prior advances of Chinese, Indian, and Islamic science, while the latter civilizations did not produce their own Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Descartes, or Newton.

Still, as my references to World War I should hint, I share Kuznicki’s concern that there is also a dark side to modernity.   The moral dilemmas elucidated by Augustine, Kant and Rawls remain crucial precisely because the enormous power of modern engineering and analytical methods can be turned to oppression and destruction as well as liberation.   That most societies and groups have grown no more compassionate and immune to calls to attack and slaughter their fellows under the labels of religion and group identity than they were five thousand years ago is a cause for distress.  We should not make the mistake of equating modernity with evil – the suicide bomber who uses the simplest gunpowder explosives of 17th century vintage to kill hundreds of innocents in a marketplace is no less evil than those who use satellites to send predator drones to bomb villages, and those who broke, racked and disemboweled traitors and burned heretics in the name of preserving order were hardly preferable to keepers of modern prisons.  But the technological power that modernity has put in the hands of mankind today does demand a greater responsibility.

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.”

  • 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.

The Conversation