Modernity Comes Suddenly

What should be clear now is that I and my three interlocutors actually agree on a great deal. I will try to clarify exactly what it is we disagree about before having a look at the big issue and research agenda that is generated by the area we agree on.

Jack Goldstone and I both think there is a profound difference between the modern world and what went before while Anthony Pagden is more skeptical, arguing that these changes are comparable to other episodes in the past and therefore not as profound and dramatic as Goldstone and I would argue.  Jason Kuznicki, I suspect is somewhere between these two positions. To clarify my own position, I am not arguing that elites and their actions are the main immediate cause of the kind of alteration I identify, so I do not see this as a top-down, elite driven transformation. Like Kuznicki, Pagden and Goldstone I think that individual liberty and purposeful innovative action by individuals is the motor or driving force and we should see the transformation of the modern world in modernity as a triumph of individual liberty.

The big disagreement between me and my commentators is essentially one of methodology or historical argument to do with how to explain a sudden acceleration of a historical process. They all think that the key events that started this liberating transformation happened in Europe (and more specifically North-West Europe) in the later sixteenth and seventeenth century and that we can see this as the start of modernity and the phenomena that compose it. Their position is that there is then a hundred years or so of slow and gradual change that reaches a crucial tipping point or inflection around 1800. To use an analogy, the way they envisage the change as happening is rather like the creation of a crude atomic pile. As more and more fuel blocks are piled up there is a gradual rise in temperature and then suddenly there is enough uranium in close proximity to sustain a chain reaction  and the pile starts to function. The change from inert to active is abrupt but it is produced and made possible by a more gradual process of accumulation of various factors.

I am more struck by the relative suddenness of the observable change. I agree completely that it is changes that took place over a hundred years before that made this possible but I am less persuaded by the argument for a gradual process leading to a ‘take off’. I don’t want to get into a historians argument about methodology but there is always a danger when a significant historical event happens of retrospectively identifying longstanding preconditions as being active direct causes. This is where elites come in in my view. To return to the atomic pile analogy I would say that historically there are social, legal, and political institutions and practices (as well as natural conditions) that correspond to the absorbing control rods in a pile. They slow down or even stop the process of innovation.

Some are the result of direct and even deliberate actions by elites others are spontaneously evolved social institutions that elites either support or simply leave in place. My argument is that increasingly European elites abandon some of the restraining policies and no longer sustain other institutions. This means that a process of innovation (which I don’t deny was already underway) was suddenly much less subject to checks than before. To the extent that deliberate policies by rulers removed spontaneous social institutions that inhibited exchange and innovation, they made possible change more rapid than what would ‘naturally’ have occurred, at least initially. As to why they do this, as always this is a complicated matter. I think it’s partly a matter of ideas and ideology, and partly a matter of how they respond to the pressures they face after about 1770, given the way they are in competition with each other. I also think this is not entirely unprecedented, since I would argue that something similar happened much earlier in China under the Song (960-1279) before it was reversed by the early Ming rulers.

I think the more interesting questions though arise from the things we agree about. We all think that something very important happened in Europe between say 1550 and 1690, which did not happen elsewhere. Important aspects of this are the appearance of critical rationalism and modern science, a change in the way that knowledge itself was thought of, the kinds of economic development that Jason Kuznicki points to, the appearance of a true world trade system using long distance oceanic routes, and the appearance of genuinely secular thought. (I would say that like Anthony Pagden I regard this last as hugely important. I adhere myself to the view that before the early seventeenth century at the earliest it was effectively impossible for an educated person to be an atheist or rationalist, so complete was the domination of religious and magical thinking in the comprehensive view of the world that they learned.) The one I emphasize is the appearance of the Westphalian state system, in contrast to what happens elsewhere.

Obviously the big questions are how, when, and where did all these happen and, above all, why did they happen in Europe and not in the Middle East or India or China? Some would again look for some kind of longstanding divergence or emphasize things such as the way the great intellectual argument of the thirteenth century in the monotheistic religions over the relative claims of reason and revelation  had a different outcome in Islam and Christianity. I tend to see it as more contingent and short term and as arising from the way the changes in warfare of the military revolution had a different outcome in Europe.

Here a hegemonic empire did not appear. This is not to say that this could not have happened. Just as there were two obvious candidates for that role in the Middle East in the shape of the Ottoman Empire and Mameluke Egypt, and several in Russia (notably Moscow and Tver) so there were two clear front runners in Europe, the Valois and Habsburg monarchies. After a chapter of dynastic accidents left Charles V with a predominant position in 1519 and again after the sudden death of Henry II in 1559 had led to France being effectively eliminated as a great power, the Habsburgs were the most likely candidate of the two. The critical event in my opinion was their failure to subdue their rebellious subjects in the Netherlands. The vital period in this view was 1579 to 1592 when it seemed for a while that the Habsburgs (in the person of Phillip II) would both crush the Dutch and reduce the French monarchy to client status. However they failed.

The Dutch republic, formed at this time, was the place where the kinds of cultural, intellectual and economic changes that we all emphasize first really appeared. The fact of no hegemonic power appearing in Europe and the ensuing competition between ruling groups created the kind of space Jack Goldstone alludes to, which made a slowly increasing sphere of liberty possible. The continued religious divisions of Europe (as compared to the enforced orthodoxy of the Ottomans for example) played a crucial part in the rise of both science and rationalism. However I would argue that it was the entrenched political divisions that were the necessary condition for these other things to happen, and that it was the changed incentives faced by European rulers, combined with the cumulative effects of the other factors, that led so many of them to respond to the pressure of innovation in the way that they did in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth century, so unleashing the creative destruction of modernity. As I have said this raises all sorts of questions, not least that of how we should define and understand the civilization in which we now live and its relation to the historic Western, Christian civilization.

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.

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