A Question of Timing

I would like to thank Professor Davies for his courteous response to my criticism of this thesis.  I still do not think that his chronologies work. Without becoming bogged down in an historian’s squabble over dates, what seems to be at stake is just how much time one assumes has to pass, in particular in a world, or worlds, where communication is slow and imprecise, before a given event — a crisis a revolution or whatever — takes effect. If, for instance, the Malthusian crisis of ‘roughly 1320 to 1450’ was directly responsible for a ‘military revolution’ which led to the consolidation of the innovation — reluctant ‘gunpowder empires’ then the Ming (1368-1424) must have gone to work very speedily indeed; and the Ottomans would seem to have anticipated the crisis altogether. The question of lag (so to speak) becomes rather more significant, however, when it comes to the origins of European exceptionalism. Stephen Davies says that “The big problem is that there is no evidence either for Europe being distinctive in the ways alleged before the 17th century or for its clearly overtaking the rest of the world until about 1790-1800”. True, but why is it a problem?  The ascendancy of the West began slowly much earlier than 1790s. By 1700, the British, the Dutch and the French empire between them spanned the entire globe.  However massive, however mighty the Ottomans, the Mughals, the Safavids or the Qing might have been — and I have no wish to underestimate their achievements — none of them had that reach. (For one thing, they were land-based and largely land-locked. One of the secrets to the rise of modernity is surely the rise of European sea-power.) But even if it had not, the kind of innovations which transformed Europe in the 16c. and 17c. would surely have taken the best part of a century to have the consequences which gave many — but by no means all — the peoples of the continent the capacity they subsequently acquired to dominate, in one way or another, so much of the planet.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.”

  • 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.