What Greece, Rome, and Christianity Didn’t Give Us

Jack Goldstone writes,

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 support, I would note that Greco-Roman political institutions were very strongly predicated on class, which tended to be determined by birth, and thus were far removed from modern political institutions. As all of us here are no doubt aware, the deme in “democracy” did not originally embrace all of the people. A deme was a hereditary neighborhood association of people of the highest political class. This was a fairly large class, and independent of wealth, but excluded many all the same. Both resident aliens and slaves outnumbered citizens, and no one saw anything terribly problematic about it. And, of course, no women of any class ever voted or had any formal participation in political life.

Likewise, Roman technology often seems a forerunner to the modern engineering culture — but was it? My sense is that wherever the Romans could, they exploited slave labor rather than developing the new power sources that signal modernity. Even their most notable engineering achievements, like the aqueducts, did not employ anything more than the power of gravity. Developing the fossil-fuel/steam/steel triad would require not only precise, systematic measurement (which the Romans certainly sometimes had), but also a felt shortage of labor, which they do not seem to have had for any length of time. In periods of successful conquest, slaves were plentiful, and in periods of military retreat, long-term capital projects were off the table. The Romans weren’t first and foremost engineers. They were urbane, literate plunderers.

Many point to Christianity as the historical force that challenged the ancient world’s inegalitarianism. There is quite a bit of truth to this, but it’s possible to push the case too far. Many ideas that are crucial to the modern political synthesis are nowhere to be found until the seventeenth century at the earliest, and even during that era, the far more typical Christian politics was not John Locke’s, but that of the lesser-known Jacques-Benigne Bossuet, Bishop of Meaux and court preacher to Louis XIV.   Bossuet’s Politics Drawn from Holy Scripture made the case that the most natural Christian polity — indeed, the only properly Christian polity — was an absolute monarchy, because the king was an image of God on earth. Christianity certainly taught that there was an inherent dignity to all people, regardless of social station, but it was quite reluctant to challenge the idea of social station itself.

Yet egalitarianism is undoubtedly a part of the modern synthesis. Egalitarianism is not, as has sometimes been argued, best understood as a revolt against nature. Rightly understood, it is a key part of obeying nature, and thereby of commanding it.

Egalitarianism is a key part of the political-technological synthesis, because it indicates a willingness to acknowledge the potential contributions of anyone in society, or indeed, of anyone in any society, to the engineering culture that has gained increasing mastery over the natural world. Modernity needs neither slaves nor masters, but innovators, and we can’t possibly know in advance where these come from. Egalitarianism rightly understood is an agnosticism about human potential, and a willingness to be convinced.  This is an approach to work and technology that is exceedingly difficult to find in Rome or Greece, or indeed anywhere before the modern synthesis arose.

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.