About this Issue
Something profoundly world-changing has happened over the last few centuries — something that separates the world of today from most of human history: the dawn and development of the “modern” era! But what exactly happened? What precipitated the onset of modernity? What is it that made the modern world modern? Historians hotly disagree. Economic factors are clearly they’re a part of the story, but are they all of it? What about the scientific method and scientific and technological discovery? A shift in attitudes and values about commerce and progress? What about the role of ruling elites?
In this month’s Cato Unbound we’ll explore some of the biggest of big questions: How did the world get modern, and what does it mean? At the top of the lineup we have a lead essay by historian Stephen Davies, author of Empiricism and History. Commenting on Davies’ lead essay we’ll have George Mason’s Jack Goldstone, author of Why Europe? The Rise of the West in World History 1500-1850; UCLA’s Anthony Pagden, author of Peoples and Empires: Europeans and the Rest of the World, from Antiquity to the Present; and Cato Unbound’s own resident intellectual historian, Jason Kuznicki.
How the World Got Modern
Possibly the biggest question for historians and social scientists such as economists is the question of what modernity is and how and why it came about in the way that it did. Recent years have seen a renewed focus on this question, with the sudden revival of world history as a serious subject for historical research and a whole series of works by economists all dealing with the same question: How and why is the world we live in so radically different from that of our ancestors and how and why did this radical discontinuity in historical experience come about? The answers to these questions that are popular among classical liberals have been increasingly undermined, as have the corresponding theses of many on the political left. However a new consensus is starting to emerge, with interesting implications. At present however a couple of crucial pieces are missing from the jigsaw of historical narrative.
The starting point is quite simple. Research by historians and other scholars has made it increasingly clear that the world we live in (defined as the modern world or modernity) is different from that of our ancestors in a profound and radical way. In other words there is a dramatic discontinuity between the experience of human beings living today and in the recent past, and that of our ancestors. In fact the only comparable discontinuities in human history are those associated with the advent of agriculture and cities and the even earlier invention of complex tools, language, and the taming of fire.
There is increasing agreement as to what the defining and distinctive features of the modern world are. The most studied and for many the central one is the phenomenon of sustained intensive growth and a marked acceleration of the underlying rate of economic growth. This is associated with an escape from the Malthusian constraints that limited human life from the advent of agriculture and which imposed a regular cyclical pattern of rise and decline and periodic Malthusian crisis on human civilization throughout history. (Malthus was both the worst ever prophet and one of the greatest historical sociologists). So another distinctive feature of modernity is an unprecedented rise in human population far past any levels seen before and combined, thanks to economic growth, with steadily rising living standards and a transformation of the material conditions of life.
However there are other features of the modern world that are unprecedented. One is massive urbanization – before 1851 there had never been a society where more than 20% of the population lived in towns, much less a majority – associated with a move of labor out of agriculture. Another is rapid and sustained innovation and growth of knowledge. We can also point to a decline in the social and political role of the household, a change in social behavior and the sense of self, marked change in the social and political status of women, the advent of a new sense of self and personal consciousness, and a transformation of the nature of government and of ruling classes.
At one time there were debates about when to date the advent of this set of phenomena, i.e. of modernity. Dates offered ranged from the 14th century to the 19th. Recently however the empirical work of economic historians in particular (but also historians of culture and administration) has led to growing agreement that the start of the discontinuity can be definitely placed at the very end of the eighteenth century, with the years between 1770 and 1830 being the critical ones. It was around 1800 that economic growth rates in parts of Europe suddenly picked up and remained at a higher level and the same period also saw the start of the other changes mentioned earlier. The abruptness of the shift is one of its most important features; this was not a case of gradual transformation, but of relatively abrupt metamorphosis over no more than two generations. Full blown modernity comes into being after 1850, with a further acceleration of economic growth and population increase and an intensification of the other forms of change.
However there is still intense debate over why this happened and in particular why it clearly first began in North Western Europe rather than in some other part of the planet such as China. The debate has had a clearly ideological quality and has been partly driven by underlying differences of philosophy and ideology. For a long time what we may call the classical liberal approach to these questions has argued for a particular kind of explanation or set of explanations and for a specific view of the history of Europe relative to other parts of the world. The central element is the argument that European society had certain qualities or institutions that set it apart from other old world civilizations, in particular institutions that promoted individual liberty and commercial and intellectual enterprise. These, it was argued, gave it a quality of dynamism and innovation that other civilizations lacked and so accounted for the eruption of modernity having happened first in part of Europe rather than in the Yangtze delta region for example.
To put it another way, there are a series of explanations given for the distinctive features of modernity, each identifying one factor as being the critical one and then going on to claim that this factor either first appeared in Europe or was present there to a greater degree than elsewhere. A non-exhaustive list of such models and the scholars associated with them would include increased capital accumulation (Robert Solow); legal pluralism and a distinctive notion of law (Harold Berman); economic institutions, especially property rights (Douglass North, Nathan Rozenberg); geography (Eric Jones, Jared Diamond); accessible fossil fuels (Kenneth Pomeranz); a different way of thinking about knowledge and technical innovation (Lynn White, Joel Mokyr); greater intellectual openness (Jack Goldstone); a particular kind of consciousness, associated with certain religions (Max Weber, Werner Sombart); divided and constrained political power (Eric Jones, several others); a distinctive family system (Deepak Lal, many demographers); population growth past a critical level (Julian Simon); a higher social status and cultural valuation of trade and enterprise (Deirdre McCloskey); trade and the benefits of specialization (Adam Smith and many others); the role of entrepreneurs (Joseph Schumpeter, William Baumol); some combination of these (David Landes).
These scholars have all looked favorably on the modern world and its capitalist variant in particular. In addition there have also been thinkers who see these in dark colors and regard the advent of modernity in Europe as due to a blameworthy form of exceptionalism, such as colonial exploitation, particularly of the Americas (James Blaut); Europe’s place in a world system marked by exploitative economic relations (Immanuel Wallerstein, Samir Amin, the earlier Andre Gunder Frank); a dynamic form of class conflict and economic development not found elsewhere (Marx). However these authors still see Europe as somehow exceptional.
The problem is very simple: none of these theories work, at least not on their own. One problem is that most have been put forward by economists, whose methodology leads them to look always for one single independent variable that explains everything else. The approach of the historian by contrast is to be aware of how most factors are simultaneously cause and effect, because of multiple feedback loops. Of the theories alluded to, some are simply false; the facts contradict them. This is the case with “world systems theory” for example. (Anyone tempted to take this seriously should read Theda Skocpol’s devastating review of Wallerstein in the 1977 American Journal of Sociology). Others identify things that are important but make what are consequences into causes (e.g. Solow).
Many are onto something, in the sense of identifying things that are important but are wrong in seeing these as distinctively European. (For example, it is not the case that European societies were more market oriented, more innovative, or had better developed economic institutions; if anything the contrary is true). Thus, they cannot explain why modernity first started in Europe rather than elsewhere or have to resort to a series of ad-hoc explanations. Others are even stronger but have a problem of chronology. That is, while they 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?
There are three explanations that fall into this final category. The first, associated with Mokyr and Goldstone, sees the critical factor as being a change in the understanding of what knowledge was, coupled with its linking to the practice of empirical science — this takes place during the seventeenth century. The second is the argument made by McCloskey for the role of a shift in the way that trade and commercial innovation were morally viewed and evaluated. This first happens in the Golden Age Dutch Republic, again in the seventeenth century and about a hundred years later in Tokugawa Japan (with the phenomenon of chonindo). The third, made by a number of scholars, is to do with the way early modern Europe saw the emergence of a different kind of state system to the one found elsewhere, recognized at Westphalia in 1648.
The first missing element in these accounts is the active role of ruling classes in history. In classical liberal social theory a distinction is made between social groups that gain income from production and exchange (the “industrious classes”) and those that derive it from the use of force (the ruling classes, in most traditional agricultural societies warrior aristocrats and priests). Obviously this division is not clear cut but we can still make this broad distinction. Ruling classes are not purely exploitative as they also come to provide “public goods,” notably protection.
Historically ruling classes have a deeply ambivalent attitude to economic growth and social change. They welcome the increased wealth, which they can draw upon, but also fear the social disruption that trade, free inquiry, and innovation of all kinds bring in their wake. Moreover, in most times and places exchange relations are enmeshed in a set of regulations and practices that constrain and limit them (they are “embedded” in Karl Polanyi’s expression). Some of these are enforced by explicit articulated law and a legal system (and hence by the ruling classes) others are informal and enforced by the kinds of customary social institutions analysed in the work of James Scott. In general, rulers will be driven by their self-interest to uphold and maintain them and will seek to minimize significant change, by force if necessary. This means that episodes of intellectual and economic dynamism, such as China under the Song (“efflorescences” as Jack Goldstone calls them) are typically short lived.
The world crisis of the 14th century led to an intensification of ruling class competition throughout the old world which in turn led to a transformation of warfare (the “military revolution”). In most places the dynamic this created led to the appearance of large hegemonic empires such as the Russian, Ottoman, Mughal and Chinese empires. In Europe however it had a different outcome. The critical event was the failure of the Habsburgs to crush their rebellious subjects in the Netherlands, with the crucial years being the decade between 1580 and 1590. This prevented the emergence of a hegemonic power in Europe (which had seemed likely when a series of dynastic accidents left the young Charles V as the most powerful European ruler since Charlemagne). The other likely hegemon, Valois/Bourbon France, was also contained and the result was the appearance of the Westphalian system in 1648.
This changed the incentives facing ruling elites in Europe as compared to elsewhere. Because of the competition they faced and the nature of the competitive system they were in (different from the competition faced by empires elsewhere as in, for example the case of Ottoman Turkey and Safavid Iran) they were driven to favor and encourage innovation rather than to systematically discourage it. Initially this did not have dramatic results except in the area of military organization where by the 1730s Europe (and Russia) have overtaken every other major civilization except China. What proved critical was when these changed incentives, along with the intellectual and cultural shifts identified by Goldstone, McCloskey, and Mokyr, had to operate in a particular set of circumstances, those of yet another systemic crisis.
The other missing element in the story is what happens at the end of the eighteenth century. Contrary to its popular image the years after 1770 were ones of crisis. There was in fact a global “general crisis” at this time, just as their had been in the mid seventeenth century. The features of the crisis were the same as they had been on that earlier occasion: an increasingly intense Malthusian crunch marked by famine, dearth and land hunger; major wars which contributed to another element, a crisis of state finance; large popular revolts and widespread political turbulence and upheaval. We are all familiar with events such as the French and American Revolutions (often put with other uprisings such as that in the Austrian Netherlands and major slave revolts plus rebellion in Latin America into a wider category of “Atlantic Revolution”). There was also however huge political upheaval in India with the collapse of the Mughal empire, in China with the White Lotus rebellion and a series of uprisings in Yunnan and Sichuan, in Russia with the largest ever peasant revolt, and in the Ottoman Empire with a series of Janissary rebellions and internal crises.
Faced with this, the response of many elites (e.g. in China) was the same as it had been in the earlier crisis of the seventeenth century, to seek to uphold the established order. In Europe however, the response increasingly was to encourage and enable change and innovation rather than to resist it. In this particular context the three elements mentioned earlier, and particularly the active policies of rulers, came together to bring about the sudden breakthrough alluded to earlier. It is at this point that we can see the real start of what has become a central feature of the modern world, the way in which governments and ruling classes seek to systematically encourage and stimulate economic growth by amongst other things removing all kinds of barriers to trade and exchange, at least within the territories that they directly control. This is enormously enhanced by the cultural and ideological shift that McCloskey identifies and the move to experimental science and technological innovation stressed by Mokyr and Goldstone.
This account has a number of consequences for our understanding of contemporary debate. The argument associated with many broadly classical liberal scholars for European exceptionalism has been blown out of the water, as have its Marxist and world systems theory counterparts. What is emerging from the scholarship however is a picture that is broadly compatible with classical liberal thinking and incorporates many of its insights — it just no longer makes Europe exceptional. Another consequence is that we need to radically rethink our historical periodisation. The traditional division into Ancient, Medieval and Modern (itself a nineteenth century creation) with an Early Modern period starting around the 1490s and lasting until the later eighteenth century no longer makes sense, as people such as Jerry Bentley have argued. Rather we can see a period from the third through to the ninth century (usually called Late Antiquity) followed by another from then until around 1780, with an internal break in the later fifteenth century. In this way of thinking what we now call “Early Modern” should be renamed “Late Western,” at least as far as Europe is concerned.
This raises the final point. We should consider if it makes any sense at all to see ourselves as still living in Western civilization, given the radical discontinuity between the world after roughly 1800 and what has gone before. It makes more sense to think of Western civilization as having passed away and been transformed into a new and different civilization, in the same way that the civilizations of classical antiquity were transformed into and replaced by the Western, Byzantine and Islamic ones. What is clearly the case is that the sudden revolution in human affairs that began in Western Europe around 1800, brought about by the operation of circumstances and structural crisis on the local and distinctive outcomes of an earlier crisis episode, is continuing at an accelerating rate and has now spread to the rest of the world. The old civilizations have passed or are passing away and we now face something fundamentally new and unprecedented.
Stephen Davies is a program officer at the Institute for Humane Studies.
How an Engineering Culture Launched Modernity
Steve Davies is to be congratulated for plunging into a complex ongoing historical debate and emerging with a clear vision of world history that transforms older narratives. Davies is quite correct that no one factor explains Europe’s sudden rise to global hegemony in the 19th century; it took a combination of factors coming together in a catalytic fashion. Yet we can simplify this problem by asking another question: Were the key changes rooted in some essentially Western social or cultural characteristics, so that other countries seeking to emulate Western growth should adopt those characteristics? Or, as Davies suggests, were the key changes rooted in a departure from Western socio-cultural conditions that created a world with different principles – principles that other civilizations can then adopt without aping Westernization or abandoning their own traditions and identities? I would argue very strongly in favor of the second view, that something radically new arose in Europe from the late 17th century.
Davies correctly notes my argument that the “great divergence” was rooted in new ways of developing and validating knowledge. But it was much more than just a knowledge revolution. I argue that the crux was a “marriage of engineering culture and entrepreneurship.” That is, elites developed a new “engineering culture” that spread beliefs wholly different from those behind Renaissance, Medieval, or Classical approaches to knowledge and craft production: First, that the most reliable knowledge of the material world was to be gained not from pure reasoning or mathematics, nor from the study of regularities in nature as it is directly observed, nor from knowledge imbued with authority from traditional or religious texts of long antiquity, but from empirical research programs using increasingly precise instruments to carefully measure and test isolated events and relationships. Second, that these research programs and new instruments allow us to measure such previously abstract quantities and qualities as “energy,” “work,” “power,” “heat” and “motion.” Third, that possessed of these measurements, and of knowledge of fundamental relationships revealed by such research programs (such as the relationship between atmospheric pressure and volume, or the rate of gravitational acceleration at the earth’s surface, or the amount of work required to lift a given weight through a certain distance), one can design and build ever-more powerful and efficient machines, develop new sources of energy, and discover new materials and processes. Fourth, that these possibilities would lead to a future age of greater well-being than was ever known; in the words of the 18th century English chemist Joseph Priestley:
Nature, including both its materials and its laws, will be more at our command; men will make their situation in this world abundantly more easy and comfortable, they will prolong their existence in it and grow daily more happy… the end will be glorious and paradisiacal beyond that our imaginations can now conceive.
This was a radical departure from the belief of almost all civilizations (including that of the classical and medieval West) that humanity’s golden age lay in the past. Instead the new engineering culture proclaimed that an earthly paradise lay in man’s future, and that it would be brought about by mankind’s own progress in developing and applying new scientific knowledge rather than by divine redemption.
But this was not enough; such knowledge would do little if it remained confined to laboratories and academic societies. It had to be married to an elite belief in the value of technological entrepreneurship, meaning not merely respect for the accumulation of wealth by astute business practices, but the belief that applying engineering knowledge and skill to practical problems of production, transport, and communication would be a superior way to make profits in a competitive market environment. This belief was embodied in the work of James Watt and Matthew Boulton, their compatriots in the Lunar Society, as well as their customers, contemporaries and successors from Smeaton and Arkwright to Murphy and Trevethick and many others.
It should be noted that the second feature is not by any means given; opposing views have frequently arisen, namely that scientific knowledge has little to do with commerce and production, or that the application of scientific and engineering knowledge to production, transport, and communication should be undertaken by the state or by state-owned entities rather than by private actors engaged in market-governed competition. While such efforts can have some success, as shown by accomplishments ranging from the U.S. space program to China’s mag-lev trains, those efforts do not produce the dynamism of an economy-wide commitment to empowering entrepreneurs to apply science and technology to all forms of enterprise. Only the marriage of engineering culture and entrepreneurship on an economy-wide scale seems capable of producing the open-ended and accelerating increase of innovation and productivity that has characterized European economic growth since 1750.
While the combination of new approaches to knowledge and their commercial application by private entrepreneurs is the crux of the change, this combination could not have developed, much less thrived, without several broader social supports that arose in parts of Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. First, political rulers had to abandon the notion that it was one of their chief responsibilities, and integral to their own power, to enforce the knowledge claims of religious and traditional authorities. This process, which led to state-approved religious pluralism and open education, arose first in the smaller states of Europe — Britain, Holland, Prussia, Denmark — in the wake of counter-Reformation efforts by the major European land-empires to enforce just such claims. These smaller states found they gained more trade and resources by embracing inhabitants with a wide variety of beliefs than by enforcing strict conformity. Larger states (including the major empires outside of Europe) by contrast were willing to pay a high economic price, as with France’s expulsion of the Huguenots and Spain’s expulsion of its Jews, in exchange for the political stability they believed they would gain. As Davies notes, the major Asian empires responded to political disorders in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries by reinforcing the dominant religious and cultural beliefs that they believed were the best supports for state authority — classical Confucianism, Koranic Islam — and suppressing heterodoxy.
Second, political rulers had to give up attempts to control the access of private firms and entrepreneurs to scientific knowledge and to market opportunities, instead allowing the ready formation of new firms to exploit new knowledge, and open competition in the acquiring and application of scientific knowledge and skills to create and market new products and processes. This meant reducing rather than supporting the authority and regulations of various guilds and urban governments, who believed that market success came from tight political control of supply, products, prices, and producers to ensure smooth meeting of what was believed to be a relatively fixed demand.
Both of these requirements in turn demanded something new — a limited state that would protect the acquisition of private property and allow the development and spread of new knowledge and new enterprises. But a state could only be kept limited if older ideas of absolute royal authority were overturned, and the unfettered spread of new knowledge and new enterprises could only be maintained if hereditary and guild privileges and the need for religious conformity were cast aside.
It was thus no accident that the political and social revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries coincided with the rise of European scientific and material advantage. This is not by any means to say that these revolutions were fought for the purpose of making the world safe for science-driven entrepreneurship. Such a connection would never even have occurred to most of those fighting on either side of these revolutions. Rather, the development of new scientific knowledge from 1600 onwards undermined confidence in the authority of religious beliefs, while the growth of Europe’s national and international trade from 1500 onwards created new claimants to political power and social status who competed with the hereditary nobility, and often directed wealth more towards the enterprising elements in both the older nobility and newly-risen urban and professional social groups rather than increasing the resources of the central state. These trends combined to weaken traditional political and religious authorities, while leading enterprising nobles and commercial and professional groups to seek greater voice in how the state accessed and distributed society’s wealth and status. When a surge in population from 1730 to 1850 had the effect of greatly increasing the opportunities and scale of action for enterprising nobles and businessmen, substantially augmenting the size and relative power of urban professionals and workers, placing great strains on the capacity of the land to support peasants and depressing real wages, and overburdening the administrative capacities and resources of monarchical states, the overall effect was to touch off a series of revolutions aimed mainly at limiting the power of states and of traditional status and religious hierarchies.
The revolutions of Europe and America from 1776 to 1848 were often only partially successful, but they did have the effect of reinforcing and unleashing the marriage of engineering culture and entrepreneurship, as they permanently dented traditional religious and political authority, and spread claims for a new structure of society. In this new structure, the sources of society’s progress and happiness lay not in the glory and power of the state nor in the honorable virtues of its political and social elites, but in the free thinking and free economic activities of its citizens (what Deirdre McCloskey has recently labeled the “Bourgeois Virtues” to distinguish them from the virtues of the warrior elites that characterized Western societies from the Roman Empire up through the French monarchy). The purpose of the state was to enable and protect those free activities insofar as possible, limited only by the need to provide for the safety and security of the society.
This was an almost wholly new conception of society, not a logical outgrowth of prior Western culture. This fact has been deeply confused by apologists for Western imperialism and advocates of Western culture, who claim that this conception was somehow implicit in the democratic city-states of Greece and the Republic of Rome, or the freedom of medieval Germanic tribes or the impartial laws of Imperial Rome; or the oligarchic trading republics of Venice, Genoa, and Holland. Yet in fact none of these societies would have recognized, nor probably even been able to conceive of, these radical principles.
Greece and Rome recognized citizenship, but as a privileged status granted by the state and quite compatible with the widespread practice of slavery and the treatment of women and children as chattel. The notion of the inalienable rights of all competent individuals to freedom of thought and freedom of economic and political action is radically different, and is deeply hostile to any kind of slavery or the oppression of women. It is thus only with the rise of claims for individual-based freedoms that both abolitionism and women’s rights — concepts previously scarcely known or considered in two thousand years of Western culture — developed.
The “freedom” and “equality” of Frankish tribes who chose their own leaders were simply the common characteristics of relatively unstratified nomadic societies found in many diverse cultures, from the Mongols of Asia to Native Americans, and left little imprint when these tribes were absorbed into the stratified agrarian societies that succeeded Rome. The law of Imperial Rome posed the very antithesis of a limited state, and led naturally to the absolute imperial and monarchical rule that characterized all major European states from the Renaissance onwards. The oligarchies of the Hanseatic, Italian, and Dutch city-states and republics similarly recognized no natural rights of man, preserved hereditary status as far as possible, and sought to protect entrepreneurial activity chiefly by obtaining tight political control over their markets and trade routes. They adopted religious pluralism as a matter of practical convenience, not of principle (even in Holland religious freedom was heavily restricted outside Amsterdam, and the Dutch Reformed Church nearly drove out all other religions as soon as it became strong enough to do so). Venetian glass-blowers, Flemish tapestry weavers, and Dutch windmill and boat builders innovated in certain products to be sure — but less so than Indian producers of variously printed and woven cotton textiles, or the makers of Chinese ceramics, who dominated international markets for their products even more effectively than the Europeans. None of them had any notion of scientific research programs driven by free thinkers as the basis for future material progress.
In short, what arose in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in Europe, during what we now call the Enlightenment, was not so much a logical outgrowth or recovery of prior Western traditions and beliefs, but an effort to overthrow most of what was deeply woven into the fabric of European history, culture, politics, and society. That it succeeded was due to a host of locally contingent factors present in Europe but absent in other major civilizations that it would take too long to list here, including Europe’s relatively backward and peripheral position relative to the major Asian empires and the consequent shock to its culture and politics from knowledge flowing in from the discovery of the New World and direct contact with East Asia after 1500.
What I believe is most critical to insist upon is the degree to which Europe itself had to repudiate central elements of its own history and culture — the absolute authority of hereditary rulers, the prohibition of diverse religious beliefs in any one society, the elevation of the rights and needs of political and social status elites above those of ordinary inhabitants — in order to develop and implement the idea of society as a community of free individuals sovereign over a limited state. Yet this was necessary if the marriage of engineering culture and entrepreneurship was to survive and flourish, and produce the economic and technological miracles of the last two centuries.
The lesson — particularly for China and Russia and Islamic nations, although already learned by Japan, Korea, and other newly industrialized states — is that one should avoid confounding the idea of “Western society” as a particular historical and cultural configuration rooted in classical Greece and Rome, medieval Christianity, and Renaissance Europe with the idea of “liberal society,” which although developed in parts of the West and eventually taking over most of it was in fact a radical departure from most of the Western past. In order to share in the economic growth trajectory of the West, it is therefore not at all necessary to adopt any of the elements associated with the longer-term historical and cultural past of the West, but rather only to adopt the twin elements that made for European economic success: (1) a liberal conception of state and society, with limited state authority, freedom of thought and action for individuals, and (2) support for scientific engineering and its application to market-driven private entrepreneurship.
It is thus not a formula for economic success, as some in Russia or China might think, to try to support science and engineering but to resist the notion of liberal society as a foreign, Western intrusion that can be kept at a safe distance. In fact, the liberal notion of society was just as fatal to the West’s Christian monarchies as it would be to any other form of ideologically closed, authoritarian social order.
In short, however we debate the causes for the “Rise of the West,” the term itself is something of a misnomer that entrenches a terrible misunderstanding. The development of 19th century European military and economic hegemony, or the “great divergence,” was not in fact the rapid advance of historically Western societies at the expense of non-Western ones. Instead, it was the first phase of the eclipse of traditional societies based on closed authoritarian hierarchies, beginning with Western societies. Only once their own societies had begun their transformation toward liberal social relationships (what North, Wallis, and Weingast call “open access orders”) could Europeans challenge the power of the major Asian civilizations. Only then could free thought and market action continuously revolutionize science, technology and economic production.
What lies ahead for the world is thus neither a spread of “Western” civilization nor a clash of civilizations understood in Western vs. Asian or Islamic or other such cultural terms. Rather, it is the continued clash between the spread of liberal social order and social orders still based on closed authoritarian hierarchies.
Jack Goldstone is the Virginia E. and John T. Hazel Jr. Professor and Eminent Scholar at the George Mason University School of Public Policy.
Have We Ever Been Modern?
Modernity has always been, at best, a shadowy entity. For Stephen Davies “what modernity is and how and why to came about” is today, the “biggest question” facing the social sciences. Modernity, he tells us, constitutes “a marked discontinuity between the experience of human beings living today and in the recent past and that of our ancestors”; a discontinuity so massive, indeed, that it can only be compared to the “advent of agriculture and cities and the even earlier invention complex tools, language and the taming of fire.” This discontinuity begins in the middle of the nineteenth century and would seem, pace Jean-François Lyotard and others, to be with us still. It is characterized by all the usual socio-economic things: population growth, urbanization, the accumulation and spread of knowledge, industrialization, capital accumulation and so on. To these Davies has added a number of cultural and political phenomena: a “change in social behavior and the sense of self”; “the social and political status of women”; a “new sense of self and personal consciousness”; and a transformation in the “nature of government and of ruling classes”.
Much of this is only dubiously true. Without wishing to minimize the immense impact which such changes have had upon the life of the species, I very much doubt that the condition of human beings after the second ice age, and the late 18th century is significantly less than that between then and today. Not every transformation is necessarily a revolution. Certainly the alterations to all human life in what we now call the West have been massive and enduring. But they have not been either as sudden or as all-pervasive as we are being asked to believe. For while my social behavior and sense of self probably differ markedly from those of my remote ancestors, they also differ from that those of my grandparents, or even those of my parents, and St. Augustine’s social behavior and sense of self — as he well knew — was markedly different from that of Cicero, or Karl Marx’s from that of John Locke. No one would deny that the status of women has improved immeasurably since the nineteenth century (at least in the West). But 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. Then, too, while there have certainly been radical changes in government since the early 19th century., arguably the more enduringly significant ones took place much earlier — in 508 B.C., for instance, when Clisthenes re-organized the means by which Athens was governed, thus, for the first time in human history giving a measure of power (kratos) to the demos. It is also the case that most modern states, and all of those in the western world, owe their origins to the American and French Revolutions which produced the only truly modern form of government: liberal democracy. By contrast, communism, the self-proclaimed progeny of “modernity,” has left nothing in its turbulent wake but a number of archaic, pre-modern autocracies.
All of which might be to say only that the picture is a great deal more complex than either Stephen Davies or most of his chosen auctoritates, represents it as being. However, there is more. What Davies is really searching for are the reasons for what used to be called the “Rise of the West” (although bafflingly and in obvious defiance of his own arguments he concludes by declaring that “European exceptionalism has been blown out of the water”).
His own contribution to this debate — as I understand it — goes roughly as follows. The “world crisis” of the 14th century resulted in heightened competition among the “ruling classes” of Europe and Asia, and a consequent transformation in the methods, and technologies, of warfare. In Asia the outcome of this was the creation of massive land-empires (Russia, the Ottomans, the Mughals, the Safavids, the Ming and the Qing) whose ruling classes resisted any change or innovation as potentially threatening to their survival. In Europe, however, no single ruling class managed to secure control of the entire continent. The Habsburgs struggled with the Valois, the Dutch and the English vied with the Habsburgs and then with each other, the Danes and Swedes battled for control of the Baltics and so on. The outcome of this was that the “ruling élites” of Europe, unlike those in Asia, were “driven to favor and encourage innovation rather than to systematically discourage it”.
This Weberian competition did not, however, have any “dramatic results except in the area of military organization” until they came up against yet another “systemic crisis.” This arrived at the end of the 18th century which, contrary to what most people apparently believe, was a period not of relative tranquility but instead of “global ‘general crisis’ ”. This marked the “real start of what has become a central feature of the modern world”, viz. the willingness of “governments and ruling classes” to encourage economic growth and the development of “experimental science and technological innovation.” The final outcome, sometime around the middle of the following century, was “modernity.” All of which leads to the conclusion that a new periodization of world history is now required. This will divide historical time into three periods (plus an undifferentiated “Antiquity”): one running from the third to the ninth centuries, followed by another from the ninth century until 1780, and the last from then until today.
There is a lot wrong with all this. In the first place the chronologies do not really work. The Safavid Empire was a creation of the late 16th century the Qing of the mid, and the Russian of the late 17th century while the Ottomans had already secured their hold over most of the Byzantine world by 1362, and had reached the effective limits of expansion by 1453. Furthermore neither the Ottomans, nor the Mughals, nor the Safavids or even the Qing were ever truly “hegemonic” for very long. The great Islamic empires fought constantly with each other, and with any number of smaller independent polities, depending on which bit of these four hundred odd years one is looking at; and then, like all empires, they were, throughout their histories, in a constant state of expansion and subsequent contraction.
Neither is it entirely true that theses states “systematically discouraged innovation.” The Ottomans in particular carried out extensive programs of modernization — which meant in effect, westernization — from Selim III’s “New Order” to the Tanzimat, or “Re-ordering” of 1839. What is true is that none of the Asian empires (with the exception of Russia, but then ever since Peter the Great Russia, has always looked upon itself as one of “the civilizations of Europe”), developed any indigenous scientific or technological cultures on a par with those in the West. Even the Ottomans staffed their new European-style academies with French teachers who taught French science — and French law — in French.
Although Stephen Davies is surely right to say that the old periodisation is in need of revision, the one he suggests, although it allows for “an internal break in the late fifteenth century” (presumably to accommodate the Renaissance) sweeps past the changes which engulfed Europe between the mid 16th century and mid-17th century; and although he dutifully grants a degree of importance to the “emergence of the Wesphalian system in 1648,” he nowhere mentions the massive intellectual and confessional struggles which made that system necessary. Nor is any consideration given to what Adam Smith famously called “the two greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind”: the discovery of America and of the sea-route to India. If there is to be any “internal break” it should surely be from about 1500 to 1700. Nor does the end of Antonine period have much meaning beyond the confines of the Roman World. And what was so special about the 9th century? What about the 7th, which saw the Arab conquest and Islamicization of Iran and, with the seizure of Damsacus in 635, the beginning of the end of the Byzantine Empire? But then periodization has only ever been of much use to the writers of text books, and none can be made to work for the entire world
Perhaps, in Bruno Latour’s catchy phrase, Nous n’avons jamais été moderns. But let us for the sake of argument assume that there was indeed something we can all agree to call “modernity. Then, in broad terms, it might be true to say that persistent internal conflict within what Voltaire called the “great republic of Europe” drove Davies’ shadowy ruling classes who came to power during the late 16th century and early 17th century to encourage innovation, particularly if it had some military, commercial or medical application. This, however, does not explain the origin or nature of the innovations themselves. For the scientific and technological advances of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are decidedly not the sudden progeny of “modernity”; they are the outcome of a long and complex intellectual process whose origins are to be found in the 17th century in what it still makes sense to call the “Scientific Revolution.”
So if, as seems to be generally agreed, the “Rise of the West” was owed to the ascendancy of European science, 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. There can of course be no one answer. All of the factors which Davies discusses played their part. But I would contend that the single most important, the one which differentiated Europe most starkly from all of the civilizations of Asia, and the one Davies never mentions, was the advent of secularism. Experimental science and religion do not mix, whatever Pope Benedict XIV might say to the contrary. The wars which tore Europe apart after the Reformation, and which reached an uneasy conclusion in 1648, not only had the effect of laying the basis for the modern nation-state, they also succeeded in driving religion and — more significantly — all theological modes of reasoning forever from the public sphere. Religion, of course, played and continues to play, an important role in the life of many people in the West, but with a few exceptions — stem-cell research for instance — it has rarely, since the 17th century succeeded in stifling scientific inquiry. Nothing similar happened in Asia. Of all the “pre-modern” Islamic states only the Ottomans were able, finally, to shatter the power of the Ulema, and by then they had already been effectively engulfed by the West.
And if this sounds like “classical liberal thinking’ then so be it.
Anthony Pagden is a professor of political science and history at the University of California, Los Angeles.
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?
Reply to Goldstone, Pagden, and Kuznicki
I am gratified that my initial post on Cato Unbound has moved the editor himself to respond, and honoured to have had rejoinders and comment from two such distinguished historians as Anthony Pagden and Jack Goldstone, two scholars whose work I have long admired and gained from. I do fear that in some areas I have not expressed myself as clearly as I might have. In fact my three interlocutors and I agree on a great deal. I would argue however that what we agree upon poses a serious challenge and difficulty for all of us, and many other scholars besides.
One issue, which Anthony Pagden raises, is that of whether there really is a sharp and dramatic discontinuity of the kind I posit or rather just a story of continuing change in which case elements of continuity are as significant as those of alteration, if not more so. As he implies, this may lead to a questioning of the very notion of modernity and its relegation to the category of heuristic devices or ideological constructs. I would make one point now. The transformation in the physical conditions and everyday experience and expectations of (by now) all humans since 1800 has been so dramatic and swift that it is hard to make the case for continuity. The ‘structures of everyday life’ that had persisted for centuries have been transformed. Certainly there have been episodes of dramatic change in the past (e.g. during the so-called ‘axial age’) but there has also been a basic continuity of certain basic features of social and political life from the advent of agriculture to very recently. I agree that it is more difficult to make the case for an equivalent abrupt shift in things such as consciousness and behaviour but I do think it can be argued.
Professor Pagden also takes issue with my chronology and account of the effects of the world crisis of the 14th century and the subsequent military revolution. I would argue that one of the persistent structural features of societies before modernity are Malthusian constraints which manifest themselves in periodic crises, often leading to sharp drops in population and economic dis-integration. For most of history these episodes are not global – I completely accept the point he makes about the dates of my new periodization and I should have been clear that this referred to European history in the context of a revised global periodization. The Malthusian crisis of the 14th century ( actually roughly 1320 to 1450) was global however, partly because its central feature was a Eurasian-wide pandemic. Since then however Malthusian crunches in most parts of the world have tended to become simultaneous. There have, I would argue, been two such global or near-global crises since, one in the early to mid seventeenth century (the original General Crisis in historiography) and another at the end of the eighteenth century.
As regards the political effect of this, I do not think that the chronology is as incoherent as he makes out. The first large ‘gunpowder empire’ to appear was Ming China, consolidated during the reign of the Hongwu and Yongle emperors (1368-1424). In the case of Russia the consolidation of many principalities into one empire took place between 1462 and 1505, during the reign of Ivan III. In India the empire that would go on to rule most of the sub-continent was formed between 1504 and 1555 by Babur and Sher Shah Suri. In the case of the Ottoman Empire the critical event was not so much 1453 as Selim I’s conquest of the Mameluke Sultanate of Egypt in 1516/17 which united most of the middle east under Ottoman rule. The Safavid state in Iran was formed under Shah Ismail between 1502 and 1524. Subsequent rulers consolidated and expanded these empires (Suleiman the Magnificent, Ivan IV, Shah Abbas I, Akbar) but apart from the Chinese case they were all formed in the same broad time period.
However I completely agree with Anthony Pagden’s comment about the advent of secularism, and if I had had the space I would indeed have mentioned it. I also completely agree with Jack Goldstone’s comments about the extent to which the intellectual changes of the eighteenth century represented a rejection of and a break with the inheritance and past of Western civilisation (or Christendom as I think we should perhaps call it). However this points up the matter I highlighted earlier, which poses difficulties for all four of us. All of us think that something very significant took place in the period between the later 16th and later 17th century in Europe, whether this is cultural and intellectual, economic, or political. I suspect all of us also give the Dutch Republic a central place in this story. The problem for all of us is this – why did these changes or events take such a long time to work through? Why was it nearly a hundred years before the scientific revolution produced the kind of innovative engineering culture that Goldstone emphasises? Why did we not see intensive growth (as opposed to the kind of extensive growth that marked both the 17th century Netherlands and Qing China with an ‘industrious revolution that saw ever more intensive use of labour) before the very end of the eighteenth century?
I do not claim to have a comprehensive or fully satisfactory answer to this. One thing to emphasise is simply the enormous inertia of the ‘structures of everyday life’, of a whole range of social institutions and practices that constrained innovation and exchange. It took a while for these to be undermined perhaps. Medicine is a case in point where despite important breakthroughs in the 17th century, the real advent of modern medical science and practice does not happen until the early nineteenth century, in Europe, largely because of entrenched and privileged conservatism on the part of medical practitioners (and many patients).
However the other point to emphasise is the part played by ruling groups and their differential responses to the growing pressures of the later 18th century. Jason Kuznicki questions my notion of ruling classes and is unclear about what they did while Anthony Pagden describes them as ‘shadowy’. I would say on the contrary that it is much easier to define who exactly the ruling classes were in non-modern societies than in modern ones. They are the people (more precisely families) who have disproportionate access to and control over the means of political power. These come in two types – physical force and ideological control. Hence the stereotypical instances are warrior aristocrats and priests. What such groups do in most historical cases (although there are some interesting exceptions, one of them major) is to uphold settled and established ways of living, thinking and exchanging goods. They also typically are led by their position and interests to give legal or institutional recognition and backing to groups who wish to block innovation. The policies of the Ottomans with regard to artisan guilds are a classic example, as are the quite deliberate economic strategies of the Qing and early Ming rulers.
What happens in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth century is that European ruling groups deliberately sought to undermine many social practices and institutions that hindered innovation and exchange. They deliberately swept away local regulations and institutions such as local systems of weights and measures and other restrictions on trade. Increasingly they sought to deliberately remove barriers to exchange and economic innovation, whether physical or legal. In doing this they did not create a pressure for change and innovation, rather they allowed change that arose from spontaneous processes of the kind Jason Kuznicki refers to and intellectual shifts of the kind Professors Pagden and Goldstone describe, to find expression. After a while this becomes self-sustaining.
My final reiterated point is this. Anthony Pagden rightly says that my argument fits into the ‘Rise of the West’ controversy and is surprised that I say the predominant version of this is discredited. However the main form that arguments for the ‘Rise of the West’ have taken is that there is a definable Western civilization that has certain distinctive and peculiar qualities that set it apart, from an early date (typically the Middle Ages) and that these qualities mean it gradually overtakes the other world civilisations and goes on to triumph. 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. Moreover, given what Professors Pagden and Goldstone both say (which I agree with completely as I have said) in what sense is it a ‘Rise of the West’’ that we are talking about? Surely it is actually the rise of something else (modernity perhaps?) that has supplanted and transformed traditional Western, Christian civilization and in its spread is now similarly displacing other older civilisations while drawing on their inheritance?
Armistice Day and the Ghost of Michel Foucault
It’s surprising that we’ve recruited four historians to write about the meaning of modernity, and in four lengthy responses — now five — no one has yet dropped the name of Michel Foucault. I am curious whether doing so will advance the discussion any, particularly because Foucault’s story of modernity, like Davies’, also proceeds from elite power.
Foucault, notably in the book The Order of Things and in his essay “Governmentality,” proposed that the modern way of thinking can be understood as proceeding by a certain style of mental ordering — of number, demography, and territoriality. To be modern is, literally, to measure.
In the modern world, techniques both in government and in private life are ordered, systematized, and increasingly described in mathematical terms. For example, how does one make a modern headache medicine? Apply many different compounds, to many different subjects, using many different delivery mechanisms. Catalog the effects they produce. Perform statistical tests. The winner is your medicine.
This way of thinking replaced an older approach, one which took its cues not from number and measurement, but from semblance and contagion. How does one make a pre-modern headache medicine? Grind up some walnuts, which resemble the head, complete with a brain inside. Apply them directly to your noggin: Headache medicine!
The epistemic shift to modernity took place all across human knowledge, from medicine, to economics, to physics, even to politics. Modern man is the product/inheritor of it all — encompassing both the “engineering culture” that Jack Goldstone (in my view rightly) praises, but also Foucault’s governmentality, a far more sinister force.
Foucault found that pre-modern states were typically likened to families, with the ruler as father and the subjects as children. The modern populace is understood quite differently, not as a set of possibly fractious children, but as — we might say — a data set. It’s much easier to be inhuman to a data set, and something of modern systematization almost seems to demand it. We don’t make examples of lone miscreants anymore. We identify all miscreants, and we hide them away forever. When people cease being fictive sons and daughters and instead become points in a data set, it is easier to imprison them by the millions, to send them to death camps, to march them off to the slaughter after we know that the Armistice is signed.
Much has been made of Foucault’s insight, at least among academic historians. Yet it’s possible to overstate the case — even given the industrial-scale horrors of the twentieth century and the unparalleled destructive power of the engineering culture’s new weapons, one’s worldwide chances of dying violently during the twentieth century were considerably less than those found among supposedly “noble” savages.
But, a Foucauldean might say, what about all of the rest? What about forced conscription, forced taxation, forced medical treatment? What about the more rigorous policing of behavior, speech, and even thought? Are we not more oppressed? Are we not more confined? Are we not more obedient, more sheep-like? Foucault clearly believed that we were.
The key dilemma of modernity is how to win the benefits of the engineering culture, including advanced technology, free markets, mass literacy, and all the rest — while denying the state the more sinister aspects of governmentality. This seems to be a genuinely new problem in human history, and it shows the magnitude of the change we have experienced.
Are the benefits and the drawbacks at all separable? Or not? Governmentality seems important to this discussion particularly if Steve Davies is intent on using cultural and political elites as a driving force in his story, as Foucault himself certainly was. For Foucault, however, elites usher in modernity for the sake of the power it grants them over the habits, the mentalities, and ultimately the bodies of others — not for their productiveness or their freedom. It’s not always a modernity worth wanting.
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.
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.
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.
What Greece, Rome, and Christianity Didn’t Give Us
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.
Modernity’s Darkness, Distinctness, and Technology
It is truly gratifying to be part of such a stimulating conversation. I have a number of questions that spring to mind from points made in its course or which come out of works that the participants have previously published. One that Jason Kuznicki poses and Jack Goldstone responds to is that of the dark side of modernity. This has been analyzed and theorized by a number of thinkers, notably Foucault, who he mentions. One could also refer to people such as Lewis Mumford, Christopher Lasch, Jacques Ellul, or Neil Postman. The modern world has brought huge benefits and betterment of conditions to literally billions of people, compared to what has gone before but it has also seen domination and oppression on a scale never seen before. One argument is to see this as the triumph of bad ideas, another is to say that many of the features of modernity, such as the new technologies that innovation has created, are morally neutral and give greater power to human beings to use for good or ill.
There is however a more troubling question, which Kuznicki alludes to and which the thinkers listed all explored in various ways. Is the dark side of modernity an essential and necessary concomitant of its benevolent face? In particular, does the rationalism of the modern world and the sweeping away of traditional practices and institutions, whether by spontaneous forces no longer checked or by deliberate action by rulers (even through such mundane and apparently harmless actions as the drawing up of cadastral maps) mean that the dark coercive side of the modern is in some sense inescapable?
Kuznicki also explores an aspect of something Jack Goldstone emphasised very strongly, which is the intellectual rift between the modern world and its antecedents. The aspect is the way in which modern political and intellectual discourse departs significantly and even radically from that of the Christian or classical past. The example he gives is that of equality and this is indeed one of the main differences. We can truly say that we are all egalitarians now in a very real sense. The idea of degree and hierarchy, which was so centrally important in the past, is now an alien one and almost nobody is now going to make a frank and seriously argued case for the importance of social hierarchy and distinction on principled grounds, or to criticise the idea of legal equality. A reading of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida would show how alien and dangerous and above all unnatural, such notions seemed at that time.
Another instance, which Anthony Pagden pointed to, is secularism and the possibility of a secular and non-transcendent way of thinking about the world. As I said I personally support the idea put forward by Lucien Febvre that it was nearly impossible for someone who was educated to be an unbeliever because to adopt a secular view meant to throw over all knowledge and so live in a world that no longer made sense. (The other side of this was that unbelief was paradoxically easier for the uneducated). Yet another feature of this division is the steady growth of both the idea and reality of the private and the increasing privileging of the private over the public. This is seen both in everyday life and in the movement into the private of matters such as religious belief and observance and sexual conduct and familial order, both once seen as quintessentially public matters. Apart from the issue of how to evaluate this, the big question of course is that of how and why such a revolution in attitudes and political order happened. It won’t do to see it simply as inevitable or predetermined, I would argue.
Another obvious question that arises from the big topic of modernity and its origins is that of how this fits in with the story or relations between Europe and the rest of the world since at least the sixteenth century, given the way modernity (whatever dates one gives it) clearly first appears in Europe. This is precisely the area where Anthony Pagden is the great authority. The interesting question, which he has explored, is that of how the world as a whole and their relationship to the rest of it was conceived of by Europeans, and in particular how different groups of Europeans came up with different ways of thinking about this. One question is that of how to compare Europeans’ thinking in this area to that of other civilisations, particularly the Chinese and Islamic. Another is the other side of the story, the interplay and transmission of ideas from one part of the world to another. There is a great book to be written for example about the way the Jesuit order came both to conceive of the world in a novel way and to transmit various ideas back into Europe from other parts of the world, above all from China.
The final question that comes to my mind is that of technology and the kind of engineering civilisation that Jack Goldstone describes and identifies. (One question is that of the relation between this and the dark side of modernity in both practical and intellectual terms. The predilection of engineers for totalitarian political ideologies in the twentieth century is an interesting but also alarming subject). Too many historians (I obviously exclude him from this) seem to see technology and engineering as an exogenous force in social history, a literal deus ex machina. The difficult and interesting problem now is that of how to explain not so much the rapidity and constancy of technological innovation in the modern world as of their slowness and intermittent quality in most of human history. What exactly were the forces that did this and how did they work? Particularly interesting are cases such as China, where there is rapid and extensive innovation at some times, most notably under the Song and yet other periods where this stops or even goes into reverse. The sudden decline of technological innovation there after the later fourteenth century is one that has taxed a generation of sinologists and there is still no truly satisfactory explanation I would say.
The Bright Side of Modernity: Pluralism, Freedom, and Equality
One of the great accomplishments of modernity is the institutionalization of pluralism and religious tolerance. While not unknown in antiquity or pre-modern times, pluralism and tolerance usually meant no more than the official state religious order granting a protected but clearly second-class status to adherents of other faiths. Thus in Rome up to the 4th century, the gods of conquered peoples were given lesser places in the polytheistic pantheon, but their worship was still allowed as long as it was joined to recognition of the divinity of the emperor (peoples who refused the latter, like the Jews of Palestine, lost that toleration in a hurry!).
In the Ottoman Empire, Christians and Jews could flourish and play important professional roles, but were excluded from government and had to pay special taxes. A similar status held for non-Anglicans in Britain, even after the Toleration Act; they could openly practice their religions but were barred from state offices, while Anglican bishops still had reserved places in the House of Lords. It was really only with the American and French Revolutions of the 18th century that it became official state policy not to promulgate any special restrictions or privileges on the basis of religion, but leave that a matter of individual conscience.
This has sometimes been confused with a different aspect of modernity, namely the reduction of formal religion and worship in everyday life, and its replacement by secularism or humanism. It is true that in many parts of Europe, governments seek to act as if religion had no place in deciding moral or policy issues, and many people have withdrawn from religious participation and commitment. It is also true that on matters of studying nature, objective science has replaced religion as the basis for seeking truth. In these respects, secularism has grown. Yet in the United States, Africa, Latin America, and most of the Middle East and much of Asia, secularism is mild or in retreat. Commitment to both religious worship and religious belief, including the formation of policy (e.g. abortion) based on such beliefs, remains strong. What makes these countries ‘modern’ is not the absence of religion, but the absence of a state-chosen and state-enforced religion that relegates adherents of other faiths to less than full citizenship. What is distinctively modern is the sharp separation of religion and citizenship, so that the latter can be enjoyed fully regardless of which religion (or no religion at all) a person follows.
This needs to be kept in mind when considering the ‘dark side’ of modernity. Jihadists — even with automatic weapons and plastic explosives — are pursuing a very anti-modern goal in seeking to purge their societies of non-believers, and not merely to make religion a factor in shaping policy but to impose a particular religion’s law as the uniform law of the land for all. Christians of course did the same thing in Europe for many centuries, but that was in a pre-modern era.
While there is an appealing tendency to think of ‘modern’ societies as being prone to be especially evil, because nationalism and technical-rationality seem to be devoid of traditional morality (think Naziism and the Holocaust), which at least was woven into traditional religio-political states, this is an illusion. Vast piles of skulls, mass rapine, rivers turned red with blood — these are familiar aspects of human conquest from biblical times through the Mongol conquests. Efforts to massacre people and create genocides are carried out more widely with machetes than with gas chambers. A lack of respect for the basic human rights of other societies, or lower classes in one’s own society, is rooted in the pre-modern mentality of identity-groups, dynastic loyalties, and an innate hierarchy of people (with male rulers on top, and females and slaves on the bottom, as part of the natural order). The modern view of the individual — egalitarian, endowed with universal rights, free to practice a religion of choice and express her beliefs, free to enter into agreements of marriage and work or not — is a much more moral view than the pre-modern view rooted in particularistic identities and hierarchies (racial, ethnic, or otherwise.)
The truly great evils of the modern world have arisen when modern science and technology were placed in the service of such pre-modern beliefs. Nazi racial science speciously classified the races on their worthiness (aryan to mongol, with Jews at the bottom) and thus justified its actions to purify Europe’s population. European colonialism became most abhorrent when it saw regions and peoples as entitled to different levels of rights and respect depending on their level of “civilization” as measured by a European pseudo-scientific yardstick.
In short, an appreciation of what is truly modern can allow one to be optimistic about a future with less cruelty and evil; what is important is that we recognize that individual freedom and social equality are no less vital innovations, and no less critical components of modern societies, than are planes, trains, and missiles.