The Early Modern Age: 1500 to roughly 1800 CE
We approach a massively radical turning point in human history. Do you ever pause and wonder why we rush about today in carts called cars and trucks, measuring their work potential with a unit of energy we call “horsepower,” instead of depending on the power of real animals such as horses and oxen as our ancestors did? You don’t?—you take these things for granted? Horses and oxen were necessary, you know, until as recently as the early 1900s, a bare century and a few days ago. My farmer-grandfather never owned a tractor in his life, he relied on single-trees and double-trees behind old Daisy and Nell.
Pluck your great-great grandmother out of her world and set her down anywhere in yours—anywhere at all—and hand her a smart phone. Pretend you’re her. Can you feel the strangeness of the drastic cultural changes that have occurred—for the first time ever in human history—to produce what we today call the modern age? And can you feel what it would have felt like to live in her day when virtually nothing was as we have it today? —nothing, that is, except those same old human urges, and that big, complex, highly adaptive human brain. Do you doubt she could quickly learn to use that smart phone, and—with some dislikes, no doubt—adapt herself to your bizarre modern culture?
The trend had been slowly building for ten thousand years, but now it surged with new and growing intensity. As a result of evolution’s third phase, cultural evolution, Homo sapiens moved from “adapting to” the environment to “controlling” it. We had of course so controlled many times before, by such actions as cutting down whole forests (did you know all England and Scotland used to be heavily forested?), but those old environmental consequences were unknowing. Our new controls over nature were quite consciously adopted, even bragged about by such as Andrew Carnegie. Our evolving human culture was emerging into an unprecedented stage which would highjack our longstanding natural evolutionary impulses, and redirect them into the exceedingly un-natural world in which we move about today and—to our great risk—think is normal.
Modern culture didn’t arrive overnight, the stage had to be set first. What we now regard as the “early modern” period began around 1500 and lasted until about 1815—three centuries which saw the arrival of some important milestones. These are here identified sequentially, to be understood in context of advancing cultural evolution. Read ordinary history texts for details, and the following for context.
The medieval age was fading away, as the feudal way of doing things declined and the irrational passion for Crusades came to a practical end. Christianity’s religious unity, still dictated from the big Catholic Church in Rome (now evolved into the Vatican) had long been manifest as theocratic governance everywhere in Europe (conceptually equivalent to Islam’s Sharia theocratic governance). After prevailing for a thousand years, this over-centralized arrangement ended when Martin Luther’s attempts to reform the church’s over-controlling absolutism spun out of control and the Protestant Reform-ation resulted.
As the Reformation got seriously underway, Christians soon realigned themselves into two warring camps—“conservatives,” who wanted no change from the way things had been, and “liberals” who wanted total change from the way things had been. The two rationales professed for this “religious” competition were 1) conservative insistence that only priests could interpret what the Bible said and then tell the illiterate masses, in Latin, what it said they must do, versus 2) liberal insistence that they could bloody well read the Bible themselves so that the literate few could themselves decide what to think it said they must all do. In reality it was all about power, as such disagreements usually are.
The protest-ants would ultimately win this argument, but in its early days the difference of opinion of course turned bloody. Among other things, the Roman Catholic Church unleashed its murderous campaign popularly called the Inquisition, the bad example of which lasted for centuries and manifested in many ways in many places including the very-protestant Puritans’ Salem Witch Trials. It isn’t quite fully over even yet today and the Vatican to this day maintains the Inquisition administrator known since 1985 as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, previously called the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition, the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office, and nuances of these. I myself know fundamentalist protestant evangelicals who right now today quite openly believe in witches and demons, and strive to shield their children from the Satanic influence of Harry Potter.
Immediate backlash to the Inquisition set off yet another round of religious holy wars full of mayhem and death, including the notoriously bloody Thirty Years War between Catholics and Protestants virtually everywhere across Western Europe. This murderous mess ended with the Treaty of Westphalia, establishing the faint beginnings of the modern concept of tolerance that would permit minorities to freely practice any religious ideas, regardless how bizarre, as they pleased. In the realm of political ideas it was quite revolutionary. But it took hold, and the influence of this curious idea of religious tolerance has had lasting ramifications despite never-ending attempts to abolish it right down to the present day in the USA.
Notice, dear reader, this mention of the realm of political ideas. Not for the last time you are rather emphatically reminded that political ideas are but one side of a two-sided coin, on the reverse side of which appears the realm of economic ideas. Economics and politics are two aspects of one and the same thing. Economics has to do with how we stay alive—with (or without) adequate food, clothing and shelter, surviving long enough to reproduce in accord with evolution’s irresistible mandates—whereas politics has to do with how we behave toward each other while doing so. Most notably, politics has to do with whether we choose to support—or choose to inhibit—others’ freedom to try (just like us) to survive and reproduce. Evolution instills our physical-economic urge to survive and reproduce, but political behavior is always a personal choice that is also a moral choice.
Standing back and generalizing, this early modern period was important because it set up the antecedents out of which would grow modern political and economic ideas that would come to be thought normal. In European societies that would become modern nations, mercantilism became the dominant practice in the realm of economic ideas, and it bequeathed ideas and assumptions that have evolved to great consequence in our own day.
In brief, the idea was that trade generates wealth, which is popularly desirable. And since having wealth enables one to stimulate and accumulate profitable bottom lines (i.e., more wealth), governments should enact protectionist policies that maximize exports (selling for profit) and minimize imports (buying what you can’t make for yourself). Putting the two ideas together, the establishment of systematic long-distance trading for profit also set up the antecedents out of which modern globalized capitalism would arise.
The trouble with mercantilism was, and is, that it generated wealth for the few, not the many. Some got rich, most stayed poor. I am well aware that some don’t regard that as “trouble.” But I do. Perhaps you do too. Lost in the shuffle was the truism that every individual human being has basic economic needs (food, clothing, shelter, health care etc) that must be adequately met simply to survive, to stay alive—thus—therefore—everyone needs some assurance that these needs can be met to at least a minimum level of adequacy.
Under the mercantilist way of thinking the “Adequacy” concept of equality never developed. It remains an un-discussed concept to this day, even though adequacy for all would in no way inhibit bright entrepreneurs from acquiring far more wealth than they need to assure themselves an adequate living income. Since possessing wealth ensured control over the system for acquiring wealth, the wealthy few contained even fewer who gave a damn about the many poor who labored at poverty wages to produce the wealth.
Little has changed to the present day, and you seldom hear anyone, peasant or politician, talking about “Adequacy.” It is not a thought-about concept in our society, and is not taught to children in school. But later in this book we shall consider it in some depth.
Enlightenment, reason and discovery
Sandwiched in between the Early-modern Age and the Modern-modern Age—integral within and overlapping both—were a few other significant Ages. We should briefly take notice simply because one so often hears the terms tossed off without much context, in wrongful assumption that everyone remembers all the history they met in high school.
The Age of Discovery occurred between roughly 1400 and 1600. The conditions for it had been set up two centuries earlier by the notoriously savage leader/warlord called Genghis Khan (khan is a title equivalent to “emperor” in English). Genghis brilliantly attained power by uniting the horse-mobile nomadic tribes of northeast Asia and using them to establish the Mongol Empire—parlayed by his posthumous successors into the largest contiguous empire in history (most of Eurasia, one-fourth the world population). In the annals of unintended consequences, few things have exceeded its disruptions.
Notably, the famous Spice Road from China (actually an interwoven network of trans-Himalayan trails) was utterly interrupted for well over a century. In consequence, western Europeans greatly missed the pricey delights to which they were long accustomed, such as cinnamon, ginger, cardamom—and that wonderful black pepper which so nicely disguised the rising aroma of beef in its ripest stages just before putrefaction. Such bald example of great demand versus skimpy supply encouraged some opportunity-minded coastal Portuguese to seek to reach China, or at least India, by sailing around Africa.
Others such as Cristoforo Colombo, influenced by the many notables who still believed the world to be a round sphere, thought he might reach the “east indies” by sailing west across the Atlantic. This idea made Colombo stand out—he was thought either brave or foolhardy by most observers, because everybody knew that nobody had sailed very far westward into the vastly dangerous middle Atlantic since the centuries-long blockage of all ocean waters west of Gibraltar, eleven thousand years earlier, by floating volcanic pumice and ash as reported by Plato (Timaeus; Critias) in 350 BCE. Everybody knew such foolhardy venture would be certain death. But Colombo gave it a go anyway.
The subsequent well publicized “discoveries” of “new” as-yet-unexploited lands by Magellan, Henry the Navigator, Vasco da Gama, Cortez and the like are a matter of well described record that can be explored elsewhere. In our context, the rapid buildup of exploiting those distant lands powerfully changed the course of cultural evolution in Europe by reinforcing the foundations of mercantilism, colonialism and globalization and extending them into the New World. These changes also powerfully changed the course of cultural evolution among the native inhabitants of the American continents whose ancestors had lived there for more thousands of years than anyone could remember. In the contextual view of the native inhabitants, the horde of Europeans who subsequently poured in to carry off their treasure, save their souls and leave syphilis among their women were simply uncouth and unwashed invaders. The Age of Discovery also serendipitously led to eventual establishment of the United States of America.
The Age of Enlightenment—confusingly also called the Age of Reason as if the distinction mattered—took place over the next two hundred years, roughly 1600-1800. Most scholars characterize the period as a time when humankind (at least those in western Europe) “began” using reason to discover natural laws governing the universe, thereby to understand the world, casting off the superstitions and fears so integrated into the human psyche during the thousand years of medieval culture. I think that’s debatable given the factual historical record and the current daily news, but let’s move on.
Early in this period Rene Descartes created a stir with his contention that the immaterial human mind is in constant interaction with the material human body/brain, and thus each human may be regarded as a duality—a two in one. It’s not altogether unlike the early Christian argument over whether Jesus was a man, was God, or was both—the two-in-one idea that became orthodox dogma. In the Enlightenment’s philosophical circles the idea jelled as “dualism,” the view that mind and body both exist as separate but integrated entities. The stir persists. Dualism remains prominent in non-European religion-like philosophies, but clashes head-on with the modern scientific materialist contention that a non-physical mind would violate physical laws and “therefore” is impossible, case closed.
Lest we forget our own enlightened reason, let us here be reminded that the human suffering called “pain” is immaterial, yet no doctor, nurse, sufferer or sympathizer doubts that pain is real. If you’re in the ER with a heart attack they ask: How bad is your pain on a scale of 1 to 10? Love is immaterial, but everybody believes it real.
But ah, the inconsistencies. Christians and Muslims fervently believe everyone has an immaterial soul, sometimes called a spirit, but many cry Superstition when the synonym “ghost” is mentioned. Scientists believe in immaterial energy as the foundation of everything in existence—immateriality is in fact pervasive in the physics foundations of science—yet they too cry superstition over mere suggestion that Descartes might be right. If this many fairly bright people can be so obviously, irrationally inconsistent, what hope have we that either scientists or self serving politicians can turn around global warming’s promise to collapse our precarious civilization now barely five millennia old?
Since the seventeenth century philosophy has been slowly detaching itself from theology, while economics and its identical twin politics remained unrecognized as crucially moral subjects under both philosophy and theology. Neither trend seems to have brought much help toward the things that truly matter to the average person today.