Archive for History
NOTE: An unfinished draft of this post was accidentally published for a little while on March 2nd-3rd, but it wasn’t actually ready yet then, but here’s the finished version:
Hello, wonderful readers! What I have to share today is not a polished essay, but the transcript, slightly cleaned up but mostly as given, of a talk I gave recently at a science fiction convention, Capricon 2021, whose theme this year was “Making the Future We Want”—a great topic for reflection. In the talk I look at our ideas about who has power to shape the future, stringing together short precis of several different articles and such that I’ve been working on lately. Each little precis is less polished and evidence-packed than the long versions (links & citations provided where I can), but I think the combination, though compressed, has a useful flow and brings together some points that I hope will help people reflect on how our narratives about history shape the power (and powerlessness) we believe we have. I hope you enjoy!
As another treat, here is a wonderful video made by my friends at the Paideia Institute which recently invited me to give a talk on the process of recovering a classical text in the Renaissance, with live examples of me showing Renaissance era printed books and manuscripts thanks to the miracle of webcam. I’m hopeful I’ll be able to use the same webcam system to do more rare books demos in future!
I was struck by how Capricon 2021 (Capricon is a fabulous F&SF con! you should all go to it!) had a theme this year—“Making the future we want”—which overlaps some of the history work that I’ve been doing, so I thought people might enjoy a bit of a serious talk on a very interesting question. Some of you may have read my blog post “On Progress and Historical Change” which gives a history of the concept of progress, and this talk will overlap that a bit. But what I want to talk about here is the question of how we imagine how society and history change, who we imagine has control over that, how much control we imagine we have, and how that has changed over time. And our feelings about how much power we have, or how much power we feel other people have over change in real history, is often very different from what the historical record suggests. So I’ll be talking about some of my work as a historian and what it shows about how culture changes, vs the concepts that we usually tend to have about that.
I’m what’s called an intellectual historian, which means I focus on what we think is true. This is related to history of ideas, so I study concepts like the concept of progress, the concept of atoms, the concept of rights or equality, the concept of atheism, not just what atheist ideas existed but also what people at different points in history who didn’t consider themselves atheists thought an atheist should or would be like in terms of ethics, the personality the imaginary atheist whom Thomas Aquinas is arguing with in some of his writings, for example—these are examples of things an intellectual historians studies. But intellectual historians also look a lot at worldview. If a material culture historian is working on reconstructing the clothing of another time period, and a food historian is working on the diet and recipes of another time period, and an art historian on the architecture, and a historian of science on the technology or weapons of another time period, the intellectual historian is trying to get at the mindset of that time period. What world do those people live in, from their own perception, from what they believe is true? What is the potential of their world, what do they believe is true about how it works or how it changes, how does it differ from the world we believe we live in? Someone from a culture which believes that disease is caused by astrological influences instead of by germs makes decisions about medicine and health as if living in a different world from the one we believe we live in.
So, for example, we in the present have a very particular expectation that every generation’s experience will in most fundamental ways be different from the experience of the generation before, that there is a constant process of change, progress is one of several names for this, or a name for one element of this process, but we expect, for example, that in two generations while some things will be similar, many things will be very different. For example, very few of us expect that our grandchildren or great-grandchildren will still live in the same house we live in, and use the same teapot we’re using. In contrast with, let’s say, a medieval European figure, who is very likely to have the expectation that their descendants will live in the same house for a number of generations, and who generally has the expectation that change may come if there’s a war, change may come if there’s a great king, change may come if there’s a bad king, change may come if God curses the land, but the change isn’t inevitable, the way we think of it being inevitable in our own period.
So, in different moments in history people have had different ideas about how constant change is, what causes change in the human condition over time, what aspects of the human condition change over time, and which people, if any, have power over the way the human condition changes over time.
I’m going to discuss briefly at first the origin of the concept of anthropogenic progress, and I’ll come back to that term in a moment. Then I’m going to zoom in to a very very microcosm example within my own field, in my own period of specialization, which is Renaissance Italy, which shows some of the problems generated by the disconnect between the way we imagine the world changing from the way it really does, and then from that microcosm zoom out again to the larger question.
(If you’ve read the longer version of this in On Progress and Historical Change pretty recently, you may want to skip the next couple paragraphs down from here to the italicized note, by the picture of a pretentious Roman orator on the rostra, or you may prefer to keep reading so the content is fresh)
So, as I often say when I’m beginning this discussion, in about 1620 Francis Bacon invented progress. What I mean by that is that Francis Bacon, a British intellectual and statesman, published the Novum Organum, and some other works in which he argues, pretty much for the first time that not only is it possible for human beings to change the human condition but that if they do so intentionally and systematically through science—this is the birth point of the modern scientific method, which is to say collaboration among groups of people sharing knowledge to work as a team to gradually expand human knowledge—and remember, Bacon is the origin of the saying “knowledge is power,” by which he means power over Nature, not individual power, he means human beings collectively having more power when we understand more of what he calls “the secret motions of things” or what we might call how diseases work, how physics works, how electricity works, etc. By “knowledge is power” he means our power to command electricity, our power to cure diseases, these things that in 1620 he hoped science might someday achieve. And Bacon (and I’ll get to why in a moment, and also what similar concepts existed before in a moment) articulates for the first time the suggestion that if human beings collaborate as a team to observe nature, to do scientific experiments, to double check (we would say peer review) each other’s experiments, to publish this knowledge and share it, and to collectively try to expand humanity’s scientific understanding, then every generation thereafter will be a little bit more powerful in terms of how many diseases we can cure, how well we can preserve food, how well we can grow food, and thus that every generation’s experience will be a little better than the generation before.
Bacon characterized this in Christian terms as an act of charity, that to be a scientist is the ultimate act of charity because it gives the gift of a happier life to every generation and every human that will be born after you—a very interesting root for the scientific method, which many people are used to seeing presented as an enemy of religion as opposed to as mandated by Christianity which is the way he presents it. And he suggests that by conducting research as a team and sharing it, it can intentionally come to pass that every generation’s experience is different.
Now, we would say that every generation’s experience has been different since the very beginning of humanity, that progress, while it might accelerate later on, as technological advances accelerate has been constant, and the experience of somebody in 1500 is different from somebody in 1400. And indeed, we would argue that human action, discoveries, development of states, gradual processes such as centralization of government or of finding agriculture were always causing progress. People were inventing the moldboard plough, preservation techniques, gradually breeding corn to be a slightly better and slightly better crop until it became the strange super crop that it already was before modern scientific genetic meddling, that progress was always there, than anthropogenic progress, meaning human caused progress, progress that is the result of human beings taking action.
But nobody had described this as a phenomenon before Bacon, and Bacon and his peers in fact believe that there isn’t anthropogenic progress. What kinds of progress or change do they think there is? One dominant idea in Europe at the time, and indeed for many centuries before, is that the primary changes you see experienced by humans are a plan scripted out by God, are Providence. Sometimes God, or Fate, decides that it is time for an Empire to rise, because God has a plan for it. Now it’s time for the Empire to fall, because God has a different plan for it. God decides to send a great king onto the stage of life, or God decides to send a bad king to teach people the moral lessons that tyrants teach. That is the dominant model of what people think causes change in this period, that it is an external decision made by a divinity or plan whose intentions are largely didactic, largely educational, that the purpose of sending a good king or a bad king is to send people moral examples for people’s personal moral education, to increase the likelihood of human souls doing to heaven.
If we move earlier than that, to Antiquity, there are ideas of what I would not quite call progress or anthropogenic progress, but there are ideas of development that the Epicureans discuss for example that just as an organism might develop from a juvenile state to a mature state, so similarly planets develop over time and human civilizations develop over time. In Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura, our longest surviving classical Epicurean text, he describes the idea that Earth undergoes a process similar to the lifespan of an organism, that, for example, only in the earliest days, when Earth was young and fertile, did new species come into existence, and that only those species that were suited to their environment survived until the present day. It sounds very close to Darwin. Lucretius goes on to say that no new species are created any more because Earth is old and has undergone menopause and no longer has giant placentas growing out of the ground everywhere which is where animals came from in the first place. So before you give him too much credit for the survival of the correctly adapted idea, which he does have, and is a very sophisticated idea, there are plenty of others that we chuckle at. But he describes the idea that early on humans lived peacefully in nature, and they ate the fruits that they found and they slept under trees. You can recognize this as one of the roots of pastoral man or of a golden age. But then humans gradually discovered luxuries, gold, and treasures. And when they did that, and there were limited supplies of luxuries, then people needed to defend them, and they developed weapons, and they developed armies and laws and social structures. Then, from that, developed war, and the descent from a golden age to a silver age to an iron age. Lucretius is not the only classical Mediterranean source of this, but he is an example. So there is an idea of development, and even development where people are causing it, but it isn’t an idea of constant development, and it is an idea of negative development and not positive.
That idea exists in Antiquity, is much less prevalent in the Middle Ages, when many of those texts are not available, is rediscovered in the early 1400s, and disseminates again. So it’s one of several influences on Bacon. But what’s innovative in Bacon is his idea that there’s a strong intentionality, that the team of humans who are scientists work together intentionally to create the next generation’s experience, and indeed that if they don’t, the next generation’s experience will not be different from this generation’s experience, that unless progress is intentionally caused, progress will not occur. This is very different from our sense in which progress is constant and inescapable and positive, but also negative. We’re very used to thinking about progress giving us better technologies and better medicine, but also giving us the negative sides. As Freud puts it in his “Civilization and Its Discontents” writing just after World War 1, “it is indeed miraculous that my daughter who is across the ocean on another continent and I can speak over these new electric telephone wires, that is an amazing fruit of science but,” he says “If we didn’t have science she wouldn’t be on the other continent, she would still be here, because we wouldn’t have made the ship that carried her.” Civilization and its development creates problems in addition to creating positive innovations.
That is an idea that we’re very familiar with in the Twenty-First and Twentieth Centuries and that really develops largely in the Nineteenth Century as a result of the Eighteenth Century’s romantic interest in the idea of the pastoral and the influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but also in the aftermath of the French Revolution. In 1620 Francis Bacon said “If we do science we can have progress,” and people said “Great! We can use science to evaluate everything and make more rational medicine, and more rational engineering, and more rational architecture, and more rational farming, and more rational laws, and more rational religion, and then they had an enormous war in which huge numbers of people died, and the scale of war got an order of magnitude bigger than anyone was used to, and it created a lot of anxiety and fear that possibly we don’t have as much control over this progress thing as we thought. So it’s then in the Nineteenth Century that you get the image of being a cog in the machine being trapped within progress, progress being inescapable.
(If you were skipping down because you’ve read On Progress and Historical Change recently, this is the right spot to start reading closely again)
Within this review of concepts of progress the question then comes: who has power over determining what happens? Is the answer “No one”? That progress happens in so many different arenas and so many different directions that pretty much it’s just chaos? Is the answer “Governments or rulers”? that a great king or a great virtuous leader is going to be what determines whether our country prospers. Or do we believe that certain individuals exercise influence?
And here is where I’m going to zoom in to the Renaissance, which is to say, to my own period, which is where we see ideas of who has power over progress, and especially who has power over mindsets and the clash between the assumptions we often make about that vs the historical evidence that we have.
(The longer treatment of this discussion appears in “Black Death, COVID, and Why We Keep Telling the Myth of a Renaissance Golden Age and Bad Middle Ages”)
So, Italian Renaissance, or Renaissance in general, we’re used to thinking of this as a moment of great change when things accelerate, when the Middle Ages, which we tend to think of as stagnant, and perhaps backwards and without dynamism and without a lot of progress or change—all of these things are false, but they are the assumption most people have—suddenly shifts and we get a lot more. We get faster innovations, and faster development of technologies, and a change in mindset. Now all of these things are true, we do get an acceleration, but it’s a wedge, it’s not a flat line and then a spike.
The core figures that we know from the Renaissance, and the way you often know about the Renaissance when you’re not a specialist, are famous geniuses. Leonardo da Vinci is the best known Renaissance figure, followed by Machiavelli and Michelangelo and Raphael, and we think of this as an age of genius, an age when excellent brilliant people created magnificent art and magnificent architecture, and there is a focus on those geniuses as being the core of change, on those geniuses as being fundamentally what makes the progress happen. There are in fact a lot of cultural reasons, and this is not the moment for me to give you my list of what the causes of the Renaissance are, though there is a blog post about that if you’d like to look for it in my discussion of COVID-19 and why we have the Medieval/Renaissance distinction and the problems with it, but the key data point that I want to start with here is when I’m at a dinner party and I meet somebody’s spouse and they ask me what I study and I say I study the Renaissance, and they ask what I study in the Renaissance, and say well, I study Renaissance radical thought, I study censorship and the Inquisition, and I study atheism, and I study heretics and heresy trials and the dissemination of radical thought. It’s very common for there to be a pause, and an excited face, and then the question “Oh! So isn’t it true that x famous Renaissance genius was an atheist?” It’s incredible how often that’s the question. And the reason for that is a narrative that many of us are familiar with that the Renaissance is an era of secularization or secular thought, that it’s the moment when the shackles of religiosity are being challenged, when Humanism as a centering on humans comes in (that’s not actually what Humanism was in the Renaissance, but that’s what it is now and that’s what people think it was) and that the core of the difference between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance was the breaking free of faith and the beginning of an age of Reason.
That is an expectation largely based on ideas about the Renaissance that were published largely by German and British historians in the Nineteenth Century. This is very, very different from the way the Renaissance presents itself, and also very different from what we find when we look at things. But the important detail here is everyone’s excitement to have me confirm at the dinner party that yes, Leonardo was an atheist, or yes Machiavelli was an atheist, or yes, Michelangelo was an atheist. Why is that? Mainly it’s because the dominant narrative about the Renaissance is that there were a bunch of geniuses who had a pseudo-modern mindset. Meaning more secular, not necessarily atheistic, some people are simply excited for it to be modern, scientific, etc., and that those geniuses saw lying before them the possibility of a more secular more rational age that would be better, it would be modern, it would be free of all the limitations that dragged the Renaissance down. And that these geniuses seeing that in their future, seeing it, then worked to make it so. I see this narrative in a lot of places. I see it in academic articles or books that assume that it’s true. But if I zoom out further, you’ll see it in op eds, when people are writing an op ed about the Black Death and COVID and they’ve researched this for 48 hours, that’ll be what they say, or it’ll be in the intro of an economics book.
(For more on this see “Why We Keep Asking ‘Was Machiavelli an Atheist”, or for the footnoteful version my chapter “The Persecution of Renaissance Lucretius Readers Revisited” in the frustratingly expensive but totally interlibrary-loan-able collection Philip Hardie, Valentina Prosperi, and Diego Zucca eds., Lucretius Poet and Philosopher: Background and Fortunes of ‘De Rerum Natura’, De Gruyter, 2020)
If you zoom out even farther, you get it in the Cosmos TV series, the new one with Neil de Grasse Tyson which chose to begin its first episode with this glimpse of the life of Giordano Bruno (analyzed in the article above), it presents Bruno as a kind of martyr for science, and whom it describes as a very modern person, that he saw that there could be this other world of reason and he tried to buck against the system and fight against it, and the Inquisitional Thought Police, and he uses the phrase “Thought Police” which is a very important detail, chased him down and suppressed him because they didn’t want these ideas to be spread. But he knew that one day it would, and other people who were like-minded with him worked really hard, and their underground efforts eventually made it so.
And if you zoom out even further again, you get it in pop culture stuff. The plot of the extremely mediocre old David Warner fantasy movie Quest of the Delta Knights. The plot of that is that there has been an ancient scientific and secularizing rationalist secret society founded by Archimedes that has since Antiquity been keeping the light of reason secretly alive through the Middle Ages, and eventually will break through and reveal all the lost documents and science from Atlantis and usher in the modern age, and the hero helps make that happen, to defeat the Middle Ages and make the modern age happen because this cabal of people who fundamentally think like modern people has existed since Antiquity and preserved the light and now it’s going to triumph. It’s also the plot of the Assassin’s Creed video games, that there is a secret society of rationalist people who fight the pope—literally, by punching him!—and they advance science, and Machiavelli is in charge of it.
And these are hilarious and fun but they are echoes of the idea that the people who are in charge of intellectual change, the people responsible for getting us from Medieval to Enlightenment thought like us, that they thought ahead of their time, that they saw the future potential, that they had a plan and they secretly implemented it—in other words that the people who have power to determine what the future is, is a few particular geniuses, who in their brilliance see what the future is going to be. That is not true. First of all, none of these people predicted any of what the future is like, and none of them in fact tried to undermine the church—I’m talking about Leonardo, Machiavelli, etc.—and none of them articulated things that would read like modern when you really sit down and read them. They are presented as proto-moderns by historians of the Nineteenth Century who want to claim a descent from them, because we respect these names, they are exciting, and so if you can claim “I am carrying on in the tradition of X!” you can make your own regime seem powerful. This is a tool that the rising nationalist movements of the Nineteenth Century, in Germany, in Britain, in France, in Italy, used to compete with each other by trying to claim “Oxford is a truer descendant of the ideas of XYZ than the universities in Italy, look at how we’re carrying on the rationalist secret underground messages that were in Machiavelli and were in Leonardo” which are not there.
There are radical messages in these things. Here is the key. Renaissance radicals were really radical! Machiavelli was really radical, Leonardo was really radical. People like Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, who is a little less famous but very frequently pointed at as the Renaissance genius, mastered fourteen languages by the time he was a teenager, he was brilliant, he was rich, everyone loved him, he wrote a giant nine hundred thesis synthesis of all world religions, which he proposed to defend in front of the pope. And he has this famous text known by its Nineteenth Century title The Oration on the Dignity of Man. I’ve got a 682 page book on my shelf by Brian Copenhaver about how The Oration on the Dignity of Man is not an oration and it’s not about the dignity of Man—that is a Nineteenth Century reading of it which still colors forward. It was actually a manual on how to turn yourself into an angel, by hybridizing Islam and Zoroastrianism with Kabala, channeling those through Plato and making a new version of Christianity which would synthesize all world religions. And by the way, Pico and his friends believed that if they just explained this to the Ottoman Muslims they would immediately understand that Islam and Christianity were exactly the same and then there would be world peace. That was the plan, that everyone would real Plato and then they’d realize that all religions were the same and then there would be world peace. These guys are really radical! Their versions of Christianity have reincarnation and soul projection and did you know that if you study enough of the Chaldean Oracles you can project your soul out of your body and use it to spy on Padua? This is what Latin class and Greek class should be for. Renaissance radicals were incredibly radical. But their radicalism did not resemble our modern mindsets. Their radicalisms were all over the place. The more I study them the more I love them, there are dozens of worldviews in there more alien than any alien in Star Trek ever made up, they’re gorgeous, but they don’t resemble the way we thought in the Twentieth Century, or in the Nineteenth Century, or now. Those people in the Renaissance didn’t see a future and then intentionally make it. Those people in the Renaissance had radical ideas, proposed them, debated them, mixed stuff all over, had different weird inconsistent influences, and the cauldron of all of it, of the people you’ve heard of and the many dozens of people you haven’t and the many hundreds of people who read them and debated them and the many thousands of people who read those books in schoolrooms and disseminate those weird ideas, those are what actually makes the change happen.
Now I’m going to zoom in to my most micro example. So. The least interesting set of texts that I can think of, and I’ve been trying to look into this, were editors’ prefaces at the beginnings of copies of Epictetus (aka. my article “Humanist Lives of Classical Philosophers and the Idea of Renaissance Secularization” in Renaissance Quarterly Vol. 70, No. 3 (2017), pp. 935-976). Epictetus’s manual is a set of Ancient Roman moral maxims about how to be a virtuous person, and it’s short, so people liked to teach it at school, and a lot of it sort of lines up with Christian virtues, so it’s very compatible with teaching in a Christian context, so it was a super popular textbook. It was a super popular schoolbook, the equivalent of making kids read Dickens or making kids read a Shakespeare play as part of High School English class. So there are many, many dozens of editions printed pretty much as soon as printing is invented—from the 1490s, and all the way through the 1500s, and the 1600s and the 1700s there are editions of Epictetus, and every one has a preface from the editor explaining why Epictetus is a great text to read, and usually trying to seem more awesome than the previous edition of Epictetus, so that you’ll buy that edition for school instead of the other edition, or so that the teacher will recommend that edition instead of the other edition. Publishing, as we all know, is very competitive, and you’re always trying to have the blurb that makes it attractive — if someone walks into the bookstore and there are four books with dragons on the cover, something is going to make the difference to which one they pick up, it might be the copy on the back, this is the equivalent of that.
So when you look at the prefaces, which are being written by scholars who aren’t very important and aren’t very famous and nobody has heard of or cares about any more, but they have a job and the printing house has got them to edit this thing because this is their job. Those guys who are doing that, that you’ve never heard of, are reading the guys you have heard of. They’re reading Pico, or they’re reading people who are talking about Pico. They’re reading all these dozens of bizarre strange ideas that are going on. Most of them definitely don’t agree with it, or if they agree with it, they only agree with one thing, because there are dozens of different ones, but there’s the milieu. And they notice the arguments that are big and all over the place, and one of them is, Renaissance people were very interested in the fact that the sayings of Epictetus were remarkably similar to some of the ethical teachings of Christianity, especially in the letters of St. Paul. In fact in the Middle Ages there was a rumor that Seneca and St. Paul knew each other and wrote letters and Seneca was associated with Epictetus, and Epictetus was supposed to have secretly converted. None of this is true, and in the Renaissance they had pretty much figured out that it wasn’t true. But it was very interesting to note that Epictetus’s moral maxims were similar to St. Paul’s. So if you were writing a preface to Epictetus, you would write a preface that said “He was a pagan, but he was almost as good as St. Paul!” And then ten years later when there was a new edition and someone wanted to make that edition sound better, and I have all of these editions in Latin and I have the article version of this where you can read the translations of all of these, they’ll say they want to make a stronger claim, so they’ll say “Epictetus’s moral maxims are barely less good than St. Paul’s.” And the next one will say “Epictetus’s moral maxims are just as good as St. Paul’s!” And the next one will say “Epictetus’s moral maxims, even though he was a pagan, were even better than St. Paul’s, because they are simpler and clearer and more effective at teaching ethics.” And by the time you get to the 1700s there’s an edition, which you can tell is copied from these earlier editions, they even plagiarize sentences from each other’s prefaces, it’s direct evolution, that says “Epictetus by the light of Reason alone and without the necessity of scripture or revelation arrived at better ethics than St. Paul.” And that is the kind of book that Voltaire owns when he is a kid.
So, who is transmitting this radical idea? Gradually of the idea that Scripture and Christian revelation are necessary for ethics? Who is transmitting that? Is it the big famous people? No. Because there are thousands upon thousands more copies of these classroom Epictetus volumes than there were of Machiavelli in this period. Machiavelli is banned in most places. You can’t even get it without hunting hard, you can only get digests of it, and it’s not printed nearly as often. People have it but it’s extra work, like how there are people around who use Linux instead of Windows or Mac but it’s extra work and you have to work at it and not a lot of people do it. But Epictetus? He’s as ubiquitous and default-accessable as Windows. So for every one person who’s actually reading Machiavelli in that era, a hundred people at least are reading this Epictetus preface that says you don’t need Christian Scripture to arrive at a good system of ethics. Who spread the radical idea? Thousands of people you haven’t heard of, dozens of editors who wrote these editions, most of them not intending to make anything radical happen but just intending to sell a copy of a book, in fact most of them genuinely believing that Epictetus was an author who would advance Christianity and make people believe in it more, they, nonetheless, unknowingly and unintentionally transmitted the radical ideas that turned into Deism, and that turned into that secular turn that we associate with the Enlightenment, and that we falsely associate with the Renaissance. So you see it is the Renaissance seeds that lead to it, but it some genius list of special radical people who thought the way we do that made it happen, it’s thousands of people who had dozens of different worldviews, some very orthodox, others very radical in ways that don’t resemble us, but all these ideas discussed and wrote and published and debated, and those debates influence textbooks written by nobodies who get left out of the kinds of history that focus on big names, but it’s those small names that have so much deeper broader reach than the treatises of the people who are the most famous today, largely because our canon of who’s famous was cemented by nineteenth-century people who were looking into the past and cherry-picking people to celebrate whose ideas they thought resembled their own, in order to legitimize themselves (and prop up their belief that they had a right and duty to dominate the world and ‘elevate’ ‘lesser’ cultures with their ‘right’ ideas and ‘right’ path of progress).
So, what this example and other similar studies shows us is that we overestimate how much intentionality we think individual special people have. So every time I see a cover of a tech magazine that has a new tech start-up billionaire that says “Will this man be the first man to live for two hundred years?” or “die on Mars?” or whatever, and in the article it claims “This person has a vision for the future and knows what the future will be like, and it’s this, and he’s working on building it!” (or occasionally “she”, but usually “he”) and “the future is in the hands of these geniuses.” That idea, that the future is in the hands of people whose mindsets somehow already match the future, that makes us feel powerless, makes us feel like our job is to sit back and wait for those geniuses who can already see the future to bring it about the way we imagine Machiavelli did. I remember when I first realized this it was watching the first Iron Man movie, where Tony Stark, after inventing pollution-free green energy, and saving stuff with the iron man suit gives this press conference statement “I have successfully privatized world peace,” and that is the line that gets pushed, that the solution to our strife, or climate change, is waiting for the genius to appear like a superhero with the special power to reshape the world, while everyone else sits back and gets rescued. Why do we get drawn into the rhetoric that claims this? Because our textbooks tell us that’s how we got to where we are now, that the present came about because historical figures who were geniuses and could foresee the wonderful, liberated, rational modern era that was coming then sat down and intentionally tried to make that era come. Well, they didn’t. This world is nothing like anything that people in the Renaissance tried to make. They tried to change what their world was like, but the things they were aiming for were not what actually resulted. It was the mixing together of all sorts of different and incompatible ideas, radical and orthodox, mixing in the contributions and debates of enormous numbers of forgotten, un-famous people, that was key to what changed mindsets overtime. Sometimes particular key works were extra prominent in that discourse, be it Hobbes or Epictetus, but that doesn’t mean that the effect of Hobbes publishing Leviathan was to engineer a future Hobbes envisioned, it was to stimulate thousands of people to have new conversations, many of them hostile, which in turn generated new ideas.
So, who has the power to shape the future? The answer the Renaissance shows us is not genius, not “a few people who have the right vision” it’s lots and lots of people, but a lot of the time the result of their efforts isn’t going to be what they meant. So for example, the first Renaissance scholars who tried to get people to read Epictetus, Petrarch and such, their idea was that fractious and war-torn Renaissance Italy—which Shakespeare depicts somewhat accurately in Romeo and Juliet, where rival noble houses are having feuds and goons and killing each other in the streets, and people are very willing to cause a civil war to advance their family) Petrarch and other Renaissance intellectuals thought that this was a problem and that the best way to address it was to improve the moral education of these ruling families. The reason that they wanted to build libraries and advance the new reading of the classics and so on was that they thought if their leaders had better ethics they would stop having feuds, civil wars, that if they could get the leaders of their society to read the books that young Cicero, or young Seneca, read when they were growing up, that you could then rear a new generation of leaders who would put the good of the country before the good of their family, who would like the Roman Brutus (not the one who killed Caesar, the earlier one) be willing to execute his own sons if they were committing treason, in contrast to the Renaissance norm which was to get your goons to assault the jail and liberate your son if he’s been arrested. These Renaissance people wanted people to read Epictetus, and similar works, to make them more Christian, and more ethical. We have reams and reams of this writing where they say it “We think that reading these Roman texts will make you a better Christian.” They say it over and over and over. And yet the inadvertent effect of that was disseminating a lot of radical ancient thought, which made a whole lot of different radical stuff happen, which caused changes within Christianity, which contributed to the Reformation as well as deism and atheism, which none of these early Renaissance figures would ever have wanted to have had happen, but which was the real effect of their project.
Important sideline because people always ask: so, lots of Renaissance figures who spread radical ideas but also claimed to be good Christians get pointed to by modern people who want to say “They’re secretly an atheist, they’re just self-censoring!” but the thing is that tons of these figures publicly endorse ideas that are way more dangerous, way higher on the Inquisition’s list. You don’t meticulously self-censor that you’re secretly an atheist or secularizer and then publish a demon-summoning manual with your name on it, or a book that endorses Martin Luther or espouses your belief in reincarnation. Someone who recklessly expresses ideas much more dangerous than atheism would not bother to be so careful with their atheism that we can’t find traces even in their private writings. Atheism isn’t as risky in the period as the other stuff which these people are espousing. I’ve got an article in which I go through every single person we know in the Renaissance who read Lucretius and got in trouble with the Inquisition and what they got in trouble for and it was never Lucretius. One of them goes to the stake for sola fide, Luther’s belief that faith alone, rather than faith and good works is how you get to Heaven. No atheist would choose to go to the stake for sola fide, they would say “I don’t care” and walk away. Giordano Bruno, pointed to in the Cosmos TV series which claims that he went to the stake for believing in atoms and the existence of alternate worlds, when you actually read the trial record, he doesn’t espouse that stuff in the trial, nor do they ask him about it. The only time Lucretius comes up in his entire trial is a time in which Bruno brings him up to call him stupid and disagree with him. They’re worried about Bruno’s use of Aristotle, and they’re worried about Bruno’s ideas about the division of the soul and the way the soul connects to the body and stuff that has nothing to do with atheism, atomism, materialism, or anything else that we consider modern. That’s not what gets Bruno in trouble. So we think of it as being atheism, but nobody would bother to self-censor atheism and then avow this other stuff that they all know is more dangerous. Most of them avow incredibly dangerous stuff and get away with it because they’re friends with a Duke, or a king, and this is a period in which you can say almost anything if you have the protection of royalty, and that’s how we get lots and lots and lots of radical works, because people are under their protection. So the claim that there was a radical underground of secret atheists meticulously hiding their traces so carefully that we can barely detect them even in their own works while they were running around declaring their support for much more dangerous ideas, and getting in big trouble sometimes for doing so, just doesn’t make any sense.
Were there some atheists in the period? Totally! See fabulous treatments by Matytsin, Hunter/Wootton, Kors, Sheppard, Popkin, D. C. Allen) and I think I’ve personally confirmed about three definite ones, but the three I’ve looked at didn’t hide it that much, we know about it because all their friends knew and commented on it, it wasn’t that secret. And—the more important part—it wasn’t those three who had monopolized the power and influence and created modernity through their genius vision, they were fairly minor people—one was an illiterate fishmonger, an awesome one, but not a person in power in any traditional. The key is that these awesome atheist radicals were only one kind of radical amid dozens and dozens of other equally awesome Renaissance radicalisms that don’t resemble modernity at all, but it all mixed and churned among the many more orthodox ideas, and percolated into things like Epictetus prefaces, and that’s what caused the change, not the few people who most resemble later things, the mix of everyone.
To briefly quote my polished version of talking about this (from my chapter in the Hardie/Prosperi/Zucca volume) “We do these courageous freethinkers a disservice if we dismiss the diverse and original ideas expressed in their Christian Epicurean and anti-Epicurean works as mere veils over a comfortably proto-modern rationalism. Rather than taking a step forward on a triumphant path leading inevitably toward modernity, Lucretius’s radical Renaissance readers took many steps in many directions, breaking new and fruitful ground… As we seek the agents who forged modernity, we need to stop looking for people who look like heroes, for people who look like villains, and above all for people who look like us. The characteristic ideas and values of modernity were not birthed by people we would have agreed with. They were birthed by a vibrant and diverse range of pre-modern minds alien to our own, advancing plural projects which all moved and shaped each other, plural particles in constant motion all with dynamism and momentum, not passive and inert until struck by a single modernizing genius who contained the swerve.”
So, zooming back to the present, a lot of people have a sense of powerlessness, as if we’re supposed to wait for the geniuses who clearly see the future to make it happen, and we don’t resemble those geniuses because, as history presents them, the genius figures who shaped modernity always had a clear plan, they never have vague self-doubt, or maybe they have like one dramatic turning point doubt crisis and then come out of it as their mature perfect genius selves, they’re perfect, like the protagonists of novels, and they never do laundry, and they never run out of socks, or worry about paying rent, and if the historical record shows them worrying about money then they’re somehow morally compromised and not true intellectuals, which isn’t true! I have letters where Machiavelli writes home complaining that his salary hasn’t arrived and he’s run out of socks, and has holes in his shirt and he’s worried about looking scruffy in front of the pope, and then there’s a letter back “We gave your salary to Michelangelo and we hope he can bring it to you,” and then an angry letter “Michelangelo didn’t bring me my salary!” And “Sorry, Michelangelo had trouble on the road and turned around and had to come back, there were bandits.” Real famous people in history had lots of setbacks and problems and laundry like anyone else. They resemble us more than we think. (This is why I teach Machiavelli’s letters so much). And such people also had less power over change than we ascribe to them.
Real changes in what a society thinks, in what a culture values, come from thousands of people debating something. It comes from that classroom where people are talking about Epictetus. And the modern equivalent of that classroom where people are talking about Epictetus then is this talk, this convention, blogs and social media spaces, even Twitter, anywhere where people are talking about books and events and thoughts. What’s going to shape the future? It’s people online debating about which actions are ethical or unethical in Game of Thrones. That’s exactly like these classroom discussions of Epictetus, which turn into introductions to Epictetus, which turn into the education of Voltaire, which turn into the pen mightier than all swords. Random conversation is where it happens, not one genius, thousands of people exchanging ideas. And it doesn’t result in the world those people envision. Renaissance people did try to intentionally re-engineer the world, and they did sort-of have a shared plan, they wanted to make a world that was more ethical, that had a lot of moral education of its elites in those values which both Ancient Rome and Christianity shared, and this would result in an era of peace.
The actual social engineering project that the Renaissance undertook, the world that they wanted to make, is not the world that resulted. The world that resulted was more different, more strange, and more awesome than anything they ever envisioned. Because you know what came out of the Renaissance? Francis Bacon inventing progress and the scientific method and the beginnings of the Enlightenment, which are fruits far more innovative, far more exciting, and far more powerful than anything any Renaissance genius sat down to do. So when you ask yourself “The work I’m doing to try to make a better world, is it helping? Is it going to make the world I envision?” The answer is: it’s not going to make the world you envision, but it is helping, and it’s going to combine with the efforts of thousands of other people that happen in every conversation, in every convention, every workplace, every school, and media post where you’re debating or disseminating an idea or even sharing a concept, it all contributes. But the world that we end up making is not going to be he we envision, it’s going to be—like Francis Bacon’s world—stranger, more different, and more awesome, than those who created it could imagine, just as the Enlightenment was relative to the Renaissance.
So I hope what you take away from this is some point of encouragement and hope, and the understanding that we will not make exactly the world we imagine, but the world we’re going to make is going to be an amazing world, and that we are all contributing to making it, not just elite geniuses, but every one of us, every day.
Hello! It’s been a while since I posted since, as usual, many projects press, so it’s rare for me to have the time to write the kinds of polished essays I like sharing here. But I’ve been hoping to share more things, since a lot of the history work I’ve been doing lately has helped me with reflecting on current events, and I want to share that faster than the slow grind of book-length work and academic journals will allow. So I’m going to start posting a few things here that are a little rougher. I hope to still post formal essays a few times a year as before, but I’m going to start also sharing things like transcripts of lectures or talks I’ve given, excerpts from my teaching notes, or assemblages from Twitter threads which took meatier turns. I hope you’ll enjoy them, but I’ll also try to always make clear what kind of content each post is, so you know which are the polished essays you’re used to.
I’m also launching a Patreon, so if you’ve enjoyed my posts, books, music etc. please consider supporting me.
I’ve felt torn about Patreon for a long time since, unlike so many wonderful scholars and authors I know, I have a steady living wage from my university and don’t struggle to get by. But, as my Patreon page explains, what I don’t have enough of is the means to hire help. As someone trying to create a lot (and as a chronic pain sufferer who often has fewer than 7 days in my week) it makes an enormous difference to how much I can do if I can pay for help: pay a music editing service to turn polish vocal tracks into completed albums without spending hours on it myself, to pay my part-time assistant Denise who helps with my calendar and paperwork and fire-hose of email which so easily eat up whole days, to hire a sound editor to finally make it possible to launch a podcast with my good friend Jo Walton talking about books, and craft of writing, and history, and science, and Florence, and gelato, and interviewing awesome friends. Even the little post below was made possible by having help, and wouldn’t exist otherwise. And supporters will get updates on what I’ve been up to, and early access to blog posts and podcast episodes, and snippets of outtakes and works in progress. So if you’d like to help me hire the help I need to turn more ideas into reality, and to have more time to write, please have a look at the Patreon page for details, and thank you very much!
Why I Teach Machiavelli Through His Letters
(excerpt from a lecture transcript, so this is how I explain this to students too)
Teaching Machiavelli through his letters is a separate thing from being an historian accessing Machiavelli through his letters. One of the reasons that I love teaching Machiavelli through his letters is that you get a very different view of the person from letters. You get unimportant details. You get the things that the person cared about that week, as opposed to the things that the person wanted to be discussed by many people in the context of that person’s name for a long time. You do get the serious political thought, but you get it mixed with “Where is my salary?” “Hello my friend,” “Here’s the party I was at,” “I have a cold,” all of these very human elements that don’t come to us when we just read a thesis.
Thanks to interdisciplinarity, both at University of Chicago and elsewhere, I move from department to department a lot–I spend some of my time with historians, and some with classicists, political science people, Italian literature or English literature people, and with philosophy people. Each of these disciplines has a different way of approaching text, but many of them approach the text perhaps not with the formal philosophical attitude of “death of the author, we care only about the text,” but all the same with the effective attitude of “we try to learn about this author only through the text,” and only through the formal polished text, the treatise.
When I’m trying to unpack not only Machiavelli but history in general to my students, it’s very easy for the history to seem like a sequence of marble busts on pedestals who handed us great books. It’s much harder to get at the fact that those people are also people who are like us: people who messed up, people who ran out of money, people who had anxieties, people who failed in things that they undertook. People who had friends, people who were nervous without their friends, and lonely. And that isn’t a version of history that we get shown very often. We get shown heroes, we get shown villains, and we get shown geniuses, as if there isn’t a person present as well. Machiavelli is a very valuable example, because we have such a great corpus of letters, but he’s also such a name. If you want to make a shortlist of people who are a marble bust on a pedestal in the way that they’re presented as we talk about the history of thought, Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Cicero, Machiavelli, are major major figures in that way. So the letters humanize them and make them real.
I feel it’s important not to approach these works as if these people are somehow superhumanly excellent, as if these people are somehow perfect in what they undertake. I’ll often be at a conference where someone will talk about a passage in a work in isolation. I was recently at the Renaissance Society of America conference, and there was an interesting discussion of a passage in which Ficino had a really weird interpretation of this one passage of Lucretius. And there was a very nasty fight between two scholars over the interpretation, in which one of the scholars insisted he’s making this complicated subtle three-part reading of a thing that relates to another thing, diagram diagram diagram. The other person said “I think he translated the passage wrong. Because the passage was really hard. And his copy didn’t have a very clear script. And I think he didn’t read the sentence the way we read the sentence.” And the first person was adamant that it is inappropriate to question whether someone like Ficino might have had trouble reading a piece of Latin, that of course his Latin is immaculately better than our Latin. And his Latin was better than our Latin, because he spent more of his life doing it and I do believe he’s better than most classicists at this — but most classicists really struggle with that line. And when you read the commentaries on it there’s lots of ambiguity even now about what it means, and we have dictionaries, which he did not.
It was very interesting to me to see that battle between thinking of the figure as human, in which the question “Did he mess up?” is a valid question, as opposed to thinking of the person as someone who could never mess up. And a lot of the ways we approach historical figures, whether it’s Machiavelli, or Aristotle, or anyone, involve the idea that all of their works are fully intended, that they’re somehow in an a-temporal vacuum, that we should look at them all in sequence, that no one is ever going to change his mind about a thing unless the person themselves made changing their mind about a thing be a big deal. We create this idea of these geniuses where everything they wrote even from early on is exactly what they meant, which then all gets incorporated into material.
I want my students to come away from my courses not thinking about historical figures like that, but remembering that every historical figure had to pay for socks, or had to deal with laundry, or have a servant who dealt with laundry for them and then they had to deal with the servant. But they all had everyday practical existences, and they all mess up. Machiavelli’s letters give you access to somebody who feels like a real human being. Some of the things he’s doing are really weird. Some of the things he’s doing involve bizarre sexuality. Some of the things he’s doing involve uncomfortable politics. Some of the things he’s doing involve very astute politics. Some of them involve very terrifying moments like his wife saying: “I’m so glad you’re alive, we heard that Cesare Borgia massacred all of his people, I’m so glad you’re alive!” And others are very much “We’re trying to get my brother a job and no one will give him a job because it was corruptly given to the other person and we have to figure out how to get my brother a job,” which is not the sort of thing we imagine such people giving their hours to.
When you read Michelangelo’s autobiography there’s an interesting point in it where he stops talking about art for a while and starts talking about the lawsuit that went on between him and people associated with Giuliano della Rovere because he was contracted to build Giuliano della Rovere’s tomb, but then for a variety of complicated reasons the tomb did not materialise as it was supposed to have, largely because the plan for the tomb was the most insane ridiculous over-the-top impossible tomb that you could ever possibly conceive of. That was obviously never going to happen. But also there were lots of fights between him and della Rovere over who had to pay for the marble and whether the marble was delivered and he said the marble was delivered and Della Rovere said the marble wasn’t delivered and there was a crack in it… and all these lawsuits went back and forth, and also Guiliano della Rovere was starting a giant war and invading Ferrara. At one point Michelangelo ran away from Rome saying “I’m not going to work on this stupid tomb any more” and went to Florence, and then Giuliano della Rovere moved an army over to besiege Florence and started threatening them “Florence! I will besiege you and burn you down unless you give me back Michelangelo!” We have these great documents where Michelangelo is begging Signoria “Please don’t make me go back to Della Rovere! I hate him and he just torments me. I’ll build you really good defensive walls! Look at my engineering ideas for how to improve the walls!” and they had to say “No, I’m sorry Michelangelo, we’re not going to war with the Battle Pope just for you, go back to Rome, build the stupid thing.” And he did go back to Rome, and then Della Rovere made him paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling knowing Michelangelo hated painting, basically as punishment for trying to run away. I’m not exaggerating. And that’s why there are lots of angry figures in the Sistine Chapel ceiling. But the wonderful horrible flirtatious strange antagonism between Michelangelo and Giuliano della Rovere is magnificent.
And in his autobiography he’s talking about this lawsuit that arose because of the della Rovere tomb project, in great detail, and then there’s a line that says Michelangelo realized that, while dealing with a bunch of lawsuits and Pope Adrian and such, he’d been so stressed he hadn’t picked up a chisel in four years. Because he spent the entire time just dealing with the lawsuit. (Anyone feeling guilty about being overwhelmed by stress this year, you’re not alone!) And we have four years worth of lost Michelangelo production, because he didn’t do any art that entire time, because he was just dealing with a stupid lawsuit. And that’s not the sort of thing that fits into our usual way of thinking about these great historical figures. We imagine Michelangelo in his studio with a chisel. We do not imagine him in a room with a bunch of lawyers being curmudgeonly and bickering and trapped in contract hell.
Those sorts of things are important, I think, to reintroduce into the way we imagine historical figures. That they have an everyday mundanity that we imagine that they don’t. And I think that’s a big part of why when we compare ourselves to them we feel as if we can’t live up to that greatness. Because we tell edited versions of the lives of great men and great women, in which we edit out the things that feel like us. So of course we feel as if our everyday lives full of mundanity can’t rise to those levels, because we’re not comparing ourselves to the real people, we’re comparing ourselves to the edited version in which we take out the mundanity! So Machiavelli’s letters give us that. And they give us a person with problems, and a person with mistakes, and a person with a sense of humor, and a person with sexuality, all of these elements we erase from our marble busts on pedestals. And so that’s a big part of why I use the letters while teaching, and when my students read them I want them to put together “Here is a real person who is like us,” as well as “Here is the everyday on the ground experience of what it’s like to live in this crisis.”
We need that, when we live in a real crisis ourselves, and it makes us feel so often like we’re powerless and weak compared to these impressive people in the past–but they felt that way too.
“If the Black Death caused the Renaissance, will COVID also create a golden age?”
Versions of this question have been going around as people, trying to understand the present crisis, reach for history’s most famous pandemic. Using history to understand our present is a great impulse, but it means some of the false myths we tell about the Black Death and Renaissance are doing new damage, one of the most problematic in my view being the idea that sitting back and letting COVID kill will somehow by itself naturally make the economy turn around and enter a period of growth and rising wages.
Brilliant Medievalists have been posting Black Death pieces correcting misconceptions and flailing as one does when an error refuted 50 times returns the 51st (The Middle Ages weren’t dark and bad compared to the Renaissance!!!). As a Renaissance historian, I feel it’s my job to shoulder the other half of the load by talking about what the Renaissance was like, confirming that our Medievalists are right, it wasn’t a better time to live than the Middle Ages, and to talk about where the error comes from, why we think of the Renaissance as a golden age, and where we got the myth of the bad Middle Ages.
Only half of this is a story about the Renaissance. The other half is later: Victorian Britain, Italy’s unification, World Wars I and II, the Cold War, ages in which the myth of the golden Renaissance was appropriated and retold. And yes, looking at the Black Death and Renaissance is helpful for understanding COVID-19’s likely impact, but in addition to looking at 1348 we need to look at its long aftermath, at the impact Yersinia Pestis had on 1400, and 1500, and 1600, and 1700. So:
- This post is for you if you’ve been wondering whether Black Death => Renaissance means COVID => Golden Age, and you want a more robust answer than, “No no no no no!”
- This post is for you if you’re tired of screaming The Middle Ages weren’t dark and bad! and want somewhere to link people to, to show them how the myth began.
- This post is for you if you want to understand how an age whose relics make it look golden in retrospect can also be a terrible age to live in.
- And this post is for you if want to ask what history can tell us about 2020 and come away with hope. Because comparing 2020 to the Renaissance does give me hope, but it’s not the hope of sitting back expecting the gears of history to grind on toward prosperity, and it’s not the hope for something like the Renaissance—it’s hope for something much, much better, but a thing we have to work for, all of us, and hard.
I started writing this post a few weeks ago but rapidly discovered that a thorough answer will be book-length (the book’s now nearly done in fact). What I’m sharing now is just a precis, the parts I think you’ll find most useful now. So sometimes I’ll make a claim without examples, or move quickly over important things, just linking to a book instead of explaining, because my explanation is approaching 100,000 words. That book will come, and soon, but meanwhile please trust me as I give you just urgent parts, and I promise more will follow.
Now, to begin, the phrase “golden age” really invokes two different unrelated things:
(1) an era that achieved great things, art, science, innovation, literature, an era whose wondrous achievements later eras marvel at,
(2) a good era to live, prosperous, thriving, stable, reasonably safe, with chances for growth, social ascent, days when hard work pays off, in short an era which—if you had to be stranded in some other epoch of history—you’d be likely to choose.
The Renaissance fits the first—we line up to see its wonders in museums—but it absolutely positively no-way-no-how fit the second, and that’s a big part of where our understandings of Renaissance vs. Medieval go wrong. So, our outline for today:
- Renaissance Life was Worse than the Middle Ages (super-compressed version)
- Where did the myth come from in the first place? (a Renaissance story)
- Why is the myth of a golden Renaissance retold so much? (a post-Renaissance story)
- Conclusion: We Should Aim for Something Better than the Renaissance
It’s also important to begin this knowing that I love the Renaissance, I wouldn’t have dedicated my life to studying it if I didn’t, it’s an amazing era. I disagree 100% with people who follow “The Middle Ages weren’t really a Dark Age!” with “The Renaissance sucks, no one should care about it!” The Renaissance was amazing, equally amazing as the Middle Ages, or antiquity, or now. I don’t love the Renaissance for being perfect. I love it because it was terrible yet still achieved so much. I love it because, when I read a letter where a woman talks of a nearby city burning, and armies approaching, and a friend who just died of the plague, and letter also talks about ideas for how to remedy these evils, and Xenophon’s advice for times of war, and how Plato and Seneca differ in their advice on patience, and the marvelous new fresco that’s been finished in the city hall. To find these voices of people who faced all that yet still came through it brimming with ideas and making art, that makes me love the human species all the more. And gives me hope.
In Florence, there are little kiosks near the David where you can buy replicas of it, and alongside the plain ones they have copies dipped in glitter paint, so the details of Michelangelo’s design are all obscured with globs of sparkling goo. That’s what the golden age myth does to the Renaissance. So when I say the Renaissance was grim and horrible, I’m not saying we shouldn’t study it it, I just want you to scrape off the glitter paint and see the details underneath: damaged, imperfect, a strange mix of ancient and new, doing its best to compensate for flaws in the material and mistakes made early on when teamwork failed, and violent too—David is, after all, about to kill an enemy, a celebration of a conquest, not a peace. Glitter drowns all that out, and this is why, while the myth of the golden Renaissance does terrible damage to how we understand the Middle Ages, it does just as much damage to how we understand the Renaissance. So let’s take a quick peek beneath the glitter, and then, more important, let’s talk about where that suffocating glitter comes from in the first place.
Part 1: Renaissance Life was Worse than the Middle Ages (super-condensed version)
The Renaissance was like Voldemort, terrible, but great.
On February 25th 1506, Ercole Bentivoglio, commander of Florence’s armies, wrote to Machiavelli. He had just read Machiavelli’s Deccenale primo, a history in verse of the events of the last decade. Bentivoglio urged Machiavelli to continue and expand the history, not for them, but for future generations, so that:
“knowing our wretched fortune in these times, they should not blame us for being bad defenders of Italic honor, and so they can weep with us over our and their misfortune, knowing from what a happy state we fell within brief time into such disaster. For if they did not see this history, they would not believe what prosperity Italy had before, since it would seem impossible that in so few days our affairs could fall to such great ruin.”
Of these days of precipitous ruin, Burkhardt, founder of modern Renaissance studies, wrote in 1869:
“The first decades of the sixteenth century, the years when the Renaissance attained its fullest bloom, were not favorable to a revival of patriotism; the enjoyment of intellectual and artistic pleasures, the comforts and elegancies of life, and the supreme interests of self-development, destroyed or hampered love of country.” (The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, end of Part 1)
Burkhardt seems to be describing a different universe from Bentivoglio, so desperate to prove to posterity that he tried his failing best to defend his homeland’s honor. Yet this was the decade that produced Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s David, Raphael’s Marriage of the Virgin, Bramante’s design for the new St. Peter’s Basilica, Josquin des Prez’s El grillo (the Cricket), the first chapters of Ariosto’s epic Orlando Furioso, and Castiglione’s first courtly works at the court of Urbino, soon to be immortalized in the Courtier as the supreme portrait of Renaissance culture. These masterworks do indeed seem to project a world of enjoyment and artistic pleasure in utter disconnect with Bentivoglio’s despair. Can this be the same Renaissance?
This double vision is authentic to the sources. If we read treatises, orations, dedicatory prefaces, writings on art or courtly conduct, and especially if we read works written about this period a few decades later—like Vasari’s Lives of the Artists which will be the first to call this age a rinascita—we see what Jacob Burkhardt described, and what popular understandings of the Renaissance focus on: a self-conscious golden age bursting with culture, art, discovery, and vying with the ancients for the title of Europe’s most glorious age. Burkhardt’s assessment was correct, if we look only at the sources he was looking at. If instead we read the private letters which flew back and forth between Machiavelli and his correspondents we see terror, invasion, plague deaths, a desperate man scrambling to even keep track of the ever-moving threats which hem his fragile homeland in from every side, as friends and family beg for frequent letters, since every patch of silence makes them fear the loved one might be dead.
Machiavelli’s correspondent, Ercole Bentivoglio, typifies the tangled political web which shaped these years. His father had been Sante Bentivoglio, who began as a blacksmith’s son and common laborer but was identified as an illegitimate member of the Bentivoglio family that dominated Bologna (remember Gendry in Game of Thrones?), so Sante was called to rule Bologna for a while when the only other adult Bentivoglio was murdered in an ambush, and young Ercole grew up in a quasi-princely court with all the grandeur we now visit in museums. Ercole’s mother was Ginevra Sforza, an illegitimate niece of Francesco Sforza who had recently conquered Milan, replacing the earlier Visconti dukes who had in turn seized the throne by treachery fifty-five years before. Renaissance politics isn’t turtles all the way down, it’s murders and betrayals all the way down.
Why was life in the Renaissance so bad? This is going to be a tiny compressed version of what in the book will be 100 pages, but for now I’ll focus on why the Renaissance was not a golden age to actually live in, even if it was a golden age in terms of what it left behind.
Let’s look at life expectancy: In Italy, average life expectancies in the solidly Medieval 1200s were 35-40, while by the year 1500 (definitely Renaissance) life expectancy in Italian city states had dropped to 18.
It’s striking how consistently, when I use these numbers live, the shocked and mournful silence is followed by a guy objecting: those numbers are deceptive, you’re including infant mortality—voiced as if this observation should discredit them. Yes, the average of 18 does include infant mortality, but the Medieval average of 35 includes it too, so the drop is just as real. If you want we can exclude those who die before age 12, and we do get a smaller total drop then, average age of death 54 in the 1200s dropping to 45-48 in 1500, so only a 12-16% drop instead of 48%, but the more we zoom the grimmer the Renaissance half proves. Infant mortality (within 12 months) averaged 28% both before and after 1348, so the big drop from Medieval to Renaissance Italy is actually kids who made it past the first year, only to die in years 2-12 from new diseases. We also think of the dangers of childbirth as lowering women’s lifespans, but death from childbirth stayed steady from Medieval to Renaissance at (for Tuscany) 1 death per 40 births, while the increase in war and violence made adult male mortality far higher than female even with the childbirth threat. If we look at the 20% of people who lived longest in Renaissance Italy it’s almost entirely widows and nuns, plus a few diehards like Titian, and poor exiled Cardinal da Costa of Portugal languishing in Rome to the age of 102, with everyone he’d known in the first 2/3rds of his life long gone. Kids died more in the Renaissance, adults died more, men died more, we have the numbers, but I find it telling how often people who hear these numbers try to discredit them, search for a loophole, because these facts rub against our expectations. We didn’t want a wretched golden age. (Demographics are, of course, an average, and different bits of Europe varied, but I’m using the numbers for the big Italian city-states precisely because they’re the bit of Europe we most associate with the golden Renaissance, so if it’s true there, it’s true of the Renaissance you were imagining.)
Why did life expectancy drop? Counter-intuitively the answer is, largely, progress.
War got worse, for one. Over several centuries, innovations in statecraft and policy (which would continue gradually for centuries more) had increased the centralization of power in the hands of kings and governments, especially their ability to gather funds, which meant they could raise larger armies and have larger, bloodier wars. Innovations in metallurgy, chemistry, and engineering also made soldiers deadlier, with more artillery, more lethal weapons, more ability to knock a town’s walls down and kill everyone inside, new daggers designed to leave wounds that would fester, or anti-personnel artillery designed to slice a line of men in half. Thus, while both the Middle Ages and Renaissance had lots of wars, Renaissance wars were larger and deadlier, involving more troops and claiming more lives, military and civilian—this wasn’t a sudden change, it was a gradual one, but it made a difference.
Economic growth also made the life expectancy go down. Europe was becoming more interconnected, trade increasing. This was partly due to innovations in banking (which had started in the 1100s), and partly, yes, the aftermath of the Black Death which caused a lot of economic change—not growth but change—some sectors growing, others shrinking, people moving around, people trying to stop people from moving around, markets shifting. There were also innovations in insurance, for example insuring your cargo ship so if it sinks you don’t go bankrupt like our Merchant of Venice. This meant more multi-region trade. For example, weaving wool into fine-quality non-itchy thread required a lot of oil, without which you could only make coarse, itchy thread. England produced lots of wool but no oil (except walnuts), so, in the Renaissance, entrepreneurs from England, instead of spinning low-profit itchy wool, started exporting their wool to Italy where abundant olive oil made it cheap to produce high-quality cloth and re-export it to England and elsewhere. This let merchants grow rich, prosperity for some, but when people move around more, diseases move more too. Cities were also growing denser, more manufacturing jobs and urban employment drawing people to crowd inside tight city walls, and urban spaces always have higher mortality rates than rural. Malaria, typhoid, dysentery, deadly influenza, measles, the classic pox, these old constants of Medieval life grew fiercer in the Renaissance, with more frequent outbreaks claiming more lives.
The Black Death contributed too—in school they talk as if the plague swept through in 1348 then went away, but the bubonic plague did not go away, it remained endemic, like influenza or chickenpox today, a fact of life. I have never read a full set of Renaissance letters which didn’t mention plague outbreaks and plague deaths, and Renaissance letters from mothers to their traveling sons regularly include, along with advice on etiquette and eating enough fennel, a list of which towns to avoid this season because there’s plague there. Carlo Cipolla (in the fascinating yet tediously titled Before the Industrial Revolution) collected great data for the two centuries after 1348, in which Venice had major plague bursts 7% of years, Florence 14% of years, Paris 9% of years, Barcelona 13% of years, and England (usually London) 22% in the earlier period spiking to 50% in the later 1500s, when England saw plague in 26 out of 50 years between 1543 and 1593. Excluding tiny villages with little traffic, losing a friend or sibling to plague was a universal experience from 1348 clear to the 1720s, when plague finally diminished in Europe, not because of any advance in medicine, but because fourteen generations of exposure gave natural selection time to work, those who survived to reproduce passing on a heightened immune response, a defensive adaptation bought over centuries by millions of deaths.
Today thousands of cases of Y. pestis (the plague bacterium) still occur each year, largely in sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia where it was not endemic so immunities didn’t develop. And if geneticist Mihai Netea is correct that the immune mutation which helps those of European descent resist Y. pestis also causes our greater rate of autoimmune disorders, then the Black Death is still constantly claiming lives through the changes it worked into European DNA over 400 years (and literally causing me pain as I type this, as my own autoimmune condition flares). While the 1348 pandemic was Medieval, most of the Middle Ages did not have the plague—it’s the Renaissance which has the plague every single day as an apocalyptic lived reality.
Economic growth also made non-military violence worse. Feuds (think Montagues and Capulets) were a Medieval constant, but the body count of a feud depends a lot on how wealthy the head families are, since the greater their wealth and the larger their patronage network, the larger the crowd of goons on stage in the opening scene of Romeo & Juliet when partisans of the two factions are biting their thumbs at each other, and the larger the number of unnamed men who also get killed in the background while Romeo fights Tybalt. In Italy especially, new avenues for economic growth (banking and mercenary work) quickly made families grow wealthy enough to raise forces far larger than the governments of their little city states, which made states powerless to stop the violence, and vulnerable to frequent, bloody coups. The Bentivoglios of Bologna and Sforza of Milan (whose marriage alliance produced Ercole who wrote that letter to Machiavelli) had risen by force, ruled by force, and were in turn overthrown by force, several times each, in fact, as rulers were killed, then avenged by returning sons or nephews, and cities flip-flopped between rival dynasties every few years:
In the 1400s most cities in Italy saw at least four violent regime changes, some of them as many as ten or twelve, commixed with bloody civil wars and factional massacres, until all Italy’s ruling houses were so new that the Knights Hospitaller—who normally required knights to have been noble four generations to join—let Italians in with only two generations because otherwise there would have been no one. Petrarch talked about this in his poem Italia Mia, which we think was written by 1347 (i.e. before the Black Death); he described Italy’s flesh covered with mortal wounds, caused by “cruel wars for light causes, and hearts, hardened and closed/ by proud, fierce Mars,” and his poor poem begging Italy’s proud, hard-hearted people for, “Peace, peace, peace.” It sounds just like what Ercole described to Machiavelli, doesn’t it? Well, Petrarch’s poem is as far from Machiavelli’s history as Napoleon’s rise from Yuri Gagarin’s space flight, a long time during which the wars grew worse, armies bigger, cities richer, plagues more frequent, steady escalation of the same things Petrarch feared would wipe out Italy 150 years before.
Important: none of this was new in the Renaissance! These were all gradual developments: banking, trade, centralization, the cultural produce of the Renaissance too (paintings, cathedrals, music, epics), these had all been gradually ramping up for centuries, changing the character of Europe decade by decade. Banking innovations started in the 1100s, insurance innovations in the 1300s, economic shifts before as well as after 1348, political shifts accumulated centuries, it’s all incremental. Thus, when I try to articulate the real difference between Renaissance and Medieval, I find myself thinking of the humorous story “Ever-So-Much-More-So” from Centerburg Tales (1951). A traveling peddler comes to town selling a powder called Ever-So-Much-More-So. If you sprinkle it on something, it enhances all its qualities good and bad. Sprinkle it on a comfy mattress and you get mattress paradise, but if it had a squeaky spring you’ll never sleep again for the noise. Sprinkle it on a radio and you’ll get better reception, but agonizing squeals when signal flares. Sprinkle it on the Middle Ages and you get the Renaissance. All key qualities were already there, good things as well as bad, poetry, art, currents of trade, thought, finance, law, and statecraft changing year by year, but add some Ever-So-Much-More-So and the intensity increases, birthing an era great and terrible. Many different changes reinforced each other, all in continuity with what came before, just higher magnitude, the fat end of a wedge of cheese, but it’s the same cheese on the thin end too. The line we draw—our slice across the cheese—we started drawing because people living in the Renaissance started to draw it, felt it was different, claimed it was different, and their claims reordered the way we think about history.
Some more quick un-fun facets of Renaissance life: while the Medieval Inquisition started in 1184, it didn’t ramp up its book burnings, censorship, and executions to a massive scale until the Spanish Inquisition in the 1470s and then the printing press and Martin Luther in the 1500s (Renaissance); similarly witchcraft persecution surges to scales unseen in the Middle Ages after the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum in 1486 (Renaissance); and the variety of ingenious tortures being used in prisons increased, rather than decreasing, over time. Rule of thumb: most of the scary practices we think of as “Medieval” were either equally true of the Renaissance, worse in the Renaissance, or only started in the Renaissance. If you want corrupt popes, they too can be more terrible as they get richer. And pre-sanitation, the more luxury goods traveled, the more people grew wealthy, the wider the variety of food people ate, and with more kinds of foods came more different kinds of parasites living in your intestines eating your from the inside out, hooray! Even in the Middle Ages we can tell your social class from the variety of parasite eggs in your preserved feces (the more you know!), but in the Renaissance the total could go up, and the frequency and intensity of chronic pain with it (not to mention a wider variety of horrible toxic things doctors would try to feed you as a cure; before sanitation more doctors = bad, not good).
In sum, if you’re a time traveler and you’re being banished, don’t pick the Renaissance.
As for how an age so terrible to live through produced the masterpieces and innovations we still hold in awe, my ultrashort answer is that Renaissance art and culture was also a gradual ramp-up from ever-changing Medieval art and culture, and that the leaps we seem to see in the later period are the desperate measures of a desperate time.
Legitimacy is a key concept here. The secret we all know is that governments, countries, laws, they’re all just a bunch of stuff we made up. They exist only as long as we all keep agreeing they exist, and act accordingly. Far more than Tinkerbell, regimes and governments need us to believe in them or they die. Sometimes this death takes the form of people just ignoring old structures, like in the Hellenic age when a remote Greek colony might hear from the founding city so infrequently that it starts ignoring the empire and just makes its own government. A more common consequence when people stop believing in governments is that some rival will take advantage of that lack of confidence, and rise up to claim power instead, whether through an electoral primary challenge or a bloody civil war.
For this reason, regimes to work hard to gain legitimacy, that is to acquire any and all things that make people agree the regime is real, and has the right to rule. When a usurper murders the old king but marries his widow, sister, or daughter, that’s an attempt to secure legitimacy in a world where people are used to government going with blood right. When no local royal-blood bride is available, the usurper might instead marry a princess from a famous distant kingdom, and fill his court with expensive, exotic treasures and other indications that he’s connected to foreign powers and money—this is another bid at legitimacy since it implies the new ruler has strong allies and the means to bring prosperity and trade. There are lots of other ways to project legitimacy: getting trusted local elites to work for you, getting religious leaders to bless you, publishing your pedigree (fake or real) with mighty ancestors, cracking down on crime and having showy trials, paying an astrologer to circulate your horoscope with great predictions, mounting a big parade, building an equestrian statue of yourself in the square that everyone walks past, receiving ambassadors in a showy way so everyone sees how much foreign powers honor you, repairing bridges and caring for orphans so people talk about your generosity and virtue, even a modern city funding a zoo and orchestra and art museum is that city projecting legitimacy with the trappings we associated with cultured power. When a regime has lots of sources of legitimacy, it makes people more willing to go along with that regime continuing. Some sources of legitimacy tie into a culture’s traditional ideas about what makes power lawful (religion, heredity, virtue, particular values), while other sources of legitimacy, like a collection of exotic animals or a fancy palace, just impress people, and make them feel that life under this regime will probably be good, and that overthrowing it would probably be difficult if it has money to throw away on palaces and elephants.
Thus the radical oversimplification is that, when times get desperate, those in power pour money into art, architecture, grandeur, even science, because such things can provide legitimacy and thus aid stability. Intimidating palaces, grand oratory, epics about the great deeds of a conqueror, expensive tutors so the prince and princess have rare skills like Greek and music, even a chemical treatise whose dedication praises the Duke of Such-and-such, these were all investments in legitimacy, not fruits of peace but symptoms of a desperate time. In an era when a book cost as much as a house (it really did!), and Florence’s Laurenziana library cost more per GDP than the Moon Landing, you don’t get that level of investment unless elites think they’re going to get something out of it. Just as today giant corporations fund charities or space tech because they get something out of it, publicity raising their stock prices, so a mighty merchant family might repair a church or build a grand public square and put their coat of arms on it, drawing investment and intimidating rivals.
Culture is a form of political competition—if war is politics by other means, culture is too, but lower risk. This too happened throughout the Middle Ages, but the Renaissance was ever-so-much-more-so in comparison, and whenever you get a combination of (A) increasing wealth and (B) increasing instability, that’s a recipe for (C) increasing art and innovation, not because people are at peace and have the leisure to do art, but because they’re desperate after three consecutive civil wars and hope they can avoid a fourth one if they can shore up the regime with a display of cultural grandeur. The fruits fill our museums and libraries, but they aren’t relics of an age of prosperous peace, they’re relics of a lived experience which was, as I said, terrible but great.
All this I’ll explore further in the book, but if you want more info in the meantime you can get an excellent overview of the period in Guido Ruggiero’s The Renaissance in Italy, and a look at how this fed philosophical innovation and birthed Renaissance humanism in James Hankins’s Virtue Politics. For today, though, our goal isn’t to look deeply at the David, it’s to look at the glitter we just scraped off it, and to understand where that glitter comes from.
Part 2: Where did the Myth Come From in the First Place? (A Renaissance Story)
Whenever I’m with Medievalists and the subject turns to one of the bad things people say about the Middle Ages (dark age, backwards, superstitious, stagnant, oppressive, enemy of progress, all homogenous), I make a point of speaking up and saying, “Yeah, that’s my guys’s fault. Sorry.” It was a joke the first time, and it’s still half a joke, but I keep doing it because there’s this special smile under the resulting chuckle, this pause, warming, affirming, on the Medievalist’s face that says: I’ve always felt I deserved an apology from the Renaissance! Thank you!
Because the beginning of the problem was the Renaissance’s fault.
Pretty-much every culture, when it tells its history, divides it into parts somehow (reigns, eras, dynasties). These labels may not seem like a big deal, but they have a huge effect on how we imagine things. Think of how the discourse about boomers vs. Gen-X vs. millennials affects people’s self-identities, who associates with whom, and the kinds of discourse we can have with those terms that we couldn’t have with different ones. The lines and labels in our history are powerful. In my Terra Ignota science fiction novels I mention that the people in my 25th century society debate whether World War I ended in 1945 or 1989, and it always blows readers’ minds for a few seconds, and then follows the reflection: yeah, I could see WWI and WWII being considered one thing, like the Wars of the Roses. My first exposure to the way this makes your brain go *whfoooo* was as a kid and hearing Eugen Weber provocatively call WWI and WWII “The Second Thirty Years War”. Feels weird, right? Weird-powerful.
People living in the European and Mediterranean Middle Ages generally (oversimplification) divided history into two parts, BC and AD, before the birth of Jesus and after. For finer grain, you used reigns of emperors or kings, or special era names from your own region, i.e. before or after a particular event, rise, reign, or fall. There was also a range of traditions subdividing further, such as Augustine’s six ages of the world which divided up biblical eras (Adam to Noah, Noah to Abraham, etc.), though most of those subdivisions are pre-historical, without further subdivision post Christ’s Incarnation. The Middle Ages also had a sense of the Roman Empire as a phase in history, but it was tied in with the BC-to-AD tradition, and with ideas of Providence and a divine Plan. Rome had not only Christianized the Mediterranean and Europe through the conversion of Constantine c. 312 CE, but authors like Dante stressed how the Empire had been the legal authority which executed Christ, God’s tool in enacting the Plan, as vital to humanity’s salvation as the nails or the cross. Additionally, many Medieval interpreters viewed history itself as a didactic tool, designed by God for human moral education (not the discipline of history, the actual events). In this interpretation of history, God determined everything that happens, as the author of a story determines what happens. The events of the past and life were like the edifying pageant plays one saw at festivals: God the Scriptwriter introduces characters in turn—a king, a fool, a villain, a saint—and as we see their fates we learn valuable lessons about fickle Fortune, hypocrisy, the retribution that awaits the wicked, and the rewards beyond the trials and sufferings of the good. The Roman Empire had been sent onto the world’s stage just the same, a tool to teach humanity about power, authority, imperial majesty, law, justice, peace, offering a model of supreme power which people could use to imagine God’s power, and many other details excitedly explored by numerous Medieval interpreters. (Many Renaissance interpreters still view history this way, and the first who really doesn’t do it at all is Machiavelli.)
The two people most directly responsible for inventing the Middle Ages are two men from Tuscany: Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca, 1304-1374), and Leonardo Bruni (1370-1444).
Petrarch was the first person to talk about the era after the Roman empire as a separate, bad period of shadow, misery, darkness, and decay. Petrarch gained his fame with his Italian poetry, and popularized the sonnet (though we have a long time still to wait for Shakespeare), but later in his life he was part of a circle of Italian scholars who loved, loved, loved, loved Cicero, and read his political works intensively as they thought about questions of republicanism and statecraft. Petrarch described himself as having been born in exile. He was born in exile in space quite literally, while his parents were in banishment, and he grew up in Avignon in the period the papacy was there in French control. But he also considered himself an exile in time, exiled from that community of antiquity which was the true home of his spirit. I already quoted his lament Italia Mia, and his sense of the degeneration of his era was enhanced by the feeling that France’s control of the papacy had ravaged and spoiled Rome and Italy. He also lived through the Black Death, and lost almost all his scholar-friends in it. Two surviving friends wrote to him after the main wave had passed to plan a precious reunion—they were attacked by bandits on the way, and one murdered, while the other escaped but was missing for many months. You can understand why Petrarch, reading of the Pax Romana when the ancient texts claim you could walk in safety from one end of Rome’s empire to the other, might see his age as one of ash and shadow. He projected that ash and shadow back on everything since Rome, lumping together for the first time the long sequence we now refer to as the Middle Ages.
Petrarch, importantly, did not claim his era was already a golden age, nor did he use the word Renaissance; he claimed his era needed to have a transformation, that desperate times called for desperate measures, and that if Italy was to have any hope of healing it must look to its ancient past, to Rome, the Pax Romana, that dream age when there were no bandits on the road or pirates in the sea. The lost arts that nurtured the age of Emperors were languishing in ancient tomes waiting to be restored if only people reached for them. We know the Renaissance as the era that revived a lot of lost Roman technologies, geometry, engineering, large-scale bronze work, and those were important, but what Petrarch really thought would change things were people, intellectual technologies, not science or engineering tools. Petrarch wanted the library that educated Cicero, and Seneca, and Caesar. When we today look at ancient Rome we’re often struck most by the wicked Emperors, Caligula, Nero, the anecdotes of decadent corruption, but Petrarch instead saw the republican Brutus, who executed his own sons when they conspired to take over the state—in a world where city after city was falling to monarchal coups, and Lord Montague was used to using his great influence to make the Prince let Romeo get away with murder, the thought of Brutus putting Rome before his family felt like a miracle. (Unhelpfully, Petrarch didn’t write a single clear treatise where he spelled this out, but if you want a sample try his letters and invectives, or for the mega-thorough scholarly version see James Hankins’ Virtue Politics).
Important: even using antiquity wasn’t new in the Renaissance. Medieval people had been reading Seneca, and Cicero, and Virgil the whole time, and imitating and reusing ancient stuff, they just used the classics differently from how Petrarch did, just as the classics are also used differently in the 17th century, and the 19th century, and today. There were some major innovations in Renaissance engagement with the classics (several stages of innovation in fact), that differentiate them from Medieval, but those are complexities for another day.
Leonardo Bruni was the next step. He was child when Petrarch died, and grew up in the era of heady excitement of trying to use classical education to create the golden age Petrarch proposed. Bruni studied Latin with a focus (as Petrarch encouraged) on imitating ancient Latin instead of Medieval Latin whose grammar and vocabulary had evolved (as any language does) over the centuries. Bruni served as Chancellor of Florence, and imitated ancient Roman historians in writing his History of the Florentine People, which for the first time formally divided history into three parts: ancient, middle, and modern, which we now call Renaissance. He also filled his history with analysis and deep interpretation, which many Renaissance scholars will tell you was the first modern history, the first history of a post-classical time/place, and the first truly analytic history written since antiquity, and then Medievalists will scream at them and pile up examples of Medieval chronicles full of framing and moral analysis, which absolutely are doing sophisticated interpretive work, and vary enormously from each other, but Bruni’s is recognizably as different. Why? Largely because Bruni actively wanted his history to seem innovative and different, and wrote with that as a goal, in a new kind of Latin, with new structure, setting out to make something everyone would look at and say: Wow, it’s like what the Romans did!
With Bruni we had three periods—ancient, medieval, and the new age. That new age wasn’t called rinascita until Vasari’s Lives of the Artists in 1550 (more than a century after Bruni) and renaissance proper was coined by Jules Michelet in 1855, but Bruni’s idea of three periods, and that this new one could be a golden age, caught on quickly because of its potential for… (da da da daaa!) …legitimacy! Back then, as now, claiming that you’re the start of a new golden age is an ideal way to make your (teetering, illegitimate) regime seem exciting, full of momentum, glorious. History-writing modeled on Bruni quickly became all the rage, and you could awe people with a history of how great your city/people/family is, get them excited about a golden age, make yourself seem legitimate. And Bruni’s history writing had another power too.
One set of events Bruni described in his Florentine History were the conquests of Gian Galeazzo Visconti the “Viper of Milan” (1351-1402), a man who lived up in every way to his badass family crest of a serpent swallowing a helpless little dude. After ambushing and supplanting his uncle, the Viper seized Milan (bribing appropriate powers to make him duke), then took Verona, Vicenza, Padua, and tried for all of northern Italy including Bologna and Florence, securing a great victory at the Battle of Casalecchio in 1402. But then (according to Bruni) brilliant Florentine cunning arranged the would-be conqueror’s defeat and downfall. When Bruni’s history circulated in 1444, the Viper’s grandson Duke Filippo Maria Visconti did a spit take: “What the?! We didn’t lose that war! Granddad dropped dead of a f*ing fever and the troops had to go home! The Florentines never beat us in a single battle! They can’t say won the war!” They can. They did.
It turns out history isn’t written by the winners; history is written by the people who write histories.
So, what are you going to do about it, grandson of the Viper of Milan? There’s only one thing to do: hire one of these new classically-educated humanisty types to write a history of your city and your family framed your way, and replacing the murdered-his-uncle bribed-the-king totally-illegitimate conquest-by-force narrative with a glorious lineage that constantly kicked Florence’s ass!! That’s what he did—that’s what everybody did, Milan, Venice, France, England, Hungary, Naples; everybody had to have a history, and all the histories claimed there had been a bad middle age, that it was over, and that we were now in the glorious classical-revival-powered new age which had the potential to surpass it thanks to the virtues and glories of [Insert Prince Here]. This is why, up in England, baby King Henry VI’s uncle Duke Humphrey of Gloucester tried to hire Leonardo Bruni to come to England and work for him, and write a history that would shore up the tenuous Lancastrian claim to the throne (we’re entering the Wars of the Roses here). And this is why, while Bruni stayed in Florence, another major Florentine figure Poggio Bracciolini actually was lured by the high pay to go to England and work for Humphrey’s rival Cardinal Beaufort. And all these histories pick and choose details to make the current regime/ruler look great and legitimate, at the expense of making the newly-invented middle age look bad.
This is why all Medievalists, deep down inside, know they deserve an apology from the Renaissance.
One attempt at a solution is dropping the term Renaissance, but that doesn’t actually solve the problem, since it leaves us with antiquity and a period from then to… what? Is the dividing line the Enlightenment? Industrialization? Colonialism? The Industrial Revolution? The Agricultural Revolution? The French Revolution? WWI? No matter how late you push the line, any of these divisions is still accepting Bruni’s ancient-middle-modern division, and involves making a claim about what begins the modern. Normal parlance in history now is “early modern” which begins with [insert-scholarly-squabble-here] and ends roughly with the French Revolution, which is generally agreed to kick off “modern” proper. While “early modern” does avoid accepting claim that the Middle Ages were bad and needed a rebirth, and I use it myself, I also think it’s a dreadful term, since (A) it’s confusing (“early modern” sounds like the Crystal Palace, not Shakespeare’s Globe), and (B) the term actively worsens the degree to which your selected start date is a judgment call about what makes us modern. Because the real problem with the myth of the bad Middle Ages versus golden Renaissance is not what Petrarch and Bruni created within the Renaissance itself—it’s what happened later to entangle both terms with an equally problematic third term: modern.
Part 3: Why is the Myth of a Renaissance Golden Age Retold so Much? (a post-Renaissance story)
The thing about golden ages—and this is precisely what Petrarch and Bruni tapped into—is that they’re incredibly useful to later regimes and peoples who want to make glorifying claims about themselves. If you present yourself, your movement, your epoch, as similar to a golden age, as the return of a golden age, as the successor to a golden age, those claims are immensely effective in making you seem important, powerful, trustworthy. Legitimate.
In sum, one of the most powerful tools for legitimacy is invoking a past golden age. Under my rule we will be great like X was great! Whether it’s a giant golden age (Rooooome!) or a tiny golden age (the US 1950s!), if you can claim to be bringing it back, you can make a very clear, appealing case for why you should have power. This claim can be made by a king, a duke, a ruling council, a political party, an individual, or a whole movement. It can be made explicitly in rhetoric (I am the new Napoleon!) or implicitly by borrowing the decorative motifs, vocabulary, and trappings of an era. An investment banking service that uses a Roman coin profile as its logo, names its different mutual funds after Roman legions, and has a pediment and columns on its corporate headquarters is trying to project legitimacy from the idea of antiquity as a golden age of power and stability.
The newborn United States of America when it decided to make the Washington Monument be a giant obelisk, that was another bid at legitimacy and projecting power by invoking the golden ages of ancient Egypt and conquering Rome, combined in the Washington Monument’s case with other things like, instead of the traditional gold tip on top, using high-tech more-expensive-than-gold aluminum, mixing golden age with power claims about wealth and science.
…because the Renaissance had called itself a golden age, by the 17th century it had joined the list of epochs that you can invoke to gain legitimacy, and has been invoked that way many times. This is why 18th and especially 19th and earlier 20th century governments and elites raced to buy up Italian Renaissance art treasures and display them in their homes and museums. This is why Mussolini, while he mostly invoked imperial Rome, used the Renaissance too, and even made special arrangements to meet Hitler inside the Vasari Corridor in Florence to show off the art treasures of the Uffizi. And this is why the US Library of Congress building is painted all over inside with imitations of Renaissance classicizing frescos and allegorical figures in Renaissance style even though the quotations they include and values they celebrate are largely not Renaissance.
One consequence of golden ages being so powerful is that powers squabble over them: “I’m the true successor of [XXX]!” “No, I’m the true successor!” You see this in the fascinating modern day dispute over the name Macedonia in which both Greece and the country now called North Macedonia both want to be seen as the land of Alexander the Great, and argued over the name tooth and nail, dragging in both the UN and NATO. Since golden ages are mythical constructions (the events are real but the golden age-ness is mythmaking) they’re easy to redefine to serve claims of true successor status—all you have to do is claim that the true heart that made the golden age great was X, and the true spirit of X flourishes most in you. Any place (past or present) that calls itself a new Jerusalem, new Rome, or new Athens is doing this, usually accompanied by a narrative about how the original has been ruined by something: “Greece today is stifled by [insert flaw here: conquest, superstition, socialism, lack of socialism, a backwards Church, whatever], but the true spirit of Plato, Socrates and the Examined Life flourish in [Whateverplace]!”
Ancient Rome is particularly easy to use this way because Rome had several phases (republic, empire, Christian Rome) so if some rival has done a great job declaring itself the New Roman Empire you can follow up by saying the Empire was the corrupt decadent period and the Roman Republic was the true Rome! Simply quote Cicero and talk about wicked emperors and you can appropriate the good Rome and characterize your rivals as the bad Rome. If republic, empire, and Christian Rome are all claimed, you can do something more creative like the 19th century romantic movement which claimed the archaic pastoral Rome of Virgil’s Georgics, replacing pediments and legionary eagles with garlands and shepherds and claiming a mythic golden age no one had been using lately.
The same is true of claiming Renaissance. If you can make a claim about what made the Renaissance a golden age, and claim that you are the true successor of that feature of the Renaissance, then you can claim the Renaissance as a whole. This is made easier by the fact that “the Renaissance” is incredibly vague. When did it start? 1400? 1350? 1500? 1250? 1550? 1348? When did it end? 1600? 1650? 1700? You can find all these dates if you dig through books about “the Renaissance” written in different countries and different fields (art history, literary history). I pointed out that Petrarch’s Italia Mia is as far from Ercole’s Bentivoglio’s letter to Machiavelli as Napoleon’s rise from Yuri Gagarin’s space flight, but even at Machiavelli we’re still only half-way through the large, vague period that different people label Renaissance. On my own university campus, if I drop by different departments and ask colleagues when Renaissance begins, I get 1200 or 1250 from the Italian lit department (some of whom say Machiavelli is already “modern”), but in the English building I might get 1450 or even 1500. I think drawing a line after Black Death makes sense for Italy at least, or maybe at 1400, but there are plenty of counter-arguments, and people on campus who identify as Medievalists who study things later than some things I work on. I think it’s great for Medieval and Renaissance to overlap, since I—looking mainly forward—ask different questions about someone like Petrarch from the questions my Medievalist colleagues ask. The only “wrong” answer to where the line falls, in my opinion, is to believe there is a clear line.
And if we zoom into this long, vague period, when was the “high Renaissance” i.e. the best part, the most characteristic part? If you ask a political scientist it’s usually the very early 1400s, when Bruni and other innovative political thinkers were writing; if you ask an art historian it’s the decades right after 1500 when ¾ of the Ninja Turtles overlapped; if you ask a theater scholar it’s Shakespeare who was born fully 200 years later than Bruni and his peers discussing politics. It all depends on what you think defines the Renaissance, so if you have a different focus then different dates feel like periphery or core.
So, just as when we invoke Rome we can pick republican Rome, imperial Rome, pastoral Rome, Christian Rome, the conquering Rome of Julius Caesar or the peaceful Rome of the Pax Romana, similarly there are a huge range of Renaissances one can invoke: Bruni’s, Raphael’s, Machiavelli’s, Luther’s, Shakespeare’s. But choosing your Renaissance is an especially potent question because of… (drumroll please)… the X-Factor.
Okay, deep breath.
After the Renaissance, in the period vaguely from 1700 to 1850, everyone in Europe agreed the Renaissance had been a golden age of art, music, and literature specifically. Any nation that wanted to be seen as powerful had to have a national gallery showing off Renaissance (mainly Italian) art treasures, and capital buildings with Renaissance neoclassical motifs, while an individual with elite ambitions had to know classicizing Latin, and a bit of Greek, and have opinions about Raphael, Titian, Petrarch, and the polyphonic motets of Lassus. Seriously: in the original Doyle Holmes stories, so 1850-1910, after having Watson establish Holmes’s “Knowledge of literature—nil. Philosophy—nil.” still has Holmes carry a pocket Petrarch and write a monograph on the polyphonic motets of Lassus, because that’s what a smart, impressive person did in 1850. This also meant that Renaissance art treasures were protected and preserved more than Medieval ones—if you’re valorizing the Renaissance you’re usually criticizing the Middle Ages in contrast, so these generations learned to think of Renaissance art as good taste and the periods on both sides (Medieval and baroque) as bad taste, and a lot of great Medieval art was left to gather dust, or rot, or was even actively destroyed, since nothing invokes the Renaissance like sweeping away the “bad” medieval. As a result, the Renaissance became a self-fulfilling source base: go to a museum today and you see much more splendid Renaissance art than Medieval, leading to the natural conclusion that the Renaissance produced more art in general, but Middle Ages did make splendid art, it’s just that later centuries didn’t preserve it as carefully, so less survives, and what survives is more likely to be in storage than in the main gallery.
The transition from people being excited about Renaissance art and culture to being excited about the Renaissance as an era came in the mid-1800s, primarily with the work of Swiss historian Jacob Burkhardt, and his 1869 The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. It’s a gorgeous read, unskimmably rich prose, and Burkhardt’s work was a major breakthrough moment for the practice of history as a whole, because he showed how you could write a history, not of a country or a person, but of a culture, discussing the practices and ideas of an era, examining art and artists side-by-side with authors, soldiers, and statesmen as examples of people of a period and the way they thought, acted, and lived. The book pioneered cultural history, the practice of trying to study societies and their characteristics, acknowledging the interrelationship of politics with art and culture instead of examining them separately. Cultural history remains a major field, and one where some of the best work on once-neglected topics like women, pop culture, and non-elites has flourished. But…
Burkhardt was also the main figure who popularized the terms “modernity” and “modern.” He argued that the Renaissance was the birth of “modern man,” and that modern man was defined by a powerful sense of human excellence and human potential. According to Burkhardt, the core of this change—the spirit of the Renaissance which sparked the triumphant path of progress toward modernity—was the rise of individualism. As he says in the beginning of Part II:
In the Middle Ages both sides of human consciousness—that which was turned within as that which was turned without—lay dreaming or half awake beneath a common veil. The veil was woven of faith, illusion, and childish prepossession, through which the world and history were seen clad in strange hues. Man was conscious of himself only as member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation—only through some general category. In Italy this veil first melted into air; an objective treatment and consideration of the state and of all the things of this world became possible. The subjective side at the same time asserted itself with corresponding emphasis; man became a spiritual individual, and recognized himself as such.
The Medievalists reading this are gnashing their teeth, and yes, this moment is core to the persistence of the myth of the bad, backward, stagnant, sleepy middle ages, and equally core to the myth of the Renaissance Man: awake, ambitious, aware of his own power, rational, ripping through the cobwebs of superstition, desirous of remaking the world but also of intentionally fashioning him or herself into something splendid and excellent. A human being who realizes human beings can be their own masterpieces.
In the mid-19th-century, when Burkhardt wrote, Europe was very enamored of individualism, of new democratic ideas of government, of nationalism and ideas of individual consciousness and national consciousness, and of the notions of genius, both genius individuals and the geniuses of peoples. Thus, Burkhardt’s claim that the Renaissance was born from individualism gave all sorts of 19th century movements the ability to claim the Renaissance golden age as an ancestor. Germany, Britain, the young United States, despite having little to do with Italy, they could all claim to be the true inheritors of Renaissance greatness if they could claim that individualism and the opportunity to be a self-made man prospered more truly among their peoples than in Italy.
But there was more: by claiming that the Renaissance—and all its glittering art and innovation—was caused by individualism, Burkhardt was really advancing a claim about the nature of modernity. Individualism was an X-Factor which had appeared and made a slumbering world begin to move, sparking the step-by-step advance that led humanity from stagnant Medieval mud huts to towers of glass and iron—and by implication it would also define our path forward to an even more glorious future. In other words, the X-Factor that sparked the Renaissance was the defining spirit of modernity. If individualism was responsible, not only for the Renaissance, but for the wonders of modernity, then logically those regimes of Burkhardt’s day which most facilitated the expression of individualism could claim to be the heart of human progress and to hold the keys to the future; those nations which did not advance individualism (where socialism prospered, for example, or “collectivism” which was how 19th century Europe characterized most non-Western societies) were still the slumbering Middle Ages, in need of being awakened to their true potential by those nations which did possess the X-Factor of human progress.
I hope you winced a few times in the previous paragraph, recognizing toxic 19th century problems (eurocentrism, orientalism, “White Man’s Burden” thinking), as well as basic historical errors (spoiler: you can find plenty of individualism in Medieval texts, and lots of things that are absolutely not individualism in Renaissance ones). But those specifics aren’t the big problem. The big problem was how entrancing the idea of an X-Factor was, the notion that there is one true innovative spirit which defines both Renaissance and modern, and advances in a grand and exponential curve from Petrarch through Leonardo and Machiavelli on to [insert modern hero here]. Thus Burkhardt birthed what I call the quest for the Renaissance X-Factor. Because when the first scholars disagreed with Burkhardt, they didn’t objcet to the idea that the Renaissance was caused by a great defining X-Factor, they loved that idea, they simply argued about what exactly the X-Factor was.
Thanks to Burkhardt, the Renaissance came to be defined as the period after Medieval but before Enlightenment when something changed and pushed things toward modernity—the moment that the defining spirit of modernity appeared. From that point on, claiming you were the successor to the Renaissance didn’t just mean claiming a golden age like Rome, it let you also claim that modernity itself was somehow especially yours. If you could argue that the reason the Renaissance was great was that it did the thing you do, then you are the heart of modernity and progress, even of the future, while those who don’t celebrate that spirit are the enemies of progress. Thus every time someone proposed a new X-Factor, a different explanation for what made Renaissance different from Medieval, that made it possible to make new claims about the nature of modernity, and which nations or movements have it right. This model even lets one claim the future: the X-Factor was born in the Renaissance, grew in the Enlightenment and in modernity, and is the key to unlocking the next glorious age of human history as it unlocked both Renaissance and modern. This lets you advance teleological arguments about the inevitable triumph of [democracy, nationalism, atheism, capitalism, whatever]. It’s a version of history that’s not only legitimizing but comforting, since it lets you feel you know where history is headed, what will happen, who will win.
To give specific examples, if we’re in the middle of the Cold War, and an influential historian publishes a book arguing that the X-Factor that sparked the Renaissance was double-entry bookkeeping, i.e. the rise of banking and the merchant class, America can say: “The Renaissance X-Factor was the birth of capitalism! The fact that it was a golden age proves capitalism will make a golden age too, and the true successor of this golden age is our alliance of modern capitalist regimes!” If, on the other hand, we’re in a nationalist wave, say in 1848 or 1920, and someone argues that the X-Factor that sparked the Renaissance was the call for national unity articulated in Petrarch’s Italia Mia or Savonarola’s sermons (this is Pasquale Villari), and that what ended the Renaissance golden age was when Italy was conquered and divvied up among the Bourbons and Hapsburgs, then the Renaissance can be claimed as a predecessor by the Italian unification movement, the German unification movement, any nationalist movement anywhere can claim that uniting peoples into nations is what drives modernity. If we claim the Renaissance was birthed by the rise of secular thought, that Renaissance geniuses were the first people to break through the bonds of superstition, and that Leonardo and Machiavelli were secret atheists (this is Auguste Comte), then we can claim that secularization and the secular state is the heart of human progress and modernity. And if someone claims the X-factor was republican proto-democratic thought, the political writings and discourse of civic participation unique to the Italian city republics, Florence, Venice (this is Hans Baron), then we can claim that republican democracy is the key to human progress, that modern democracies are the heart of modernity, and everything else is backwards, outside, Medieval, bad, and needs to be replaced.
To this day, every time someone proposes a new X-Factor for the Renaissance—even if it’s a well-researched and plausible suggestion—it immediately gets appropriated by a wave of people & powers who want to claim they are the torch-bearers of that great light that makes the human spirit modern. And every time someone invokes a Renaissance X-Factor, the corresponding myth of the bad Middle Ages becomes newly useful as a way to smear rivals and enemies. As a result, for 160 years and counting, an endless stream of people, kingdoms, political parties, art movements, tech firms, banks, all sorts of powers have gained legitimacy by retelling the myth of the bad Middle Ages and golden Renaissance, with their preferred X-Factor glittering at its heart.
We scholars do our best to battle this, to introduce a complex and un-modern Renaissance, but the very usefulness of the myth guarantees that it will be repeated much more broadly than our no-fun efforts to correct it. A lot of Renaissance historians today reject the idea of a single X-Factor and try instead to talk about combinations of mixing factors. Many of us also try to argue that the Renaissance was not fundamentally modern, that it was its own distinctly un-modern thing. But it’s a hard sell, because the narrative of a special spirit launching us from Petrarch to the Moon Landing is enchanting, and because a complicated, messy, un-modern Renaissance snatches away the golden Renaissances most people meet first. Nobody in this century has read about the French Invasion of 1494, or even about the Guelphs and Ghibellines, before meeting the genius cults of Leonardo and Michelangelo.
Scraping the glitter off to reveal the imperfect and violent David underneath is an assault on our understandings of our past and present, on what it means to be ourselves, even on our sense of where the future is heading. People find that unsettling. And people who look to Renaissance celebrities as role models and intellectual ancestors don’t like to hear about their rough un-modern sides. So people get hostile, or unsettled, they keep telling the myths, and use cherry picked sources to glob the glitter-paint back on. It’s not always done in bad faith—if from early childhood you’ve always learned the Renaissance was sparkling and golden, and you see a bare patch where the glitter has come off, of course you’ll think that bare patch is the error, that the still-sparkly parts are the real thing. You treat the oddball patch as damage, and keep believing what that documentary or museum label told you years ago when you saw your first Renaissance masterpiece and fell in love. So the myth persists, and for every attempt to correct it we’re up against a dozen tour guide scripts, and TV specials, and corporate statements, and outdated textbooks, and new books (fiction and nonfiction alike) that glob the glitter on. So you can understand why, from time to time, Renaissance and Medieval specialists alike just have to stop and scream like Sisyphus.
Conclusion: We Should Aim for Something Better than the Renaissance
This, in not-very-brief, is why we keep telling the myth of the golden Renaissance, and bad Middle Ages.
Now, let’s look again at our other starting question: “If the Black Death caused the Renaissance will the COVID pandemic cause a golden age?” You see the problems with the question now: the Black Death didn’t cause the Renaissance, not by itself, and the Renaissance was not a golden age, at least not the kind that you would want to live in, or to see your children live in. But I do think that both Black Death and Renaissance are useful for us to look at now, not as a window on what will happen if we sit back and let the gears of history grind, but as a window on how vital action is.
The Black Death first: it didn’t cause the Renaissance, no one thing caused the Renaissance, it was a conjunction of many gradual and complicated changes accumulating over centuries (banking, legal reform, centralization of power, urbanization, technology, trade) which came together to make an age like the Medieval but ever-so-much-more-so. The idea that the Black Death caused a prosperity boom comes from old studies which showed that wages went way up after the Black Death, creating new possibilities for laborers to gain in wealth and rise in status (like the golden 1950s). But those were small studies from a few places (mainly bits of England), and we have newer studies now that show that wages only rose in a few places, that in other places wages didn’t rise, or actually went down, or that they started to rise but elites cracked down with new laws to control labor, creating (among other things) the first workhouses, laws limiting freedom of movement, and other new forms of unfreedom and control. What the Black Death really caused was change. It caused regime changes, instability letting some monarchies or oligarchies rise, or fall. It caused policy and legal changes, some oppressive, some liberating. And it caused economic changes, some regions or markets collapsing, and others growing.
If you really want to know what COVID will do, I think the place to look is not Renaissance Italy, but the Viking settlements in Greenland, which vanished around 1410. Did they all die of the plague? No. We’re pretty sure they never got the plague, they were too isolated. But the Greenland settlements’ economy had long depended on the walrus trade: they hunted walruses and sold the ivory and skins, and ships would come from Norway or Iceland to trade for walrus, bringing goods one couldn’t make in Greenland, like iron, or fine fabric, or wheat. But after 1348 the bottom dropped out of the walrus market, and the trading ships stopped coming. By 1400 no ships had visited Greenland for years except the few that were blown off-course by storm. And meanwhile there were labor shortages and vacant farms on the once-crowded mainland. So we think the Greenland Vikings emigrated, asked those stray ships to take them with them back to Europe, as many as could fit, abandoning one life to start another. That’s what we’ll see with COVID: collapse and growth, busts for one industry, booms for another, sudden wealth collecting in some hands, while elsewhere whole communities collapse, like Flint Michigan, and Viking Greenland, and the many disasters in human history which made survivors abandon homes and villages, and move elsewhere. A lot of families and communities will lose their livelihoods, their homes, their everythings, and face the devastating need to start again. And as that happens, we’ll see different places enact different laws and policies to deal with it, just like after the Black Death. Some places/regimes/policies will increase wealth and freedom, while others will reduce it, and the complicated world will go on being complicated.
That’s why I say we should aim to do better than the Renaissance.
Because we can. We have so much they didn’t. We know so much.
For one thing, we know how pandemics work. We know about germs, viruses, contagion, hand-washing, sanitation, lowering the curve. We can make plans, take action that does something. Forget 1348, even in 1918 we didn’t understand how to treat influenza, how it moved, and hand washing was still controversial. 1918 was a US election year but we didn’t discuss delaying or changing the election, there was nothing we could do to make it safer, we didn’t know about six-feet-apart, or sanitizing voting booths, or have the infrastructure to consider vote-by-mail, all we could do was let men (women still had two more years to wait) vote and die. We’ve come a long way.
This year, 2020, this is the first time in the history of this planet that any species has faced a pandemic knowing what it is, and how to take effective action. We aren’t taking perfect action, and we absolutely should be criticizing and condemning the many flaws—some small, some huge—in how it’s being dealt with, but there is real, efficacious action we can take. As an historian, not just of the plague of 1348, but of the plagues of 1435, and 1485, and 1494, and 1503, and 1596, and 1630, and 1656, what I see is those many generations who not only had to live through this over and over, but who had no hope that their children would ever be free of it. We know about vaccines, and that we’ll make one—it’ll take a while, and we’ll mess up various ways along the way, but none of us is afraid our grandchildren will grow up spending one year in ten locked up in their homes like this as COVID-19 spreads; we will solve it. We know we’ll solve it, and any other age in history would treasure that confidence like miracle. Because all Petrarch could say after losing his world in 1348 was that, the next time plague comes back, we should console ourselves by thinking of it as dying with much good company.
We know about mental health now too. We’re talking about the mental health crisis of COVID, the mental health costs of fear, poverty, racial injustice—in 1918 we were still excited by electroshock, and debating the radical new idea that outpatient psych treatment might be a thing, instead of doing only institutionalization. We have the language to talk about the mental cost of crisis, and that language alone opens so many possibilities for helping, acting, aiding that previous eras never had. Without the concept, we couldn’t start to try to treat it—now we can.
And we have more language: social safety net, social welfare, social services, concepts for thinking how state and society can put structures in place to relieve human suffering. We have economics now, not the kind of economics that’s trying to prognosticate the stock market, the basic kind with terms like GDP, and unemployment rate, and wealth gap, and retirement age, and inflation. There were economies in 1348, and even social services, hospitals, orphanages, city grain supplies, but we didn’t have a science for discussing it, vast banks of data comparing how different systems work, or help, or harm. After the Black Death when different places tried different policies for their recovery, they didn’t have comparisons, examples—we do. We won’t be guessing in the dark when each nation decides its recovery plan for this pandemic—we won’t be omniscient, but even partial knowledge makes us powerful. That raises the stakes.
Because, like after 1348, there is about to be big change. There are many options before us, different things that states can do post-COVID, some of which will help with poverty, empower labor, lend a helping hand to those exhausted Greenland Vikings as they start again, and there are other things states can do that will instead widen the gaps, entrench elites, help the rich get richer and see the disempowered locked more inescapably into modern versions of workhouses. Different places will make different choices. Some places will see regime changes, others just policy shifts, but there aren’t vast wheels of history that lock a pandemic into automatically yielding a boom or bust. There is no automatic outcome. Rather, all nations in the world are about to make a set of choices which will have a far larger, deeper impact on the next decades, on lives, rights, options, everything, than the normal choices states make in a normal year. The stakes are higher. Unlike in 1348 we have a lot of knowledge, answers, options, concepts we could try like safety nets, or UBI, or radical free markets, many very different things. Which means that acting now, demanding now, voting, pushing, proposing change, we’re shaping policies that will affect our big historical trajectory more than normal—a great chance to address and finally change systemic inequalities, or to let them entrench. There is no predetermined outcome of pandemic; pandemic is a hallway leading to a room where something big is going to be decided—human beings decide.
I love space exploration. I’ve written novels about it, and a song that makes everyone cry, I make myself tear up thinking about it all the time, especially civilian spaceflight and the hope that this chapter of history might be advanced by curiosity, teamwork, and human hope, not war or competition. But after looking forward to it for so long, the recent SpaceX launch was the first I’ve watched in a long time without tearing up. Because watching a space ship launch while looters are smashing shops outside my window (and cops ignoring them in favor of harassing peaceful protestors & giving carte blanche to the gunwielding vigilante on the corner) feels a lot like Leonardo painting the Mona Lisa while cities around were literally burning (and rich merchants’ private goons guarding their wealth & allies as faction dictated). This year, this specific year, 2020, with the world shut down by plague, and civil strife, and fire in the streets, and teetering distrust in governments, this is the first time our present has reminded me of the Renaissance. But we aren’t the Renaissance—we have social science, and efficacious medicine, and the Enlightenment under our belts, when we learned we can analyze our laws and institutions, and step by step replace them with better ones. We aim for better.
At the Renaissance Society of America Conference some years ago, two scholar friends got into a debate about whether Machiavelli’s world was fundamentally pre-modern, different from our own, or whether fundamentally it faced the same problems we do. Responding to the claim that the Renaissance was far more violent than our present, the advocate of Renaissance-as-modern quoted the statistic that modern Chicago had as many murders every year as Renaissance Florence. The rebuttal that surged in my mind was that the population of Florence was less than 100K, so Chicago’s millions have far fewer murders per capita, but the other speaker had a far better answer. We’re working to change that murder rate. We study it, understand it, plan interventions, act. We believe it’s a problem we can solve, should solve, that citizen and state should act, and if the state will not the state should change. We have policy studies, plans, alternatives.
Petrarch wanted to end the cruel wars for light causes that were wounding Italy, but had no plan beyond sending his poem out into the world, and urging elites to have their kids read Cicero. Machiavelli also wanted to end the cruel wars for light causes, and seeing that reading Cicero had failed he proposed a new way of evaluating history, collecting examples of what worked and didn’t in the past, basing our statecraft and actions on them so the next time we try things we’ll choose more wisely. It was the birth of social science. It took us a long time for us to get good at it, to turn the observations in The Prince into big databases and systematic studies, just as it took a long time for medicine to get from the four humors to our confidence that we can make a vaccine, but we can make one. We can make good social policy. Will we do it perfectly? No. Many bad policies will be advanced, just as vaccines and treatments will be distributed unfairly and slowed down by bigotry and selfishness. But we can do it, we have tools, as real in our hands and libraries as the knowledge of vaccines is real—tools Machiavelli and Petrarch would have given anything to have. We can aim for better than another Renaissance.
I was recently interviewed for a piece in the Times on why the philosophy of stoicism has become very popular in the Silicon Valley tech crowd. Only a sliver of my thoughts made it into the article, but the question from Nellie Bowles was very stimulating so I wanted to share more of my thoughts.
To begin with, like any ancient philosophy, stoicism has a physics and metaphysics–how it thinks the universe works–and separately an ethics–how it advises one to live, and judge good and bad action. The ethics is based on the physics and metaphysics, but can be divorced from it, and the ethics has long been far more popular than the metaphysics. This is a big part of why stoic texts surviving from antiquity focus on the ethics; people transcribing manuscripts cared more about these than about the others. And this is why thinkers from Cicero to Petrarch to today have celebrated stoicism’s moral and ethical advice while following utterly different cosmologies and metaphysicses. (For serious engagement with stoic ontology & metaphysics you want Spinoza.) The current fad for stoicism, like all past fads for stoicism (except Spinoza) focuses on the ethics.
Thinking Spots: Stoic Metaphysics and Ontology
Stoic ontology and metaphysics are sufficiently awesome that I must give it a couple paragraphs before I move to the ethics, though the ethics are the core of its popularity today. Stoics were monists; if dualists like Plato and Descartes believe there are fundamentally two things (matter and non-matter, for example), monists believe there is fundamentally one thing. Not just one category of thing (Epicurean atomists, for example, think there is only one kind of thing: atoms) but actually one single thing. The stoics posited that the universe is one enormous contiguous single object. Different parts of it manifest different qualities, but are the same. Just as polkadot fabric may manifest blueness here and whiteness there but remains the same object, so the part of the universe which is your hand manifests firmness and warmth and opacity, and the part which is the air manifests softness and transparency, but they are the same object. And when you seem to move your hand, in fact there is no motion, rather the part of the universe that was manifesting the transparency and softness of air before is manifesting the firmness and opacity of arm now and vice versa. Think of the pixels on a screen: what seem to be objects moving are in fact different parts of the screen changing color (i.e. changing quality) in sequence, creating the illusion of motion whereas in fact there is only variation in the surface of an object. (This is the stoic solution to Zeno’s paradoxes of motion discussed here). The stoic living universe is thus somewhat like the skin of a mimic octopus, able to seem to be become a myriad different things while it remains one. And in addition to blueness, and whiteness, and opacity, and warmth, other attributes the universe manifests more in some places than others include what we would call in modern terms sentience, self-awareness, and reason–thus the human being is a spot of sentience against a background of less sentient substance, like a white spot on blue. But, the stoics argue, any property which is possessed by the part is possessed by the whole, so while sentience and reason are concentrated in the spots which are living humans, the whole thing is a vast, intelligent, rational whole, and when we die we merge back into it. Thus there is no individual immortality, but we are all part of something greater which is eternal, wise, and infinite.
Stoicism was likely influenced by Buddhism through contact with India during the wars of Alexander the Great, and shares a lot with Buddhism: the whole universe is one vast, living, divine whole. Life is full of suffering, but that suffering is a path to understanding a larger good. And there is a universal justice on the large scale beyond what a human from our limited P.O.V. can understand. In Buddhism this is karma, while for the stoics it is Providence, the same concept of Providence that Christianity later borrowed, which argues that everything in the world which seems bad is actually good in a way we cannot fully understand because of our limited perspective. It is as if we are a fingertip; we cannot understand why we must suffer the evil of being repeatedly banged against a hard, unyielding surface, because we don’t have the means to understand that the larger organism is typing up a blog post about stoicism, but if we did have the means to understand we would recognize that it’s worth-it on the large scale. The stoic justification for claiming the universe is perfect is the patterns we see in nature: trees have roots to drink the water they need, woodpeckers that eat bugs have beaks the shape they need to be, woodland animals have woodland camouflage, desert animals have desert camouflage, everything fits together in a vast, functional whole which (without Darwin to offer an alternative) the Greeks agreed implied intelligence, either in a creator (Aristotle’s demiurge), a source (Plato’s Good), or, for the stoics, the universe itself.
The stoics also argued (followed by some Christian thinkers) that there is no self-determination. We will all end up going where the Plan will have us go no matter what, but the one thing we do have power over is our own inner responses to the path fate gives us: do we curse, complain, fight, shake our fists at the heavens, or do we ascent, accept, relax, and gaze in happy awe on the vastness of which we are a part? A classic stoic image (and after this I’ll turn to ethics and the tech crowd) is that the human being is like a dog tied behind a cart. The cart is going somewhere, and there is absolutely nothing the dog can do to change the course the cart will take. The dog has freewill only in one thing: the dog can fight, snarl, tug at the collar, gnaw on the rope, dig its claws into the dirt until it bleeds, and exhaust itself with fighting, or it can trot along contentedly and trust the driver.
An Action Ethics
A lot of the surviving stoic writings are maxims, short pieces for contemplation designed to help you dwell less on bad things that are happening, sometimes more imagery than argument. Imagine–for example–that life is like being a guest at a banquet. Platters are being passed around and people are reaching out and taking what is offered them. Some platters come to you and you take of them–other platters never make it to you, or are empty when they do. But you are a guest, these things were not yours, they were offered as gifts, so you have no reason to be angry that you can only taste some of them–better to enjoy the platters that do reach you, and remember that the host who offered them is kind.
This is where stoicism serves very much like a self-help book, or more generally as philosophical therapy, which is what classical philosophies largely aimed to provide. Stoicism’s recommendations for how to resist pain are exquisite, as in this example from the Meditations. And the metaphysics crops up mainly as a way to justify the advice:
XXV. What a small portion of vast and infinite eternity it is, that is allowed unto every one of us, and how soon it vanisheth into the general age of the world: of the common substance, and of the common soul also what a small portion is allotted unto us: and in what a little clod of the whole earth (as it were) it is that thou doest crawl. After thou shalt rightly have considered these things with thyself; fancy not anything else in the world any more to be of any weight and moment but this, to do that only which thine own nature doth require; and to conform thyself to that which the common nature doth afford.
An Ethics for the Rich and Powerful
At this point I want to remind the reader that I personally love stoicism. It’s gorgeous. It’s brilliant. Revisiting it I find it always challenges assumptions, pushes me to hold myself to high standards, gives me new ideas to chew on. Its major texts, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, are ones I love to teach, love to revisit, love to grapple with again and again. I will continue to praise, and teach, and write about, and read, and make use of stoicism all the days of my life. But…
The new popularity of stoicism among the tech crowd, and also on Wall Street which is another place that’s been reading and naming things after stoics recently, is strikingly similar to stoicism’s popularity among the powerful elites of ancient Rome. In Hellenistic Greece, stoicism had been one of several different popular philosophical schools, along with Platnonism, skepticism, Pythagoreanism, cynicism, Aristotelianism, Hedonism etc. (Quick tip: names of philosophical systems are generally capitalized when named after people, not capitalized when named after other stuff, as in cynicism from cynos, dog; stoicism from stoa, porch, where the first stoics held their classes.) And like the rest of these ancient schools, stoicism focused on eudaimonia, i.e. happiness or the good life, the idea that the purpose of philosophical study was not primarily to understand everything, or to achieve power through knowledge, but to achieve personal happiness, usually through inner tranquility and armoring the soul against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (see my essay on eudaimonia for more.) Stoicism was one of a number of methods to attempt this, so like all ancient schools it fulfilled the roles of a self-help book and Science 101 textbook rolled into one.
But in Rome stoicism surged in popularity compared to all the other systems, because it was the one Greek ethics which worked well for the rich and powerful. Other schools like Platonism, cynicism, and Epicureanism warned followers that participation in politics and the pursuit of wealth, power, or honor would only lead to stress and risk, and were incompatible with happiness. Epicurus said the happy life was found by leaving the political urban world to sit in a secluded garden, eating a simple meal while conversing with good friends. Cynicism advocated the more extreme step of renouncing personal property and living like a stray dog scrounging beside the road, which has no fear of being robbed or losing its status because it has nothing to lose. The Pythagoreans and many other sects lived in isolated communities not unlike monastic orders, and used strict diets, ascetic dress codes, even vows of silence. Plato too specified that the philosopher kings of the republic are made unhappy by the stress of having to rule, and a number of ancient figures even used the stress of rule to argue that the gods can’t possibly hear and act on human prayers or else the gods would be perpetually harassed and unhappy.
Stoicism, on the other hand, stressed the idea that everyone is part of a large perfect whole and thus that it’s everyone’s duty to fulfill the role Fate allots. In the ordering of nature the woodpecker should peck, the deer should graze, the bee should pollinate, and the wolf should hunt and kill. We too as humans have a duty to fulfill our roles, be that as servant, merchant, slave, or king. Some stoic authors were slaves themselves, like Epictetus author of the beautiful stoic handbook Enchiridion, and many stoic writings focus on providing therapies for armoring one’s inner self against such evils as physical pain, illness, losing friends, disgrace, and exile. But other stoic philosophers were great leaders of states, including leading statesmen like Cicero and Seneca, and the Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
Stoicism caught on among Roman elites because it was the one form of philosophical guidance that didn’t urge them to renounce wealth or power. Politics is stressful, but rather than giving it up to live like a monk or a dog, stoicism says you should continue the hard work seek to attain an inner attitude in which you will not suffer misery when you do fail, when you do lose the election, face the criticism, suffer the setback, feel the blows of fortune. Stoicism alone recommended inner detachment, not walking away. For Roman patrician statesmen with long family traditions of political leadership, walking away from civic participation was a non-starter (especially since Roman ancestor worship meant that achieving a name in politics was also a religious duty which your very afterlife depended on!). Stoicism finally offered a philosophical ethics useful to the statesman, which is why Cicero–a skeptic who engaged with many sects of philosophy–favors it in his dialogs more consistently than any other sect (this may not sound like a strong endorsement but is a high a very high bar for Cicero. And Cicero is a very big deal).
Thus, turning to the questions that Nellie asked me for her article, when I see a fad for stoicism among today’s rising rich, I see a good side and a bad side. The good side is that stoicism, sharing a lot with Buddhism, teaches that the only real treasures are inner treasures–virtue, self-mastery, courage, charity–and that all things in existence are part of one good, divine, and sacred whole, a stance which can combat selfishness and intolerance by encouraging self-discipline and teaching us to love and value every stranger as much as we love our families and ourselves. But on the negative side, stoicism’s Providential claim that everything in the universe is already perfect and that things which seem bad or unjust are secretly good underneath (a claim Christianity borrowed from Stoicism) can be used to justify the idea that the rich and powerful are meant to be rich and powerful, that the poor and downtrodden are meant to be poor and downtrodden, and that even the worst actions are actually good in an ineffable and eternal way. Such claims can be used to justify complacency, social callousness, and even exploitative or destructive behavior.
Seen in the best light, a wealthy person excited by stoicism is seeking a philosophy that helps the mind resist greed and the capitalist rat race and offers a wiser perspective and inner happiness; seen in the worst light it can be a tool for justifying keeping one’s wealth and power and not trying to help others. In that sense it reminds me of the profession of wealth therapists who help the uber-wealthy stop feeling guilty about spending $2,000 on bed sheets or millions on a megayacht. Wealth does come with real emotional challenges, but as society calls more and more for fundamental reform to close the wealth gap and reduce the power wielded by the 1%, cultivating a pro-status-quo attitude can also be a way to deflect pressure to try to address society’s ills.
Seneca, an author I absolutely love, wrote exquisite maxims about selflessness and virtue which have been backbones of moral and political education for two millenia. So powerful are his arguments that Petrarch, when comparing the strengths of the ancient Romans and ancient Greeks in different arts (Homer v. Virgil in poetry, Demosthenes v. Cicero in oratory, Thucydides v. Livy in history etc.) concluded that Seneca alone makes the Latins wholly superior to the Greeks in matters of ethics. Seneca also risked his life trying to curb the tyranny of Nero, and eventually died for it. But for all Seneca’s powerful advice about the big picture and the meaninglessness of wealth, he was also a slave-owner who, when alerted that his male slaves were sexually abusing his female slaves, set up a brothel in his estate so he could make his male slaves pay him for the privilege of abusing his female slaves–not quite the behavior we imagine when Seneca says money is meaningless and all living beings are sacred. But stoicism urges us to turn our critical eye inward and improve ourselves, not to turn it outward and improve our worlds. It gave Seneca the courage and resolve to face the danger of Nero’s deadly whims day by day in order to do his duty to the Roman political elite, but it didn’t encourage him to question his world order.
Stoicism is an intellectually rich and stimulating system, and wonderful therapy against grief, against dwelling on setbacks, and against getting caught up in the chase for fame and fortune and the blinders of the rat race. It reminds us to zoom out from a world of praise, and blame, and status, and cruel things people said on Twitter, and the competition to see made the most sales, or had the most hits, or got the largest raise, all things which can be genuinely emotionally devastating if we let ourselves get too caught up in them. In all those ways stoicism is a great match for Silicon Valley, for Wall Street, also for my world of academia and tenure and their stresses and injustices. It’s also a great match for congresspeople, authors, journalists, actors, entrepreneurs, everyone whose life contains stresses and setbacks and moments when we need help to let us to take a deep breath and let it go. But Cicero was not Voltaire, and did not look at the evils and injustices around him and conclude that he should wield his power to make a fundamentally better world–he focused only on coping with the world as it already was, and fulfilling his duties within it. Stoicism predates the concept of human-generated progress by more than a millennium. It doesn’t teach us how to change the terrible aspects of the world, it teaches us how to adapt ourselves to them, and to accept them, presuming that they fundamentally cannot be fixed. But we have two millenia more experience than Seneca. We know many of life’s evils can’t be fixed, but we also know, with human teamwork and the scientific method and a dose of Bacon and Voltaire, some of them can.
That’s why when I hear that rich, powerful people are into stoicism I think it’s great that people are excited by the idea that we should hold all life sacred and look for meaning beyond wealth and worldly power. I think it’s a great philosophy for anyone, and certainly for those who need help zooming out from a high-stress, high-competition world to think about the human and humane big picture, and to pay more attention to self-care, and loving others. But it also makes me a little wary. Because I think it’s important that we mingle some Voltaire in with our Seneca, and remember that stoicism’s invaluable advice for taking better care of ourselves inside can–if we fail to mix it with other ideas–come with a big blind spot regarding the world outside ourselves, and whether we should change it. An activist can be a stoic–activism absolutely needs some way to help cope with the pain when we pour our hearts and hours into trying to help someone, or pass new legislation, or resist, and fail. For such moments, stoicism is a precious remedy against despair and burn-out, but it doesn’t in itself offer us the impetus toward activism and resistance in the first place. That we need to get from somewhere else.
It’s spring 2019 and crises are coming thick and fast, but one of them which may have an extra deep, extra wide, extra lasting, and extra invisible impact is the new proposed EU Copyright Directive, whose Article 11 and Article 13 propose, among other things, to (A) radically and permanently change who owns news and has a right to circulate and report it, (B) demand filters to preemptively censor content that will be expensive, automated, easy for trolls to exploit, and difficult for people to appeal, and (C) put huge expensive requirements on creators of online content which will make it basically impossible for individuals or small groups to create and launch new web spaces, making it much harder for anyone but established media giants to create new content.
I wrote a short essay about the issue this morning, “How #Article13 is like the Inquisition: John Milton Against the EU #CopyrightDirective” looking at how this crisis resembles the print revolution, but it ended up being posted on BoingBoing, instead of here, so I hope you enjoy it. I’ll also add that, after a year looking at how information revolutions stimulate new kinds of censorship, my take-away is this: information revolutions democratize speech and thus make marginal voices louder. Whether today or 400 years ago, many of these are radical voices, voices which were marginalized and silenced in traditional fora and thus have an extra incentive to go to the effort to adopt new methods. these radical voices tend to be at all fringes of politics: radical religion, radical conservatism, radical progressivism, radical sexualities and identities, fire & brimstone preachers and civil rights advocates, Calvinist visionaries and GLBT groups, Voltaire and the KKK. This has a thousand consequences, but one is that it scares governments, and makes publics easy to rile up against frightening new voices. And that makes it easy for corporations and other profit-seeking actors to lobby for policies that they claim are to protect speech, or protect journalism, or protect the country, or protect children, etc. but are actually framed to maximize their own profits. Frightened governments and alarmed populaces are very vulnerable to this manipulation. It happened in the 1640s. It’s happening right now, and we in the digital revolution need to look very seriously at John Milton who fought against this (and failed) during the print revolution if we want to learn from earlier mistakes and protect the internet as the most powerful engine of public knowledge and empowerment ever created. So please, read up about the crisis, and, if you can, take action!
If you want to learn more, here is a short segment from my series on Censorship and Information Control During Information Revolutions which talks about the history of ownership of news, and you can learn more from the project, or read the transcript of our session on who owns the news. If you want a book on the topic, I recommend Adrian Johns’s Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates and Who Owns the News? A History of Copyright by Will Slauter (both in the video below).
Meanwhile, I have a new proper Ex Urbe essay mostly done, about teaching Machiavelli and historical letters, which I hope to share soon!
This year I was honored to present the 2018 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer at Worldcon’s Hugo Awards Ceremony, and several people have asked me to post my presentation speech, in which I used Japanese examples to talk about the invaluable impact of new authors expanding the breadth of what gets explored in genre fiction’s long conversation. Here is the speech, followed by some expanded comments:
First awarded in 1973, this award was named for John W. Campbell, the celebrated editor of Astounding and Analog who introduced many beloved new authors to the field. This is not a Hugo award, but is sponsored by Dell Magazines, and administered by Worldcon. Spring Schoenhuth of Springtime Studios created the Campbell pin, and the tiara made by Amanda Downum was added in 2005/2006. This award is unusual for considering short fiction and novels together, providing a cross-section of innovation in the field, and, often, offering a first personal welcome to new writers unfamiliar with the social world of fandom.
I’m currently curating an exhibit on the history of censorship around the world, and one section of the exhibit keeps coming to mind as I consider the Campbell Award. Immediately after World War II, in Japan authors and journalists were effectively forbidden to talk about the war, due to censorship exercised by both the reformed Japanese government and American occupation forces. This left a generation of kids desperate to understand the events which had shattered their world and families, but with no one willing to have that conversation, and no books to turn to. Enter Osamu Tezuka whose 1952 Astro Boy (Tetsuwan Atomu, 1952-68) bypassed censors who saw it as merely a kids’ science fiction story, while it depicted a civil rights movement for robot A.Is., including anti-robot hate-crimes, hate-motivated international wars, nuclear bombs, and the rise of the robot-hating dictator “Hitlini.”
Tezuka’s science fiction became the tool a generation used to understand the roots of World War II and how to work toward a more peaceful and cooperative future, but what makes this relevant to the Campbell Award is the next step. Many autobiographies of those who were kids in Japan in the 1950s describe reading and re-reading Tezuka’s early science fiction until the cheap paperbacks fell apart, but by the later 1960s these same young readers became young authors, like Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Keiji Nakazawa, and their peers. They in turn led a movement to push the envelope of what could be depicted in popular genre fiction in Japan, writing grittier more adult works, battling censorship and backlash, and ultimately opening a space for more serious genre fiction. These new voices didn’t just contribute their works, they changed speculative fiction to let Tezuka and other authors they had long looked up to write new works too, finally depicting the war directly, and producing some of the best works of their careers, including Tezuka’s Buddhist science fiction masterpiece Phoenix.
These authors I’m discussing are all manga authors, comic book authors, but the difference between prose and comics doesn’t matter here, their world like ours was and is a self-conscious community of speculative fiction readers and writers dedicated to imagining different presents, pasts, and futures, and thereby advancing a conversation which injects imagination, hope, and caution into our real world efforts to and build the best future possible. It is in that spirit that the John W. Campbell award welcomes to our field not only today’s new voices but the ways that these voices will change the field, stimulating new responses from everybody, from those like John Varley and George R. R. Martin who were Campbell finalists more than forty years ago, to next year’s finalists. This year’s finalists are Katherine Arden, Sarah Kuhn, Jeannette Ng, Vina Jie-Min Prasad, Rebecca Roanhorse, and Rivers Solomon.
The examples I discussed in this speech come from my exhibit’s case on the censorship of comic books and graphic novels, which are targeted by censorship more often than text fiction because of their visual format (which makes obscenity charges easier to advance), their association with children, and the power of political cartoons.
Tezuka’s manga I discuss in the exhibit with the chilling title “Childhood Without Books” since during World War II a generation of Japanese kids grow up in a broken school system which had all but shut down or been transformed into a military pre-training program, while censored presses produced only war propaganda, and Japan even had a ban on “frivolous literature” which generally meant anything that wasn’t for the war. In effect, a generation of kids grew up with no access to literature, and plunged straight from that to the new era of post-war censorship. Numerous autobiographies by members of this generation vividly recount the arrival of the first bright, colorful books by “God of Manga” Osamu Tezuka, such as New Treasure Island, Lost World, Nextworld, and above all Astro Boy whose depictions of anti-robot voter suppression tactics are very powerful today, while its repeated engagement nuclear bombs and other weapons of mass destruction were, for adults and kids alike, often the first and only available literary discussion of nuclear warfare. Tezuka also made a point of discussing racism as a global issue, and Astro Boy depicts lynch mobs in America, the Cambodian genocide, and post-colonial exploitation in Africa.
Thus, while being perceived as “for kids” often brings comics under extra fire, in the case of Astro Boy, censors ignored a mere science fiction comic, which let Tezuka kick start the conversation about the mistakes of the past and the possibilities of a better future.
Making Room for Adults: One young reader who read and reread Tezuka’s early manga until they fell apart was Yoshihiro Tatsumi, whose autobiography A Drifting Life begins with Tezuka’s impact on him in his early post-war years. As Tatsumi himself began to publish manga in the 1950s-70s, Japan experienced its own wave of public and parental outrage about comics harming children similar to that which had affected the English-speaking world slightly earlier. Since the Japanese word for comic books, manga, literally means “whimsical pictures” critics argued that manga must by definition be light and funny. Tatsumi coined the alternate term gekiga (“dramatic pictures”) adopted by a wave of serious and provocative authors who set out to depict serious dramatic topics, such as crime stories, suicide, sexuality, prostitution, the debt crisis, alienation, the psychology of evil, and the dark and uncomfortable social issues and tensions affecting Japanese society.
By the 1970s, the efforts of Tatsumi and his peers to make space for mature manga helped to expand the range of what artists dared to depict, contributing to the loosening of censorship and social pressure, which in turn let the the authors Tatsumi and others had looked up to as children to finally treat the war directly. Thus Tatsumi’s efforts moving forward from his childhood model Osamu Tezuka in turn paved the way for Tezuka to finally own including Message to Adolf which depicts how racism gradually poisons individuals and society, Ayako which depicts the degeneration of traditional Japanese society during the post-war occupation, MW which depicts government corruption and the human impact of weapons of mass destruction, sections of his beloved medical drama Black Jack which treat war and exploitation, Ode to Kirihito which treats medical dehumanization and apartheid in South Africa, Alabaster which treats ideas of race and beauty in the USA, and his epic Phoenix, considered one of the great masterpieces of the manga world.
Another of Tezuka’s avid early readers was Hiroshima survivor Keiji Nakazawa, who found in art and manga hope for a universal medium which could let his pleas for peace and nuclear disarmament cross language barriers. Many of the grotesque images of gory melting faces in Nakazawa’s harrowing autobiography Barefoot Gen are indistinguishable from the imagery in violent horror comics advocates of comics censorship so often denounce as harmful to children.
Our impulse to place political works like Barefoot Gen in a separate category from graphic horror or pornography despite their identical visual content is reflected in many governments’ obscenity laws, which ban vaguely-defined “obscene” or “indecent” content and often demand that works accused obscenity prove they have “artistic merit” to refute the charge, a rare situation where even legal systems with “innocent until proven guilty” standards put the burden of proof on the defendant. Some modern democracies which have state censorship, such as New Zealand, have worked to improve this by creating legislation which defines very clearly what can be censored (for example depictions of sexual exploitation of minors, or of extreme torture) rather than banning “indecent” content in the abstract. (I strongly recommend the New Zealand Chief Censors’ endlessly fascinating censorship ratings office blog which offers a vivid portrait of the trends in modern censorship, and what censorship would probably look like in the USA without the First Amendment).
If you’re interested in looking at some of these works, beyond Astro Boy, my top recommendations are Tezuka’s Message to Adolf and the work of another giant of the early post-war, Shigeru Mizuki, best known for his earlier Kitaro series which collects Japanese oral tradition yokai ghost stories. After the efforts of Tatsumi and others broadened the scope of what manga was allowed to depict, Mizuki published his magnificent Showa: a History of Japan, recently published in English by Drawn & Quarterly.
The first volume depicts the lead up to WWII in the 1920s-30s, and is fascinating to compare to the current political world, since it shows how Japanese society was became gradually more militarized and toxic due to tiny incremental short-term political and social decisions which feel very much like many one sees today, but paralleled by severe restrictions on speech and suppression of active resistance different from what one sees today. Ferociously critical of Japan’s government and warmongers, Mizuki’s history is also autobiography, depicting himself as a child, and how the day to day games kids played on the street became more violent and military, playing soldier instead of house, as the society drifted toward fascism.
It’s an extraordinarily powerful read, and particularly captures how, parallel to political events, moments of celebrity controversy and sensational news reflect and propel cultural shifts – think of how 100 years from now someone writing a history of the rise of America’s alt right movement would not include Milo Yiannopoulos, who had no demonstrable direct political role, yet for those living on the ground in this era he was clearly a factor/ indicator/ ingredient in the tensions of the times. Mizuki includes incidents and figures like that which parallel the political events and his family’s experiences, recreating the on-the-ground experience in a way unlike any other history I’ve read. I can’t recommend it enough to anyone interested in what fascism’s rise can teach us about today, and about how cultures change.
Today I’m delighted to announce my big new project, a collaboration with Cory Doctorow and Adrian Johns: Censorship and Information Control during Information Revolutions
The idea: Revolutions in information technology always trigger innovations in censorship and information control, so we’re bringing together 25 experts on information revolutions past and present to create a filmed series of discussions (which we will post online for all to enjoy!) which we hope will help people understand the new forms of censorship and information control that are developing as a result of the digital revolution. And we’ve put together a museum exhibit on the history of censorship, a printed catalog with 200+ pages of full color images of banned and censored books, which you can get as a Kickstarter thank-you. More publications will follow.
For those who’ve wondered why there haven’t been many Ex Urbe posts recently, the work for this project has been a big part of it, though other real reasons include my chronic pain, and the tenure scramble (victory!), and racing to finish Terra Ignota book 4, and female faculty being put on way too many committees (12! seriously?!). But now that the preparatory work of the project is done, I should be able to share more here over the coming weeks and months.
The project was born out of Cory Doctorow and me sitting down at conventions from time to time and chatting about our work, and over and over something he was seeing current corporations or governments try out with digital regulation would be jarringly similar to something I saw guilds or city-states try during the print revolution. One big issue in both eras, for example, was/is the difference between systems that try to regulate content before it is released, i.e. requiring books to have licenses before they could be printed, or content to be vetted before it is published (think the Inquisition, the Comics Code Authority, or movie ratings in places like New Zealand where it’s illegal to screen unrated films), vs. systems that allow things to be released without oversight but create apparatus for policing/ removing/ prosecuting them after release if they’re found objectionable (like England in the 16th century, or online systems that have users flag content). Past information revolutions–from the printing press, to radio and talkies–give us test cases that show us what effects different policies had, so by looking, for example, at where the book trade fared better, Paris or Amsterdam, we can also look at what effects different regulations are likely to have on current information economies, and artistic output. We’ve got people who work on the Inquisition, digital music, the birth of copyright, ditto machines, Google, banned plays, burnings of Jewish books, comic book censorship, an amazing list!
There will more to share over the next months as the videos go online, but today I want to share one of the fun little pieces I wrote for exhibit on Book Burning. Writing for exhibits is always an extra challenge, since only so much can fit on a museum wall or item label, so, 2+ millenia of of book burning… can I do it justice in 550 words?
We can divide book burnings into three kinds: eradication burnings which seek to destroy a text, collection burnings which target a library or archive, and symbolic burnings which primarily aim to send a message.
The earliest known book burnings are one mentioned in the Hebrew Bible (Jeremiah 36), then the burning of Confucian works (and execution of Confucian scholars) in Qin Dynasty China, 213-210 BC. Christian book burning began after the Council of Nicaea, when Emperor Constantine ordered the burning of works of Arian (non-Trinitarian) Christianity. In the manuscript era eradication burnings could destroy all copies of a text—as in 1073 when Pope Gregory VII ordered the burning of Sappho—but after 1450 the movable type printing press made eradication burnings of published material effectively impossible unless one seized the whole print run before copies were dispersed. This was difficult for even the Inquisition, but it still practiced frequent symbolic book burning, especially in the Enlightenment, when a condemnation from Rome required Paris to publicly burn one or a few copies of a book, while all knew many more remained. When the beloved Encyclopédie was condemned, the French authorities tasked to burn it burned Jansenist theological writings in its place, a symbolic act two steps removed from harming the original.
Since print’s advent eradication burnings have diminished, though collection burnings continue, often targeting communities such as Protestant or Jewish communities, language groups such as indigenous texts in Portuguese-held Goa (India), universities whose organized collections are unique even if individual items are not, or state or institutional archives which contain unique content even in an age of print. Regime changes and political unrest have long been triggers for archive burnings, such as the burning of the National Archives of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2014. Some book burnings result from smaller scale conflicts, as in 1852 when Armand Dufau, in charge of the school for the blind in Paris, ordered the burning of all books in the newly-invented braille system, of which he disapproved. Nazi burnings of Jewish and “un-German” material employed eradication rhetoric but were mainly collection burnings, as when youth groups burned 25,000 books from university libraries in 1933, or symbolic burnings, performing destruction to spread fear among foes and excitement among supporters while many party members retained or sold valuable books stolen from Jewish collections rather than destroying them.
Today, archived documents and historic manuscript collections remain most vulnerable to eradication burning, such as those burned in Iraq’s national Library in 2003, in two libraries in Tumbuktu in 2013, and others recently burned by ISIS. Large-scale book burnings in America have included the activities of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (founded 1873) which boasted of burning 15 tons of books and nearly 4 million “lewd” pictures, burnings of comic books in 1948, and burning of communist material during the Second Red Scare of the 1950s. Since then, most book burnings in America have been small-scale symbolic burnings of works such as Harry Potter, books objected to in schools or college classrooms, or of Bibles or Qur’ans. In a rare 2010 case of an attempted eradication burning, the Pentagon bought and burned nearly the whole print run of Antony Shaffer’s Operation Dark Heart, which—authorities said—contained classified information.
In the comments to the Progress post, a reader asked for clarification on what was so awful about Hobbes, and this was Ada’s response, which I am reposting as a post so that it doesn’t stay buried down there:
Ah, yes, that was probably to brief an abbreviation. To be clear, I LOVE Hobbes, and I both teach him and read him for pleasure all the time. In fact the title quote for the 3rd volume in “Terra Ignota” comes from Leviathan.
The Hobbes reference referred, not to my opinion of him or modern opinions on him, but contemporary opinions of him, how hated and feared he was by his peers in the mid-17th century. I’ll treat him more in the next iteration(s) of my skepticism series, but in brief Hobbes was a student of Bacon (he was actually Bacon’s amanuensis for a while) and used Bacon’s new techniques of observation and methodical reasoning with absolute mastery, BUT used them to come to conclusions that were absolutely terrifying to his peers, attacking the dignity of the human race, the foundations of government, the pillars of morality of his day, in ways whose true terror are hard for us to feel when we read Leviathan in retrospect, having accepted many of Hobbes’s ideas and being armored against the others by John Locke. But among his contemporaries, “The Beast of Malmsbury” as he was called, held an unmatched status as the intellectual terror of his day. In fact there are few thinkers ever in history who were so universally feared and hated–it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that for the two decades after the publication of Leviathan, the sole goal of western European philosophy was to find some way to refute Thomas Hobbes WITHOUT (here’s the tricky part) undermining Bacon. Because Bacon was light, hope, progress, the promise of a better future, and Hobbes was THE BEST wielder of Bacon’s techniques. So they couldn’t just DISMISS Hobbes without undermining Bacon, they had to find a way to take Hobbes on in his own terms and Bacon better than Hobbes did. It took 20 years and John Locke to achieve that, but in the meantime Hobbes so terrified his peers that they literally rewrote the laws of England more than once to extend censorship enough to silence Hobbes.
Also the man Just. Wouldn’t. Die. They wanted him dead and gone so they could forget him and move on but he lived to be 91, a constant reminder of the intellectual terror whose shadow had loomed so long over all of Europe. To give a sample of a contemporary articulation of the fear and amazement Hobbes caused in his peers, here is a satirical broadside published to celebrate his death:
My favorite verse from it is:
“Leviathan the Great is dead! But see
The small Behemoths of his progeny
Survive to battle all divinity!”
So I chose Hobbes as an example because he’s really the first “backfire” of Bacon, the first unexpected, unintended consequence of the new method. Hobbes’s book didn’t cause any atrocities, didn’t result in wars or massacres, but it did spread terror through the entire intellectual world, and was the first sniff of the scarier places that thought would go once Bacon’s call to examine EVERYTHING genuinely did examine everything… even things people did NOT want anyone to doubt. So while Hobbes is wonderful, from the perspective of his contemporaries he was the first warning sign that progress cannot be controlled, and that, while it will change parts of society we think are bad, it will change the parts we value too.
Hope that helps clear it up? I’ll discuss Hobbes more in later works.
Is progress inevitable? Is it natural? Is it fragile? Is it possible? Is it a problematic concept in the first place? Many people are reexamining these kinds of questions as 2016 draws to a close, so I thought this would be a good moment to share the sort-of “zoomed out” discussions the subject that historians like myself are always having.
There is a strange doubleness to experiencing an historic moment while being a historian one’s self. I feel the same shock, fear, overload, emotional exhaustion that so many are, but at the same time another me is analyzing, dredging up historical examples, bigger crises, smaller crises, elections that set the fuse to powder-kegs, elections that changed nothing. I keep thinking about what it felt like during the Wars of the Roses, or the French Wars of Religion, during those little blips of peace, a decade long or so, that we, centuries later, call mere pauses, but which were long enough for a person to be born and grow to political maturity in seeming-peace, which only hindsight would label ‘dormant war.’ But then eventually the last flare ended and then the peace was real. But on the ground it must have felt exactly the same, the real peace and those blips. That’s why I don’t presume to predict — history is a lesson in complexity not predictability — but what I do feel I’ve learned to understand, thanks to my studies, are the mechanisms of historical change, the how of history’s dynamism rather than the what next. So, in the middle of so many discussions of the causes of this year’s events (economics, backlash, media, the not-so-sleeping dragon bigotry), and of how to respond to them (petitions, debate, fundraising, art, despair) I hope people will find it useful to zoom out with me, to talk about the causes of historical events and change in general.
Two threads, which I will later bring together. Thread one: progress. Thread two: historical agency.
Part 1: The Question of Progress As Historians Ask It
“How do you discuss progress without getting snared in teleology?” a colleague asked during a teaching discussion. This is a historian’s succinct if somewhat technical way of asking a question which lies at the back of a lot of the questions people are wrestling with now. Progress — change for the better over historical time. The word has many uses (social progress, technological progress), but the reason it raises red flags for historians is the legacy of Whig history, a school of historical thought whose influence still percolates through many of our models of history. Wikipedia has an excellent opening definition of Whig history:
Whig history… presents the past as an inevitable progression towards ever greater liberty and enlightenment, culminating in modern forms of liberal democracy and constitutional monarchy. In general, Whig historians emphasize the rise of constitutional government, personal freedoms, and scientific progress. The term is often applied generally (and pejoratively) to histories that present the past as the inexorable march of progress towards enlightenment… Whig history has many similarities with the Marxist-Leninist theory of history, which presupposes that humanity is moving through historical stages to the classless, egalitarian society to which communism aspires… Whig history is a form of liberalism, putting its faith in the power of human reason to reshape society for the better, regardless of past history and tradition. It proposes the inevitable progress of mankind.
In other words, this approach presumes a teleology to history, that human societies have always been developing toward some pre-set end state: apple seeds into apple trees, humans into enlightened humans, human societies into liberal democratic paradises.
Some of the problems with this approach are transparent, others familiar to those of my readers who have been engaging with current discourse about the problems/failures/weaknesses of liberalism. But let me unpack some of the other problems, the ones historians in particular worry about.
Developed in the earlier the 20th century, Whig history presents a particular set of values and political and social outcomes as the (A) inevitable and (B) superior end-points of all historical change — political and social outcomes that arise from the Western European tradition. The Eurocentric distortions this introduces are obvious, devaluing all other cultures. But even for a Europeanist like myself, who’s already studying Europe, this approach has a distorting effect by focusing our attentions onto historical moments or changes or people that were “right” or “correct,” that took a step “forward.” When one attempts to write a history using this kind of reasoning, the heroes of this process (the statesman who founded a more liberal-democratic-ish state, the scientist whose invention we still use today, the poet whose pamphlet forwards the cause) loom overlarge in history, receiving too much attention. On the one hand, yes, we need to understand those past figures who are keystones of our present — I teach Plato, and Descartes, and Machiavelli with good reason — but if we study only the keystones, and not the other less conspicuous bricks, we wind up with a very distorted idea of the whole edifice.
Whig history also makes it dangerously easy to stray into placing moral value on those things which advanced the teleologicaly-predetermined future. Such things seem to be “correct” thus “good” thus “better” while those whose elements which did not contribute to this teleological development were “dead ends” or “mistakes” or “wrong” which quickly becomes “bad.” In such a history whole eras can be dismissed as unworthy of study for failing to forward progress (The Middle Ages did great stuff, guys!) while other eras can be disproportionately celebrated for advancing it (The Renaissance did a lot of dumb stuff too!). And, of course, whole regions can be dismissed for “failing” to progress (Africa, Asia) as can sub-regions (Poland, Spain).
To give an example within the realm of intellectual history, teleological intellectual histories very often create the false impression that the only figures involved in a period’s intellectual world were heroes and villains, i.e. thinkers we venerate today, or their nasty bad backwards-looking enemies. This makes it seem as if the time period in question was already just previewing the big debates we have today. Such histories don’t know what to do with thinkers whose ideas were orthogonal to such debates, and if one characterizes the Renaissance as “Faith!” vs. “Reason!” and Marsilio Ficino comes along and says “Let’s use Platonic Reason to heal the soul!” a Whig history doesn’t know what to do with that, and reads it as a “dead end” or “detour.” Only heroes or villains fit the narrative, so Ficino must either become one or the other, or be left out. Teleological intellectual histories also tend to give the false impression that the figures we think are important now were always considered important, and if you bring up the fact that Aristotle was hardly read at all in antiquity and only revived in the Middle Ages, or that the most widely owned author in the Enlightenment was the now-obscure fideist encyclopedist Pierre Bayle, the narrative has to scramble to adopt.
Teleological history is also prone to “presentism” <= a bad thing, but a very useful term! Presentism is when one’s reading of history is distorted by one’s modern perspective, often through projecting modern values onto past events, and especially past people. An essay about the Magna Carta which projects Enlightenment values onto its Medieval authors would be presentist. So are histories of the Renaissance which want to portray it as a battle between Reason and religion, or say that only Florence and/or Venice had the real Renaissance because they were republics, and only the democratic spirit of republics could foster fruitful, modern, forward-thinking people. Presentism is also rearing its head when, in the opening episodes of the new Medici: Masters of Florence TV series, Cosimo de Medici talks about bankers as the masterminds of society, and describes himself as a job-creator, not the conceptual space banking was in in 1420. Presentism is sometimes conscious, but often unconscious, so mindful historians will pause whenever we see something that feels revolutionary, or progressive, or proto-modern, or too comfortable, to check for other readings, and make triple sure we have real evidence. Sometimes things in the past really were more modern than what surrounded them. I spent many dissertation years assembling vast grids of data which eventually painstakingly proved that Machaivelli’s interest in radical Epicurean materialism was exceptional for his day, and more similar to the interests of peers seventy years in his future than his own generation — that Machiavelli was exceptional and forward-thinking may be the least surprising conclusion a Renaissance historian can come to, but we have to prove such things very, very meticulously, to avoid spawning yet another distorted biography which says that Galileo was fundamentally an oppressed Bill Nye. Hint: Galileo was not Bill Nye; he was Galileo.
These problems, in brief, are why discussions of progress, and of teleology, are red flags now for any historian.
Unfortunately, the bathwater here is very difficult to separate from an important baby. Teleological thinking distorts our understanding of the past, but the Whig approach was developed for a reason. (A) It is important to have ways to discuss historical change over time, to talk about the question of progress as a component of that change. (B) It is important to retain some way to compare societies, or at least to assess when people try to compare societies, so we can talk about how different institutions, laws, or social mores might be better or worse than others on various metrics, and how some historical changes might be positive or negative. While avoiding dangerous narratives of triumphant [insert Western phenomenon here] sweeping through and bringing light to a superstitious and backwards [era/people/place], we also want to be able to talk about things like the eradication of smallpox, and our efforts against malaria and HIV, which are undeniably interconnected steps in a process of change over time — a process which is difficult to call by any name but progress.
So how do historians discuss progress without getting snared in teleology?
And how do I, as a science fiction writer, as a science fiction reader, as someone who tears up every time NASA or ESA posts a new picture of our baby space probes preparing to take the next step in our journey to the stars, how do I discuss progress without getting snared in teleology?
I, at least, begin by being a historian, and talking about the history of progress itself.
Part 2: A Brief History of Progress
In the early seventeenth century, Francis Bacon invented progress.
Let me unpack that.
Ideas of social change over time had existed in European thought since antiquity. Early Greek sources talk about a Golden Age of peaceful, pastoral abundance, followed by a Silver Age, when jewels and luxuries made life more opulent but also more complicated. There followed a Bronze Age, when weapons and guards appeared, and also the hierarchy of have and have-nots, and finally an Iron Age of blood and war and Troy. Some ancients added more detail to this narrative, notably Lucretius in his Epicurean epic On the Nature of Things. In his version the transition from simple, rural living to luxury-hungry urbanized hierarchy was explicitly developmental, caused, not by divine planning or celestial influences, but by human invention: as people invented more luxuries they then needed more equipment–technological and social — to produce, defend, control, and war over said luxuries, and so, step-by-step, tranquil simplicity degenerated into sophistication and its discontents.
Lucretius’s developmental model of society has several important components of the concept of progress, but not all of them. It has the state of things vary over the course of human history. It also has humanity as the agent of that change, primarily through technological innovation and social changes which arise in reaction to said innovation. It does not have (A) intentionality behind this change, (B) a positive arc to this change, (C) an infinite or unlimited arc to this change, or–perhaps most critically–(D) the expectation that any more change will occur in the future. Lucretius accounts for how society reached its present, and the mythological eras of Gold, Silver, Bronze and Iron do the same. None of these ancient thinkers speculate — as we do every day — about how the experiences of future generations might continue to change and be fundamentally different from their own. Quantitatively things might be different — Rome’s empire might grow or shrink, or fall entirely to be replaced by another — but fundamentally cities will be cities, plows will be plows, empires will be empires, and in a thousand years bread will still be bread. Even if Lucan or Lucretius speculate, they do not live in our world where bread is already poptarts, and will be something even more outlandish in the next generation.
Medieval Europe came to the realization — and if you grant their starting premises they’re absolutely right — that if the entire world is a temporary construct designed by an omnipotent, omniscient Creator God for the purpose of leading humans through their many trials toward eternal salvation or damnation, then it’s madness to look to Earth history for any cause-to-effect chains, there is one Cause of all effects. Medieval thought is no more monolithic than modern, but many excellent examples discuss the material world as a sort of pageant play being performed for us by God to communicate his moral lessons, and if one stage of history flows into another — an empire rises, prospers, falls — that is because God had a moral message to relate through its progression. Take Dante’s obsession with the Emperor Tiberius, for example. According to Dante, God planned the Crucifixion and wanted His Son to be lawfully executed by all humanity, so the sin and guilt and salvation would be universal, so He created the Roman Empire in order to have there be one government large enough to rule and represent the whole world (remember Dante’s maps have nothing south of Egypt except the Mountain of Purgatory). The empire didn’t develop, it was crafted for God’s purposes, Act II scene iii the Roman Empire Rises, scene v it fulfills its purpose, scene vi it falls. Applause.
Did the Renaissance have progress? No. Not conceptually, though, as in all eras of history, constant change was happening. But the Renaissance did suddenly get closer to the concept too. The Renaissance invented the Dark Ages. Specifically the Florentine Leonardo Bruni invented the Dark Ages in the 1420s-1430s. Following on Petrarch’s idea that Italy was in a dark and fallen age and could rise from it again by reviving the lost arts that had made Rome glorious, Bruni divided history into three sections, good Antiquity, bad Dark Ages, and good Renaissance, when the good things lost in antiquity returned. Humans and God were both agents in this, God who planned it and humans who actually translated the Greek, and measured the aqueducts, and memorized the speeches, and built the new golden age. Renaissance thinkers, fusing ideas from Greece and Rome with those of the Middle Ages, added to old ideas of development the first suggestion of a positive trajectory, but not an infinite one, and not a fundamental one. The change the Renaissance believed in lay in reacquiring excellent things the past had already had and lost, climbing out of a pit back to ground level. That change would be fundamental, but finite, and when Renaissance people talk about “surpassing the ancients” (which they do) they talk about painting more realistic paintings, sculpting more elaborate sculptures, perhaps building more stunning temples/cathedrals, or inventing new clever devices like Leonardo’s heated underground pipes to let you keep your potted lemon tree roots warm in winter (just like ancient Roman underfloor heating!) But cities would be cities, plows would be maybe slightly better plows, and empires would be empires. Surpassing the ancients lay in skill, art, artistry, not fundamentals.
Then in the early seventeenth century, Francis Bacon invented progress.
If we work together — said he — if we observe the world around us, study, share our findings, collaborate, uncover as a human team the secret causes of things hidden in nature, we can base new inventions on our new knowledge which will, in small ways, little by little, make human life just a little easier, just a little better, warm us in winter, shield us in storm, make our crops fail a little less, give us some way to heal the child on his bed. We can make every generation’s experience on this Earth a little better than our own. There are — he said — three kinds of scholar. There is the ant, who ranges the Earth and gathers crumbs of knowledge and piles them, raising his ant-mound, higher and higher, competing to have the greatest pile to sit and gloat upon–he is the encyclopedist, who gathers but adds nothing. There is the spider, who spins elaborate webs of theory from the stuff of his own mind, spinning beautiful, intricate patterns in which it is so easy to become entwined — he is the theorist, the system-weaver. And then there is the honeybee, who gathers from the fruits of nature and, processing them through the organ of his own being, produces something good and useful for the world. Let us be honeybees, give to the world, learning and learning’s fruits. Let us found a new method — the Scientific Method — and with it dedicate ourselves to the advancement of knowledge of the secret causes of things, and the expansion of the bounds of human empire to the achievement of all things possible.
Bacon is a gifted wordsmith, and he knows how to make you ache to be the noble thing he paints you as.
“How, Chancellor Bacon, do we know that we can change the world with this new scientific method thing, since no one has ever tried it before so you have no evidence that knowledge will yield anything good and useful, or that each generation’s experience might be better than the previous?”
It is not an easy thing to prove science works when you have no examples of science working yet.
Bacon’s answer — the answer which made kingdom and crown stream passionate support and birthed the Academy of Sciences–may surprise the 21st-century reader, accustomed as we are to hearing science and religion framed as enemies. We know science will work–Bacon replied–because of God. There are a hundred thousand things in this world which cause us pain and suffering, but God is Good. He gave the cheetah speed, the lion claws. He would not have sent humanity out into this wilderness without some way to meet our needs. He would not have given us the desire for a better world without the means to make it so. He gave us Reason. So, from His Goodness, we know that Reason must be able to achieve all He has us desire. God gave us science, and it is an act of Christian charity, an infinite charity toward all posterity, to use it.
They believed him.
And that is the first thing which, in my view, fits every modern definition of progress. Francis Bacon died from pneumonia contracted while experimenting with using snow to preserve chickens, attempting to give us refrigeration, by which food could be stored and spread across a hungry world. Bacon envisioned technological progress, medical progress, but also the small social progresses those would create, not just Renaissance glories for the prince and the cathedral, but food for the shepherd, rest for the farmer, little by little, progress. As Bacon’s followers reexamined medicine from the ground up, throwing out old theories and developing…
I’m going to tangent for a moment. It really took two hundred years for Bacon’s academy to develop anything useful. There was a lot of dissecting animals, and exploding metal spheres, and refracting light, and describing gravity, and it was very, very exciting, and a lot of it was correct, but–as the eloquent James Hankins put it–it was actually the nineteenth century that finally paid Francis Bacon’s I.O.U., his promise that, if you channel an unfathomable research budget, and feed the smartest youths of your society into science, someday we’ll be able to do things we can’t do now, like refrigerate chickens, or cure rabies, or anesthetize. There were a few useful advances (better navigational instruments, Franklin’s lightning rod) but for two hundred years most of science’s fruits were devices with no function beyond demonstrating scientific principles. Two hundred years is a long time for a vastly-complex society-wide project to keep getting support and enthusiasm, fed by nothing but pure confidence that these discoveries streaming out of the Royal Society papers will eventually someday actually do something. I just think… I just think that keeping it up for two hundred years before it paid off, that’s… that’s really cool.
…okay, I was in the middle of a sentence: As Bacon’s followers reexamined science from the ground up, throwing out old theories and developing new correct ones which would eventually enable effective advances, it didn’t take long for his followers to apply his principle (that we should attack everything with Reason’s razor and keep only what stands) to social questions: legal systems, laws, judicial practices, customs, social mores, social classes, religion, government… treason, heresy… hello, Thomas Hobbes. In fact the scientific method that Bacon pitched, the idea of progress, proved effective in causing social change a lot faster than genuinely useful technology. Effectively the call was: “Hey, science will improve our technology! It’s… it’s not doing anything yet, so… let’s try it out on society? Yeah, that’s doing… something… and — Oh! — now the technology’s doing stuff too!” Except that sentence took three hundred years.
We know now, as Bacon’s successors learned, with harsher and harsher vividness in successive generations, that attempts at progress can also cause negative effects, atrocious ones. Like Thomas Hobbes. And the Terror phase of the French Revolution. And the life-expectancy in cities plummeting as industrialization spread soot, and pollutants, and cholera, and mercury-impregnated wallpaper, and lead-whitened bread, Mmmmm lead-whitened bread… And just as technological discoveries had their monstrous offspring, like lead-whitened bread, the horrors of colonization were some of the monstrous offspring of the social applications of Reason. Monstrous offspring we are still wrestling with today.
Part 3: Progresses
We now use the word “progress” in many senses, many more than Bacon and his peers did. There is “technological progress.” There is “social progress.” There is “economic progress.” We sometimes lump these together, and sometimes separate them.
Thus the general question “Has progress failed?” can mean several things. It can mean, “Have our collective efforts toward the improvement of the human condition failed to achieve their desired results?” This is being asked frequently these days in the context of social progress, as efforts toward equality and tolerance are facing backlash.
But “Has progress failed?” can also mean “Has the development of science and technology, our application of Reason to things, failed to make the lived experience of people better/ happier/ less painful? Have the changes been bad or neutral instead of good?” In other words, was Bacon right that human’s using Reason and science can change our world, but wrong that we can make it better?
I want to stress that it is no small intellectual transformation that “progress” can now be used in a negative sense as well as a positive one. The concept as Bacon crystallized it, and as the Enlightenment spread it, was inherently positive, and to use it in a negative sense would be nonsensical, like using “healing” in a negative sense. But look at how we actually use “progress” in speech today. Sometimes it is positive (“Great progress this year!”) and sometimes negative (“Swallowed up by progress…”). This is a revolutionary change from Bacon’s day, enabled by two differences between ourselves and Bacon.
First we have watched the last several centuries. For us, progress is sometimes the first heart transplant and the footprints on the Moon, and sometimes it’s the Belgian Congo with its Heart of Darkness. Sometimes it’s the annihilation of smallpox and sometimes it’s polio becoming worse as a result of sanitation instead of better. Sometimes it’s Geraldine Roman, the Phillipines’ first transgender congresswoman, and sometimes it’s Cristina Calderón, the last living speaker of the Yaghan language. Progress has yielded fruits much more complex than honey, which makes sentences like “The prison of progress” sensical to us.
We have also broadened progress. For Bacon, progress was the honey and the honeybees, hard, systematic, intentional human action creating something sweet and useful for mankind. It was good. It was new. And it was intentional. In its nascent form, Bacon’s progress did not differentiate between progress the phenomenon and progress the concept. If you asked Bacon “Was there progress in the Middle Ages?” he would have answered, “No. We’re starting to have progress right now.” And he’s correct about the concept being new, about intentional or self-aware progress, progress as a conscious effort, being new. But if we turn to Wikipedia it defines “Progress (historical)” as “the idea that the world can become increasingly better in terms of science, technology, modernization, liberty, democracy, quality of life, etc.” Notice how agency and intentionality are absent from this. Because there was technological and social change before 1600, there were even technological and social changes that undeniably made things better, even if they came less frequently than they do in the modern world. So the phenomenon we study through the whole of history, far before the maturation of the concept.
As “progress” broadened to include unsystematic progress as well as the modern project of progress, that was the moment we acquired the questions “Is progress natural?” and “Is progress inevitable?” Because those questions require progress to be something that happens whether people intend it or not. In a sense, Bacon’s notion of progress wasn’t as teleological as Whig history. Bacon believed that human action could begin the process of progress, and that God gave Reason to humanity with this end in mind, but Bacon thought humans had to use a system, act intentionally, gather the pollen to make the honey, he didn’t think they honey just flowed. Not until progress is broadened to include pre-modern progress, and non-systematic, non-intentional modern progress, can the fully teleological idea of an inescapable momentum, an inevitability, join the manifold implications of the word “progress.”
Now I’m going to show you two maps.
This is map of global population, rendered to look like a terrain. It shows the jagged mountain ranges of south and east Asia, the vast, sweeping valleys of forest and wilderness. The most jagged spikes may be a little jarring, the intensity of India and China, but even those are rich brown mountains, while the whole thing has the mood of a semi-untouched world, much more pastoral wilderness than city, and almost everywhere a healthy green. This makes progress, or at least the spread of population, feel like a natural phenomenon, a neutral phenomenon.
This is the Human Ooze Map. This map shows exactly the same data, reoriented to drip down instead of spiking up, and to be a pus-like yellow against an ominous black background. Instantly the human metropolises are not natural spikes within a healthy terrain, but an infection clinging to every oozing coastline, with the densest mega-cities seeming to bleed out amidst the goop, like open pustules.
Both these maps show one aspect of ‘progress’. Whether the teeming cities of our modern day are an apocalyptic infection, or a force as natural as the meandering of shores and tree-lines, depends on how we present the narrative, and the moral assumptions that underlie that presentation. Presentism and the progress narrative in general have very similar distorting effects. When we examine past phenomena, institutions, events, people, ideas, some feel viscerally good or viscerally bad, right or wrong, forward-moving or backward-moving, values they acquire from narratives which we ourselves have created, and which orient how we analyze history, just as these mapmakers have oriented population up, or down, resulting in radically different feelings. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s model of the Noble Savage, happier the rural simplicity of Lucretius’s Golden Age rather than in the stressful ever-changing urban world of progress, is itself an image progress presented like the Human Ooze Map, reversing the moral presentation of the same facts.
Realizing that the ways we present data about progress are themselves morally charged can help us clarify questions that are being asked right now about liberalism, and nationalism, and social change, and opposition to social change. Because when we ask whether the world is experiencing a “failure” or a “revolution” or a “regression” or a “backlash” or a “last gasp” or a “pendulum swing” or a “prelude to triumph” etc., all these characterizations reorient data around different facets of the concept of progress, positive or negative, natural or intentional, just as these two maps reorient population around different morally-charged visualizations.
In sum: post colonialism, post industrialization, post Hobbes, we can no longer talk about progress as a unilateral, uncomplicated, good, not without distorting history, and ignoring the terrible facets of the last several centuries. Bacon thought there would be only honey, he was wrong. But we can’t not discuss progress because, during these same centuries, each generation’s experience has been increasingly different from the last generation, and science and human action are propelling this change. And there has been some honey. We need ways to talk about that.
But not without bearing in mind how we invest progress with different kinds of moral weight (the terrain or the ooze…)
And not without a question Bacon never thought to ask, because he did not realize (as we do) that technological and social change had been going on for many centuries before he made the action conscious. So Bacon never thought to ask: Do we have any power over progress?
Part 4: Do Individuals Have the Power to Change History?
Feelings of helplessness and despair have also been big parts of the shock of 2016. Helplessness and despair are questions, as well as feelings. They ask: Am I powerless? Can I personally do anything to change this? Do individuals have any power to shape history? Are we just swept along by the vast tides of social forces? Are we just cogs in the machine? What changes history?
Within a history department this divide often manifests methodologically.
Economic historians, and social historians, write masterful examinations of how vast social and economic forces, and their changes, whether incremental or rapid, have shaped history. Let’s call that Great Forces history. Whenever you hear people comparing our current wealth gap to the eve of the French Revolution, that is Great Forces history. When a Marxist talks about the inevitable interactions of proletariat and bourgeoisie, or when a Whig historian talks about the inevitable march of progress, those are also kinds of Great Forces history.
Great Forces history is wonderful, invaluable. It lets us draw illuminating comparisons, and helps us predict, not what will happen but what could happen, by looking at what has happened in similar circumstances. I mentioned earlier the French Wars of Religion, with their intermittent blips of peace. My excellent colleague Brian Sandberg of NIU (a brilliant historian of violence) recently pointed out to me that France during the Catholic-Protestant religious wars was about 10% Protestant, somewhat comparable to the African American population of the USA today which is around 13%. A striking comparison, though with stark differences. In particular, France’s Protestant/Calvinist population fell disproportionately in the wealthy, politically-empowered aristocratic class (comprising 30% of the ruling class), in contrast with African Americans today who fall disproportionately in the poorer, politically-disempowered classes. These similarities and differences make it very fruitful to look at the mechanisms of civil violence in 16th and 17th century France (how outbreaks of violence started, how they ended, who against whom) to help us understand the similar-yet-different ways civil violence might operate around us now. That kind of comparison is, in my view, Great Forces history at its most fruitful. (You can read more by Brian Sandberg on this issue in his book, on his blog, and on the Center for the Study of Religious Violence blog; more citations at the end of this article.)
But are we all, then, helpless water droplets, with no power beyond our infinitesimal contribution to the tidal forces of our history? Is there room for human agency?
History departments also have biographers, and intellectual historians, and micro-historians, who churn out brilliant histories of how one town, one woman, one invention, one idea reshaped our world. Readers have seen me do this here on Ex Urbe, describing how Beccaria persuaded Europe to discontinue torture, how Petrarch sparked the Renaissance, how Machiavelli gave us so much. Histories of agents, of people who changed the world. Such histories are absolutely true — just as the Great Forces histories are — but if Great Forces histories tell us we are helpless droplets in a great wave, these histories give us hope that human agency, our power to act meaningfully upon our world, is real. I am quite certain that one of the causes of the explosive response to the Hamilton musical right now is its firm, optimistic message that, yes, individuals can, and in fact did, reshape this world — and so can we.
This kind of history, inspiring as it is, is also dangerous. The antiquated/old-fashioned/bad version of this kind of history is Great Man history, the model epitomized by Thomas Carlyle’s Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History (a gorgeous read) which presents humanity as a kind of inert but rich medium, like agar ready for a bacterial culture. Onto this great and ready stage, Nature (or God or Providence) periodically sends a Great Man, a leader, inventor, revolutionary, firebrand, who makes empires rise, or fall, or leads us out of the black of ignorance. Great Man history is very prone to erasing everyone outside a narrow elite, erasing women, erasing the negative consequences of the actions of Great Men, justifying atrocities as the collateral damage of greatness, and other problems which I hope are familiar to my readers.
But when done well, histories of human agency are valuable. Are true. Are hope.
So if Great Forces history is correct, and useful, and Human Agency history is also correct, and useful… how do we balance that? They are, after all, contradictory.
Part 5: The Papal Election of 2016
Every year in my Italian Renaissance class, here at the University of Chicago, I run a simulation of a Renaissance papal election, circa 1490-1500. Each student is a different participant in the process, and they negotiate, form coalitions, and, eventually, elect a pope. And then they have a war, and destroy some chunk of Europe. Each student receives a packet describing that students’ character’s goals, background, personality, allies and enemies, and a packet of resources, cards representing money, titles, treasures, armies, nieces and nephews one can marry off, contracts one can sign, artists or scholars one can use to boost one’s influence, or trade to others as commodities: “I’ll give you Leonardo if you send three armies to guard my city from the French.”
Some students in the simulation play powerful Cardinals wielding vast economic resources and power networks, with clients and subordinates, complicated political agendas, and a strong shot at the papacy. Others are minor Cardinals, with debts, vulnerabilities, short-term needs to some personal crisis in their home cities, or long-term hopes of rising on the coattails of others and perhaps being elected three or four popes from now. Others, locked in a secret chamber in the basement, are the Crowned Heads of Europe — the King of France, the Queen of Castile, the Holy Roman Emperor — who smuggle secret orders (text messages) to their agents in the conclave, attempting to forge alliances with Italian powers, and gain influence over the papacy so they can use Church power to strengthen their plans to launch invasions or lay claim to distant thrones. And others are not Cardinals at all but functionaries who count the votes, distribute the food, the guard who keeps watch, the choir director who entertains the churchmen locked in the Sistine, who have no votes but can hear, and watch, and whisper.
There are many aspects to this simulation, which I may someday to discuss here at greater length (for now you can read a bit about it on our History Department blog), but for the moment I just want to talk about the outcomes, and what structures the outcomes. I designed this simulation not to have any pre-set outcome. I looked into the period as best I could, and gave each historical figure the resources and goals that I felt accurately reflected that person’s real historical resources and actions. I also intentionally moved some characters in time, including some Cardinals and political issues which do not quite overlap with each other, in order to make this an alternate history, not a mechanical reconstruction, so that students who already knew what happened to Italy in this period would know they couldn’t have the “correct” outcome even if they tried, which frees everyone to pursue goals, not “correct” choices, and to genuinely explore the range of what could happen without being too locked in to what did. I set up the tensions and the actors to simulate what I felt the situation was when the election begin, then left it free to flow.
I have now run the simulation four times. Each time some outcomes are similar, similar enough that they are clearly locked in by the greater political webs and economic forces. The same few powerful Cardinals are always leading candidates for the throne. There is usually also a wildcard candidate, someone who has never before been one of the top contenders, but circumstances bring a coalition together. And, usually, perhaps inevitably, a juggernaut wins, one of the Cardinals who began with a strong power-base, but it’s usually very, very close. And the efforts of the wildcard candidate, and the coalition that formed around that wildcard, always have a powerful effect on the new pope’s policies and first actions, who’s in the inner circle and who’s out, what opposition parties form, and that determines which city-states rise and which city-states burn as Italy erupts in war.
And the war is Always. Totally. Different.
Because as the monarchies race to make alliances and team up against their enemies, they get pulled back-and-forth by the ricocheting consequences of small actions: a marriage, an insult, a bribe traded for a whisper, someone paying off someone else’s debts, someone taking a shine to a bright young thing. Sometimes France invades Spain. Sometimes France and Spain unite to invade the Holy Roman Empire. Sometimes England and Spain unite to keep the French out of Italy. Sometimes France and the Empire unite to keep Spain out of Italy. Once they made a giant pan-European peace treaty, with a set of marriage alliances which looked likely to permanently unify all four great Crowns, but it was shattered by the sudden assassination of a crown prince.
So when I tell people about this election, and they ask me “Does it always have the same outcome?” the answer is yes and no. Because the Great Forces always push the same way. The strong factions are strong. Money is power. Blood is thicker than promises. Virtue is manipulable. In the end, a bad man will be pope. And he will do bad things. The war is coming, and the land — some land somewhere — will burn. But the details are always different. A Cardinal needs to gather fourteen votes to get the throne, but it’s never the same fourteen votes, so it’s never the same fourteen people who get papal favor, whose agendas are strengthened, whose homelands prosper while their enemies fall. And I have never once seen a pope elected in this simulation who did not owe his victory, not only to those who voted, but to one or more of the humble functionaries, who repeated just the right whisper at just the right moment, and genuinely handed the throne to Monster A instead of Monster B. And from that functionary flow the consequences. There are always several kingmakers in the election, who often do more than the candidate himself to get him on the throne, but what they do, who they help, and which kingmaker ends up most favored, most influential, can change a small war in Genoa into a huge war in Burgundy, a union of thrones between France and England into another century of guns and steel, or determine which decrees the new pope signs. That sometimes matters more than whether war is in Burgundy or Genoa, since papal signatures resolve questions such as: Who gets the New World? Will there be another crusade? Will the Inquisition grow more tolerant or less toward new philosophies? Who gets to be King of Naples? These things are different every time, though shaped by the same forces.
Frequently the most explosive action is right after the pope is elected, after the Great Forces have thrust a bad man onto Saint Peter’s throne, and set the great and somber stage for war, often that’s the moment that I see human action do most. That’s when I get the after-midnight message on the day before the war begins: “Secret meeting. 9AM. Economics cafe. Make sure no one sees you. Sforza, Medici, D’Este, Dominicans. Borgia has the throne but he will not be master of Italy.” And together, these brave and haste-born allies, they… faicceed? Fail and succeed? They give it all they have: diplomacy, force, wealth, guile, all woven together. They strike. The bad pope rages, sends forces out to smite these enemies. The kings and great thrones take advantage, launch invasions. The armies clash. One of the rebel cities burns, but the other five survive, and Borgia (that year at least) is not Master of Italy.
We feel it, the students as myself, coming out of the simulation. The Great Forces were real, and were unstoppable. The dam was about to break. No one could stop it. But the human agents — even the tiniest junior clerk who does the paperwork — the human agents shaped what happened, and every action had its consequences, imperfect, entwined, but real. The dam was about to break, but every person there got to dig a channel to try to direct the waters once they flowed, and that is what determined the real shape of the flood, its path, its damage. No one controlled what happened, and no one could predict what happened, but those who worked hard and dug their channels, most of them succeeded in diverting most of the damage, achieving many of their goals, preventing the worst. Not all, but most.
And what I see in the simulation I also see over and over in real historical sources.
This is how both kinds of history are true. There are Great Forces. Economics, class, wealth gaps, prosperity, stagnation, these Great Forces make particular historical moments ripe for change, ripe for war, ripe for wealth, ripe for crisis, ripe for healing, ripe for peace. But individuals also have real agency, and our actions determine the actual consequences of these Great Forces as they reshape our world. We have to understand both, and study both, and act on the world now remembering that both are real.
So, can human beings control progress? Yes and no.
Part 6: Ways to Talk About Progress in the 21st Century
Few things have taught me more about the world than keeping a fish tank.
You get some new fish, put them in your fish tank, everything’s fine. You get some more new fish, the next morning one of them has killed almost all the others. Another time you get a new fish and it’s all gaspy and pumping its gills desperately, because it’s from alkeline waters and your tank is too acidic for it. So you put in a little pH adjusting powder and… all the other fish get sick from the Ammonia that releases and die. Another time you get a new fish and it’s sick! So you put fish antibiotics in the water, aaaand… they kill all the symbiotic bacteria in your filter system and the water gets filled with rotting bacteria, and the fish die. Another time you do absolutely nothing, and the fish die.
What’s happening? The same thing that happened in the first two centuries after Francis Bacon, when the science was learning tons, but achieving little that actually improved daily life. The system is more complex than it seems. A change which achieves its intended purpose also throws out-of-whack vital forces you did not realize were connected to it. The acidity buffer in the fish tank increases the nutrients in the water, which causes an algae bloom, which uses up the oxygen and suffocates the catfish. The marriage alliance between Milan and Ferrara makes Venice friends with Milan, which makes Venice’s rival Genoa side with Spain, which makes Spain reluctant to anger Portugal, which makes them agree to a marriage alliance, and then Spain is out of princesses and can’t marry the Prince of Wales, and the next thing you know there are soldiers from Scotland attacking Bologna. A seventeenth-century surgeon realizes that cataracts are caused by something white and opaque appearing at the front of the eye so removes it, not yet understanding that it’s the lens and you really need it.
So when I hear people ask “Has social progress has failed?” or “Has liberalism failed?” or “Has the Civil Rights Movement failed?” my zoomed-in self, my scared self, the self living in this crisis feels afraid and uncertain, but my zoomed-out self, my historian self answers very easily. No. These movements have done wonders, achieved tons! But they have also done what all movements do in a dynamic historical system: they have had large, complicated consequences. They have added something to the fish tank. Because the same Enlightenment impulse to make a better, more rational world, where everyone would have education and equal political empowerment BOTH caused the brutalities of the Belgian Congo AND gave me the vote. And that’s the sort of thing historians look at, all day.
But if the consequences of our actions are completely unpredictable, would it be better to say that change is real but progress controlled by humans is just an idea which turned out to be wrong? No. I say no. Because I gradually got better at understanding the fish tank. Because the doctors gradually figured out how the eye really does function. Because some of our civil rights have come by blood and war, and others have come through negotiation and agreement. Because we as humans are gradually learning more about how our world is interconnected, and how we can take action within that interconnected system. And by doing so we really have achieve some of what Francis Bacon and his followers waited for through those long centuries: we have made the next generation’s experience on this Earth a little better than our own. Not smoothly, and not quickly, but actually. Because, in my mock papal election, the dam did break, but those students who worked hard to dig their channels did direct the flood, and most of them managed to achieve some of what they aimed at, though they always caused some other effects too.
Is it still blowing up in our faces?
Is it going to keep blowing up in our faces, over and over?
Is it going to blow up so much, sometimes, that it doesn’t seem like it’s actually any better?
Is that still progress?
Because there was a baby in the bathwater of Whig history. If we work hard at it, we can find metrics for comparing times and places which don’t privilege particular ideologies. Metrics like infant mortality. Metrics like malnutrition. Metrics like the frequency of massacres. We can even find metrics for social progress which don’t irrevocably privilege a particular Western value system. One of my favorite social progress metrics is: “What portion of the population of this society can be murdered by a different portion of the population and have the murderer suffer no meaningful consequences?” The answer, for America in 2017, is not 0%. But it’s also not 90%. That number has gone down, and is now far below the geohistorical norm. That is progress. That, and infant mortality, and the conquest of smallpox. These are genuine improvements to the human condition, of the sort that Bacon and his followers believed would come if they kept working to learn the causes and secret motions of things. And they were right. While Whig history privileges a very narrow set of values, metrics which track things like infant mortality, or murder with impunity, still privilege particular values — life, justice, equality — but aim to be compatible with as many different cultures, and even time periods, as possible. They are metrics which stranded time travelers would find it fairly easy to explain, no matter where they were dumped in Earth’s broad timeline. At least that’s our aim. And such metrics are the best tool we have at present to make the comparisons, and have the discussions about progress, that we need to have to grapple with our changing world.
Because progress is both a concept and a phenomenon.
The concept is the hope that collective human effort can make every generation’s experience on this Earth a little better than the previous generation’s. That concept has itself become a mighty force shaping the human experience, like communism, iron, or the wheel. It is valuable thing to look at the effects that concept has had, to talk about how some have been destructive and others constructive, and to study, from a zoomed-out perspective, the consequences, successes, and failures of different movements or individuals who have acted in the name of progress.
The phenomenon is also real. My own personal assessment of it is just that, a personal assessment, with no authority beyond some years spent studying history. I hope to keep reexamining and improving this assessment all the days of my life. But here at the beginning of 2017 I would say this:
Progress is not inevitable, but it is happening.
It is not transparent, but it is visible.
It is not safe, but it is beneficial.
It is not linear, but it is directional.
It is not controllable, but it is us. In fact, it is nothing but us.
Progress is also natural, in my view, not in the sense that it will inevitably triumph over its doomed opposition, but in the sense that the human animal is part of nature, so the Declaration of the Rights of Man is as natural as a bird’s nest or a beaver dam. There is no teleology, no inevitable correct ending locked in from time immemorial. But I personally think there is a certain outcome to progress, gradual but certain: the decrease of pain in the human condition over time. Because there is so much desire in this world to make a better one. Bacon was right that we ache for it. And the real measurable changes we have made show that he was also right that we can use Reason and collective effort to meet our desires, even if the process is agonizingly slow, imperfect, and dangerous. But we know now how to go about learning the causes and secret motions of things. And how to use that knowledge.
We are also learning to understand the accidental negative consequences of progress, looking out for them, mitigating them, preventing them, creating safety nets. We’re getting better at it. Slowly, but we are.
Zooming back in hurts. It’s easy to say “the French Wars of Religion” and erase the little blips of peace, but it’s hard to feel fear and pain, or watch a friend feel fear and pain. Sometimes I hear people say they think that things today are worse than they’ve ever been, especially the hate, or the race relations in the USA, that they’re worse now than ever. That we’ve made no progress, quite the opposite. Similarly, I think a person who grew up during one of the peaceful pauses in the French Wars of Religion might say, when the violence restarted, that the wars were worse now than they had ever been, and farther than ever from real peace. They aren’t actually worse now. They genuinely were worse before. But they are really, really bad right now, and it does really, really hurt.
The slowness of social progress is painful, I think especially because it’s the aspect of progress that seemed it would come fastest. During that first century, when Bacon’s followers were waiting in maddening impatience for their better medical knowledge to result in any actual increase in their ability to save lives, social progress was already working wonders. The Enlightenment did extend franchise, end torture on an entire continent, achieved much, and had this great, heady, explosive feeling of victory and momentum. It seemed like social progress was already half-way-done before tech even got started. But Charles Babbage kicked off programmable computing in 1833 and now my pocket contains 100x the computing power needed to get Apollo XI to the Moon, so why, if Olympe de Gouges wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Citizen in 1791, do we still not have equal pay?
Because society is a very complicated fish tank. Because we still have a lot to learn about the causes and secret motions of society.
But if there is a dam right now, ready to break and usher in a change, Great Forces are still shaped by human action. Our action.
Studying history has proved to me, over and over, that things used to be worse. That they are better now. Progress is real. That’s a consolation, but a hollow one while we’re still here facing the pain. What fills its hollowness, for me at least, is remembering that secret meeting in the Economics cafe, that hasty plan, diplomacy, quick action — not a second chance after the disaster, but a next chance. And a next. And a next, to take actions that really did achieve things, even if not everything. Human action combining with the flood is not powerlessness. And that’s how I think progress really works.
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Addendum, as promised, more citations on the demographics of religious violence in France, with thanks to Brian Sandberg:
- Brian Sandberg, Warrior Pursuits: Noble Culture and Civil Conflict in Early Modern France (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010).
- Philip Benedict, “The Huguenot Population of France, 1600-85,” in The Faith and Fortunes of France’s Huguenots, 1600-85 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001), 39-42, 92-95.
- Arlette Jouanna, La France du XVIe siècle, 1483-1598 (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1996), 325-340.
- Jacques Dupâquier, ed., De la Renaissance à 1789, vol. 2 of Histoire de la population française (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1988), 81-94.
- Historical Perspectives – Brian Sandberg’s blog
- Center for the Study of Religious Violence blog