Archive for History

Black Death, COVID, and Why We Keep Telling the Myth of a Renaissance Golden Age and Bad Middle Ages

“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:

  1. Renaissance Life was Worse than the Middle Ages (super-compressed version)
  2. Where did the myth come from in the first place? (a Renaissance story)
  3. Why is the myth of a golden Renaissance retold so much? (a post-Renaissance story)
  4. Conclusion: We Should Aim for Something Better than the Renaissance
Leading my study abroad Florence students on our THIRD Uffizi visit.

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 Johan 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.

Published lament for the assassination of one of the Dukes of Milan – not the same murders Ercole’s parents were directly involved with, but a cousin, and another link in the long and bloody chain.

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.

Images of swaddled infants, from the Innocenti foundling hospital in Florence

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.

Look what we can make now! A pistol that shoots nine random directions at once! (Bargello museum)

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.

The real villain: Y. Pestis, the bacterium that causes plague

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:

Look what happens with the Dukes of Urbino 1440s-1530s

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.

Florence’s Gates of Paradise

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.

Medieval illumination of a king sitting on a throne with a crown being placed on his head by two robed bishops.
Here’s Henry III of England depicted receiving the crown from two very legitimate bishops. In Richard III Shakespeare has Richard arrange to be found at prayer standing between two priests when he’s trying to convince the people to make him king — a classic bid for legitimacy which Shakespeare knows is often insincere.

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.

Don’t YOU want a trade deal with the people who can build THAT?

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)

The moment when all Medievalists *facepalm*

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.

Interesting choices made in this timeline of where to divide this timeline. Many other choices could be made. Google for “European History Timeline” and you’ll find dozens.
Modern illustration of a Medieval mystery play, enacting battles between good and evil for the audience’s moral edification – just like history.

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).

Fresco of Petrarch

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.

Fresco depiction of young Cicero reading in his Roman home; raising the next generation of Italy’s rulers the same way was Petrarch’s plan to save Italy and Europe from an age of ash and shadow.

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.

Stunning portrait face of Leonardo Bruni, from his tomb in Santa Croce.

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!

Illuminated manuscript of a French translation of Bruni’s history; every court had to have it, and make one of their own.

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.

No no no no, please, just no…

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.

So…

Painting of the Gallery of Cornelis van der Geest, by Willem van Haecht, 1628

…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.

Mussolini takes Hitler on a tour of the Uffizi

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]!”

Brutus or Caesar, you can pick either one!

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.

Sherlock Holmes (Jeremy Brett Version) with his pocket Petrarch

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 ItalyIt’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.

(Note: If you haven’t read it already I recommend you also look at my post On Progress and Historical Change, discussing the history of ideas of progress.)

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.

Savonarola is one of many Renaissance figures appropriated by many later movements, including revolutionaries in the Italian unification movement.

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.

Recommended reading for more, or see my page of History book recommendations

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.

David gets his regular scrub. He needs it.

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.

The Wheel of Fortuna, which turns, elevating men from beggar, to townsman, to king, then falling again in a chaotic cycle representing life. Notice the ABSENCE of an idea of the world getting better OVERALL.

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.

It’s Viking time!

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.

Suffragettes at the 1918 election.

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.

Youth climate strikers in New York City, featured in an article in Forbes

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.

Voltaire, 1763 “Treatise on Tolerance,” written in his outrage over the judicial murder of Jean Calas.

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.

Let’s try.

 

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Stoicism’s Appeal to the Rich and Powerful

Cicero, one of our major sources for stoic thought.

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.

Dog tied waiting outside a store.
If you’ve walked by shops where dogs are tied outside you’ve experienced the radical differences in their behavior: anxious waiting, frightened waiting, calm confident waiting; the latter experiences less unhappiness.

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

The majority of surviving stoic writings focus, not on the metaphysics, but on the actionable conclusion: given all this, how do we teach ourselves to assent?  To become the contented dog who trusts in Providence enough to follow where our paths lead without being made miserable by anxiety, fear, and resistance?  Stoics therefore teach self-mastery and detachment: you can’t keep terrible things from happening but you can control your own internal reaction to them and work on preventing yourself from being overwhelmed by them.  You wake up to some terrible news in the morning: do you brood on it all day and lose your productivity and wellbeing? Or do you take control and carry on?

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.
The ontology here serves the therapy.  You lost the election?  Got passed over for promotion?  Got a bad review?  These things are small and fleeting within the larger whole, all wealth will perish in infinity, all fame fade, nothing serious was really lost.  You lost your arm to disease?  It was not yours to begin with, it was leant to you be a kind universe which has a right to take it back again.  You lost your best friend?  Again, this was a brief good thing the universe leant you, don’t dwell on it, look instead to the other good things that still surround you.  Goods are real, evils an illusion, and if you can believe that it becomes easier–the stoics promise–to let go.  The approach works, sometimes.  Scientific studies tell us that pain is more emotionally terrible when we know/believe it’s actually damaging us, i.e. that the same number of nerves firing off is more upsetting when than when we believe it’s permanently damaging a body part than when we know it’s hot wax or an electroshock and the effects won’t be lingering.  So if you can actually convince yourself that nothing really important has been destroyed when something affects your fame, or fortune, it does hurt less.  And millions of people over thousands of years have found stoicism a comfort on life’s tumultuous sea.

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.

Hippie commune
Cross a hippie commune with a monastic order and you have something like most Greek philosophical schools.

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).

Roman family tomb
Posthumous honor was everything to Roman political families, and renouncing office a betrayal of generations. The hippie commune is right out!

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.

Bust of Seneca
Bust of Seneca, looking wise and careworn.

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.

Bust of voltaire, smiling.
Bust of Voltaire, looking kind.

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.

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Milton’s Arguments Against EU Copyright Directive Article 11 and Article 13

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!

 

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2018 Campbell Speech, How New Authors Expand Fields (+Censorship, Manga)

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:

The Speech:

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.

Further Details:

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 Phoenixconsidered 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.

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Censorship Project + A Brief History of Book Burning

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

You can learn about it from the project website, and support it on Kickstarter.

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!

Me and Cory at Penguicon looking at early censored books together on a panel about information control.

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?A Brief History of Book Burning

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.


Not bad for 550 words! If you enjoyed this there’s more to come, so please check out the project. And please consider supporting us on Kickstarter. Thank you!

Click here to support us on kickstarter

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Promoted Comment: The Scary Atrocious Thomas Hobbes

330px-thomas_hobbes_portraitIn 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:

isize-reduced

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.

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On Progress and Historical Change

shipmoonsmallIs 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:

516xicub3rl-_sx324_bo1204203200_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).

519c24aawxl-_sx321_bo1204203200_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.

francis-bacon-advancement-proficiencie-learning

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.

Dante learning about the causes and effects of history... by leaving the Earth entirely and talking to theologians in Heaven.
Dante learning about the causes and effects of history… by leaving the Earth entirely and talking to theologians in Heaven about God’s plan. (Spot-the-Saint fans should recognize members of a certain monastic order.)

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.

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Bacon visualized the scientific project as the launching of a ship.

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…

An immensely sophisticated (and expensive) 18th-century electrostatic generator.
An immensely sophisticated (and expensive) early 19th-century electrostatic generator. It sure does… demonstrate electrostatics.

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.

But!

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

bigstock-back-view-image-of-businessman-45911515We 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.

main-qimg-d6897a0683ff024256df21c0489f9d30We 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.

gpw_count_2010d_psd

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.

Now:

world-ooze-population-shown-pointing-down

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?

modern-times

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.

The Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, the most infamous of the many bouts of urban violence which characterized the French Wars of Religion

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?

hamilton-the-musical-official-broadway-posterHistory 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.

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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.”

Our newly-elected pope crowns the Holy Roman Emperor
Our newly-elected pope crowns the Holy Roman Emperor

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.

The newly-elected pope holds a secret meeting with his inner circle to plan the conquest of Italy
The new pope meets in secret with his inner circle to plan the conquest of Italy

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.

After the war, cardinals petition the pope for final favors
As war wracks Italy and Spain, Cardinals petition the pope to forgive their offenses and condemn their enemies.

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

My favorite fish, Orochimaru. He has long since, as we say in my household "gone the way of all fish."
My favorite fish, Orochimaru, a beautiful black veil tail angel.  He has long since, as we say in my household “gone the way of all fish.”

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.

rwanda-in-the-eyes-of-the-elite
The One Laptop Per Child program may be the single initiative in Earth’s history-so-far which will trigger the most cultural change. We have no idea what the real effects will be, only that they will be massive. Will they be good? Yes. Bad? Realistically also yes — a mixture, as with all great changes.

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.

Medieval bloodletting. Something we genuinely have improved on!
Medieval bloodletting. Something we have genuinely, usefully improved on!

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?
Yes.
Is it going to keep blowing up in our faces, over and over?
Yes.
Is it going to blow up so much, sometimes, that it doesn’t seem like it’s actually any better?
Yes.
Is that still progress?
Yes.
Why?

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Map of the world by increases in life expectancy since 1972. One of many attempts to create new, better metrics for discussing 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.

progress-003The 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.

Sisyphus, depicted on a classical urn. We are still using and improving on the Sisyphus image too, finding new ways it can help us understand our world.
Sisyphus, depicted on a classical urn. Still a very useful way of describing how progress often feels.

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.

 _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

bb7prp6crop
Map of the Earth showing online social interaction between cities, 2016.

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
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San Marco: The Dominican Monastery at the Heart of Renaissance Florence

Off to Italy again.  This seems like a good time to share a link to a video of an illustrated talk Ada gave at the Lumen Christi institute in Chicago in February. It’s a fascinating overview of the place of San Marco in Florence, with lots of excellent pictures. It’s like an audio version of an Ex Urbe post, with Fra Angelico, the meaning of blue, the Magi, the Medici, Savonarola, confraternities, and the complexities of Renaissance religious and artistic patronage.

And here’s one of the pictures mentioned but not shown in the presentation, a nine panel illustration by Filippo Dolcaiati “The History of Antonio Rinaldeschi.” It depicts the real historical fate of Rinaldeschi, who became drunk while gambling and threw manure at an icon of the Virgin Mary.  A fascinating incident for demonstrating the functions of confraternities, and for demonstrating how seriously the people of Florence took the protection offered by saints and icons.

30_filippo_dolciati__the_history_of_antonio_rinaldeschi0MOD

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Plato essay, #historypix, and the excessively exciting life of Pope Urban VIII

The Page Proofs are Here!
The Page Proofs are Here!

Some announcements, and a small fun thing to share. First, I have written an essay on Plato, historicity and metaphysics, based on my experiences teaching the Republic to undergraduates and responding to Jo Walton’s The Just City. It is up on Crooked Timber as part of a set of responses to The Just City, and the essay has plenty of elements to enjoy even if you haven’t read the book.

Second, due to a recent policy change in Italy’s national museums I was able to finally take literally thousands of photos of artifacts and spaces in museums that have been forbidden to cameras for years. I’ve started sharing the photos on Twitter (#historypix) so follow me on Twitter if you would enjoy random photos of cool historical artifacts twice a day.

arcsMeanwhile I don’t yet have another full essay ready to post here, but I’m happy to say the reason is that I’m working away on the page proofs of Too Like the Lightningthe final editing step before the books go to press. I’ve even received a photo from my editor of the Advanced Release Copies for book reviewers sitting in a delicious little pile!  It’s fun seeing how many different baby steps the book is taking on its long path to becoming real: cover art, page count, typography, physicality in many stages, first the pre-copy-edit Advanced Bound Manuscripts, then the post-copy-edit but pre-page-proof Advanced Release Copies, evolving toward the final hardcover transformation by transformation.  My biggest point of suspense at this point is wondering how fat it will be, how heavy in the hand…

And now, a quick piece of history fun:

There is a dimly-lit hallway half way through the Vatican museum (after you’ve looked at 2,000 Roman marbles, 1,000 Etruscan vases and enough overwhelming architecture to make you start feeling slightly punchy) hung on the left-hand side with stunning tapestries of scenes from the life of Christ based on cartoons by Raphael. But on the right-hand side in the same hallway, largely ignored by the thousands of visitors who stumble through, is my favorite Renaissance tapestry cycle, a sequence of images of The Excessively Exciting Life of Pope Urban VIII.  My best summary of these images is that, when I showed them to my excellent friend Jonathan (author of our What Color is Pluto? guest post) he scratched his chin and said, “I think the patronage system may have introduced some bias.”  And it’s very true, these are an amazing example of Renaissance art whose sole purpose is excessive flattery of the patron, a genre common in all media: histories, biographies, dedications, sculptures, paintings, verses, and, in this case, thread.

These tapestries are fragile and quite faded, and the narrow hallway thronging with Raphael-admirers makes it awkward to get a good angle, but with much effort I think these capture the over-the-top absurdity which makes these tapestries such a delight. Urban VIII now is best known for engaging in unusually complicated military and political maneuvering, expanding and fortifying the papal territories, pushing fiercely against Hapsburg expansion into Italy, finishing the canonization of St. Ignatius of Loyola, persecuting Galileo, commissioning a lot of Bernini sculptures, and spending so much on military and artistic expenses that he got the papacy so head over heels in debt that the Roman people hated him, the Cardinals conspired to depose him (note: it usually takes a few high-profile murders and/or orgies to get them to do that, so this was a LOT of debt), and his successor was left spending 80% of the Vatican’s annual income on interest repayments alone.  But let’s see what scenes from his life he himself wanted us to remember:

My favorite is the first: Angels and Muses descend from Heaven to attend the college graduation of young Maffeo Barberini (not yet pope Urban VIII) and give him a laurel crown. If all graduation ceremonies were this exciting, we’d never miss them! Also someone there has a Caduceus, some weird female version of Hermes? Hard to say. And look at the amazing fabric on the robe of the man overseeing the ceremony.

UrbanVIIIGraduatesFromCollege

Second, Maffeo Barberini receives the Cardinal’s Hat, attended by an angel, while Pope Paul V who is giving him the hat points in a heavy-handed foreshadowing way to his own pope hat nearby. What could it mean?!

UrbanVIIICreatedCardinal

Next, the fateful election! Heavenly allegories of princely virtues come to watch as the wooden slips are counted and the vote counter is astonished by the dramatic result! Note how, propaganda aside, this is useful for showing us what the slips looked like.

UrbanVIIIIsElectedPope

In the one above I particularly like the guy who’s peering into the goblet to make absolutely sure no slips are stuck there:

Untitled-1

On the other side of the same scene, our modest Urban VIII is so surprised to be elected he practically swoons! And even demands a recount, while the nice acolyte kneels before him with the (excessively heavy) papal tiara on a silver platter.

UrbanVIIITotallySurprisedToBeElectedPopeSmall

Now Urban’s adventures as pope! He breaks ground for new construction projects in Rome, attended by some floating cupid creature holding a book for the flying allegorical heart of the city:

UrbanVIIIFoundsNewSaintPeters

He builds new fortresses to defend Rome:

UrbanVIIIBuildsANewFortress

He makes peace between allegorical ladies representing Rome and Etruria (the area right next to Rome: note, if there is strife between Rome and Etruria in the first place, things in Italy are VERY VERY BAD! But the tapestries aren’t going into that):

UrbanVIIIMakesPeaceBetweenRomeAndEtruria

And finally, Urban VIII defends Rome from Famine and Plague by getting help from St. Peter, St. Paul, Athena, and St. Sebastian. Well done, your Holiness!

UrbanVIIISavesRomeFromFamineAndPlague

How about that for the exciting life of a late Renaissance pope? You get to hang out with lots of allegorical figures, and vaguely pagan deities as well as saints,  and everyone around you is always gesturing gracefully! No matter they fought so hard for the papal tiara. Also, no bankers or moneylenders or interest repayment to be found!

Urban VIII also has a delightfully recognizable coat of arms, the Barberini Bees! Look for them all over Rome, especially Saint Peters'
Urban VIII also has a delightfully recognizable coat of arms, the Barberini Bees! Look for them all over Rome, especially Saint Peters’

More seriously, another century’s propaganda rarely makes it into our canon of what art is worth reproducing, teaching and discussing, but I often find this kind of artifact much more historically informative than most: we can learn details of clothing, spaces and items like how papers are folded, or what voting slips looked like. We can learn which acts a political figure wanted to be remembered for, what seemed important at the time, so different from what we remember. A tapestry of him canonizing St. Ignatius of Loyola would certainly be popular now, but in his day people cared more about immediate military matters, and he had no way to predict how important St. Ignatius would eventually become.  Pieces like this are also a good way to remind ourselves that the Renaissance art we usually see on calendars and cell phone cases isn’t representative, it’s our own curated selection of that tiny venn diagram intersection of art that fits the tastes of BOTH then AND now.  And a good reminder that we should always attend graduation ceremonies, since you never know when Angels and Muses might descend from Heaven to attend.

Now, back to the Page Proofs!

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Sketches of a History of Skepticism Part 4: the Renaissance, Montaigne and a touch of Voltaire

"My copy doesn't say whether it's Will or Intellect. Does yours?"
“My copy doesn’t say whether it’s Will or Intellect. Does yours?”

(Best to begin with Part 1 and Part 2 of and Part 3 this series.)

Doubt in the Renaissance and Reformation

My own period I will treat the most briefly in this survey. This may seem like a strange choice, but I can either do a general overview, or get sidetracked discussing individual philosophers, theologians and commentators and their uses of skepticism for another five posts.  So, in brief:

In the later Middle Ages, within the philosophical world, the breadth of disagreement within scholarship, how different the far extreme theories were on any given topic, was rather circumscribed. A good example of a really fractious fight is the question of, within your generally Aristotelian tripartite rational immortal soul, which of the two decision-making principles is more powerful, the Intellect or the Will?  It’s a big and important question – without it we will starve to death like Buridan’s ass, and be unable to decide whether to send our second sons to Franciscan or a Dominican monasteries, plus we need it to understand how Original Sin, Grace and salvation work. But the breadth of answers is not that big, and the question itself presumes that everyone involved already believes 90% the same thing.

Enter Petrarch, “Let’s read the classics! They’ll make us great like the Romans!” Begin 250 years of working really hard to find, copy, correct, translate, edit, print and proliferate every syllable surviving from antiquity. Now we discover that Epicurus says there’s no afterlife and the universe is made of atoms; Stoics say the universe is one giant contiguous object without motion or individual existence; Plato says there’s reincarnation (What?  The Plato we used to have didn’t say that!); and Aristotle totally doesn’t say what we thought he said, it turns out the Organon was a terrible translation (Sorry, Boethius, you did your best, and we love you, but it was a terrible translation.)  Suddenly the palette of questions is much broader, and the degree to which people disagree has opened exponentially wider. If we were charting a solar system before, now we’re charting a galaxy.  But the humanists still tried hard to make them all agree, much as the scholastics and Peter Abelard had, since the ancients were ALL wonderful and ALL brilliant and ALL right, right?  Even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff? Hence Renaissance Syncretism, attempts by philosophers like Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola to take all the authors of antiquity, and Aquinas and a few others in the mix, and show how they were all really saying the same thing, in a roundabout, hidden, glorious, elusive, poetic, we-can-make-like-Abelard-and-make-it-all-make-sense way.

Before you dismiss these syncretic experiments as silly, or as slavish toadying, there is a logic to it if you can zoom out from modern pluralistic thinking for a minute and look at what Renaissance intellectuals had to work with.

Plato and Aristotle, almost agreeing.
Plato and Aristotle, almost agreeing.

To follow their logic chain you must begin–as they did–by positing that Christianity is true, and there is a single monotheistic God who is the source of all goodness, virtue, and knowledge.  Wisdom, being wise and good at judgment, helps you tell true from false and right from wrong, and what is true and right will always agree with and point toward God.  Therefore all wise people in history have really been aiming toward the same thing–one truth, one source.  Plato and Aristotle and their Criteria of Truth are in the background of this, Plato’s description of the Good which is one divine thing that all reasoning minds tend toward, and Aristotle’s idea that reasoning people (philosophers, scientists) working without error will come to identical conclusions even if they’re on opposite sides of the world, because the knowable categories (fish, equilateral triangle, good) are universal.  Thus, as Plato and Aristotle say we use reason to gradually approach knowledge, all philosophers in history have been working toward the same thing, and differ only in the errors they make along the way.  This is the logic, but they also have evidence, and here you have to remember that Renaissance scholars did not have our modern tools for evaluating chronology and influence.  They looked at early Christian writings, and they looked at Plato and Aristotle, and they said, as we do, “Wow, Plato and Aristotle have a lot of ideas in common with these early Christians!” but while we conclude, “Early Christians sure were influenced by Plato and Aristotle,” they instead concluded, “This proves that Plato and Aristotle were aiming toward the same things as Christianity!”  And they had further evidence from how tangled their chronologies were.   There were certain key texts like the Chaldean Oracles which they thought were much much older than we now think they are, which made it look like ideas we attribute to Plato had independently existed well before Plato.  They looked at Plotinus and other late antique Neoplatonists who mixed Plato and Aristotle but claimed the Aristotelian bits were really hidden inside Plato the whole time, and they concluded, “See, Plato and Aristotle were basically saying the same thing!”  Similarly confusing were the works of the figure we now call Pseudo-Dionysius, who we think was a late antique Neoplatonist voicing a mature hybrid of Platonism and Aristotelianism with some Stoicism mixed in, but who Renaissance scholars believed was a disciple of Saint Paul, leading them to conclude that Saint Paul believed a lot of this stuff, and making it seem even more like Plato, Aristotle, Stoics, ancient mystics, and Christianity were all aiming at one thing.  So any small differences are errors along the way, or resolvable with “sic et non.”

The problem came when they translated more and more texts, and found more contradictions than they could really handle.  Ideas much wilder and more out there than they expected suddenly had authoritative possibly-sort-of-proto-Christian authors endorsing them.  Settled questions were unsettled again, sleeping dragons woken.  For example, it wasn’t until the Fifth Lateran Council in 1513 that the Church officially made belief in the immortality of the soul a required doctrine for all Christians, which does not mean that lots of Christians before 1513 didn’t believe in the afterlife, but that Christians in 1513 were anxious about belief in the afterlife, feeling that it and many other doctrines were suddenly in doubt which had stood un-threatened throughout the Middle Ages.  The intellectual landscape was suddenly bigger and stranger.

Wait, we have to reconcile all these guys?
Wait, we have to reconcile all these guys?

Remember how I said Cicero would be back? All these humanists read Cicero constantly, including the philosophical dialogs with his approach of presenting different classical sects in dialog, all equally plausible but incompatible, leading to… skepticism.  And as they explored those same sects more and more broadly, Cicero the skeptic became something of the wedge that started to expand the crack, not overtly stating “Hey, guys, these people don’t agree!” but certainly pressing the idea that they don’t agree, in ways which humanists had more and more trouble ignoring as more texts came back.

Aaaaaand the Reformation made this more extreme, a lot more extreme, by (A) generating an enormous new mass of theological claims made by contradictory parties, adding another arm to our galactic spiral, and (B) developing huge numbers of fierce and damning counter-arguments to all these claims, which in turn meant developing new tools for countering and eroding belief.  Thus, as we reach the 1570s, the world of philosophy is a lot bigger, a lot deadlier (as the Reformation and Counter-Reformation killed many more people for their ideas than the Middle Ages did), and a lot scarier, with vast swarms of arguments and counter-arguments, many of them powerful, persuasive, beautifully reasoned, and completely incompatible.  And when you make a beautiful yes-and-no attempt to make Plato and Epicurus agree, you don’t have the men themselves on hand to say “Excuse me, in fact, we don’t agree.”  But you did have real live Reformation and Counter-Reformation theologians running around responding to each other in real time, that makes syncretic reconciliation the more impossible.

Wait, the other wall too?!
Wait, the other wall too?!

Remember how Abelard, who able to make St. Jerome and St. Augustine seem to agree, drew followers like Woodstock?  Well, now his successors–Scholastic and Humanist, since the Humanists were all ALSO reading Scholasticism all the time–have a thousand times as many authorities to reconcile.  You think Jerome and Augustine is hard?  Try Calvin and Epicurus!  St. Dominic and Zwingli!  Thomas Aquinas is a saint now, let’s see if you can Yes-and-No the entire Summa Theologica into agreeing with Epictetus, Pseudo-Dionysius and the Council of Trent at the same time! And remember, in the middle of all this, that most if not all of our Renaissance protagonists still believe in Hell and damnation (or at least something similar to it), and that if you’re wrong you burn in Hellfire forever and ever and ever and so do all your students and it’s your fault.  Result: FEAR.  And its companion, freethought.  Contrary to what we might assume, this is not a case where fear stifled inquiry, but where it stimulated more, firing Renaissance thinkers with the burning need to have a solution to all these contradictions, some way to sort out the safe path amid a thousand pits of Hellfire. New syntheses were proposed, new taxonomies of positions and heresies outlined, and old beliefs reexamined and refined or reaffirmed.  And this period of intellectual broadening and competition brought with it an increasing inability to believe that any one of these options is the only right way when there are so many, and they are so good at tearing each other down.

And in the middle of this, experimental and observational science is advancing rapidly, and causing more doubt. We discover new continents that don’t fit in a T-O map (Ptolemy is wrong), new plants that don’t fit existing plant taxonomy (Theophrastus is wrong), details about Animals which don’t match Aristotle (we’d better hope he’s not wrong!), the circulation of the blood which turns the four humors theory on its head (Not Galen! We really needed him!), and magnification lets us finally see the complexity of a flea, and realize there is a whole unexplored micro-universe of detail too small for the naked eye to experience, raising the question “If God made the Earth for humans, why did God bother to make things humans can’t even perceive?”

Youth: “But, Socrates, why did experimental and observational science advance in that period? Discovering new stuff that isn’t in the classics doesn’t have anything to do with reconstructing antiquity, or with the Reformation, does it?”

Good question.  A long answer would be a book, but I can make a quick stab at a short one. I would point at several factors.  First, after 1300, and increasingly as we approach 1600, European rulers began competing in new ways, many of them cultural. As more and more nobles were convinced by the humanist claim that true nobility and power came from the lost arts of the ancients, so scholarship and unique knowledge, including knowledge of ancient sciences, became mandatory ornaments of court, and politically valuable as ways of advertising a ruler’s wealth and power. Monarchs and newly-risen families who had seized power through war or bribery could add a veneer of nobility by surrounding themselves with libraries, scholars, poets, and scientists, who studied the ancient scientific sources of Greece and Rome but, in order to understand them more fully, also studied newer sources coming from the Middle East, and did new experiments of their own. A new astronomical model of the heavens proclaimed the power of the patron who had paid for it, just as much as a fur-lined cloak or a diamond-studded scepter.

Lavishly decorated scientific instruments, worthy ornaments of court, like the people who created them.
Lavishly decorated scientific instruments, worthy ornaments of court, like the people who created them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Add to this the increase of the scales of wars caused by increased wealth which could raise larger armies, generating a situation in which new tools for warfare, and especially fortress construction, were increasingly in demand (when you read Leonardo’s discussions of his abilities, more than 75% of the inventions he mentions are tools of war). Add to that the printing press which makes it possible for novelties–whether a rediscovered manuscript or a newly-discovered muscle–to spread exponentially faster, and which makes books much more affordable, so that if only one person in 50,000 could afford a library before now it is one in 5,000, and even merchants could afford a few texts. Education was easier, and educated men were in demand at courts eager to fill themselves with scholars, and advertise their greatness with discoveries.

So... many... books! Must... make them... agree!
So… many… books! Must… make them… agree!

These are the main facilitators, but I would also cite another fundamental shift. I have talked before about Petrarch, and the humanist project to improve the world by reconstructing a lost golden age.  This is the first philosophical movement since ancient stoicism that has had anything to do with the world, since medieval theology’s (perfectly rational in context!) desire to study the Eternal instead of the ephemeral meant that most scholars for many centuries had considered natural philosophy, the study of impermanent natural phenomena, as useless as studying the bathwater instead of the baby.  Humanism generated a lot of arguments about why Earth and earthly things were worth more than nothing, even if they agreed Heaven and eternal things were more important, and I think the mindset which said it was a pious and worthwhile thing to translate Livy or write a treatise on good government contributed to the mindset which said it was a pious and worthwhile thing to measure mountains or write a treatise on metallurgy.  Thought turned, just a little bit, toward Earth.

There, that’s the Renaissance and Reformation, oversimplified by necessity, but Descartes is chomping at the bit for what comes next.  For those who want more, I shall do the crass thing here and say: for more detail, see my book Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance, or Popkin’s History of Skepticism, or wait.

montaigneAt last, Montaigne!

Like the world which basked in his writings, and shuddered in his “crisis,” I love Montaigne.  I love his sentences, his storytelling, his sincerity, his quips, his authorial voice.  Reading Montaigne is like like slowly enjoying a glass of whatever complex, rich and subtle beverage you most enjoy a glass of (wine for many, fresh goat milk for me!).  Especially because, at the end, your glass is empty.  (I see a contented Descartes nodding).  When I set about starting to write this series, getting to Montaigne was, in fact, my secret end goal, since, if there is a founder of modern skepticism, it is Michel Eyquem de Montaigne.

Montaigne was unique, an experiment, the natural experiment to follow at the maturation of the Renaissance classical project but still, a unique child, raised as an overt pedagogical experiment outlined by his father: Montaigne grew up speaking only Latin.  He was exposed to French in his first three years by country nurses, but from three on he was only allowed contact with people–his tutor, parents and servants–speaking Latin.  He was a literal attempt to raise a Cicero or Caesar, formed exclusively by classical ideas, the ideal man that the humanists had been hoping to create.  Greek was later added, not with textbooks and the rod as was usual in those days but with games and music, and studies were always made to seem pleasant and wonderful by surrounding him with music (even waking the child every morning with delightful live music).  He grew up to be about as perfect a Platonic Philosopher King as one could hope to imagine, studying law and entering politics, as his father wished, achieving the highest honors, but preferring life alone in his library, and frequently retiring to do just that, only to be dragged back into politics actually by popular demand of people who would come bang on his library door demanding that he come out to take up office and rule them.  I think often about what it must have been like to be Montaigne, to be so immersed, enjoy these things so much, and only later discover that he was alone in a world with literally no other native speaker of his language.  It must have been as difficult as it was wonderful to be Montaigne.  But I think I understand why, when he lost his best friend Étienne de la Boétie, Montaigne wrote of his grief, his loss, the pain of solitude, with an intensity rarely approached in the history of human literature.  He also wrote Essais, meandering writings, the source of the modern word “essay”, for which every schoolchild has the right to playfully curse him.

louvre-voltaire-1694-1778I will now go about explaining why Montaigne was so wonderful by describing Voltaire. Yes, it is an odd way to go about it, but the Voltaire example is clearer and more concise than any Montaigne example I have on hand, and, in this, Voltaire was a student of Montaigne, and Montaigne will only smile to see such a beautiful development of his art, as Bacon smiles on Newton, and Socrates on all of us.

At the beginning of this sequence, I outlined two potential sources of knowledge: either (A) Sense Perception i.e. Evidence, or (B) Logic/Reason.  The classical skeptics were born when the reliability these two sources of knowledge were drawn into doubt, Sense Perception by the stick in water, Logic by Xeno’s Paradoxes of Motion.  Responses included the skeptics’ conclusion “We can’t know anything if we can’t trust Reason or the Senses,” and the various other classical schools’ Criteria of Truth (Plato’s Ideas, Aristotle’s Categories, Epicurus’s weak empiricism, etc.)  All refutations we have seen along our long path have been based on undermining one of these types of knowledge sources: so when Duns Scotus fights with Aquinas, he picks on his logic, and when Ockham fights with him he, often, picks on his material sensory evidence. (“Where is the phantasm?  Huh? Huh?”)

LeibnitzEverybody, I’d like to introduce you to Leibniz.  Leibniz, this is everybody.  “Hello!” says Leibniz, “Very nice to meet you all.”  We are going to viciously murder Leibniz in about three minutes.  “It’s no trouble,” says Leibniz, “I’m quite used to it.”  Thank you, Leibniz, we appreciate it.

Leibniz here made many great contributions to philosophy and mathematics, but one particular one was extraordinarily popular, I would go so far as to say faddy, a fad argument which swept Europe in the first half of the 18th century.  You have almost certainly heard it before in mocking form, but I will do my best to be fair as we line up our target in our sites:

  1. God is Omnipotent, Omniscient and Omnbenevolent.  (Given.)  “Grrrr,” quoth Socrates.
  2. Given that God is Omniscient, He knows what the best of all possible worlds is.
  3. Given that God is Omnipotent, He can create the best of all possible worlds.
  4. Given that God is Omnibenevolent, He wants to create the best of all possible worlds.
  5. Any world such a God would make must logically be the best of all possible worlds
  6. This is the best of all possible worlds.

Now, this was a proof written, just like Anselm’s and Aquinas’s, by a philosopher expecting a readership who all believe, both in God, and in Providence.  It is a comfortable proof of the logical certainty that there is Providence, that this universe is perfect (as the Stoics first theorized), and anything in it that seems to be bad or evil must, in fact, be part of a greater long-term good that we fail to see because of our limited human perspective.  The proof made a huge number of people delighted to have such an elegant and simple argument for something they enthusiastically believed.

But, the proof also the side-effect that arguments about Providence often do, of making people start to try to reason out what the good was behind hidden evils.  “Oh, that guy was struck with disease because he did X bad thing.”  “Wolves exist to make us live in villages.”  “That plague happened because those people were bad.”  It was (much like Medieval proofs of the existence of God) a way philosophers could show off their cleverness to an appreciative audience, make themselves known, and put forward theories about right and wrong and what God might want.

Lisbon

In 1755 an enormous earthquake struck the great port city of Lisbon (Portugal), wiping out tens of thousands of people (some estimate up to 100,000) and leveling one of the great gems of European civilization. It remains to this day one of the deadliest earthquakes in recorded history, and many parts of Lisbon are still in ruins almost 300 years later.  The shock and horror, to a progressive, optimistic Europe, was stunning.  And immediately thereafter, fans of Leibniz started publishing essays about how it was GOOD that this had happened, because of XYZ reason.  For example, one argument was that they were persecuting people for their religion, and this was God saying he disapproved <= REAL argument.  (Note: Leibniz himself is innocent of all this, having died years before the earthquake – we are speaking of his followers.)  Others argued that it was a bad minor effect of God’s general laws, that the physical rules of the Earth which make everything wonderful for humankind also make earthquakes sometimes happen, but that the suffering they cause is negligible against the greater goods that Providence achieves.  And if one person in Europe could not stand these noxious, juvenile, pompous, inhumane, self-serving, condescending, boastful, heartless, self-congratulatory responses to unprecedented human suffering, that person was the one pen mightier than any sword, Voltaire.

Would words like these to peace of mind restore
The natives sad of that disastrous shore?
Grieve not, that others’ bliss may overflow,
Your sumptuous palaces are laid thus low;
Your toppled towers shall other hands rebuild;
With multitudes your walls one day be filled;
Your ruin on the North shall wealth bestow,
For general good from partial ills must flow;
You seem as abject to the sovereign power,
As worms which shall your carcasses devour.
No comfort could such shocking words impart,
But deeper wound the sad, afflicted heart.
When I lament my present wretched state,
Allege not the unchanging laws of fate;
Urge not the links of the eternal chain,
’Tis false philosophy and wisdom vain.
The God who holds the chain can’t be enchained;
By His blest Will are all events ordained:
He’s Just, nor easily to wrath gives way,
Why suffer we beneath so mild a sway:
This is the fatal knot you should untie,
Our evils do you cure when you deny?
Men ever strove into the source to pry,
Of evil, whose existence you deny.
If he whose hand the elements can wield,
To the winds’ force makes rocky mountains yield;
If thunder lays oaks level with the plain,
From the bolts’ strokes they never suffer pain.
But I can feel, my heart oppressed demands
Aid of that God who formed me with His hands.
Sons of the God supreme to suffer all
Fated alike; we on our Father call.
No vessel of the potter asks, we know,
Why it was made so brittle, vile, and low?
Vessels of speech as well as thought are void;
The urn this moment formed and that destroyed,
The potter never could with sense inspire,
Devoid of thought it nothing can desire.
The moralist still obstinate replies,
Others’ enjoyments from your woes arise,
To numerous insects shall my corpse give birth,
When once it mixes with its mother earth:
Small comfort ’tis that when Death’s ruthless power
Closes my life, worms shall my flesh devour.

This (in the William F. Fleming translation) is an excerpt from the middle of Voltaire’s Poem on the Lisbon Earthquake, which I heartily encourage you to read in its entirety. The poem summarizes the arguments of Camp Leibniz , and juxtaposes them with heart-wrenching descriptions of the sufferings of the victims, and with Voltaire’s own earnest and passionate expression of exactly why these kinds of arguments about Providence are so difficult to choke down when one is really on the ground suffering and feeling.  The human is not a senseless pottery vessel, it is a thinking thing, it feels pain, it asks questions, it feels the special kind of pain that unanswered questions cause, the same pain the skeptics have been trying to help us escape for 3,000 years.  But we don’t escape, and the poem captures it.  The poem swept across Europe like a firestorm.  People read it, people felt it, people recognized in Voltaire’s words the cries of anger in their own hearts.  And they agreed.  He won.  The Leibniz fad ended.  An entire continent-wide philosophical movement, slain.

CriterionOfTruthbAnd he used neither Logic nor Evidence.

Did you feel it?  The poem persuaded, attacked, undermined, eroded away the respectability of Leibniz, but it did it without using EITHER of the two pillars of argument.  There was no chain of reasoning.  And there was no empirical observation.  You could say there was some logic in the way he juxtaposed claims “God is a kind Maker” with counter-claims “I am not a potter’s jar, I am a thinking thing! I need more!”.  You could say there was some empiricism or evidence-based argument in his descriptions of things he saw, or things he felt, since feelings too are sense-perceptions in a way, so reporting how one feels is reporting a sensory fact.  But there was nothing in this so rigorous or so real that any of our ancient skeptics would recognize it as the empiricism they were attacking.  Those people Voltaire describes – he did not see them, he just imagines them, reaching across the breadth of Europe with the strength of empathy.  That potter’s wheel is a metaphor, not a syllogism.  Voltaire has used a third thing, neither Reason nor Evidence, as a tool of skepticism.

What do we name this Third Thing?  I have heard people propose “common sense” but that’s a terribly vexed term, going back to Cicero at least, which has been used by this point to mean 100 things that are not this thing, so even if you could also call this thing “common sense” it would just create confusion (we don’t need Aristotle looming with a lecture on the dangers of unclear vocabulary).  I have heard people propose “sentiment” and I like how galling it feels to try to suggest that “sentiment” should enjoy coequal respect and power with Reason and Evidence, but it isn’t quite that either.  I am not yet happy with any name for this Third Thing, and am playing around with many.  All I will say is that it is real, it is powerful, it is as effective at persuading one to believe or disbelieve as Reason and Evidence are.  And, even if there were shadows of this Third Thing earlier in human history, Montaigne was the smith who sharpened the blade and handed it to Voltaire, and to the rest of us.

The rafters of Montaigne's libary, where he inscribed his favorite philosophical quotations.
The rafters of Montaigne’s library, where he inscribed his favorite philosophical quotations.

Montaigne’s Essais are lovely, meandering, personal, structure-less, rambling musings in which topics flow one upon another, he summarizes an argument made for or against some heresy, then, rather than voicing an opinion, tells you a story about his grandmother that one time, or retells a bit of one of Virgil’s pastorals, or an anecdote about some now-obscure general, and then flows on to a different topic, never stating his opinion on the first but having shaped your thinking, through his meanders, until you feel an answer, a belief or, more often, disbelief, even if he never voiced one.  And then he keeps going, taking up another argument, making it feel silly with an allegory about two bakers, another and–have you heard the news from Spain?–another, and another, and oh, the loves of Alexander, another, and another.  And as it flows along you get to know him, feel you’re having a conversation with him, and somewhere toward the end you no longer believe any of the philosophical arguments he has just summarized are plausible at all, but he never once argued directly against any of them.  It is a little bit like our skeptical Cicero, juxtaposing opposing views and leaving us convinced by none, but it is one level less structured, not actually a dialog with arguments and refutations.  Skepticism, without Reason, without Evidence, just with the human honesty that is Montaigne, his doubts, his friendship, his communication to you, dear reader, across the barrier of page, and time, and language, this strange French-Roman, this only native Latin speaker born in a millennium, this alien, has made you realize all the philosophical convictions, everything in that broad spectrum that scholasticism plus the Renaissance plus the Reformation and Counter-Reformation ferocity have laid before you, none of it is what a person really feels deep down inside, not Montaigne, and not you. And so he leaves you a skeptic, in a completely different way from how the ancient skeptics did it, not with theses, or exercises, or lists, or counterarguments, just with… humanity?

Montaigne did it.  His contemporaries found it… odd at first, a bit self-centered, this autobiographical meandering, but it was so beautiful, so entrancing, so powerful.  It reared a new generation, armed with Reason and Evidence and This Third Thing, and deeply skeptical.  Students at universities started raising their hands in class to ask the teachers to prove the school existed.  Theologians advising princes started saying maybe it didn’t matter that much what the difference was between the different Christian faiths if they were close enough.  A new age of philosophy was born, not a new school, but a new tool for dogmatism’s ancient symbiotic antagonist: doubt.

And, where doubt grows stronger and richer, so does dogmatic philosophy, having that much more to test itself against.  Just as, in antiquity, so many amazing schools and ideas were born from trying to respond to Zeno and the Stick in Water, so Montaigne’s new tools of Skepticism, his revival and embellishment of skepticism, the birth, as we call it, of Modern Skepticism, was also the final ingredient necessary for an explosion of new ideas, new schools, new universes described by new philosophers trying to build systems which can stand up against a new skepticism armed, not just against Reason and Evidence, but with That Third Thing.

DescartesThus, as 1600 approaches, the breakneck proliferation of new ideas and factions make Montaigne’s skepticism so popular that students in scholastic and Jesuit schools are starting to raise their hands and demand that the professor prove the existence of the classroom before expecting them to attend class.  A “skeptical crisis” takes center stage in Europe’s great intellectual conversation, and multiplying doubt seems to have all the traditional Criteria of Truth in flight. It is onto this stage that Descartes will step, and craft, alongside his contemporaries, the first new systems which will have to cope, not with two avenues of attacking certainty, but, thanks to Montaigne, three.  And will fight back against them with Montaigne’s arts as well.  Next time.

For now, I will leave you with one more little snippet of the future: I lied to you, about a simple happy ending to Voltaire’s quarrel with Leibniz.  Oh, Leibniz was quite dead, not just because the man himself had died but because no philosopher could take his argument seriously after the poem. Ever. Again. In fact, a few years ago I went to a talk at at a philosophy department in which a young scholar was taking on Leibniz’s Best of All Possible Worlds thesis, and picking it apart using beautiful logical argumentation, and at the end everyone applauded and congratulated him, but when the Q&A started the first Q was “Well, um, this was all quite fascinating, but, isn’t Leibniz, I mean, no one takes that argument seriously anymore…”  But the young philosopher was correct to point out that, in fact, no one had ever actually directly refuted it with logic.  No one saw the need.  But if Voltaire’s victory over logical Leibniz was complete, Leibniz was not the most dangerous of foes. Voltaire had contemporaries, after all, armed with Montaigne’s Third Thing just as Voltaire was. Rousseau will fire back, sweet, endearing, maddening Rousseau, not in defense of Leibnitz, but against the poem which he sees as an attack on God.  But this battle of two earnest and progressive deists must wait until we have brought about the brave new world that has such creatures in it.  For that we need Descartes, Francis Bacon, grim Hobbes, John Locke, and the ambidextrous Bayle.

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