Democracy in World History
Part 2: Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment
“O Brave New World that has such people in it!” That’s how the beautiful young Miranda in Shakespeare’s last play The Tempest, described the world she has just encountered. The world of Renaissance Italy.
She was introduced into this world by her aging father, Prospero (probably a stand-in for Shakespeare himself), who stood for a new world of inquiry that was coming into existence 500 years ago. It was a world that left the medieval world behind forever. It was a world that prepared the ground—in an often chaotic way-- for the 21st century world we know today.
For a thousand years, from the time the Roman Empire collapsed in the fifth century to the fifteenth century, the Western world was dominated by two competing cultures, one inspired by Christian religion and the other by the Muslim religion.
Three sets of enduring cultural ideas are important in the evolution of governments.
(1) Inquiry into nature. That is, science and technology.
(2) Meanings. That is, religion, philosophy and the arts.
And (3) Pursuit of Happiness. That is, personal recognition, trade and pleasure.
All three of these sets were radically reshuffled in Europe in the Renaissance and the Reformation. And then they were shaken up again and some new ones were invented in what is called the Enlightenment.
Let’s take these movements one by one.
Renaissance means “rebirth.” For 15th century and 16th century Europe (and Italy especially), this meant the rebirth of interest in the classical philosophy, art and science of ancient Greece and Rome. Artists like Michaelangelo, Botticelli, and Leonardo DaVinci began to look on the world around them with fresh eyes and to sculpt and paint with a boldness and a naturalness not seen since ancient Greece and Rome. Cities like Florence, Genoa, Venice, and Milan became vibrant centers of international trade, of high finance, and of political turmoil. Merchants and explorers set sail to discover new continents and gain new wealth. And perhaps most important of all, brave new thinkers began to wonder about the world in a powerful new way, a way we today call science.
Ironically, it was the Islamic Empire that played a major role in preserving many of the classical treasures now being reborn in the western world’s Renaissance. It was Muslim scholars in Arabia, Egypt, North Africa, and Spain who translated Aristotle, Plato, Sophocles, Cicero, and Pliny into Arabic and kept their writings from being lost in the chaos of early medieval times. Muslim traders were for a long time the world’s leading merchants and adventurers. Muslim philosophers and poets like Avicenna and Omar Khayyam created some of the world’s enduring philosophical and literary classics. Algebra was invented by Arab mathematicians. Observational astronomy was improved and alchemy-the forerunner of modern chemistry, was advanced.
The inquiry and artistic culture of Islamic society, however, went so far – right up to the Italian Renaissance -- and then seemed to stop. Why is a subject of intense debate among scholars today.
Something similar happened in China where an even more advanced civilization suddenly pulled in on itself, stifled inquiry and tried to wall its culture off from the rest of the world in the 15th century. The immediate cause of the Chinese withdrawal was a catastrophic fire that destroyed the Forbidden City, center of the Chinese empire. The fire was caused by lightning but the Emperor attributed the catastrophe to divine anger over Chinese contact with foreign cultures. He commanded his subjects to henceforth refrain from all traffic with foreigners.
Some scholars think one of the major reasons that both civilizations stopped progressing was that, for better or for worse, neither had what the Christian religion did have at about this same time in history. This other radical change was called the Reformation.
Rebelling against what they saw as the corruption and materialism of the Renaissance Popes and clergy, religious reformers like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Knox broke away from the Roman Catholic Church and founded new branches of Christianity in Germany, Switzerland, Holland, England and other countries of northern and western Europe. They were called Protestants. Christianity was no longer a single religion with a single vision and single voice.
In the short run, this splintering of religious cultures led to serious turmoil all over Europe. The Catholic Church launched a Counter-Reformation to combat what they saw as evil heresies that threatened to destroy Christianity itself. Clerical courts of Inquisition in Spain, Italy and France investigated, tried and often convicted and sentenced to torture and to death thousands of heretics. Unorthodox thinkers like Giordano Bruno, Girolamo Savonarola and Michael Servetus were hung or burned at the stake. And famous scientists like Galileo Galilei were forced to renounce their scientific views on threat of torture and death.
Protestant Churches were just as certain their versions of Christianity were the true ones and they punished heretics just as firmly and viciously. In England, Switzerland, Germany and Holland thousands of Catholics were put to death.
The Reformation did not create much that much new wealth, but it made disputes about old wealth more bitter and violent. From 1618 to 1648 a Thirty Years War between Catholic and Protestant monarchies over both land and religion brought vast devastation in northern and western Europe. So vast was the devastation that the population of what is now northern Germany dropped from 21 million in 1618 to 13 million in 1648.
In the long run, the Renaissance and the Reformation together shattered the feudal world of the Middle Ages. Instead of one Holy Roman Church there were many competing churches, Protestant and Catholic. Instead of the Holy Roman Empire with its settled feudal order of kings, lords, priests, knights, peasants and serfs a fast-growing and potentially revolutionary commercial class of merchants, independent farmers and ambitious explorers began to emerge and gain power.
In the late years of the Middle Ages, epidemics of bubonic plague—called the Black Death--killed over one third of the people in Europe. This huge decrease in population left much of the countryside and the cities with a severe shortage of labor. One of the responses in Europe was an increase in invention of labor-saving technology and a rise in prestige and power for workers and for merchants.
Unlike the classical societies it replaced, Christianity‘s vision of the just society did include workers and the poor. While the ancient Greek and Roman worlds had artistic and intellectual brilliance, their slave-supported societies did not make many improvements in technology. Medieval monks and peasants, however, especially after the years of the Black Death, did find ways to help human beings live more securely on earth.
New kinds of horse collars were invented that helped medieval horses do three times the work of Greek and Roman horses, without choking themselves. So too new stirrups, new steel swords, heavy plows, better carts, wheelbarrows and field rotation of crops were invented. Increases in energy came from new wind and water-mills. Gothic engineering created cathedrals that are still the wonder of the architectural world. And toward the end of the medieval times came one of the most revolutionary of inventions, movable type and the printing press.
This last invention may well have been the straw that broke the back of medieval culture itself. Just as the written word came along to spur development in the agricultural revolution, so the printing press did the same for the Renaissance and the Reformation. The Bible was translated from Latin into German and other languages of Europe. Now that more people could read the Bible for themselves, Protestant reformers made a point of basing their new versions of Christianity on the words of the Bible instead of the authority of the Pope and Church fathers.
New discoveries in science by men like Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler and Isaac Newton were published now in books that could be read by anyone who could read. New maps of the rapidly expanding known world could be printed and distributed for all to study. And new books of philosophy could be written and studied by educated leaders all over the western world.
The progress in basic science was especially revolutionary in the Renaissance and Reformation days. Consider. Before Copernicus, Galileo and Newton everyone in the entire world was sure this world was the center of the universe. People were certain that the sun and all the stars revolved around a privileged and stationary earth.
Before Andreas Vesalius dissected human corpses here in Padua, doctors had little idea what the human body looked like from the inside.
Before Antony van Leeuwenhook invented his microscope here in Holland, no one knew that a world of bacteria and “little beasties” existed.
Before William Harvey in England, no one knew how blood circulated around the body, or what part the heart played in this circulation.
And then in the latter days of the Renaissance when Isaac Newton invented calculus and wrote his classic book “Principia Mathematica” (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) solid foundations were laid for all of modern physics, engineering, and astronomy. As a poet of a later time put it, “God said let Newton be, and there was light.”
By the dawn of the 17th century the English philosopher Francis Bacon was claiming that “the opening of the world by navigation and commerce, and the further discovery of knowledge” would result in “the enlarging of the bounds of human empire to the effecting of all things possible.”
That birth of new methods and new confidence in rational inquiry in the Renaissance and the Reformation, led in turn to what is called in western history, the Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment happened in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was centered in France, England and the Low Countries of Holland and Belgium, and then a little later in the new world of what would later become the United States of America. It was led by a new breed of intellectuals. Philosophers like Voltaire, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Denis Diderot in France, Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and John Locke in England, Immanuel Kant in Germany (he was the one who coined the term “enlightenment”), and Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Paine in the new world of America.
These radical new thinkers disagreed about many things but were united in their rejection of feudal politics and of other worldly-religions as guides to human governance. Instead they put their confidence in human experience and in natural reason as the keys to happiness and to a just society.
Central to that confidence was progress in science and technology that had taken giant steps forward in the Renaissance and now increased its stride.
Edward Halley in England, used Newtonian mechanics to predict the return of a spectacular comet in 1758, one that had been last seen in 1682. People were astounded. They had always thought comets were signs sent by God, or by the devil.
Carl Linnaeus in Sweden introduced a scientific method of classification for plants and animals that is still used today. Benjamin Franklin found by experiment that lightning is not the wrath of the gods as formerly believed, but is a powerful electrical discharge from clouds to earth. Luigi Galvani in Italy found that frog nerves carry electricity.
Henry Cavendish and Joseph Priestley in England along with Antoine Lavoisier in France laid firm foundations for modern chemistry with the discovery of gases like oxygen, carbon dioxide and hydrogen.
Our own Benjamin Franklin, along with Joseph Preistley and other English scientists and industrialists like James Watt (the inventor of a powerful new steam engine) helped lay foundations for the coming Industrial revolution in what they called the “Lunar Society.” This was a group that met every month on the Monday nearest the full moon to share visions of the fast-growing world of science, technology and industry. They were called, of course, “lunatics.”
For these thinkers of the Enlightenment, reason and natural science were the future. Monarchy and all that went with it was the past and had to go. For centuries kings had claimed to rule by divine right. Enlightenment thinkers said there was no such thing as a divine right to rule. There were only human rights to live. As Thomas Jefferson put it “We hold these truths to be self-evident. That all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
This new emphasis on reason and experience rather than divine revelation became so widespread in Europe that even monarchs like Frederick II in Prussia, Joseph the II of Austria, Charles III in Spain and Catherine the Great in Russia wanted to think of themselves as “enlightened.” Like the Renaissance and the Reformation, the Enlightenment led to dramatic--and often violent changes in western society.
Enduring ideas in three areas of human thought and activity were expanded and altered.
(1) As science and technology advanced in giant steps, scientific methods and values undermined traditional ways of thinking and acting in other areas of life.
(2) Religious, philosophic and artistic thought moved away from divine revelations while at the same time reinforcing belief in the natural rights of man and in sentiments for human compassion and solidarity.
And finally, (3) The pursuit of happiness led more and more people to think less of salvation after death and to look more for personal recognition, worldly progress, increased wealth and pleasure to be achieved through expanding trade and the beginnings of free-market capitalism.
The Enlightenment sparked revolutions all over Europe as well as the new world of the Americas. There were literally hundreds of revolts in the years from 1773 to 1810. From Russia to Ireland, from Poland to Spain, from Hungary to Haiti people fought, not always with success, to throw off monarchies and to shatter the social structure of feudal landlords, peasantry, serfdom and clerical rule.
The first major successful revolution inspired by the Enlightenment was in the new world of America when the English colonies revolted against British rule and established the independent United States of America in 1776. This American success was followed in short order by the most influential of European revolutions in France in 1789.
Inspired by enlightenment philosophers and under the banner of the “rights of man” the people of Paris rose up in a bloody rebellion against King Louis XVI and his royal court. With shouts of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” the revolution quickly turned more and more radical and more and more bloody as fiery leaders like Danton, Marat, Robespierre and their followers tried to destroy a thousand-year feudal order and create a utopian republic of citizen-equals in a few short months. The King and most of his court, along with thousands of clergy, aristocrats and intellectuals lost their heads to the guillotine in a frightening “Reign of Terror.”
Within a few years the revolution destroyed its own leaders. Marat was assassinated. Two presidents of the newly proclaimed French Republic, Danton and Robespierre, both met their death from the guillotine here in front of Notre Dame Cathedral.
From the beginning, this First French Republic was besieged by surrounding monarchs terrified that the democratic terror would infect their states, as well as by England with whom France had been at war on and off for close to 20 years. In 1799 a rising young general, Napoleon Bonaparte, took power in France, ended the terror and rapidly changed the new republic into an authoritarian empire, crowning himself the new French Emperor in 1804. “Crowning himself,” not ruling by “divine right.”
Napoleon was a crafty and talented general. Under his leadership the French armies took the offensive and for ten years they were the terror of Europe as they defeated Italian, Austrian, German, and Spanish armies. As the French armies advanced so too the ideals of the French empire spread all the way to Egypt in the South and Russia in the East.
A few years after a disastrous campaign in Russia, however, the Napoleonic era came to an end in 1815 when British armies defeated Napoleon’s armies in northern France at a place called Waterloo. Napoleon was exiled to Saint Helena Island where he died a peaceful death in 1821. The appeal and the threat of French democracy did not die however. Societies based on new wealth and demonstrated merit gradually began to replace those based on inherited land and feudal privilege. Eventually—over the next 200 years that is--all of the monarchs in Europe, including France, were either overthrown or made impotent by rising democratic assemblies.
Some scholars today, however, think that the French version of enlightenment and revolution was so violent, so uncompromisingly utopian and insistent on having absolute equality (at the expense only too often of liberty) that it may have played some part in creating the totalitarian ideas and ideals that later came to be ghoulish reality in 20th century Germany and Russia.
The Enlightenment in England was a somewhat different story.
In England there were a series of changes in democratic directions stretching all the way from the Magna Carta in 1215 to the Civil War of 1640 to 1660 (when then King, Charles the I, was beheaded) to the Glorious Revolution in 1688 when his son, Charles II was restored to the throne. In all of these changes, some more violent than others but none with the ferocity and scope of the French uprising, the balance of governing power passed by fits and starts from divine-right monarchs to a more democratic Parliament.
In the English Parliament, only the wealthy and well-born could be represented and have a vote. Even with this limitation, Parliament became a strong force to oppose arbitrary rule by a king or queen. Parliament, for instance, had power to levy taxes, to declare war, to pass laws to protect the poor and to encourage industry. And under Parliament’s influence a new class of merchants and middle class entrepreneurs began to grow, (bourgeois they came to be called) a class that would eventually threaten and finally put an end to the domination of hereditary landlords and noble classes.
Enlightenment thinkers in England were as influential as the French and German counterparts, but tended to be more moderate and open to compromise with tradition. Thinkers like John Locke and David Hume rejected other-worldly logic but supported many of the social and humanitarian values of Christianity. It was the work of John Locke especially that inspired and laid philosophic foundations for the work of American founding fathers Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.
History, including the history of democracy, is seldom a straight line. In 1776 the United States of America became the world’s first full-fledged (if flawed) democracy. Its democratic ideas came mainly from the country it was rebelling against, England. It got much needed aid in its revolution from one of the most tyrannical of monarchies, France. And then only a few years later, the success of the American Revolution was the spark that ignited the French Revolution which in its turn destroyed that same tyrannical monarchy.
And then in 1776, the very year the United States of America came into being, one of the most influential books of the late Enlightenment was published in Scotland. It was written by Adam Smith and called “The Wealth of Nations.” In this book Smith laid down some of the intellectual foundations for the next big chapter in the story of democracy in world history--the Industrial Revolution and free-market capitalism. The subjects of Part 3 in DEMOCRACY IN WORLD HISTORY.