wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Daniel Chirot

How Societies Change

Competition between feudal lords and centralizing kings persisted throughout the Middle Ages, and though some kings, notably in France and England, managed to create more centralized administrations, they were never able to bring their nobles under complete control. In other parts of Europe, particularly in Germany and Italy, regional lords and trading cities broke the power of centralized monarchs and further fragmented the political structure. Everywhere, the Church was yet another political actor, siding sometimes with kings, sometimes with lords, sometimes with increasingly independent towns prospering from the revival of trade after the tenth century.

One of the main consequences of this fragmentation was that merchant cities in Europe were able to bargain for considerable freedom and self-government. In contrast, in the Middle East they were subjected to control by mercenary military force, and in China they could never escape control by the empire.

Merchants and town artisans everywhere in the world have a peculiar outlook on life. Unlike warrior nobles, whose chief goal is to be brave and honorable, or peasants, who fall back on resignation and magic to help them out of difficult situations, those whose life consists of commerce are careful calculators who come to believe that it is possible to understand the environment as one understands doing one's job: by measuring what resources and investments one makes and by carefully maximizing profits. The lives of merchants and urban artisans are dominated by ledgers and accounts, not by the search for honor and the glory of battle, nor by attempts to magically manipulate an uncontrollable natural environment. Rationality, that is, an attitude that it is possible to calculate and purposively manipulate the environment, is more likely to be developed in an urban than in a rural setting because urban life is less subject to the vagaries of nature. It is more likely to grow among peaceful merchants than among warriors, who must depend far more on luck to survive and whose lives are more dependent on developing physical than intellectual skills.

The political stalemate in western Europe between kings, lords, and the church allowed a more rational urban culture to thrive and establish itself. At the same time, the discordance between the reality of a divided Europe and the perception that there should be more harmony led intellectuals to reexamlne Christian beliefs. The mixture of a growing, rational urban culture and the attempt to harmonize religious teachings with reality produced a rationalizing religious outlook. Its basic assumption was that the universe must make more sense than it seemed to, and that if one searched hard enough, it should become possible to find the calculable laws according to which everything worked.

This deep belief that the laws of God must manifest themselves as a set of regular, calculable relationships and that these were subject to rational understanding was not unique to western Europe. Urban dwellers and troubled philosophers had thought along these lines in all civilizations. But it was only in western Europe that there were enough individuals thinking this way, and for a long enough period of time, for this new way of viewing the world to gain a firm foothold. For this to happen, it was important that no unified imperial structure bring Europe together.

In agrarian societies rationalizing thinkers are inherently dangerous. They question the legitimacy of hereditary monarchs because they examine the political system from the point of view of practicality and efficiency. Their intellectualism demeans warriors and the ethic of noble honor, which is based on action rather than thought. They bring into doubt the great religions of resignation, which are supposed to keep the peasantry satisfied with their miserable lot, because they suggest that improvement is possible and that human beings have the capacity to make their own decisions. They cast doubt on established religious thinking by subjecting theology to its own rationality, that is, to testing and questioning in order to find the truth, as opposed to simply receiving it as it has been handed down over the ages. In all agrarian societies the really daring rationalist thinkers have been accused of being heretics and of being a menace to the established order in society. They might be protected by an occasionally enlightened prince, but they were more likely to wind up being imprisoned or killed by irate authorities.

Part of the European advantage was that such thought was somewhat protected by the diversity of political power and by the towns' interests in maintaining their freedom. Only in an independent urban environment were there many who might agree with dangerously rational thinkers. Only where it was possible for a thinker to flee to a safe haven could the continuing development of rational thought take place. Thus both political division and powerful towns were necessary.

Through a set of coincidences, western Europe, like ancient Greece before it, and for many of the same reasons, developed a greater tradition of free thought and rationality than other agrarian civilizations. And at the same time, it was thriving because of its growing agriculture and commerce. Had western Europe been a united imperial state like China there would not have been such an impetus to engage in religious self-exammation. Had there not been such a political stalemate that allowed towns independence and pitted church, kings, and nobles against each other, there would not have been as much space for the development of rational thought.