The mind’s deepest desire, even in its most elaborate operations, parallels man’s unconscious feeling in the face of his universe…

Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

Walk through the Gallery of the Academy in Florence, and you can almost see an old world story dying as a new one emerges. Paintings through the 14th and much of the 15th centuries CE still tell the medieval Christian world story – religious subjects, allegorical groupings, and stylized portraits, with gold backgrounds to distance their religious subjects from the viewer.

Then, every once in a while, something alien looks out, as if it were hiding behind the medieval style1. For example, in Giottino’s “Madonna and Child” (c. 1366), the scene is traditional, except for the portrait of John the Baptist in the lower left corner. While John appears in the same position in many similar portraits, his face here seems out of place – not at all religious, looking, almost mockingly, at the viewer2(91). By the end of the 15th century, the story has shifted further. By Filippino Lippi’s 1496 portraits of John the Baptist and Mary Magdalene, the artist portrays the feelings of individuals2(42).

With Michelangelo’s “David,” finished in 1504, the emerging world story stands complete: An individual human being as heroic as any figure from Homer awaits the moment of his personal test. Here, then, is the world story associated with the “modern” era, focused on the human and innovative, in contrast to the medieval focus on the divine and traditional.

But what is Modernity? Is it a radical break from the medieval Christian world, as Karl Marx’s Communism or Max Weber’s early 20th century sociology propose, or an extended exploration of medieval Christianity’s deepest conflicts3? A unique reflection of Western Capitalism4 or a different way to express the same drives and impulses that had existed for more than 5000 years5? Does Modernity demonstrate a “European miracle” that would let Westerners dominate the world6 or merely a Western sweep of history’s grand pendulum7 before returning East?

In this chapter, we want to examine Modernity, starting about 1500 CE, as a period of cultural transformation, a second axial age. Why do we choose that date? For one thing, it’s convenient, a nice, round number, but it’s also arbitrary. Still, within twenty years of this date, many key events occurred – from Michelangelo’s “David” (1504) to Columbus’s “discovery” of America (1492) or Vasco de Gama’s sailing to India (1498), from Luther’s Ninety-five Theses (1517) to Copernicus’s early draft of his heliocentric theory (before 1514).

Besides, if Modernity is a second axial age, then we should see evidence of increasing social complexity beginning to threaten the older social survival strategy. For example:

  • World population had certainly increased since the end of the Axial Age. From the beginning of the Common Era to 1600 CE, it more than doubled, from about 250 million to nearly 600 million8(31);
  • The amount of wealth and intensity of trade also accelerated. Starting with the Islamic conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries CE, societies in Eurasia became increasingly connected until, by the Mongol conquests in the 13th century, “many parts of the Old World began to become integrated into a system of exchange from which all apparently benefited”9(3);
  • Finally, a series of technological innovations – printing, commercially efficient machines, and guns, as well as advances in physics, optics, and astronomy10 – combined to accelerate social change, demanding new survival strategies.

While the Axial Age and Modernity both responded to increased social complexity, they also differ in important ways. The Axial Age transformations could occur independently in four geographically separated societies that would begin to interact more and more during the period. The social survival strategies created in those societies gave states, especially in the Ottoman and Chinese Empires, an almost unshakable order. So it would fall to Western Europe, which had experienced 1000 years of repeated social breakdowns – to begin reintegrating a millennium and a half of social experiments. And the world story that would evolve in Europe would then spill across a globe whose societies were in the process of forging a global community.

The modern process of social transformation follows a pattern of social evolution much like that of axial Greece and China, occurring in a series of phases:

  1. Political fragmentation;
  2. Emergence of foundational stories and social experiments based on them;
  3. Intensification of warfare;
  4. Appearance of a new world story
  5. Developing commentary of that story, and;
  6. Emergence of Empire.

Political fragmentation

As with the Axial Age transformations, Western Europe in 1500 CE was both politically fragmented and culturally unified11,12. Throughout the late Middle Ages, nation-states-to-be were beginning to emerge, for instance, in England, Spain, France, and Holland; Italy was a collection of city-states; and Germany, of principalities.

Yet they had all experienced a millennium of common forces and events. First, the memory of the Roman Empire and the spread of Christianity had created a common cultural background. Next, they were subject to a millennium of invasions – from the Franks and Vandals in the 5th century to Islam’s conquest of Spain in the 8th century and its continued threat through the 16th, from more than 200 years of Viking raids beginning at the end of the 8th century to the Mongol conquests into Eastern Europe in the 13th century. Throughout, new influences continued to stir the cultural mix, especially through trade and the introduction of new technologies. For example, peaceful interaction with Muslims enriched European thought. That contact reinforced Greek rationalism, making translations available, first from the Neo-Platonist tradition and then the works of Aristotle. Muslim contact also increased trade and introduced developments from India and China. And, of course, the Catholic Church remained an institutional constant. Still, its conflicts with various governments, as they fought to see whether church or state would dominate, would create additional instability, especially in the half millennium leading to 1500 CE3,13.

These many influences would start coming together in a foundational story that had already begun to emerge at the end of the 12th century CE.

Foundational story

Modernity’s foundational story faced a tricky challenge. It would have to integrate the very different worldviews of the Christian spiritual tradition and the restless spirit of the Germanic tribes that invaded Western Europe in the 5th and 6th centuries. To do so, it put together two important stories at the end of the 12th century, when European Medievalism – economic, social, and cultural – was at its fullest. First, the Arthurian Grail Quest literature, beginning with Chretien de Troyes’s Percival, combined these worldviews in the quest knights, searching for the object with which they would save their own souls and their culture14.

Most readers know about the grail quest, if only from movies such as Excalibur or Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The story has even become part of the language, as when someone describes the search for the Higgs boson as “the quest for the holy grail of physics.” Still, it’s worth recounting the basics of the story: After uniting England, Arthur commits a great sin. As a result, his kingdom is plunged into poverty and misery. The only way to heal the kingdom is for his knights to find the holy grail from which Jesus drank at the last supper. That cup had been brought to England earlier, but lost. The knights search for years, experiencing all sorts of trials and humiliations. Finally, one finds it, and, when Arthur drinks from it, the kingdom is saved.

This salvation was also the theme of a second story – millenarianism, the expectation that the end of days described in the Book of Revelations was near. Starting around 1000 CE, expectation of the coming Apocalypse grew. In 1065, several thousand Germans went to Jerusalem to witness Jesus’ return. The First Crusade (1096-99) was also widely experienced as part of this story, a “war fought on behalf of God and in fulfillment of His plan”15(xiii). As Joachim of Fiore (c. 1132-1202) described this apocalyptic vision, the world was approaching a new age. Armageddon, the ultimate battle between good and evil, would be followed by Christ’s second coming, the ascend of the elite to Heaven, a new paradisaical age in which God would be King of the Earth, and “the restoration of mankind to its original God-likeness,”16(10). The vanguard to the new age were the viri spirituales, spiritual men, “the order of monks to whom the last great times are given” (Joachim, as quoted in 16(25)). This sense that the work of mankind was to aid the coming of this age of salvation was translated in the Grail Quest stories to the individual quest knights, who are to redeem their souls and society from chaos, misery, and devastation.

At the end of the 12th century, the grail quest literature championed the authority of a social order joining the Catholic Church and the feudal economic/political class. Yet, events continued to provoke chaos. The loss of Jerusalem in 1187 was followed by the failure of the Third Crusade (1189-92) to retake it. As a result, many people questioned the legitimacy of the Papacy’s claim to represent God on Earth. The power of the Church was further reduced in repeated conflicts between the Pope and the secular rulers13. The Mongol invasions of the 13th century both threatened Western Europe and created a “world economy” that preceded Wallerstein’s 16th century “world-system”9. Increasing trade and wealth built the fortunes that would finance the Renaissance, but would also encourage corruption in the Church, especially the Papal indulgences, which would outrage John Wycliffe (c. 1328-1384), Jan Hus (C. 1369-1415) and Martin Luther (1483-1546). Finally, the combination of the Black Plague (1348-50) and the Hundred Years War between England and France (1327-1453) devastated Europe’s population crushing any incipient sense of social order3.

Given the limited purpose of this book, it is impossible to treat the wide variety of social experiments that emerged in the High Middle Ages and would be expressed in Modernity. Those experiments include the acceleration of scientific discoveries and theory10,17, an “industrial revolution” driven my widespread use of machines18, and an explosion of commercial experimentation9,19. As a result, this period was extremely rich in the innovations of metaphorical quest knights, who included theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), proto-scientist Roger Bacon (c. 1220-1292) and Medici family founder, Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici (c. 1360-1429). However, two such innovations caused ripples of transformational change across the period and thus demand attention here.

As in the Axial Age, advances in communications and manufacturing were transforming the culture. In communications, Gutenberg’s printing press with movable type in the mid-15th century brought together a wide variety of social experiments – from advances in metallurgy to European paper manufacture and growing demand for books. As Elizabeth Eisenstein notes 20, the printing press did not merely make inexpensive books widely available. It also:

  • Made political and religious propaganda cheap;
  • Enabled wide distribution of books in the vernacular, driving the Reformation and early national cultures, and;
  • Spread the knowledge and innovation that made the “Scientific Revolution” of the 17th century possible.

Finally, the ability to publish and read the thoughts of many others helped create Modernity’s tendency toward intensified reflexive thought (Ong, 1988; Giddens, 1990). As moderns acted on positions as different as Luther’s Protestantism and the science of Descartes and Newton, they would reflect on the results, eventually undermining many of these ideas. As a result, a strong vein of irony runs through the modern period.

In manufacturing, Western Europe’s great strides resulted from unleashing the potential of the machine. As Jean Gimpel notes18 , European use of machines helped create an “industrial revolution” in the 13th and 14th centuries, in such areas as agriculture, mining, and engineering. This appreciation of machines would later combine with borrowings from, and improvements on, China’s machine technology. The list of borrowings ranges from iron plows to steel-making, belt drives to mechanical clocks, gunpowder and guns to flame throwers and rockets21. The very idea of the machine would become central to Western culture, combining with the grail quest myth to shape the new world story developed by Francis Bacon, Galileo, and Descartes.

Social experiments based on this foundational story were also well under way by 1500. Two seem critical. First, as noted above, the nation-state was emerging, most notably in England, France, Spain, and Holland. At first, these nation-states were economically less successful than Italian city-states such as Venice, Florence and Genoa, or those of the Hanseatic League. In time, they became the standard for ordering large societies in Modernity19.

Second, sophisticated finance capitalism was emerging in the Italian city-states. For Wallerstein, and those who argue for European cultural superiority, Western capitalism and the economic world-system it generated is different because it offered “an alternative and more lucrative source of surplus appropriation…[than] collecting tribute”4(16). Which seems accurate. Yet, capitalism also evolved as part of a full socio-cultural transformation, in which economic agents could act as quest knights. Western capitalism developed in a culture whose world story was in flux and, at the same time, had been exposed to the world economy managed first by the Mongols and then the Ottomans. As a result, it was free to evolve in directions that the successful world stories of the post-axial Ottoman and Chinese empires restricted. Similarly, the West improved Chinese technological innovation in ways impossible in the more mature culture. Finally, with emergence of the Protestant Ethic, capitalism would become “religious,” as wealth became a sign of God’s favor.

Negotiating the new world story

The evolution of Modernity’s world story turned on a series of negotiations about how to reestablish order in a wealthier, more complex society. In each of these negotiations, people would interpret the grail quest stories to define and explore possible positions, act on the consensus, and respond to resulting events, refining their story. It’s tempting to think about these encounters as “debates”3 or characterize participants as radicals or protectors of the existing order22. From the perspective we’ve been developing, such approaches are accurate, but reduce a complex dynamic to simple opposition. We prefer to think of these encounters as experiments in Modernity’s quest for order.

The first set of these negotiations appeared in the 1520s and ‘30s, particularly in the debate between the Renaissance and the Reformation, embodied in Erasmus and Martin Luther. Both opposed “clerical tyranny and corruption and promoted a simpler, more personal form of Christianity”3(135). Both also encouraged individualism, secularism, and widespread education. They split over whether the quest knights of Catholic humanism or those of Protestant millenarianism should lead the reform of Christian society. For Erasmus, human beings had free will. As a result, educational reform was essential if those in charge were to bring order out of the chaos in society. By incorporating a reformed, essentially humanistic education into the Church itself, he hoped to address its corruption. Luther, on the other hand, insisted that an omnipotent God had predetermined everything. Human free will was impossible. In addition, Luther believed that the coming end of days made the reform Erasmus proposed purposeless. Erasmus feared that Luther’s dogmatism would lead to a violent explosion in Christian Europe; Luther saw Erasmus’ humanist individualism as the work of Satan.

Ironically, Luther’s revolution would succeed because of the literacy caused by the education Erasmus proposed.

This disagreement was not merely “religious.” Much of the conflict was political, reflecting the complex politics of Western Europe. Not only did it play out long-standing political differences and conflicts between secular rulers and the Pope13; it also became the platform for many of the major political confrontations of the time – Spanish vs. Austrian Habsburgs, French vs. Spanish, Spanish vs. Dutch, northern German principalities vs. Austrian Habsburgs23. In addition, this conflict was a product of the economic transformation that would flower into Western capitalism. Catholic humanism supported the feudal landowning hierarchy, and its ability to reform itself. Protestant millenarianism, on the other hand, supported the growing merchant class. That ideology would be most clearly stated in Calvin’s Protestant Ethic. The successful entrepreneur became God’s elect. Even before Luther and Calvin, the proto-Protestant rebellion embodied in Jan Hus in Bohemia at the beginning of the 15th century would occur in one of the key commercial centers of Late Medieval Europe. With the added transformative power of the printing press, the Protestant position of Luther and Calvin would become the early face of a capitalist social revolution24.

Intensification of warfare

The Reformation position prevailed, and Europe lived through Luther’s apocalyptic world story during a century and a half of war. The first of these “religious wars” was the Peasants’ Rebellion of the 1520s, in which more than 100,000 impoverished Germans followed their “inspired” leader, Thomas Müntzer, who told them that true believers would be immune to musket balls3. The religious fervor of both sides intensified conflicts that were largely political, leading to a scale of slaughter like that in the Axial Age. In France, the Catholic powers slaughtered 70,000 Protestant Huguenots in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572. In 1588, Catholic Spain barely failed to conquer Protestant England with its Armada.

In this environment, William Shakespeare’s tragedies served the same purposes as the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides in axial Greece. He had lived through the ongoing antagonisms between Protestants and Catholics that had raged since Henry VIII turned the Church of England Protestant. These difficulties in stabilizing social order were reflected in his major political tragedies – Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth – written in the first few years of the 17th century. In all three, Shakespeare demonstrates the inadequacy of post-feudal monarchy, with its dependence on family lineages and the relationship between the king and his knights. As with Greek tragedy and its criticism of Homer’s ideal of government, Shakespeare’s work embodies Reiss’25 moment of rupture when a new way of governing a more complex world must emerge. The birth of this new way would be as violent as the events to which Shakespeare was responding, and several of the leading states of the day approached the brink of collapse.

Jack Goldstone’s Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World26 documents these breakdowns, which followed the re-population of areas all over Eurasia after the plague subsided about 1400. In England, population rose roughly from two million to five million between 1500 and 1650; in China, from about 100 million to about 140 million; in Asia Minor, population rose between 50% and 70%. These population increases would drive a cascade of other changes:

  • Inflation accelerated – in England, for example, grain prices jumped 600 percent from about 1500-1640, while wages increased only 200 percent;
  • Government tax policies were unable to keep up with inflation, as wealth came from activities not covered by older tax policies;
  • Unable to collect sufficient taxes, governments invested less than needed in the public sector, and the wealthy started relying more on the private sector and were therefore less likely to support more taxes;
  • The poor became poorer and the rich, richer – especially with the vast wealth of the Americas, including gold and silver – increasing discontent among large portions of the population;
  • Increased population also meant more sons of the elite class looking for a relatively stable number of government positions, like the shih of axial China, resulting in more pointed competition among the elite;
  • As a result of all of this, members of the elite class who were out of power used new initially non-political ideologies, such as Protestantism in Germany and Puritanism in England, to inflame the passions of the dispossessed, leading to social breakdown.

The result in Europe was the last of the religious wars – the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) on the Continent and the English Civil War (1642-1651). As the religious fanaticism of people who were fighting for their salvation melded with political and economic ambition, the brutality became overwhelming. In May 1631, the Catholic League plundered Magdeburg in eastern Germany, and 25,000 Protestants were slaughtered. The city was set on fire, and children, thrown into the flames; and 53 women were beheaded in the church where they sought refuge3(129). While the killing wasn’t as widespread and disturbing in England, the combination of regicide and the devastation of a decade of civil war ratcheted the fear of chaos to the levels experienced in Greece during the 5th century BCE and China during the 4th century BCE.

As Goldstone26 emphasizes, similar social breakdowns were occurring in post-axial states. In the Ottoman Empire, army revolts from 1589 to 1648 brought the empire to the verge of collapse; in China, the crises that began in 1590 would result in the fall of the Ming in 1644. The responses to the breakdowns in early modern Europe and the post-axial states differed in an important way: While the post-axial states re-imposed order by returning to the institutions and behaviors grounded in their traditional world stories, the early modern Europeans, especially the English, would move toward a new way of experiencing the world and governing society. Theodore Rabb even suggests that the response to these events marks the period of most intense change in the emergence of modern Europe: Between “the early 1630s and the early 1670s … there was a change in direction more dramatic and decisive than any that occurred in a forty-year period between the beginnings of the Reformation and the French Revolution”27(3-4).

The new world story

As devastating as they were, those wars also reflected the enormous energies liberated in the process of cultural transformation. By 1650, the center of Western capitalism had shifted from the Italian city-states to Holland, where the Amsterdam Bourse and Dutch merchant class were able to take advantage of the gold the Spanish had plundered from the Americas to increase world trade19. These English, French and Dutch quest knights were building international networks, whether in settling North America or establishing trading settlements in coastal areas of Africa, India, and Indonesia. This energy would also spill into the creation of the modern era’s new world story.

At its heart, that story would have to address the devastation and chaos of recent wars, just as the axial Chinese and Greeks had. Alfred Crosby calls it “a yearning, a demand, for order”28(10). Luther’s God had been willful and unknowable. In response, European thinkers would create Science, the story of a rational world that could be understood through reason. The belief/worship system of Christianity would become a matter of private choice among “competing ways to salvation”29(86), dividing life into clearly marked secular and sacred spheres.

Yet, in spite of the rise of secularism, the quest to bring God’s perfected world to Earth would continue at the center of the negotiation of Modernity’s world story. The conflict here is not between the religious and the anti-religious, but between different ways of acting on the religious spirit30,31. The negotiations concerning how to do so would now continue in the confrontation between René Descartes and Thomas Hobbes over the nature of the science at the heart of the new world story text.

By the mid-17th century, a rich context already existed for their conversation about the purpose of science. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) had called for an experimental science that could “discover the hidden powers by which nature moves in order to gain mastery over it,” relying on the work of the “priestlike” scientist3(39). Bacon remained a theoretician; others, such as Galileo Galilee (1564-1642), were laying the practical foundations for modern science. Galileo would help fix two important ideas at its heart. First, the universe is a “grand book … which stands continually open to our gaze … written in the language of mathematics” (Galileo, as quoted in 10(283)). While the senses distort, mathematics would allow people to rightly read nature’s book: “If the ears, the tongue, and the nostrils were taken away, the figures, the numbers, and the motions would indeed remain, but not the odors nor the tastes nor the sounds” (Galileo, as quoted in 32(94)). Second, this underlying “true” world was to be understood as a machine, Kepler’s “machine of the universe … similar to a clock” (Kepler, as quoted in 17(33)), a universe of “dead” matter in which living things, especially human intelligence, are a special case.

For the most part, Descartes and Hobbes agreed. Both believed in the Christian God, but had been terrified by the excesses of religious fanaticism; both agreed that the senses distort the world; both wished to use Galileo’s mathematics as a new path to truth; both believed that science could enable human beings to master nature and build a more humane, prosperous society3. Their fundamental differences about the nature of science were grounded in different understandings of how well it is possible to know God’s world.

For Descartes (1596-1650), science was the search for the Truth, which would enable scientists to “discover the ground for a radical transformation of European society”3(177). Through the sort of experiments that Bacon had championed, Descartes wanted to strip the distortions that the senses created in order to penetrate the underlying reality. With such a science, one could “believe only what is perfectly known and inescapable of being doubted,” producing the certainty that “proceeds solely from the light of reason” (Descartes, as quoted in 3(191)). Such a science of certainty, with the potential to remake the world, was possible, he believed, for two reasons. First, the human being alone of all living things is not merely composed of passive matter (res extensa) but is also a thinking being (res cognitans). As a result, human beings have the godlike ability to remake the world so that it is “no longer a cosmos or a creation independent of man but a human artifact”3(200). Second, science can be true because mathematics, as the language of the universe, is true, and, Descartes believed, God is not a deceiver.

For Hobbes (1588-1679), science was not the search for the Truth, which he thought ultimately unknowable, but for knowledge of how things worked. Because our perceptions did not provide a trustworthy representation of the underlying reality, science must study the dynamics by which an omnipotent God willed motion to occur. Human beings can never know the truth of these dynamics with certainty, only that a specific explanation works, enabling people to manipulate parts of the world. Human beings were not, as Descartes believed, thinking things, but subject to the same laws of motion that God wills for all other things. Moreover, because God is omnipotent, Descartes’ reliance on finding the truth was misplaced; God could deceive us3.

In a society exhausted by a century and a half of warfare, Descartes’s vision must have seemed vastly superior, offering a way to realize the dream of rational order. In contrast to the medieval worldview, Descartes’ rational God had created a knowable order, ruled by universal laws that human beings could understand and take advantage of. Chaos had prevailed only because people had not properly exercised their rational powers. Now, the viri spirituales would no longer be medieval monks, preparing God’s perfect kingdom on Earth; rather, they would be scientific quest knights leading the march “toward ever greater perfection of human nature”33(5), progressively learning God’s laws and applying them to society. This story was already being enacted in the flurry of scientific activity, including that of:

  • Robert Boyle, whose physics led him to describe “experimental research as a kind of worship”17(153);
  • William Harvey, who discovered the circulation of the blood;
  • Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, who first viewed micro-organisms through a microscope;
  • Isaac Newton, whose mechanical physics finished the modern world story much as Aristotle’s work had finished the axial Greek world story.

In many ways, Descartes and Newton were Modernity’s Plato and Aristotle, crystallizing the new world story. According to that story, the world consists of distinct “things” that obey universal, unchanging laws of motion, much like the particles in a physics experiment. As things interact according to those laws, they create a pattern of linear cause-and-effect. If you could know the position of all things and the laws they followed, you could also know how everything would develop. To put it in religious terms, you could see God’s plan for the world as it unfolded according to His laws. Science was mankind’s vehicle for decoding the book of nature and understanding God’s plan, which was both deterministic and teleological. With that understanding, people could recreate the world and master the chaos.

Enlightenment commentary

From the approach developed in this book, the Enlightenment was a sprawling series of explorations – ranging from how to gather scientific knowledge and apply it as technology, to how to search for “a rational vindication of morality”34(50) or govern complex societies in a world stripped of religious certainty. And with the printing press and widespread literacy, it became possible to think and say almost anything. As David Hume (1711-1776) characterized the times, quoting Tacitus, “Rare the happiness of times, when it is licit to think what you like and to say what you think” (as quoted in 35(152)). In its attack on “the prejudices of which the human race has so long been victim,” to use d’Holbach’s words (as quoted in 35(15)), Enlightenment thinkers left no holy of holies untouched.

The best-known critic of establishment Christianity is probably Baruch Spinoza (1632-77). But even before his infamous attacks, the Diggers, Levelers and Ranters of the English Civil War were reinterpreting Christianity just as radically. Gerard Winstanley (1609-1676), for example, insisted in the 1650s, “The whole creation … is the clothing of God.” He also warned that “the old kingly clergy … are continually distilling their blind principles in the people, and do thereby nurse up ignorance in them” (as quoted in 36(112-13)). Like Winstanley, Spinoza analyzed the Bible as a human text, equated God with nature, and denounced the Church for appealing to the superstition of the masses. He also insisted that a free press and democracy actually strengthened the state.

Pierre Bayle outraged much of Europe when he wrote in the early 1680s that “atheism does not necessarily lead to the corruption of morals” (as quoted in 35(120-1)), and Julien Offray de la Mettrie explained that only a society of atheists could be virtuous. On the other hand, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) would insist that God had made this “the best of all possible worlds,” the position Voltaire (1694-1778) ridiculed in Candide.

While many Enlightenment thinkers criticized organized religion, several found God substitutes. Adam Smith (1723-1793), Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot (1727-1781), and Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794) found God in the forces that drove economic activity. Here, they insisted that “society will progress and improve if the laws of the market are set free and left untrammeled”22(107). Smith’s “Invisible Hand,” especially, suggests a protecting Providence, if we only “worship” it properly35. In their works, they defined the free market economics that became central to the modern world story.

From a different perspective, Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) saw Providence in the unfolding of history. In his New Science, published in 1725, Vico pictured history as an inexorably linear progress through a number of stages. The highest of these stages, people of the Enlightenment believed, was taking place in contemporary Europe. To define this stage Adam Ferguson (1723-1816) introduced the word “civilization”, and humankind was soon divided into “civilized” and “non-civilized”, “savage” peoples. By the late 18th century, Europeans had “discovered” most of the inhabited world and became convinced of their cultural superiority. While this Eurocentrism had roots in pre-modern European culture37,38, the Enlightenment’s linear, progressive view of the world, in the writings of Vico and Ferguson, Turgot, Voltaire, and Condorcet (1743-1794), stated it most forcefully.

This kind of sprawling intellectual exploration also appeared in the Enlightenment thinkers who sought to understand what it means to be human. Hobbes, in Leviathan, and Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), in On the Law of War and Peace, saw the human common denominator in fear. What allows people to form society, and thus to give up their personal freedom, both agreed, was Hobbes’ “war of all on all” “in the state of nature.” And so, their mutual fear drove people to congregate and give sovereignty to a power that would protect them35.

John Locke (1632-1704) agreed that society was a contract that its members agreed to and saw its institutions as the great bulk wards of order. Locke believed, however, that this contract was largely about protecting property and that its members had the right to periodically reevaluate it. Denis Diderot (1713-1784) took Locke’s call for periodic reevaluation to its logical end, calling for the downtrodden to rise against their oppressors22. Others viewed the position of Hobbes and Grotius as far too limited. Smith, in The Theory of Moral Sentiment, suggests that it was not fear or reason that united men, but sympathy through the exercise of imagination. Similarly, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) viewed pity as the emotion that bound humans together. And Hume wrote, in his Treatise on Human Nature, that reason ought to be “the slave of passions and can never pretend to any other office but to serve and obey them” (as quoted in35(94)).

This is only a sampling of the many positions early Enlightenment thinkers took, running the gamut from the conservatism of Voltaire and Frederick the Great (1712-1786) to the radicalism of Diderot and Thomas Paine (1737-1809). Our point is that these thinkers offered their culture a diverse stew of approaches to creating a Western model for an ordered society, all open to incorporation into the still-evolving modern world story.

Throughout most of the 18th century, establishment-oriented Enlightenment thinkers were most influential, just as the propertied interests “won” the English Civil War36. As Israel notes, the world seemed to be improving, and even radical thinkers such as England’s Richard Price (1723-1791) wrote that the world had “been gradually improving” and that “this progress must continue” (as quoted in 22(3)). “Civilization” was perceived as an essentially moral phenomenon, and moral perfection was seen as the basis of technological and social progress. Then, another cycle of social breakdown seemed to throw Western Europe back into chaos26.

By the 1770s, especially in France, population grew, real wages fell, and the country experienced a series of harvest failures26(182). Unlike England, the French monarchy had been unchanged by the turmoil of the mid-17th century. Partly as a result, the economy changed much more quickly than shifts in government tax policy. It became clear that the free market policies of Smith and Turgot could not address the problems of rising poverty. A “widespread consciousness in influential circles of the need to abolish privilege and rank”22(229) began to emerge, along with a conservative reaction to it. A financial crisis overwhelmed the French monarchy in the late 1780s. By that time, Helvetius’s call for universal education, Rousseau’s liberal republican treatment of the theory of the social contract, and Diderot’s urging that the downtrodden rise against their oppressors22 became more and more attractive positions. Then, control of the National Assembly fell to those who believed that the monarchy could no longer serve the interests of proper order and social justice, precipitating the French Revolution.

The irony at the heart of the modern world story would now reassert itself. The French Revolution (1789-1799) emerged from the philosophy of those who, like d’Holbach, saw “philosophical reason as the only guide in human life”22(20). They wanted to replace Christianity with a Cult of Reason39. Yet, the resulting actions unleashed centuries of suppressed anger and frustration at the wealth and luxury of a nobility that had been unable to provide for the rest of the nation. And so, the Cult of Reason would lead to the Terror. At the same time, nationality was replacing religion as the basis of group identities40. Napoleon made the most of this shift. Marching under the banner of liberty, equality and fraternity, he proved that nationalism could produce wars every bit as devastating as religion had in the 16th and 17th centuries. The response of European power elites to this affront to the Enlightenment ideal was immediate, and even though the cycle of social breakdowns would continue into the revolts of the 1840s, the power elite could now reasonably argue that existing institutions were the best defense against chaos.

Meanwhile, people throughout Western Europe continued to act on the modern world story, producing industrial capitalism and political world domination. More and more, the scientific discoveries of Modernity’s viri spirituales were being applied as technology – from steam engines to telegraphy, the spinning jenny to gas lighting and the gas turbine, modern steel to the electric battery. At the peak of the industrial revolution, between the mid-18th and mid-19th centuries, Great Britain became the greatest industrial/capitalist power of the world19. Great Britain, France and Spain were then fighting for the largest share of the New World; they were joined by Holland, which had been in Indonesia since the 17th century, and, later, Germany, for control of the Africa and Asia.

In acting out their world story, Western Europeans created one of the grimmest ironies of human history. The Age of Enlightenment, especially its highest flowering in the 18th century, was both the age of remaking the world in the attempt to build a secular Heaven on Earth, as Descartes and Hobbes had predicted, and of the European slave trade. This irony was clearest in the newly independent United States of America. In 1776, it became the first “state really limited to the profane goals”41(39). The new nation had also witnessed a transition from religious toleration to religious pluralism42. For most of human history, government and religious belief fused to ensure the “proper” relations between people and supernatural forces. Now, democracy, freed from its entanglement with religious belief, promised to serve society directly and immediately. Yet, the American experiment was largely built on slavery.

After the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, the European powers, with Imperial Britain in the lead, continued to remake the world. Europeans colonized Africa and India, and humiliated China in the Treaty of Nanking after the First Opium War (1839-42). At the same time, the technological recreation of the world accelerated. Plastic surgery, the stethoscope, and pasteurization; the sewing machine, refrigerator, and automobile; telegraph, telephone, and motion picture; revolver, machine gun, and dynamite – all these 19th century technologies emerged. Together, these developments demonstrated the power of the world story generated from the philosophy of Descartes and the physics of Newton.

It’s tempting to think that the larger-than-life individuals – the Thomas Edisons, Alfred Nobels, and Louis Pasteurs – made this transformation of human life possible. Yet, they were only the most obvious movers of a transformation that required many complex networks of people, organizations, and material agents. From scientific laboratories to newspapers and governments, millions upon millions of decisions and interactions43 contributed to remaking the world.

Much of Europe was industrialized during the late 18th and 19th centuries, and the self-reinforcing cycle of population growth, knowledge increase, technology innovation, and growing wealth accelerated. By 1900, London, Paris, and New York each had populations of more than three million, while, in 1800, only London had even one million44(63). In the same period, world population rose rapidly, from less than one billion to more than 1.6 billion8. This kind of growth created major disruption and economic hardship, especially in growing cities. On one hand, larger cities meant more interaction between scientists and technologists and more innovation in theory and practice45. On the other, it created a wave of human suffering. Together these factors drove another cycle of commentary on the world story.

One key element in this commentary was the removal of the traditional God as creator-king, an effort to “undermine the credibility of God himself”35(101). This effort had begun with the writings of Winstanley and Spinoza in the 17th century. It continued in the 18th century, with Hume savaging the Christian God, the Deists’ belief in a God who left humans to their own devices, and the various attacks of the French philosophes. By the beginning of the 19th century, science had joined the attack. Pierre-Simon de Laplace (1749-1827) theorized that the solar system had developed from a gas cloud and that the Universe was extremely old, far older than Bible literalists believed. In the 1830s, Charles Lyell (1797-1875) published his Principles of Geology, demonstrating that life had existed on Earth for millions of years. Then, Charles Darwin (1809-1882) theorized evolution in On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, finally offering an alternative to the Bible’s creation story46. The traditional Christian God was no longer necessary to explain the world.

The questions these scientific discoveries excited would be complicated by the suffering in crowded cities and the treatment of industrial workers. The result was a to create a sprawling diversity of socially oriented commentary. In literature, it emerged in the novels of Charles Dickens (1812-1870); in sociology, in the works of Auguste Compte (1798-1857); and in philosophy, in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Of these critics, the most significant were probably Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895). In their efforts to reestablish social justice and equality in industrialized Europe, they attacked a power elite grounded in private property, but also created an almost-biblical mythology of “Historical Inevitability.” That mythology pictured a fall from grace when egalitarianism faltered and evolved through oppressive agricultural and industrial societies. Finally, the Armageddon of revolution would establish the kingdom of perfected Communist man, a 19th century analogue of the millenarianist apocalypse.

Then, during the first quarter of the 20th century, the irony at the heart of Modernity once again returned, to destroy its most important assumptions. The First World War (1914-1918) made it devastatingly clear that Enlightenment reason could not establish the perpetual peace of which Voltaire, for example, had written35. The technological progress that was supposed to continually improve people’s lives had, instead, resulted in millions dead and a political morass that would continue to create chaos for another generation. The world seemed uncomfortably like the nightmares of conflict in Hobbes and Grotius, rather than the dream of reason in Condorcet or Turgot.

In addition, scientific quest knights were beginning to discover that the worldview of Descartes and Newton was fundamentally flawed. Over the course of the 20th century, one science after another has contributed to this reappraisal of how our world works. The Science 1.0 of Descartes and Newton would gradually be replaced by the Science 2.0 that followed the lead of Albert Einstein, Neils Bohr, and Werner Heisenberg, if the reader will allow us to make the distinction in such a manner. Among the most interesting of these developments:

  • Einstein’s theory of relativity suggested that matter was not “dead,” as Descartes believed, but a special form of energy, continually in motion.
  • Quantum physics added that the world was not as predictable or as open to being “decoded”, as the earlier world story insisted. It also suggested that Newton’s independent “things” were deeply interconnected and interdependent47.
  • Astronomy drew a picture of the universe that is both vast – with hundreds of billions of galaxies – and at least 13.5 billion years old.
  • Neurobiologists now believe that what people see and hear is not a direct image, like a photo, of the world around us, as Descartes assumed, but the images that our brains unconsciously reconstruct for us, combining memory and sense impressions48.

This is a long way from the world that Descartes and Newton believed in. The nature of science, itself, has shifted. With the older, Cartesian sciences, nature seemed a book filled with independent “things” that were to be decoded so that people could discover the truth. With the newer sciences, nature is a complex, multi-scaled nested network of phenomena – from atoms to molecules, organisms to ecosystems, and planets to galaxies. The job of the scientist is to interpret the signs those phenomena leave in order to create the best possible models49,50. Combined with the wars of the 20th century, this shift from the Newtonian Science 1.0 to the Einsteinian Science 2.0 destroyed Descartes’s ideal of certainty in a controllable world.

Even the comfortable Eurocentrism of the modern era began to dissolve. In teaching literacy and numeracy to children in China and India, no matter how condescendingly, Westerners put them on the road to becoming equals. Science has become a global grail quest. Moreover, Westerners have learned that while they have advantages unique to their culture, so do Brazilians and Russians, Indians and Chinese. In today’s global economy, we are all interconnected and interdependent. The world story Descartes so proudly articulated has finally consumed itself, and another version of our world story is emerging.


Will some sort of empire emerge as the current period of cultural transformation comes to its close, as they did in axial Greece, India and China? A provocative question, well worth thinking about, but it may not be the most productive question. In both Greece and China, the Axial Age was a time of social experiment growing from – and limited by – each culture’s foundational stories. In Greece, empire emerged as people learned that the political fragmentation built into its foundational texts made it impossible to meet the challenges of increasing social complexity. In China, empire confirmed the emphasis on political unity and social support, embedded in the foundational texts, enabling China to become the most consistently powerful and innovative society through most of the post-axial period.

From this point of view, the critical questions may be: What have moderns learned over the last 500 years? What must we do to meet the challenges of a fully global society? And what can we begin to do now to increase the chances of navigating this period in the most prosperous and peaceful manner?

For one thing, the emergence of Science 2.0 suggests a serious dilemma. Many of the most important social experiments of the last 500 years were grounded in Science 1.0. Yet many of the assumptions of Science 1.0 now seem mistaken. As a result, some of those experiments seem to be creating social dysfunctions as great as the challenges they successfully addressed. Consider three of the most important:

  • Technology provided the ability to support billions of human beings at a level of affluence that was previously unimaginable. At the same time, the promise of Bacon and Descartes that science would let people master nature proved an illusion. Instead, it created a dependence on limited resources, despoiled ecosystems around the globe, and developed terrifying destructive powers.
  • Western capitalism made it possible to create wealth on an unprecedented scale. Today, it has become possible to abolish poverty for a good part of the planet’s seven-some billion human beings, although partially at the expense of the rest. Yet, that wealth has also created systemic corruption. All over the world, money seems to be the only thing everyone values; the media preaches that the good life is the life full of snazzy, expensive consumables; and governments everywhere seem to be increasingly corrupted by their relationship with the very wealthy.
  • Nationalism enabled collectives of hundreds of millions of people to work together, mobilize enormous energies, and govern the most complex social organizations in human history. Yet the combination of nationalism with culture has defined people from other nations as the Other, to be feared and hated, or at least pitied as ignorant and a little crazy.

In the end, it is precisely these great accomplishments of Modernity that stand at the heart of the challenges noted in the introduction of this book. And, so, addressing these challenges will require the emergence of a new world story, grounded in Science 2.0, as well as decades of experiment.

We would like to conclude this book with some suggestions about what people in late Modernity can do to facilitate this process in a fully globalized world. However, before we make suggestions, it would be valuable to consider a couple of questions:

  • How is the world story of Science 2.0 developing?
  • What does that world story suggest about how human history is evolving?
  • And how can we use that new understanding of human history in the effort to wrestle social order out these chaotic times?

To begin answering these questions, we turn back to a panoramic view of human history, as viewed through the lens of Science 2.0.