Where did the enlightenment come from?

There is a great tendency in historical studies to play the lawyer's 'but for' game. This entertainment, often seen in the common law tort courts outside of the USA, which doesn't really understand it, involves identifying all the factual and natural causes of an event. These efforts in causation are then accumulated and discarded apart from the one 'legal cause' but for which something would not have happened. If one is the respondent and not the plaintiff, the name of the game is to stop the multiple causation argument being dumped. Here is a link to a fabled and great legal site for A-level students well known to teachers of law, if you want to explore the issue.

The causation game, which is very often tied to very real and high stakes, is as old as sin and goes on everywhere, of course. One of the places where it presents itself is in historical discussion. A very great deal of modern history, rightly, proceeds by isolating causes of events rather than viewing them as a whole.

In part, that is because of the way that 'the history industry' works. Formal employment in universities is a matter of a research specialism. Freelance earning is about being able to focus on one thing which people will buy. The integration of great themes and little events often leads to a sort of dilettante pot-pourri which impresses very few. If interdisciplinary, integrated histories do sell well and impress many, they do not long survive the directed assaults of outraged or jealous specialists.

In the case of the emergence of modernity, however, and especially of 'the Enlightenment' as an idea, it is helpful, sometimes to challenge people's conceptions of 'the big idea' by pointing out the indistinguishable coexistence of multiple causes.

The Atlantic world experienced an intellectual explosion between 1500 and 1800. If one were to look for the causes of the years that produced modernity, where would they lie?

One meta-cause would be the environment. In recent years, an increasing number of scholars have begun to integrate the Maunder minimum low-sunspot cycle into their explanations of why agriculture declined and why an agricultural revolution deeply associated with the development of natural science and technology ran alongside escalating bread riots and inflation which played their part in the English commonwealth and the run-up to the French Revolution.

Yet a Maunder minimum between 1640 or so and 1715, associated with a little ice age that may have been sustained by other factors until around 1900 or so, is not in itself the 'cause' of political discontent in Europe. Volcanoes may have played their part, of which the Laki eruption in 1783 was one of what may have been many. Some people of course, despite or rather because of a reaction to the sloppy science of global warming, are more worried now than they have been for years that another maunder minimum is on the way.

Another would be the influence of plague on fourteenth century Europe, which, as in the sixth century decimation of the Eastern Roman Empire under Justinian, was carried by rats. Rats, reacting probably to changes in their numbers as a consequence of climate, carried Y.Pestens across Europe. This decimated populations, and ruined agriculture; European populations then pushed out to formally discover the Americas and their resources, which began the genocidal progress of modernity.

Humanity's total weakness until the twentieth century in the face of nature is always stunning. We're now only slightly less weak. Agriculture wasn't the only cause of modernity though. Religion is a dividing line in the remarkable rise of modernity, but not perhaps necessarily in the way that many modern secularists think.

For instance, and oddly to the modern eye, the Scots and Northern Irish enlightenments were almost characterised by a mixture of presbyterianism and agnosticism divorced from sectarianism. They were tied instead to the early stirrings of social science, and to science in general. But in France and England (which had no enlightenment, properly speaking), liberty was in large part an Anti-Catholic reaction linked to the needs of the imperial and domestic economy.

In France in particular the moderns found the need to misrepresent England and create an anti-christ philosophical system modelled, to a similar degree as Naziism later was, on a dark copy of Catholic structures of the time. It was also just touched by polemic. It makes much more sense to think of the Baron de Montesqieu's mistaken characterisation of a separation of powers in England in 1743--which Jefferson and Madison used for their own purposes later--in terms of his enemies in France than his understanding of the English-speaking world.

I found myself wondering this week whether any of this notion of Enlightenment would make sense if it were not for two things. One was the freezing and terrible effect of the Council of Constantinople in 381, which struck at the relative diversity and dispute of middle and late Rome.

Before anyone jumps at the point, I am well aware that that the best of that diversity was tolerant of Christianity but not Christian ; that Marcus Aurelius, Themistius and Porphyry thought diversity better than orthodoxy but that they were not monotheists, just universal religionists. The only roughly contemporary Christian I can think of who fits with the group is Origen, and he died after persecution and torture for his ideas.

I do think Christianity could have adapted to freedom of thought, though, had it not been suborned in part to the purpose of Emperors, which is why I am happy in the church that emerged from the second Vatican council. Christian ideas about freedom surfaced from time to time, for instance, and not just amongst the likes of Machiavelli but even amongst the orthodox like Erasmus. Normally, the ideas that they were attracted to are missed in the concentration on their feeling for something lumped under the name of 'the classical world'.

The Council of Constantinople froze Theodosius's need for orthodoxy in a dependent church in time, and probably led on to Justinian's attempt at an orthodox law code which helped found Europe by the 550s. No one mental cage; no need to struggle against it. In 364, Themistius could tell Jovian that a king should not compel speech, and scholars could suggest that a god of the universe was flattered by argument; by 381, one would be killed for suggesting so. That orthodoxy ran through history; it was challenged destructively and in blood after 1525; and Europe plunged into the blood and religious warfare which habituated it to terrible social violence of the sort that modernity is fascinated by.

And so it is throughout the human tale, except in a few, shining places. For some reason I think that it shouldn't escape people's attention either that encouragement for mental straitjackets of the orthodox sort came from Roman Spain under challenge from visigoths; that later on, paranoia and inquisition were prompted by the need of Spanish Kings for control after the fairly brutal reconquista; and that conspiracism and heresy-hunting against 'alumbrados' or enlightened Jewish conversos was a yolk of modern antisemitism. Jan Potocki had something right at least; all sorts of strange things come out of Spain, and not least those great, clever, original men in black, the Jesuits.

Look at the brew of which these times were made; climate, agriculture, plague, religion and hatreds of the other, and you see the multiple causes of the enlightenment and the revolutions of the modern period. These were products of nature and of human darkness. They smell of its meat, water and earth.

When people turn around and look to 'what they really meant' and 'what really caused modernity' as though they were looking for something to celebrate or to elevate the world, I can't help wondering what they would do if they saw beneath the apparent monolith of modern science and freedom.

Life goes on, though. I am, for three days, free, as far as I can tell. There are gyms and Jacuzzis and pubs and friends around to me and I have a faith and a life. I'm off out to enjoy them with a good book on hyperspace for the general reader. I hope that you enjoy the day too.


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