Why were London and Rot­ter­dam, not Bei­jing and Is­tan­bul, the cra­dles of the in­tel­lec­tual revo­lu­tion that trig­gered the mod­ern age?

BBC History Magazine - - Tudor Letters - By Joel Mokyr

How can we ex­plain the as­ton­ish­ing rise in liv­ing stan­dards in the past two cen­turies? Once we start think­ing about the ques­tion of the ori­gins of mod­ern eco­nomic growth, mused No­bel-prize-win­ning econ­o­mist Robert Lu­cas in 1988, “it is hard to think of any­thing else”. If even a world-lead­ing

ex­pert on busi­ness cy­cles feels that way, what should pro­fes­sional eco­nomic his­to­ri­ans feel? The lit­er­a­ture on the topic is vast, and it may at first glance seem sur­pris­ing that any­one could add any­thing of in­ter­est to this thrice-squeezed le­mon. Yet the odd thing is that cul­ture – by which I mean the en­tire set of be­liefs, pref­er­ences and values of so­ci­ety, in­clud­ing reli­gion and so­cial and moral at­ti­tudes – has so far played a mod­est role in this lit­er­a­ture. Eco­nom­ics has dom­i­nated the story. Per­haps this was be­cause the eco­nom­ics pro­fes­sion, where most im­por­tant work in eco­nomic his­tory has been car­ried out in the past gen­er­a­tion, for a long time was hos­tile to any use of cul­ture in his­tor­i­cal ex­pla­na­tion.

This has be­gun to change in the past decade, and so now is the per­fect time to ask if there was any­thing in Euro­pean cul­ture be­fore 1750 that made it es­pe­cially sus­cep­ti­ble to the as­ton­ish­ing tech­no­log­i­cal and sci­en­tific ad­vances that cre­ated the ‘Great En­rich­ment’ (as the re­mark­able pros­per­ity of the mod­ern age has been termed).

But which as­pects of cul­ture are we talk­ing about here? And whose cul­ture? To make any progress, we need to slice up the murky con­cept we call cul­ture. This is a mas­sive dis­ci­pline, and too large a chunk to be bit­ten off by any scholar. So, in re­cent years, many economists have come to fo­cus on in­tel­lec­tual elites and their be­liefs in what writ­ers in the 18th cen­tury called nat­u­ral phi­los­o­phy (that is, sci­ence) and the use­ful arts (tech­nol­ogy).

The peo­ple who dis­cov­ered the power of steam, small­pox vac­ci­na­tion, coke smelt­ing and gas light­ing were not run-of-the mill work­ers – they were, on the whole, highly trained and ed­u­cated. They were, al­most without ex­cep­tion, lit­er­ate and well read, and in con­stant touch with oth­ers, ex­chang­ing and dis­tribut­ing what they called ‘use­ful knowl­edge’. Some of these ‘ learned so­ci­eties’ and the places in which they met are still well known – the Lu­nar So­ci­ety of Birm­ing­ham and London’s Chap­ter Cof­fee House so­ci­ety be­ing among the most fa­mous. This new gen­er­a­tion of bril­liant thinkers had come to be­lieve that, by ex­pand­ing their un­der­stand­ing of nat­u­ral phe­nom­ena and reg­u­lar­i­ties, they could im­prove the ma­te­rial con­di­tion of hu­mankind. Though this no­tion seems ut­terly nat­u­ral – not to say ba­nal – to any­one to­day, it was still new and con­tro­ver­sial in around 1600, when Fran­cis Ba­con first for­mu­lated it.

The col­lab­o­ra­tive ef­forts of scientists, math­e­mati- cians, en­gi­neers and skilled ar­ti­sans proved to be suc­cess­ful be­yond even their wildest ex­pec­ta­tions. The rise in liv­ing stan­dards and the ma­te­rial com­forts of peo­ple around the globe since the in­dus­trial revo­lu­tion must count as the great­est eco­nomic event of his­tory – hence Lu­cas’s re­mark.

But how did this come about? One place to start is to recog­nise that, for some rea­son, hu­mans seem to be hard­wired to hon­our the wis­dom of their an­ces­tors and to feel some­how in­fe­rior in the face of past learn­ing. Whether they be­lieved in the Tal­mud, the Qur’an, Con­fu­cius, Aris­to­tle or Galen, through his­tory there seems to have been a per­va­sive con­vic­tion that the ‘truth’ had been re­vealed to our an­ces­tors, and that wis­dom was to be found by por­ing over an­cient writ­ings and dis­sect­ing them un­til their true mean­ing was re­vealed.

In the 16th cen­tury, that be­lief was ir­repara­bly weak­ened. As late as 1580 an Ox­ford don could be fined five shillings for teach­ing some­thing that was con­tra­dic­tory to the writ­ings of Aris­to­tle. But Ox­ford was be­hind the curve; by that time the clas­si­cal canon had come un­der fire from ev­ery cor­ner. The in­tel­lec­tual world of the 15th cen­tury was still in the shadow of clas­si­cal learn­ing, but in the 16th cen­tury and be­yond it mor­phed in a world of in­so­lent rebels such as Paracel­sus, Har­vey, Ra­mus, Brahe and Boyle. Driven by new ob­ser­va­tions, they ripped to shreds the clas­si­cal texts in physics and medicine, and sub­ju­gated them to what they be­lieved to be per­sua­sive ev­i­dence and logic. In his pioneering De Mag­nete (1600), the English sci­en­tist Wil­liam Gil­bert an­nounced that he was not go­ing to waste time on “quot­ing the an­cients and the Greeks as our sup­port­ers”. The er­rors he found in clas­si­cal au­thors such as Pliny and Ptolemy were spread “much as evil and nox­ious plants ever have the most lux­u­ri­ous growth”. The rules of what was true and what was not changed ir­re­versibly. Rea­son­ing that “Aris­to­tle (or the Bi­ble) said so, hence it must be true” was no longer ac­cept­able among most in­tel­lec­tu­als (though con­ser­va­tives put up a good fight). The fa­mous strug­gle be­tween the ‘mod­erns’ and ‘an­cients’ that took place in this pe­riod ended with a re­sound­ing tri­umph for the mod­erns. The great works of clas­si­cal an­tiq­uity may have re­tained a place in the cur­ric­ula of uni­ver­si­ties, but as an au­thor­i­ta­tive source on any­thing to do with the nat­u­ral

world they were de­ci­sively de­throned. Once the new breed of thinkers had lifted the leaden bur­den of the author­ity of Aris­to­tle, Ptolemy and Galen, and ush­ered in the age of nul­lius in verba – the slo­gan of the Royal So­ci­ety, mean­ing ‘on no one’s word’ – moder­nity dawned. Scep­ti­cism, it turned out, drives progress.

But why did this at­ti­tude pre­vail in post-1500 Europe – as op­posed to, say, the Ot­toman em­pire or China? One fac­tor might be that the voy­ages of dis­cov­ery by the great Euro­pean pow­ers, and the ca­pa­bil­ity to see and ob­serve phe­nom­ena be­yond clas­si­cal knowl­edge (the in­ven­tion of the mi­cro­scope, the tele­scope and the vac­uum pump in Europe, for ex­am­ple) cre­ated cog­ni­tive dis­so­nances that led to doubt. The same dis­so­nances stim­u­lated the Protes­tant Re­for­ma­tion, an­other in­stance of re­bel­lious and im­per­ti­nent crit­i­cism of what was hith­erto sacro­sanct. But more was in­volved.

Eco­nom­ics sug­gests that new ideas are stim­u­lated by the forces of sup­ply and de­mand, as well as a so­ci­ety’s cul­tural be­liefs. As a re­sult, philoso­phers and economists have pro­posed the con­cept of a ‘mar­ket for ideas’. It is all about per­sua­sion and in­flu­ence: in­tel­lec­tu­als from Luther to Coper­ni­cus to Spinoza to New­ton came up with new ideas and tried to ‘sell’ them to their con­stituen­cies, us­ing ev­i­dence, logic, rhetoric, math­e­mat­i­cal anal­y­sis and ex­per­i­men­tal re­sults.

The idea of a sale is metaphor­i­cal, since no money changed hands. But the ben­e­fits to the innovators were real enough. Fame paid off, in terms of pa­tron­age. Kings, aris­to­crats and wealthy bour­geoisie ex­tended ben­e­fits to well-known in­tel­lec­tu­als, through em­ploy­ment and sub­si­dies. Some of the best scientists of the age were trained phy- si­cians who served their pa­trons as medics. The great Ital­ian bi­ol­o­gist Francesco Redi served as the court physi­cian of the Medi­cis, as well as sec­re­tary and su­per­vi­sor of their phar­macy and foundry. Leib­niz served as a coun­cil­lor to kings. Oth­ers, in­clud­ing the young Isaac New­ton, found se­cure em­ploy­ment in uni­ver­si­ties where tenured pro­fes­sor­ships were forms of pa­tron­age. Such pa­tron­age, es­pe­cially in the cases of in­tel­lec­tual su­per­stars such as Galileo, New­ton, Huy­gens and Leib­niz, meant more than fi­nan­cial se­cu­rity; it meant a close re­la­tion­ship with peo­ple in power, and hence high so­cial sta­tus, pres­tige and le­git­i­macy.

An­other rea­son that pre-1750 Europe proved such fer­tile ter­ri­tory for new ideas is that the con­ti­nent was uniquely suited to cap­i­talise on the trade-off be­tween size and com­pet­i­tive­ness that is re­quired of any suc­cess­ful ‘mar­ket’. Eco­nom­ics teaches that com­pet­i­tive mar­ket sys­tems tend to be more pro­duc­tive, more cre­ative, more vi­able. But for com­pe­ti­tion to work, there has to be a large number of com­peti­tors. At the same time, how­ever, there are economies of scale: big units that dom­i­nate their mar­kets can do things that smaller units can­not do. In that sense, the mar­ket for ideas en­coun­ters the same dilemma: it needs a healthy com­pet­i­tive en­vi­ron­ment, but in such an en­vi­ron­ment it may not be able to achieve economies of scale.

Now con­sider the po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment of early mod­ern Europe. The con­ti­nent was frag­mented into many scores of small and

Driven by new ob­ser­va­tions and in­for­ma­tion, in­tel­lec­tu­als ripped to shreds the clas­si­cal texts in physics and medicine, and sub­ju­gated them to what they be­lieved to be per­sua­sive ev­i­dence and logic

medium-sized po­lit­i­cal units. Not­with­stand­ing the best ef­forts of the Holy Ro­man Em­peror Charles V, this frag­men­ta­tion could not be over­come. Even larger units such as Spain and France were di­vided into com­pet­ing re­gions, cities and in­ter­est groups. Ger­many and Italy were splin­tered into many in­de­pen­dent statelets.

This was com­pounded by re­li­gious com­pe­ti­tion, as the Catholic church lost its mo­nop­oly. Such frag­men­ta­tion (be­sides lead­ing to end­less bloody wars) had ben­e­fi­cial ef­fects. David Hume wrote in 1742 that: “Noth­ing is more favourable to the rise of po­lite­ness and learn­ing than a number of neigh­bour­ing and in­de­pen­dent states, con­nected to­gether by com­merce and pol­icy. The em­u­la­tion, which nat­u­rally arises among those… is an ob­vi­ous source of im­prove­ment.”

In a com­pet­i­tive en­vi­ron­ment it was dif­fi­cult for any sin­gle polity to sup­press novel ideas, no mat­ter how het­ero­dox and hereti­cal they may have felt. Per­se­cu­tion and cen­sor­ship were of course tried, and some un­for­tu­nate in­tel­lec­tu­als (most fa­mously Miguel Servet and Gior­dano Bruno) lost their lives. But in the long run such ef­forts were doomed. By be­ing foot­loose and pub­lish­ing their works abroad, in­tel­lec­tual innovators could play the po­lit­i­cal pow­ers against one an­other. Trou­ble­some writ­ers, such as the Swiss icon­o­clas­tic doctor Paracel­sus and the Mo­ra­vian philoso­pher and ed­u­ca­tional re­former John Amos Come­nius, moved across Europe over and over again. The forces of re­ac­tion be­tween 1500 and 1700 were pow­er­ful and de­ter­mined, but they lost be­cause they could never co-or­di­nate their ef­forts enough. By 1650, re­ac­tionary forces more or less gave up. Re­li­gious and in­tel­lec­tual tol­er­a­tion won the day.

But pre­cisely be­cause of this frag­men­ta­tion, there was a dan­ger that creativ­ity might run into is­sues of size. The number of po­ten­tial read­ers who would ap­pre­ci­ate the writ­ings of Ve­sal­ius or Descartes or New­ton in each coun­try or re­gion was too small to make the ef­fort worth­while. The learned schol­ars in the 16th and 17th cen­turies try­ing to build a rep­u­ta­tion with their peers were writ­ing for a Euro­pean au­di­ence, not a Flem­ish, a French or an English one. What emerged in Europe in the early mod­ern pe­riod was an in­te­grated, transna­tional, in­tel­lec­tual com­mu­nity in which new ideas were dis­trib­uted, dis­cussed, vet­ted, eval­u­ated, ac­cepted or re­jected on their mer­its. When a new idea was pro­posed in London, it was soon enough dis­cussed in Edinburgh, Paris, Am­s­ter­dam, Madrid, Naples and Stock­holm. Europe had the best of all worlds: the ad­van­tages of frag­men­ta­tion, without giv­ing up the ben­e­fits of a con­ti­nent-sized au­di­ence for in­no­va­tive in­tel­lec­tual work. The schol­arly com­mu­nity that made this mar­ket re­ferred to it­self as the Repub­lic of Let­ters and called its mem­bers ‘cit­i­zens’.

What made it pos­si­ble was a mix­ture of an­cient and more re­cent fac­tors. It had me­dieval roots

What emerged in Europe in the early mod­ern pe­riod was an in­te­grated, transna­tional, in­tel­lec­tual com­mu­nity in which ideas were dis­trib­uted, vet­ted, eval­u­ated, ac­cepted or re­jected on their mer­its

in the transna­tional in­tel­lec­tual com­mu­ni­ties in the Chris­tian church. Latin was still the lin­gua franca of in­tel­lec­tu­als for much of the pe­riod. The print­ing press, of course, made ac­cess to writ­ing much cheaper and re­de­fined the pa­ram­e­ters of in­tel­lec­tual com­mu­ni­ca­tion. But epis­to­lary ex­changes were at least as im­por­tant. The growth of trade and com­mu­ni­ca­tions, and the ex­pan­sion of a postal sys­tem (ex­pen­sive, slow and un­re­li­able – not un­like to­day – but in­dis­pens­able all the same).

Look­ing at these cor­re­spon­dences (many of which have sur­vived), we can see the tight com­mu­ni­ca­tions be­tween Euro­pean in­tel­lec­tu­als. The Repub­lic of Let­ters was a ‘vir­tual’ com­mu­nity. It con­nected peo­ple who barely knew each other ex­cept by schol­arly rep­u­ta­tion. It was slow but it worked. Peo­ple at the time were fully aware of its sig­nif­i­cance. In the mid­dle of the 18th cen­tury Voltaire, look­ing back, re­flected that “a Repub­lic of Let­ters was es­tab­lished, al­most un­no­ticed, de­spite the wars and de­spite the dif­fer­ence in re­li­gions… all the sciences and arts re­ceived mu­tual as­sis­tance this way… True schol­ars in each field drew closer the bonds of this great so­ci­ety of minds, spread ev­ery­where and ev­ery­where in­de­pen­dent… this in­sti­tu­tion is still with us, and is one of the great con­so­la­tions for the evils that am­bi­tion and pol­i­tics have spread through the Earth.”

The in­ter­na­tional na­ture of the Repub­lic of Let­ters turned out to be crit­i­cal to its suc­cess. It meant that if a scholar had to seek refuge abroad, he would en­joy hos­pi­tal­ity be­cause he was known and ap­pre­ci­ated. Hobbes wrote Le­viathan in Paris and Locke the Let­ter on Tol­er­a­tion in Am­s­ter­dam. Pierre Bayle, the French ed­i­tor of the News from the Repub­lic of Let­ters, worked in the safe town of Rot­ter­dam. The Repub­lic of Let­ters, then, was what made the mar­ket for ideas work. This is not to say that it in­evitably led to the tri­umph of ‘ bet­ter ideas’. In vain did Euro­peans be­fore the sec­ond half of the 19th cen­tury set out to con­quer in­fec­tious dis­ease and con­trol elec­tric­ity, for ex­am­ple. But there were winners in this mar­ket that we still recog­nise as pro­gres­sive. The Ptole­maic model (stat­ing that the Earth was at the cen­tre of the Uni­verse) had all but van­ished by 1650. Most fa­mously, the recog­ni­tion of the ex­is­tence of an at­mos­phere and the no­tion of a vac­uum jointly made steam power pos­si­ble. The com­bi­na­tion of bet­ter ge­og­ra­phy and math­e­mat­ics led to the in­sight that, by com­par­ing the time at any lo­ca­tion with the time at a fixed point, the lon­gi­tude of that lo­ca­tion could be com­puted. This chal­lenged clock­mak­ers to make a chronome­ter ca­pa­ble of do­ing this – and John Har­ri­son was up to the task. Yet most im­por­tant to the vic­tory of rea­son, per­haps, were the tri­umphs of meta-ideas. Not ideas on a spe­cific sci­en­tific point, but on why and how to do nat­u­ral phi­los­o­phy. The ‘why’ be­came abun­dantly clear. As Robert Boyle

wrote in 1664, echo­ing his pre­de­ces­sor Fran­cis Ba­con: “If the true prin­ci­ples of that fer­tile sci­ence [phys­i­ol­ogy] were thor­oughly known, con­sid­ered and ap­plied, tis scarce imag­in­able, how uni­ver­sal and ad­van­ta­geous a change they would make in the world.” Eigh­teenth-cen­tury pi­o­neers of tech­nol­ogy came to re­alise that they needed the knowl­edge of scientists. By the mid­dle of the 18th cen­tury, the great fig­ures of the in­dus­trial revo­lu­tion such as John Smeaton, Josiah Wedg­wood and James Watt all sought ad­vice from the in­tel­lec­tu­als at the cut­ting edge of sci­ence at the time.

But the change in the ‘how’ of re­search in nat­u­ral phi­los­o­phy was equally mo­men­tous. There was the tri­umph of ex­per­i­men­tal­ism: the un­der­stand­ing that re­sults from ex­per­i­ments – in op­po­si­tion to Aris­to­tle – were a valid way of ver­i­fy­ing hy­pothe­ses in nat­u­ral phi­los­o­phy. Ex­per­i­men­tal sci­ence re­quired pre­ci­sion in both work­man­ship and ma­te­ri­als, stan­dard­i­s­a­tion of ter­mi­nol­ogy and units, and a clear and de­tailed com­mu­ni­ca­tion of ex­per­i­men­tal work so that it could be re­pro­duced and ver­i­fied.

Re­search also be­came more for­mal, math­e­mat­i­cal and quan­ti­ta­tive. Galileo fa­mously wrote that the book of na­ture was writ­ten in the lan­guage of math­e­mat­ics. By 1650 it had be­come im­pos­si­ble to do se­ri­ous physics without a strong train­ing in math­e­mat­ics.

Fi­nally, when for­mal math­e­mat­i­cal anal­y­sis would not do, plants and plan­ets could be ob­served, counted, cat­a­logued and clas­si­fied. Some fa­mous as­tronomers and nat­u­ral­ists such as Flam­steed and Lin­naeus fall in this cat­e­gory. Pat­terns and reg­u­lar­i­ties would emerge, per­haps, to show how na­ture worked.

In the end, the ar­gu­ment I’m ad­vanc­ing here goes against his­tor­i­cal ma­te­ri­al­ism – the the­ory that ma­te­rial needs are the en­gine of progress. I be­lieve that ideas drove his­tory, ev­ery bit as much as ma­te­rial con­di­tions drove in­tel­lec­tual change.

For all that, the tale of mod­ern eco­nomic growth will be told and re­told many times – and surely his­to­ri­ans of the fu­ture will ques­tion the ar­gu­ments that I have put for­ward. That, in the end, is what il­lus­trates the glory of a well func­tion­ing mar­ket for ideas.

Sci­ence re­quired pre­ci­sion in work­man­ship and ma­te­ri­als, stan­dard­i­s­a­tion of ter­mi­nol­ogy and units, and a clear com­mu­ni­ca­tion of ex­per­i­men­tal work so that it could be re­pro­duced and ver­i­fied

Joel Mokyr is the Robert H Strotz pro­fes­sor of arts and sciences and pro­fes­sor of eco­nom­ics and his­tory at North­west­ern Uni­ver­sity, Illinois

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