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Part V: The Enlightenment and modernity
By Henry C K Liu

  • Part 1: The race toward barbarism
  • Part 2: That old time religion
  • Part 3: Rule of law vs Confucianism
  • Part 4: Taoism and modernity

    The Enlightenment, generally accepted as the flowering of modernity in the West from its Renaissance roots, is a periodization in history. Periodization, a complex problem in history, is the attempt to categorize or divide historical time, mentality or events into discrete named blocks. History is in fact continuous, and so all systems of periodization are to some extent arbitrary. History does not end as long as the human species survives. Those who proclaim the end of history are predicting the death of civilization, not the victory of neo-liberalism as heaven on Earth. Imperialism and neo-imperialism, operating with cultural hegemony, are a cancer the invasive growth of which will kill the world as a living organism.

    It is nevertheless useful to segment history so that the past can provide lessons to the present by being conceptually organized and significant changes over time articulated. Different peoples and cultures have different histories, and so will need different models of periodization. Periodizing labels constantly change and are subject to redefinition as contemporary perceptions change. A historian may claim that there is no such thing as modernity, or the Enlightenment or the Renaissance, or the Nuclear Age, while others will defend the concept. Modernity, as currently constituted in the West, can also be viewed as a relapse of civilization toward barbarism through advanced technology.

    Many periodizing concepts apply only in specific conditions, but they are often mistaken as universal generalities. Some have a cultural usage (such the Romantic period, the Age of Reason or the Age of Science or the Space Age), others refer to historical events (the Age of Imperialism, the Depression Years or the New Deal era) and others are defined by decimal numbering systems (the 1960s, the 16th century).

    In chronology, an era is a period reckoned from an artificially fixed point in time, as before or after the birth of Christ: BC for Before Christ and AD for Anno Domini (year of the Lord). There are less known but also significant points in historical time beside the birth of Christ. The alleged creation of the world in Jewish mythical history is equivalent to 3761 BC, and in Byzantine history, the creation date was 5508 BC. The founding of the city of Rome took place in 753 BC, with subsequent years marked AUD for ad urbe condita (from the founding of the city). The hijira marks the migration of the Prophet Mohammed to Medina from Mecca in AD 622. Abbreviated AH, it is the starting timepost for all Muslims.

    The division between AD and BC defines history according to the birth of one man, whose divinity is far from universally accepted. Only about 33 percent of the world's population are Christians. The most far-reaching date anomaly is the late setting of the beginning of the Christian era by the Roman monk-scholar Dionysius Exiguous (died circa AD 545), thus putting the historical birth of Christ at 4 BC, four years before the calendar birth year of Christ. The year AD 2000 marks two chronological events in the Western calendar: a new millennium and a new century. Its celebration marks the global dominance of Western culture in the 20th century. The new millennium is merely year 4398 in Chinese lunar calendar - a non-event.

    The French revolutionary calendar changed the names of the months to remove all reminders of despotic traditions, such as August, named after the Roman emperor Augustus, July, named after Julius Caesar, and March (mars in French), named after the Roman god of war. It made all months 30 days equally to emphasize equality and rationality. The names for the months in the new calendar were invented hastily, by revolutionary dramatist Philippe Fabre d'Eglantine (1755-94), George Jacques Danton's talented secretary who would be tragically guillotined at the prime age of 39, a mere five years after the storming of the Bastille, the popular uprising that launched the French Revolution. The 12 30-day months added up to 360 days; the remaining five days of the year, called sans-culottides, after the name given to the members of the lower classes not wearing fancy culottes (breeches), were to be feast days for the laboring class, called Virtue, Genius, Labor, Reason and Rewards.

    The French revolutionary calendar rejected the year of the birth of Christ as the first Anno Domini. It replaced the seven-day week, viewed by revolutionary zealots as an obsolete Christian relic, with the metric 10-day decade, unwittingly causing a counterrevolutionary, regressive reduction in the number of days of rest for the working populace from four to three in a month. The overall purpose was to remove from the cultural consciousness all Christian events such as Christmas, Easter, All Saints Day, the Sabbath, etc, as part of a program to replace Christianity with a Cult of Reason. The French revolutionary calendar remained in effect until the Thermidorian Reaction, a period of political revisionism, of vulgar extravagance in social manners, of greed and scandal and of merveilleuses, women known for their underdressed overdressing in public. The Thermidorian Reaction was marked by the growth of corruption, inflationary speculation and manipulative profiteering, suspension of populist economic regulations, topped with a wholesale repeal of de-Christianization practices.

    The Thermidorian Reaction is so named because it came after the coup d'etat of 9 Thermidor, Year III of the Republic (July 27, 1794), that brought down Maximilien Robespierre (1758-94), thus ending the Reign of Terror, and brought to power a convenient coalition of the conservative old bourgeoisie and the boisterous parvenus and nouveaux riches, which would deliver the French nation, another five years later, to a military dictator in the person of Napoleon Bonaparte.

    Still other periodizations are derived from influential or talismanic individuals (the Victorian era, the Elizabethan era, the Napoleonic era or the Mao era). Some of these usages are geographically specific. This is especially true of periodizing labels derived from individuals or ruling elites, such as the Jacksonian era in the United States, or the Meiji era in Japan, or the Merovingian period in France. Cultural terms may also have a limited reach. Thus the concept of the Romantic period may be meaningless outside of Europe and of Europe-influenced cultures.

    Yet the term "modernity" takes on universal characteristics that spring from Western cultural hegemony. In recent times, modernity has again been abducted as a war cry to perpetuate the domination by the capitalist West of the rest of the world. Previously, the Renaissance claimed modernity as a justification against secular power of the Church, the bourgeoisie claimed modernity as a justification against absolute monarchism, and the socialist revolutions claimed modernity as justification against capitalism. All these claims were associated with social progress. But the current abduction of modernity by the capitalistic West represents the first time in history when reaction is claimed as modernity and barbarism as progress. The law of the jungle is celebrated as competitive market fundamentalism, and the doctrine of "might is right" permeates modern diplomacy, replacing morality and legitimacy.

    Periodizing terms are often tools of cultural hegemony with negative connotation for oppressed cultures and positive connotation for the hegemonic culture. Thus there is the Age of Monarchy in the West but the Age of Asiatic and Oriental Tyrants in Asia and the Middle East. The Victorian era, which is known for sexual repression, racism, class conflict and exploitation, and imperialism, is hailed in the West as the age of propriety, industrialization and capitalism. Other labels such as "Renaissance" have positive characteristics as compared with "Medieval", despite that fact that historians have suggested that unlike the Middle Ages, the Renaissance failed to develop significant lasting social institutions.

    The French term "Renaissance" - meaning "rebirth" though in the English-speaking world it is commonly known by its French name - was created by Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca, 1304-74), an Italian humanist poet whose famous vernacular poem inspired by his love for Laura transcended medieval asceticism into individual expression of emotion. The term refers to the cultural changes that occurred in Italy as a reaction to Italian conditions of the time, which began around the quattrocento (15th century) and culminated in what is termed the High Renaissance, at around 1500. Many Western historians regard the Renaissance as the beginning of modernity. Yet, the basic institutions, the great framework of collective purpose and action by which the West continues to operate far into the present time, all originated in the Middle Ages. Parliaments, for example, were medieval feudal institutions. The Magna Carta was signed by King John of England in 1215.

    The Renaissance, also known as the Age of Humanism, was a period of secularization of Western civilization. The Renaissance Church became a secular institution in this period, shedding its spiritual roots, with insatiable greed for material wealth and temporal power. The Italian Renaissance produced little of what could be considered great ideas or institutions by which men living in society could be held together in harmony. Indeed, the greatest of all Europeans institutions, the Roman Church, in which Europeans had lived for centuries, fell into neglect under Renaissance popes, whose fall from spiritual grace sparked the Reformation.

    Nor did the Renaissance produce any effectual political institutions. Unlike the medieval agricultural towns of France that developed gradually, the trading towns of Italy prospered abruptly as trade converged on the Mediterranean. The sudden riches from trade held in private hands required a new culture separate from the medieval communal spirit to rationalize its acceptability. As merchants made obscene fortunes from trade and banking, they diverted social criticism by sponsoring art, to glorify their worldly sins with beauty. Successful bankers lent money to popes, kings and princes, and with the profits they gained political control of Italian trading towns to turn them into despotic city-states. They employed mercenaries in the form of condottieri, private captains of armed bands, who contracted with opposing city-states to carry on warfare, sometime even changing sides during hostility for a better price. As they forgot about things that money could not buy, they glorified the power of money in a philosophy of humanism and despotism.

    The most notable example was the Medici clan of Florence. Giovanni (died 1429) founded the banking fortune that enabled his son Cosimo de' Medici (1389-1464) to become the de facto ruler of Florence through populist politics. Cosimo's grandson, Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-92), used his great wealth to govern as a connoisseur and lavish benefactor of art and letters. Tuscany became a duchy of which Medici men were hereditary grand dukes until the clan died out in 1753. The clan furnished two popes and numerous cardinals to the Church, and two Medici women became queens of France. It was the first time in history when money led to political significance rather than the reverse. Italian politics degenerated into a tangled web of subterfuge and conspiracy, making no pretense to legitimacy, to represent any moral idea or to further any social good.

    The Renaissance idea of virtu (to be man) had little to do with the medieval idea of virtue. Virtu describes the quality of being a man in the sense of demonstrating individual human powers as expressed in the arts, in war and statecraft. It is the root of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche's hero and the rationale of fascism. This concept applies dominantly to the visual arts, referring to the work of Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci. It also applies to the emergence of capitalism, private banking, provincial despotism and materialistic secularism. It celebrated the specific differences in man in contrast to the medieval concept of the common generality of man. The discovery of the rules of perspective and detailed anatomy in drawing allowed painters to locate humanity in specific contexts rather than symbolic generality of abstract truth. In Leonardo's The Last Supper, Christ and his disciples were portrayed as a group of men each having distinct individual personalities.

    The Renaissance was a movement of the non-aristocratic elite minority, exclusive in spirit in contrast to the medieval notion of community. Renaissance individualism was the privilege of a dazzling few. The Italian humanists were lay writers, instead of clerics or court scribes. "Humanism" is a name given to the literary movement of the Italian Renaissance. The pomposity of the humanists was mocked by the populace in their own time. The humanists were in awe of antiquity, a peculiar preoccupation for modernists. They tried to dress, talk, and comport themselves like Roman nobles. They disdained writing in Italian as Dante Alighieri and Giovanni Boccaccio had done. They dismissed even medieval Latin as barbaric and corrupt, and reverted to the style of the excessively flowery language of the schoolbook Latin of Cicero (106-43 BC), the great Roman orator whose famous First Oration Against Catiline skillfully condemned Catiline as a conspirator based on hearsay testimony obtained from Catiline's mistress. Cicero, despite his rhetorical eloquence, remained unable to substantiate his legal authority to execute Catiline's five associates, thus subjecting himself to exile subsequently for having put to death Roman citizens without due process of law.

    The Humanist movement did not survive the test of time, the exception being Lorenzo Valla (1407-57), who showed conclusively from the language used in the document that the Donation of Constantine, on which the papacy based it temporal claims, could not have been written in Constantine's time and so was a forgery. The discovery was welcomed by the Italian Renaissance city-state despots who were eager to undermine the legitimacy of the papacy's temporal power.

    The Renaissance invented the idea of the "gentleman", later emulated by the British elite. Baldassare Castiglione (1478-1520) wrote Book of the Courtier, liberating Europeans from their uncouth manners of publicly spitting, belching, blowing their noses on their sleeves, snatching food with their bare hands and general bawling and sulking openly with little inhibition. According to Castiglione, a courtier should cultivate graceful manners in society and poised approaches toward his equals, converse with facility, be proficient in sports and arms, be an expert dancer with appreciation for music and poetry and be gallant to the fair sex. He should know Latin and Greek as a sign of good education and be familiar with literary trends but not too engrossed. In sum, it was a promotion of dilettantism, which as transformed into the English gentleman of the Oxbridge variety became what many identified as the mentality that contributed to the demise of the British Empire. It was also the mentality of much of the British-trained Third World elite. This mentality left the post-colonial independent nations with a poverty of political and economic leadership after the fall of the British Empire, from India to the Middle East, from Africa to Asia. Such mentality has kept the former colonies from cultural and economic revitalization from the wounds of colonialism.

    Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince (1513) was Europe's first secular treatise on politics, devoid of concern for morality, legitimacy or justice, issues that rulers have since learned to manipulate to rationalize their political interests. He described the barbaric chaos of 16th-century Italy as universal modern reality. Ironically, this perspective deprived Italy of the development of institutions, such as the nation-state, in which men can act in concert for a larger purpose. In a new age of rising national monarchies, the city-states of Italy could not compete without the protection of the spiritual and temporal power of the Church, against which Renaissance Italy itself played a central role in weakening. In 1494, a French army crossed the Alps and Italy became the bone of contention between France and Spain. In 1527, a horde of undisciplined Spanish and German mercenaries sacked Rome, killing thousands in an orgy of rape and looting, imprisoned the pope and mockingly paraded cardinals facing backward on mules in the streets. Never had Rome experienced anything so horrible and degrading, not even from the barbaric Goths of the 5th century.

    The term "Middle Ages" also derived from Petrarch, who was comparing his own period to the Ancient or Classical world, seeing his time as a time of rebirth after a dark intermediate period, the Middle Ages. The idea that the Middle Ages were a "middle" phase between two other large-scale periodizing concepts - Ancient and Modern - still persists. Smaller periodizing concepts such as Dark Ages occur within it. Both "Dark Ages" and "Middle Ages" still have negative connotations - the latter especially in its Latin form "medieval". However, other terms, such as "Gothic" as in Gothic architecture, used to refer to a style typical of the High Middle Ages, have largely lost the negative connotations they initially had, only to acquire others. Critics derisively called the French Physiocrats of the French Enlightenment "economists" because they concerned themselves with materialistic issues.

    The Gothic and the Baroque were both named during subsequent stylistic periods when the preceding style had become unpopular. The word "Gothic" was applied as a pejorative term to all things Northern European and, hence, barbarian, by Italian writers during the 15th and 16th centuries. The word baroque was used first in late 18th century French to depict the irregular natural pearl shape and later an architectural style perceived to be boisterously irregular and larger than life, in comparison with the highly restrained regularity of Neoclassical architecture. Subsequently, these terms have become purely descriptive, and have largely lost negative connotations. However, the term "Baroque" as applied to art (for example Peter Paul Rubens) refers to a much earlier historical period than when applied to music (George Frideric Handel, Johann Sebastian Bach). This reflects the difference between stylistic histories internal to an art form and the external chronological history beyond it.

    Gothic construction, most identifiable in popular culture by the flying buttress, is the technological response to the medieval pious aspiration toward light and height transformed into ecclesiastical architecture. The boisterous Baroque was the awe-inspiring instrument of the Counter-reformation, sponsored by the Jesuits, defenders of the True Faith. Baroque architecture was the propaganda vehicle of the Jesuits in their counter-reformation campaign and the dramatic stage of the Inquisition. It spread quickly to all Roman Catholic countries. King Louis XIV of France later coopted the propaganda effectiveness of the Baroque and the stately legitimacy of Classicism to enshrine the stature of absolute monarchy. Modern architecture rose from the hopes of social democratic ideals stemming from the collapse, in the aftermath of World War I, of the European monarchies and their attendant social and esthetic values as constituted in the system of court-sponsored academies. While the cultured public welcomed the new artistic philosophy, official suppression of the Modern Movement by both Nazi Germany and the post-Lenin Soviet Union forced its migration to the United States, where it was coopted into the service of corporate capitalism after being sanitized of most of its social-democratic program, the way modernity is now being abducted to serve the current "war on terrorism".

    The entire Renaissance was supported by a political ideology that is of dubious acceptability by contemporary standards. Despotism was a boon to Italian Renaissance art and architecture. A case can be made to condemn the Italian Renaissance as a movement of courtly pretension and elitist taste prescribed by theme, content and form to the questionable needs of secular potentates and ecclesiastical mania. The noblest social art, one can argue, is that which the contribution of multitudes create for themselves as a common gift of glory, such as the Gothic cathedrals and the temples of ancient Greece. By contrast, Vladimir Tatlin's monument for the Third International was an attempt to unite artistic expression with the new socialist ideal as the Eiffel Tower did for industrialization. The Productivist Group maintained in its polemic that material and intellectual production were of the same order. Leftist artists devoted their energy to making propaganda for the new Soviet government by painting the surfaces of all means of transport with revolutionary images to be viewed in remote corners of the collapsing czarist empire. Constructivism declared all-out war on bourgeois art. Alas, the revolutionary movement met its demise not from bourgeois resistance, but from internal doctrinal inquisition. Much of Constructivist esthetic creativity was subsequently coopted by bourgeois society. Modernity is socialism, but the term has been abducted by bourgeois capitalism since the end of the Cold War.

    In many cases, those living through a period are unable to identify themselves as belonging to the "period" historians may later assign to them. This is partly because they are unable to predict the future, and so will not be able to tell whether they are at the beginning, middle or end of a period. Another reason may be that their own sense of historical development may be determined by religions or ideologies that differ from those used by later historians. We may well be living in the dawning of the age of socialism, free from the false starts of the past century, and ushered in finally by the self-destructive excesses of capitalism run amok.

    It is important to recognize the difference between self-defined historical periods and those which are later defined by historians. At the beginning of the 20th century there was a general belief that culture, politics and history were entering a new era - that the new century would also be a new "era" in human development. This belief in progress had been largely abandoned by the end of the century with the triumph of militant reaction crowned by a proclamation of the end of history. Yet just as the Catholic Counter-Reformation failed to arrest the spread of the Reformation, the capitalist reaction against the socialist revolutionary movement since 1848 is faced with the option of including socialist programs in the capitalist system or the replacement of capitalism by socialism. Democracy is not the exclusive tool of the bourgeoisie. Just as the bourgeoisie used democracy and the rebellious power of the working class to pressure the aristocracy, the working class will use democracy to remove the bourgeoisie from controlling the fate of the human race.

    "The Enlightenment" is a periodization term that applies to the mainstream of thought of 18th century Europe. The scientific and intellectual developments of the 17th century fostered the belief in natural laws and universal order and the confidence in reason which spread to influence 18th century society in Europe. These development were typified by the discoveries of Isaac Newton (1642-1727), the rationalism of Rene Descartes (1596-1650) and Pierre Bayle (1647-1700), the pantheism of Baruch Spinoza (1632-77) that equates god with the forces and natural laws of the universe and the empiricism of Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and John Locke (1632-1704). A rational and scientific approach to religious, social, political and economic issues promoted a secular view of the world and a general sense of progress and perfectibility.

    The proponents of the Enlightenment were of one mind on certain basic attitudes, and sought to discover and act on universally valid principles governing humanity, nature and society. They attacked spiritual and scientific authority, dogmatism, intolerance, censorship and economic and social constraints. They considered the state the proper and rational instrument of progress. In England, Lockean theories of learning by sense perception were carried forward by David Hume (1711-16). The philosophical view of rational man in harmony with the universe set the climate for the "laissez-faire" economics of Adam Smith (1723-90) and for the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) of the greatest good for the greatest number. Historical writing gained secular detachment in the work of Edward Gibbon (1737-94). In Germany, the universities became centers of the Enlightenment (Aufklarung). Moses Mendelssohn (1729-86) set forth a doctrine of rational process; Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-81), whom Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) credited as having placed the young poet in the true path, advanced a natural religion of morality; J G Herder (1744-1803) developed a philosophy of cultural nationalism. The supreme importance of the individual formed the basis of the ethics of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). The movement received strong support of the rising bourgeoisie and vigorous opposition from the high clergy and the nobility.

    The strongest claim by the West on modernity is derived from ideas and concepts generally grouped under the category of the Enlightenment. These are ideas that were developed during the half a century preceding the French Revolution, between 1740 and 1789, known in history as the Age of Enlightenment. It was at the time that the idea of progress gained popular acceptance in the West. It was a time when Europeans emerged from a long twilight, from which the past was considered barbaric and dark. This was the age of enlightened thinkers, known as philosophes, and enlightened despots.

    The idea of the Enlightenment was drawn from earlier sources, carried over from the old philosophy of natural law, which held that right depends on a universal reason, not on local conditions or on the will or perspective of any person or group. It carried over, from the intellectual revolution of the previous century, the ideas of Bacon and Locke, Descartes and Newton, Bayle and Spinoza. It was antagonistic and skeptical toward tradition, confident in the powers of science and places faith firmly in the regularity of nature. It most serious shortcoming was the assumption that European values derived from European experience were universal truth and that such truth gave license to world dominance: the rest of the world, to escape domination and exploitation, must adopt Western ways of militarism and exploitation. The modernization of Japan was a perfect example of this trend.

    The philosophes of the Enlightenment were mostly popularizers, in an age when the great books were not read by the public. They reworded the ideas of past civilizations in ways that held the interest of the growing reading public. These philosophes were primarily men of letters, exemplified by Francois Marie Arouet de Voltaire (1694-1778), who made fortunes and gained fame with his writings. They differed from intellectuals of the past who were mostly proteges of aristocratic or royal patrons or clerics in the Church.

    The emergence of a literate middle class made such freelancers possible. Naturally, as most writers who enjoy popularity write what their audiences like to hear, what economist John Galbraith calls "conventional wisdom", the Enlightenment authors mostly wrote to enhance the political and economic interests of the bourgeoisie. Most of the works produced during this period focused on the catalogue and organization of information, made entertaining with wit and lightness. This was the age of the salon literati, of clever one-upmanship and satire, full of innuendos and sly digs, particularly insider jokes understood only by the enlightened few. Voltaire attacked European society by making fun not of the French, but by stereotyping the Persians, the Iroquois and the Chinese.

    Frederick the Great of Prussia was regarded as an eminent philosophe through his friendship with Voltaire, whose style he emulated, as was Catherine the Great of Russia (1762-96). While Maria Teresa of Austria (1740-80) was not a philosophe on account of her piety, her son Joseph, brother of the ill-fated Marie-Antoinette of France (1755-93), worked hard to become one, as a patron of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In England, Bishop Warburton (1698-1779) tried to become one by claiming that the Church of England as a social institution was exactly what pure reason would have invented. Edward Gibbon (1737-94), whose Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire summarized the millennium following the birth of Christ as "the triumph of barbarism and religion", much as the centuries after the Renaissance are summarized today as the triumph of capitalistic democracy over socialist revolutions as a religious truth. Gibbon was counted as a philosophe for his secular outlook.

    Dr Samuel Johnson (1709-84) was not considered a philosophe. He was fascinated by the supernatural, adhered to the established church, deflated pretentious authors, even declared Voltaire and Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) "bad men" who should be sent to the plantations in America.

    The Enlightenment was in essence French, a product of sophisticated Parisian salons run by the likes of Madame de Pompadour, mistress of Louis XV, lubricated by the liberal flow of French champagne. Denis Diderot (1713-84) was not only a card-carrying philosophe, his Encyclopedie was described as a "reasoned dictionary" written by a distinguished list of other philosophes who went on to enjoy the awesome rank of Encyclopedists. Another group of philosophes was the Physiocrats, whom critics derisively called "economists" who concerned themselves with fiscal and monetary reform, with measures to increase the national wealth of France. Among the Physiocrats were Francois Quesnay (1694-1774), physician to Louis XV (1715-74), and Dupont de Nemour (1739-1817), whose descendants became the US industrial/chemical Dupont family.

    The three giants of the philosophes were Montesquieu, Voltaire and Rousseau. Charles Louis de Secondat, baron de la Brede et de Montesquieu (1533-92), a landed aristocrat, was a defender of his class interest. Among his associates was the Count of Boulainvilliers (1658-1722), who held that French nobility was descended from a superior Germanic race, a view that contributed to the emergence of racism in the West.

    In his The Spirit of Laws (1748), Montesquieu developed two principal ideas. One was that forms of government varied according to climate and circumstances, for example that despotism was suited more to large empires in hot climates and that democracy only would work in small city-states. Thus democracy is inconsistent with the idea of empire. The other idea was the separation and balance of powers. In France, he believed that power should be divided between the king and a number of "intermediate bodies" - parliaments, provincial estates, organized nobility, chartered towns, and even the church. It was natural for Montesquieu, a judge in parliament, a provincial and a landed nobleman, and reasonable for him to recognize the position of the bourgeoisie of the towns, but as for the Church he observed that while he took no stock in its teachings, he thought is useful as an offset to undue centralization of government. Montesquieu admired the unwritten English constitution as he understood it, not for its democratic qualities but in believing that England carried over, more successfully than any other European country, the feudal liberties of the Middle Ages. To Montesquieu, government should be a mixture of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy, a term representing the interests of the bourgeoisie, not the general population and definitely not workers and peasants.

    The ideas of Montesquieu were well known to the drafters of the US constitution, who, because the United States at that time had no history of social institutions besides slavery, distorted the meaning of democracy and the separation of powers as defined by Montesquieu to create a political structure peculiarly suited only to US conditions. Those who now claim that the US version of democracy is a heritage of the Enlightenment universally suited for all humankind have been highly selective in their understanding of history.

    Strictly speaking, the modern world arrived in the 18th and 19th centuries with the transfer of power from the aristocracy and the absolutist kings (Louis XIV in France and James I in England) to the upper middle classes - the elite bourgeoisie. The upper middle classes were represented by constitutional assemblies, legislatures, and parliaments, which took power away from the kings and aristocrats by violent revolutions or by reform legislation: England (1688, 1830s), the United States (1776), France (1789, 1830, 1848, 1870), Canada (1840s and 1850s), and Germany (1848, 1918). Japan embarked on a deliberate program of "modernization" in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

    The shift of power was accompanied by the Industrial Revolution and liberal, or free-enterprise, economic theory (laissez faire), the economic counterpart of the middle-class political revolutions. Critiques of this modern, elitist middle-class, democratic, and laissez-faire industrial system emerged at various points in the 19th century, most notably in Marxist and other socialist movements. Although these movements of the working people were critical of the upper-middle-class entrepreneurs who led the 18th century and early 19th century "modern" revolutions, Marxists and other socialists remained modern in most of their assumptions. Thorough-going critique of the modern world view and its rational-scientific outlook, its rationally organized economic production system, and its rationally centralized bureaucratic politics did not emerge until the late 19th century and early 20th century. Such critique came at first only from philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), scientists such as Albert Einstein (1879-1955), Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), and artists and writers. Only in the late 20th century did such postmodern critique become widespread. For most people in the 1980s, in Europe and North America and increasingly around the world, modern ways of life dominated, although intellectuals had been attacking or reinterpreting modern views for some time.

    One way to understand Western modernity is to look at countervailing social, political and religious manifestations. As anthropologists, sociologists and historians have studied the "traditional village societies" that survived in a few remote areas of Europe and in non-Western cultures, they have learned much about the nature of the modern Western world view. The very name "traditional society" focuses on what is perhaps the most important single aspect. "Modern" means "now" - a world view focusing on the now, on the latest, on the newest and the most dominant. A traditional society takes "handed down" things (Latin tradita) as its starting point and modifies them slowly even as it tries to be faithful to the inherited ideas and customs. A modern world view implicitly assumes the superiority of the latest and newest as liberating and expansive, and almost invariably scorns the old-fashioned as constrictive and oppressive. The confrontation of the non-Western world with the ascending West that turned out to be aggressively intrusive, and the rationalization of victimization as a deserved fate of not being modern, has affected the development of the non-Western world, particularly the ancient cultures found in China, India and the Middle East. It forced these cultures to reject age-old values that had evolved from centuries of struggle toward harmony to adopt the new barbarism of domination, militarism and racism to survive.

    The clearest example is Japan, the thoroughly "modern" Asian power. The Meiji era (1868-1912), a period historians identify as the beginning of modern Japan, marks the reign of the Meiji emperor during which Japan was "modernized" and rose to world power status on a path that eventually brought it the detonation of two atomic bombs. The Meiji Restoration ended the more than 250-year-old feudalistic Tokugawa shogunate. In 1868, 14-year-old Mutsuhito succeeded his father, the Emperor Komei, taking the title Meiji, meaning ironically "enlightened rule". Considering that the economic structure and production of the country was then roughly equivalent to Elizabethan England, to have become a world power in such a short amount of time is widely regarded as remarkable progress. This process was closely guided and heavily subsidized by the Meiji government, enhancing the power of the great zaibatsu, firms such as Mitsubishi. Hand in hand, the zaibatsu and government developed the modern nation, borrowing technology and cultural concepts from the West, copying the British Empire of the Victorian age, much the same way Japan did from Tang China in nation-building in the 7th century. Kyoto was a scaled-down replica of the Tang capital, Changan. Japanese mercantilist policies gradually took control of much of Asia's markets for manufactures, beginning with textiles. The economic structure became mercantilist, importing raw materials and exporting finished products - a reflection of Japan's relative poverty in raw materials, a condition similar to those found in England.

    Japan's defeat of China in Korea in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) established it not as an Asian power, but as a Western power in Asia infatuated with Western racist values, which generated much anti-Japanese sentiment throughout Asia. Japan's breakthrough as an international power came with its victory against Europeanized Russia in Manchuria in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. Allied with Britain since 1902 against Czarist Russian expansionism in Asia, Japan joined the Allies in World War I, seizing German-held territory in China and the Pacific in the process, but otherwise remained largely out of the conflict. After the war, a weakened Europe left a greater share in international markets to the United States and Japan, both of which emerged greatly strengthened, setting them on a path of conflict that ended in Pearl Harbor. Japanese competition made great inroads into hitherto European-dominated markets in Asia, not only in China, but also even in European colonies such as British India and Dutch Indonesia.

    Japan emerged from the Tokugawa-Meiji transition as the first industrialized nation in Asia. Domestic commercial activities and limited foreign trade had met the demands for material culture in the Tokugawa period, but the modernized Meiji era had radically different requirements. From the onset, the Meiji rulers embraced the concept of a market economy and adopted British and American forms of free-enterprise capitalism. The private sector - in a nation blessed with an abundance of aggressive entrepreneurs - welcomed such change. Trade in the Confucian culture that formed Japan ranked below prostitution in social esteem. Luckily for the merchant class, trade was rescued from traditional social scorn through its role in national survival. Similar evolution is currently taking place in China, with results that are controversial at best.

    Economic reforms included a unified modern currency based on the yen, banking, commercial and tax laws, stock exchanges, and a communications network. Establishment of a modern institutional framework conducive to an advanced capitalist economy took time but was put in place by the 1890s. By this time, the government had largely relinquished direct control of the modernization process, primarily for budgetary reasons. Many of the former daimyo, whose pensions had been paid in a lump sum, benefited greatly through investments they made in emerging industries. Those who had been informally involved in foreign trade before the Meiji Restoration also flourished. Old bakufu-serving firms that clung to their traditional ways failed in the new business environment.

    The establishment of the bakufu by Minamoto Yoritomo was the single most transforming event of early Japan. The bakufu, or "tent government" (because soldiers lived in tents), was more or less a military government. It primarily functioned as a separate government concerned principally with military and police matters. The emperor's government in Kyoto continued to function as before: the court still appointed civil governors, collected taxes, and exercised complete control in the area surrounding the capital.

    The real power of the state, however, became more concentrated in the hands of the Kamakura shogun. The word shogun is a Chinese term for "general". Minamoto Yoritomo demanded the title Sei i tai shogun, "barbarian-conquering great general", when he defeated the Taira. The shogun, and the military government beneath him, really did not control much of Japan. For all practical purposes, the provinces of Japan were independent even though local lords (daimyo) who swore allegiance to the shogun.

    The shogunate, however, did not remain in Minamoto clan hands for very long. When Yoritomo died in 1199, his widow, from the clan of the Hojo, usurped power from the Minamoto clan. She was a Buddhist nun, so she became known as the "Nun Shogun". She displaced the son who had inherited from his father and installed another son, who was soon assassinated. From that point onward, the Hojo clan ruled the bakufu while the Minamoto clan nominally occupied the position of shogun. The relationship between the bakufu and the imperial government had never been very friendly; in 1221, the imperial court led an uprising against the bakufu, but failed. By this point, however, the ideology of loyalty had become fully ingrained in the bakufu structure; the imperial court had little success persuading people to break that loyalty.

    The defining moment for the Kamakura bakufu was the unsuccessful invasion of Japan by the Mongol Chinese. In 1258, Kublai Khan conquered the Korean Peninsula and in 1266, he declared himself emperor of China and established the Yuan Dynasty. In 1266, representatives of the Yuan court came to Japan and demanded submission to Chinese rule. The imperial court was terrified, but the Hojo clan decided to stand its ground and sent the representatives home. In 1274, the Yuan emperor sent a vast fleet to invade Japan but it was destroyed by a hurricane - the Japanese called this fortunate hurricane kamikaze, or "wind from the gods". Again in 1281, China launched the largest amphibious assault in the history of the ancient and medieval worlds. The Chinese army was a terrifying invasion force. But the Hojo clan managed to keep the Chinese from landing by building a vast seawall against the invaders. Another hurricane again sank the Chinese fleet.

    The bakufu might have saved Japan from Chinese invasion, but they could not survive the modernization program of the Meiji Restoration. The Meiji government was initially involved in economic modernization, providing a number of "model factories" to facilitate the transition to the modern period. After the first two decades of the Meiji period, the industrial economy expanded rapidly until about 1920 with inputs of advanced Western technology and large private investments. Stimulated by wars and through cautious economic planning, Japan emerged from World War I as a major industrial nation. Its mercantilist path led it to the quest of empire in the British fashion. After World War II, General Douglas MacArthur turned Japan into an export dynamo in the service of the United States in the context of the Cold War. This role became obsolete after the end of the Cold War. The current economic crisis in Japan is rooted in issues much deeper than Western economists have identified.

    Europeans outside of Italy were much less conscious of any sudden break with the Middle Ages. Medieval intellectual interests persisted in the continuing founding of universities, which the Italian humanists regarded as pedantic centers of scholastic learning. Between 1386 and 1506, no fewer than 14 universities were founded in Germany, while no new university was founded in Italy in the 15th century. At one of the new German universities, at Wittenburg, founded in 1502, Marin Luther (1484-1546) launched the Reformation against the Renaissance Church. The Scholastic philosophy of Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) laid the foundation of European thought by calling for exactness and disciplined thinking, and above all made Christendom safe for reason with his doctrine that faith could not be endangered by reason. In contrast, at about the same time, Islamic authorities ruled that valid interpretation of the Koran had ended with the Four Great Doctors of early Islam. "The gate was closed" was an Islamic saying, and with it centuries of brilliant Arabic thought withered away gradually. It is the greatest irony in intellectual history, since it had been Arabic learning on ancient Greek culture that helped Christian scholars rediscover Aristotelian syllogism.

    The Holy Roman Empire was proclaimed in AD 962, five decades after the German magnates elected a king in 911, who also assumed the title of Holy Roman Emperor. The Holy Roman Empire was in theory coterminous with Latin Christendom, and endowed with a special mission of defending and extending the true faith. The Holy Roman Emperor was never able to consolidate his political domain as did the kings of France and England, because the magnates of Germany allied themselves with the papacy in Rome to preserve their feudal liberties from the emperor.

    In the mid-15th century, a group of kings in Europe, known in history as the New Monarchs, succeeded in laying the foundation for nation-states. The new monarchs offered the institution of monarchy as a guarantee of law and order, against aristocratic abuse of the bourgeoisie and the peasants who were willing to pay taxes to the king in return for peace and protection, and to let the king dominate parliament which had proved to be a stronghold of the aristocracy. The new monarchies broke down the mass of inherited feudal "common law" through which the rights of the feudal classes were entrenched, by reinstituting Roman law, which was actively studied in the new universities. These new monarchs proclaimed themselves as sovereigns and required their subjects to address them as "Your Majesty." According to lex regia in Roman law, the sovereign incorporates the will and the welfare of the people in his person, and upholds the principle of salus populi suprema lex (the welfare of the people is the highest law). The sovereign can make law, enact it by his own authority regardless of past customs or historical liberties by the principle of quo principi placuit legis habet vigorem (what pleases the prince has the force of law).

    The New Monarchy came to England with the dynasty of the Tudors, whose first king, Henry VII (1485-1509), put an end to the War of the Roses, which had greatly decimated the English baronial families. In France, the New Monarchy was represented by Louis XI (1461-83) and his successors. Louis XI maintained a regular royal army, no longer dependent on aristocratic support for maintaining peace and waging war. The French king acquired much greater authority to raise taxes without parliament consent than the English Tudors. The Estate General met only once in the reign of Louis XI, and on that occasion requested the king to govern without them in the future. Over the First Estate, the Church, the French kings asserted extensive powers.

    The Pragmatic Sanction of 1438 gave the Gallic Church much independence from Rome. In 1516, King Francis I reached an agreement with Pope Leo X, the Concordat of Bologna, rescinding the Pragmatic Sanction, by dividing the independence with Rome receiving the "innates" or money income from French ecclesiastics, the king appointed the bishops and abbots. The fact that the French monarchy controlled the Gallic church was the main reason why France never turned Protestant.

    The New Monarchy came to Spain through facilities offered by the Church, since the kingdom of Spain did not exist before that. The Spanish were the most tolerant of all Europeans, with Christians, Muslims and Jews living in harmony. As the New Monarchy in Spain followed a religious bent, achieving unification through the Church, national feelings fused with Catholicity. With the Christian conquest of Granada, Moors and Jews were expelled. The Inquisition hunted down Moriscos (Christians with Moorish background) and Maranos (Christians of Jewish background). A decree in 1492 expelling Jews followed their expulsion from England in 1290 and from France in 1306. Jews were not allowed to return to England until the mid-17th century and to France until after the French Revolution. The Sephardic Jews from Spain went mostly to the Near and Middle East. The Jews who left England and France went mostly to Germany, the great center of Ashkenazic Jewry of the Middle Ages. Driven from Germany in the 14th century, they concentrated in Poland until the Holocaust of the 1940s.

    Ideas of the New Monarchy were also at work in the Holy Roman Empire in Germany, with the difference that the estates in the other new monarchies took the form of princely states, duchies, margraviats, bishoprics and abbacies in Germany. The emperor became an elective office by seven Electors. In 1356, the Archduke of Austria, a Hapsburg, was elected emperor. The Hapsburgs remained the principal power in Europe, until after the Thirty Years' War, which ended in 1648.

    Protestantism, as espoused by Martin Luther (1483-1546), was revolutionary because its doctrines held not merely that abuses in the Church must be reformed but that the Roman Church itself, even if perfect by its own ideals, was wrong in principle. Protestants aimed not to restore the medieval Church from Renaissance abuses, but to overthrow it and replace it with a church founded on principles drawn from the Bible. Such principles should not be decreed by the Church but by the individual believer's conscience.

    This attitude against central authority was music to the German princes, who responded positively to Luther's invitation to the state to assume control of religion. Protestantism became entwined with social and political revolution. Charles V, as Holy Roman Emperor, was obliged to defend the faith because only within a Catholic world did the Holy Roman Empire have any meaning. The princely states within the empire saw the emperor's effort to suppress Luther as a threat to their own freedom. The imperial free states and the dynastic states of northern Germany insisted on ius reformandi, the right to determine their own religion. They became Lutheran and secularized (ie, confiscated) church properties to enrich the secular sovereigns.

    Thus Luther, in placing theological protest under the protection of secular power politics, exploited the political aspirations of budding German principalities in the 16th century. In return, he conveniently provided the German princes with a theological basis for political secession from the theocratic Holy Roman Empire.

    Luther exploited the political aspirations of German princes to be independent of the Holy Roman Emperor to bolster his theological revolt from the Roman Catholic Church. But he came to denounce peasant rebellions when the peasants rebelled against the Protestant German princes. He did so even though such peasant uprisings against the German princes claimed inspiration from the same theological ideas of the Reformation that had motivated the revolt against the Holy Roman Emperor by the same German princes for independence. Such radical ideas had been advocated by Luther. However, even Luther's professed personal sympathy for peasant demands for improved treatment from their oppressive princes did not persuade him to endorse peasant uprisings.

    In fact, Luther could be considered a Stalinist. Or more accurately, Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin (1879-1953) would in fact fit the definition of a Lutheran diehard, at least in revolutionary strategy if not in ideological essence. Like Luther, Stalin suppressed populist radicalism to preserve institutional revolution, and glorified the state as the sole legitimate expeditor of revolutionary ideology.

    Early Protestantism, like Stalinism, became more oppressive and intolerant than the system it replaced. Ironically, puritanical Protestant ethics celebrating the virtues of thrift, industry, sobriety and responsibility, were identified by many sociologists as the driving force centuries later behind the success of modern capitalism and industrialized economy. Particularly, ethics as espoused by Calvinism, which in its extreme advocated subordination of the state to the church, diverging from Luther's view of the state to which the church is subordinate, was ironically credited as the spirit behind the emergence of the modern Western industrial state. In that sense, the post-Cold War Islamic theocratic states are Calvinist in principle.

    Next: Imperialism as modernity

    Henry C K Liu
    is chairman of the New York-based Liu Investment Group.

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    Aug 12, 2003

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