The intimate relationship between the printing press and the Reformation has long been understood, and if anything has been overstressed. What has been comparatively neglected, in part because it has left so faint a historical record, is what for lack of a better phrase we might call the European postal system. That phrase is not ideal because the delivery of messages seems to have been anything but a system, but in the early modern era it became increasingly possible to get letters and packages to people. Indeed, what we call the Republic of Letters could arise only because it was possible to get actual letters from, say, Thomas More in London to Erasmus in … well, wherever he happened to be, perhaps at the workshop of Aldus Manutius in Venice. Again, there was nothing systematic about these networks, and couriers varied in reliability, as did the location information with which they were provided.

This is perhaps why so many letters of the period were printed and published — open letters, as it were, prefaced to books or published separately as broadsides. But this leaves us, as it left authors and readers at the time, in a somewhat ambiguous position, sliding along an ill-defined continuum between what we today would call the public and the private.

A valuable tool for understanding this situation is a concept introduced by Christopher Alexander et al. in their seminal book A Pattern Language: intimacy gradients. As I have written before, many of the tensions that afflict social media arise from incompatible assumptions about what degree of intimacy is in effect in any particular conversational exchange — the sea-lion problem, we might call it. Everyone agrees that confusions about whether a conversation is private, or public, or semi-private (e.g. a conversation at a restaurant table), coupled with the online disinhibition effect, contribute to the dysfunctional character of much online discourse; but no one, to my knowledge, has interpreted the agitated hostility of so much early-modern disputation in these terms. The violence with which Thomas More and Martin Luther address each other — e.g. “your paternity’s shitty mouth, truly the shit-pool of all shit, all the muck and shit which your damnable rottenness has vomited up” — is, I believe, at least in part explained by the disinhibition generated by a new set of technologies, chief among them the printing press and postal delivery, which enable people to converse with one another who have never met and are unlikely ever to meet.

To put this in theological terms, one might say that neither More nor Luther can see his dialectical opponent as his neighbor — and therefore neither understands that even in long-distance epistolary debate one is obligated to love his neighbor as himself. Indeed, one might even argue that the philosophical concept of “the Other” arises only when certain communicative technologies allow us to converse with people who are not in any traditional or ordinary sense our neighbors. Kierkegaard’s sardonic comment, in Works of Love, is profoundly relevant here: after asking “Who is my neighbor?” he replies, “Neighbor is what philosophers would call the other.” And it is perhaps significant that Kierkegaard, who spent his whole life engaged in the political and social conflicts of what was then a small town, Copenhagen, can see the degeneration involved in the shift from “neighbor” to “other.” He is calling us back from the disinhibition, and accompanying lack of charity, generated by a set of technologies that allow us to converse and debate with people who are not, in the historic sense of the term, our neighbors. Technologies of communication that allow us to overcome the distances of space also allow us to neglect the common humanity we share with the people we now find inhabiting our world.


  1. You may, of course, already know of it, but just in case I'll mention that Daniel Headrick's "When Information Comes of Age" has a good chapter on the emergence of the postal system.

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