So far there have been three widely influential stories about the rise of modernity: the Emancipatory, the Protestant, and the Neo-Thomist. The Emancipatory account argues that modernity is fundamentally about the use of rediscovered classical learning, especially the Skeptics and Epicureans in their literary and philosophical modes, to liberate European Man from bondage to a power-hungry church and religious superstition. The Protestant account argues that modernity marks the moment when rediscovered biblical languages reconnected people with the authentic Gospel of Jesus Christ, obscured for many centuries by those same power-hungry priests and by the obscurantist pedantries of Scholastic philosophy. The Neo-Thomist account argues that what the others portray as liberation or deliverance was instead a tragedy, an unwarranted rebellion against a church that, while flawed, had managed to achieve by the high Middle Ages a unity of thought, feeling, and action — manifest in the poetry of Dante, the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, and the great cathedrals of the era — that gave great aid, comfort, and understanding to generations of people, the high and the low alike.

The Neo-Thomists agree with the Protestants in rejecting the Emancipators’ irreligion and false, truncated “humanism.” The Protestants join the Emancipators in condemning the priestcraft, superstition, and hostility to progress of the Neo-Thomists. The Neo-Thomists and the Emancipators share the belief that the Protestants are neither fish nor fowl, neither religious nor secular.

All of these accounts began five hundred years ago, and all survive today, in popular and in scholarly forms. The Protestant account undergirds the massive studies of Jesus and Paul recently produced by N. T. Wright; the Neo-Thomist account (which was articulated most fully in the early twentieth century by Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson) continues in the work of scholars as varied as the English Radical Orthodoxy crowd and Catholic scholars such as Brad Gregory; a classic version of the Emancipatory account, Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, recently received both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

There may seem to be little that all three have in common, but in fact all are committed to a single governing idea, one stated seventy years ago by an influential Neo-Thomist, Richard Weaver of the University of Chicago: Ideas Have Consequences. But we can present their shared convictions with greater specificity through a twofold expansion: (a) philosophical and theological ideas (b) that emerged half a millennium ago are the most vital ones for who we are in the West today. That is, all these narrators of modernity see our own age as one in which the consequences of 500-year-old debates conducted by philosophers and theologians are still being played out.

I think all of these narratives are wrong. They are wrong because they are the product of scholars in universities who overrate the historical importance and influence of other scholars in universities, and because they neglect ideas that connect more directly with the material world. All of these grands recits should be set aside, and they should not immediately be replaced with others, but with more particular, less sweeping, and more technologically-oriented stories. The technologies that Marshall McLuhan called “the extensions of Man” are infinitely more important for Man’s story, for good and for ill, than the debates of the schoolmen and interpreters of the Bible. Instead of grand narratives of the emergence of The Modern we need something far more plural: technological histories of modernity.

It is not my purpose here to supply such histories: that would be a vast undertaking indeed. The closest analogue to what I have in mind is perhaps the 27-book series Science and Civilisation in China (1954-2008), initiated and for several decades edited by Joseph Needham; or perhaps, also on a massive scale, Lynn Thorndike’s A History of Magic and Experimental Science (8 volumes, 1923–58) — Thorndike’s project being actually a part of the story I think needs to be told, though it’s outdated now. Other pieces of the technological history of modernity already exist, of course: in the thriving discipline of book history, in various economic and social histories, in books like A Pattern Language and Paul Starr’s The Creation of the Media and Roy Porter’s The Greatest Benefit to Mankind.

Had Porter not died prematurely he would have been the person best suited to telling the whole story, though it’s too big for any one person to tell extremely well. But it needs to be told: we need a complex, multifaceted, materially-oriented account of how modernity arose and developed, starting with the later Middle Ages. The three big stories, with their overemphasis on theological and philosophical ideas and inattentiveness to economics and technology, have reigned long enough — more than long enough.

Text Patterns

July 1, 2015


  1. Thanks for this quick post – I envision many a doctoral student scrapping unfinished dissertations in response.

    The work of C John Sommerville probably stands in this vein of technological histories – particularly The Secularization of Early Modern England and How the News Makes Us Dumb. Sommerville studies slices of history from a sociological point of view, talking about how societal and technological shifts affect ways of being & human.

    Alan, where does Jacques Ellul stand in this discussion? I haven't gotten to him yet…

  2. Are you familiar with Fernand Braudel's material history of Europe, "Capitalism and Material Life, 1400-1800"? I also think James Scott's "Seeing Like a State" has important things to say about modernity, technology, and modernity's proclivity for totalizing systems (which require the help of technology); also, his analysis of Le Corbusier's plans for Brasilia would be right up Christopher Alexander's alley.

  3. Ten years ago I wrote a history of Science Fiction. Now I went into that project assuming that I'd be starting mid-19th-century, or so, and that I'd trace SF through to the present day (most critics of the genre think it starts approx. around 1880). Researching the vol, though, turned up such a huge mass of patently SF texts from the 18th and 17th centuries that I had radically to revise my ideas. I ended up writing a study that claimed SF begins in around 1600, as a distinctly Protestant kind of 'fantastic' writing that has budded off from the older (broadly) Catholic traditions of magical and fantastic romances and stories, responding to the new sciences the advances of which were also tangled up in complex ways with Reformation culture. Of course, 'SF' was a small scale matter until the end of the 20th-century, when it breaks into the pop-cultural big time; but then again that's true of most literary-cultural movements over that period.

    Anyway: when you say "(a) philosophical and theological ideas (b) that emerged half a millennium ago are the most vital ones for who we are in the West today" you neatly encapsulate precisely the argument I make in my study. Few SF fans are aware of it, I think, but there's a reason why modern SF returns so often to a mode of materialist Sublime, which fans call 'sense of wonder'; why modern SF is so fascinated, often in oblique ways, with questions of atonement and the status of saviour figures. SF, I argue, is the direct descendent of the Reformation.

  4. as you no doubt know, charles taylor has written prolifically on the rise of the modern (secular) self, and he opts for none of your three narratives. in this vein, i can envision you entitling your history of modern technological humanity as 'sources of the selfie'.

    my own view is that the very possibility of such plural, material histories is itself a product of modern philosophical and theological ideas. you are right that the opinions of the elite no longer determine the lives of ordinary people or the meaning that they give to their actions. but this political barrier between elite and ordinary is itself a modern artifice, and its existence depends upon value-laden ideas such as privacy, the self, autonomy, liberty, and tolerance. in short, modern humans may have set aside certain ideas as 'metaphysically' out of bounds for undergirding the meaning of publicly enforced activities, but my argument is that what counts as 'metaphysical' or 'philosophically/theologically' moot for the public has itself been settled within the history of modern politics. furthermore, the durability of modern social structures also depends upon value-laden ideas that are philosophically or theologically imbued.

    if this is right, then there is no way to tell the complete story of modern humans as a material, technological narrative. still, i would agree with you that such a story is a much-needed corrective to the 'history of ideas' approach to the rise of modernity, which seems to forget the actual, lived experiences of most people.

    perhaps my rejoinder exaggerates your position a bit in order to fit in my own objection. if that is the case, then i welcome your riposte.

  5. "Few SF fans are aware of it, I think, but there's a reason why modern SF returns so often to a mode of materialist Sublime, which fans call 'sense of wonder'; why modern SF is so fascinated, often in oblique ways, with questions of atonement and the status of saviour figures. SF, I argue, is the direct descendent of the Reformation."

    That's wonderful, Adam. And could we then see high fantasy (especially in the Tolkienian vein) as a literary Counter-Reformation, reasserting the older forms and making them more plausible and vibrant options?

    I also wonder whether we shouldn't read some recent SF/fantasy — including much of your own work, and that of (to cite a very different figure) China Mieville — as attempts to get past all of the big stories I talk about here, to reject the premises they all share.

    This seems quite explicit in Iain M. Banks, though he may serve to keep some of those old narratives alive by writing about them so consistently, as when representatives of the Culture get into debates with those who belong to other civilizations about why the Culture's values are superior.

    Another way to put this: maybe that "sense of wonder" that so many love in fantasy and SF really isn't sublime at all, because it's not big enough — in relation to it all other things don't seem small, not even me — I just find it attractive to look at. Maybe the real "material Sublime" is Pantagral at the end of your New Model Army, in relation to which I certainly feel small, which is scary as hell.

    I'm groping here, but to something I think important.

  6. Interesting thoughts. In my grad school experience, academic historians have almost universally rejected such "big stories" and chosen instead to focus on the minuscule and particular–so particular, really, that connecting each historian's personal scope to any larger story or narrative at all seems impossible. And for most of the historian's working today, undesirable.

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