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.