June 12, 2006

Quote of the Day

They have made their choice, as we must do. Those who remember with honour men like Hampden and Washington, regard with a corresponding aversion Peter the Great and Frederic William I. But without the first Europe might be French, and without the other it might be Russian. That which arose in Northern Europe about the time of our revolution settlement was a new form of practical absolutism. Theological monarchy had done its time, and was now followed by military monarchy. Church and State had oppressed mankind together; henceforth the State oppressed for its own sake. And this was the genuine idea which came in with the Renaissance, according to which the State alone governs, and all other things obey. Reformation and Counter–Reformation had pushed religion to the front: but after two centuries the original theory, that government must be undivided and uncontrolled, began to prevail. It is a new type, not to be confounded with that of Henry VIII., Philip II., or Lewis XIV., and better adapted to a more rational and economic age. Government so understood is the intellectual guide of the nation, the promoter of wealth, the teacher of knowledge, the guardian of morality, the mainspring of the ascending movement of man. That is the tremendous power, supported by millions of bayonets, which grew up in the days of which I have been speaking at Petersburg, and was developed, by much abler minds, chiefly at Berlin; and it is the greatest danger that remains to be encountered by the Anglo–Saxon race.
Lord Acton, Lectures on Modern History, Peter the Great and the Rise of Prussia Posted by Lexington Green at June 12, 2006 10:07 PM

I wonder if things aren't backsliding a bit. Theocracy seems to have made a comeback in the Middle East since the late twentieth century. Our lack of familiarity with the phenomenon is a major reason why we have had such difficulty with it.

I would argue that the early modern monarchies of Europe, although oppressive by current standards, were hardly so at the time. It was after 1500 that owners of castles began to punch windows into their walls, populations and cities really grew, national markets emerged, and literacy spread, empowering and expanding the middle classes.

This is not to minimize the authoritarian legacy that contributed to the detour of continental Europe into totalitarianism for much of the twentieth century. Europe would have evolved in a much nastier direction if the Anglo-American world hadn't tipped the balance in two world wars and committed itself to the continent afterwards.

But I would give early modern Europe credit for the positive changes that it did allow and encourage. What has prevented Europe today from becoming another United States is the deeper legacy of national identity. In some ways, the early modern rulers were better at dealing with that, because their states appealed to dynastic rather than ethnic loyalty. Although dynastic loyalty could not in the end be sustained by authoritarian rule, the evolution of democracy in ethnic states has not been free of its own set of troubles.

Posted by: David Billington at June 13, 2006 04:59 PM
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