Some compare our current state of affairs to that of 1980, the start of a very deep and severe recession, while others compare it to 1930, as the country lurched into the great depression, despite official optimism that the recession then would be brief and growth would return. Then, as now, people were so used to prosperity that it took awhile to get their minds around the fact that the old rules no longer applied.
But what if even 1930 is a too optimistic point of comparison? What if what’s happening is really more like the 16th century? What if what we’re seeing is not simply an economic event, but a civilization changing event, comparable not just to other economic panics (such as the tulipomania in the Netherlands from 1634-37), but to events which portended a major transformation in western civilization.
To set the stage: in 1439 Johann Gutenberg, arriving in Aachen a year early for a trade conference and needing money, started to show off his new invention — a movable type printing press. This ultimately would change the world by ending the grip of the Catholic church on information. Now, instead of information being housed in monasteries or elite universities, it could be put in the form of a book and passed from person to person. Ideas could spread, and the church would have no control over them. Around the same time gunpowder became used in weapons in Europe, creating an entirely new class of weapons, far more destructive than the traditional military means of waging war. These two changes – an information revolution and a revolution in warfare – set up a change that would sweep Europe.
Up until this time the Roman Catholic church dominated European politics and life. It had been based on an other-worldly asceticism coming from St. Augustine. All depends on God. This world is symbolic of God’s truth, it itself is not real. Nothing in this world matters, all that matters is following God’s laws and preparing for the afterlife. This led to a stable period of time in Europe where there was virtually no progress. People never strayed far from their village, there was only a small urban population in Europe, and each generation more or less reproduced what the generation before had done. You didn’t try to improve yourself or society, you did your duty in whatever role God had given you.
That started to break in the 13th century. St. Thomas Aquinas discovered (thanks to Islamic philosophers) the teachings of Aristotle, and argued for a meshing of faith and reason. The church allowed this, though tried to keep it under control by making Aristotle an authority not to be questioned. Yet with the inflow of information from the Muslim world (which at that time was far more advanced than Christian Europe) and the growing corruption of the church led to a rise in humanism, exhibited in the work of such author/poets as Dante, Boccaccio, and Plutarch. In art, paintings went from being proportioned according to spiritual relevance (Jesus the largest, then angels and saints, church folk and finally common people were the smallest), to actual proportions. That shifted the perspective of Europeans away from the church and spiritualism towards individuals and humanism.
In this context, a very devout Professor of Old Testament at the University in Wittenberg, Germany, found himself dismayed by both the corruption in the church and changes in society. Yet he had a bigger problem. He didn’t know if he was truly saved. Augustine said that God gave the gift of grace if you tried hard to love God on your own, but he feared that he was only imagining receiving the gift, and thus God hated him for thinking he was saved when he wasn’t. He’d confess dozens of times a day, fearful of God’s wrath. While all of this was happening, the church had decided to respond to all the changes in archetecture and technology by rebuilding its central cathedral, St. Peter’s Basilica. That would be very expensive, and the church didn’t have the money.
So they asked churches around Europe to raise money and many did — by contracting out with local printsmiths who would print out Papal indulgences (meant only to be given to those who had done extreme favors for the church), which were then sold. Officially these simply gave time off from pergatory, but many who bought them thought they’d bought the right to sin. To our devout and terrified monk, Martin Luther, this was horrific. Such practices actually drove people to hell because they’d not be acting out of love for God, but a desire to defy God. He wrote, in Latin, 95 complaints against the church, nailed them to the university bulletin board (which in those days was a large door) and expected an academic debate.
However, his friends translated those complaints into German, and thanks to the printing press, spread them around the continent. Soon the old order was falling apart. This ignited the wars of reformation against the church, leading to terrible violence (with intermittent plagues) up until 1648 when the Treaty of Westphalia was signed ending the final war of this era, aptly named “The Thirty Years War.” Europe was completely transformed, the old order was dead, the Church’s authority forever diminished, and science and rational thought were taking hold all over the continent. In politics a new entity emerged, the sovereign state, that would later come to be main kind of political entity on the planet.
Clearly, this wasn’t all caused by Luther, or even his friends who copied his complaints and spread them around Europe. Luther wasn’t intending to usurp the church, though over time his theology would push him into ever greater confrontation with the Pope (whom he labeled the ‘anti-Christ’). Rather, the old socio-political order was becoming obsolete due to technological change (especially the printing press and gunpowder) and cultural change (the rise of humanism and reason — a new perspective on meaning in the world). Luther’s act was a “tipping point,” the event that finally caused the old order to fall, albeit not without over a century of struggle and violence. When a system collapses, creating a new one is often quite bloody.
Think about the last two or three decades. The computer and internet have created an information revolution as broad and deep in scope as that of the printing press, unleashing vast amounts of information that never before could have been made available. It radically increases the communication of ideas, bringing together diverse groups, where even borders are no longer a barrier. Weapons of mass destruction have changed warfare. Major interstate war is very unlikely between great powers because it could destroy the planet. But tiny little rogue groups like al qaeda can inspire fear because this technological change means they could do tremendous damage.
The world economy has been linked through trade, though vast portions remain in intense poverty, with a dysfunctional state system in place. Yet what happens there now affects everyone, thanks to globalization. In short, it could be that the old order of sovereign states and western dominance may be coming to an end, driven by technological and societal changes that have been building over the last century — and accelerating in the last quarter century. It could be that the current economic crisis might become the tipping point, beginning a fundamental restructuring of global structures and authority. If so, the next years might be violent and uncertain, unless we can find a way to think differently — the reason for the violence during the reformation is that leaders could not really comprehend that their world was changing so profoundly — only it’s virtual destruction over a long period of time forced them to make profound changes.
Future historians will likely study this era with intense interest — a transition from one system to another, one whose form we do not yet know. We get to live through this era and experience it first hand. That’s exhilirating, but scary. Do we have the capacity to think creatively about a future very different than the present, and change our world to allow a peaceful transitions to whatever is to come, or are we doomed to another painful and even violent systemic transformation? Of course one can’t know for sure if this is a tipping point. But in any event, we live in very interesting times!