I’m finally starting to feel motivated to write again.
I’ve been absent here for the past two weeks. I have been so immersed in my research for my book that lately I have become more interested in reading than writing. I also really don’t feel like keeping up with current events and commenting on the news cycle. I’ve lost interest in mainstream politics and have fallen down another one of my periodic rabbit holes where I become focused on history. In this case, I have become interested in history, religion and philosophy.
Around the middle of March, I became intensely interested in how and why the West had degenerated into its current moral state. How did we come to live under the present morality that exists in our own time? What is the history of that morality? How is it different from the morality our ancestors lived under in the past? What are its origins? How do we shake off this morality and replace it with a better system under which our people can begin to recover and thrive again?
I’ve read and reread a lot of books over the past two months and Jonathan Zophy’s A Short History of Renaissance and Reformation Europe is one of them. This was actually one of my old college textbooks. I reread it cover to cover because I started with the sense that the answer to most of these questions can be traced back to Early Modern Europe. This book roughly covers the time period between the Black Death in 1348 to the end of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648.
This is a vast swath of European history that branches off into countless topics. I’ve since watched dozens of documentaries about the Renaissance and Reformation and I have barely scratched the surface of this epoch. Overall, I get the sense though that the true origins of the crisis that I am tracing is rooted in the following period, the Age of Reason, which begins around the middle of the 17th century.
The Renaissance, the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution and the discovery of the New World laid the groundwork for the Age of Reason. In the beginning of this period, Western Europe was united under the Catholic Church. By the end of the Thirty Years’ War, that unity had completely unraveled and was never restored. Morality goes from something that is coherent and which has authority across Western Europe to something that needs to be justified on a new speculative basis.
The Papacy slumped into corruption and lost much of its moral authority during the Renaissance. This atmosphere of frustration and disillusionment led to the Reformation which further shook the Catholic Church. The discovery of the New World and the European exploration of Asia and Africa exposed Europeans to radically different cultures that led to speculation about the origins of their own culture. Above all else, the beginning of the Scientific Revolution with Copernicus and Galileo raised further questions about the moral authority of the Catholic Church. It led to skepticism.
Europeans in this era were still culturally far removed though from their modern day descendants. This was the era of the Spanish Inquisition, the rise of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the expulsion of Jews and Moors from Spain, the fight against the Turks at Vienna and Lepanto, burning heretics at the stake, witch hunting, Calvin’s Geneva and the rise of Puritanism, Henry VIII’s Star Chamber, Bloody Mary, Hernán Cortés in Mexico and Francisco Pizarro in Peru, the Iron Duke in the Netherlands, the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, Oliver Cromwell in Ireland, the bloodbath that was the Thirty Years’ War, etc.
There are many things you could say about Early Modern Europe, but would anyone describe the Europeans of those times as weak willed, wishy washy or lacking in moral fervor? When Europeans encountered American Indians, they conquered and enslaved them. They tore down their idols, burned their books, took their gold and silver back across the Atlantic and triumphantly built churches on top of Aztec temples. When Europeans encountered black Africa, they began to speculate about racial differences in Shakespeare’s time and launched the slave trade. There was no such thing as human rights at the time – think of Anne Askew who was tortured on the rack in the Tower of London, or Thomas Cranmer who was burned at the stake – and religious piety was far more valued than religious tolerance.
There are some developments that ominously pointed to the future: humanists in the Renaissance like Pico della Mirandola who inspired by the Kaballah wrote about human dignity or Thomas More’s Utopia, the radical antinomian fringe of the Reformation like the Anabaptists, the Libertines, the Diggers, the Levellers and the Ranters who in their various ways challenged the social hierarchy and the rise of capitalists like the Fuggers and Medicis who gained leverage over the Papacy.
This was an age that produced figures like Calvin, Cromwell and Torquemada, not John Locke and Baruch Spinoza. It is this latter period in which we will find our answers.