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Hello, I’m Ron Strickland
This webcast is one of a series in which I’m talking about the historical epoch of
Modernity in Western civilization, and comparing different facets of modernity to
conditions of Medieval European culture and society and to the emerging conditions of
In another webcast I’ve spoken about the different economic systems in the three periods.
In this webcast, I’ll say some things about the dominant political systems of each period.
Medieval feudalism was both an economic and a political system. As a political system,
feudalism vested most political power in the elite class of aristocrats who owned the land.
These feudal lords controlled “fiefs,” or manorial estates that were handed down from
father to son from generation to generation. Feudal lords granted fiefs to “vassals,” who
were then responsible for managing the land and making it productive. Peasants or
serfs—poor people who worked the land—were considered to be bound to the land. The
vassals and peasants were bound by obligations of fealty, or loyalty to the lords.
Manorial political power was vested in the landlords, but vassals and peasants had certain
rights that could not be breached.
Vassals and peasants were obligated to follow the lords in combat; on the other hand,
lords had a paternalistic responsibility toward all of the people in their domain. If a
peasant grew ill or grew too old to work the land, the lord was responsible to provide
food and shelter for the peasant nonetheless.
One distinctive feature of feudalism is that the unit of governmental power is relatively
small—smaller than a nation-state. The terrirtories that would become England, France,
Spain, etc., were governed regional aristocrats during the feudal epoch. Monarchs led
loose confederations of aristocratic powers, but they did not have the kind of absolute
control that they would later achieve during the early modern period.
Having said this, the feudal political system was more various and more complicated than
I have suggested in this simple model. For example, in England there was parallel
systems of secular and clerical governments. The Catholic Church was a government
unto itself within the territory of England.
And, in the late middle ages, successful merchants and craftsmen gained increased
economic power and some degree of political independence in relation to the landed
During the early modern period, some Kings began to amass power at the expense of the
aristocracy. This happened in both England and Spain, for example, in the latter half of
the fifteenth century, and the power of the King in relation to the aristocracy continued to
grow during the sixteenth century. There were some particular economic conditions that
made this consolidation of national power both possible and necessary.
For example, advances in navigational techniques made transatlantic sea voyages
possible, but such expeditions required too much capital for any one aristocrat to well
afford them.
The development of the large scale power loom for weaving wool led to an export wool
trade in England.
Lands that had been devoted to crop production were shifted to grazing for sheep,
encouraging a migration of peasants from farms to small urban centers where textile mills
were set up. Thus was begun a long process of urbanization that would progressively
erode the political and economic power of the aristocracy in relation to the monarch.
The rise of literacy also had the effect of facilitating the growing urbanization and
international commerce, and Kings like Henry VII of England and Philip II of Spain
developed elaborate bureaucratic apparatuses required to manage more concentrated
urban populations and more extensive international commerce.
With the decline in power of the feudal lords, and the concentration of larger populations
in cities, new political strategies were needed in order to govern. In addition to their
expanded bureaucratic structures, absolute monarchs originally attempted to maintain
ideological hegemony over their populations by invoking the ideology of divine right; the
King ruled because he was ordained by God to rule, and to oppose his rule was to sin
against God.
Soon enough this concept of divine right as the basis of royal power would begin to
unravel. In 1648 the English people overthrow King Charles I, tried and convicted him
of treason, and beheaded him.
When, Charles Ist’s son, Charles II, took the throne in 1660, it was as a constitutional
monarch in what would evolve into a bourgeois republic, with an increasingly large share
of royal power ceded to parliament.
Bourgeois republics were to become the typical political regime of modernity, along with
some notable experiments in socialism, and a fair share of totalitarian dictatorships.
Though not all modern nation-states would evolve into republican-democratic forms of
governments, there was in modernity a seemingly inevitable tendency toward more
centralized governments, whether republican or totalitarian.
In postmodernity, there are some signs that the nation-state is in decline, or at least that
the relationship between the democratic nation-state and its citizens is eroding as the
resources of the state are harnessed to the interests of trans-national corporations and an
elite class of wealthy oligarchs. An illustration—perhaps oversimplified--of this
question might be seen in the debate about whether the war in Iraq is being fought for the
protection of the American people or instead for protection of the interests of oil
In any case, the war in Iraq offers a clear instance of another political development in
postmodernity; that is, resources and functions that were previously governmental are
now disinvested and outsourced to private contractors. So, in Iraq, combat support
operations like food, shelter, transportation, communication and construction are being
performed by Halliburton and other contractors, rather than by the U. S. military.
Or, in another example, college students are now being required to pay higher tuition, and
hence a larger share of the cost of their education than was the case at the height of the
modern American nation-state. In this way the nation-state indirectly shifts the cost of
human resource development, in the form of educating its citizens, from the public at
larger to individual students as consumers.
Finally, there is an increased role for supra-national quasi-governmental organizations
like the United Nations, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. These
organizations wield considerable power internationally, but they are not directly
accountable to the voters of any country. Many observers argue that they are primarily
accountable to the international business community, and only secondarily concerned
with the welfare of ordinary people.
During the sixteenth century the Catholic church’s control over the intellectual and social
life of Europeans was shaken by the Protestant reformation and undermined by the spread
of print and the rise of literacy.
Platonic Idealism and Catholic Theism were challenged by a new philosophical system
known as Rationalism. One of the key figures associated with Rationalism is the French
philosopher Rene Descartes. Descartes was a devout Catholic who set out to develop a
consistent philosophical response to the challenge of Protestantism. He began by
rejecting everything that he could not be sure was true. The one thing that he could be
absolutely sure about, he concluded, was that he existed, because he was thinking, and he
could think unless he existed—hence his famous phrase, “Cogito ergo sum,” Latin for “I
think, therefore I am.”
For Descartes, this was proof of God’s existence, because any absolute truth—such as the
fact of his existence—meant that something beyond human consciousness must exist.
That something must be God.
But Rationalist thought would eventually evolve into a system that would question God’s
existence, through the logical extension of the scientific method.
The scientific method, originated by the English thinker Sir Francis Bacon, holds that
knowledge of the real world can be built incrementally by scientists who observe and
measure physical reality. Soon, this system would lead to kinds of knowledge that would
challenge existing conceptions of reality, and thus threaten the Christian system of belief.
One example of this Galileo’s theory of the heliocentric universe—the idea that the earth
goes around the sun. When Galileo published this theory in the early seventeenth
century, he was threatened with excommunication by the Catholic church, and he
recanted his writings.
Related to the concept of Scientific method is another key philosophical movement of
Modernity known as the “Enlightenment.” Enlightenment philosophers saw the religions
thinkers of the medieval epoch as superstitious and ignorant, and they embraced
rationalism and scientific thinking as the positive expression of human excellence and
human achievement. In this way, it can be said that Enlightenment thinkers exalted the
“human” to a level above “God”; they formulated a universal essence of “humanity” as a
kind of absolute truth.
Modernity’s embrace of rationalism and the scientific method eventually led to an
emphasis upon quantitative methods of knowing and statistical representations of reality.
The difference between these ways of understanding reality and earlier, idealist
paradigms can be seen in the development of modern research in genetic engineering,
which is opposed by many people because it seems to suggests that humans could learn
how to create life, and this is seen as something that threatens to diminish God’s power.
The genetic code, in a sense “reduces” the biological essence of the human to a series of
I’ll conclude with some of the terms associated with the still-emerging paradigm of
“postmodernity.” Postmodernity sees human existence and human understanding not as
something that is informed or determined by an absolute or ideal truth, such as God, and
not as something that is universal and essential to all humans but is produced by the
rational thinking mind.
In fact, postmodernity rejects the concepts of absolute or essential reality. Instead,
postmodernity sees human knowledge as based on “situated reality.” Human
understanding is the product of social and material interactions. For the postmodern, we
become human in our dealings with other people and in the processes of securing shelter
and sustenance for life. Hence, the kinds of interactions we have and the kinds of lives
we live, materially, determine what kind of people we will be.
Truth is therefore “contingent,” not absolute. Truth may change over time, and what it
means to be human may change under different material and social circumstances.
I’ll conclude this webcast by showing you a couple of pictures that illustrate the
difference between ways of understanding what it is to be human in the medieval period
and in the modern period, respectively, and how a human social discourse like art can
both express and help to produce these different ways of understanding.
First, here is a painting of a market scene from the end of the fourteenth century. Notice
that the scene includes big people and little people. The big people, in the steeple of a
Church, are at the center of the scene. In front of the church there is a little person on a
little horse, and some little sheep, I think, also in the foreground. And behind the church
there are also some more little people. The size of the people in this painting corresponds
to the social importance, the social power of the people being represented. The
knowledge paradigm that informs this painting has little concern with our modern
expectations of physical realism.
Now let’s look at another painting of a public scene from less than one hundred years
later. This is one of the first paintings to employ the newly discovered technique of
“perspective.” In this painting, there are small people and large people, but the large
people are in the foreground and the small people are in the background.