Over a year ago, in the midst of reading the great Ken Follett historical novel, World Without End, I was struck by some similarities between their conflicts and our own, and I wrote a post about it:
[The book] got me thinking about today’s intellectual climate. Obviously, I’m being a bit hyperbolic (not to mention reductionist), but there are ways in which today’s debates remind of those from the 14th century, where, in debates on practical matters, fact-based reason was easily defeated by fact-less assertion.
So it would be interesting to learn how the transformation to the age of reason occurred. What were the historical precedents? Was it bottom up, top down, some combination? What caused this intellectual, cultural, and political shift?
Commenters provided many great references and I followed up on many of them, but I hadn’t thought enough about this until I stumbled on the TV series of the book, available on Netflix, btw. It’s quite a good production, but doesn’t come anywhere close to the nuance in the book.
Anyway, much of the literature explaining the evolution from the dark ages to the age of reason emphasizes the role of the “mortality”—i.e., the plague, the “black death.” The connection becomes clear in the Follett story, as the power of the book’s dual oppressors—the church and the feudal landlords—was severely diminished by the massive plague.
In particular, the fact that landowners faced a shortage of labor turned out to be an extremely important factor in liberating the laboring class, such that they could sell their labor to the highest bidder. Of course the social, cultural, and political evolution of the period obviously involvled a lot more than this one factor, but every historical account I read underscored it and many noted that this type of economic progress was more evident in places where the plague was more severe.
In other words, it was driven by the bargaining power derived from labor shortage.
Now, let me be crystal clear that I’m not advocating plague. I am once again shouting into the policy abyss, advocating full employment as a way to create the pressure in the job market for more equitable distribution of growth.
Does not this example suggest that greater bargaining power and economic clout will get rid of the Congressional obstructionists of whom I was reminded in the characters of Petranilla and Godwyn, the deeply corrupt mother and son team who wreak havoc throughout the book? Probably not, but who knows? Annie Lowrey has a pretty convincing piece here suggesting that faster, and I’d add more equitable, growth leads to better politics.
And even if it doesn’t, I’d still be for it.