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Why the West Seized The World- And How

Saturday, 19 January 2008

This post is the fourth part of the sequence of posts on the history of human systematic development. As with previous posts, the aim is analyse events candidly, and see them in overall terms of systematic development.

I have already redivided human history in to series of systems. I have replaced the Neolithic agricultural phase of development with a term 'Primitive system of the phase one type, and early civilisations of the Egyptian/Babylonian/Early Chinese/Central American/Andean type with the term 'Primitive systems of the phase two type.

I have lumped their period commencing with the knowledge interchange of 600-300 BC and ending with the political re-alignment and economic revolution that occurs between the Islamic conquests of 600- to the rise of the Carolingian dynasty in 750.

This we may call the Classical system.

I have then started the next historical period, which we might as well call the Medieval system, so as to use a term we are all familiar with.

Now I'm going to look at how and why that system declined and was replaced. I'm going at what it replaced it, and why.

Let's start by looking at the Medieval at it's peak.

And for that time, we are lucky.
It is encapsulated in literature.

Anyone who chooses to believe in the dark, uneducated misery of the middle ages, should read The Divine Comedy, by Dante Aligheri.

Not only is it one the finest literary creations of all time, being written when it was, it is the pinnacle of medieval theology (reading it tells you in theological terms EXACTLY HOW intelligent men and women of that time thought).

More people lived in greater prosperity in the continent of Europe than had ever lived there. It was already one of the closest populated regions of the globe. It's surface was the most HUMANIZED.

It had removed almost all it's dangerous animals, a huge portion of it's surface was cultivated, laws more clearly codified, it had a complex social system.

More knowledge was concentrated and understood in the continent of Europe of 1300, than had ever been concentrated and understood anywhere.
Admittedly, it was concentrated mainly in the church, but also increasingly in that class of leisure, the upper elites of the continent, who lived such a high quality of life, that they, and they alone of all the upper elites of the world, didn't ALL have to spend ALL their lives fighting and administering.

Basically, the amount of people FREE just to involve their lives in the pursuit of knowledge, was high.

This was, a more successful, more vigorous culture than the Roman Empire. It just didn't have a single SECULAR ruler. It's bonds, which could federate it against common foes as efficiently as an Emperor could, were religious.
The secular disunity belies the interconnected nature of the culture.

Rome had had no rivals as advanced as it.

But Christendom always did, and whilst it never overthrow it's ideological rival to the East, it did ultimately triumph over it, by giving birth to the system which laid claim to the globe.

It's worth having a quick look at the differences between Christendom and Islam.
Again, a notes to Muslim readers. I'm not alluding here to theological differences, but the actual systems used by the differing religious blocks, to explain the reasons behind historical events.

Islam certainly did not adopt primitive systems.
Islam was an advanced culture.
But it WAS one step behind.

And we need to look at what Islam WAS.

We acknowledge that Christianity was a religion of the Roman Empire.
But so was Islam.

Mohamed might have preached at Mecca and Medina, but within twenty years of his death, Islam had seized the Eastern and southern provinces of the Byzantine Empire.

Islam took over the administration and carried it on as normal.

Islam largely took over Roman ways of thought and doing things in what were to become the key provinces of Islam.

The System in operation in the Islamic world WAS one of the most efficient the world had seen. The Romans had proved that.

But it was no longer THE best.

And so Islam was a knowledge based system too. The Classical one.

And thus it was that when the Medieval system came upon Islamic improvements in Knowledge (that huge influx of words gained from Islamic knowledge (Al-chemy, Al-gebra, Al-gorithm, Al-cohol, Al-embic, Zenith), etc, it was better able to assimilate the knowledge of its rivals, than happened the other way.

But, like all systems, it became the victim of its own success.

By creating cultural advance, it became not advanced enough for the culture it had created.
This is of course, a fact inherent in all systems. A successful system will always make itself obsolete.

What happened was twofold.
Firstly, in political terms the central authority of the church had become highly politicised. With the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor in Open war, men had to choose between the right of spiritual and secular authority.

Kings and Princes had become rich. The material wealth of Europe, due to the efficiency of its agricultural and trade systems (production and distribution) had ensured that Kings and princes had strength.

The fourteenth century sees their power start to rise. The suppression of the Templars by Phillipe IV in 1304 is a sign of things to come.
The Great schism of 1378 to 1413, is a sign too, that the church is not the central authority it once was.

Secondly, a revolution has begun, in real terms.

Society has got too developed. Western maps show real journeys made by westerners to China, to India, to Zanzibar.
New inventions are coming, a technological revolution. The data banks of Christendom have done their job. Spectacles, cannons and the printing press are coming.

Knowledge has now left the data banks and is in the hands if the Italian nobility and their large retinues of paid intellectuals.

The Middle Ages do not end in 1492, or earlier, at the fall of Constantinople in 1451.

They end with the commencement of the renaissance, not a revival, but a leap forward.

When the merchants of the towns of Europe started to demand rights in return for their lavish contributions to royal treasuries.

When Kings blew down the cities walls of their enemies with projectiles.

And when European ships started sailing out a little further, to the Canaries and to Guinea.

Europe was getting wealthy and now it was finding ways to gain more materials to add to its infrastructure.

Kings and nobility have two balancing considerations to worry about.
The weakened church can not defend them against the anger of their own people if they fail to bring their own part of Europe an adequate share of this potential new prosperity.
Their wealth, their ability to pay for armies and cannons, depends on a wealthy merchant class, who increasingly demand royal protection.

Once it becomes possible to reach far off lands, the name of the game is getting control of these new economies.

When Pope Alexander VI handed the Americas to Spain, and the East to Portugal, he left no real reason for the other Kings Of Europe to see the Church as protecting their interests.

And the coming of the Church's critics in the sixteenth century provided a handy screen for the monarchs of Northern Europe to stick two fingers up to the central authority of the church.

The religious wars that resulted are important, in terms of understanding Seventeenth century mindsets, but we must remember neither side won. The winner was secularism and an increased distaste long term for all rigid, centralised systems of thought.

But short term, the winners were Princes.

The New Europe was united by loose Christianity, but more importantly by actually not needing any longer to unite against common foes. Charles V proved that one prince on his own could see the Turks off.

Europe was a new oligarchy, it's princes and nobility a highly educated elite.

Spain and Portugal became entirely dependant on their overseas possessions and the plunder ships that crossed the seas.

As did England and France too.
Dependant on plantations, on illicit piracy, on setting up simple production and distribution systems.

Merchants protected by the crown, bought slaves in Guinea, took them to the New World Plantations and sold them, buying the produce of the slaves, sugar, cotton, tobacco, and brought them home.

Religion was important to Kings, it gave them moral authority to govern, but in practical terms, their thrones depended on enriching the nobility and the merchant classes.

And of course, the weaknesses of this system are inherent within it. One can perhaps, look at this whole phase as being highly unstable, which indeed it was. It was a kind of adolescence in many ways. What emerges at the end, is no way evident from the beginning.
Because by the time it finally settles itself after it's revolutionary origins, once it has succeeded in bringing the New World into the Old World economy, once it has succeeded in bringing religious authority under secular authority, the very nature of secular authority is already the new topic of thought.

And thought is changing. New communication methods mean that now thinking is something ordinary people do. Merchants and Ploughmen read Bibles, but Milton too.

There is now at least consensus that there has to be some justification for telling people what to do.

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