“The transitional crisis opened with Luther’s preaching. Since that time, minds have been of an essentially critical and revolutionary bent.”
This Saint-Simon quotation provided me with quite a bit of food for thought. Backing up and taking the long view of the last thousand years, I feel that Saint-Simon was on to something here. We could quibble over how much of modernity stems from this or that particular revolution or discovery, but let’s not lose sight of the forest for the trees. A truth does not have to encompass ALL the truth to remain valid. Let’s consider Saint-Simon’s assertion for a moment…
From the final days of Roman sway over Europe until Luther’s anti-priestly-class, anti-theocratic, anti-authoritarian revolution circa 1500, each generation of Europeans had been living essentially the same life as the generation before them… But since the time of Luther, the world has unarguably undergone immense, and often rapid, change. It could be argued that no man’s life-time saw so much change as that man whose life-time would have coincided roughly with the 20th century. In fact, a millennium from now, historians may look back upon the entire five hundred years between 1500 and 2000 as a time of rapid societal evolution to be called “the Lutheran Period,” just as they call other periods Cambrian or Jurassic or what-have-you.
Obviously, there were several factors of major importance coming into play in European history at the onset of modernity. There was the Renaissance and the Age Of Enlightenment, to name but two– and each of those had their own foregrounds leading up to them.
But the promulgation throughout Europe of this idea that one could actually rebel against authority (and not just any authority, but basically God’s authority!)– gasp!– that was for the Europe of its day unthinkable (unless, of course, you were Martin Luther). To even entertain the notion that the Church might be wrong was Hell-damning heresy. One major effect of Luther’s revolution was that it encouraged literacy, since people began reading the Bible for themselves, and vernacular transactions of the Latin (and sometimes Greek) texts began appearing, including an important German translation from Luther himself.
Once the people can read, all sorts of changes can spring forth. They may decide that they can understand a parable for themselves, without need of priestly intermediation. From Biblical interpretation, it’s not a far jump to critical thinking in general. And before you know it, you’ve got democracy, public libraries, and free markets.
There are, of course, other contenders for the midwife of modernity. I’ve always suspected that the discovery of the New World in the late 1400s had immeasurable effects upon the European psyche. And indeed, Luther was a young man when news of the New World (and its people and gold and bountiful land) was racing around Europe. And also about this time, the European printing press was being invented, enabling news of ideas and discoveries to disseminate widely and rapidly. And too, Europe was emerging from the terrible years of the Black Death. And then there’s the cultural tsunami of Arabic and Moslem influence which washed over Europe during the time of the Crusades… So maybe all of this taken together could be considered the vital stage-setting for Luther, but still… I don’t think it would be terribly amiss to suggest dividing the Era after the fall of the Roman Empire into the Pre-Lutheran Period and Post-Lutheran.
I doubt anyone could ever say with final certainty what event– or what Molotov Cocktail of events– exactly triggered the onslaught of modernity. But I can tell you this… There was a period which existed before Martin Luther walked the Earth, and there was a period which existed after… and someone visiting the beginning of the first period and the end of the second could not be blamed for thinking that they had just treaded upon two different planets.