In the beginning
In the late Middle Ages, 1390s, European farmers started to keep track of weather patterns and soil conditions in an attempt to increase their crop yields. The rulers of the day, the Christian Church, supported this action, believing any such investigation would only result in the farmers finding God’s hand in action and thusly increase their faith in the Church. However, the opposite happened and the farmers slowly started to realize that natural factors, like the amount of sun, rain, etc. were the primary influences over their crops’ success or failure (“The Enlightenment”, n.d.). This event is not noted in the canons of history as a turning point of man; however, it is interesting that the move towards what would become known as the Enlightenment started, in some small way, in farmers’ fields with the hubristic blessing of the Church; a little case of historical déjà vu would not you say Eve.
Better-known scientific starting events for the Enlightenment were Kepler’s discovery of the laws of planetary motion in 1609 (Redd, 2012), Copernicus’s heliocentric solar system in 1543 (Rabin, 2010) and Galileo’s telescopically enhanced views of a rotating sun (“Galileo”, n.d.). Pure cognitive advancements also assisted the Enlightenment’s rise, such as Descartes’s writings on the deductive method (Wilson, 2009), Bacon’s new method of inductive reasoning (“Francis Bacon”, n.d.) and Spinoza’s writings which simply asked people to focus on the ethics of the present to guide them through their lives (Nadler, 2013). The third piece of this triptych of discovery was perhaps morality; specifically as it relates to warfare. This began with the writings of Comenius on the necessity of war in society (“Johann Comenius”, n.d.) and Grotius who attempted to define the rules for fair engagement in warfare between states (Miller, 2011).
These ‘new’ ideas, which all in some way or another brought man, his abilities and his position in reality away from those championed and ordained by the Christian Church, were not actually new at all but were rather just new for the times. For instance, Aristarchus, in the third century B.C., wrote about the idea of a heliocentric solar system (Irving, 2006). As well, there are numerous texts and written treatises from the Fertile Crescent area, such as the Code of Ur-Nammu written in about 2100 B.C., which attempted to bring order to the methods of humankind (“Cuneiform Law”, n.d.). However, when these and other similar ideas were presented to people two-thousand or four-thousand years prior to the era of the Enlightenment they did not come anywhere close to altering the mental mold, which held the ‘everything’ of the populations witnessing them, like they did in Europe when they kick-started the Enlightenment. This then suggests it was not only the contents of the ideas, which lead to the monumental paradigm shift for Europeans in the late Middle Ages. However, the ideas had to have had something to do with it; after all, they ended up nesting inside the brains of almost everyone in mid-millennium Europe. To understand why things happened differently this time around it is necessary to follow the lead of those late Middle Age farmers and pay attention to the soil or in this case the condition of the brains into which these ‘new’ ideas were being planted.
Before the works of Kepler, Grotius and all the others came into the world, something else united the people Europe – the Black Death. It was seen first during the middle of the fourteenth century and was unique in so many ways but perhaps the most defining element of the hundred-year span it darkened was that it was the first event, except the Christian belief system, to touch every single person living on the continent at the time. There are a multitude of facts which when woven together provide irrefutable proof for this claim but perhaps more important than all of them were the truths held by the people themselves upon which this catastrophe fell. “Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.” (Proverbs 3:5, King James). And they did; the faith of the people of Europe at the time of the Black Death was unshakable and they knew no alternative; belief in God, his laws and his justice were absolutes. However, they died. The righteous and the sinner, they all died. The plague heeded no quarter to social position or religious standing; it simply caused people to die. Science and medicine, in which few placed much stock at the time, could do nothing and more importantly the highest power of the day, the Christian Church, could neither explain nor prevent the deaths of so many. Indeed, when the tide of this indiscriminate pandemic subsided half of the people of Europe had died and the global population had fallen by approximately 100 million. For many people these deaths were a sign of the end of the world and even after the plague had slackened and eventually disappeared any order that had existed before it was replaced with rampant debauchery and a general shift in the order of things, which resulted in a ‘live for the moment’ individualism previously unseen in medieval Europe (“The Roots of the Enlightenment”, n.d.).
This example illustrates the hypothesis that the effect an idea has on a society cannot be understand or predicted solely based on the validity of the idea(s) itself but rather its affect, or lack thereof, can be predicted based on the condition, contents and understanding of the people into which the idea finds itself. It is not only the seed that matters but also the soil into which it is sowed.
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Irving, F. (2006). The Heliocentric Theory: Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton. Retrieved from http://www.vibrationdata.com/space/helio.html
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“The Roots of the Enlightenment”. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.spark notes.com/history/european/enlightenment/section1.rhtml
Wilson, F. (2009). Rene Descartes: Scientific Method. Retrieved from http://www. iep.utm.edu/desc-sci/