How the Reformation Started the Modern World | Literacy I

Everybody’s got a theory on why Europe has done so well over the past couple hundred years. Why were the squabbling peoples of this small peninsula able to humble great empires like China and India’s Mughals? Well, obviously, there are a lot of reasons. And the internet (and the US congress) is awash in some really dumb ones. But I think I’ve got a good candidate that isn’t championed enough which I lay out in this video.

I’m a big fan of Western Civilization. I’m well aware of the downsides, but I’m also pretty impressed with what has been accomplished. But I find the standard story lacking. It’s too reliant on easy answers, and a direct line up from the Middle Ages. In this video I get into the details of the Protestant Reformation, and why it doesn’t match the standard story. The success of Western Civilization has been down to a few acts of genius, but mostly a muddle of unintended consequences, and some horrific mistakes, that ended up turning out pretty well. I think I’m paraphrasing a great David Hume quote there, but I can’t find it at the moment. If you know the quote I’d be grateful if you’d send it my way…

This two video series on literacy may seem to be a departure from my current production, but in many ways it’s an outgrowth of the thousands of comments I’ve answered over the past couple months. My “Everybody’s Lying About Islam” project is an attempt to point out how pointless it is to talk about 1400 year old ideas when we are dealing with the problems of the present day. This quick series deals with the importance of literacy, and why little that happened before mass literacy matters all that much. Let me know what you think!

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Video Transcript after the jump…

Hey there. I go back and forth on Europe’s Protestant Reformation, which kicked off 500 years ago this year. But I have come back around, and I think it really does represent the birth of the Modern World. Let me explain.

The Reformation is part of the standard story of the Progress of Western Civilization. Typically it’s white washed as a courageous stand for individual conscience and freedom. Our modern Enlightenment ideas of individual rights are supposed to have grown out of the stand that people like Martin Luther and John Calvin took against the Catholic Church. In the early 1900’s German Sociologist Max Weber took it farther, arguing that there was something called the Protestant Work Ethic that explained capitalism and the “natural dominance” of Germanic and Anglo-Saxon cultures.

The closer I have looked into it, the more convinced I’ve become that this is largely bullshit. The true ideological successors of the Reformation aren’t Bill Gates and Barack Obama, they are Osama Bin Laden and Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. Yes, it’s great that the power of the Catholic Church was broken, but it was broken because these guys believed that religion should be more extreme, and should dominate life more than it already did. The reformation was not about freedom. The followers of John Calvin in particular thought that everybody should live in a Theocracy. Some protestants were just as happy to burn heretics as the Catholics were, and some were even more bloodthirsty.

But the Reformation jihadis did bring us the modern world. It was an unintended consequence, but it may be one of the most important things that has ever happened. The reformers believed that everyone should read the bible. This meant that everybody should learn to read.

In 16th century Europe this was a pretty revolutionary concept. Back then it was only a subset of priests, merchants and government officials who were literate. 80 to 90 percent of everybody else worked the land, and there was no reason for them to read. From the 1500s on, certain rulers, most notably in Scandinavia, started to make broader literacy a priority.

I’ve thought a lot about development lately, and I’ve become convinced that widespread literacy is the most important thing that can happen to a country. I love all eras of history, and have spent years studying ancient Rome, and Medieval Europe. But I sometimes question whether any history before widespread literacy really matters. It’s the ability to read and write that makes a person a real actor in society. Knowledge really is power.

The story of the world before 1700 or so, in every country, may look different, but it’s basically the same thing. Most of us human beings are agricultural laborers. There’s a small elite with all the power, and they squabble. They fight over lands and people, and the suffering is often terrible. New elites come out of the steppes, or across the seas, replace the old elites, increase the suffering for a bit, introduce some new ideas, but never really improve things all that much. We like to romanticize these old Kings, Conquerors and Caliphs, but they are all really just gangsters.

What changed all this was literacy. Mass literacy gave us the world we know. Mass literacy eventually led to mass politics, and makes power for a broader slice of people possible. Perhaps unwittingly the religious fanatics of the Protestant reformation set all this in motion. Places like Sweden and Switzerland are widely admired for their levels of development. Their development leadership started because their rulers wanted everybody to read the bible. Weirdly, The unintended consequences of that choice made the modern world. More on this soon.

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  • Nathan Ruffing


    I love this subject. I wasn’t even aware of it until I listened to one of The Great Courses talk about theories for the (supposedly well-known) economic advantage of protestants since the reformation and literacy was the leading probable cause.

    A lot of what we know about the Vikings comes from Iceland because they were literate and wrote poetry.

    I like the warring king heads in the video. That exactly fits my concept of historical leaders.

    I view the Reformation as the result of the invention of the printing press, and I view whatever is happening now as a result of the invention of the internet.

    1450 Printing press > ***mass literacy*** > Reformation > 30 Years War etc. > Protestantism established

    1991 Internet > ***mass production of content by the masses*** including Rob Morris MFF etc. > Now what??!?!?!?!?!

    Every day since I realized what the internet really means has been like living continuous breaking news. (that was only 7 months ago so maybe the drama will wear off)

    • Robert Morris

      Sorry to take so long to reply. I agree, the internet really does seem like an innovation on par with movable type. This stuff really has the potential to revolutionize a good deal of living. Not sure anybody has really even begun to push the boundaries of what’s possible yet though. Here’s hoping we avoid a 30 years war.

      • Nathan Ruffing

        Congrats on reaching your goal! I am looking forward to the next set of videos. I don’t have anything to add to your list of subjects, they sound relevant to the times.