[Part 1 is here.]
A common reading of Western history holds that the principles of the free economy grew out of the secular Enlightenment and had little to do with Christianity. This is mistaken. The free economy (and we can speak more broadly here of the free society) didn’t spring from the soil of the secular Enlightenment, much less, as some imagine, from a Darwinian, survival-of-the-fittest, dog-eat-dog philosophy of life.
The free economy sprang from the soil of Christian Medieval Europe and the Renaissance, beginning in the monasteries and city states of Medieval northern Italy and spreading from there across Europe, taking particularly firm root among the Dutch and English.
Voltaire, Edward Gibbon, and other secular Enlightenment thinkers propagated the myth of a so-called Dark Ages, an age of regression, religious superstition and irrationality. And some of my Protestant forebears happily seized upon this distorted characterization in the interest of discrediting Catholicism. Certainly the Middle Ages had its superstitions and abuses of power along with its share of battlefield mayhem, plagues, and political and religious intrigue. But every age has had these. What was unusual about the Middle Ages, and what even secular historians have come to recognize and now view as settled knowledge, is that the Middle Ages was a time of astonishing progress.
During the early, high and late Middle Ages, innovation flourished, with Europeans inventing or advancing an array of technologies—the heavy wheeled plow for working dense fertile soils the Romans had avoided, harnesses for large teams, improved roads for wagons, wagons with brakes and front axles that could swivel, the three-field system, horseshoes, water power; chimneys; textiles and eyeglasses; a system of branch banking and insurance that accelerated commerce and trade; plate armor, cannons, the knight upon horseback; the compass, the round ship for sailing the high seas; polyphonic music; a system of music notation; thin stone walls with stained glass and, with them, the soaring gothic cathedrals of the High Middle Ages.
A documentary I scripted that aired on PBS explores this neglected aspect of the Middle Ages. In the film Baylor sociologist and historian Rodney Stark ably exposes just how misleading the Dark Ages trope is, drawing on his 2005 book The Victory of Reason:
The Dark Ages are alleged to be from about the fall of Rome to the so-called Enlightenment of the fifteenth century. Well I was raised on the Dark Ages. I think most of us were, but it’s a lie. Let’s look at the world, Europe, in the year 500, you know, the fall of Rome. What can we do? What do we know? What kind of technology? What kinds of ships and what not? And then let’s go look at the year 1400 and what do we have? And what you have is this incredible thing. Technologically and in a lot of other ways like in the arts and literature, here’s the year 500. Here’s the year 1400, but that was supposed to have been the Dark Ages. Well, how did we do that? In two weeks at the end of the Dark Ages? I mean, it’s just silly.
As Stark, David Gress, George Weigel, Glenn Sunshine, and other have argued, political, economic, and religious freedom first emerged in Christian Europe, from an understanding that humans are made in the image of God and therefore have an inherent dignity that should be respected by the state; from an understanding that humans are made in the image of the Creator and thus have a calling and capacity to be creative; and from an understanding that the material order is not inherently evil since God created it good and eventually became flesh and dwelt among us as Jesus Christ.
The rise of science and a broadening middle class was rooted in all these things as well as in a Judeo-Christian view of history that is forward looking rather than cyclical, optimistic rather than fatalistic; in a belief that humans are stewards of an orderly creation rather than the playthings of fate, and in the conviction that, because of all these other things, property rights are human rights.
Nothing about an economy so born requires that it be hyper-utilitarian or that its members idolize efficiency at the expense of beauty, or consumption to the exclusion of contemplation and community. Of course a culture so born could fall into decay, but that is a different and far more modest claim from the one commonly advanced, namely that such evils are part of the DNA of the free society. That more sweeping claim is mistaken. Ordered liberty is not intrinsically evil and, by its very nature, is not under the purview of determinism. Religious and cultural revivals are possible.
[Part 6 is here.]