Month: May 2021


Rationality and Republics in History


My pet theory of history is that the rationality, efficiency, openness and prosperity that we associate with modernity (and of course their many attendant problems) are not, as commonly supposed, the product of the rise of representative government, but rather of the rise of absolutist monarchy in the 16th and 17th centuries.

I have put the idea forward here and there, notably my Recap of the Fall of Monarchism post, but I cannot pretend to be enough of a historian to have a serious theory.

Nonetheless, I get the impression that I am not out of step with serious historians as much as with the popular narrative. As it happens, I have been reading (for silly reasons) some history of military strategy lately, and I just came across this:

Doubtless this sustained effort to systematize and order the structure of the army reflected what was taking place in other spheres. Throughout French political life traditional rights and confusions sanctified by long usage were being attacked in the interest of strengthening the central power. This cult of reason and order was not merely an authoritarian expedient, nor just an aesthetic ideal imposed by the prevailing classicism. Impatience with senseless disorder, wherever encountered, was one expression, and not the least significant expression, of the mathematical neorationalism of Descartes, of the esprit géométrique detected and recorded by Pascal. It was the form in which the scientific revolution, with its attendant mechanical philosophy, first manifested itself in France. And it resulted in the adoption of the machine—where each part fulfilled its prescribed function, with no waste motion and no supernumerary cogs—as the primordial analogy, the model not only of man’s rational construction, but of God’s universe. In this universe the cogs were Gassendi’s atoms or Descartes’ vortices, while the primum mobile was Fontenelle’s divine watchmaker. We often speak as though the eighteenth or the nineteenth century discovered the worship of the machine, but this is a half-truth. It was the seventeenth century that discovered the machine, its intricate precision, its revelation—as for example in the calculating machines of Pascal and Leibnitz—of mathematical reason in action. The eighteenth century merely gave this notion a Newtonian twist, whereas the nineteenth century worshiped not the machine but power. So in the age of Richelieu and Louis XIV the reformers were guided by the spirit of the age, by the impact of scientific rationalism, in their efforts to modernize both the army and the civilian bureaucracy, and to give to the state and to the army some of the qualities of a well-designed machine.

Henry Guerlac, “Vauban: The Impact of Science on War”, collected in “Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age”, ed. Peter Paret, 1986

(Actually, that citation is more confusing, the essay was published in the earlier “Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to Hitler” in 1943, and republished in the 1986 version I am reading.)

Anyway, there we have it — representative government is not a cause but a (misplaced, in my view) response to the rise of rationalism that went with the shift from feudal to absolutist monarchy.




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