History of Western Civilization II
Home Up


Overview of His 102

History 102 is an introductory level course to the events and issues that created the modern West. History examines events and issues within selected time-frames or periods, such as the period between 1600 and 1980 which is the period under study in this course. History selects these time-frames or periods according to a meaning, such as "modern," that defines and sums up the major development that was taking place during that period or time-frame. We distinguish one time-frame or period from another on the basis of this major development. When a new development is in process of formation, a new period is identified. Thus, in the time-frame of 1600 to l914 we can discern a new development--the birth of the modern. The "modern world" refers to a certain system that includes the political, the economic, the socio-cultural, the scientific-technical, and the intellectual. One of the features of the "modern world" is the problematic relationship of religion to these other structures which are entirely secular. The displacement of religion as the core component of a distinctive European identity was one of the initiating factors in the transition from the medieval to the modern. Consequently, as you will see, the public significance of religion will change in this time. This change will be particularly noticeable in politics and in intellectual matters.

Modernity can be understood as a state of mind or as a particular style of being in the world. It is characterized by emotional detachment and mathematical rationality. The modern state, for example, was thought of as a well-oiled machine, a marvel of efficiency. But efficiency, from the point of view of the ruler, was not the same as the "just" state or the "democratic" political order. From 1600 to 1789, we may think of the effort as one of monarchs to make their realms more efficient. But from 1789 to 1945 the effort was to make the state more democratic and just. This struggle will include other movements, such as the struggle for national liberation and unification in the 19th and 20th centuries, the struggle for republican and constitutional government, the struggle for universal suffrage on the principle of one person one vote. Fascism and Nazism are interpreted as attempts to block the emergence of genuine democracy in Europe.

The modern world is not just the story of the state. It includes the story of industrialization. Beginning in the 18th century in England, the invention of the steam engine made it possible to mechanize production, thereby magnifying human productive power to the degree that we could produce more than we could ever consume. The new power over production would, in the course of the 19th century, alter the basis of the social structure and transform social relations within the family and in the workplace, and transform the very meaning of community. By the 20th century, a new mass society--literate, enfranchised, and consumer-oriented-- would appear as the norm in the West.

The Modern State


In the first part, from 1600 to 1789, European states were emerging from the Feudalism of the Medieval period. Kings were asserting their right to rule over their territories in the sense that they were claiming the right to command others to obey them. That is, they were claiming an authority they had not had a right to in the Feudal system of the Middle Ages. This new royal assertion of authority brought kings into conflict with the feudal nobles. We will see this most clearly in the case of France and in the Holy Roman Empire.

You may ask, why did kings wait so long to assert themselves as the actual rulers over their realms? The answer to this is complex. In part, there was not a theory or justification of royal authority as a right to compel the obedience of others--that is, the clergy, the nobility, and later, the towns-- to do things like pay taxes. (Note: the peasants were under the jurisdiction of the feudal nobles and only indirectly subject to the king.) Thus, we will see in the first chapter of our text, the effort to assert royal authority through the use of a theory--the divine-right of kings theory. This theory was used to develop a form of royal government known as absolutism.

Kings could not assert themselves earlier for another reason. Europe had been a unified religious territory known as "Christendom." The pope in Rome had a pre-emptive authority over kings. Popes could excommunicate disobedient kings. This drastic act would, in effect, release nobles from their obligations of loyalty to such a king. By 1648, religious unity had dissolved. There were several different Christian churches in the various states of Europe, and the pope no longer had a role in European political affairs. This gave kings a religious free-hand to do as they wished within their realms. You will read about Louis XIVís revocation of the Edict of Nantes which had given a measure of religious toleration to French Protestants. Kings who aspired to full control over their realms would, like Louis XIV, see religious uniformity imposed by themselves as the actualization of their newly won authority as "divine-right kings." Yet, as the readings will discuss, such tampering with the lives of oneís subjects was unwise. It hurt the people and it harmed the interests of the country. This episode helps to show that royal authority could be used in two different ways--to benefit the vanity of the king and serve his dynastic interests; or, to benefit the well-being of the state identified with territorial and/or strategic ambitions. At this time, the well-being and prosperity of the people was not identified as a fundamental aim of government.


Before 1789, politics and government was between kings and aristocrats. It excluded the lower classes and the poor--known as "commoners" or "the common people" or, simply, "the people."

The French Revolution that began in 1789 would change the rules of politics by holding up the possibility of a political order in which everyone would be part of the nation and have equal standing before the law. This was far from democracy, but it did re-define the fundamental understanding of the relationship between citizens and the state from what it had been in the days of Louis XIV.


Back ] Home ] Up ]