The benefits of openess, an historical example

It may be easier to explain why we need an open society so badly if we look at some examples of how societies have opened up and what has happened as a result of this. And as a starting point we’ll go back to what is often called the Dark Ages; the early medieval Europe.

Many historians are fond of claiming that the Dark Ages wasn’t dark at all, pointing at the wonderful paintings and illuminated manuscripts, and the amazing Gothic architecture, and also pointing out that peoples lives weren’t much worse than before or after, really. This is of course true, but when you read something like history of philosophy, you see that intellectually this time was, if not dark, so at least rather murky. Sure, there were some important development in theology, but mostly nothing much useful happened intellectually. No great discoveries of science, and most philosophers spent their time mostly trying to come up with arguments for why God existed and why you should do what the church told you to. Notable exception like Roger Bacon and William of Ockham of course exists, but they are just a few during a period stretching almost a thousand years from which we have many philosophical writings preserved. Compare that to the few preserved writings of Greek philosophers during the thousand years before that, and the number of philosophers and important concepts that appeared there. No, the dark ages was truly dark from an intellectual standpoint.

And why was this? Well, it becomes apparent when we look at the decline of darkness that started around 1300. It started in the city states of Italy. States which had at this time more freedom than most places in the world, and also was trade centres, and therefore had contact with many parts of the world. The result was that you in places like Florence came into contact with more ideas than you would anywhere else, and you also had the freedom to share these ideas. The result was the Renaissance, a renewed interest in the classical literature and philosophy, this time regained via contact with Muslim cultures, who had not had any Dark Age, and instead produced a string of philosophers called Al. It quickly becomes obvious that the cause of the Dark Ages was the monopoly of intellectualism that the church had during these times.

The Renaissance didn’t get really up to speed until a bit later, though, when printing in it’s modern form was invented, mostly by Johannes Gutenberg. This now meant that the ideas you had or received from other places now could be spread ever more widely. In the beginning the church loved the printing press, because one problem up to now was that each Bible, being hand-made, was different. Sure, there was a sort of standard approved version, but it was hard to enforce this standard when all people did was copy each others non-standard Bibles. The printing press would change that, thought the church, by letting them print proper Bibles centrally and distribute them to the churches. They were right, of course, but what they didn’t see that printing would make books so cheap that almost anybody that was anybody could afford them. This lead to an explosion of information distribution, and soon everybody could compare different ideas for themselves, and the great ideas battled the not so great in a head to head fisticuffs. And of course, slowly great ideas prevailed and the church finally had to admit that OK, the earth was not the centre of the universe and actually, whatever you do you can’t prove that God exists.

Rationalism and science had prevailed in a way it never could have done without the open information exchange the renaissance and the printing press made possible. Society opened up during the renaissance, and as a result we got science, the industrial revolution and the modern world.


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    […] freedom, open society, politics &#183 Tagged information, information revolution, revolution In the last post I talked about how the information exchange that trade and the printing press allowed started off […]

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