In our modern Western society, a disturbing trend has become incredibly prominent in the media, education, and common discourse: the complete decontextualization of historic and current events so as to present the West as uniquely evil or especially horrible. One often sees this coming from people – usually on the political left – who use it as a cudgel to demean modern Western societies as part of a project of radical change to those very societies. This seems to be more present in the Anglosphere than in other developed societies. Much of the radical activism we’ve seen over the past year or two has emanated from the United States, Britain, Canada, and Australia, where statues have been toppled, history decried as uniquely genocidal, and modern societies seen as evil and immoral simply for existing in previously-colonized lands. Don’t get me wrong, all nations have blemishes and blights on their histories and each and every country has injustices in the modern day; still, these cannot be understood in a vacuum or without context.
* The images from the Appendix referenced herein are instead spread throughout the text of this essay for easier reading. Enjoy!
When the term ‘Italian Renaissance’ is used, most people think of figures like da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli, and Petrarch; this association with a flourishing of the arts and Western culture is understandable, yet it misses much of the complexity and dynamism inherent in the period, especially during the fifteenth century. That period – known historically as the Quattrocento – was a time of rapid change, political tumult, and dynastic struggle throughout the Italian Peninsula. These geopolitical evolutions were just as radical and revolutionary as were those occurring in the cultural world at the time; in fact, without the political developments of the Quattrocento, many of the cultural aspects of the Renaissance may never have gotten off of the ground. To gain a better understanding of these changes and their impact on society, one must understand the very different political situation in Italy prior to the Renaissance.
Italian history for the few centuries before the Quattrocento was largely dominated by two powerful forces: the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire of the Hohenstaufens. These factions were mutually reliant on one another for legitimacy as well as rivals for the overlordship of the Italian Peninsula. This conflict defined the late Medieval period in Italy, culminating with the Guelf-Ghibelline wars and vendettas in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. This all changed in the fourteenth century, however, as the Papacy relocated to Avignon, spiraled into a destructive schism, and lost much of the temporal power formerly emanating from its traditional seat in Rome. With respect to the Holy Roman Empire, a previously dominant power in Italy, the historian Jacob Burckhardt states that “The Emperors of the fourteenth century, even in the most favourable case, were no longer received and respected as feudal lords, but as possible leaders and supporters of powers already in existence.” Upon the return of the Popes to Italy in 1376 and the resolution of the Great Western Schism with the election of Pope Martin V in 1417, the Papacy once again sought to retake its temporal role in Italian politics. However, the Italian world into which this newly invigorated Papacy was returning to assert its traditional role was not at all the same one which it had left in the early fourteenth century. During the period of the ‘Babylonian Captivity’ of the Church, the political situation in Italy had devolved away from a more unified, hierarchical, feudal-type system into a patchwork of independent city-states, statelets, and kingdoms which often were involved in intractable conflicts with one another. The power vacuum created by the flight of the Popes to France and the aloofness of the Holy Roman Empire allowed for the flourishing of local civic identity, the creation of territorial rivalries, and the internecine Italian conflict which came along with them.
From the very beginning of recorded history through the modern day, humans have experienced radical fluctuations in our political systems, our personal ideologies, our liberties, and the way we live our lives. We have embraced the idea of change as a species, and writers and thinkers throughout the course of history have reflected this obsession. Heraclitus of Ephesus, one of the earliest ancient philosophers, saw the reality of change as universal in nature and among mankind; his idea that the only constant in life is change has echoed through the millennia that have elapsed since he lived. One of the trademark opaque phrases of Heraclitus that illuminates this idea states that “All things come into being through opposition and all are in flux like a river”; this image of the river is useful in understanding change and our human perception of it. For as much as we can see the change that is occurring through the flow of the river, we also perceive the river as unchanging so long as it remains flowing and within its banks. This perception of change reflects a deeper reality in human affairs, as we often recycle or rediscover older ideas or paradigms and see them as novel inventions of our own time. Our language and idioms have reflected this for quite some time; the phrase ‘everything old is new again’ is common in English-speaking societies, but the feeling it expresses is universal. The French use – in their stereotypically pessimistic and existential manner – the idiom ‘plus ça change, plus c’est le même chose’, which translates roughly as ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’. This phrase captures a key sentiment in humanity which has been repeated through history – that of the fact that constant change generally does not truly reverse the basic order of things or change human nature. This is true for historical change in ideologies and political systems as much as it is for anything else; the only constant, which remains the same throughout time, is that things are always in a state of flux and humans tend to repeat older ideas or cycles in newly updated ways. If this is true, we should expect human societies to always be in a state of change and conflict; yet some theorists throughout history have taken an opposite approach, claiming that history itself has an endpoint or goal. Historians and thinkers who fall into this teleological camp – from Augustine and Bossuet to Hegel and Marx – vary wildly in their ideas about history, but all agree that history is progressing towards a specific end. Still, few of these thinkers saw their own time as representing the ‘end of history’, only predicting that it would come at some point in the future. For most of the human past, the idea that history had ‘ended’ would have seemed ridiculous, especially given the inexorable reality of change and the often-drastic upheavals that surrounded it. But apparently unique historical circumstances only a few decades ago led many to embrace this old philosophy anew and claim that their era was indeed the realization of the ‘end of history’.
Seventy years ago today, on April 3, 1948, President Harry Truman signed into law the most sweeping non-military foreign policy achievement of the 20th Century, perhaps in all of American history. That success, colloquially known as the Marshall Plan, helped revitalize Europe, set the stage for the next 50 years of American relations with the continent, and largely shaped the Europe we know today.Read More »