The Making of the Modern World: Encounters, by Alan MacFarlane. He has an almost infinite list of books on Amazon, many of them with “Modern World” in the title. This is a Kindle edition, very garbled, but with much interesting material. An attempt to summarize:
1. “Modernity” is different and important. One way to think of it is that in modern societies, there is separation and balance among power, economic activity, religion, and kinship.
2. In pre-modern societies, whether tribal or imperial, these forces are fused, into the tribe or the state, respectively.
3. The 18th century was when thinkers such as Adam Smith began to notice a cultural break with the past. 19th-century legal historian Henry Maine called this the transition from a society of status in which social relationships are determined at birth to a society of contract, in which social relationships are more egalitarian and formal.
4. Maine notwithstanding, modernity reflects a balance of status and contract. We are not so atomistic that we live in a world of arms-length contracts. We belong to various types of associations (MacFarlane notes that many more team sports were invented in England than in other countries) which are bound by more than self-interest, but we do not belong to one single encompassing tribe or theocratic state.
5. The smaller, more fluid units of civil society are key to keeping modern states from reverting to tribalism or all-powerful states. This idea goes back to Tocqueville, of course. Nowadays, I would note that Yuval Levin is one of its leading champions, and he often cites Burke.
6. Modernity is not necessarily robust. Modern societies have managed to make production more rewarding than predation, and consequently they are wealthier and more powerful than pre-modern states. But humans remain attracted by encompassing ideologies, such as Communism or radical Islam. In fact, MacFarlane cites several scholars who wrote over 100 years ago that Islam did not adapt to modernity as did Christianity, and Islam still calls for a pre-modern unity of all spheres.
7. The Industrial Revolution combines modernity with the scientific/technological revolution. Neither alone is sufficient.
I highlighted numerous passages in the book. A few are given below the fold. Continue reading