With specific reference to at least three readings given, explain how the early modern period can be understood as an "invention" or "discovery" of the modern age?
The early modern period in the world’s history marks significant changes in culture, religion, worldview and people’s perception of themselves in the universe. Symbolically defined as the period between the fall of Constantinople in the late Middle Ages and the onset of the Age of Revolutions in the late eighteenth century, the early modern period is commonly described as the time of invention, the Age of Discovery and the Age of Exploration. Despite certain controversies and side effects such as the rise of colonialism and numerous foreign invasions, this period is certainly the period of discovery and bursting interest of the human beings for themselves and the world around them. The discoveries of the period laid foundations of the modern age and defined the trajectory of the world’s development.
Speaking about the early modern period in philosophical and religious sense, one should mention outstanding discoveries and breakthroughs in the contemporary worldview. After the medieval period with the overwhelming focus on the afterlife and diminution of the human’s power (especially in the context of the earthly life), the new trends in philosophy and religion marked expansion of the worldview. The Renaissance of natural philosophy, culture and science encouraged humans to explore their place in the world, their own bodies and theological issues. Looking back to the rich cultural and scientific heritage of antiquity, the Renaissance thinkers reformed and revived classical teachings and inquiry methods. It is this period that marked the onset of the technological and scientific revolutions and gave multiple inventions to the humankind. In order to illustrate the scope of discovery and scientific progress characterizing the early modern period, one could simple recall the famous painting by Hans Holbein, “The Ambassadors”. Painted in 1533, the artwork portrays numerous fruits of scientific discovery and, in general, reflects emerging tendencies for secularization.
One of the most important ‘revelations’ of the early modern period is the philosophy of humanism: reconsideration of the classical view of human beings produced a more empowering view of human nature, capacities and place in the world. Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola, one of the earliest thinkers of humanism, wrote an eloquent speech The Dignity of Man where he outlines the key humanistic beliefs about the nature and capacities of the human being. As a special creature made by the Great Artisan, the human being is endowed with “all kinds of seeds and germs of every way of life” (Della Mirandola 479). This speech is among the earliest illustrations of humanistic ideas that replaced depreciating view of humans typical for the Middle Ages. Humanistic ideas endowed humans with power, free will and potential for discovery, development and perfection – and this philosophical mindset became the turning point in modern history and produced a strong liberating effect.
Along with emerging humanistic tendencies, the early modern period marked the beginning of reformation in theological thought and led to further division of Christianity. Such theologians as John Calvin produced a revolutionary perspective of interaction between God and human beings, which sought to dispel and overthrow false authority of Rome in the matters of faith. In fact, Calvin’s seminal work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, made a great contribution to dismantling of the medieval view of religion, which literally imprisoned Christians prior to the early modern period.
Calvin’s revolutionary view of Christianity promoted the Scripture as the only true authority and foundation of faith, while the human being was finally presented as mutually connected with God in his way to self-knowledge (Calvin 1). Establishment of the Protestant church based on the ideas of Reformation could be referred to as one of the most significant ‘discoveries’ shaping future cultural and political development of the modern world – from the special position of the Church of England to introduction of Protestantism in the colonies of the United States following discovery of Americas.
However, viewing the early modern period from historical and political perspectives, it is impossible to overlook one of the most significant tendencies that shape the entire modern age, globalization. The Age of Discovery began in the fifteenth century and entailed active exploration of foreign lands overseas – in Asia, the Pacific and Americas. Discovery of new lands not just contributed to improvements in navigation and mapping, but also transformed European culture and laid foundations of globalization and colonialism. Although original discoveries were underpinned by European aspirations in trade and commerce, encounters with foreign nations and indigenous cultures led to increasing ambitions of European states: new lands promised enormous resources and new territories.
Thereby, discoveries were often followed by violent conquests of the local populations and one of the brightest examples is the Spanish conquests in Mexico under leadership of Cortes. The Aztec accounts of encounters with Spaniards summarized by Leon-Portilla show the pattern that would persist in overseas politics of most European powers for several centuries: Europeans came to Mexico and were greeted by the Aztec people virtually as gods, while their arrogance grew and turned discovery into violent conquest. Spaniards seized Aztec treasures, and initiated warfare against the nation, besieged Tenotchtitlan (Leon-Portilla 103) and ravaged the city. As other European powers used the same strategy of discovery and conquest, the period sparked the Age of Imperialism marked by the outspoken European domination in most parts of the planet.
Positive impacts of the Age of Discovery should not be underestimated as well. Exploration of lands overseas contributed to the modern conceptions in geography and established new trade routes (trans-Pacific, trans-Atlantic routes and so on), discovery of New Zealand and Australia and marked the beginning of the so-called Columbian Exchange. The latter – as the transfer of goods and raw materials unique for certain hemispheres and regions – could be deservedly credited with laying the foundations of modern international trade.
While the Middle Ages are often referred to as the dark ages in the contemporary historiographic tradition, the dawn of the Renaissance marked the begging of the modern period in world history. The early modern period became a dramatic turning point in the trajectory of global political, technological, cultural and social development, expanding outlook and worldview of the contemporary Europeans and literally ‘inventing’ the modern age. Simultaneous and intense progress in such significant areas as religion, philosophy, science, politics, trade and geography produced an immense joint impact on the course of events in the later centuries.
Of course, the period brought about not only positive innovations such as humanism, scientific progress and advances in trade, but also such shameful and persisting phenomena as imperialism and colonialism. However, given the evidence, one can conclude that the modern world would not have reached the stage of development and globalization it is at nowadays; if the foundations of the modern civilization had not been laid in the early modern period marked by Europe’s awakening from the stagnant medieval sleep.
Leon-Portilla, Miguel (ed). Broken Spears: the Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico. Beacon Press, 1962.
Della Mirandola, Giovanni Pico. Dignity of Man, pp. 476-479.
Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Web. Jan 30. 2017. <https://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.ii.xiii.html>