The Victorian Age, part one

She was still a teenager in 1837 when Alexandrina Victoria’s uncle died and she became Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom. By this time the royal authority was more ceremonial than governmental, yet this queen became the symbol of an era, an era during which it was said that “the sun never sets on the British Empire.” This saying was literally true, as the nation had claimed lands in the western hemisphere (Canada, Jamaica and other islands in the Caribbean, British Honduras, and British Guiana), in Africa, in south Asia (India and Burma), in east Asia (especially the port of Hong Kong), and in the south Pacific (including Australia and New Zealand). At no time during the twenty-four-hour day was the sun failing to shine on British soil. Its preeminence in worldly politics made the saying figuratively true as well. British power was balanced in Europe by France, Russia, Prussia, and Austria. Ancient China and the new United States of America also had their place in the grand scheme of things. But for most of the nineteenth century, Britain was the most powerful and important nation on earth, and Queen Victoria was the most power and important person in Britain.

The Industrial Revolution and the European age of exploration had helped to make Britain great. Enlightenment ideas regarding human rights and equality, limited government, and a capitalist economy all contributed to the greatness of Britain as well. Britain shared her greatness with the world, and accomplishments from the rest of the world added to the triumph of civilization in the United Kingdom. Human triumphs increased each year, and it seemed unlikely that human progress would falter or fall anytime soon.

The heyday of modern thought had arrived. Science had triumphed over superstition. Astronomy, chemistry, and biology all contributed to make students wiser than their predecessors, and it seemed that all science needed to do was continue refining its techniques to place the final details on its picture of the world as it truly works. These scientific discoveries were harnessed into technology. Travel was faster and safer than ever before. Electrical power had been tamed and forced to serve humanity. Communication flew from city to city at the speed of light. Photography captured accurate records of images, and ways were also being found to record sound. Travel through the air was within reach, and travel to the moon—and beyond, to the stars—was no longer unthinkable. Education was reaching more and more people. Cheap paper made newspapers and magazines available, and also allowed the mass distribution of new novels and of classical texts. Everything was becoming the work of machines: factory work, agriculture, and even warfare. Humanity was coming ever closer to achieving its full potential… or so it seemed at the time.

This optimism was felt in international politics. The Congress of Vienna resolved Europe’s problems after the Napoleonic wars, ensuring that the powerful governments would no longer battle one another in endless wars. A new liberal notion, called nationalism, was added to the other Enlightenment ideas of human rights and limited governments. Nationalism said that a nation—a group of people with common language, religion, culture, history, values, traditions—could live together in one place under a government of their own people, rather than having to live as part of someone else’s country. Nationalism was breaking apart empires like the Ottoman Empire, while at the same time it united countries such as Germany and Italy, both long fragmented into smaller pieces of property, each with its own government. German unification included brief border wars with Austria, Denmark, and France. Afterward, Otto von Bismarck of Germany pledged faithfulness to the same balance of powers affirmed in Vienna half a century ago. The United States endured a painful and destructive Civil War in the middle of the nineteenth century, but most powerful nations were able to push war to the fringes—to the nationalist revolution in Greece, the border conflict between Russia and the Ottomans in the Crimean region, the British effort to end the resistance of Dutch settlers in South Africa (the Boer War), and similar struggles in India, China, and other places far from the homeland of Enlightenment.

The same optimism prevailed in the United States. Believing that a Manifest Destiny gave them preeminence over North America, Americans defeated the Indian tribes and the Mexican government, soon stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans across the continent. The Civil War ended with the abolition of slavery, and industrialization helped to conquer the economic costs of the war. Education brought science, literature, morality, and patriotism to the growing population. Before the end of the century, America had become a world power, defeating the Spanish Empire, offering freedom to the island of Cuba while adding Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the Philippine Islands to America’s domain.

Optimism was felt in religious spheres as well. Some Christian scholars, building upon the Enlightenment, purged the Bible of superstition and distilled from it ethical guidance for human life. Others held firmly to the historic teachings of the Bible, laboring to bring Christ to people everywhere. Christians countered the oppressive effects of capitalism and industrialism, delivering food and medicine and Gospel comfort to the poor, encouraging business owners and governments to defend the rights of the working class, and rescuing sinners from the evils of alcohol, gambling, and prostitution. The same fervor sent Christian explorers into the depths of Africa, Asia, the Americas, and the south Pacific lands. The brought the Gospel of Jesus Christ; they also brought medicine, scientific knowledge, and the benefits of civilization while working to counter slavery and other oppression and to gain knowledge of the geography, resources, and populations of previously-unknown portions of the world.

This was the Victorian Age: a time of optimism, accomplishment, and unceasing progress. Science and education would improve life for people everywhere. Heaven on earth was achievable. Queen Victoria’s death early in the twentieth century seemed little more than another ceremonial passing of the torch to the next generation. People did not realize how quickly their optimism could be overturned. J.

Entering the modern world

Repugnance over the violent wars of the Reformation helped to usher in the modern era. But modern thought and activity would not have been possible without a rich inheritance bestowed by the high and late Middle Ages, the age of European exploration, the Renaissance, and the Reformation.

Chinese technology had traveled west along the Silk Roads until it sparked revolutionary change in Europe. The wheelbarrow, the water wheel, and the magnetic compass all came from China. So did gunpowder. So did printing. Johannes Gutenberg is credited with inventing the printing press in Europe, but he merely adapted technology already in use. Even so, the development of printing arguably allowed Martin Luther’s ideas to be transmitted more easily than those of Waldo, Wycliffe, and Huss, making Luther the hero of the Reformation.

Knowledge and wealth flowed into Europe from new trade routes along the coast of Africa and then to Asia, as well as into the Western Hemisphere. Capitalism had already developed from the medieval guilds and leagues and from Renaissance bankers, but trade and colonization opened new avenues of capital investment and profit. Scientific thought began with medieval philosophers. Galileo and Newton could not have been heroes of the early Modern Era without Nicholas of Cusa, Roger Bacon, and Nicholas Copernicus. These ingredients simmered together during the crisis years of the Reformation, yielding a stew of new thoughts and ideas that can only be described as modern.

Modern thought is characterized by confidence in the superiority of reason, belief in the objective assessment of data, expectation of a comprehensive explanation of whatever is being examined, and certainty of inevitable progress. All four of these have been challenged by post-modern thought in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; post-modern thinkers question reason, doubt that any delivery of information is untainted by subjective opinions, treat most explanations as only partial views of reality, and assess both gains and losses with every change. Modern thinkers credit science and education with the ability to improve the world and solve its problems; post-modern thinkers readily challenge science and education without assuming that they are undoubtedly right and their results will be completely beneficial.

Early modern thinkers called their time the Enlightenment. Historians reluctant to bestow such a value-laden label on those years are shifting to the term Baroque. Already used to describe music from that time (Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, and so on) and painting from that time (Rembrandt and Rubens, among others), the term Baroque provides a value-free description of the time period that begins with the Peace of Westphalia (1648) and continues to the American Revolution and French Revolution of the late eighteenth century.

The first important Baroque philosopher was Rene Descartes (1596-1650). To encounter truth, Descartes began by doubting everything. He asked if he could be certain of anything, and proved to be certain of one thing—that someone, by doubting, was thinking. “I think, therefore I exist,” he concluded. But information was reaching his thinking mind; something else must exist outside of his mind. That something must have a source, a First Cause, a God who made its existence possible. Descartes insisted that any God who made the flow of information from an outside world possible must be good; he said it was unthinkable that an evil God would be playing tricks on his perception. (The Matrix movies had not yet been filmed.) Therefore, he could rely on his senses and learn about the world around him. Starting from himself and moving on to God, Descartes found himself living in a reasonable world.

Baroque philosophers generally conceded the existence of God, but they were careful not to define God. In fact, they insisted upon each individual’s right to encounter God and understand God in his or her own way. Reformation warfare soured them upon government-supported religion. As Luther had already been willing to separate Church and State, so the Baroque philosophers wanted the Church and the State to leave each other alone.

Their undefined God is often called the Deist God. Deists believe in a God who created the world and set all its rules; they do not acknowledge a God who interferes with the world and breaks his own rules. Scientists like Newton can study the world and learn the rules of its Creator. Nature always follows the rules of the Creator. His ethical or moral rules are just as important, and people should follow those rules. Among those rules, as listed by John Locke, are human rights: the right to life, to liberty, and to property. Governments exist to protect those rights. Governments cannot bestow them, and governments cannot remove them without good cause. Other Baroque philosophers wrote about a Social Contract in which some rights are surrendered to the government for the sake of society as a whole. But Baroque philosophers, for the most part, emphasized the need to limit governments, to allow them as little power as is necessary. The human individual matters more; governments should not be allowed to stifle the freedom of individual people.

Of course Baroque governments did not fall into line behind Baroque philosophers. The kings and queens of Europe were becoming more powerful than ever before. New wealth from the rest of the world and new technology made it possible to control more people and to battle more enemies. War did not cease with the Peace of Westphalia and the halt to religious wars. Nations now went to war against nations for purely political, economic, and nationalistic reasons. Although they did not receive Roman numerals, the first world wars were fought in this era. Britain and France and Spain and Prussia and Austria and Russia wrestled for dominance on the land and on the sea. English pirates sank Spanish ships and were rewarded by the crown. Louis XIV spent half the national treasury of France on luxury for himself (such as the palace of Versailles) and spent the other half at war with his neighbors. Enlightenment ideas were merely ideas at first; only later would they be tested in new forms of government, first in North America, and then, finally, in Europe.

Even among philosophers and scientists and artists, modern thought and modern methods were not universal across the culture. But the two sides of modern thought will require a separate post. J.

The so-called Renaissance

Clearly no one living in the Middle Ages thought of their time as being the Middle Ages. Like people today, the people of medieval Europe saw themselves as the latest thing, living on the edge of the future. Probably some of them were convinced that “they’ve gone about as far as they can go” in historic progress and/or in wickedness and corruption. Many Christians living in those centuries were prepared for the End of the World and the New Creation, because the times seemed troubled, just as the Bible describes the Last Days.

Likewise, no one living in the Renaissance called their time the Renaissance. The label was attached centuries later by historians determined to teach that Europe experienced Dark Ages that lasted for centuries before reemerging into the light of civilization. “Renaissance” means “rebirth,” and those later historians interpreted certain events and trends to mark a rebirth of the glory of ancient Greece and Rome, overcoming the darkness brought on by acceptance of the Christian faith, invasion of Germanic and Asian tribes, and other supposedly bad things that happened in Europe between the years 500 and 1500 AD.

Getting historians to agree on a time span for the Renaissance indicates how illusionary the label truly is. The widest possible range would stretch from the beginning of revival after the worst of the Black Death—around 1350 AD—to the end of religious wars triggered by the Reformation—around 1650 AD. This three-hundred-year Renaissance swallows the Late Middle Ages, the time of European Exploration, and the entire Reformation era. But when one starts trimming away the events and trends of the Late Middle Ages and the Reformation era, very little history is left to apply to the Renaissance label.

The fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks might be a fitting end to the Middle Ages and beginning of the Renaissance, since the Byzantine Empire represents continuity from the Roman Republic and Empire. Distinguishing the Renaissance from the Reformation—which traditionally begins in 1517—we are left with a sixty-four-year Renaissance in Italy and the rest of western Europe. Even then, many of the events and trends assigned to the Renaissance belong to the Late Middle Ages. Trying to dial back the Renaissance to 1400 or 1350 clouds the issue. Some historians split the Renaissance into two pieces—one for Italy, which had an earlier and longer Renaissance, and one for the rest of western Europe, which joined late and had a shorter Renaissance culminating in the Reformation.

Historical progress and set-backs, bright ages and dark ages, are largely illusions. Many gains are accompanied by losses. Resistance to change often outshouts new ideas for a while; as a consequence, when historians seek the beginning of new ideas, they find their origins happened earlier than most people realized. The Scientific Revolution, for example, was well-supported by Middle Age philosopher/theologians including William of Ockham, Nicholas of Cusa, and Roger Bacon. Nicolaus
Copernicus lived from 1473 to 1543, but his revolutionary suggestion that the Earth and other planets circle the sun was already suggested as an alternate model of the universe in Ptolemy’s famous work from the second century (and earlier Greek scientist/philosophers had made similar proposals).

Aside from allegedly rediscovering the civilization of ancient Greece and Rome, what made the Renaissance different from earlier times, particularly the High and Late Middle Ages? Renaissance artists strove to imitate the world as they saw it rather than using the visual arts to reinforce religious teachings. As a result, Renaissance artists developed new techniques to make their paintings and statues more photographically accurate. Famous artists, including Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo (yes, and Raphael and Donatello—they were all Renaissance artists in Italy before they became mutant ninja turtles), are famous for the realism of their artwork. Previous artists could have achieved similar work; they chose not to because the purpose of their art differed from that of the Renaissance artists.

That observation signals a second difference: Renaissance artists and thinkers valued the individual more highly than medieval artists and thinkers. Research must be done to uncover the names of those who built and decorated the medieval cathedrals. Their work was a gift to God, and they celebrated their anonymity. The heroic stature of Leonardo and Michelangelo reflects a philosophy of humanism, one which includes among its values the preeminent significance of the individual.

Renaissance humanism was not like modern secular humanism; sometimes it is called Christian humanism. While humanists asserted that “man is the measure of all things,” they did not deny the existence of God or his importance in creation and in salvation. Many of the works of Leonardo and Michelangelo depict Biblical persons and events. Still, these artists—along with philosophers and writers and historians of the Renaissance—emphasized the humanity of their subjects and the humanity of their audiences. (This trend also can be traced back to medieval thinkers such as Peter Abelard and Dante.)

Politics and economics are said to have changed significantly during the Renaissance, beginning in Italy. The shift from feudalism to capitalism can already be perceived in the guilds of the Middle Ages and in the development of banking, which did not appear out of nowhere in fifteenth-century Italy. Economic shifts happened in Europe because of the population decline due to the Black Death and to population growth after the plague diminished. At the same time, new wealth poured into western Europe from the explorers—first the Portuguese on the Atlantic coast of Africa, then the Spanish entering the New World, then the English and French and others also entering the Americas. These all contributed to the political and economic changes that were reshaping Europe at the very same time that the Reformation of the Church developed.

Which, of course, leads to several more historic posts in the coming days…. J.

A historian looks at Critical Race Theory

President Bill Clinton said, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”

Critical Race Theory (CRT) focuses on things wrong with America, both real and imagined, but seeks no cure in things right with America. Instead of a cure, CRT aims to tear down America and to replace it with a new and different America.

Rejecting CRT does not include ignoring all that has been wrong in the history of the United States. The nations that lived here more than five hundred years ago were harmed and cheated by European settlers and by the U.S. government. The slave trade brought millions of Africans, against their will, into the western hemisphere, treating them as property rather than as human beings. Immigrants have frequently been viewed with suspicion and forced to struggle to earn a place in the United States—including Irish and Italian and Polish and Russian immigrants as well as Jewish and Chinese and Hispanic immigrants. Civil rights were reluctantly granted to American citizens in the second half of the twentieth century, often against the will and the efforts of politicians and others in power, whether Republicans or Democrats or third-party citizens. All these facts cannot be ignored; they are part of our history. But these ills can be cured with what is right with America. What is right with America needs to be taught as clearly as all that is wrong with America.

CRT ignores the efforts of mainstream Americans to work decently with tribal peoples and to treat them properly. CRT ignores the efforts of mainstream Americans to end slavery and to provide equal opportunity to former slaves and to their children and grandchildren. CRT ignores the work of mainstream Americans to welcome immigrants, to embrace them into our common culture, and also to preserve and celebrate the contributions of every culture to the greatness of the United States of America. CRT pretends that mainstream America has always resisted civil rights for its minority citizens, that mainstream America did not outvote the leaders who opposed civil rights, replacing them democratically with leaders willing to support and enforce civil rights.

CRT suggests that racism and discrimination is systemic in the United States. Inasmuch as all people fall short of the glory of God and sin, selfish pride and hatred can be called systemic. But the United States has done more than most countries in the world to overcome selfish pride and hatred and to protect and defend the rights of all people. CRT suggests that some people are born into privilege and others are born into poverty and weakness, as if nothing can be done or is done to share privilege with the unfortunate. But the United States has done more than most countries in the world to relieve poverty, to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless, to provide healing for the sick, to educate all citizens, and to open job opportunities and leadership opportunities to those who were born among minority groups or who came legally to this country from other parts of the world.

CRT acts as though wealth and power are limited, as if the only way to help the poor is to take more money from the rich, as if they only way for minorities to gain power is for them to take power away from the majority. America has never functioned that way. Capitalists know that labor adds value to the world. A raw diamond is shaped by a jeweler. The finished product is smaller, but it is more valuable because of the knowledge and effort of the jeweler. In the same way, value increases through businesses and corporations that hire and train workers, providing goods and services to citizens and abroad, improving the world for all people—not merely for the few rich business leaders and investors. Punishing the leaders and investors for their success does not help the poor; punishing those with wealth for their success encourages them not to succeed, not to provide jobs and training and goods and services that enrich the lives of many. So also, American government provides opportunity for all citizens. The very fact that some members of Congress are permitted to speak about their scorn for America, for capitalism, and for our current system of government reveals that America flourishes with freedom and that America provides opportunity for all people.

CRT has existed for years in academic circles, where it belongs. College students and history professors need to be acquainted with CRT as they need to be acquainted with the ideas of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and other twentieth-century leaders whose bankrupt theories about history and economics have already been discredited by history. CRT can be a useful tool in the toolbox of any historian, but it must not be the only tool in the toolbox, nor the most-used tool or the first tool used. Some awareness of CRT might be helpful to junior and senior high history teachers as they prepare their lessons. But CRT is not an effective or useful tool for elementary students or high school students. Its procedures are faulty, and its findings are inadequate. Banning CRT from all institutes of learning would be inappropriate, unnecessary, and unAmerican. But asking school boards to ban CRT from elementary and high school classrooms is appropriate and American. Students need to know what is right with America so that, as they are also shown what is wrong with America, they can learn about the cure along with the ailment.

On this, reasonable people should be able to agree. J.