Development of western modernity and narratives: from Machiavelli and Luther to westernization

Ales Debeljak:

“The lure of freedom to which modern man responded, and not without a shudder of excitement, was perhaps most lucidly explored by Machiavelli and Luther. Each, in his unique way, came to the far-reaching realization that the site of moral life was no longer a community but an individual. The fragile balance of power in national affairs and the fragile balance of soul in human relations; both describe the developmental trends of western modernity, Machiavelli in the name of national interests and Luther in the name of personal liberation.

The first condition for such a perception of the world was the separation of Church and State. In modern states, it is a constitution and legislation, not the doctrines of one religious community or another, that determine the basic frameworks of co-existence. Christians of various denominations across post-Renaissance Europe came to recognize a new principle: that of relative autonomy enjoyed by various spheres (science, arts, ethics). In other words, in modernity scientific rules cannot be applied to the religious sphere without inflicting serious cognitive harm; and by the same token, the sphere of art cannot be required to observe religious principles.

While the Renaissance, humanism, Protestantism and capitalism destroyed the metaphysical unity of the Christian world, the compleat mapa mundi, the twins of Enlightenment and the French Revolution provided the legal framework for the modern paradigm. Finding encouragement in the fresh examples of successful and total change, namely the liberation of thirteen American colonies from the British crown, France set the new rules of game with theDeclaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Both documents would have been unimaginable during the feudal ancien régime. The missionaries of the Enlightenment no longer saw the world as being based on privileges arising from blue blood and Church traditions, but on the equality of all before the law of the state. Instead of the God-blessed monarchy, the secular state and its representative government became the main organizers of communal life.


In the course of these processes, the ideas of the modern West turned into a general framework that today governs the reasoning and operation of the contemporary world. Modernization and westernization are Siamese twins. Those societies that rejected important elements of the package sooner or later encountered great obstacles, for example, the Soviet Union yesterday or North Korea today.

What does this package include? For starters, the basic notions of time and space.


The modern West invented a number of such narratives. Among them are representative government and the rule of law; the separation of church and state; freedom of speech, media and association; nationalism and liberalism; individualism and human rights; but also clericalism and communism, Nazism and Fascism. During the colonial era, the package was transplanted, virtually wholesale, to the two Americas and Australia. Elsewhere in the world, even the most stubborn local elites were compelled to accept it in order to be able to participate in administrative affairs or gain independence“.


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