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History 2: Modernity

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  1. Lesson 1: Orientation
    11 Steps
  2. Lesson 2: The Great Stage: Introduction to the West
    13 Steps
  3. Lesson 3: Ideas Have Consequences: The Enlightenment
    11 Steps
  4. Lesson 4: The Sacred & the Secular: Empires, Pirates, and Rulers
    11 Steps
  5. Lesson 5: Royal Science: The Scientific Revolution
    11 Steps
  6. Lesson 6: The Creators: Pascal, Vermeer, Johnson, and Bach
    11 Steps
  7. Lesson 7: The Devil Has No Stories: The French Revolution
    12 Steps
  8. Lesson 8: I Am The Revolution: Napoleon Bonaparte
    13 Steps
  9. Lesson 9: Deus Ex Machina: The Industrial Revolution
    11 Steps
  10. Lesson 10: The Antiquary & the Muse: Scott, Austen, and the Romantic Poets
    12 Steps
  11. Lesson 11: No Vision Too Large: Wilberforce & Chalmers
    10 Steps
  12. Lesson 12: Culture = State: Nationalism
    12 Steps
  13. Lesson 13: Eminent Culture: Victorianism
    11 Steps
  14. Lesson 14: The West and the Rest: Victorian Missions
    13 Steps
  15. Lesson 15: The New Priesthood: Scientism and Darwinism
    11 Steps
  16. Lesson 16: The Square Inch War: Kuyper and Wilson
    12 Steps
  17. Lesson 17: The Pity of War: World War I
    11 Steps
  18. Lesson 18: Domesticity Versus Tyranny: Versailles, Dictators, and America’s Roaring Twenties
    12 Steps
  19. Lesson 19: Modern Art and the Death of Culture: Art and Architecture
    11 Steps
  20. Lesson 20: I’ll Take My Stand: The Thirties
    11 Steps
  21. Lesson 21: The Lost Generation: Literary Converts
    12 Steps
  22. Lesson 22: The Wrath of Man: World War II
    11 Steps
  23. Lesson 23: The Cross and Perseverance: World War II, Bonhoeffer, and Churchill
    13 Steps
  24. Lesson 24: Personal Peace and Affluence: The Fifties
    11 Steps
  25. Lesson 25: The Great Divorce: The Sixties
    11 Steps
  26. Lesson 26: The West Like the Rest: The Seventies and the End of Modernity
    11 Steps
  27. Lesson 27: The Triumph of the West: The Fall of Communism and Postmodernity
    12 Steps
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The following transcript was automatically generated and may contain errors in spelling and/or grammar. It is provided for assistance in note-taking and review.

Welcome back. We’re going to take a look today at some enlightened despots, some absolutist rulers, who tried to incorporate the ideas and ideals of the Enlightenment in their various reigns.

It’s interesting, the historian R. R. Palmer describes these rulers as being, quote, he says, “They claimed no mandate from heaven, and they recognized no special responsibility to God or to the church.” These were rulers who ideally believed that you simply needed human reason to secure a happy and a just state. They often saw old customs and old traditions as being weary, as being out of date, as being something to be discarded, and that often meant the scriptures along with them.

In some ways, they were Immanuel Kant’s ideal leaders. In fact, you read in one of the previous lessons in the reader, you read Kant’s whole entire work on what an ideal state looked like. Now, Kant, as we know, actually respected the scriptures and actually saw an importance behind revelation and saw it as something that was needed. But of course, he was also arguing that you can kind of come to the truth through pure reason alone in some ways. and he saw that as being something that could be promoted by a great leader. We’ll start out with two different Habsburg rulers who both had their central realm of influence specifically in Austria and Hungary. The first is Maria Theresa. She was Empress from 1740 to 1780, was followed by her son Joseph II who reigned from 1780 to 1790. As Empress, Maria had always feared a state that was too weak. In fact, the state that she inherited had lost many of the great wars against other European powers in recent memory at this point. And so she really wanted to see a much more powerful state. So she secured this through several things. Through one, she increased the bureaucracy, the amount of government officials and government regulations under her auspices and under her actual rule. She also increased things like taxes and also created the large or one of the largest standing armies in all of Europe at the time.

She also did things like she revoked or took away the constitution of Bohemia which was still under Habsburg rule and her remains so ever since the 30 years war.

She took away for example the rights of various states throughout her realm to veto taxes. She often removed local governors and put those in power in the various provinces and regions under her rule that would give her the most absolute loyalty possible, whatever matched with her actual vision.

She ultimately broke up kind of the old state pattern of Christendom which had seen, as we saw in the Habsburg Holy Roman Empire, lots of individual states that had their own individual character but that was something that had been diminished after the 30 Years War and it continued under the reign of of Enlightenment philosophers and rulers especially.

Her son, Joseph II, was a very astute student and reader of the thinkers of the Enlightenment. He was described as being rather serious, as being very earnest, and as having a great passion for many of the poor and lower classes, which was in and of itself a good thing.

But he was also known as saying things like “the state is the greatest good for the greatest number of people. So here’s where the Enlightenment really kicks in. It’s where the state or that republic that actually governs the affairs of men, specifically in laws and taxes and so forth, was seen as the greatest possible organization available to mankind.

After all, if there really is no God or if God is not really needed, then you kind of turn to things like the state as a replacement.

As for Joseph II, he did do several good things. For example, he completely abolished slavery throughout the Habsburg realms, at least in the European realms. He often made equal tax rates so that everybody paid roughly the same amount of taxes. He began to make it so that there were equal punishments given for the same type of crime, whether or not you came from a lower class or an upper class and had more wealth.

He also exercised further religious tolerance than the Habsburg realm had seen before. All of those things could be seen as very positive things. But what’s interesting about this is he did it often at the cost of abolishing local governments and local rulers following in the exact same footsteps his mother had done.

To kind of make everything into a stronger government, he chose German as the single official language for the entire Austro-Hungarian Empire. That was a huge change. Prior to this, the different languages and dialects had been respected and allowed to remain. Now they began to be pushed against and German replaced them. German replaced not only language but began to replace the the customs and the culture of, for example, the Czechs or the Poles or the Magyars down in Hungary.

He also did things like he used the clergy, for example, to preach a love of the new state. He encouraged them to recognize the authority of the government, which they used passages, in some ways rightfully so, from the New Testament to show how governments are actually executing God’s authority, specifically punishing evildoers. But he really also used them to kind of twist that message to show how the state was the greatest good. It was also under Joseph II that he increased things like inspections and reports and paperwork and certifications. It was all part of a growing bureaucracy that was designed to further control the various realms of mankind. I mean, it really did not exist prior to this. He also began a secret police force. These would be plainclothes policemen whose primary job was really to spy upon the citizens of their own country. They reported all things to the government. It became a place that easily reported things to authorities instead of considering personal freedom or, for example, freedom of thought. He ultimately tried to marginalize the church whenever it was possible by regulating it further. By the time he died, he found that his empire was not necessarily this huge, strong, solid regime as he had hoped, but instead had suffered several revolutions and several revolts all around and throughout its realm because of his exercise of control.

Now, the second character that I actually want to talk about would be a Prussian Enlightenment leader, and that was Frederick the Great, who reigned from 1740 to 1772.

He called himself the first servant of the state, which was a noble talent, something that, or not sorry, a noble title, something that would actually show his entire aim and desire to be a servant to others.

That was common amongst the Enlightenment thinkers and the Enlightenment rulers. They actually thought they were doing something good. As for Frederick, he came from a rather troubled home. He had a very abusive father, one who both physically and verbally and emotionally abused him in all those three ways. And so he fled with a friend to try to escape his father’s rule. However, the two of them were captured and his friend was executed while his father forced the young Frederick to watch the execution of his best friend.

So that tells you you about his father and it also tells you about the trauma of his childhood. Either way, Frederick grew up and saw a Prussia that was already focused on militarization, already focused on increasing its military power, and he simply furthered that.

The Prussian troops, in fact, became world famous for their ability to practice perfect drills for their ability to consistently obey orders and do so even under fire.

As a result, he used that military to conquer parts of Poland and actually divided Poland up between his own nation of Prussia, the Austrians, and the Russians.

This actually is something that’s common for the Poles. They were often not properly respected by the powers of Europe. would continue right up through World War II and beyond. This was something that the Enlightenment thinkers had no problem with because they didn’t see themselves as conquerors, they saw themselves as liberating Poland and bringing it into the era of Enlightenment away from Christendom where it had been in the past.

He often saw himself and in some ways tried to be as kind and benevolent as possible. He was good friends with Francois Voltaire, who himself was a bit of a humanist, wanted there to be good men. The issue was that both Voltaire and Frederick of Prussia believed that our goodness kind of comes from within us, and just doing good things and being really, really nice.

They didn’t really have a proper understanding of the fall, they didn’t really have a proper understanding of sin or death, and certainly not a proper understanding of the gospel. Still, Frederick wrote to Voltaire, he said, “My chief occupation is to fight ignorance “and prejudices in this country. “I must enlighten my people, “cultivate their manners and their morals. “I must make them as happy as human beings can be, “and as happy as the means at my disposal permit.” So, it was under Frederick the Great and future Prussian and German leaders that an incredible state-sponsored school system was put into effect that required education up to a certain age, which in some ways had its positive effects, but ultimately meant that the state now took over a realm that traditionally under Christendom had been organized by the family and by the church.

So the church really had been largely divorced from the rest of society. They were no longer seen as a sphere of influence their own right, they were simply another body to be governed by the state. That’s the divide between the secular and the sacred. He was also famous for saying things like, “No one reasons, everyone executes.” This kind of shows you his limitation of actually applying the Enlightenment. He only wanted to reason up to a certain point. Ultimately he was going to make decisions, he was going to use force to make certain that things happen the way that he wanted them to, he was going to make men be free even if it meant killing them.

Goes right back to Rousseau and how we actually began this lesson. The final character that we’ll take a look at is Catherine the Great, who ruled over Russia from 1762 to 1796. By the time that she had come into power, the Russian court had already in many ways abandoned the old ideals of Christendom and had turned to the ideals of the Enlightenment.

In fact, Peter the Great, himself probably a believer, had first looked to bring Russia into the more modern age and had actually traveled in disguise as a commoner throughout the entirety of Western Europe so he could get a first-hand view of how people lived and what they thought.

After all, if he traveled as the Tsar of Russia, people would treat him differently and would act differently in front of him. It was brilliant. Anyway, he decided that he would kind of try to eradicate things like court intrigue, where people try to knock each other off to see who would be next in line to the throne, by simply declaring that each Tsar, from his time forward, would name his own successor.

It was an idea that may have worked brilliantly, except that Peter the Great himself never named an actual successor. Ultimately, he was eventually succeeded by a series of rather weak rulers. Eventually, we come to a Peter III, who came a while after Peter the Great. Peter III was known for being somewhat of a childish ruler. In fact, at the age of 26, he was known for playing with paper soldiers in his palace. And when a rat actually began to nibble at the paper soldiers, he had the rat hanged for treason. That tells you a little bit about Peter III and his own lunacy. As a result, he was assassinated and his wife, Catherine, who herself came from Germany, a center of the Enlightenment, was placed on the throne.

She’s the one that actually becomes known as Catherine the Great. Personally, in her private life, she kept a series of lovers who were always given high state positions. She was known for starting her own fires to show that she did not need any type of servants. She was known for reading widely and reading deeply and for taking her own notes. She was always trying to better herself in that way. But like her counterparts in Austria with Maria Theresa and Joseph II, for example, she set up an enormous bureaucracy and multiplied the number of government officials throughout the Russian realm, which she organized into 50 different districts, each with governors, who not so much as led separate state districts like we have the United States, but who primarily took orders from the throne, that is from Catherine, and handed them down to the rest of her ruling empire through the various bureaucrats and officials who were underneath them.

She also expanded Russia widely through war, both taking part of Poland through that deal with the Prussians, also expanded Russia all the way down to the Black Sea and claimed what they had so long looked for, which was a warm water port, a place that would not freeze in winter, where their ships could actually dock.

She also had to face several of her own rebellions from amongst her own commoners who curiously did not quickly take to her reforms. They saw her often as attacking their way of life. It’s interesting because many of the rebellions came from the peasants of Russia, people who throughout the history of Russia have often opposed any kind of tyranny.

We’ll see it with Catherine the Great, we’ll see it again with the Bolsheviks or the Communists when they came to power under Vladimir Lenin in the 20th century. In fact, for a long time, the Russian word for a peasant is essentially the same Russian word used for a Christian. All this, of course, happened in a time when basic forms of slavery, it was called serfdom at the time in Russia, it was very different than serfdom, feudalism in medieval Europe, all perfectly legal and people were often sold and families were often broken up for profit.

These are things that she ultimately never addressed. The reason why we see so many conflicting injustices is partly, of course, because men are fallen and men are sinners, but I would suggest that it has a lot to do with Enlightenment thinking, which separated the scriptures, the sacred realm, the idea of a standard that comes from beyond us and explains why we are messed up and offers a solution, albeit through a long life of repentance.

That separation of that from the secular realm, the idea that we use reason, the idea that we use the state, the idea that we use whatever humanity can achieve on its own for our own betterment alone.

That really is the lesson to keep in mind as you review the things we’ve talked about this week.