Autonomy and Authority

Revolutions in early modern technology and scientific thought animated discussions about power—Hum 211/212 explores how.

By Michael Faletra | March 30, 2022

The introduction of the printing press with movable type created an explosion in the availability and sheer volume of printed books by the early 16th century. By mid-century, it is estimated that over a million separate titles were in print in practically every European language. The French writer François Rabelais referred to this dizzying proliferation of new print texts as “an abyss of learning”—and, indeed, the impact of print on the European mind is perhaps comparable to the impact of digital media on contemporary culture.

Written accounts of the so-called “New World” by Columbus, Bernal Díaz, and Bartolomé de las Casas were consumed by a readership eager for new geographic and ethnographic information. Likewise, work in what we now call the sciences could be shared broadly and rapidly: Galileo’s Starry Messenger with its sketches of lunar mountains (seen here), the moons of Jupiter, and the rings of Saturn, not only radically altered people’s perceptions of the cosmos but also disseminated these ideas far more quickly than political and religious authorities could suppress them. The groundwork for the open sharing of what would come to be called “scientific” ideas was being laid.

This new ease of access to books also meant that, for the first time in history, Christians in great numbers could actually own a Bible—which also meant they could read it privately, with or without the supervision of ecclesiastical authorities, and usually in the new vernacular translations into English, German, and other languages.

Martin Luther is perhaps best known as the face of the Protestant Reformation, but he stands also as perhaps the first media star of the Age of Print, a canny practitioner of the new medium. Through the power of print, his interrogation of religious authorities ignited a blaze that swept through Europe, creating deep fault lines within Christendom and inaugurating new configurations of the relationship between Church and state.

Inspired by Luther’s principle of sola scriptura, or adherence to God’s Word as revealed in the Bible, early modern Christians began to rethink what it meant to lead a good life: for many, the institution of the Catholic Church no longer seemed the unassailable authority it had once been. The Christian freedom described by Luther liberated individuals from spiritual dependence on the Pope and the Roman church.  Luther and fellow Reformation leaders such as Jean Calvin insisted on obedience to political authorities. But their ideas inspired others to question traditional political and social hierarchies and allegiances.       

These sudden changes in society and culture—and especially the decentering of traditional notions of religious and political authority—engendered a deep skepticism about how a person can know the world and behave in it. For the French essayist Michel de Montaigne, the chaos of the 16th-century world incited him to rely instead on his personal experience as the measure of all things. Slightly later, William Shakespeare’s plays likewise questioned easy assumptions about political authority, gender, race, and moral fiber. In Othello, for example, the villainous Iago ruthlessly deploys insinuations and hints to destabilize perception itself, causing the tragic hero to doubt his own eyesight. The play troubles the very notion of truth. And in Cervantes’s Don Quixote, the titular character’s mad romp through rural Spain highlights the dangers—and exhilarating pleasures—of living in a fantasy world that fails to align with objective reality.

For the mathematician René Descartes, the deep-seated uncertainty about the world hinted at by Shakespeare and Cervantes posed an unavoidable problem: how could mathematics, or any other form of knowledge, be part of a world plagued by such doubt? Descartes’s response was to formulate a new foundation for knowledge that would prove so influential for the history of philosophy that later thinkers would label it “the Cartesian revolution.” For Descartes, all of a person’s sensory input can be radically doubted, but the buck stops, so to speak, with the self-awareness of the thinking mind itself. As he put it, “I think, therefore I am.” 

The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes in his book Leviathan approached the problem of credible authority from a political perspective. As he saw it, humans in the “state of nature” were autonomous and self-serving, and so only a strong, centralized, authoritative government—an absolute sovereign—could maintain order in the world.  Although his ideas were promulgated in the midst of a destructive English civil war, they would prove appealing to the absolute monarchies then holding sway over much of Europe.

In Hobbes’s wake, John Locke formulated a different political solution: rather than advocate for subjection to an all-powerful sovereign, he posited that all human beings are by nature equal and that each possesses innate reason and rights.  For Locke, the purpose of government was to ensure that the rights of one individual minimally constrained the rights of all others.

This political philosophy forms the basis of modern liberal democracies, but the 21st–century world also displays the persistent allure of Hobbes’s more pessimistic and autocratic vision. The tensions between autonomy and authority that emerged so dramatically in the early modern world—and that animate the Hum 211/212 syllabus—are still very much at play today.

Tags: Academics, Courses We’d Love To Take