Tuesday, March 30, 2010

To Change the World: Proposition Two

Culture is produced.
We often speak of the “spirit of the age” or the “spirit of capitalism” as though it were the surrounding air we breathe—you can’t see it but you know it is there because people are inspired by it or infected by it (as the case may be). It is better to think of culture as a thing, a product, if you will, manufactured not by lone individuals but rather by institutions and the elites who lead them.

Most of us are inclined to what could be called the “great man” view of history. It is the Apostle Paul, Augustine, Alexander, Martin Luther and John Calvin, William Wilberforce, George Washington, Napoleon, Churchill, and the like who stood as switchmen on the train tracks of history; it is their genius and the genius of other heroic individuals that have guided civilization this way or that; for better or for worse.

Against this view, Dr. Hunter would argue that the key actor in history is not individual genius but rather the network of influential individuals, and the new institutions that are created out of those networks. This is where the stuff of culture and cultural change is produced.

Consider, for example, the Protestant Reformation. We naturally think of Martin Luther as the heroic figure of the German Reformation. But Luther was surrounded by a network of others similarly committed, not only in his monastic order but all over northern Germany— men, such as Gregory of Rimini, Joseph von Staupitz (the man Luther attributed the success of the Reformation to), Philip Melancthon, the powerful Frederick, and Theodore Beza. Melancthon was especially important, not only as the chief Protestant negotiator at the Diet of Augsburg in 1530, but for his leadership at the center of the key religious and intellectual networks of Europe. They, in turn, recreated the German university, and invented a new institution, the “academy” as the heart of social and cultural innovation. These proliferated throughout Protestant Europe.

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