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Chapter Thirteen


As if to offer proof that God has chosen us to accomplish a special mission, there was invented in our land a marvelous new and subtle art, the art of printing.  —Johann Sleidan (1542)

Religion in 1600 presents a grim face.... Prickly, defensive, gladiatorial debates were conducted endlessly between theologians who seldom if ever met and who wrote in prose intelligible only to their own kind. Lutheran, Calvinist, and Catholic armies were poised within a few decades to lacerate each other on the battlefields of central Europe. —Euan Cameron


In the eighteenth century, Voltaire described the Holy Roman Empire as "neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire." This was not the first time the empire had failed to live up to its billing. Since the day in A.D. 800 when the pope crowned Charlemagne, emperors had sometimes differed with popes over who was in charge, and the ensuing dustups typically left neither party looking very holy. And, holiness aside, the emperor's authority was often less than imperial, thanks to uppity feudal lords. By Voltaire's time, what clout the emperor did possess was confined to German lands. In the early years of the following century, the empire expired altogether.

This raises a question. Why, after Europe's recovery from the disarray of the early Middle Ages, did empire never lastingly return? After all, the prosperity of the late Middle Ages restored the logic behind large-scale government. With commerce once again a long-distance affair, commensurately broad governance could ease and protect it. Besides, with war as popular as ever, big states should in theory have swallowed little states ad nauseam. Also favoring large polities was that eternal force of history, the egos of rulers. Yet all imperial designs— the Hapsburgs', Napoleon's—ultimately failed. And it wasn't just western Europe that seems to have grown resistant to lasting conquest. Southeast Europe meanwhile freed itself from the long-redoubtable Ottoman Empire. More recently, Russia's imperial dominance of eastern Europe lasted a mere half-century.

Obviously, as the last chapter suggested, the absence of enduring empire in recent centuries has something to do with Europe's being a crazy quilt of different languages. But that can't be the whole story. The eastern half of the Roman Empire had been quite multilingual, but it endured imperial rule for centuries. By Voltaire's day, something had changed, making linguistic boundaries more formidable. The political model that had prevailed across much of Eurasia in A.D. 100--large, multilingual empires—was becoming an endangered species in Europe. It would also falter in the Near East and, eventually, in much of Asia. Why?

To try to account for such a complex and momentous change with a single explanation would be foolhardy. But let's try anyway: the printing press. At least, let's examine the possibility that the press, more than any other factor, rendered vast multilingual empires unwieldy to the point of being unworkable.

There are other reasons to spend a chapter dwelling on the press. Not for nothing have some historians used Gutenberg's first movable type press, circa 1450, as the official starting point of Europe's "modern era," that half-millennium of brisk change that got us where we are today. The printing press helped overhaul religious thought and ushered in both the scientific and industrial revolutions. In so doing, it hastened the coming of other world-changing information technologies—telegraph, telephone, computer, Internet. In 1450, most Europeans would have laughed at the notion of a single, intricately woven global civilization (and perhaps at the notion of a globe). Yet already they possessed the basic machinery for creating this world.

The press did more than pave the way for the information technologies that today are revolutionizing life; it foreshadowed them. In its specific, sometimes paradoxical effects, the print revolution parallels the latest phase of the microelectronics revolution. Indeed, there is no better historical preparation for thinking about how the Internet will reshape political and social life than seeing how the printing press reshaped them. The late modern era—today—is in many ways the early modern era, only more so...


An excerpt from Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, By Robert Wright, published by Pantheon Books. Copyright 2000 by Robert Wright. Other excerpts are available at