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Excerpt from

Chapter Thirteen



There are two basic stories about how the printing press fostered the Reformation. The first is that it brought Bibles within reach of laypeople, allowing them to get their religious instruction from the source and thus form their own opinions about church doctrine, with no coachiag from the pope. This story is especially popular among Protestants, and there is some truth to it.

But the more generally important story is the one hidden in the word "Protestant." The printing press lubricated protest. It did so by lowering the cost of reaching and mobilizing a large audience. Before the invention of printing, publishing en masse had been hard unless you could afford the upkeep on, say, a few dozen monasteries full of scribes. (For a student in Lombardy during the fifteenth century, justbefore the coming of movable type, the price of a law book was more than a year’s living costs.) Now, with printing cheap, an eloquent agitator with a catchy idea could occupy center stage.

Martin Luther, a theologian of modest prominence, affixed his critique of Catholic doctrine to the door of Wittenberg’s All Saints Church on October 31, 1517, and within weeks three separate editions were rolling off the presses in three cities. A sixteenth-century writer observed: "It almost appeared as if the angels themselves had been their messengers and brought them before the eyes of all the people." Luther expressed shock at the sudden currency of his thought and agreed that the new technology had the earmarks of divinity; printing was "God’s highest and extremest act of grace, whereby the business of the Gospel is driven forward."

Of course, the pope had a different view on whether the Gospel, rightly perceived, was being driven forward. And here we see the problem with stressing the "enlightening" aspects of the press. Given the subjective nature of theological judgment, it will forever be debatable whether the press, in promulgating Luther’s theses, was furthering human knowledge. What is not debatable is that the press was sending signals that aroused and helped organize a particular community of interest.

The same distinction holds today. When lobbyists use a more recent technological advance—computerized mass mail—to target a narrow interest group, the mailings may or may not contain truth; often, in fact, they exaggerate the threat that this or that policy poses to the audience. Nonetheless, they succeed in mobilizing the audience, getting it to cough up donations, or to fax senators, or whatever. These mass mailings—fact or argument, true or false—are signals that give energy and cohesion and thus power to a community of interest that might otherwise be amorphous and powerless.

An information technology constitutes, among other things, a nervous system for social organisms—organizations of clergy, say, or organizations of heretics. The better the nervous system, the more agile the organism. For centuries before Luther, as one scholar has observed, the church hierarchy had "easily won every war against heresy in western Europe because it always had better internal lines of communication than its challengers." The press changed that, chipping away at the pope’s spiritual authority.

By the same logic, the press chipped away at secular authority. In fact, the two forms of rebellion sometimes fused. In 1524, German peasants revolted, demanding an end to serfdom. Some rebel leaders had been inspired by Luther’s teachings, including Lutheran pamphlets that held up the earnest, hardworking peasant as symbol for the simple purity of ideal Christian life. The peasants also emulated Luther’s use of the press, publishing a list of twelve grievances.

As it happened, their hero let them down, siding with the ruling class. To argue against serfdom, Luther wrote, was "dead against the Gospel." After all, "Did not Abraham and other patriarchs and prophets have slaves?"

Still, try as Luther might to confine his radicalism to theology, the cleavages within Christendom that the Reformation revealed would time and again turn out to coincide with political fault lines. The "wars of religion" that racked Europe in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries were also wars of politics. In the Netherlands, Calvinists fought to loosen the yoke of their distant and oppressive Catholic ruler Philip II, the Hapsburg king of Spain. In various German states, Protestants struggled for states’ rights against the Holy Roman Emperor. By the mid-seventeenth century, the Netherlands was free from Hapsburg control, and the Holy Roman Empire was effectively dead. A primary cause was the centrifugal force of the printing press. The press mobilized religious dissent and political dissent, and often the two worked in synergy.

Still, to call the press a wholly fragmenting, decentralizing force would be to oversimplify. Instruments of efficient communication are tools for mobilizing groups that have something in common—a political aspiration, a religious belief, a language, whatever. If the commonality implies opposition to a central authority, as it did for Luther’s followers, the result can be fragmentation, or at least a diffusion of power. But if the group’s common bond stretches across existing boundaries, bridging prior chasms, the effect can be to glue fragments together, to aggregate power.

A good example is that mixed blessing of the modern age, the shared national sentiment that—especially in its more intense, selfconscious forms—is known as nationalism. This sinewy sentiment, if used deftly by a politician, can erode the power of local rulers, expanding authority. The result—a centrally governed and culturally coherent region bound by a sense of shared heritage, shared interest, and shared destiny—is the nation-state. We take nation-states for granted today, but they didn’t always exist. To understand the printing press’s role in their evolution, we need to first understand the forces that were encouraging this evolution well before the press arrived on the European scene.


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