An excellent lecture by Joel Mokyr, highly informative and fascinating. A few remarks.
1. Guilds.I was struck by how positive Mokyr is about guilds. G.K. Chesterton would be pleased. I had thought of the guilds as basically rent-seeking organizations that inhibited progress, and to some extent they were. Adam Smith wasn't very positive about the apprenticeship system either. But Mokyr argues that one of the big European advantages was that they had high-quality craftsmen, and that, in turn, had a lot to do with the guilds. It's one thing to invent stuff, it's another thing to make it. If you don't have people who are dexterous with their hands, you probably can't get your inventions to work. Other civilizations would sometimes even have the same technology-- gunpowder, for example-- but the quality was much lower. Here is Chesterton:
When we pass from the strictly educational hierarchy to the strictly egalitarian ideal, we find again that the remains of the thing to-day are so distorted and disconnected as to be comic. There are City Companies which inherit the coats of arms and the immense relative wealth of the old Guilds, and inherit nothing else. Even what is good about them is not what was good about the Guilds. In one case we shall find something like a Worshipful Company of Bricklayers, in which, it is unnecessary to say, there is not a single bricklayer or anybody who has ever known a bricklayer, but in which the senior partners of a few big businesses in the City, with a few faded military men with a taste in cookery, tell each other in after-dinner speeches that it has been the glory of their lives to make allegorical bricks without straw. In another case we shall find a Worshipful Company of Whitewashers who do deserve their name, in the sense that many of them employ a large number of other people to whitewash. These Companies support large charities and often doubtless very valuable charities; but their object is quite different from that of the old charities of the Guilds. The aim of the Guild charities was the same as the aim of the Common Land. It was to resist inequality—or, as some earnest old gentlemen of the last generation would probably put it, to resist evolution. It was to ensure, not only that bricklaying should survive and succeed, but that every bricklayer should survive and succeed. It sought to rebuild the ruins of any bricklayer, and to give any faded whitewasher a new white coat. It was the whole aim of the Guilds to cobble their cobblers like their shoes and clout their clothiers with their clothes; to strengthen the weakest link, or go after the hundredth sheep; in short, to keep the row of little shops unbroken like a line of battle. It resisted the growth of a big shop like the growth of a dragon. Now even the whitewashers of the Whitewashers Company will not pretend that it exists to prevent a small shop being swallowed by a big shop, or that it has done anything whatever to prevent it. At the best the kindness it would show to a bankrupt whitewasher would be a kind of compensation; it would not be reinstatement; it would not be the restoration of status in an industrial system. So careful of the type it seems, so careless of the single life; and by that very modern evolutionary philosophy the type itself has been destroyed. The old Guilds, with the same object of equality, of course, insisted peremptorily upon the same level system of payment and treatment which is a point of complaint against the modern Trades Unions. But they insisted also, as the Trades Unions cannot do, upon a high standard of craftsmanship, which still astonishes the world in the corners of perishing buildings or the colours of broken glass. There is no artist or art critic who will not concede, however distant his own style from the Gothic school, that there was in this time a nameless but universal artistic touch in the moulding of the very tools of life. Accident has preserved the rudest sticks and stools and pots and pans which have suggestive shapes as if they were possessed not by devils but by elves. For they were, indeed, as compared with subsequent systems, produced in the incredible fairyland of a free country.
Without endorsing this word for word, I wonder if Chesterton was onto something here. I could put it in terms MacIntyre might like by saying that the guilds learning to value practices for their own sake, and not merely for the extrinsic rewards associated with them.
2. European space. Mokyr emphasizes the importance of political fragmentation, and in particular, the ability of the leading intellectuals, when persecuted in one place, to move somewhere else. I agree! And that's yet another reminder of how valuable it would be today to abolish the barbarous passport regimes which shackle and smother the human race and declare open borders. But there's another point here: even though Europe was politically fragmented, yet it was a unified cultural space. Europeans could talk to each other. They could travel and feel more or less at home. Prestige in Paris meant prestige in London and prestige in Berlin. There was a shared cultural frame of reference. That European space was a cultural unity made possible the respublica litteraria of the Enlightenment, but what made it possible; why was Europe a cultural unity? The answer to that lies deep in the Middle Ages, in the missionaries who brought Christianity to the far corners of the continent, in the monasteries that Christianized Europe and preserved literacy in Latin and mastered the ancient literature in the ancient languages, in the internationalism of the university of Paris and the Dominican and Franciscan orders, and so on. In short, it was the work of Christianity and the Church. The remarkable thing about this is that because the Church is not a temporal, political order (despite the efforts of a corrupt papacy to make it one, for a time), this unity did not depend on any regime. So it made possible political-fragmentation-admist-cultural-unity, which is precisely the fortunate arrangement that made the Enlightenment possible.
3. Slavery and the Middle Ages. One of the questioners near the end puts with peculiar eloquence how strange the rise of Europe is, when one considers how much more advanced the Muslim world was a few hundred years before, and challenges Mokyr to explain it. But this questioner very much overstates her case. As far as I understand, the Muslim Middle East was indeed richer in the high and late Middle Ages, but there were plenty of signs of Europe's coming ascendancy if one knew what to look for. The Muslim world absorbed Aristotle and to some extent responded to it, but much less creatively than the scholastic thinkers of medieval Europe. At the time of the Crusades, the Muslim states were indeed richer, but Europeans were by no means overmatched militarily. On the contrary, crusading knights were individually superior to their Muslim opponents, by a wide margin. Moreover, and very revealingly, the Muslims did not imitate the Crusader knights, even when it was clear that the knights were effective. They couldn't; they didn't have the cultural wherewithal to do it. The Crusader kingdoms were eventually overrun, but considering how disadvantageous was their position, with small contingent of "Franks" in a narrow strip of land surrounded by Muslim powers, that they lasted for a couple of centuries is suggestive of the precocious strength of Europe. The absence of slavery in western Europe, already an accomplished fact by 1200 or so, stands in stark contrast to the practice of slavery on an enormous scale in the Muslim world, and was a harbinger of the moral advantages and the greater freedom that Europe was steadily to enjoy and to increase in the centuries that followed. The Magna Carta was signed in 1215, and proto-parliamentary institutions appeared in several countries. Europe had the separation of Church and state, and its feudal social order contrasts sharply with the despotism that prevailed in the Muslim world. In fact, I don't know the history of the Islamic world all that well, but from what little I do know I've never heard of any blossomings of liberty or republicanism or representative government, such as exist all over the West, and even in the Russian city-state of Novgorod in the Middle Ages. As far as I know, the Islamic world was an unbroken record of tyranny for a thousand years.
If we imagine an astute observer in 1200, an observer who is somehow able to understand what an Industrial Revolution is apart from the particular history by which it occurred in the West, I think this observer could not only have forecast that it would occur in western Europe and nowhere else, but would have been surprised that it happened so late. Also, I don't think it would have happened anywhere else without the stimulus from Europe, or to be more exact, from Christianity, which is the key. Christianity contained moral forces that abolished slavery and softened despotism into lawful kingship. It contained the blueprints for an institution, the Church, which had an institutional life independent of the state, which could resist it, critique it, hold it accountable, though of course it often failed to do so. And it was able, to a greater extent than other forces in history, to create cultural unities broader than any particular polity, giving the human spirit more scope in which to develop.