Mark Koyama recently published an article on Aeon that is based on his forthcoming book co-authored with Noel Johnson, in which he argues that, contrary to the dominant narrative, it is not the ideas of humanists like Voltaire, Locke, Spinoza and others that brought religious freedom (and later the other elements of a liberal democratic society) but, rather the early modern states for whose quest for centralization and higher administrative capacity the justification through a monopoly religion was no longer convenient.
In assessing his argument, one first has to note that at least in the article, the case for the instrumental role of ideas is somewhat strawmannish. It is certainly true that ideas in themselves are never sufficient, and whatever effects they have they produce in dynamic interaction with the current social realities. One of the best illustrations of how an idea may not stick because of its incompatibility with the social realities is the heliocentric theory of the Solar System. It was first proposed in Antiquity when telescopes did not exist, and could not disprove the crucial argument against it based on the unobservability of the stellar parallax the theory implied. Nor were the telescopes available to show that the satellites of Jupiter or, more importantly, the phases of Venus. But this does not mean that ideas do not matter.
Let us, however, deal with Koyama’s own thesis. He claims that the early modern states accepted relative religious freedom because the ideological justification through a monopoly religion ceased to work for them in the context in which they needed to directly exploit their societies much more than previously. However, it is important to bear in mind that the early modern states that almost uniformly attempted absolutism did not use appeals to liberal democratic values to legitimize themselves for quite some time before they did. That they had to tolerate dissent and emancipate some minorities is much more plausibly interpretable as evidence that they had no good alternative for self-legitimization to the traditional religion-based one (that absolutism apologists like Filmer were trying to bolster as late as the mid-17th century), rather than that the toleration of dissent and emancipation were aimed at self-legitimation.
Secondly, historically, there existed relatively centralized large states (the Roman and Byzantine Empires, China, the Mughal Empire) that never abolished traditionalist justifications of their dominance or adopted elements of liberal democracy on their own initiative, and that were later swept away in invasions or violent upheavals.
More importantly, Koyama’s account appears to exaggerate the extent of the rupture the early modern states made with the negative legacy of the Middle Ages. In France, for instance, guilds, legal class privileges, special taxes and quasi-taxes, etc. were only swept away in a violent social upheaval, long after the early modern state appeared on the scene. Even in England, Stuarts initially attempted to actually bring in some (post-)Medieval features through attempting to sideline the common law courts, introduce taxes without the Parliament’s consent, etc.
In fact, it may be argued that the initial measures attempted by the early modern states were mostly detrimental. This is particularly true with regard to constant wars over colonies and the continental dominance and the creation of the additional parasitic layer of bureaucratic quasi-nobility in addition to the still existing, if weakened, traditional one.
Finally, some European polities retained (post-)Medieval features to the point where they were forced to start abandoning them under threat of total defeat in the hands of their more developed counterparts — as Prussia was with respect to serfdom in 1807.
What is the non-trivial idea-centric alternative to Koyama’s thesis then?
In my view, the crucial way in which even the late Medieval Europe was unique even compared with the Islamic world that had the same opportunity, was that its intellectuals narrowly decided to confront the philosophy of the Antiquity head-on. The defining feature of that philosophy was not any particular idea but the general ethos of intellectual competition — perfectly embodied by Aristotle — that anything may be subject to debate and be in need of justification through reason and evidence, and there are no absolute authorities. Aristotle was surely misused by European thinkers, especially in the fields of cosmology and medicine, as an absolute authority but he himself would have been the first to vehemently object to that.
The signs of the difficulties that would create were visible early on. For instance, already Aquinas was unable to refute Aristotle’s arguments for the eternity of the world, and had to escape through a relatively lame excuse that while an eternal world is possible in the abstract, this is irrelevant for the actual world based on the Christian faith. The obvious weakness of such responses probably contributed to the intial condemnation of Aquinas’ thoughts (without mentioning him by name) in the Condemnation of 1277, including that very thesis.
Once released, though, the genie was difficult to put back into the bottle. Intellectually curious thinkers started questioning everything from the Catholic Church’s practices (as early as Wickliffe who was a crucial influence on Jan Hus and whose opposition to some orthodox Catholic ideas of the time was rooted in his general version of scholasticism) to Aristotle’s theory of motion to the need for religious uniformity later. The suffering and devastation brought by religious conflicts served as a powerful piece of evidence for the harmfulness of the latter. The persecution was stopped, the world did not collapse, and this created a powerful precedent for further opening-up of the debate, which made it possible for Voltaire to only be briefly thrown to Bastille for suggesting that the regent had sex with his own daughter. Of course, there was no determinism there, the Catholic side could have completely won during the Thirty Years War for example. But we are talking here are the necessary conditions, not suffcient ones.
Why, however, was this Antiquity-reception intellectual effervescence allowed to happen in the Western Europe and not in the Muslim polities that rediscovered the philosophy of the Antiquity earlier? This is not a simple question to answer but a large part of the answer is probably that, in contrast to the latter, the former did not face a constant threat of external invasion, and this usually lessens the pressure towards intellectual conformity.