History 101

     Things are getting pretty intangible around here.
     To escape the horrors of the political campaign, I sought refuge in Carlo Cipolla’s “Economic History of Europe” and the “New Cambridge Modern History” of the Renaissance. I figured I’d learn more and it would be less annoying.
     Old Carlo published his third volume, “The Industrial Revolution,” in 1973. I was mighty surprised to learn that in that year the United States of America was the only country in the world whose economy was more than 50% based on services. And services, Carlo assures us, are intangible.
     They are not part of the primary economy – which is agriculture – or the secondary economy – which is manufacturing – or the “extractive” economy of mining and drilling for oil, which is a peculiar combination of the primary and second economies.
     Services are intangible, and as nations become wealthy, their people earn more and more money from intangible services, and less and less from tangible things. In fact, Carlo assures us, the ratio of the “tertiary sector” of services to the two primary sectors is one way to measure how successful a modern economy is.
     To this day, most of the rest of the world aspires to be, economically, like the United States – to earn more money from intangibles.
     So the enormous destruction of wealth from which our country and the world is suffering today is, for the most part, destruction of an intangible thing – a thing that you would be hard put to prove ever existed – for instance, the hundreds of thousands of dollars your house was supposed to be worth, but isn’t.
     Holding that thought, I picked up the Cambridge dons on the Renaissance, looking for an impossible thing: to know what it was like to be human in the Middle Ages – how those people thought.
     That was even weirder than an intangible economy.
     England’s first great publisher, William Caxton, spent the 1470s and 1480s printing books about the knights of Troy, Greece, Charlemagne and King Arthur. Caxton “urged his readers to believe that the stories of Arthur were not mere fiction,” that Malory’s tales of Lancelot and King Arthur were a true account “of the greatest age in England’s history.” This was a way of thinking that the Renaissance, then being created in Italy, would destroy.
     But it took a while. Philippe de Commynes, one of France’s first great historians, who died in 1511, tried to apply the new rationalism to his writing, but still ascribed “the causes of wars and defeats, of all historical changes, to divine intention to punish or educate.”
     Holy smokes, I thought: that’s the way half of America still interprets history today. It’s the way that the president of the United States assures us that he understands history – or fails to understand it. And it’s the way that airhead from Alaska campaigned to be vice president.
     She says she’s waiting for God to tell her whether she should run for president in 2012. And millions of people apparently believe that it’s a good thing that she’s waiting for the word from God.
     No wonder this country is in such sad shape. We are being run by people with medieval minds, and most of our national wealth rests upon intangible things.
     As a final thought, the Cambridge dons inform us that Pope Leo X raised the money for the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome – one of the towering monuments of human art – by “the unhappy idea” of selling indulgences – assuring the faithful that if they threw money at the Church, the Church would get them into heaven.
     The pope issued this order in 1513, and his priests spread out over Europe to collect the loot. So rampant was their looting that four years later, Martin Luther nailed “his famous ninety-five theses on the value of indulgences” to a church door, setting off the Reformation, which would cost millions of lives, and whose effects we still live with today.
     So the opulent palace that expressed Western man’s highest religious aspirations was paid for through the crassest form of extortion and corruption, and every marble column in it undermined the very institution it was supposed to glorify.
     Sort of makes you look at the empty mini-mansions littering our landscape with a new eye – or with the same old ones.

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