Guizot on how intellectual and political diversity and competition created a unique European civilization (1828)

François Guizot

The French politician and liberal historian François Guizot (1787-1874) argued that what distinguished European civilization from others, and made it superior, was the fact that no one idea or institution was able to become dominant and this left it free to experiment with many alternatives:

How different from all this is the case as respects the civilization of modern Europe! Take ever so rapid a glance at this, and it strikes you at once as diversified, confused, and stormy. All the principles of social organization are found existing together within it; powers temporal, powers spiritual, the theocratic, monarchic, aristocratic, and democratic elements, all classes of society, all the social situations, are jumbled together, and visible within it; as well as infinite gradations of liberty, of wealth, and of influence. These various powers, too, are found here in a state of continual struggle among themselves, without any one having sufficient force to master the others, and take sole possession of society.

These passages remind one very much of the ideas of the modern economic historian E.L. Jones in his book The European Miracle (1987). Jones’s thesis was that because Europe escaped coming under the control of a single political empire a multiplicity of political, social, legal, and economic structures were able to evolve and even coexist. This created opportunities for competition between states to attract entrepreneurs and investors and for citizens to exercise their “right of exit” to leave a worse state for a better state. The existence of micro-states and principalities provided the necessary shelter in “interstices” where experiments in things like city charters and constitutions could be undertaken and, if successful, spread to other cities across the continent. The dynamism and creativity of Europe, its “superiority” if you like, stems from the fact that “no single principle, no particular organization, no simple idea, no special power has ever been permitted to obtain possession of the world, to mould it into a durable form, and to drive from it every opposing tendency, so as to reign itself supreme.”