superiors, rebel against your king, sass your professor, or even to rise from the place that God had appointed for you to live your life was to commit treason against God. It was to violate the fundamental laws of the universe. This is a very hard thing for us moderns to understand. We spend all of our lives trying to do better than our parents. We go to university for precisely that reason. For any creature to attack its superior in the Chain was to unhinge the universe. In a famous speech from Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare argues: The heavens themselves, the planets, and this center [Earth] Observe degree, priority, and place, Insisture, course, proportion, season, form, Office and custom, in all line of order; … ... But when the planets, In evil mixture to disorder wander, What plagues, and what portents, what mutiny, What raging of the sea, shaking of the earth, Commotion in the winds! Frights, changes, horrors, Divert and crack, rend and deracinate, The unity and married calm of states Quite from their fixture! In the next few lines, Shakespeare alludes to the contemporary belief in astrology by moving from the celestial to the earthly: O when degree is shak’d, Which is the ladder to all high designs, The enterprise is sick! How could communities, Degrees in schools, and brotherhoods in cities, Peaceful commerce from dividable shores, The primogenitive and due of birth, Prerogative of age, crowns, scepters, laurels, 3
But by degree, stand in authentic place? Take but degree away, untune that string, And, hark, what discord follows! Clearly, European society in 1500 valued order, not opportunity; conformity, not originality; and community, not individuality. When we consider that the top two ranks of the human chain represent only about 1% of the population, yet own maybe 50% of the land in Europe and nearly 100% of its power, it kind of makes you wonder why didn’t the other 99% just rebel? There were a few reasons for that. One was education. This is what they heard from the pulpit every Sunday. Remember that every person is required to attend the parish church. There were few or no competing religions. In 1500, only Jews were tolerated in some parts of Europe, but this was rare. The local landlord appointed the pastor. Having had this system drummed into them from childhood on a weekly basis, having grown up being told it was God’s plan, and knowing no alternative, it became as instinctual to them as our belief in competition, ambition, and advancement by merit is to us. After all, it explained their universe and it probably did prevent disorder that they would otherwise have been impotent to stop. As Shakespeare argues, the alternative might have been disastrous. Imagine what Europeans from 1500 would think of our world. Would they embrace its disorder, constant change, and opportunity; or would they find it violent, noisy, cold, and chaotic? Would they not find plenty of confirmation of Shakespeare’s prediction of anarchy and misery?