Towards a New Civilizational Project

Building the Next 1543 through the University and Beyond


Lecture at the University of Bologna, second half of the 14th century.

An Endless Succession of Renaissances

Many are familiar with a historical era known as “The Renaissance,” a period lasting from approximately the fourteenth century until the seventeenth century on the European continent. During this time, all forms of intellectual and artistic life experienced profound renewal thanks to the proliferation of Classical and Arabic learning and new inquiry. The year 1543, in particular, has become a metaphor for the entire era. It was during that year that three world-changing texts were published: Nicolaus Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, Vesalius’s De Humani Corporis Fabrica, and Petrus Ramus’s Aristotelicae Animadversiones.

Yet this pinnacle year would not have been possible without the renaissance of the twelfth century, a “quieter” revolution which laid the institutional groundwork for the brilliance of the subsequent era. The universal inheritance of art and science bequeathed by the Renaissance to the world was enabled by material and social structures dedicated to the formulation and preservation of learning. One of those structures was the university, a remarkably durable historical form which is still with us today — albeit in flux as it strives to meet the needs of an age characterized by the unprecedented mobility of people, information, and capital.

After providing a historical outline of how the development of twelfth-century social infrastructures led to the Renaissance, I suggest that we are living in historical conditions which thematically recapitulate some of the problems and opportunities of the twelfth century. And much like the people of that era, we can aim to build toward a new 1543 — this time on a global scale. In other words, we can choose to create the conditions for an endless succession of future renaissances. To do so, it is incumbent upon us to build the social infrastructures that can address the contradictions of our age in ways that may be inspired by, but of course cannot recapitulate, the solutions of the medieval era. This is already well underway with the inventions of the internet, mobile, and the blockchain — technological advances in distributed infrastructure which call for social and political projects based on first principles to catch up to the scientific and moral possibilities they enable.

Building toward the next 1543 also entails paying attention to the ways in which the role of the university as the preserver and incubator of collective learning is transforming. If the university is able to be a site for a new first-principles articulation of collective aims and practices of governance designed to bring about those aims, it can yet again play a foundational role in “fleshing out” the infrastructural technologies that are being born in many different social settings. In other words, the project of infrastructure is inseparable from, but not the same as, the project of governance. Governance flows along the rails of social and material technologies, but is itself an expression of the character of the human beings making use of those technologies.

New theories of governance, if they are to hold as frameworks for social practices, require a lens broad enough to encompass a new civilizational project. By this I mean the mobilization of collective life toward shared goals using the inheritance of built materials, knowledge, and character to innovate new forms. One could claim that human beings are always doing this, but in using the term “civilizational project” my aim is to make this process more intentional. We can choose what to solve for as human collectives. That includes building in structural solutions to the problems of identitarian terror and violence which so often have accompanied the civilizational projects of the past and present. Universities have the potential to play a pivotal role in this endeavor —if they are able to organically interface with the new, distributed “monasteries” that are defining the vanguard of social infrastructure in the digital age. The human social terrain has been refactored in ways that are transforming the incubation of learning. Our social forms will move with this momentum.

The Renaissance

Nicolaus Copernicus, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, Book V. Copernicus diagrams the non-uniform motion of the planets using mathematical vectors.

Renaissance scientists like Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo revolutionized the traditional understanding of the cosmos and our place in it. Copernicus benefited from the material and institutional support of the Church, of which he was a canon, as well as that of his uncle and patron, the Prince-Bishop of Warmia, to devote his life to research. In formulating his theory of heliocentrism, Copernicus drew (literally) on advances in astronomy from the Maragha school in Ilkhanid Persia, using texts that came to Europe through Byzantium. By reversing the mathematical vectors in their diagrams of planetary motion, he proposed that the movements of the planets were better explained by placing the sun, not the earth, at the center of the cosmos. Copernicus worked privately on the theory of heliocentrism for over 30 years, discussing it only with close scientific collaborators. (Historians speculate that he was deeply wary of hostile reactions from fellow scientists and the Church.) It wasn’t until 1543, the last year of his life, that he finally entrusted it to a friend for publication in the form of a five-volume treatise, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium. A copy of the masterwork reached Copernicus on the day of his death; it was one of the last things he saw before passing away.

Andreas Vesalius, De Humani Corporis Fabrica.

With De Revolutionibus, the human understanding of the cosmos underwent what scientist Thomas Kuhn has called a “paradigm shift” — a refactoring of the fundamental presuppositions and methods employed in routine scientific practice. Meanwhile, the anatomist Vesalius published medical treatises on the human body based on actual dissection rather than simply accepting the authority of the second-third century Greco-Roman physician Galen. Dissection of human bodies had been forbidden in most contexts in the ancient and medieval Mediterranean, from the Roman Empire to the Islamic world, as well as on the European continent (although it was intermittently practiced). However, such was the authority of Galen that medical practitioners accepted his theories even when their own observations seemed to contradict them. Vesalius openly declared that because Galen’s own dissections had been based on macaque monkeys rather than humans, they could not be relied upon without question — instead, observational evidence must precede accepted explanations. His groundbreaking book, De Humani Corporis Fabrica, was also published in 1543 and featured many detailed illustrations based on human dissection. This work also constituted a scientific paradigm shift, one which complemented Copernicus’s reimagining of the wider cosmos: Vesalius scientifically reinterpreted the microcosm of the individual human being.

Artists like Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo are two of many Renaissance artists who also made use of human dissection to advance the representational potential of art. (Sometimes artists even resorted to questionable practices, such as grave-robbing and murder, to obtain human cadavers.) At that time, art and science were not considered separate domains — Copernicus, for example, was referred to as an “artist” — and their abilities to create realistic representations of buildings, weapons, and terrain were employed by governments and militaries. Renaissance artists also made fundamental strides in the use of light and perspective. To do so, they relied heavily on the work of the Arab polymath Ibn al-Haytham, about which more will be said below.

“The Ideal City,” attributed to Fra Carnevale, late 15th century. The painting is a prime example of the Renaissance technology of perspective-based representation.

Perspective allowed painters to move away from heavily-stylized figures to more realistic, psychologically-intimate depictions. Indeed, scholars like Hans Belting have argued that the representational phenomenon of perspective introduced the psychological phenomenon of perspective to European thinkers, paving the way for philosophers like René Descartes to place the thinking, feeling, and imagining human being at the center of philosophy: “I think, therefore I am.” This famous phrase first appeared in Descartes’ Discourse on Method (1637), which he explicitly chose to publish in the French language so that it would be more accessible to readers than Latin, the language of the most highly-educated elite. This move away from Latin and toward vernacular — that is, spoken — languages was part of a wider continental push to democratize learning and make use of the greater psychological intimacy of the languages that people actually lived day-to-day. Thirty years before Descartes published the Discourse, the first European novel, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha (1605), was published by Miguel de Cervantes. Written in early modern Spanish, it uses language as a source of humor: Don Quixote often speaks in outdated Old Castilian, emphasizing the caricature of his personality and, by extension, of outmoded knightly social ideals.

Philosophers like Petrarch and Erasmus laid the groundwork for these seventeenth-century innovations by formulating alternatives to and reinterpretations of Church teaching about how to live a good and moral life, methods that collectively came to be known as humanism. Meanwhile, on the theological front, Martin Luther spearheaded an irreversible reformation of Latin Christianity which sought to disintermediate the relationship between humanity and God, resulting in hundreds of years of religious and political rupture and ferment.

Petrus Ramus, 16th-century reformer of the Scholastic University.

It was against the sixteenth-century background of the Reformation and the rise of humanism that the Parisian university professor Petrus Ramus formulated his groundbreaking critique of Aristotelian logic and scholasticism, the Aristotelicae Animadversiones, and its companion volume, the Dialecticae Institutiones, both published in 1543. His university’s reaction to their publication was immediate and fierce, leading King Frances I of France to ban both books the following year. Despite these moves, however, Ramus’s critique spread like wildfire and resulted in the publication of dozens of editions of his books, which were read throughout Europe. While historians tend to agree that Ramus himself wasn’t a great logician, his works were enormously influential over the next several centuries because they stridently articulated a case for clearing away the blind obedience to masters of received interpretation that had become a habitual trait of Scholastic philosophy. He also argued passionately that a reform of the university curriculum was necessary, since the vast majority of students never made it to the highly-specialized subjects of law, theology, or medicine. Instead, he made the case for establishing a more systematized and broadly useful humanist curriculum. Not only that, but as someone who came from a farming family and made his way in universities designed for social elites, he supported reform of the process of financing a university education so as to make it more attainable to students from less affluent backgrounds. After his conversion to Protestantism in 1561, he was forced to flee largely Catholic France, and he later returned only to be murdered along with other Protestants in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572.

The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century

As remarkable as “The Renaissance” was, however, it was preceded and made possible by another renaissance that we don’t think of as readily: the renaissance of the twelfth century. This was a time of the consolidation of political and religious institutions — as well as the birth of the first European universities, institutions dedicated explicitly to the pursuit of knowledge. The twelfth-century renaissance arose from a particular set of historical conditions, three of which are elaborated below.

  1. Violent contestation over the jurisdictions of the Church and Imperial states.

Far from being a contest between religion and secularism, this was a contest between two different loci of power which both claimed spiritual and religious authority. Although the clearest issue was the protracted argument over whether the Pope or the Emperor had the power to appoint bishops and whether an Emperor had the power to appoint the pope (a conflict known as the Investiture Controversy), that was only one symptom of profoundly differing approaches to Christianity as a civilizational project, a project sometimes referred to as “Christendom.”

Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV (r. 1084–1105) (left) attempted to militarily depose the Pope in Rome and appoint his own Pope, Clement III (center). He was ultimately unable to place the Papacy under his control. His son Henry V (r. 1111 to 1125) reached a compromise with the Papacy by signing the Concordat of Worms with Pope Callixtus II (r. 1119–1124). Illustration 1157.

Emperors and many princes were adamant that, as the military arms of Christendom — “defenders” and expanders of Christianity — they should have fundamental say over aspects of Church administration. Moreover, centuries of tradition going back to Charlemagne had considered kingship itself to be a divine office mirroring Christ’s office of Divine Kingship. Accordingly, kings viewed the “princes of the State” as spiritually superior to “princes of the Church” (bishops). This view was most clearly espoused in the Tractatus Eboracenses by a writer known only as the Norman Anonymous, writing from the Cathedral city of Rouen at the very dawn of the 12th century. Church reformists, on the other hand, believed that cleaning up what they saw as rampant heresy, corruption, and sexual misconduct among the clergy needed to be a top priority. This meant subjecting them to centralized papal authority rather than allowing princes and bishops to shelter and promote clerics who supported their own idiosyncratic religious and political inclinations. By creating a strongly centralized Church and subordinating the countless Christian principalities to its authority, reformers believed they would consolidate and morally uplift the project of Christendom.

The Concordat of Worms (1122) provisionally resolved the Investiture Controversy with a compromise: placing bishops under the military authority of kings and the religious authority of the pope. Bishops would be elected by ecclesiastical councils and approved by local kings. The following year, the First Lateran Council ratified the Concordat and furthered the agenda of Church reform by nullifying all clerical offices obtained by bribery, making excommunication more binding, forbidding clerical marriage and concubinage, and forbidding any layperson from administering Church property. The twelfth century ended with the election of Innocent III to the papacy, who became one of the most powerful popes of the Middle Ages. He initiated two Crusades and was the first to regularly call himself the “Vicar of Christ,” as opposed to the “Vicar of St. Peter,” the apostle who according to ecclesiastical tradition had inaugurated the office of the papacy.

These power struggles necessitated a — notably absent — shared theory of governance, which came to be elaborated by scholars in the realm of law. Accordingly, it was the study of law, especially canon law, as a separate discipline (rather than merely as a branch of rhetoric) which gave impetus to the first European universities, like the one at Bologna. The Latin word universitas means a group or collective, and indeed the earliest universities had no buildings, no stipends, and very little formal structure; they were simply communities of masters (teachers) and scholars (students) coming together of their own free will to teach and learn. Within a few generations, however, students and faculty had negotiated legal and institutional standing vis-a-vis one another and their surrounding societies. These codifications included processes of instruction, examination, credentialing, and admission to the guild of instructors. There was now a much more stable material basis for the cultivation and transmission of reliable knowledge across the generations. It was this institutional structure which survived centuries of change in legal systems, political boundaries, religious ideologies, and practices of government. Whatever the limitations of the university, it is a social technology that has provided a stable home for the cultivation of science and humanistic inquiry for nearly a millennium.

Edition of the Decretum Gratiani, with commentary by Bartholomew of Brescia, probably produced in Bologna circa 1335–1340.

At the same time the first universities were appearing in Europe, the rediscovery of ancient Roman law, preserved in manuscripts copied by monks during the so-called “Dark Ages,” resulted in a flourishing of legal theory and statecraft. The most famous legal mind of the twelfth century was Gratian, a monk teaching at the University of Bologna. To write his masterwork, the Decretum Gratiani, he reconciled centuries of previous rulings of canon law with Biblical scripture and the Corpus Iuris Civilis promulgated under Roman Emperor Justinian I. The Decretum was glossed by dozens of legal scholars during the following centuries and served as the basis of Canon Law until 1918. With regard to the material and social structures of Latin Christian civilization, this text was no less important than the Bible.

A century after Gratian, Pope Gregory IX ordered canonist Raymond of Peñafort to make a new compilation of laws extraneous to the Decretum, which came to be known as the Decretals of Gregory IX or the Liber Extra. In his gloss on that text, the canonist Bernard of Parma formulated the first theory of the continuity of office: he argued that predecessor and successor should be understood as one person, because the Dignity of office does not die. He likened Dignity to a phoenix which is continually reborn from its own ashes. In later centuries, this theory became the philosophical underpinning for the doctrine of the Crown (and later, the State) as an abstract entity that is never born and never dies, and which represents the collective of its subjects. Although an individual may occupy the office of King, the office transcends any individual who occupies it. This may be the earliest instantiation of what we now know as the legal doctrine of corporate personhood.

In other words, the university arose in part to answer seemingly intractable questions about the nature of power and statecraft. Its scholars mediated between the institutions of Church and State while helping to build, and remaining formally separate from, both. In the process, it also created the conditions for the incubation and transmission of scientific and artistic knowledge far beyond the immediate needs of princes and bishops.

2. The Crusades.

The consolidation of Christendom as a civilizational project occurred not only via the conflict between ecclesiastical and imperial authorities, but also by way of the massive colonial venture of the Crusades: conquering lands held by Muslim powers in the name of Christianity. The First Crusade, called by Pope Urban II in 1096, swept up princes, peasants, clerics, and even children in its religious fervor. Crusading armies went both East, to the Holy Land, and West, to Islamic Spain (though this crusade is usually referred to as the “Reconquista”).

The Reconquista: A battle between the Nasrid Emirate of Granada and the Kingdom of Castile-Leon. From the Cantigas de Santa Maria (ca. 1280).

There is no doubt that Islam presented an “other” against which Latin Christians defined themselves — but in the process, Eastern Christians who refused to submit to the authority of the Roman Pope also became “others,” and initial feelings of solidarity with all Christians around the world against an “Islamic threat” gave way to bitter enmities between Western and Eastern Christians. Just prior to the beginning of the Crusades, in 1054, the Roman Pope and Greek Patriarch mutually excommunicated each other in what is known as the Great Schism. Over the centuries, “Christendom” and “Europe” became increasingly synonymous for Western Christians —many of whom considered “Europe” to end where Latin Christianity (in its Catholic and later Protestant forms) ceased to be the majority faith. This understanding has been revised in recent decades by ecumenical religious efforts on the part of such religious activists as Pope John Paul II, who apologized for the Crusades and sought to make amends with Eastern Christian patriarchs. The (increasingly contested) momentum toward European integration as part of the new civilizational project of the European Union has also helped to materially expand the geography of Europe by incorporating majority-Orthodox countries into the European fold — with the potential to extend even to majority-Muslim Turkey.

“Saladin’s Army.” From the Histoire d’Outremer by Guillaume de Tyr. Illuminated manuscript on parchment. Paris, 1337. BnF, Manuscrits (Fr 22495 fol. 229v).

Although the Crusades served as a rallying cry for Latin Christians, from a military standpoint they were ultimately a failure. Kings and princes from various kingdoms managed to conquer territory in the Levant and establish Crusader States, but these were always short-lived. The twelfth century saw a particularly spectacular defeat: the reconquest of Jerusalem by Salah ad-Din al-Ayyubi, known in the West as Saladin (1187). Latin forces managed to capture it again in in 1229, but it fell to the Mamluks in 1250 and was never reconquered by Crusaders.

In light of its hardships and repeated military failures, the project of the Crusades came under increasing criticism during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Individuals such as the Franciscan monk Roger Bacon, Master at the Universities of Oxford and Paris, argued that the Crusades and indeed any attempt to spread faith by the sword simply led non-believers to hate Christianity rather than to conversion. This prompted rebuttals from individuals like Humbert of Romans, alumnus of the University of Paris and Master General of the Dominican Order, who argued that the Crusades should not be abandoned for three reasons: 1) They offered a path to salvation for Christians; 2) They counterbalanced the “threat” of the Saracens; and 3) There was hope for ultimate triumph. Despite their differences, however, both men agreed that the path to bringing new believers into the Latin Christian fold required learning other languages, especially Greek and Arabic, and frequent contact and relationship-building via personal travel, marriage, and diplomacy.

3. Mass transmission of scientific knowledge into Greek and Latin.

Muslims were not only encountered in warfare; they were also indispensable trading partners throughout the Mediterranean and the Levant. The same Pope Innocent III mentioned above, who called two Crusades, repeatedly attempted to forbid trade with Muslims. However, Venetian merchants informed him in no uncertain terms that such a ban would destroy their businesses. The Pope therefore issued a special dispensation in 1198 allowing Venice to trade with Muslims — except for certain items that could be used for war. Of course, the papal ban was circumvented all the time by non-Venetian merchants as well.

Arabic edition of Ptolemy’s Syntaxis Mathematica (1287). Add MS 7474.

In the process of peaceful and violent cultural exchange with Muslims, Western Christians absorbed a considerable amount of Muslim science — especially mathematics, astronomy, alchemy (precursor to chemistry), and medicine. This knowledge transfer included the Hindu-Arabic numeral system, which was brought to Europe by the Italian mathematician Fibonacci after extensive travels in North Africa. His 1202 Book of Calculation (Liber Abaci) popularized the new number system. But one of the most important phenomena contributing to the transfer of civilizational knowledge was the voluminous Arabic translation of ancient Greek texts — themselves products of an even earlier renaissance, sometimes called the Axial Age — which otherwise would have been lost to history. These included parts of Aristotle’s Organon, Euclid’s Elements, and Ptolemy’s Syntaxis Mathematica (also colloquially known as the Almagest).

Soviet stamp (1983) commemorating the 1200th birthday of Al-Khwarizmi.

The mass translation effort extended beyond simply preserving Greek knowledge in Arabic form to the translation of Arabic-language scientific texts into Greek, Syriac and Latin. Andalusia — the Iberian Peninsula, where Christians and Muslims coexisted and competed for dominance — and the ‘Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad were hotbeds of translation from Greek to Arabic, Arabic to Greek and Syriac, and Arabic to Latin. Shortly after the introduction of the Hindu-Arabic number system to Europe, Robert of Chester, an Arabic-to-Latin translator working in Andalusia, translated the polymath Al-Khwarizmi’s Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing. This work introduced algebra (al-jabr) to Europe, including both linear and quadratic equations. A second work by Al-Khwarizmi, On the Calculation with Hindu Numerals, was also translated during the twelfth century. It contained an explanation of decimal notation and use of the number zero. Because the idiosyncratic translation used the Latinized version of Al-Khwarizmi’s name — Algoritmi — to mean “Calculation” in the title, the word “algorithm” came into European languages as roughly synonymous with “calculation.”

Philosopher-scientists — for these disciplines were not formally separated until the 19th century — like Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and Ibn Sina (Avicenna), who creatively interpreted ancient Greek texts and produced their own original works, became scientific authorities pervasively read by the European educated classes, engaged even by those who disagreed with them.

Lecture at the Sorbonne, 13th century.

For example, the thirteenth-century Scholastic theologian, Thomas Aquinas, based his Summa Theologica on a synthesis of Aristotelian philosophy with Christian doctrine. He relied heavily upon the thinking of Ibn Rushd (whom he referred to as “The Commentator”) to interpret Aristotle (whom he called “The Philosopher”). This Aristotelian God, in Aquinas’s description, was a rational God who had given an order to Nature, which was in turn observable by human beings as rational proof of God’s existence. Aquinas taught this doctrine throughout his storied career at the University of Paris. Even in Aquinas’s own lifetime, however, this proposition made theologians uncomfortable because it seemed to limit the power of God. In 1277, only four years after Aquinas’s death, Pope John I requested that the Bishop of Paris assemble all the Doctors of the Sorbonne “and other wise men” to condemn any proposition that would constrain God to following the laws of physics as proposed by Aristotle and Averroes. Although this objection was grounded in theology, some historians of science have suggested that it opened the door to advances in physics unconstrained by previously-held orthodoxies, including the law of noncontradiction and the premise that God had created only one possible world.

Ibn al-Haytham’s camera obscura (al-beit al-muzlim), one of the instruments he used to experimentally describe the properties of light. His work became the scientific underpinning of Renaissance perspectivism. Image credit: Scientific American.

The twelfth-century also witnessed the translation into Latin of a treatise on optics and light by the 11th-century Basran polymath Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen). Known as Perspectiva or De aspectibus, the treatise was based on Ibn al-Haytham’s physics experiments with light, including within the camera obscura, which he adapted for scientific purposes. Initially preserved mostly in universities, during the Renaissance Ibn al-Haytham’s text spread widely and served as a guide to the two-dimensional representation of three-dimensional space. This artistic technique came to be known as perspectivism, and we have illustrated its impacts on Renaissance science and art above. Ibn al-Haytham’s treatise was also cited by scientists including Roger Bacon (who argued against the Crusades, above), Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo Galilei, René Descartes, and Johannes Kepler.

Towards a New 1543: The University Form and Beyond

As this historical outline makes clear, the renaissance of the twelfth century laid down many of the institutions — law (Canon and secular), kingship, the centralized Church, mass translations of scientific texts from other languages, and the university— that would serve as the infrastructure of “The Renaissance” which later succeeded it. A case can be made that humanity today finds itself in another renaissance that resembles that of the 12th century, beset by some of the same problems:

  1. The nation-state model is in a permanent clash with the power of the corporation. Much like the Investiture Controversy, our legal forms are ill-equipped to adjudicate between the rights of sovereign nations and the rights of sovereign corporations, and the individual is often lost in this calculus. Both claim different, yet overlapping, forms of corporate personhood and both are invested with numinous auras of sanctity by ordinary people.
  2. Anxiety about the integrity of “our civilization” has resulted in the mass exportation of violence by global empires — The United States, The Soviet Union/Russia, Fascist Germany, Italy, and Japan, and to a lesser extent in terms of sheer body count, the Islamic world. The ambiguously-successful project of “reconquering the Holy Land” has recurred in the forms of the War on Terror and political Zionism, of which the United States is the major material backer. Identitarian idioms invested with auras of sanctity, most frequently religious and nationalist, are often employed to justify and entrench these conflicts.
  3. Violence exists alongside the increased interconnection of human individuals and collectives through economic exchange. Corporate and policy-based globalization, unprecedented human mobility, and communication technologies are shrinking the world, making new languages and ways of knowing increasingly accessible to people everywhere. This exacerbates identitarian anxiety in some while generating entirely new social and political commitments in others.

In light of these structural contradictions, fundamental things are currently in need of being re-thought: first-principles philosophies of human collectivity and statecraft; social infrastructures; and practices and institutions of education. The universities of the twelfth century arose in large part to create a class of people dedicated to thinking through and resolving the contradictions of medieval society. The university today also engages in such work, but critiques resembling Petrus Ramus’s can increasingly be heard. Potential and former students push back against received orthodoxies, financial inaccessibility and debt bondage, and curricula that are ambiguously related to later employment opportunities.

In short, the purpose and structure of the university are very much topics of contestation. Many students aren’t waiting for universities to catch up to their needs: all sorts of new credentialing programs are arising, offering individual courses and programs of study that are shorter, less expensive, and more flexible than traditional four-year university enrollment, as well as more clearly tied to skills presentable in job interviews. Even the things that universities were traditionally optimized to achieve — concentrated resources in the form of labs, libraries, independent tenured professorships, and a centralized community of scholars — are being replicated by other institutions, such as Google’s DeepMind. Traditionally, it was the material and organizational structure of a university whose endowments weren’t tied to political or economic expediency which allowed it to create the conditions for the slow rigor and the many repeated failures and near-successes that eventually result in scientific and humanistic breakthroughs. They are no longer the only institutions using their capital to create such conditions.

Much like the monasteries from whose ranks the medieval university drew so many of its doctors and scholars, the university form was designed to both participate in and weather the vagaries of political change in order to preserve the continuity of the intellectual and moral traditions that served as the foundations of the civilization in which it was rooted.

Source: On Distributed Communications Networks, Paul Baran, 1962.

Today, the “monastery” has expanded far beyond its initial instantiation to be both digital and global — the informational structures underpinning the public good of free information exchange and preservation are distributed and largely maintained by communities of volunteers. The “vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience” taken by these modern-day monks are no longer explicit and have less to do with a renunciation of earthly pleasures as a moral imperative than with a commitment to the distribution of leverage and system integrity as a structural check on concentrations and abuses of power. Rather than trusting any given individual, no matter how “pious”, to not be swayed by the temptations of self-dealing financial accumulation or tyranny, they are simply precluding those possibilities. As a result, the world has two social infrastructures — the internet and the blockchain — which are accessible to all and which can potentially serve as bases for equal, free, and well-resourced social orders to come.

The main question raised by these new possibilities is one of governance. Distributed technologies, much like any immune system, may also be turned against the social bodies they are intended to protect, and precluding this outcome depends on the character of the social collectives making use of them. This is where the necessity of thinking beyond the terms of engineering becomes most apparent, and where the university, and indeed any actors willing to theorize from first principles without regard for immediate rewards, have potentially their greatest roles to play. The impetus of a new civilizational project prompts us to ask whether familiar forms are sufficient to elaborate a theory of governance, or if something fundamentally new is required. What is at stake is the universal scientific and moral inheritance of humanity — which will of necessity transcend the local forms within which it is incubated. Nobody remembers the Prince-Bishop of Warmia, and few remember Copernicus, but children presume that the earth orbits around the sun.

The next 1543 may already be crystallizing, but it will be fundamentally different from the last one.