Evolution can only happen when the established order is upset – at least a bit. At times the established order is blown up in some way and often that comes about from the actions and ideas of a single person. No one can have this effect without the society being ready for it, but a single person can light the fuse.
I maintain that the biggest part of human evolution happens within the individual, but you can’t ignore social evolution. Social evolution supports individual evolution and it’s the evolution of the individual that leads to social evolution.
Radicals are people who don’t accept the current social order or structure. These radicals don’t always have a positive effect in the short run, but they’re essential to social evolution. I’m not speaking of political radicals here – politics is usually a fight for power and control. Those elements of politics work against evolution, at least in the short run. I am speaking of social radicals.
Martin Luther was such a radical. He precipitated the fracture of the Church, away from the central control inherent in Roman Catholicism. I’m no expert on the man and reading Wikipedia, he certainly had some ideas that were far removed from liberal and loving, from our current perspective, but he was born over five hundred years ago – times change. Regardless. He was a remarkable man.
I ran across an article about him in the New Yorker magazine – How Martin Luther Changed the World. He was a controversial figure and still is, but he helped to catalyze a massive change in the world. It was inevitable that human evolution would fracture the power of the church and we see that continuing today. Fewer people today identify with any institutional church or religion, yet many people seek a spiritual path in their life. Martin Luther helped this process that serves our individual natures (and evolution) better than a large institution. In his day, there was no institution bigger than the Roman Catholic Church. He took them on directly and fearlessly as a priest, monk, scholar and writer.
The invention of the printing press, around 1440, was a radical development, leading to a massive jump in our evolution. Luther was a bit of a scribe – according to this article, one third of the books printed in Germany in the first half of the 16th century were his. He was an early media star and his ideas and his writing skills obviously resonated. Some say that he helped to launch the modern age by speaking truth to power and helping to dismantle the overreaching power of the Church, as a person who brought his ideas to a wide audience.
How Martin Luther Changed the World is a fascinating piece about a person I really didn’t know much about. He was undoubtedly a complex person, but evolved enormously during his life. He criticized the practice of priests not marrying and found no references in the bible to require it. He want on to marry and to have six children. Luther comes across as a man open to his own evolution. In this article, Joan Acocella writes:
When he writes to a friend, soon after his marriage, of what it is like to lie in a dry bed after years of sleeping on a pile of damp, mildewed straw, and when, elsewhere, he speaks of the surprise of turning over in bed and seeing a pair of pigtails on the pillow next to his, your heart softens toward this dyspeptic man. More important, he began to take women seriously. He objects, in a lecture, to coitus interruptus, the most common form of birth control at the time, on the ground that it is frustrating for women. When he was away from home, he wrote Käthe affectionate letters, with such salutations as “Most holy Frau Doctor” and “To the hands and feet of my dear housewife.”
So here is a man who, early in his life, took vows to remain celibate, and later became concerned about the sexual satisfaction of his wife. That is an inspiring piece of individual evolution. This is all part of our deep evolution. I support the radicals in our midst, who see a better way, and move toward that without violence, but with ideas and actions. I think it’s important to understand and appreciate the pioneering people who have come before us – the ones who have helped to open the doors for our own evolution. I think they can inspire us to advance our own evolution and that of our culture and society.
Please note – The New Yorker Magazine is a wonderful source of intelligent writing – it requires a paid subscription to access all of it’s content, but it does provide for a number of free articles before you have to subscribe. I have taken the plunge myself. I am not paid by them or by anyone. Evolution and individuation are their own reward.