A worldwide cultural and philosophical enlightenment accelerated around the globe in the 17th century. Silver from the new world and people and goods from around the world moved on ever-expanding and complicated trade routes. Knowledge and culture also traveled these trade routes, which enabled the peoples of the world to share and exchange art, science, music, religion, and philosophical ideas.
In the Americas, the Europeans borrowed art, music, and technical expertise from the aborigines and the African slave populations but this was mostly an uneven exchange. The newcomers took what they could make use of and the others adapted under extreme coercion. As European wealth and population grew, European culture soon displaced the cultures of the other inhabitants.
By the middle of the 17th century, European culture was flourishing due to the development of nation-states with more sophisticated administrations, consolidation of state wealth, and state control of military powers. Its many political and religious struggles, along with the desire to advance its commercial ventures, resulted in advanced information gathering techniques. This exposure to information inspired a search for knowledge that would fuel the European Enlightenment. Abandoning Christian beliefs, Enlightenment thinkers searched for universal and objective knowledge that did not depend on religion, political views, class, or gender and would apply to all people and cultures. Unfortunately, these same political, religious, and commercial ambitions also led to an era of internal and external wars.
The Ottoman Empire (1) avoided these religious wars through a philosophy of tolerance. This helped create a rich, syncretic culture of diversity with a blend of ethnic, religious, and linguistic elements. They accommodated Sufi and Sunni Muslims as well as Christians and Jews. They allowed those of other religions to have their own schools and places of worship. Ottoman scholars claimed, “An hour of learning is worth more than a year of prayer”. The Ottomans stressed education based on the Humanities rather than the sciences with the emphasis on law, politics, religion, logic, and theology as well as advances in astronomy, physics, history, and geography.
Like the Ottomans, the Mughal Empire (2) ruled over a large non-Muslim population. This allowed a broad and open Islamic culture of learning to develop which the Hindus and Muslims shared. Through aesthetic refinement and philosophical sophistication, they bridged religious differences. In the field of architecture, the Taj Mahal is an example of blending Persian and Islamic design with Indian materials and motif. Their philosophical interests included the work of European philosophers as well as Sanskrit treatises.
In the Safavid Empire of Persia (3), Shah Abbas I (4) created a time of great prosperity. This prosperity and royal patronage of the arts stimulated a cultural revival. Shah Abbas I moved the capital to Isfahan and hired artists and architects from throughout Persia to build an ornate city that would rival Delhi and Istanbul. The royal mosque was at the center of the city. Next to the shah’s palace was a public plaza seven times larger than the Plaza of San Marco in Venice. Other advancements in the arts included three-dimensional representation, perfection of the illustrated book, and an elaborate calligraphy. Artisans produced mosaics of brilliantly colored tiles to adorn mosques and other buildings and elaborate silk and carpet products for export. Intellectuals espoused a culture of ideals, aspirations, and wealth for the court, the property owners, and the commercial elites. The Shiite version of Islam, which cultivated the more conservative values of Iranian societies found a home in the Safavid Empire. The Safavids funded long established madrassas and brotherhood schools to educate the people. This created a political-religious system based on Shiism and loyalty to the royal family. Almost four hundred years after the end of the empire, Shiism remains the fundamental religion of the Iranian people.
China had a long tradition of learning that saw significant expansion due to a growing population and extensive mercantile networks. Fueled by improved agricultural techniques and the influx of silver that accompanied increased Chinese exports this exchange of goods brought with it an exchange of ideas that allowed a culture of diversification and expansion that predated that of other cultures. By the last decades of the Ming Dynasty (5), a publishing industry had developed and collections of books from around the world were housed in “magnificently built” and “finely adorned” libraries. Connoisseurs of fine arts gathered collections at unprecedented levels and books became increasingly available, especially the study books for the civil service exams. The Qing Dynasty (6) continued the practice of civil service exams and made the schools available to all. China escaped the religious warfare suffered by Europe because while they did recognize spiritual entities, they did not consider any of them as a supreme being who favored one faction over another.
In the Tokugawa Shogunate (7) of Japan, there was a renewed interest in European culture. The long influence of Chinese ways blended with Japanese traditions and European teachings. Increased trade and wealth and an extended period of peace enabled thriving cultural growth. Literacy reached as high as one third of the population and popular novels sold as many as 12000 copies. Booksellers as well as libraries made books readily available. The fine arts also flourished including Kabuki Theater and elegant tea/contemplation ceremonies. Chinese Confucianism offered a set of legal teachings and blended with Buddhism, yet did not displace Shinto as a way of worship.
A global cultural awakening occurred in the three centuries surrounding the 17th. As various cultures were shared and exchanged around the world, the cultures that survived were enriched in ways that cannot be measured. While the Chinese and Islamic worlds retained their own cultures and systems of knowing, Europeans had more influence on the rest of the world, but traces of all these cultures can still be observed around the world today.
(1) Ottoman Empire 1301 – 1922
(2) Mughal Empire 1556 – 1605
(3) Safavid Empire 1501 – 1722
(4) Shah Abbas I ruled 1587 – 1629
(5) Ming Dynasty 1368–1644
(6) Qing Dynasty 1644–1912
(7) Tokugawa Shogunate 1603–1867