Nullius in verba

The Royal Society in 1660 had the slogan nullius in verba – "Take nobody's word for it". We can see it as representing a fundamental shift in mindset that we call the Enlightenment. It used to be near-universal among human cultures to believe in some sort of Fall From Grace: everything was better before, and the most solid knowledge comes from authorities like the church or someone who lived earlier who wrote something, the older the better.

Mapmakers everywhere used to fill-in the regions they didn't know well or didn't know anything about (perhaps they just tried to hide their knowledge-holes in order to sell, but I read in Sapiens: A History of Humankind that it also reflected a different mindset – they acted as if knowledge couldn't progress so what we had was as good as we were ever gonna have), but starting around this time, we see maps with blank areas clearly marked as unexplored, which invited curiosity.

Admitting what we didn't know led to the desire to find out.

But why was truth from established authority no longer satisfactory?

  • Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind has an explanation for the post-1600 Europeans' odd (enterprising & exploratory) outlook.
    • Counterexample of the Chinese general who once took fleets as far as Madagascar but whose expeditions ended due to lack of interest from the throne. This is the norm for most societies. China didn't believe there was anything of interest far away. Thus they never discovered Polynesia or Australia.
    • Science was supported by empires with ample funds. Every Royal Navy ship brought a scientist or two just because, to document what they found. From the empire's perspective, it was also a way to buy legitimacy for colonialism, "white man's burden".
    • Dutch East India Company. Early stock market.
    • The tiny Netherlands defeated Spain because investors trusted NL finances. Spanish king unable to get loans, while NL could get all the loans they wanted. Early example of the fact that credit-ratin wins wars.

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Created (17 months ago)