Emmanuel Todd’s L’invention de l’Europe: A critical summary

In brief:


I came across Emmanuel Todd a few months ago on French talk shows. I found he was one of the few French intellectuals to not be a in the usual state of willful denial, schizophrenia and babbling incoherence on the current economic and political crisis. I watched all the interviews and talk shows I could and read half of his books. Todd excels in the genre of the fact-based polemic: his 1976 (at age 26!) forecasting the collapse of the Soviet Union and his 1997 critique of globalization and “postmodern” economics are nothing short of brilliant. I came, last, to his L’invention de l’Europe, which is in principle not a polemic, but rather a dispassionate book of historical anthropology and demography which is Todd’s academic magnum opus.

I say “in principle” because one is tempted to ask: What the hell is this book anyway? Over 650 pages of text, statistics, graphs, maps and bibliography on the history of Western Europe? A comprehensive look at the correlations between family structures, modernization and ideology in Western Europe? An “Introductory Illustrated Atlas of Western European Socio-Political History”? I’ve already lost you. Who cares?

No, L’invention de l’Europe is actually about what is almost undoubtedly the most important historical development of all time: the rise of modernity since 1500, also known as the “Great Divergence” or the “European miracle.” It was European civilization, and its various extra-European and notably North American offshoots, which invented “modernity,” which sparked that fire of science and “rationality” which now dominates virtually the entire globe. Europe, as Todd notes on the first page, was “the midwife simultaneously of modernity and death.” (p.13)

We have modernity: science, mass production, mass destruction, mass consumption, mass literacy, mass and instant telecommunication, long-life (sanitation, health, contraception), godlessness, ideology (including “totalitarianism,” “democracy,” “rule of law,” and “freedom of thought”…), and so on. Europeans launched a truly unprecedented and violent “acceleration,” so to speak, of history. Societies changed, for the first time, from ones overwhelmingly made up of illiterate peasants, to the incredibly affluent, educated and long-lived societies we know today. For better and for worse, no one has looked back, even among non-Westerners, despite the protestations of a few anti-Europeanists like one Frantz Fanon.

Uncontacted Tribe

“Greetings from the other side”: Aerial photo of members of an “uncontacted tribe” (source: Brazil’s National Indian Foundation)

I truly mean “for better and for worse.” Thousands of years ago, by an implacable historical logic, human beings gradually transformed themselves from small tribes of hunter-gatherers to large societies of peasants. The evidence suggests that that step of “modernization” was a great loss to human happiness, freedom and health. Now we are on the “other side” of history, the logic of modernization has gone far enough that we live incomparably “better” (one might dispute the metrics) than our predecessors. But who knows where the logic of history ends? Not long ago, one might have said the mass destruction of nuclear war. Now, the mass consumption-destruction of environmental exhaustion seems as plausible as anything. Or will technology, the emerging Internet-hive-mind and machine-body meshing ultimately rob us of our humanity? I often think, for humans as a whole, there is no question at all which really matters other than the (non-theological, not-entirely-deterministic) “direction” of history.

Revenons à nos moutons. Todd’s L’invention de l’Europe is then a contribution, to be read beside Jared Diamond and Kenneth Pomeranz, to the literature on the “European miracle.” Todd’s answer in short: “The diversity of European values largely explains the prodigious dynamism of a continent which can never, at any stage of its history, enclose itself in a single and definitive mental system.” (p. 13-14) Implicitly here, this carries with it anthropological, cultural and political diversity.

Given the book’s length, I will not apologize for the fact that this “critical summary” is some 9,000 words long. I am sure those looking for an introduction will find it very useful.

In short, the book is a systematic historical atlas of 1500-1990 looking at the development across Western Europe and by country of what Todd identifies as the key markers of (European) modernity:

  • Literacy
  • Contraception
  • Industrialization
  • Dechristianization (decline of religious practice and/or belief)
  • Ideology (as expressed through revolutions and elections)

Todd maps when and where these developments occurred across Europe. He notes that the rule of law is an English invention, universal suffrage a French one, social security a German one.  He convincingly shows that, whereas no European nation has a monopoly on modernity, at every phase different nations pioneer the various breakthroughs:

  • German and Protestant countries pioneer and glorify literacy (whereas peasants who remain under Catholic rule remain illiterate and completely intellectually dependent on the Priesthood).
  • England pioneers industry (thanks in part to an individualistic, flexible and easily-uprooted peasantry).
  • France (the Parisian Basin) pioneers godlessness, ideology and contraception (thanks to a particular combination of literacy and contestation of authority).

Already, we can see that the different parts of Europe react very differently to the various waves of modernity. Very concretely, if Germany, France and England had been the same, Europe could have had no early “pioneer” for each of these developments: No Protestantism/Germany = no early literacy (i.e., the norm for oppressive universal religions/empires, which outlaw scientific “thoughtcrimes” and suppress development), no England = no early industrialization, no France = no modern politics.

The varying parts of Europe are different but exist in dynamic interaction, each part is influenced by the breakthroughs of others, they often copy breakthroughs they might not have been able to produce indigenously, which in turn allow them to reach other breakthroughs which others might not produce (this is the intra-West-European version of Trotsky’s uneven and combined development). This, Todd argues, is the source of Europe’s incredible historic dynamism.

Todd’s system, indeed globally, sees the dynamic interaction of different but mutually-influencing masses of humanity (nations), with the mass and cohesion of a nation playing a key role in its own ability to develop autonomously and to influence others.

This is the big picture and I think it is persuasive.

Todd’s method is to correlate everything. Though a historian, he is as interested in correlation across space as across time. Did I mention the book is also an atlas? The method in a word: Correlate, then speculate. The “speculate” part is definitely Todd’s weakness. As hbdchick writes:

he’s definitely on to something here [on the correlation between family systems and political ideologies]; but his work, to my mind, is “only” descriptive (i put “only” in quotes because i don’t mean to belittle his work in any way — it’s an enormous contribution to understanding ideologies, i think!). but, he doesn’t really get down to why family structures and kinship should affect ideologies in the ways that they appear to do.

Todd tends to be stronger on correlation than causation. Obviously the history of Europe, and Todd treats every Western European country’s politics individually, is too vast for any individual to really master. It can be a little frustrating to read him trying to attribute every local event to family structures, with outliers explained away by this or that factor. I don’t mean to belittle either. Speculation is useful and necessary, as are necessarily simplifying systems (and Todd acknowledges it is a simplification) to try to think usefully about the “bloomin’ buzzin’ confusion” of human life.

Family structure + literacy + godlessness = political ideology

Todd attempts to systematically correlate:

  • Family systems and agrarian systems
  • Modernization phases (literacy, industrialization, dechristianization, contraception)
  • Ideology (nationalism, socialism, religious conservatism (Christianisme réactionnelle))

The correlations, though subject to interpretation, are highly interesting. In particular, he presents an extremely powerful interpretation for the rise of ideologies in the modern age.

A huge part of the book, perhaps the majority, is dedicated to Europeans’ varying choices of religion and ideology. These concerns can seem very alien to us nihilist-apathetic postmoderns. Todd beautifully describes the need for ideology and religion (which is to say, the dream of a better life, in this one or the next) in his chapter on their mutual disappearance from the 1960s on:

Together all the dreams are extinguished: cities of God, socialist cities [as in "the polis"], nationalist cities, all these fine mental constructs are almost simultaneously devastated by the evolution of European societies. The dissolution of the religious and social metaphysical systems, which represent attempts by the mind to escape the real world, reveal at bottom a reconciliation between men and the world. The acceptance of society, of life as it is, logically kills religious, socialist or nationalist hereafters. […]

The disappearance of what we could call mass suffering, a very physical suffering, leading to a real metaphysical need, is no doubt the fundamental element of the transformation under way. Medical progress creates a world which does not banish death and pain, but one in which tragedy loses its collective dimension and becomes rare, terribly individual, not generalizable. [p. 546]

Todd argues that mass literacy, in freeing the individual from the Priesthood and allowing for mass communication, “triggers” political revolution and the “age of ideology.” Ideological fervor is usually contained or limited so long as people remain practicing Christians: Life is brutish and short, but dreams of a better world are relegated to a heavenly afterlife. But as soon people are “godless and literate,” there is upheaval. Todd notes the close correlation between the advent of mass literacy and a country’s first “ideological” political upheaval: the English Civil War, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Spanish Civil War… Typically 50% male literacy in a given area is the sufficient “spark” and, by this measure, Todd says that southern Spain 1900-1940 should be compared with southern France 1700-1790.


But one is left with an important question: What is the content of the ideologies which resonate with the masses once they cease to be illiterate peasants? Why does this differ by country and region? Todd has an elegant and powerful answer: political ideologies in the modern age are projections of a people’s unconscious premodern family values.

Here there is a hole in my knowledge and that of the typical layman. I knew nothing of family systems before reading Todd. But family systems exist and are incredibly diverse across human societies. Let us take two extremely divergent examples.

So, whereas the liberal-individualism of the Anglo-nations is well-known, it has also been known since the work of Peter Laslett that England has not had extended families, but rather “nuclear” families, since the Middle Ages. Contrary to what is sometimes thought, the individualistic English family is not a modern invention, the Industrial Revolution brutally breaking the “organic” extended family, but a reflection of a deep individualist tendency in English society with centuries-old roots.

Compare this with the traditional Japanese family. There is neither individualism nor equality. A single son inherits the bulk of property and in particular “family headship,” having authority over collateral family branches (i.e. his brothers’ households). Multiple generations of couples can live in the same household as an extended family under the authority of the eldest patriarch.

These family structures contain deep-seated, conscious and unconscious, implicit and explicit, values and norms about an individual’s rights, responsibilities and place in the social universe. These family values and assumptions have “massive,” in the sense of existence-defining, implications. The Englishman is a “free” individual who upon adulthood leaves his parents and his responsible for himself. The Japanese is an “integrated” individual who upon adulthood remains closely bound with his family in a hierarchical system of solidarity and obedience.

For Todd, and this seems eminently plausible and intuitive, these families values are then projected, more or less crudely rationalized, as the country’s political ideologies once it enters the modern age. People’s fantasies of their “ideal politics” are just a projection of what they unconsciously consider “normal” according to their family values. In this case these would be Anglo-liberalism vs. Japanese nationalism. Philosophers can think up the most elegant and intricate justifications for their political systems, but ultimately, their ideologies only freely succeed when they resonate with the values, conscious or not, of a people.

In the Toddian system, the various masses of humanity develop in parallel and interdependence, in their diversity developing different worldviews which, in the modern age, have proven so irreconcilable as to only find resolution in war – that is death and coercion of the “wrongthinking” party. From this comes Todd’s strong respect for national sovereignty and diversity: Either we conquer or are conquered, one civilization extinguishing another, or we may be reasonable and respect each one’s sovereignty and difference.

Todd identifies four premodern European family types according to two major criteria: Is an individual free upon adulthood or does he continue to live with, and under the authority of, his parents? Are brothers equal, notably in terms of inheritance, or are they unequal? These categories are:

  • The “absolute nuclear” family is liberal and non-egalitarian (that is, indifferent to equality). Children are completely free upon adulthood, founding independent families. Inheritance is freely distributed by will.
  • The “egalitarian nuclear” family is liberal and egalitarian.  Children are completely free upon adulthood, founding independent families. Inheritance is equally distributed, implying at least a vestigial necessary link between parents and children throughout their lives.
  • The “stem” family is authoritarian and inegalitarian. Several generations may live under one roof, notably the first-born, who will inherit the entirety of property and family headship (and thus perpetuate the family line). Other children typically leave the home to get married or become priests/soldiers.
  • The “communitarian family” is authoritarian and equal. Several generations live under the same roof until the eldest die and the inheritance is divided equally.

These family types are roughly distributed as such: