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Iago the Meritocrat: Conflicting Interpretations of Individualism in the Early Modern Period
Unformatted Document Text:  of that century—thus confirming the wisdom of its traditional desire to promote a “balance of power” among its trading partners of the continent and its interest in overseas adventures in the New World. 17 As a result, a new socio-economic class was being established during this period. Its occupants were neither members of the landed aristocracy nor truly members of the peasantry from whom many of them were descended. They were the nucleus of a new class that fell between these two traditional divisions of the medieval social construct—in effect, a class that fell in the “middle.” 18 Their growing prosperity and the ascending political sway that accompanied that prosperity (most notable, in England, through the increasing political influence of the parliamentary House of Commons) prompted a transition in basic attitudes concerning the place of the individual person within English society. 19 Noble titles (still most often acquired through birth and family connection) no longer was the only path to power and fortune. A person of high standing could, more readily, now, achieve that status through the radical innovation of having earned it. 20 Of course, this transition was, hardly, new nor was it sudden. It would be, of course, another half-century before these beliefs and values became more widely embraced (especially among the English) and nearly a century until John Locke expressed many of them within his political writings. 21 As with all transitions, there was a period of overlap and the fortunes of the landed aristocracy and the stratified, hierarchical system upon which their status depended continued to be recognized and, even, revered. Furthermore, these changes provoked resistance and fear, as change of any sort often does. Even people who accepted the inevitability and indeed, the desirability of such fundamental change were concerned that it would completely 9

Authors: McHugh, James.
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of that century—thus confirming the wisdom of its traditional desire to promote a
“balance of power” among its trading partners of the continent and its interest in overseas
adventures in the New World.
As a result, a new socio-economic class was being established during this period.
Its occupants were neither members of the landed aristocracy nor truly members of the
peasantry from whom many of them were descended. They were the nucleus of a new
class that fell between these two traditional divisions of the medieval social construct—in
effect, a class that fell in the “middle.”
Their growing prosperity and the ascending
political sway that accompanied that prosperity (most notable, in England, through the
increasing political influence of the parliamentary House of Commons) prompted a
transition in basic attitudes concerning the place of the individual person within English
society.
Noble titles (still most often acquired through birth and family connection) no
longer was the only path to power and fortune. A person of high standing could, more
readily, now, achieve that status through the radical innovation of having earned it.
Of course, this transition was, hardly, new nor was it sudden. It would be, of
course, another half-century before these beliefs and values became more widely
embraced (especially among the English) and nearly a century until John Locke
expressed many of them within his political writings.
As with all transitions, there was
a period of overlap and the fortunes of the landed aristocracy and the stratified,
hierarchical system upon which their status depended continued to be recognized and,
even, revered. Furthermore, these changes provoked resistance and fear, as change of
any sort often does. Even people who accepted the inevitability and indeed, the
desirability of such fundamental change were concerned that it would completely
9


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