Emmanuel Todd’s Theory of Modernity

In my review of Michael Lotus and James Bennett’s America 3.0 I stated that French anthropologist Emmanuel Todd (whose work is cited extensively in said work) “is the most under-rated “big idea” thinker in the field of world history.”

Craig Willy’s most recent blog post explains why:

Emmanuel Todd’s L’invention de l’Europe: A critical summary
Craig Willy. craigjwilly.info 7 July 2013.

Mr. Willy’s post is not something one skims through. It is 9,000 words long and chock full of all sorts of data, tables, and maps. Because L’invention de l’Europe has not been translated into English I am grateful for this level of detail.

What is this book about?

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.

So how does Todd approach this bug-bear that haunts all aspiring world historians, the rise of the West?

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.

Willy describes this interpretation well:

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.”

As said before: the most underrated big-idea thinker in world history. And this is really just the tip of the iceberg–a few paragraphs to grab your interest. If you take Todd’s theories seriously this essay will provides enough food for thought to munch on for weeks. 

Put aside twenty minutes of your day and read the whole thing. </span

Cross Posted at the Scholar’s Stage.

13 thoughts on “Emmanuel Todd’s Theory of Modernity”

  1. “the most important historical development of all time”: really? Surely it’s the neolithic, with the invention of farming, the domestication of animals, the construction of towns, cities, and irrigation schemes, and the invention of writing and bronze-working. No them, no us.

  2. I switched from an intellectual history degree when I realized while I was interested in the question: “why do people believe in reductionist ideologies,” it was of no interest to my professors, each of whom was in thrall to some or another reductionist ideology.

    (Similar to pre-Socratic philosophy: Thales-all is water; Heraclitues-all is flux; etc.)

    I certainly agree that most of the work of intellectuals, that is almost all intellectual discourse, is epiphenomenal fluff and worthless. I’m glad Freud found the root causes (strike that); Marx found the root causes (strike that)….

    Was there a row on the table for the post-modern “children of the creche;” many babies, many fathers, one mother; state-supported family?

  3. What we are now observing is the State inserting itself into the ANF family, as it had previously inserted itself into the ENF, AF, and CF families in the 19th Century. In most other family systems, the State took over the role of paterfamilias or eldest brother of the big extended family, handing out pseudo-patrimony in return for obedience. In the ANF system, the only role available is contractual spouse, so it is trying to take that over through the promotion of “bureaucrogamy”, either through welfare or through state-enforced child support payments. “Life of Julia” is a helpful explanation of applied bureaucrogamy in the modern ANF state.

  4. I’ve been following Mr. Willy based on
    T. Greer’s recommendation and have to admit my previous Gallophobia has been easing a bit.

    He tweeted out this paper last week from game theorist Avner Greif:

    In it he also makes the case that the contemporary state’s agenda has been to promote the extended clan structure. Interestingly, he notes the medieval church’s role reining in extended families to the benefit of nuclear families. There seems to be a fundamental disharmony between the two institutions.

  5. Grurray, that can’t be the link you meant! Can you put in the correct one? I’d like to see it.

  6. I am a big fan of Avner Grief. He has written not just about Western nuclear families (and their impact on western capitalism) but on Chinese family organization as well (and how it changed the type of capitalism imperial China had). See

    “The Clan and the City: Sustaining Cooperation in China and Europe”


    or his review essay:

    “Risk, Institutions and Growth: Why England and Not China?”


    IMHO, his work is central to understanding why the North Sea region began to diverge in 1000.

  7. In reference to the Japanese family system, I recall that Alan Macfarlane, who is familiar with Japan and has published on it, mentioned to us in correspondence that he thought Todd had characterized the Japanese family system wrongly in The Explanation of Ideology, partly because the Japanese system of adult adoption was so unique. He felt that the Japanese system had a number of resemblances to the ANF system, for instance in having a similar kinship terminology. You could argue that the Japanese family system is sui generis.

  8. Todd’s strong point seems to be Europe, and it really shows in his work. My impression is that his picture of Asia is grossly over simplified. China is a key example. According to his maps, France is divided between four family types. We are supposed to believe that China’s 1 billion people and hundred ethnic groups are all communitarian family types? SE Asia is similarly simplified – I know, for example, that Cambodia and Vietnam are more mixed up than he suggests in Explanation of Ideology. There are many nuclear family types in SE Asia – but their society has built upon that base in a very different direction.

    One day I might write a post on it.

    It would be really nice if a scholar was to take his approach and apply it to East and South Asia with the type of detail he applies to Europe. This seems like the next logical step in the research.

  9. Todd’s expertise seems to thin out in concentric circles — the further you get from Paris, the thinner the detail gets. He is great on France, and pretty good about the European Latin world — Spain, Italy, Portugal. Western Europe in general is pretty well studied. A lot of the rest of the world seems to have been done from a little browsing in the Human Relations Area Files. The Anomic Family System that runs from Nepal down to Southeast Asia and the Philippines is something I’d like to know more about. As with Japan, there are odd coincidences between Anglosphere ANF kin terminology and Philippine terminology. Much work remains to be done on this family systems analysis.

  10. Todd certainly is much stronger on Europe, and Western Europe at that, than on the rest of the world.

    Still, Todd’s assessment of the Arab and Persian Muslim world as having endogamous families is accurate and appears to have good predictive power. (It is the core of Richard Francis Burton’s Sotadic Zone.)

    Japan is an unusual case. Alan Macfarlane’s books on Japan, The Savage Wars of Peace and Japan Through the Looking Glass, show that Japan is indeed a distinct case unto itself.

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