a Gestalt principle of organization holding that (other things being equal) objects or events that are near to one another (in space or time) are perceived as belonging together as a unit [syn: proximity]
I would like to suggest when looking for patterns in history (which is essential, to my mind, in the understanding of history), the prudent student of history should take into consideration what I call the Law of Proximity. I began this entry with a dictionary definition of the the “law” (thanks Dictionary.com), in order to try and make my point more clear. The key to this thought is the part of the definition that says, “objects or events that are near to one another (in space or time)”. That idea is particularly useful to those of us that try to decipher the past. Let’s take a look at an example.
A student is preparing to go off to college. For most students, it is one of the most important times of their life for no other reason than they are out from under the wings of the parents, or parent, depending on the situation these days. The student is almost totally alone for maybe the first time in their life. Yes, they have friends that they will make, the roommate, (kinda a crapshoot there), but in their decision making process, they are essentially alone. There will be no one to remind them that they have to do their laundry, take out the garbage (even the roommate may not remember…but that room will be memorable), or the big one…go to class. We won’t even mention the local bar scene! The point is that the decision to do or not to do rests entirely with the student. If the student was living at home, or maybe still in high school, that decision would likely be tempered by consequences at home. If the wrong decision is made, deliberately, there would be someone to answer to…Mom or Dad…or both. Consequently, the threat of some sort of consequence will tend to temper that decision, and the student might take a more conservative action. In today’s world, that may not be the case, but let’s err on the side of consequences, shall we?
It turns into a different story when the student goes off to college. No longer are the threats of parental reprisals in the offing. Why? They might be half a nation away! The student is not going home to Mom or Dad, but quite possibly a roommate that has lower standards of behavior! They get more bold, more willing to take chances, more willing to act foolish. Why is that? They are far away from their parents, from those that might hold them accountable. Simply stated, the further away they are, the more willing they are take a risk. How does this apply to the study of history?
Let’s take German history as an example. We know that prior to Luther and his Reformation the German princes were looking for a way out of their “dues” to the church. We should not be under the illusion that Luther’s Reformation was the impetus for the German princes desire for seperation from the Catholic Church, but we can take it that it was his Reformation that provided the needed push to do so. Primarily, it was money motivated. If the German princes were not Catholic, they would not have to pay the enormous amount that they paid in taxes to Rome, thereby increasing their bottom line. In addition, we know that for the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, adjudicating and ruling the German states was quite difficult, primarily because of not only his involvement with France, but the relative distance that he was from the German states. Charles spent the majority of his time in Spain, and it wasn’t really until some ten years after the Reformation began that he decided to become more involved in trying to bring about its demise, which was not to happen. Charles’ disconnect from the German states was due to his distance from them and therefore his lack of involvement in them. Why? The Law of Proximity. It stands to reason that had Charles had more direct involvement in the affairs of the splintered German states, he might well have slowed the progress of the Reformation in those states. I would hesitate to say his direct involvement would have stopped the Reformation as I am of the belief that it was going to happen anyway as the time was quite right for it to occur. The point is that his lack of involvement due to distance may have given the German princes the oportunity to play while the cat was away”. The counter argument is that when Luther was confronted by Charles himself at the diet at Worms in 1521, he didn’t recant, but I would attribute that to a strength of will rather than the law of proximity. Charles was right there, so the proximity couldn’t be any better in order to force Luther’s recantation. Luther did not recant, and knew he would probably die as a result. In case you are keeping score…he didn’t as he was sheltered by those very same German princes (one in particular…Frederick the Wise) who saw this as a great opportunity to break from Rome.
What about the Pope? Why didn’t he step in? In fact, he did. He didn’t see Luther’s movement as particularly harmful in the beginning, but did take certain steps to put him in his place. He excommunicated Luther, which, by the standards of the day, was as harsh a punishment as could be levied by the Holy See. The Pope was in Rome and not in Germany. Luther’s response? He publicly burnt the Papal Bull that excommunicated him from the Roman Catholic Church, thereby sealing his fate for all eternity in the eyes of Catholics…but not in Luther’s eyes.
The point here is that it was Luther’s distance from Rome, both real and philosophically that created the gap that allowed him, and Frederick, to thwart the attempts of Rome to subdue the movement. Had Luther attempted this in Italy, I would suggest that events would have moved quite swiftly against Luther, and his life , and the movement it spawned, would have ended much sooner, maybe never having happened at all. This, I would attribute to the application of the law of proximity, with regard to history, and it is one applicable example. There are many others as well, so, find a great book, do some research, and venture into the past to find the answers….