I suppose we’ll never know for sure who had the radical idea that “people should be free to express their views without fearing reprisal”. I know that it was a somewhat popular idea when Socrates took his final shot of hemlock, and that a lot of was absorbed into the Roman Empire, and the Hellenic empire after that. After all, at that time they were the greatest cultures and empires the world had ever seen, both in terms of social progress. The Ancient Greeks wrote works that are still central to many modern fields of inquiry, such as Plato’s treatise of government, “The Republic“, Aristotle’s work on logic, and ethics, the Pythagorean theorem, and Archimedes’ law.
These were civilizations that showed technological prowess that disappeared after the fall of the Roman empire when Europe descended into what has become known as the dark ages. This is until human beings, strangled by Christianity, and a church that dominated every aspect of life, from your bedroom to the chambers of government. Where God-Kings and God-Emperors feared the excommunication from the Pope of Rome, as their power was considered willed to them by the divine. Started rediscovering the works of Ancient Greece, of Rome, and we got the period known as the Renaissance, a French word that means “Rebirth” or “Revival”. Where philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Protagoras, Marcus Aurelius and artists such as Virgil and Cicero, inspired a new generation of artists such as Leonardo, Michelangelo, scientists such as Galileo. Those works lead to that the Phoenix of ideas and exploration rose from the ashes of the great empires and minds of history and once again brought light to a world that had laid in darkness. It made us strive for enlightenment once more.
The enlightement was a period that lasted a short time for all the impact it had and still has on our modern lives. It mainly took place in the 18th century but it laid the foundation for the world that we live in today. From Thomas Hobbes Leviathan, the basic treatise of Government, Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” which is a foundational text in economics, Immanuel Kant who wrote fundamental works on ethics, morality and inquiry.Kant even strongly influenced one of the first feminist philosophers in history, Mary Wollstonecroft, who argued that women should be treated as rational beings.
The scientific method was “invented” in it’s rawest form. David Hume laid much of the ground-work for empiricism and skepticism. Thomas Paine even wrote his greatest (in my opinion work) “The Age of Reason”.
Some of you may ask why I’m writing this and my reasoning behind it is that the Renaissance and the Enlightenment are the greatest examples of why free expression and discussion of ideas without bounds are important.
The Age of Reason
Hopefully, fellow Thomas Paine appreciators will forgive me for stealing his title for this section of my essay. There is no denying that Thomas Paine’s work was a great aid to those seeking to end the theocratic state, and the alliance it had with the “God-Kings” of Europe at the time. However, much more of the credit goes to a German miner’s son, who lived a few hundred years before him. Who would go on to do more to modernize and de-power Christianity than many of those who had come before or after him, by nailing a simple statement of 95 theses on a church door in Wittenberg. This man was Martin Luther, the man who’s ideas would forever split Christians into Catholic and Protestant. He did so, while persecuted by other Christians, who held much power over both the state and the people. He slowly won a lot of them over, by as I once heard it said by Marcus Wengstrom “There is something sublime about him dragging popes and kings into his intellectual wrestling ring and handling them with the roughness of a miner’s son.”
For those of you may be unaware of history, this was not the castrated Church of today, who are so happy that you show up and give them your money and led them your ear for an hour on Sunday, that they do not much care what you do from Monday to Saturday. This was the church of witch burnings, of selling indulgences, of the Crusades, and many other horrible acts that show you what religion does when it has power. This was the church that Martin Luther injured, and that would later be injured time and time again.
When the French revolution came to be, and “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” became the slogan of it, it carried somewhat of a different meaning. It stated that we are all equal, we are all brothers and we are all free, from the perspective of those who had been treated as unequal by the church and state, as wretches and sinners, and slaves of their kings and clerics. This was the world, in which Thomas Paine wrote his polemic against religion and the church, where Paine challenged the legitimacy of the Church, its foundation document the Bible, and criticized revelation in general. (I recommend reading it)
Killing the power of the Church to censor thoughts, words, scientific inquiry and much more, was the foundation that permitted the modern western world to exist. It all happened because people fought for equality, freedom, brotherhood and the free expression of ideas. Understanding that equality, freedom and brotherhood, are not mere abstract ideals, but true states in which a human being can exist.
A man who cannot express his point of view without being threatened with loss of livelihood, or life is not a free man. A man who would take from another his livelihood or his life is no brother. Finally, in a paraphrase and extension of the philosopher Voltaire, the man whom you may not criticize is your ruler, if you have a ruler, you are not equal.
The construction of the Leviathan
The central argument made by Hobbes will be dated at this time, as he argued the social contract and governance by a sovereign. This is perhaps due to his familiarity with this model due to growing up and living in such a state. Or perhaps, a ruse to avoid being rapidly thrown in the Tower of London for insulting the all mighty God King. Perhaps one of the most central things to take away from his work, are his statements on the state of nature, which is a state of civil war, “everyone against everyone”, which in his philosophy is a worse state than one governed by said sovereign under a social contract.
The foundation of the social contract is at the core about the contract between the state and the individual, which rights do the individual give up, for the state, and which rights does the state grant the individual in exchange for giving up said rights. Freud touches on this in “Future of an Illusion” where he argues that in order for human beings to suppress their natural inclinations, threat or bribes must exist.
At this point in time, most states had absolute rulers, in the form of unholy alliances of church and Aristocracy, who held their power by force not by electorate, not by moral or divine right. The King was frequently judge, jury and executioner, sometimes in person sometimes by-proxy. So, this is the world in which Thomas Paine wrote the Rights of Man, where the core argument is that natural rights stem from nature themselves and cannot be revoked by law, as this would make them privileges, not rights. This is based in large on the Second Treatise of Government by John Locke, where Locke argues that in a natural state, all humans are (socially) equal, and thus have the natural right to defend their life, liberty, health or possessions. These principles are enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence, and Natural rights were the basis for what we now call Human rights.
Calculating the madness of people
It would be a great oversight of me to leave out what followed from the two former parts of this essay, namely a greater freedom for men of science. I’m certain that we have all heard the story of Galileo who was forced to recant his radical theory that the Earth and other planets moved around the sun, not that the sun moved around the Earth, as the Church had maintained as doctrine, and which it and the sovereigns had enforced by torture and murder.
With the free expression of ideas, came a new vigor to science, from the dissection of stolen corpses to lay the foundation for anatomy, of which Leonardo drew incredibly beautiful and inspired drawings. The opportunity for Isaac Newton to discover gravity, while being locked away at a room at Oxford, rather than in a cell in the Tower of London. It allowed James Watt to invent the steam engine, which would later drive the industrial revolution, all without being burned at the stake for witchcraft. There were new understandings of chemistry, physics, mathematics and all manner other of science, all because the shroud and chain of the church had been removed by force.
I agree that I did summarize rather much and left out a lot of important people. I’m afraid that the full history of the enlightenment would be a longer blog post that I’m comfortable writing at this point. The core red thread of the renaissance and the enlightenment is that the rights we take for granted today, were won by defeating all powerful God Kings and a Church that was at its most powerful. Unfortunately, I perceive that the unholy alliance of church and state is rapidly reconstituting itself, not in the form it once had, but in a new form.
We have found ourselves in a world where democracy, has formed governments that are greater than the people they govern. Hobbes’ Leviathan come to life before us, which is ironic considering the name was borrowed by Hobbes from the Bible, where the Leviathan is a tentacled monster that can reach into every aspect of the world. Governments that demand the right to violate our rights in order to protect them, just as the God Kings once did.
We have founded ourselves new Churches, that are not of the old church in ideology, yet embrace many of the same tactics. Such as silencing criticism, through tactics such as social shaming, social exclusion, and taking the bread out of people’s mouths. Striking through their families and social sphere. That show the self-awareness of Pope Rodrigo Borgia punishing sinners, while having orgies in the Vatican, when they claim to be defending tolerance, by being intolerant. When they dress themselves in the caps and gowns of Academia and Scholarship, while rejecting empiricism and the scientific method.
This is the unholy alliance between the Church of Social Justice, and the God King of democratically elected government.
Europe: A History by Norman Davies
Common Sense by Thomas Paine
Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes