A History of Freedom of Thought – J.B. Bury (1914)
Sometimes a book magically appears to feed your mind. This is one such book. After absorbing the latest entry off of Sun Ra’s Reading List (The Loom of Language – Frederick Bodmer) I found this comprehensive yet succinct treatise on the history of humanity’s desire for freedom of thought, where it arose, and the many ways that our societies and governments have tolerated or crushed those seeking the right to believe and discuss what they want. J.B. Bury’s book should be required reading in any High School history classroom.
As with many of the ideas we consider modern, the acceptance of freedom of thought and speech began in the ancient city-states that eventually coalesced into what we today call Greece. There are several reasons why this area of the world was conducive to the exploration of ideas and the questioning of established thought. One of the most important is that the people of Greece did not answer to an unimpeachable higher authority. Greece did not have a “bible” that purported to be the very word of their gods. Instead, they understood, as a culture and society, that religious thoughts and ideas are both personal and ever-changing. The rise of Philosophy and Science (Natural Philosophy) in Greece resulted from this openness to ideas. As the Greeks did not have to force their views and experiences to match what some holy book said, they were free to explore both the internal nature of humanity and the external natural world around them. This freedom came at a price, for while the powerful in Greece did not punish blasphemy or heresy, they did punish anyone who they felt was “corrupting” the minds of others, especially young people. Instead of punishing someone for blasphemy, they instead punished him or her for impiety (meaning they were rude to the religious thoughts that the State considered correct). In this manner they railroaded Socrates. Socrates crime was that he asked too many questions, not only about religion, but also about how religion is used by the state to enforce its own agendas. They executed this great man for a purely bullshit crime, that of “failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges" and "introducing new deities.” Pathetic.
Even through suppression, the ideals of Greece and freedom of thought continued in Rome, which sought to base its better qualities on the previous Greek civilization they so admired. Rome was a different monster though. The powerful in Rome were mostly irreligious but they would display outward signs of piety in order to rise in their respective fields. They saw religion as mainly a means of controlling the subordinate population, who they believed too dumb to be good, moral people without the guidance of religion and priests. Because of this, they allowed free speech and free thought, as long as it did not impede with the powerful Roman’s control of their compatriots. The moment anyone sought to teach the so-called ignorant masses about this, they were suppressed. A great example of this is the rise of the Christian church.
People forget that, for the first hundred or so years, the Jewish sect called Christianity was strictly an apocalyptic cult. They saw the world as ending imminently and that Jesus would be back to whup that sinner ass. While there were many such end-times cults around the Roman Empire, the reason the Christian cult was perceived as a threat was that they were the first to proselytize widely. While the Hebrew religion also taught that there was one god, and that other gods were false, they did not seek to spread their religion. Hebrews were born to other Hebrews. They did not seek to convert anyone. This reduced the level of threat felt by the Romans, as they knew they could out-breed anyone. However, the Christian sect that spawned off Judaism actively sought converts of all types, both Jewish and gentile. (This is one of the reasons that Jesus was killed by the tag-team of Roman government and rabbinical leadership. Romans did not like that Jesus preached ending subservience to the state, and the rabbis did not appreciate that Jesus taught non-Jews what was seen as purely Jewish wisdom. Neither liked that Jesus preached that loyalty to state and family and established religion was a sin if it came between one’s loyalties to god.- RXTT)
So, Jesus was executed. For the next few hundred years there was very little persecution of Christians, until a Roman emperor sought to make an example of them as he tried to force the old Roman religion down everyone’s throats as the officially sanctioned state religion. Just a century later, a Roman emperor proclaimed himself a Christian, ending the persecutions, but beginning the rise of state-sanctioned Christianity, and the Holy Roman Catholic Church. In what seems ironic, but is merely stupid, the very same Christianity became the state’s tool by which to control the populace, and bring to an almost complete halt the advancement of freethought, science, and philosophy. For hundreds and hundreds of years, much of Europe became a stagnant, ignorant cesspool of political/religious tyranny. Any idea or thought that seemed to contradict the supposedly correct and inviolable contents of the Bible was suppressed in the most violent manner. Christian states and the Roman Catholic Church murdered and tortured hundreds of thousands of people in the name of their religion. The Holy Inquisition, which took place throughout Europe, even though we are taught it was a Spanish thing, brought the most gruesome and sadistic terror that the world had yet to see. Not only were non-believers targeted but anyone who espoused Christian beliefs different from what Rome proclaimed as true was at risk. Whole populations of people were exterminated because the local leaders had different views on the “truths” forced upon them by the Roman Catholic Church. It was genocide on a continental level.
Luckily the Greek ideals of freethought and philosophy were kept alive in the Ottoman empire. The modern world owes so much to the Muslims that preserved the Greek writers and continued to advance the sciences of Astronomy, Mathematics, and Philosophy. It was their translations that made their way into Europe in the mid 1400’s and sparked up the rebirth of rationalism and enlightenment we now call the Renaissance. The inevitable breakup of monolithic Catholicism during the Reformation helped a bit, but mainly just ushered a new era where Protestant Christians murdered and brutalized Catholic Christians, just as they had been brutalized initially. Shit don’t change. It stays shit. People were now executed for being Papists. When a Catholic took over a country, like what happened in England under Bloody Mary, the persecutions and murder of Protestants began again.
J.B. Bury wrote this small book in the first decade of the 20th century, ahead of the rise of fascist totalitarian states in Europe. These states, such as Germany, had initially provided so many of the eminent thinkers that espoused freethought, and the Liberty which is to be gained by all of us for allowing all people the right to think and voice their opinions without threat of blasphemy or sedition. J.B. Bury warned that, although Enlightenment ideals and rational thought had become the norm in Europe in the late 1800’s, it was a tentative victory, for tyrants and idiots everywhere will always seek to shut down voices and ideas they feel are detrimental to their own personal and political agendas. I wonder how Mr. Bury, who passed away in 1927, would have reacted to the rise of totalitarian states in Germany, Spain, Italy, Romania, etc. I believe his heart would have broken to see humanity take such a step backwards, and to see the horrors wrought by these fascist assholes upon the world.
Nothing enrages me as much as willful ignorance. The worst type of willful ignorance is when freedom of speech is denied in order to protect a state-sanctioned religion, for this affects everyone. For your “beliefs” to be so fragile that you must suppress opposing views shows how truly baseless your “beliefs” are. It also shows exactly why those “beliefs” exist, namely, for use in controlling or subjugating any and every person who chooses to believe otherwise. This is the way of the world. It is plain to see for anyone who chooses to study history and the rise and fall of states, religious beliefs, and state-sanctioned religions. Anyone seeking to assert the human right of Freethought is an enemy to tyrannical states. (A minor example- this very book review blog was blocked in China about 3 months into its existence. China does not like giving their citizens freedom to read what they want - RXTT)
I feel this book is even more valuable today as state-sanctioned totalitarianism and tyranny are on the rise in supposedly progressive and freedom-loving nations such as the UK and the USA. Instead of a secular government set up to protect and nourish its citizenry, allowing them to choose whatever religion they feel is right for them, or no religion if they so choose, we are sliding into quasi-religious government inflicting their personal beliefs on the entire population, regardless of personal choice. The only way to fight this is with education, which is why the ignorant tyrants seek to control state school boards all over the United States. When beliefs instead of facts direct the path of government, we end up eroding Liberty at its core. This is the main reason freedom of thought, and everything that comes with it, is the most important human right.
(This book can be read/downloaded for free: https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/10684 )