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Most people who live in open societies, especially in the West, take freedom of thought and expression for granted. Yet throughout most of history, independent thinking was discouraged and often persecuted.

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The battle for independence of mind continued for centuries. In Freedom of Thought, J. Bury provides a dramatic survey of intellectual history, clearly and eloquently describing the struggle for intellectual freedom from ancient times to the beginning of the 20th century. But the point of interest in his attitude is that he did not care much whether a religion was true, but only whether it was morally useful; he was prepared to promote morality by edifying fables; and he condemned the popular mythology not because it was false, but because it did not make for righteousness.

The outcome of the large freedom permitted at Athens was a series of philosophies which had a common source in the conversations of Socrates.

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Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, the Epicureans, the Sceptics—it may be maintained that the efforts of thought represented by these names have had a deeper influence on the progress of man than any other continuous intellectual movement, at least until the rise of modern science in a new epoch of liberty.

The doctrines of the Epicureans, Stoics, and Sceptics all aimed at securing peace and guidance for the individual soul. They were widely propagated throughout the Greek world from the third century B. The teaching of Epicurus had a distinct anti-religious tendency. He was a Materialist, explaining the world by the atomic theory of Democritus and denying any divine government of the universe.

There was something in this philosophy which had the power to inspire a poet of singular genius to expound it in verse. The Roman Lucretius first century B. He rides forth as a leader of the hosts of atheism against the walls of heaven. He explains the scientific arguments as if they were the radiant revelation of a new world; and the rapture of his enthusiasm is a strange accompaniment of a doctrine which aimed at perfect calm.

Although the Greek thinkers had done all the work and the Latin poem is a hymn of triumph over prostrate deities, yet in the literature of free thought it must always hold an eminent place by the sincerity of its audacious, defiant spirit. In the history of rationalism its interest would be greater if it had exploded in the midst of an orthodox community.

But the educated Romans in the days of Lucretius were sceptical in religious matters, some of them were Epicureans, and we may suspect that not many of those who read it were shocked or influenced by the audacities of the champion of irreligion. The Stoic philosophy made notable contributions to the cause of liberty and could hardly have flourished in an atmosphere where discussion was not free.

It asserted the rights of individuals against public [39] authority. Socrates had seen that laws may be unjust and that peoples may go wrong, but he had found no principle for the guidance of society. The Stoics discovered it in the law of nature, prior and superior to all the customs and written laws of peoples, and this doctrine, spreading outside Stoic circles, caught hold of the Roman world and affected Roman legislation. These philosophies have carried us from Greece to Rome.

In the later Roman Republic and the early Empire, no restrictions were imposed on opinion, and these philosophies, which made the individual the first consideration, spread widely. Most of the leading men were unbelievers in the official religion of the State, but they considered it valuable for the purpose of keeping the uneducated populace in order.

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A Greek historian expresses high approval of the Roman policy of cultivating superstition for the benefit of the masses. This was the attitude of Cicero, and the view that a false religion is indispensable as a social machine was general among ancient unbelievers. It is common, in one form or another, to-day; at least, religions are constantly defended on the ground not of truth but of utility.

This defence belongs to the statecraft of Machiavelli, who taught that religion is necessary for government, [40] and that it may be the duty of a ruler to support a religion which he believes to be false. A word must be said of Lucian second century A. He attacked the popular mythology with open ridicule.

It is impossible to say whether his satires had any effect at the time beyond affording enjoyment to educated infidels who read them. Zeus in a Tragedy Part is one of the most effective. The situation which Lucian imagined here would be paralleled if a modern writer were blasphemously to represent the Persons of the Trinity with some eminent angels and saints discussing in a celestial smoke-room the alarming growth of unbelief in England and then by means of a telephonic apparatus overhearing a dispute between a freethinker and a parson on a public platform in London.

The general rule of Roman policy was to tolerate throughout the Empire all religions and all opinions. Blasphemy was not punished. It is a matter of interest to understand why Emperors who were able, humane, and not in the least fanatical, adopted this exceptional policy. For a long time the Christians were only known to those Romans who happened to hear of them, as a sect of the Jews. The Jewish was the one religion which, on account of its exclusiveness and intolerance, was regarded by the tolerant pagans with disfavour and suspicion.

But though it sometimes came into collision with the Roman authorities and some ill-advised attacks upon it were made, it was the constant policy of the Emperors to let it alone and to protect the Jews against the hatred which their own fanaticism aroused. But while the Jewish religion was endured so long as it was confined to those who were born into it, the prospect of its dissemination raised a new question.

Grave misgivings might arise in the mind of a ruler at seeing a creed spreading which was aggressively hostile to all the other creeds of the world—creeds which lived together in amity—and had earned for its adherents the reputation of being the enemies of the human race. Might not its expansion [42] beyond the Israelites involve ultimately a danger to the Empire? For its spirit was incompatible with the traditions and basis of Roman society.

The Emperor Domitian seems to have seen the question in this light, and he took severe measures to hinder the proselytizing of Roman citizens. Some of those whom he struck may have been Christians, but if he was aware of the distinction, there was from his point of view no difference. Christianity resembled Judaism, from which it sprang, in intolerance and in hostility towards Roman society, but it differed by the fact that it made many proselytes while Judaism made few. Under Trajan we find that the principle has been laid down that to be a Christian is an offence punishable by death.

Henceforward Christianity remained an illegal religion. But in practice the law was not applied rigorously or logically. The Emperors desired, if possible, to extirpate Christianity without shedding blood. Trajan laid down that Christians were not to be sought out, that no anonymous charges were to be noticed, and that an informer who failed to make good his charge should be liable to be punished under the laws against calumny.

Christians themselves recognized that this edict practically protected them. There were [43] some executions in the second century—not many that are well attested—and Christians courted the pain and glory of martyrdom. There is evidence to show that when they were arrested their escape was often connived at. In general, the persecution of the Christians was rather provoked by the populace than desired by the authorities. The populace felt a horror of this mysterious Oriental sect which openly hated all the gods and prayed for the destruction of the world. When floods, famines, and especially fires occurred they were apt to be attributed to the black magic of the Christians.

When any one was accused of Christianity, he was required, as a means of testing the truth of the charge, to offer incense to the gods or to the statues of deified Emperors. His compliance at once exonerated him. The objection of the Christians—they and the Jews were the only objectors—to the worship of the Emperors was, in the eyes of the Romans, one of the most sinister signs that their religion was dangerous. The purpose of this worship was to symbolize the unity and solidarity of an Empire which embraced so many peoples of different beliefs and different gods; its intention was political, to promote union and loyalty; and it is not surprising that those who denounced it should [44] be suspected of a disloyal spirit.

But it must be noted that there was no necessity for any citizen to take part in this worship. No conformity was required from any inhabitants of the Empire who were not serving the State as soldiers or civil functionaries.


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Thus the effect was to debar Christians from military and official careers. The Apologies for Christianity which appeared at this period second century might have helped, if the Emperors to whom some of them were addressed had read them, to confirm the view that it was a political danger. It would have been easy to read between the lines that, if the Christians ever got the upper hand, they would not spare the cults of the State.

The contemporary work of Tatian A Discourse to the Greeks reveals what the Apologists more or less sought to disguise, invincible hatred towards the civilization in which they lived. Any reader of the Christian literature of the time could not fail to see that in a State where Christians had the power there would be no tolerance of other religious practices. In the third century the religion, though still forbidden, was quite openly tolerated; the Church organized itself without concealment; ecclesiastical councils assembled without interference.

There were some brief and local attempts at repression, there was only one grave persecution begun by Decius, A. In fact, throughout this century, there were not many victims, though afterwards the Christians invented a whole mythology of martyrdoms. Many cruelties were imputed to Emperors under whom we know that the Church enjoyed perfect peace. A long period of civil confusion, in which the Empire seemed to be tottering to its fall, had been terminated by the Emperor Diocletian, who, by his radical administrative reforms, helped to preserve the Roman power in its integrity for another century.

He desired to support his work of political consolidation by reviving the Roman spirit, and he attempted to infuse new life into the official religion.

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To this end he determined to suppress the growing influence of the Christians, who, though a minority, were very numerous, and he organized a persecution. It was long, cruel and bloody; it was the most whole-hearted, general and systematic effort to crush the forbidden faith. It was a [46] failure, the Christians were now too numerous to be crushed. After the abdication of Diocletian, the Emperors who reigned in different parts of the realm did not agree as to the expediency of his policy, and the persecution ended by edicts of toleration A.

These documents have an interest for the history of religious liberty. The edicts which we have published to enforce the worship of the gods, having exposed many of the Christians to danger and distress, many having suffered death and many more, who still persist in their impious folly, being left destitute of any public exercise of religion, we are disposed to extend to those unhappy men the effects of our wonted clemency. We permit them, therefore, freely to profess their private opinions, and to assemble in their conventicles [47] without fear or molestation, provided always that they preserve a due respect to the established laws and government.

The relations between the Roman government and the Christians raised the general question of persecution and freedom of conscience. A State, with an official religion, but perfectly tolerant of all creeds and cults, finds that a society had arisen in its midst which is uncompromisingly hostile to all creeds but its own and which, if it had the power, would suppress all but its own.

The government, in self-defence, decides to check the dissemination of these subversive ideas and makes the profession of that creed a crime, not on account of its particular tenets, but on account of the social consequences of those tenets. The members of the society cannot without violating their consciences and incurring damnation abandon their exclusive doctrine. The principle of freedom of conscience is asserted as superior to all obligations to the State, and the State, confronted [48] by this new claim, is unable to admit it.

Persecution is the result. Even from the standpoint of an orthodox and loyal pagan the persecution of the Christians is indefensible, because blood was shed uselessly. In other words, it was a great mistake because it was unsuccessful. For persecution is a choice between two evils. The alternatives are violence which no reasonable defender of persecution would deny to be an evil in itself and the spread of dangerous opinions.

The first is chosen simply to avoid the second, on the ground that the second is the greater evil. But if the persecution is not so devised and carried out as to accomplish its end, then you have two evils instead of one, and nothing can justify this. From their point of view, the Emperors had good reasons for regarding Christianity as dangerous and anti-social, but they should either have let it alone or taken systematic measures to destroy it. If at an early stage they had established a drastic and systematic inquisition, they might possibly have exterminated it. This at least would have been statesmanlike.

But they had no conception of extreme measures, and they did not understand —they had no experience to guide them —the sort of problem they had to deal with. They hoped to succeed by intimidation. The later persecutions of A. It is particularly to be observed that no effort was made to suppress Christian literature. The higher problem whether persecution, even if it attains the desired end, is justifiable, was not considered. The struggle hinged on antagonism between the conscience of the individual and the authority and supposed interests of the State.

It was the question which had been raised by Socrates, raised now on a wider platform in a more pressing and formidable shape: what is to happen when obedience to the law is inconsistent with obedience to an invisible master? Is it incumbent on the State to respect the conscience of the individual at all costs, or within what limits? The Christians did not attempt a solution, the general problem did not interest them. They claimed the right of freedom exclusively for themselves from a non-Christian government; and it is hardly going too far to suspect that they would have applauded the government if it had suppressed the Gnostic sects whom they hated and calumniated.

In any case, when a Christian State was established, they would completely forget the principle which they [50] had invoked. The martyrs died for conscience, but not for liberty. To-day the greatest of the Churches demands freedom of conscience in the modern States which she does not control, but refuses to admit that, where she had the power, it would be incumbent on her to concede it.

If we review the history of classical antiquity as a whole, we may almost say that freedom of thought was like the air men breathed. It was taken for granted and nobody thought about it. If seven or eight thinkers at Athens were penalized for heterodoxy, in some and perhaps in most of these cases heterodoxy was only a pretext. They do not invalidate the general facts that the advance of knowledge was not impeded by prejudice, or science retarded by the weight of unscientific authority.

The educated Greeks were tolerant because they were friends of reason and did not set up any authority to overrule reason. But this liberty was not the result of a conscious policy or deliberate conviction, and therefore it was precarious. The problems [51] of freedom of thought, religious liberty, toleration, had not been forced upon society and were never seriously considered. When Christianity confronted the Roman government, no one saw that in the treatment of a small, obscure, and, to pagan thinkers, uninteresting or repugnant sect, a principle of the deepest social importance was involved.

A long experience of the theory and practice of persecution was required to base securely the theory of freedom of thought. The lurid policy of coercion which the Christian Church adopted, and its consequences, would at last compel reason to wrestle with the problem and discover the justification of intellectual liberty.

The spirit of the Greeks and Romans, alive in their works, would, after a long period of obscuration, again enlighten the world and aid in re-establishing the reign of reason, which they had carelessly enjoyed without assuring its foundations. The first three are unthinkable, if he is a God worthy of the name; therefore the last alternative must be true. Why then does evil exist? The inference is that there is no God, in the sense of a governor of the world. This momentous decision inaugurated [52] a millennium in which reason was enchained, thought was enslaved, and knowledge made no progress.

During the two centuries in which they had been a forbidden sect the Christians had claimed toleration on the ground that religious belief is voluntary and not a thing which can be enforced. When their faith became the predominant creed and had the power of the State behind it, they abandoned this view. This policy was adopted by Emperors and Governments partly on political grounds; religious divisions, bitter as they were, seemed dangerous to the unity of the State.

But the fundamental principle lay in the doctrine that salvation is to be found exclusively in the Christian Church. The profound conviction that those who did not believe in its doctrines would be damned eternally, and that God punishes theological error as if it were the most heinous of crimes, led naturally to persecution. It was a duty to impose on men the only true doctrine, seeing that their own eternal interests were at stake, and to hinder errors from spreading. Heretics were more [53] than ordinary criminals and the pains that man could inflict on them were as nothing to the tortures awaiting them in hell.

To rid the earth of men who, however virtuous, were, through their religious errors, enemies of the Almighty, was a plain duty. Their virtues were no excuse. We must remember that, according to the humane doctrine of the Christians, pagan, that is, merely human, virtues were vices, and infants who died unbaptized passed the rest of time in creeping on the floor of hell.

The intolerance arising from such views could not but differ in kind and intensity from anything that the world had yet witnessed. Besides the logic of its doctrines, the character of its Sacred Book must also be held partly accountable for the intolerant principles of the Christian Church. It was unfortunate that the early Christians had included in their Scripture the Jewish writings which reflect the ideas of a low stage of civilization and are full of savagery.

It would be difficult to say how much harm has been done, in corrupting the morals of men, by the precepts and examples of inhumanity, violence, and bigotry which the reverent reader of the Old Testament, implicitly believing in its inspiration, is bound to approve. It furnished an armoury for the theory of [54] persecution. The truth is that Sacred Books are an obstacle to moral and intellectual progress, because they consecrate the ideas of a given epoch, and its customs, as divinely appointed.

Christianity, by adopting books of a long past age, placed in the path of human development a particularly nasty stumbling-block. It may occur to one to wonder how history might have been altered —altered it surely would have been—if the Christians had cut Jehovah out of their programme and, content with the New Testament, had rejected the inspiration of the Old. Under Constantine the Great and his successors, edict after edict fulminated against the worship of the old pagan gods and against heretical Christian sects.

Julian the Apostate, who in his brief reign A. This was only a momentary check. Paganism was finally shattered by the severe laws of Theodosius I end of fourth century. It lingered on here and there for more than another century, especially at Rome and Athens, but had little importance. The Christians were more concerned in striving among themselves than in [55] crushing the prostrate spirit of antiquity. The execution of the heretic Priscillian in Spain fourth century inaugurated the punishment of heresy by death. It is interesting to see a non-Christian of this age teaching the Christian sects that they should suffer one another.

Themistius in an address to the Emperor Valens urged him to repeal his edicts against the Christians with whom he did not agree, and expounded a theory of toleration. Every faith should be allowed; the civil government should govern orthodox and heterodox to the common good. God himself plainly shows that he wishes various forms of worship; there are many roads by which one can reach him.

No father of the Church has been more esteemed or enjoyed higher authority than St. Augustine died A. There was much [56] persecution, but it was not systematic. There is reason to think that in the pursuit of heresy the Church was mainly guided by considerations of its temporal interest, and was roused to severe action only when the spread of false doctrine threatened to reduce its revenues or seemed a menace to society.

He and his immediate successors are responsible for imagining and beginning an organized movement to sweep heretics out of Christendom. Languedoc in Southwestern France was largely populated by heretics, whose opinions were considered particularly offensive, known as the Albigeois. They were the subjects of the Count of Toulouse, and were an industrious and respectable people. But the Church got far too little money out of this anti-clerical population, and Innocent called upon the Count to extirpate heresy from his dominion.

As he would not obey, the Pope announced a Crusade against the Albigeois, and offered to all who would bear a hand the usual rewards granted to Crusaders, including absolution from all their sins. A series of sanguinary wars followed in which the Englishman, Simon de Montfort, took part. There were [57] wholesale burnings and hangings of men, women and children. The resistance of the people was broken down, though the heresy was not eradicated, and the struggle ended in with the complete humiliation of the Count of Toulouse. The important point of the episode is this: the Church introduced into the public law of Europe the new principle that a sovran held his crown on the condition that he should extirpate heresy.

If he hesitated to persecute at the command of the Pope, he must be coerced; his lands were forfeited; and his dominions were thrown open to be seized by any one whom the Church could induce to attack him. The Popes thus established a theocratic system in which all other interests were to be subordinated to the grand duty of maintaining the purity of the Faith. But in order to root out heresy it was necessary to discover it in its most secret retreats. The Albigeois had been crushed, but the poison of their doctrine was not yet destroyed.

The bishops were not equal to the new talk undertaken by the Church, and in every ecclesiastical province suitable monks were selected and to them was delegated the authority of the Pope for discovering heretics. These inquisitors had unlimited authority, they were subject to no supervision and responsible to no man. It would not have been easy to establish this system but for the fact that contemporary secular rulers had inaugurated independently a merciless legislation against heresy.

The Emperor Frederick II, who was himself undoubtedly a freethinker, made laws for his extensive dominions in Italy and Germany between and , enacting that all heretics should be outlawed, that those who did not recant should be burned, those who recanted should be imprisoned, but if they relapsed should be executed; that their property should be confiscated, their houses destroyed, and their children, to the second generation, ineligible to positions of emolument unless they had betrayed their father or some other heretic.

This [59] cruel form of death for that crime seems to have been first inflicted on heretics by a French king We must remember that in the Middle Ages, and much later, crimes of all kinds were punished with the utmost cruelty. Heresy was the foulest of all crimes; and to prevail against it was to prevail against the legions of hell. The cruel enactments against heretics were strongly supported by the public opinion of the masses. When the Inquisition was fully developed it covered Western Christendom with a net from the meshes of which it was difficult for a heretic to escape.

In its task of imposing unity of belief the Inquisition was most successful in Spain. Here towards the end of the fifteenth century a system was instituted which had peculiarities of its own and was very jealous of [60] Roman interference. One of the achievements of the Spanish Inquisition which was not abolished till the nineteenth century was to expel the Moriscos or converted Moors, who retained many of their old Mohammedan opinions and customs.

It is also said to have eradicated Judaism and to have preserved the country from the zeal of Protestant missionaries. But it cannot be proved that it deserves the credit of having protected Spain against Protestantism, for it is quite possible that if the seeds of Protestant opinion had been sown they would, in any case, have fallen dead on an uncongenial soil. Freedom of thought however was entirely suppressed.


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  • From time to time a certain district was visited and an edict issued commanding those who knew anything of any heresy to come forward and reveal it, under fearful penalties temporal and spiritual. In consequence, no one was free from the suspicion of his neighbours or even of his own family. It elevated delation to the rank of high religious duty. The process employed in the trials of those accused of heresy in Spain rejected every reasonable means for the ascertainment of truth. The prisoner was assumed to be guilty, the burden of proving his innocence rested on him; his judge was virtually his prosecutor.

    All witnesses against him, however infamous, were admitted. The rules for allowing witnesses for the prosecution were lax; those for rejecting witnesses for the defence were rigid. Jews, Moriscos, and servants could give evidence against the prisoner but not for him, and the same rule applied to kinsmen to the fourth degree. The principle on which the Inquisition proceeded was that better a hundred innocent should suffer than one guilty person escape. Indulgences were granted to any one who contributed wood to the pile. But the tribunal of the Inquisition did not itself condemn to the stake, for the Church must not be guilty of the shedding of blood.

    All princes and officials, according to the Canon Law, must punish duly and promptly heretics handed over to them by the Inquisition, under pain of excommunication. It is to be noted that the number of deaths at the stake has been much over-estimated by popular imagination; but the sum of suffering caused by the methods of the system and the punishments that fell short of death can hardly be exaggerated.

    The legal processes employed by the Church in these persecutions exercised a corrupting influence on the criminal jurisprudence of the Continent. It may be said for them and for the kings who did their will that [63] they were not a bit worse than the priests and monarchs of primitive ages who sacrificed human beings to their deities. The Greek king, Agamemnon, who immolated his daughter Iphigenia to obtain favourable winds from the gods, was perhaps a most affectionate father, and the seer who advised him to do so may have been a man of high integrity.

    They acted according to their beliefs. And so in the Middle Ages and afterwards men of kindly temper and the purest zeal for morality were absolutely devoid of mercy where heresy was suspected. Hatred of heresy was a sort of infectious germ, generated by the doctrine of exclusive salvation. It has been observed that this dogma also injured the sense of truth. There was no scruple about the invention of miracles or any fictions that were edifying. A disinterested appreciation of truth will not begin to prevail till the seventeenth century.

    While this principle, with the associated doctrines of sin, hell, and the last judgment, led to such consequences, there were other doctrines and implications in Christianity which, forming a solid rampart against the [64] advance of knowledge, blocked the paths of science in the Middle Ages, and obstructed its progress till the latter half of the nineteenth century.

    In every important field of scientific research, the ground was occupied by false views which the Church declared to be true on the infallible authority of the Bible. The Jewish account of Creation and the Fall of Man, inextricably bound up with the Christian theory of Redemption, excluded from free inquiry geology, zoology, and anthropology. The literal interpretation of the Bible involved the truth that the sun revolves round the earth. The Church condemned the theory of the antipodes. One of the charges against Servetus who was burned in the sixteenth century; see below, p. The Greek physician Hippocrates had based the study of medicine and disease on experience and methodical research.

    In the Middle Ages men relapsed to the primitive notions of a barbarous age. Bodily ailments were ascribed to occult agencies—the malice of the Devil or the wrath of God. Augustine said that the diseases of Christians were caused by demons, [65] and Luther in the same way attributed them to Satan. It was only logical that supernatural remedies should be sought to counteract the effects of supernatural causes.

    There was an immense traffic in relics with miraculous virtues, and this had the advantage of bringing in a large revenue to the Church. Physicians were often exposed to suspicions of sorcery and unbelief. Anatomy was forbidden, partly perhaps on account of the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. The opposition of ecclesiastics to inoculation in the eighteenth century was a survival of the mediaeval view of disease.

    Chemistry alchemy was considered a diabolical art and in was condemned by the Pope. The long imprisonment of Roger Bacon thirteenth century who, while he professed zeal for orthodoxy, had an inconvenient instinct for scientific research, illustrates the mediaeval distrust of science. It is possible that the knowledge of nature would have progressed little, even if this distrust of science on theological grounds had not prevailed. For Greek science had ceased to advance five hundred years before Christianity became powerful. After about B. The explanation of this decay is not easy, but we may be sure that it is to be sought in the [66] social conditions of the Greek and Roman world.

    And we may suspect that the social conditions of the Middle Ages would have proved unfavourable to the scientific spirit— the disinterested quest of facts—even if the controlling beliefs had not been hostile. We may suspect that the rebirth of science would in any case have been postponed till new social conditions, which began to appear in the thirteenth century see next Chapter , had reached a certain maturity. Theological prejudice may have injured knowledge principally by its survival after the Middle Ages had passed away.

    In other words, the harm done by Christian doctrines, in this respect, may lie less in the obscurantism of the dark interval between ancient and modern civilization, than in the obstructions which they offered when science had revived in spite of them and could no longer be crushed. The firm belief in witchcraft, magic, and demons was inherited by the Middle Ages from antiquity, but it became far more lurid and made the world terrible.

    Men believed that they were surrounded by fiends watching for every opportunity to harm them, that pestilences, storms, eclipses, and famines were the work of the Devil; but they believed as firmly that ecclesiastical rites were capable of coping with these enemies. Some of the [67] early Christian Emperors legislated against magic, but till the fourteenth century there was no systematic attempt to root out witchcraft.

    The fearful epidemic, known as the Black Death, which devastated Europe in that century, seems to have aggravated the haunting terror of the invisible world of demons. Trials for witchcraft multiplied, and for three hundred years the discovery of witchcraft and the destruction of those who were accused of practising it, chiefly women, was a standing feature of European civilization.

    Both the theory and the persecution were supported by Holy Scripture. Pope Innocent VIII issued a Bull on the matter in which he asserted that plagues and storms are the work of witches, and the ablest minds believed in the reality of their devilish powers. No story is more painful than the persecution of witches, and nowhere was it more atrocious than in England and Scotland. I mention it because it was the direct result of theological doctrines, and because, as we shall see, it was rationalism which brought the long chapter of horrors to an end.

    In the period, then, in which the Church exercised its greatest influence, reason was [68] enchained in the prison which Christianity had built around the human mind. It was not indeed inactive, but its activity took the form of heresy; or, to pursue the metaphor, those who broke chains were unable for the most part to scale the walls of the prison; their freedom extended only so far as to arrive at beliefs, which, like orthodoxy itself, were based on Christian mythology.

    There were some exceptions to the rule. At the end of the twelfth century a stimulus from another world began to make itself felt. The philosophy of Aristotle became known to learned men in Western Christendom; their teachers were Jews and Mohammedans. Among the Mohammedans there was a certain amount of free thought, provoked by their knowledge of ancient Greek speculation.

    Averroes held the eternity of matter and denied the immortality of the soul; his general view may be described as pantheism.

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    But he sought to avoid difficulties with the orthodox authorities of Islam by laying down the doctrine of double truth , that is the coexistence of two independent and contradictory truths, the one philosophical, and the other religious. This [69] did not save him from being banished from the court of the Spanish caliph.

    In the University of Paris his teaching produced a school of freethinkers who held that the Creation, the resurrection of the body, and other essential dogmas, might be true from the standpoint of religion but are false from the standpoint of reason. This dangerous movement was crushed, and the saving principle of double truth condemned, by Pope John XXI. The spread of Averroistic and similar speculations called forth the Theology of Thomas, of Aquino in South Italy died , a most subtle thinker, whose mind had a natural turn for scepticism.

    He enlisted Aristotle, hitherto the guide of infidelity, on the side of orthodoxy, and constructed an ingenious Christian philosophy which is still authoritative in the Roman Church. But Aristotle and reason are dangerous allies for faith, and the treatise of Thomas is perhaps more calculated to unsettle a believing mind by the doubts which it powerfully states than to quiet the scruples of a doubter by its solutions. There must always have been some private [70] and underground unbelief here and there, which did not lead to any serious consequences. The blasphemous statement that the world had been deceived by three impostors, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed, was current in the thirteenth century.

    A Mohammedan ruler, desiring to extort money from a rich Jew, summoned him to his court and laid a snare for him. Tell me therefore which of the three religions, that of the Jews, that of the Mohammedans, and that of the Christians, thou believest to be the truest. So he made a will that whichever of his sons should be found in possession of this ring after his death should be considered his heir. The son to whom he gave the ring acted in the same way as his father, and so the ring passed from hand to [71] hand.

    At last it came into the possession of a man who had three sons whom he loved equally. Unable to make up his mind to which of them he should leave the ring, he promised it to each of them privately, and then in order to satisfy them all caused a goldsmith to make two other rings so closely resembling the true ring that he was unable to distinguish them himself.

    On his death-bed he gave each of them a ring, and each claimed to be his heir, but no one could prove his title because the rings were indistinguishable, and the suit at law lasts till this day. It is even so, my lord, with the three religions, given by God to the three peoples. They each think they have the true religion, but which of them really has it, is a question, like that of the rings, still undecided.

    THE intellectual and social movement which was to dispel the darkness of the [72] Middle Ages and prepare the way for those who would ultimately deliver reason from her prison, began in Italy in the thirteenth century. The individual began to feel his separate individuality, to be conscious of his own value as a person apart from his race or country as in the later ages of Greece and Rome ; and the world around him began to emerge from the mists of mediaeval dreams.

    The change was due to the political and social conditions of the little Italian States, of which some were republics and others governed by tyrants. To the human world, thus unveiling itself, the individual who sought to make it serve his purposes required a guide; and the guide was found in the ancient literature of Greece and Rome.

    Hence the whole transformation, which presently extended from Italy to Northern Europe, is known as the Renaissance , or rebirth of classical antiquity. But the awakened interest in classical literature while it coloured the character and stimulated the growth of the movement, supplying new ideals and suggesting new points of view, was only the form in which the change of spirit [73] began to express itself in the fourteenth century.

    The change might conceivably have taken some other shape. Its true name is Humanism. At the time men hardly felt that they were passing into a new age of civilization, nor did the culture of the Renaissance immediately produce any open or general intellectual rebellion against orthodox beliefs. The world was gradually assuming an aspect decidedly unfriendly to the teaching of mediaeval orthodoxy; but there was no explosion of hostility; it was not till the seventeenth century that war between religion and authority was systematically waged.

    The humanists were not hostile to theological authority or to the claims of religious dogma; but they had discovered a purely human curiosity about this world and it absorbed their interest. They idolized pagan literature which abounded in poisonous germs; the secular side of education became all-important; religion and theology were kept in a separate compartment.

    Some speculative minds, which were sensitive to the contradiction, might seek to reconcile the old religion with new ideas; but the general tendency of thinkers in the Renaissance period was to keep the two worlds distinct, and to practise outward conformity to the creed without any real intellectual submission.

    I may illustrate this double-facedness of the Renaissance by Montaigne second half of sixteenth century. His Essays make for rationalism, but contain frequent professions of orthodox Catholicism, in which he was perfectly sincere. There is no attempt to reconcile the two points of view; in fact, he takes the sceptical position that there is no bridge between reason and religion.

    The human intellect is incapable in the domain of theology, and religion must be placed aloft, out of reach and beyond the interference of reason; to be humbly accepted. But while he humbly accepted it, on sceptical grounds which would have induced him to accept Mohammadanism if he had been born in Cairo, his soul was not in its dominion.

    It was the philosophers and wise men of antiquity, Cicero, and Seneca, and Plutarch, who moulded and possessed his mind. It is to them, and not to the consolations of Christianity, that he turns when he discusses the problem of death. The religious wars in France which he witnessed and the Massacre of St. Here it is taught that true morality is not founded on religion, and the author surveys the history of Christianity to show the evils which it had produced.

    He says of immortality that it is the most generally received doctrine, the most usefully believed, and the most weakly established by human reasons; but he modified this and some other passages in a second edition. A contemporary Jesuit placed Charron in the catalogue of the most dangerous and wicked atheists. He was really a deist; but in those days, and long after, no one scrupled to call a non-Christian deist an atheist. His book would doubtless have been suppressed and he would have suffered but for the support of King Henry IV.

    It has a particular interest because it transports us directly from the atmosphere of the Renaissance, represented by Montaigne, into the new age of more or less aggressive rationalism. What Humanism did in the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries, at first in Italy, then in other countries, was to create an intellectual atmosphere in which the emancipation of reason could begin and knowledge could resume its progress. The period saw the invention of printing and [76] the discovery of new parts of the globe, and these things were to aid powerfully in the future defeat of authority.

    But the triumph of freedom depended on other causes also; it was not to be brought about by the intellect alone. The chief political facts of the period were the decline of the power of the Pope in Europe, the decay of the Holy Roman Empire, and the growth of strong monarchies, in which worldly interests determined and dictated ecclesiastical policy, and from which the modern State was to develop. The success of the Reformation was made possible by these conditions. Its victory in North Germany was due to the secular interest of the princes, who profited by the confiscation of Church lands.

    In England there was no popular movement; the change was carried through by the government for its own purposes. The principal cause of the Reformation was the general corruption of the Church and the flagrancy of its oppression. For a long time the Papacy had had no higher aim than to be a secular power exploiting its spiritual authority for the purpose of promoting its worldly interests, by which it was exclusively governed. All the European States based their diplomacy on this assumption. Since the fourteenth century every one acknowledged [77] the need of reforming the Church, and reform had been promised, but things went from bad to worse, and there was no resource but rebellion.

    The rebellion led by Luther was the result not of a revolt of reason against dogmas, but of widely spread anti-clerical feeling due to the ecclesiastical methods of extorting money, particularly by the sale of Indulgences, the most glaring abuse of the time. It was his study of the theory of Papal Indulgences that led Luther on to his theological heresies.

    It is an elementary error, but one which is still shared by many people who have read history superficially, that the Reformation established religious liberty and the right of private judgment. What it did was to bring about a new set of political and social conditions, under which religious liberty could ultimately be secured, and, by virtue of its inherent inconsistencies, to lead to results at which its leaders would have shuddered. But nothing was further from the minds of the leading Reformers than the toleration of doctrines differing from their own.

    They replaced one authority by another. They set up the authority of the Bible instead of that of the Church, but it was the Bible according to Luther or the Bible according to Calvin. So far as the spirit of intolerance went, there [78] was nothing to choose between the new and the old Churches. The religious wars were not for the cause of freedom, but for particular sets of doctrines; and in France, if the Protestants had been victorious, it is certain that they would not have given more liberal terms to the Catholics than the Catholics gave to them.

    Luther was quite opposed to liberty of conscience and worship, a doctrine which was inconsistent with Scripture as he read it. He might protest against coercion and condemn the burning of heretics, when he was in fear that he and his party might be victims, but when he was safe and in power, he asserted his real view that it was the duty of the State to impose the true doctrine and exterminate heresy, which was an abomination, that unlimited obedience to their prince in religious as in other matters was the duty of subjects, and that the end of the State was to defend the faith.

    A History of Freedom of Thought - Wikisource, the free online library

    He held that Anabaptists should be put to the sword. With Protestants and Catholics alike the dogma of exclusive salvation led to the same place. He did not, like Luther, advocate the absolute power of the civil ruler; he stood for the control of the State by the Church—a form of government which is commonly called theocracy; [79] and he established a theocracy at Geneva.

    Here liberty was completely crushed; false doctrines were put down by imprisonment, exile, and death. The Spaniard Servetus, who had written against the dogma of the Trinity, was imprisoned at Lyons partly through the machinations of Calvin and having escaped came rashly to Geneva. He was tried for heresy and committed to the flames , though Geneva had no jurisdiction over him.

    Melanchthon, who formulated the principles of persecution, praised this act as a memorable example to posterity. Posterity however was one day to be ashamed of that example. The people at large were to be driven into a fold, to accept their faith at the command of their sovran. This was the principle laid down in the [80] religious peace which composed the struggle between the Catholic Emperor and the Protestant German princes. Nor did the Protestant creeds represent enlightenment. The Reformation on the Continent was as hostile to enlightenment as it was to liberty; and science, if it seemed to contradict the Bible, has as little chance with Luther as with the Pope.

    The Bible, interpreted by the Protestants or the Roman Church, was equally fatal to witches. In Germany the development of learning received a long set-back. Yet the Reformation involuntarily helped the cause of liberty. The result was contrary to the intentions of its leaders, was indirect, and long delayed. In the first place, the great rent in Western Christianity, substituting a number of theological authorities instead of one—several gods, we may say, instead of one God—produced a weakening of ecclesiastical authority in general.

    The religious tradition was broken. In the second place, in the Protestant States, the supreme ecclesiastical power was vested in the sovran; the sovran had other interests besides those of [81] the Church to consider; and political reasons would compel him sooner or later to modify the principle of ecclesiastical intolerance. Catholic States in the same way were forced to depart from the duty of not suffering heretics. The religious wars in France ended in a limited toleration of Protestants. The policy of Cardinal Richelieu, who supported the Protestant cause in Germany, illustrates how secular interests obstructed the cause of faith.

    Again, the intellectual justification of the Protestant rebellion against the Church had been the right of private judgment, that is, the principle of religious liberty. But the Reformers had asserted it only for themselves, and as soon as they had framed their own articles of faith, they had practically repudiated it. This was the most glaring inconsistency in the Protestant position; and the claim which they had thrust aside could not be permanently suppressed.

    Once more, the Protestant doctrines rested on an insecure foundation which no logic could defend, and inevitably led from one untenable position to another. If we are to believe on authority, why should we prefer the upstart dictation of the Lutheran Confession of Augsburg or the English Thirty-nine Articles to the venerable authority of the Church of Rome?

    If we decide against Rome, we must do so by means [82] of reason; but once we exercise reason in the matter, why should we stop where Luther or Calvin or any of the other rebels stopped, unless we assume that one of them was inspired? If we reject superstitions which they rejected, there is nothing except their authority to prevent us from rejecting all or some of the superstitions which they retained. Moreover, their Bible-worship promoted results which they did not foresee.

    Public attention was directed to it as never before, though it cannot be said to have been universally read before the nineteenth century. Study led to criticism, the difficulties of the dogma of inspiration were appreciated, and the Bible was ultimately to be submitted to a remorseless dissection which has altered at least the quality of its authority in the eyes of intelligent believers.

    This process of Biblical criticism has been conducted mainly in a Protestant atmosphere and the new position in which the Bible was placed by the Reformation must be held partly accountable. In these ways, Protestantism was adapted to be a stepping-stone to rationalism, and thus served the cause of freedom. That cause however was powerfully and directly promoted by one sect of Reformers, who in the eyes of all the others were blasphemers and of whom most people never think when they talk of the Reformation.

    I mean the Socinians. Of their far-reaching influence something will be said in the next chapter. Another result of the Reformation has still to be mentioned, its renovating effect on the Roman Church, which had now to fight for its existence. A new series of Popes who were in earnest about religion began with Paul III and reorganized the Papacy and its resources for a struggle of centuries. The reformed Papacy was good fortune for believing children of the Church, but what here concerns us is that one of its chief objects was to repress freedom more effectually.

    Savonarola who preached right living at Florence had been executed under Pope Alexander VI who was a notorious profligate. If Savonarola had lived [84] in the new era he might have been canonized, but Giordano Bruno was burned.