A History of Freedom of Thought/Chapter 4

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The intellectual and social movement which was to dispel the darkness of the Middle Ages and prepare the way for those who would ultimately deliver reason from her prison, began in Italy in the thirteenth century. The misty veil woven of credulity and infantile naïveté which had hung over men's souls and protected them from understanding either themselves or their relation to the world began to lift. 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 mediæval 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 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 mediæval 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. Bartholomew's Day (1572) were calculated to confirm him in his scepticism. His attitude to persecution is expressed in the remark that "it is setting a high value on one's opinions to roast men on account of them."

The logical results of Montaigne's scepticism were made visible by his friend Charron, who published a book On Wisdom in 1601. 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 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 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 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. 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.

Calvin's fame for intolerance is blackest. 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; and he established a theocracy at Geneva. Here liberty was completely crushed; false doctrines were put down by imprisonment, exile, and death. The punishment of Servetus is the most famous exploit of Calvin's warfare against heresy. 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 (1553), 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. In 1903 the Calvinists of Geneva felt impelled to erect an expiatory monument, in which Calvin "our great Reformer" is excused as guilty of an error "which was that of his century."

Thus the Reformers, like the Church from which they parted, cared nothing for freedom, they only cared for "truth." If the mediæval ideal was to purge the world of heretics, the object of the Protestant was to exclude all dissidents from his own land. 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 religious peace which (1555) composed the struggle between the Catholic Emperor and the Protestant German princes. It was recognized by Catherine de' Medici when she massacred the French Protestants and signified to Queen Elizabeth that she might do likewise with English Catholics.

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 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 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.[1] The inspired record on which the creeds depend became an open book. 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 (1534) and reorganized the Papacy and its resources for a struggle of centuries.[2] The institution of the Jesuit order, the establishment of the Inquisition at Rome, the Council of Trent, the censorship of the Press (Index of Forbidden Books) were the expression of the new spirit and the means to cope with the new situation. 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 (1498) under Pope Alexander VI who was a notorious profligate. If Savonarola had lived in the new era he might have been canonized, but Giordano Bruno was burned.

Giordano Bruno had constructed a religious philosophy, based partly upon Epicurus, from whom he took the theory of the infinity of the universe. But Epicurean materialism was transformed into a pantheistic mysticism by the doctrine that God is the soul of matter. Accepting the recent discovery of Copernicus, which Catholics and Protestants alike rejected, that the earth revolves round the sun, Bruno took the further step of regarding the fixed stars as suns, each with its invisible satellites. He sought to come to an understanding with the Bible, which (he held) being intended for the vulgar had to accommodate itself to their prejudices. Leaving Italy, because he was suspected of heresy, he lived successively in Switzerland, France, England, and Germany, and in 1592, induced by a false friend to return to Venice he was seized by order of the Inquisition. Finally condemned in Rome, he was burned (1600) in the Campo de' Fiori, where a monument now stands in his honour, erected some years ago, to the great chagrin of the Roman Church.

Much is made of the fate of Bruno because he is one of the world's famous men. No country has so illustrious a victim of that era to commemorate as Italy, but in other lands blood just as innocent was shed for heterodox opinions. In France there was rather more freedom than elsewhere under the relatively tolerant government of Henry IV and of the Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin, till about 1660. But at Toulouse (1619) Lucilio Vanini, a learned Italian who like Bruno wandered about Europe, was convicted as an atheist and blasphemer; his tongue was torn out and he was burned. Protestant England, under Elizabeth and James I, did not lag behind the Roman Inquisition, but on account of the obscurity of the victims her zeal for faith has been unduly forgotten. Yet, but for an accident, she might have covered herself with the glory of having done to death a heretic not less famous than Giordano Bruno. The poet Marlowe was accused of atheism, but while the prosecution was hanging over him he was killed in a sordid quarrel in a tavern (1593). Another dramatist (Kyd) who was implicated in the charge was put to the torture. At the same time Sir Walter Raleigh was prosecuted for unbelief but not convicted. Others were not so fortunate. Three or four persons were burned at Norwich in the reign of Elizabeth for unchristian doctrines, among them Francis Kett who had been a Fellow of Corpus Christi, Cambridge. Under James I, who interested himself personally in such matters, Bartholomew Legate was charged with holding various pestilent opinions. The king summoned him to his presence and asked him whether he did not pray daily to Jesus Christ. Legate replied he had prayed to Christ in the days of his ignorance, but not for the last seven years. "Away, base fellow," said James, spurning him with his foot, "it shall never be said that one stayeth in my palace that hath never prayed to our Saviour for seven years together." Legate, having been imprisoned for some time in Newgate, was declared an incorrigible heretic and burned at Smithfield (1611). Just a month later, one Wightman was burned at Lichfield, by the Bishop of Coventry, for heterodox doctrines. It is possible that public opinion was shocked by these two burnings. They were the last cases in England of death for unbelief. Puritan intolerance, indeed, passed an ordinance in 1648, by which all who denied the Trinity, Christ's divinity, the inspiration of Scripture, or a future state, were liable to death, and persons guilty of other heresies, to imprisonment. But this did not lead to any executions.

The Renaissance age saw the first signs of the beginning of modern science, but the mediæval prejudices against the investigation of nature were not dissipated till the seventeenth century, and in Italy they continued to a much later period. The history of modern astronomy begins in 1543, with the publication of the work of Copernicus revealing the truth about the motions of the earth. The appearance of this work is important in the history of free thought, because it raised a clear and definite issue between science and Scripture; and Osiander, who edited it (Copernicus was dying), forseeing the outcry it would raise, stated untruly in the preface that the earth's motion was put forward only as a hypothesis. The theory was denounced by Catholics and Reformers, and it did not convince some men (e.g. Bacon) who were not influenced by theological prejudice. The observations of the Italian astronomer Galileo de' Galilei demonstrated the Copernican theory beyond question. His telescope discovered the moons of Jupiter, and his observation of the spots in the sun confirmed the earth's rotation. In the pulpits of Florence, where he lived under the protection of the Grand Duke, his sensational discoveries were condemned. "Men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven?" He was then denounced to the Holy Office of the Inquisition by two Dominican monks. Learning that his investigations were being considered at Rome, Galileo went thither, confident that he would be able to convince the ecclesiastical authorities of the manifest truth of Copernicanism. He did not realize what theology was capable of. In February 1616 the Holy Office decided that the Copernican system was in itself absurd, and, in respect of Scripture, heretical. Cardinal Bellarmin, by the Pope's direction, summoned Galileo and officially admonished him to abandon his opinion and cease to teach it, otherwise the Inquisition would proceed against him. Galileo promised to obey. The book of Copernicus was placed on the Index. It has been remarked that Galileo's book on Solar Spots contains no mention of Scripture, and thus the Holy Office, in its decree which related to that book, passed judgment on a scientific, not a theological, question.

Galileo was silenced for a while, but it was impossible for him to be mute for ever. Under a new Pope (Urban VIII) he looked for greater liberty, and there were many in the Papal circle who were well disposed to him. He hoped to avoid difficulties by the device of placing the arguments for the old and the new theories side by side, and pretending not to judge between them. He wrote a treatise on the two systems (the Ptolemaic and the Copernican) in the form of Dialogues, of which the preface declares that the purpose is to explain the pros and cons of the two views. But the spirit of the work is Copernican. He received permission, quite definite as he thought, from Father Riccardi (master of the Sacred Palace) to print it, and it appeared in 1632. The Pope however disapproved of it, the book was examined by a commission, and Galileo was summoned before the Inquisition. He was old and ill, and the humiliations which he had to endure are a painful story. He would probably have been more severely treated, if one of the members of the tribunal had not been a man of scientific training (Macolano, a Dominican), who was able to appreciate his ability. Under examination, Galileo denied that he had upheld the motion of the earth in the Dialogues, and asserted that he had shown the reasons of Copernicus to be inconclusive. This defence was in accordance with the statement in his preface, but contradicted his deepest conviction. In struggling with such a tribunal, it was the only line which a man who was not a hero could take. At a later session, he forced himself ignominiously to confess that some of the arguments on the Copernican side had been put too strongly and to declare himself ready to confute the theory. In the final examination, he was threatened with torture. He said that before the decree of 1616 he had held the truth of the Copernican system to be arguable, but since then he had held the Ptolemaic to be true. Next day, he publicly abjured the scientific truth which he had demonstrated. He was allowed to retire to the country, on condition that he saw no one. In the last months of his life he wrote to a friend to this effect: "The falsity of the Copernican system cannot be doubted, especially by us Catholics. It is refuted by the irrefragable authority of Scripture. The conjectures of Copernicus and his disciples were all disposed of by the one solid argument: God's omnipotence can operate in infinitely various ways. If something appears to our observation to happen in one particular way, we must not curtail God's arm, and sustain a thing in which we may be deceived." The irony is evident.

Rome did not permit the truth about the solar system to be taught till after the middle of the eighteenth century, and Galileo's books remained on the Index till 1835. The prohibition was fatal to the study of natural science in Italy.

The Roman Index reminds us of the significance of the invention of printing in the struggle for freedom of thought, by making it easy to propagate new ideas far and wide. Authority speedily realized the danger, and took measures to place its yoke on the new contrivance, which promised to be such a powerful ally of reason. Pope Alexander VI inaugurated censorship of the Press by his Bull against unlicensed printing (1501). In France King Henry II made printing without official permission punishable by death. In Germany, censorship was introduced in 1529. In England, under Elizabeth, books could not be printed without a license, and printing presses were not allowed except in London, Oxford, and Cambridge; the regulation of the Press was under the authority of the Star Chamber. Nowhere did the Press become really free till the nineteenth century.

While the Reformation and the renovated Roman Church meant a reaction against the Renaissance, the vital changes which the Renaissance signified—individualism, a new intellectual attitude to the world, the cultivation of secular knowledge—were permanent and destined to lead, amid the competing intolerances of Catholic and Protestant powers, to the goal of liberty. We shall see how reason and the growth of knowledge undermined the bases of theological authority. At each step in this process, in which philosophical speculation, historical criticism, natural science have all taken part, the opposition between reason and faith deepened; doubt, clear or vague, increased; and secularism, derived from the Humanists, and always implying scepticism, whether latent or conscious, substituted an interest in the fortunes of the human race upon earth for the interest in a future world. And along with this steady intellectual advance, toleration gained ground and freedom won more champions. In the meantime the force of political circumstances was compelling governments to mitigate their maintenance of one religious creed by measures of relief to other Christian sects, and the principle of exclusiveness was broken down for reasons of worldly expediency. Religious liberty was an important step towards complete freedom of opinion.

  1. The danger, however, was felt in Germany, and in the seventeenth century the study of Scripture was not encouraged at German Universities.
  2. See Barry, Papacy and Modern Times (in this series), 113 seq.