Popular Science Monthly/Volume 21/May 1882/Liberty of Thought
By Rev. E. WOODWARD BROWN.
MY subject is the progress of freedom of inquiry; of liberty to investigate and discuss, to compare and contrast, to adopt and reject opinions—liberty to think for one's self in every direction. The subject is not the great life and war of thought, that which accompanies struggles of all kinds in the world—struggles religious, political, social, and industrial—but is simply the progress of thought out of an enslavement that has existed through the world in all time. The mind of man has been more or less forbidden to exercise itself as it pleases. A great work which it might have done and has not done, work of all sorts throughout society in all its departments, has failed because some men have forbidden other men to think in a different way from what those men willed.
The causes why men have repressed thought are found in a natural dislike of dissent from cherished opinions—in a natural illiberality owing to ignorance or pride of opinion, or in a vague fear that new thinking will in some way hurt one, or one's cherished opinions, as to how things should be; also in the advantage pecuniary, social, political or other, arising from some established system, civil, ecclesiastical, educational, or the like, which free discussion would endanger in whole or in part. Through these causes those who have had the power have used it to put down all objectionable thought.
In heathendom, whenever and wherever a great ecclesiastical system has prevailed there has generally been an enslavement of mind in all directions; and wherever a great absolute state has existed there has been an enslavement of mind in political and social, if not also in religious directions. To refer to the enslavement by ecclesiastical systems: in these instances the ecclesiastical power has shackled thought upon religion, morals, science, and literature, upon social and civil subjects, in short upon everything; has controlled absolutely the whole expression of the nation's mind. The priestly class have arranged, inspired, and regulated all the duties to God, to the state, to the family, and to society. The priestly body has also claimed the supreme control of education; has prescribed the limits and the courses in which it shall be lawful for the human mind or for the human being to go; has also fixed the laws of literature and art, as we see in the conventional architecture, sculpture, and paintings of Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia. This ecclesiastical conventionalism, supported by the popular superstition, has greatly hampered original thought.
This sacred fixedness has not allowed, on the one hand, any progress in the native mind itself, nor the influence upon it of foreign mind and foreign methods.
In Egypt we have a priesthood dominant and fixing all forms of life. In the Assyrian power we have the kings constantly exalting the gods, in proclamation and inscription; and the architecture and sculpture are of an ecclesiastical and unchanging pattern. In the Medo-Persian power the ecclesiastical authorities largely shape the people's life; and we find that part of the creed, that idols should be destroyed, enforced wherever the Persian arms were carried. In Hindostan we have religion setting conventional limits to religion, philosophy, science, art, literature, politics, and social life.
But, on the other hand, we also find liberty of thought. Buddhism has been tolerant and pacific; has propagated itself never by war nor by legal force, but only by moral suasion. China, too, seems to have allowed a measure of liberty of thought in everything but politics. Several religions exist there side by side; and philosophy, science, and literature are found without an ecclesiastical imprint.
In the ancient republican systems of government there seems to have been more or less liberty of thought, except in religion and politics. This was so in the Phœnician confederacy, in the Carthaginian commercial states, in the Grecian republics, and in the Roman commonwealth.
In the dawn of Greece we find the priestly class weakened and superseded by the military. The despotic colleges of priests which existed in the East never had a place among the high-spirited and independent chiefs of Greece, who are described in Homer and elsewhere as taking the offices of religion into their own hands, and in various ways keeping its ministers in check. Doubtless, the genius of the people also had something to do with this. Nowhere has there been more liberty of thought in heathendom than in Greece, more freedom from superstition and bigotry; and yet even the Greeks were intolerant. Anaxagoras, who tried to explain astronomical and meteorological phenomena, had a narrow escape with his life from the offended "piety" of the Athenians. It took all the influence of Pericles to save him. Socrates was put to death. Phidias was persecuted, and died broken-hearted in prison. Every honest man was, at one time, in danger of being accused of atheism by the zealots. Noble citizens were tortured. Yet, on the whole, "at the epoch of the highest glory of philosophy, Plato, Aristotle, and most of the philosophers, whether of Grecian, or, more latterly, of Greco-Roman antiquity, had full liberty of thought, or nearly so. The state's public policy interfered but little with their labors, to cramp them and give them a particular tendency. They, on their part, concerned themselves but little about politics, nor cared much to influence immediately and decisively the society in which they lived."
Liberty of thought was allowed in Roman civilization, and yet, even there, was not permitted upon political subjects. The Roman method of conciliation was, first of all, the most ample toleration of the customs, religion, and municipal freedom of the conquered, and then their gradual admission to the privileges of the conquerors. Freedom of thought was allowed to a remarkable degree. Education was controlled neither by priest nor magistrate. Writing was free, and the circulation of popular works was extensive, though probably the rulers would have quickly restrained the circulation of what they considered injurious to the state. Public speech was free upon philosophy and morals, and upon theories of government, liberty, and tyrannicide.
While Mohammedanism has fixed unalterably its doctrines and forms, and has allowed no discussion of them, and so far has been inconsistent with freedom of thought, still it has permitted a measure of free thought. Its followers do not regard infidelity or heresy as criminal, and persecution for theological opinions has not been their rule. They have never had an Inquisition; or the burning of an unbeliever under authority of law. They have always allowed conquered Christians to retain their faith, and even to have public worship. No wars of compulsory conversion like those of Charlemagne, no expulsion of unbelievers, like that of the wars of Spain, stain the record of Mohammedanism. The succession of the Greek Patriarchs of Constantinople and Jerusalem has been regular for more than four centuries, and their relations with the Sultan have been far more amicable usually than those of the Pope with the kings of France and Germany.
The Koran says, "Those who are Moslems and those who are Jews, and the Christians and the Sabeans who believe in God and the last day, and work righteousness, for them is their reward with the Lord, and there is no fear for them, and they shall not be put to sorrow." Many of the caliphs invited Christian scholars to their courts, and were glad to have Christian students in their schools. The Caliph Haroun-al-Raschid employed Nestorians as head teachers. In the tenth century ambitious young Frenchmen went to the Asiatic schools of Spain. For instance, there Gerson, afterward Pope Sylvester II, was educated.
We now come to the progress of liberty of thought in Christendom.
The Christian Church has been afraid of inquiry because, so far as it makes unsound and false statements of fact, contrary to those of the Bible, it tends to unsettle the minds of men in what is regarded as accepted and very important truth, and so she objects to every one reading what she considers to be infidel books.
But, again, portions of the Christian Church have opposed inquiry because it made true statements which contradicted certain wrong interpretations and inferences that the Church had made from Scripture, and so, in undermining the errors of theology and the Church, seemed to be undermining the important truth, and, while in reality doing a good service, seemed to be doing harm. For instance, investigation of the laws of nature has ever been supposed by many "to be doing away with the being or the perfections or the providence of God; the discovery of second causes has been thought to detract from the glory of the Great First Cause." The discovery that God works by law, or with regularity, has been supposed to interfere with the faith that he is personal, has a choice to do this or that, and interferes among men for or against. A class of thinkers have assumed that, at least in some spheres, God acts without the aid of second causes, and frequently without regard to uniform laws—acts irregularly. Science has been steadily reducing the extent and the number of such spheres, but in the case of every one there has been a battle offered by those who believed that in that sphere God operated without regard to law; that there man should not look for regular laws or for secondary causes, and that to do so is presumptuous if not irreverent and impious. In this way good men and great men have shown themselves opponents of real science; have made the mistake of assuming that their prejudices and views were in harmony with the spirit and the views of the Bible, or of true religion. These men have supposed that they and the Bible were at one, and have been mistaken. They have undertaken contests in which they were defeated, and in which it became afterward apparent to the Church at large that they were mistaken.
This opposition of portions of the Church to mental liberty is contrary to the original views and practices of the Church. And the right has also been disputed by worthy men, such as Ambrose, Hilary, and Martin, within the Church. The Christian religion is not accountable for this false position of the Church toward freedom of thought.
Let us now look at the mental enslavement in Western Christendom. Strange to say, that great Christian Church which has played such an important part here, has, as before intimated, been guilty of such enslavement; has, with all its illumination on many subjects and its great power, been an opponent of freedom of thought; has been hostile to views of Scripture and doctrine different from the accepted views of the day; has considered all expression of divergent views as exceedingly bold, if not irreverent and heretical. For centuries the clergy and the monks directed the whole current of European affairs, personal, family, community, or national; scientific, literary, philosophical, or theoretical. The clergy and monks were a body by themselves, a hierarchy, a caste, a class that had undertaken the intellectual as well as much other schooling of Europe. They ruled in and throughout every sphere. They fixed everything in thought, religious doctrine, general philosophy, science, art, poetry—all. In a great measure they formed and controlled public opinion. They fashioned after their own views the minds of youth.
All this was well enough for a time. Europe needed it, and the gain was greater than the loss; better almost any education than no education; not but that their education was the best, but there comes a time when formal education by human teachers must cease—when "school is out"; and when this time arrived in Europe, and here and there men were in thought beginning to go without their teachers and beyond their teachers, then the Church, instead of, like a wise father, letting them go, tried to hold them.
The Church had become lifted up with the idea that theirs alone was the wisdom which could train, and theirs alone was the right to train; that it was their legitimate business. And so they tried to regulate thought—all the thought of the world so far as they could reach that world.
Learning was oppressed, original speculation in philosophy, original research in science, were prevented. Human reason was bound, for woe to him who claimed to find in metaphysics, mathematics, or the physical sciences that which contradicted what was stated! "The habit of doubt, the impartiality of suspended judgment, the desire to hear both sides of a disputed question, the going beyond what was taught," the making discoveries, all were condemned. Freedom, the condition of true inquiry, was cursed. Blind, unquestioning acceptance was blessed. The people were allowed a literature of imagination, but the effort was made to strictly keep them out of any moral and physical truth other than Rome had provided.
We now come to the change of the tide, to the beginning of better days for inquiry, to the dawn of the day of liberty. While liberty of thought was always more or less asserting itself, still, after a while, such assertion increased in emphasis and force. Several facts were favorable. It seems that, after all, the Church admitted the principle of freedom, for she advocated free thinking for herself. She maintained that religious belief and practice should not be brought under the absolute control of the civil government, and, by this assertion of the independence of the spiritual and therefore of the intellectual world, she prepared the way for the independence of the individual in these worlds. The language she held for herself as a whole, for herself in matters of religion and conscience, and for herself in the intellectual sphere, led the way for similar language by each person for himself.
Another great gain for freedom of thought was when secular government began to think for itself in its executive, legislative, and judicial departments; when each state began to declare that, in political matters, it was independent of the Church.
Still another great gain was, when a few "mighty though solitary persons" in the twelfth century, the first scholastics, asserted the right of human reason to be heard and to be consulted in the formation of opinions, as against the mere say-so of the Church; though most of these persons forbore to attack commonly received opinions upon religion; but they revolted from blind acceptance of everything the Church said. They went to work timidly. They would believe in part because the Church said so, but they wanted that belief supported also by reason. The inference would be that reason had also some claim to be heard; a further inference might be that these men were rationalists, and would only believe what reason could comprehend, but that would not follow. They only did not want to believe what contradicted reason, and they wanted the privilege of supporting their belief by reason so far as they could.
Abélard, founder of the scholastic philosophy, began the great battle. The first shock of the strife was when he threw down the gauntlet about reason, and St. Bernard, a very distinguished divine of the day, took it up. Both were men of great genius, leaders of great parties, and both were bent on reform. St. Bernard was a monk, humble, self-denying, and modest. He was celebrated for his penances, his poverty, his devotion to the distressed, as well as for his learning and eloquence. He had attacked the vices of the monastic world, and was reforming it with great zeal. It was a fight between giants, and Abélard was beaten—he was silenced.
A friend and disciple of Abélard, Arnold of Brescia, advocated liberty of thought, while he also championed the rights of the people all around to act and live as they pleased, so far as the ecclesiastical body then dominant was concerned. And, so far did this revolution go, begun by Abélard and Arnold of Brescia, that it seemed at one time likely to antedate the great religious revolution of the sixteenth century by nearly four centuries. Free, independent thinking, with heresy, was rife in all the schools. A republic existed at Rome. The most fertile of the French provinces, Languedoc, was in the power of the Albigenses. But as Abélard was silenced, so Arnold was hanged. The Roman Republic was suppressed. The Albigenses of Languedoc were exterminated. The cause of liberty came to grief, and yet the good work of emancipation was not ended.
Another great gain for free thought was in the early national literatures. They were uncompromising foes of Rome, its vices and its tyranny over thought. Petrarch denounced the Roman hierarchy, popes, cardinals, and monks, with unmeasured severity. He poured out a torrent of invective. Dante showed the ideal church, and then contrasted with it the real Church. He put popes into hell, and called Rome the very Babylon that John saw in the Apocalypse. Boccaccio treated the popular religious teachers with unbounded ridicule. The Minnesingers of Germany expressed freely their hatred of the tyranny of the Church; and the Provençal bards of France were unsparing in their attacks upon the hierarchy, until they were silenced by the fatal Albigensian crusade. The rising popular national literature. of England indignantly censured the monks and higher clergy, and spoke out boldly against the whole hierarchical system. The famous "Vision of Piers Ploughman," by William Langlande (a. d. 1362), one of the earliest pieces of English literature, is from the pen of an earnest reformer, "who values reason and conscience as the guides of the soul, and attributes the world's sorrows and calamities to the wealth and worldliness of the clergy, and especially of the mendicant orders"; while, also, Chaucer, in his "Canterbury Tales," shows himself in full accord with Wycliffe in hostility to the mendicant orders.
In many of these early writings, reverence for the Church and religion is blended with bitter, censures of the arrogance and wealth of the ecclesiastics. The spiritual power of the Pope is distinguished from his temporal power. The one is revered, the other denounced.
Again, we have the beginning of free thought in criticism in the idea of the comparative study of religion, as seen in the work "De Tribus Impostoribus."
Further, we have the beginning of free thought in philosophy, to wit: in the Mohammedan philosophy of the great infidel Averroes, introduced into Christendom from the Mohammedan universities of Spain; and there was also a struggle of the Church with Averroism, the subject of conflict being the nature of the soul, and the doctrines of emanation and absorption.
Furthermore, we have an effort at free thought in science. There were the leaders of science, Raymond Lully and Roger Bacon; there were also the Platonists—Barbaras, Curanus, Ticinus, Patricius, Picus, Agrippa, Paracelsus, Fludd, etc.; and again the theoretical reformers of science—Telesius, Campanella, Bruno, Ramus, and Melanchthon.
Moreover, there were discoveries which tended to diffuse knowledge, and so to awaken the mind of Europe—the art of making paper, the invention of gunpowder, and the discovery of the magnetic needle. There were, also, the universities. Instead of the Church being exclusively the only tribunal of opinion, the universities became now also centers of thought, with opinions and power of their own. Thus a certain new supremacy sprang up in the world of thought—a supremacy generally in accord with that of the Church, but sometimes antagonistic, and always more or less separate from it in the sphere of philosophy, science, and letters, here claiming to have an opinion of its own, and the claim being to some extent allowed.
Again, free thought found help in the jurists. They hated the Papal tyranny. Their study of the scattered remains of Roman law and civilization tended to generate mental freedom from prejudice and from authority.
We also have help to free thought in the revival of classical learning. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, among the many complicated causes which it would be difficult to trace, a general revival of Latin literature took place, which greatly modified the mental state of Europe. For the first time in centuries we find, feeble though it be, an uprising against the universal credulity and against the universal passion for theology. There was a strong desire for secular learning beginning to stir the mind of Europe. A taste was developed for philosophy, science, letters, and classical learning, an intellectual life which, while more or less suppressed in one land or another, one generation or another, by civil or ecclesiastical despotism, was destined to increase all over Europe and to continue until the present. Men thronged the universities to study not only theology, but also philosophy, law, medicine, science, belles-lettres, and the old literature of Greece and Rome. A desire arose among men to think for themselves in every sphere of thought. At this revival there was introduced into literature that principle of freedom to think which the Reformation brought into religion, and which principle Cartesianism brought next into philosophy; and, next, the French Revolution, four centuries from the beginning of the general movement, brought into politics.
Again, we have the rise of free thought in religion. Church tyranny was encountered by a resistance within the Church itself, which resistance could not be overcome. Many could not be restrained, confined, and controlled by the Church. Nowhere, in fact, did individual reason more boldly assert itself than in heresies and sects in the Church—in their denial of the infallibility of creeds, councils, and popes. The long rule of orthodoxy was broken through by many heresies, which, though often repressed, broke out again as often, and with new force and consistency. The minds of the learned were perplexed by sudden doubts concerning the leading doctrines of faith.
Every sort of new opinion in religion was entertained, notwithstanding ecclesiastical authority. An impartial philosophy was proclaimed by Abélard. A stern and uncompromising infidelity was taught in Seville and in Cordova, which infidelity began to overshadow the mind of Christendom. A passion for astrology and for the fatalism it implies revived, though there was, as yet, no general disposition to rise above the traditional teachings and fixed systems of the Church.
The Reformation was, among other things, an assertion of liberty of thought; was a partial emancipation of the mind of Western Christendom from bondage; was a teaching man to think for himself in the specific instance of the claims of the Romish Church to control all in religion; was, if not a complete emancipation, at least a great increase of liberty. This, in Germany, Denmark and Holland, England and France, and, for a time, in other lands where the Reformation was afterward crushed out, was a power of mental freedom.
Yet mental enslavement continued. The reformers would only change the master. He certainly was not to be the Roman Catholic Church, they said; he was only to be a more legitimate power. Standards were still set up, and ecclesiastical and civil power stood behind them, to compel religious, philosophical, scientific, and other thought, not to differ from them. Every one, Romish or Protestant, claimed the right to defend and to propagate opinion by force; every one was in favor of calling in the civil power to aid in a controversy in thought. But matters have much improved in the ecclesiastical sphere during these last four centuries. There is now marked progress in liberty of religious thought. The fierce invectives once hurled back and forth between Protestant and Catholic are dropped. The war of denominations has largely ceased. Convictions seriously entertained are now generally respected. Although a change of religion, or even in ministers a change of denomination, frequently causes more or less petty persecution, still there is improvement since the time, several centuries ago, when the apostasy of any one from the rest was regarded as one of the worst of crimes. A change of religion or even of denomination, from a sense of duty, is now commonly allowed among intelligent men. To-day the Protestant nations and the Roman Catholic countries of France, Spain, Italy, Austria, Bavaria, and Spanish America, have abandoned intolerance and enjoy freedom of opinion.
There is also marked progress in liberty of scientific thought—in the seventeenth century, that freedom to prosecute and publish investigation in science, which is so necessary to the advancement of science, hardly existed as yet. Though the political influence of the Church of Rome had much diminished, though European society had largely passed from the dominion of the Roman Church to that of temporal governments, yet that Church, though less tyrannical, freer from abuses, and more tolerant than before, was still disposed to maintain at every point the doctrines and opinions already expressed upon questions of science and learning; while also in Protestant lands popular prejudice still to an extent repressed mental freedom.
But there arose practical reformers in science—Leonardo da Vinci Copernicus, Fabricius, Galileo, Kepler, and Tycho Brahe. Science began to make decided advances in geography, astronomy, chemistry, physics, anatomy, medicine, geology, political economy, and other branches. The conflict with the astronomers is well known and has been well described—the fear of Copernicus, the imprisonment of Galileo, the burning at the stake in Rome of Giordano Bruno for upholding the teaching of modern astronomy as to the immensity of the universe and the plurality of worlds.
Still liberty of thought in science began to grow in various lands, giving us Bacon, Harvey, Descartes, Hooker, Barrow, Newton, Locke, Condillac, Helvetius, and others. In the present century all force has ceased, though certain advances in science have awakened opposition—for instance, the teaching of geology that the world had existed for millions of years, and had taken its shape under natural laws. This was thought to be against the Bible; so, too, vaccination and anæsthetics and other new things have been opposed with unnecessary haste and heat, as devices to defeat God's will. But to-day science and philosophy are free in many lands, while the narrow and restrictive policy which still obtains in others is gradually yielding.
Freedom of political thought is largely increased, though despotism and obstructive social systems have been much in the way; but, as the civil despotisms have changed into constitutional governments, there has been a steady increase of freedom.
Freedom of publication has likewise increased. In the middle ages nothing was allowed to be published that was against the opinions of the ruling powers in church or in state, nothing in theology, philosophy, science, or literature; though of course this tyranny was by no means complete, and very many were the attacks on received opinions. Still, as a rule, the press was enslaved. Despotic governments in church or state have not allowed a free press, except in instances of a mild sovereign or upon matters foreign to any interest of the rulers. The general policy has been to forbid all utterance that in any way is subversive of the authority or influence of government. We have heard much of regulation of the press, in political matters, which means despotic interference with it; the governments have been afraid of it; the upper classes in church, state, society, and industrial enterprise, have been afraid of it; it is rather the mouthpiece of truth and of justice for the people; wherefore "the complete proper liberty of the press is the conquest of a high civilization."
In France the Revolution witnessed the freedom, even the license, of the press. Bonaparte followed. He feared and hated free thought, and was, in some directions, its persistent opponent and oppressor; he exerted the immense power which he possessed to trammel the press; he cherished a mean jealousy of every kind of intellectual superiority which he could not enslave.
In Austria, Spain, and Italy, under their despotic governments, influenced more or less by the priests, a strict censorship has been exercised over all thought interfering with civil or with ecclesiastical despotism. Yet, since the civil absolutism has decreased, the liberty of the press has increased, until now, in Italy at least, it is complete.
The English-speaking lands have a free press; so, I believe, have the Spanish republics of America, and the same is true of Germany, Holland, and Belgium, and to a less extent of Scandinavian countries. In all these lands the principle has largely prevailed that writing and publishing are in themselves indifferent matters to government.
Such is a review of the progress of liberty of thought, especially in Christendom—a review that evidences the fact of progress. There was never before a period when men were judged so little according to their belief as now, and when all studies were pursued with such freedom. The victory of toleration in the purely intellectual sphere has been almost achieved. The principle is almost established that there shall be no restraint upon thinking, speaking, or publishing, whether it be in theology, in philosophy, in criticism, in science, in literature, or in politics. Both the law and public opinion favor such liberty.