Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains.Jean Jacques Rousseau, Essay on the Origins of Inequality, 1754
(Photo credit – Flickr)
We usually hear that the West’s democratic tradition is rooted in ancient Greece, and particularly in Athens in its Golden and Silver Ages (the 5th – 4th Centuries BCE). It is intriguing to trace the genesis of this myth among the Enlightenment philosophes and their ingenious rewriting of the historical record to suit their purpose. They (e.g., Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) propagandized that Christianity was incapable of generating any respect for human rights and freedoms. Rather, Christianity was “superstition and myth” fit only for the feeble-minded, unworthy of the Age of Reason and Science. It was the agent of oppression of ordinary people – especially the “better sort” of ordinary people who were educated enough to challenge Church orthodoxy and social control – keeping them in their allotted place as per God’s ordained order of “the Three Estates” or “Orders” among humanity – the Clergy, the Nobles, the Commoners.
It was to be forgotten that, for well over 1500 years, Christianity had been gradually transforming the West’s culture and soul towards placing all citizens on an equal footing before the law and in society. The Gospel proclaimed every Sunday in Church showed how Jesus treated all with respect and dignity – but especially the least esteemed in ancient (and, mostly, modern) society – women, children, the infirm and disabled, the outcasts, the rejected, and even the prisoners and slaves. The Book of Acts and the Epistles told the same story and even said “For in Christ there is no longer male or female, Jew or Gentile, slave or free.”
This gradual evolution towards effectual equality was based on the idea of every one being made in God’s image. In the Christian faith, all are equally objects of His love and mercy, as well as equally subject to His judgment, regardless of “Estate” (social and economic standing) in this world, or sex (gender, if you prefer) for that matter. But the Enlightenment declared that Reason and Science were ordained to supplant and replace the suppressive theological ideology which subjected human nature to God. Ergo, the centuries from 500-1500 were rebaptized as “the Dark Ages”, when superstition, ignorance, dogmatism, and the Inquisition supposedly ruled. Undeniably, there had been regrettable episodes of zealous fanaticism leading to witch-hunts and massacres of dissidents accused of heresy, but the slow movement continued just the same.
Ample new, meticulous research has shown that the Middle Ages were often, and on the whole, vastly different from the hoary standard story-line. Yet we still find it widely propagated as fact in textbooks and many a narrative uninformed by or deliberately ignoring the true historical facts. There were no “Dark Ages”, as so commonly described. There was a time when learning and knowledge retreated because of barbarians laying waste much of the old Greco-Roman world. But it did not disappear and did not even retreat underground. The new rulers quickly found they needed literate helpers to rule, make law, collect revenue, and keep order. Most of the literate class came from the one agency and institution that emerged still strong and independent from the wreck of the Western Roman Empire – the Catholic Church. Note that “Catholic” meant universal, and did not designate a denomination.
It was Catholicism which gradually softened the harshest edges of the new semi-barbarian kingdoms which emerged. It was Christianity which taught these choleric, volatile rulers to temper their tempers and begin to learn that they owed allegiance to a Greater King who would judge them and their rule.
We do not have time, and this is not the place, to set out the resounding refutation of the “Dark Ages” Enlightenment “old wives’ tale” in any detail. The point is that, even with its sometime blind dogmatism and unfortunate gaps in understanding, Medieval Christendom was already moving towards the open society that the West has become.
The biggest injury to that “Great Leap Forward” towards an open, egalitarian, universalist society (to borrow Mao’s phrase and put it to much better use) was actually the shattering of Christendom. This came via the triple hammer blows of (1) the Black Death and the tremendous socio-economic upheaval it produced [now there was the pandemic of pandemics!], (2) the Reformation followed by the Wars of Religion, and (3) the Enlightenment, which, despite all its protestations to be the Age of the coming of the great light of emancipation from superstition, opened the doors wide to the tsunami called the French Revolution.
That Revolution and its directly emergent military Messiah-figure, Napoleon Bonaparte, the prototype of all secular modern tyrants, were a firestorm which swept all the way across Europe from Madrid to Moscow between 1789 and 1815, leaving at least ten million dead in its wake. The Revolution and its whirlwind Messiah unleashed the full fury of the ideological nuclear force of nationalism into the world.
The cyclone of rampant nationalism would directly and inexorably lead to all the horrors we have known over the last 100 or so years, and of which we are now seeing a pernicious resurgence. As illustrated in our previous post, the dismal record is, conservatively estimated, 200 million dead sacrificed to the gods of virulent nationalism, socio-economic-political totalitarian ideologies (militant Communism and Fascism, in particular), hyper-imperialism, and cutthroat capitalism. So much for the noble Age of Freedom ensuing from the “Death of God”, as Nietzsche so aptly put it. “God is dead and we have killed Him,” is the ultimate presumptive and arrogant cry of triumph of the Philosophe. (God might justly quip in reply, “Contrary to rumor, I am still here. However, Nietzsche is dead, and he killed himself.”)
One is reminded of how, during the Roman Peace of over 200 years (Emperors Augustus to Marcus Aurelius, 27 BCE – 181 CE), the ancient Mediterranean and West European world thought it had outgrown the age of wars, save for those of self-defense against jealous foreign barbarians – the same guys who later took over the shop, as noted above.
Today, we seem no closer to our claim to merit the elusive prize called “Freedom” than our benighted forebears. As we used to say in the Sixties, “One man’s rebel is another’s Freedom Fighter.”
Consider the seminal conflict of US history, the Civil War of 1861-65. Both sides claimed to be fighting for Freedom and Rights. Both claimed that “right” and God were on their side. Abraham Lincoln famously observed in his inimitable fashion, “Both cannot be right, but both may be wrong.” His own much more sober assessment was that God had decreed that that terrible conflict would not end until “the last full measure” had been paid; that “every drop of blood shed by the overseer’s lash” would be paid for by the blood of the men mangled and dead on the battlefields. The total population of the USA in 1861 was 31 million. Over 650 000 American soldiers perished in that war, more than those who died in World Wars One and Two, the Korean War, and Vietnam combined. Another million and a half went home mangled and maimed in body and soul.
Is freedom a by-product of war? In his powerful little book Freedom, Sebastien Junger proposes that, in fact, it is! I do not know that the still struggling African-American minority in the USA would agree that they got true freedom coming out of the Civil War, or even since then.
Or is Freedom something much more subtle, surreal, even spiritual? Is it perhaps an innate, inherent quality one inherits at birth, like a gift from God? Or is it something earned or won by struggle and effort, rooted in much more primal origins, as Junger suggests?
If it is the first – innate and inherent at birth – then it is a universal right, an “inalienable right” bestowed by the Creator, as the authors and signers of the American Declaration of Independence proclaimed in 1776. If it is the second, then not everyone has it or deserves to acquire it or be given it. It becomes a privilege which may be earned, seized by brute force, revoked, and lost. Is the reality somewhere between these two extremes? Is it an innate potential that all must seek, but few will find, and, even then, only through struggle and sacrifice – akin to Jesus’ saying, “Seek and you will find; knock and it shall be opened to you?” If people are unwilling to struggle for it, to truly seek it, can they find it, even if someone attempts to hand it to them? Do they really merit such a priceless gift which, not having struggled to find it within themselves first, they will never really understand and value, let along know how to keep if it is threatened? As Joni Mitchell sang in Big Yellow Taxi, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”
Perhaps we can say that everyone merits at least the offer of the gift, the opportunity to seek it and, perchance, to find it. Perhaps it is fair to say that a great many people really don’t want to put in the effort and sacrifices that are required to find it and hold onto it once they have it. The historical record can easily be interpreted to point to this conclusion. Maybe they are only willing to fight for it when it is taken away, or about to be.
Generally, most people seem to want a limited amount of personal freedom to be able to go about their personal lives mostly unhindered. But they prefer to avoid too much personal responsibility lest it become overwhelming. When forced to choose between comfort and security and freedom, most people seem to tend to default to comfort and security, most of the time. That is what we saw with Italy’s Fascism and Germany’s Nazism in the 1930s. Like the frog in the pot, we wake up too late to jump out!
On the whole, for all their vaunted regard for liberating people from the yoke of ignorance and superstition, the classical (late 17th, 18th, and early 19th Century) Enlightenment philosophes did not believe in democracy, except perhaps in a very limited fashion. In Athens, their highly esteemed model, less than one quarter of the population were politically entitled. Athens’ population was about 250 000 in 430 BCE. Half of them were slaves. Half of the non-slaves were unentitled females. That leaves 62 500 male citizens with potential rights. Remove another two thirds who were under-age. We are at 20 000 entitled males. Remove 8000 with insufficient property to qualify to vote and hold office. Athens’ vaunted democracy was in fact a small coterie of 12 000 male citizens – all men!
In fact, the Roman Republic was far more democratic in theory and practice than Athens ever was. It even had a rather effective system of checks and balances built into it at its best. Athens’ excuse for a check on tyranny was ostracism, and this was fairly easy to pervert if a good demagogue manipulated the 12 000 qualified voters. True, in Rome no slaves or women could vote, but among the male citizens, only the very poorest could not vote or, theoretically, at least, be nominated to hold the powerful office of Tribune of the Plebs.
However, the Philosophes vastly preferred enlightened absolute emperors such as Augustus, and most especially Marcus Aurelius, the archetypical Stoic Philosopher-King. Certainly, the Philosophes’ version of democracy, whenever they spoke of it, bore little to no resemblance to that which exists today. In fact, they would have been appalled by the modern social-democratic states of today. Their preferred form of government was “Benevolent Despotism”, and their term for the best of the quasi-absolutist rulers of the time was “Enlightened Despots”. Among them could be found Catherine the Great of Russia, Joseph II of Austria, and Frederick II (the Great) of Prussia (the largest of the German states outside of Austria’s domains). All of the above defaulted to despotism at need, dropping the “enlightened” adjective when necessary to “deal with intransigent elements”. The last King of France before the Revolution, Louis XVI, aspired to join this elite group, but was not accorded the dignity by French Philosophes (Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, d’Alembert, et al.). In January 1793, Poor Louis was simply guillotined by the new set of revolutionary despots who took his place (e.g. Robespierre) with much greater ruthlessness than any monarch had dared before that time. Thirty thousand more aristocrats and suspected close collaborators of the “aristos” rapidly lost their heads in similar fashion, as did even the Queen, Marie-Antoinette of “let them eat cake” fame.
Perhaps the great 18th-C Philosophes (mercifully [for them] dead by 1793) would have pointed out smugly that the revolutionaries had tried out a radical sort of democracy and found it wanting, just as they had predicted it would be. They may well have heartily endorsed the Corsican-turned-French-Emperor, Napoleon, perhaps the greatest proponent of Enlightened Despotism ever, with himself as its ultimate incarnation.
“Liberté! Égalité! Fraternité!” has ever since been the battle cry of modern warriors of freedom, equality, and universal brotherhood. Over the last 225 years, the musket, rifle, pistol, cannon, mortar, howitzer, bayonet, sword, bomb, shell, rocket, and hand grenade (yes, they had all those modern weapons in Napoleon’s time) seem to have been much used in emulation of the little Corsican’s evangelistic strategy.
TO BE CONTINUED