Tag Archives: John Locke

The Story of the West: III – The Origins of Freedom

Sean O’Conaill © Reality Dec 2007

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. ” (US Declaration of Independence 1776)

Everywhere in the world in the time of Christ, slavery existed – in countries as far apart as Ireland and China. Two thousand years later the right to personal freedom is inscribed in the world’s great documents, and protected by most of the world’s governments.

The scourge of enslavement still exists for far too many, of course – but there is a global consensus that slavery is not only morally wrong but economically indefensible. While the ancient Greeks and Romans considered slavery essential to their success, the educated world now knows that slavery makes people unproductive – that we are most industrious when we are personally free.

Where did the idea of freedom come from? Most languages do not even have a word for the idea. It arose in one civilisation only – western Europe, in the Middle Ages. Catholic Europe, that is.

Here again, those who see Christianity as the root of all evil will deny that the Catholic Church could have had anything to do with the ending of slavery. They will point out that Jesus did not directly condemn it, that St Paul taught slaves to be obedient, that popes owned galley slaves as late as 1796, and that it was not until the 1800s that the papacy came finally to declare slavery immoral.

All of this is true – but the historical record is nevertheless clear: all effective anti-slavery movements were deeply influenced by another idea – an idea that developed in Catholic Europe alone, long before the Protestant Reformation: the idea that everyone is essentially equal in dignity.

That idea could not have come from Plato or Aristotle, the great philosophers of ancient Greece. Both believed that some peoples were superior to others, and that the slavery of many was essential to the prosperity and power of the Greek city state. Plato personally owned slaves. The ‘democracy’ of Athens was not based on the principle of ‘one man one vote’, but on the superiority of ethnic Greeks, all of them free to own slaves, who could not vote. In Plato’s ideal ‘Republic’ this elitism would have been retained.

The seed for the overthrow of slavery is to be found in the New Testament alone. St Paul did indeed teach slaves to be obedient, but he also taught masters to treat slaves well “knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with Him”. In other words, in the eyes of God we are all equal: “In Christ Jesus …there is neither slave nor free”.

It was for this very reason that slaves too were to receive the sacrament of baptism. Sacramental equality inevitably slowly undermined civil inequality. After an exhaustive study of the sources the agnostic secular sociologist Rodney Stark insists:

“Slavery ended in medieval (i.e. Catholic) Europe [only] because the church extended its sacraments to all slaves and then managed to impose a ban on the enslavement of Christians.”

By the third century the church had a pope, Callistus (d. 236) who had himself been a slave. With the fall of the western Roman empire in the fifth century, the pressure to end slavery increased. Priests began to urge the freeing of slaves as an “infinitely commendable act”. By the late 700s Charlemagne opposed slavery. By the 800s slavery was declared by some theologians to be “against divine law”.

Another scandalous era of slavery opened in the West with the voyages of exploration of the 1400s that gave European ships access to black Africa, and the incentive to ship slaves to imperial territories in north and south America. This too the papacy was far too slow to condemn unequivocally, yet even in the 1500s, some popes angrily condemned slavery in the Americas.

By now many Christians held that slavery was positively sinful. Here again we see the possibility for progress in Christian theology – as St Augustine had predicted. And it was this conviction that provided most fuel for the victories of the anti-slavery movement in the 1800s.

Uniquely among the world’s Religions, Christianity had not simply argued that all were equal in the sight of God, but provided most of the political momentum for the eventual overthrow of slavery. While the church is often pilloried for the slow progress of freedom in Europe, few secularist intellectuals have faced the reality that elsewhere in the world there was no progress at all. This was true especially of Islam. It was true even of China – often held up by secularists as a more advanced civilisation because its intelligentsia was irreligious.

And it was from these Christian principles of human dignity and human equality that another key modern principle emerged also: the principle of equal human rights.

Secularist opponents of Christianity will deny this, of course. They will argue that the principle of human rights was the child of the Enlightenment, an anti-Christian movement of the 1600s and 1700s.

But we now know that the US Declaration of Independence of 1776 owed its theory of human rights to the English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704). And that Locke frankly admitted his own debt to Catholic moral theologians of the Middle Ages who had developed the Christian principle of equal human dignity. If all are equal in dignity, it followed that Christians have binding obligations to all other humans. From these binding obligations, and from no other source, proceeds the principle that all humans are owed – i.e.have a right to – e.g. freedom

A further embarrassment for those who want to see the Enlightenment as the original source of freedom and human rights is the fact that the great Voltaire, high priest of the Enlightenment, invested the considerable profits of his own writings in the 18th century French slave trade, based at Nantes.

It was a vast tragedy for the Catholic church that the Christian origins of freedom became hidden even from the papacy in the period after the Enlightenment. Fearing the rise of democracy and the principle of religious freedom, Catholic bishops and popes, usually the sons of aristocratic Catholic families, mistakenly often condemned these. The belief that “error has no rights” was adhered to by Catholic churchmen well into the lifetime of many of us.

It was also a great tragedy for Catholicism in Ireland that when our church did eventually embrace the principle of religious freedom at Vatican II in 1965, our most powerful churchman was Archbishop John Charles McQuaid of Dublin. He too believed that error had no rights, and that it was perfectly legitimate for him and his fellow bishops to seek to control the Irish state directly. His extraordinary determination to control every aspect of Irish life until his resignation in 1971 earned for Irish Catholicism a reputation for clericalism and authoritarianism that virtually guaranteed the victory of secularism in the generation that followed.

Archbishop McQuaid mistakenly obliged every Catholic in his diocese to define Catholic loyalty in terms of unquestioning obedience and intellectual deference to him personally. This clericalist spirit still pervaded Catholic Ireland in the era of the council, and sabotaged its liberating potential here. Forced to choose between the role of ‘lackey to the bishop’ and the supposedly secular principle of freedom, many, many Irish people felt obliged, even in conscience, to choose the latter and to reject Catholic belief.

This is one of the most important reasons for the growth of Irish secularism and anticlericalism in recent decades. It explains why our media constantly exploit church scandals and why it is now so difficult for Irish Catholic churchmen to get a fair public hearing, especially in matters like stem cell research.

Catholic authoritarianism has always played into the hands of those who want to argue that the greater freedom of western culture is an entirely secular achievement, and that religion and freedom must always be opposed. And this in turn has led to a situation in Ireland where secularism is now so powerful that many Catholics feel ashamed to identify themselves as Catholics in public.

The solution is not to seek to restore the ‘Catholic Ireland’ of Archbishop McQuaid but to understand the Catholic roots of western freedom and to take pride, publicly, in that fact. We need to make ourselves entirely at home in neutral secular space and to educate ourselves to the facts of western history – refusing to take for granted secularist propaganda aimed at shaming us and driving Catholicism out of the public square entirely.

In particular we need to point out to secularists that the Catholic roots of western civilisation are far more than a matter of Catholic opinion. They are now confirmed by globally renowned scholars who are not even Christian. One of the most important is Rodney Stark, the ground-breaking American sociologist. I have used his recent book Victory of Reason as my most important source for these articles. Written with great clarity and honesty, it should be read by every educated Catholic.

Another is the German atheist philosopher Jurgen Habermas. Disturbed by various decadent tendencies in western society, and by the growing threat of terrorism since 9/11, he made the following declaration in a 2004 essay A Time of Transition:

“Christianity, and nothing else, is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of western civilisation. To this day, we have no other options. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is post-modern chatter.”

Armed with this same knowledge, Irish Catholics of tomorrow will have no need to feel defensive about their faith or ashamed to proclaim it as the source of their own idealism in the secular world.

Claiming our own place in pluralist Irish secular society we must now also be unafraid to ask anti-Catholic secularists if they really know the origins of the values, and especially the freedom, they hold sacred.

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Western dominance: a product of Catholic theology?

Sean O’Conaill  © Doctrine and Life Apr 2006

How did ‘The West’ – shorthand for the societies fringing the North Atlantic – arrive at global cultural, political and economic dominance in the modern era? Challenged to answer this question in as few words as possible, the average historically literate product of a western university might well produce something like the following:

“Modernity is essentially based upon a preference for reason before religious faith, and the journey towards the dominance of reason began in ancient Greece. Laying the foundations of modern science and of personal and political freedom, this Greek achievement was buried for over a thousand years by the rise of Catholic Christendom in the first Christian millennium. Although these ‘Dark Ages’ were not as dark as was once thought, they were nevertheless a period of relative inertia, characterised by religious faith and political tyranny.

“The recovery of the wisdom of the ancient Greeks in the 1400s led to a cultural Renaissance in western Europe, a period of global exploration by European powers, a Scientific Revolution and a renewed interest in democracy. The Protestant Reformation in the West assisted the victory of science and democracy by weakening the obscurantist power of the Catholic church and enabling the rise of capitalism through the ‘Protestant work ethic’. The Enlightenment of the 1700s prioritised reason above faith and led to the emergence of modern secular democracies, in which capitalism, science, technology and individual freedom finally triumphed.”

The questions raised by such a narrative have so far been eclipsed by its simplicity and rhetorical convenience. Weren’t even the most enlightened of the ancient Greeks defenders of slavery and owners of slaves? How did western modernity recover the ancient Greek legacy if it had been so thoroughly buried by Catholic obscurantism in the ‘Dark Ages’? And weren’t the Catholic republics of Genoa and Venice pioneers of capitalism long before the Reformation? Such questions have been asked but have not yet weakened the essential thread of the narrative: Reason, science and freedom – the foundation of all progress – began in ancient Greece, were obscured by Catholic orthodoxy, and could only re-emerge when the Catholic monopoly was overthrown. (The story of Galileo was, of course, the ‘proof text’ of this narrative.)

Rodney Stark’s robust assault upon that essential narrative is all the more intriguing because it comes not from a Catholic apologist but from an agnostic sociologist. In Victory of Reason* he insists that, on the contrary, freedom, reason, science and capitalism – and even the very idea of progress – owed most to the very phenomenon that secular orthodoxy tends to regard as the darkest historical force: the theology of the early Church fathers and the scholastics.

To begin with, he insists, the greatest of the ancient Greeks didn’t even believe in progress. Although Aristotle thought he was living in a ‘Golden Age’, he, and all ancient Greeks, saw history as essentially cyclical, with periods of decay inevitably following every period of advance. He believed, for example, that the technical achievements of his own era would not be bettered in any future era.

And for this very reason, coupled with their lack of belief in a rational unitary deity who had created a rational cosmos, the ancient Greeks did not originate the linkage essential for true science – between theory and research. Aristotle, the ‘great empiricist’, contradicted Alcmaeon’s theory that goats breathed through their ears but does not record any experimental troubling of any goat to prove his point. He believed also that stones of different weights would fall at speeds proportionate to their weights but never tested this by experiment either – for example by dropping stones of two different weights but the same volume from the same high cliff to see if the heavier would indeed reach the ground below before the lighter. It simply never occurred to him to devise repeatable experiments or systematic observations, so he, the most scientific of the ancient Greeks, was never a true scientist.

Rodney Stark contrasts this Greek intellectual pessimism with the attitudes of some of the early Christian fathers, most notably Augustine. From the beginning Christians, like Jews, believed that history was not cyclical but moving forward inexorably in linear fashion towards a future end point. And the fact that Jesus never left a single definitive text like the Quran meant that theologians were free to attempt to discern answers to all the questions he did not resolve, using reason (i.e. logic) as their method.

Of all the great religions, Stark insists, Christianity was alone in believing that reason ruled all things, since they had been created by a reasonable God. “Heaven forbid,” declared Augustine, “that God should hate in us that by which he made us superior to the animals. Heaven forbid that we should believe in such a way as not to accept or seek reasons, since we could not even believe if we did not possess rational souls.” Furthermore Augustine believed that such a search would be fruitful, declaring that although ‘certain matters pertaining to the doctrine of salvation’ could not yet be understood, ‘one day we shall be able to do so’.

If reason could discover more about God, it followed that the natural world, created by the same God, should also be rational, full of secrets waiting to be discovered by reason. Far from rejecting theology, the great scientists of the early modern era, such as Newton, saw science as the handmaiden of theology. It was this that led Alfred North Whitehead to declare in 1925 that “The greatest contribution of medievalism to the formation of the scientific movement [was] the inexpugnable belief that there is a secret, a secret that can be unveiled. … It must come from the medieval insistence on the rationality of God.”

Even Bertrand Russell was mystified by the failure of the Chinese to develop science, since the intelligentsia of ancient China had rejected popular religion and theism. The reason, Stark insists, was that for that very reason they never developed a rational theology either. Mystical works like the Tao stressed not a caring creator God of reason but an ineffable essence wrapped in mystery, lacking all personality, desire and intention. The Chinese view of history was also therefore non-progressive. How could there be an attempt to discover what could not exist, since the ancients had known all that was to be known?

And if Greek thought would lead of its own accord to science, why didn’t that happen within Islamic culture, which had also inherited the Greek legacy? The reason again was the lack of systematic theological inquiry within Islam, the conviction that all that needed to be known had already been revealed in the Quran.

It was, uniquely, Christian theology also that led to the western understanding of individual freedom. Whereas Greek tragedy held individuals (Oedipus, for example) to be the necessary victims of circumstances outside their control, Shakespeare’s Hamlet chooses his own fate. Stark traces this shift to the Christian emphasis upon individual responsibility by Jesus himself, an emphasis that continued throughout the Middle Ages.

This also marked a shift in the dignity to be accorded to every individual, without exception. There is simply no equivalent in classical thought to Paul’s insistence that for God there are no distinctions between ‘male and female, slave and free’. On the contrary Plato believed, with Hitler, that there was indeed such a thing as a ‘slavish people’, and both he and Aristotle kept slaves.

This theological emphasis upon the moral equality of individuals, without distinction of gender, class or race, meant that there was always an ambiguity and tension in the continuation of slavery in the late Roman imperial and then the medieval period under baptised Christian rulers. Contrary to some authorities, serfs were not slaves as they were free to marry and their children could not be taken from them, and it was in Christian Europe alone that the institution of slavery gradually became odious. Stark declares emphatically: “Slavery ended in medieval Europe [only] because the church extended its sacraments to all slaves and then managed to impose a ban on the enslavement of Christians (and of Jews).”

The later enslavement of non-Europeans by Christian Europe was, of course, especially odious, but here again the main early impetus for an end to the practice globally came from Christianity alone. Islam could not be in the vanguard of liberty for the simple reason that Muhammad, totally unlike Jesus of Nazareth, was also a slave owner. (And Voltaire, high priest of the Enlightenment, invested the unprecedented profits from his writings in the French slave trade based at Nantes.)

Turning to economic and technological advance, Stark summarises a lot of recent research to explode the myth of the Middle Ages as a period of even relative stagnation. First, it was during this period after the fall of Rome that Europe advanced ahead of the rest of the world in the use of water power. By the thirteenth century paper was being manufactured using overshot water wheels – something that had happened nowhere else until then. Similar innovation occurred in wind power, the shoeing and harnessing of horses, fish-farming, crop rotation, shipbuilding, and, more lamentably, the use of gunpowder in warfare.

In Education the medieval church universities were an advance on anything existing in the ancient world because, far from simply recycling ancient lore, they gained fame by innovation. Moreover they educated far more students, who were taught not simply to study ancient sources but to critique and improve on them. Without them there could not have been a Copernicus, who drew on medieval authorities also for his heliocentric theory. Kepler’s discernment of the elliptical orbits of the planets rested upon centuries of planetary observation. Newton’s reference to the ‘giants’ upon whose shoulders he had stood should no longer be thought to exclude the products of medieval Catholic universities. It was in the late Christian Middle Ages that the systematic linkage of theory and research, the foundation for true science, first occurred.

Turning then to capitalism Stark explodes the notion that Europe had to wait for the ‘Protestant ethic’ to produce the essential characteristic of capitalism – the systematic reinvestment of profits to produce further income. It was Augustine who first taught that the price of an article could legitimately relate to the desire of a potential buyer, and that therefore wickedness was not inherent in commerce. Later theologians further undermined, and eventually overthrew, the ban on usury – the lending of money at interest. It was large medieval monastic institutions that became the first stable capitalist institutions in history – reinvesting in, for example, overshot water power for a variety of enterprises. Subsequently, the Mediterranean Catholic republics of Venice and Genoa developed a more advanced capitalism than had existed anywhere in the world until then.

Essential to this historical process was the Christian concept of moral equality – the true source of the notion of inalienable human rights. It was this, not classical philosophy, that first drew limits to the legitimate power of governments. Whereas China had developed a thriving iron industry at one point in its history, this was undermined by a government and ruling class that had the power to strangle it. Medieval capitalist institutions in Europe usually escaped such a fate because Christian theology protected them – and for no other reason.

‘The Rights of Man’, that cornerstone of modern secular ideology, did not therefore spring new born from John Locke and the Enlightenment, or from ancient Greece, but from a long tradition of Christian theological emphasis upon the moral equality of all humans, beginning with the the Sermon on the Mount.

On a negative note, although Stark takes pains to insist that he uses the word ‘capitalism’ to describe an economic rather than a political and social system, his entirely positive ‘take’ on capitalism, without reference to current issues of global injustice and the environmental crisis, is a little disconcerting. His facile dismissal of liberation theology underestimates its continuing positive impact in societies where a corrupt capitalism is still wreaking havoc.

However, there are so many other good things in this reasonably priced book that it can heartily be recommended to all who have either a basic historical education, or an interest in acquiring one. Every teacher of history in a Catholic institution should acquire a copy. It is an important milestone in the overthrow of that mistaken ‘grand narrative’ of western history that underpins the rhetoric of a rampant and often daftly anti-Catholic secularism.

Indeed ‘The Victory of Reason’ suggests an entirely new historical apologetics founded not upon defending Christendom, or a Christendom model of church, but upon discerning the thread of progressive and optimistic faith in reason that links the best of modernity with the early and medieval church. Voltaire’s 18th century historical schema was a self-regarding story of ancient classical enlightenment obscured by blind Biblical and Catholic faith, but then recovered by his own heroic movement – the modern Enlightenment. It was based upon an entirely ignorant perception of the Middle Ages, but has cast a fog of intellectual odium over the Judeo-Christian tradition for more than two-and-a-half centuries. That fog is, thankfully, beginning to lift – allowing us to see clearly, and to counter, the absurd hubris of an anti-Catholic secularism that is still too often wrapped in the darkest Voltairean self-delusion.

So in due time will, doubtless, the pall that now hovers over the history of the Catholic church in modern Ireland. Catholicism has been, for over fifteen centuries, the essential source of the cultural vitality and distinct identity of most Irish people. Now that we know that Catholic theology is the most important source of all that is best in modernity, we can surely be joyfully modern and Catholic as well. The great tradition of Catholic theologians and philosophers who had more faith in reason than most contemporary philosophers is a far more secure and hopeful foundation than that self-declared and morbid cul-de-sac, postmodernism.

*The Victory of Reason, by Rodney Stark, Random House, New York, 2005.

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