How Free Thought Threatens Government and Society

08/26/2013 10:00
by Doug French

Most of us take the freedom to think what we want for granted. We shouldn't. The thinking reader should study the history of thought to fully appreciate our freedoms and be on the lookout for those who wish to take them away. The brilliant J.B. Bury has boiled this history down to less than 200 pages in his fascinating book Freedom of Thought: A History.


I don't use the word "brilliant" lightly. Bury not only worked 16 hour days to get his facts right, but when he edited a new edition of Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, he learned nine extra languages so that he wouldn't miss anything.

Anyone who has tried to convince an adult to change his or her mind about a bias they have can understand Bury when he writes, "The mental world of the ordinary man consists of beliefs which he has accepted without questioning and to which he is firmly attached; he is instinctively hostile to anything which would upset the established order of this familiar world."

For instance, the average libertarian is driven nuts with inane rejections of freedom and free markets. Statists have no better response than, "What about the roads?" Those on the left and right have their story and they're sticking to it.

Why? Bury points out that the average brain is lazy. It wants to take the path of least resistance. Thinking through one's beliefs drains energy from the brain. It's much easier to go along with conventional opinion. When novel opinions are deemed dangerous and the authorities claim institutions and traditions must be maintained, the average person will bow to their leader's wishes.

For these reasons, human societies have generally been against freedom of thought.

Those governing societies will argue that allowing contrary opinions will unravel society. It benefits the greater good to prohibit free thought, because these thoughts can be antisocial and do great harm.

Bury's story begins with the Greeks. He points out that while we often cite their achievements in art and literature, we must first and foremost recognize the Greeks "as the originators of liberty of thought and discussion." The progress we enjoy today can be traced back to their principle of liberty.

Bury does make the point that movements in intellectual freedom are always limited to the minority. He writes that the masses were superstitious. Their lives were thought to be in the hands of the gods. Today is no different, really. Eight of 10 people believe in angels. A third of Americans believe there are aliens running around. There are plenty of folks fretting about chemtrails, the Bilderbergers, and other sinister conspiracies.

Socrates worked well into old age educating his fellow citizens, until he was prosecuted for being an atheist and corrupter of youth. He was supposedly executed for these crimes. However, it's Bury's view that Socrates was really executed for political reasons; otherwise, the authorities would not have allowed him to carry on until he was age 70.

Bury devotes his chapter "Reason in Prison" to the Spanish Inquisition. Every man became an informer, and heresy would not be tolerated. The author offers an illuminating, albeit uncited, quote about the Inquisition: "No more ingenious device has been invented to subjugate a whole population, to paralyze its intellect, and to reduce it to blind obedience. It elevated delation to the rank of high religious duty."

The Renaissance brought about a new intellectual attitude to the world and planted the seeds of individual liberty. The Reformation was a reaction against the Renaissance. In the end, the breakdown of religious exclusiveness was an important step toward freedom of opinion.

The author devotes a large portion of the book to rationalism that spans the 17th-19th centuries. Rationalists believe truth is found through logic and deduction. For the rationalist, knowledge is gained a priori (through logic), rather than a posteriori (through experience).

In an interesting discussion on belief in miracles, Bury compares the work of David Hume, whom he calls "the greatest English philosopher of the century," and the aforementioned Edward Gibbons. Surprisingly, the author contends that Hume's skepticism had less influence on the general public than Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Bury contends that Gibbon's magnum opus was the only freethinking book that was still widely read in his time, implying that the author's caution in the area of religion made it so.

Less careful was Thomas Paine, who wrote the anti-Christian The Age of Reason from a Paris jail cell. Paine reached out to the masses using plain language to assail the Bible. According to Bury, "Paine is the first to present with force the incongruity of the Christian scheme with the conception of the universe attained by astronomical science."

Writing in 1914, Bury states, "The struggle of reason against authority has ended in what appears now to be a decisive and permanent victory for liberty." Yet almost 100 years later, I'm not sure he would be pleased with the progress. For example, in December 2012, there were 232 journalists jailed worldwide.

This year, right here in the good old USA, the Obama administration, in the words of The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin, "indulged in excruciatingly invasive spying on James Rosen of Fox News and, in an unprecedented move, asserted that his newsgathering is criminal."

There is no advancement of knowledge without the freedom of thought. When free thinking and free speech stop, progress is put on hold, to the detriment of all society. In Bury's words, "We exclaim that altar and throne formed a sinister conspiracy against the progress of humanity."

Bury reminds us in his conclusion that what the Greeks and Romans gave us was taken away. Just as tyranny can be overcome, rights and freedoms can be lost under the guise of righteousness. Disruption is not embraced, but instead is stifled for our own good.

Freedom of Thought is part of the Great Minds Series of books and serves as a powerful reminder of where liberty begins and how easily it can be lost. It provides both a history lesson and wake-up call that we must always be vigilant.