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Number 601, January 1, 2011

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A History of Freedom of Thought
Chapter I

Freedom of Thought and the Forces Against It

by John Bagnell Bury (1861-1927)

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Special to The Libertarian Enterprise

IT is a common saying that thought is free. A man can never be hindered from thinking whatever he chooses so long as he conceals what he thinks. The working of his mind is limited only by the bounds of his experience and the power of his imagination. But this natural liberty of private thinking is of little value. It is unsatisfactory and even painful to the thinker himself, if he is not permitted to communicate his thoughts to others, and it is obviously of no value to his neighbours. Moreover it is extremely difficult to hide thoughts that have any power over the mind. If a man's thinking leads him to call in question ideas and customs which regulate the behaviour of those about him, to reject beliefs which they hold, to see better ways of life than those they follow, it is almost

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impossible for him, if he is convinced of the truth of his own reasoning, not to betray by silence, chance words, or general attitude that he is different from them and does not share their opinions. Some have preferred, like Socrates, some would prefer to-day, to face death rather than conceal their thoughts. Thus freedom of thought, in any valuable sense, includes freedom of speech.

At present, in the most civilized countries, freedom of speech is taken as a matter of course and seems a perfectly simple thing. We are so accustomed to it that we look on it as a natural right. But this right has been acquired only in quite recent times, and the way to its attainment has lain through lakes of blood. It has taken centuries to persuade the most enlightened peoples that liberty to publish one's opinions and to discuss all questions is a good and not a bad thing. Human societies (there are some brilliant exceptions) have been generally opposed to freedom of thought, or, in other words, to new ideas, and it is easy to see why.

The average brain is naturally lazy and tends to take the line of least resistance. 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

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would upset the established order of this familiar world. A new idea, inconsistent with some of the beliefs which he holds, means the necessity of rearranging his mind; and this process is laborious, requiring a painful expenditure of brain-energy. To him and his fellows, who form the vast majority, new ideas, and opinions which cast doubt on established beliefs and institutions, seem evil because they are disagreeable.

The repugnance due to mere mental laziness is increased by a positive feeling of fear. The conservative instinct hardens into the conservative doctrine that the foundations of society are endangered by any alterations in the structure. It is only recently that men have been abandoning the belief that the welfare of a state depends on rigid stability and on the preservation of its traditions and institutions unchanged. Wherever that belief prevails, novel opinions are felt to be dangerous as well as annoying, and any one who asks inconvenient questions about the why and the wherefore of accepted principles is considered a pestilent person.

The conservative instinct, and the conservative doctrine which is its consequence, are strengthened by superstition. If the social structure, including the whole body of customs and opinions, is associated intimately

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with religious belief and is supposed to be under divine patronage, criticism of the social order savours of impiety, while criticism of the religious belief is a direct challenge to the wrath of supernatural powers.

The psychological motives which produce a conservative spirit hostile to new ideas are reinforced by the active opposition of certain powerful sections of the community, such as a class, a caste, or a priesthood, whose interests are bound up with the maintenance of the established order and the ideas on which it rests.

Let us suppose, for instance, that a people believes that solar eclipses are signs employed by their Deity for the special purpose of communicating useful information to them, and that a clever man discovers the true cause of eclipses. His compatriots in the first place dislike his discovery because they find it very difficult to reconcile with their other ideas; in the second place, it disturbs them, because it upsets an arrangement which they consider highly advantageous to their community; finally, it frightens them, as an offence to their Divinity. The priests, one of whose functions is to interpret the divine signs, are alarmed and enraged at a doctrine which menaces their power.

In prehistoric days, these motives, operating

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strongly, must have made change slow in communities which progressed, and hindered some communities from progressing at all. But they have continued to operate more or less throughout history, obstructing knowledge and progress. We can observe them at work to-day even in the most advanced societies, where they have no longer the power to arrest development or repress the publication of revolutionary opinions. We still meet people who consider a new idea an annoyance and probably a danger. Of those to whom socialism is repugnant, how many are there who have never examined the arguments for and against it, but turn away in disgust simply because the notion disturbs their mental universe and implies a drastic criticism on the order of things to which they are accustomed? And how many are there who would refuse to consider any proposals for altering our imperfect matrimonial institutions, because such an idea offends a mass of prejudice associated with religious sanctions? They may be right or not, but if they are, it is not their fault. They are actuated by the same motives which were a bar to progress in primitive societies. The existence of people of this mentality, reared in an atmosphere of freedom, side by side with others who are always looking out for new ideas and

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regretting that there are not more about, enables us to realize how, when public opinion was formed by the views of such men, thought was fettered and the impediments to knowledge enormous.

Although the liberty to publish one's opinions on any subject without regard to authority or the prejudices of one's neighbours is now a well-established principle, I imagine that only the minority of those who would be ready to fight to the death rather than surrender it could defend it on rational grounds. We are apt to take for granted that freedom of speech is a natural and inalienable birthright of man, and perhaps to think that this is a sufficient answer to all that can be said on the other side. But it is difficult to see how such a right can be established.

If a man has any "natural rights,” the right to preserve his life and the right to reproduce his kind are certainly such. Yet human societies impose upon their members restrictions in the exercise of both these rights. A starving man is prohibited from taking food which belongs to somebody else. Promiscuous reproduction is restricted by various laws or customs. It is admitted that society is justified in restricting these elementary rights, because without such restrictions an ordered society could not exist. If then we

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concede that the expression of opinion is a right of the same kind, it is impossible to contend that on this ground it can claim immunity from interference or that society acts unjustly in regulating it. But the concession is too large. For whereas in the other cases the limitations affect the conduct of every one, restrictions on freedom of opinion affect only the comparatively small number who have any opinions, revolutionary or unconventional, to express. The truth is that no valid argument can be founded on the conception of natural rights, because it involves an untenable theory of the relations between society and its members.

On the other hand, those who have the responsibility of governing a society can argue that it is as incumbent on them to prohibit the circulation of pernicious opinions as to prohibit any anti-social actions. They can argue that a man may do far more harm by propagating anti-social doctrines than by stealing his neighbour's horse or making love to his neighbour's wife. They are responsible for the welfare of the State, and if they are convinced that an opinion is dangerous, by menacing the political, religious, or moral assumptions on which the society is based, it is their duty to protect society against it, as against any other danger.

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The true answer to this argument for limiting freedom of thought will appear in due course. It was far from obvious. A long time was needed to arrive at the conclusion that coercion of opinion is a mistake, and only a part of the world is yet convinced. That conclusion, so far as I can judge, is the most important ever reached by men. It was the issue of a continuous struggle between authority and reason "the subject of this volume. The word authority requires some comment.

If you ask somebody how he knows something, he may say, "I have it on good authority," or, "I read it in a book," or, "It is a matter of common knowledge," or, "I learned it at school." Any of these replies means that he has accepted information from others, trusting in their knowledge, without verifying their statements or thinking the matter out for himself. And the greater part of most men's knowledge and beliefs is of this kind, taken without verification from their parents, teachers, acquaintances, books, newspapers. When an English boy learns French, he takes the conjugations and the meanings of the words on the authority of his teacher or his grammar. The fact that in a certain place, marked on the map, there is a populous city called Calcutta, is for most

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people a fact accepted on authority. So is the existence of Napoleon or Julius Caesar. Familiar astronomical facts are known only in the same way, except by those who have studied astronomy. It is obvious that every one's knowledge would be very limited indeed, if we were not justified in accepting facts on the authority of others.

But we are justified only under one condition. The facts which we can safely accept must be capable of demonstration or verification. The examples I have given belong to this class. The boy can verify when he goes to France or is able to read a French book that the facts which he took on authority are true. I am confronted every day with evidence which proves to me that, if I took the trouble, I could verify the existence of Calcutta for myself. I cannot convince myself in this way of the existence of Napoleon, but if I have doubts about it, a simple process of reasoning shows me that there are hosts of facts which are incompatible with his non-existence. I have no doubt that the earth is some 93 millions of miles distant from the sun, because all astronomers agree that it has been demonstrated, and their agreement is only explicable on the supposition that this has been demonstrated and that, if I took the trouble to work out the calculation, I should reach the same result.

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But all our mental furniture is not of this kind. The thoughts of the average man consist not only of facts open to verification, but also of many beliefs and opinions which he has accepted on authority and cannot verify or prove. Belief in the Trinity depends on the authority of the Church and is clearly of a different order from belief in the existence of Calcutta. We cannot go behind the authority and verify or prove it. If we accept it, we do so because we have such implicit faith in the authority that we credit its assertions though incapable of proof.

The distinction may seem so obvious as to be hardly worth making. But it is important to be quite clear about it. The primitive man who had learned from his elders that there were bears in the hills and likewise evil spirits, soon verified the former statement by seeing a bear, but if he did not happen to meet an evil spirit, it did not occur to him, unless he was a prodigy, that there was a distinction between the two statements; he would rather have argued, if he argued at all, that as his tribesmen were right about the bears they were sure to be right also about the spirits. In the Middle Ages a man who believed on authority that there is a city called Constantinople and that comets are portents signifying divine wrath, would not

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distinguish the nature of the evidence in the two cases. You may still sometimes hear arguments amounting to this: since I believe in Calcutta on authority, am I not entitled to believe in the Devil on authority?

Now people at all times have been commanded or expected or invited to accept on authority alone""the authority, for instance, of public opinion, or a Church, or a sacred book""doctrines which are not proved or are not capable of proof. Most beliefs about nature and man, which were not founded on scientific observation, have served directly or indirectly religious and social interests, and hence they have been protected by force against the criticisms of persons who have the inconvenient habit of using their reason. Nobody minds if his neighbour disbelieves a demonstrable fact. If a sceptic denies that Napoleon existed, or that water is composed of oxygen and hydrogen, he causes amusement or ridicule. But if he denies doctrines which cannot be demonstrated, such as the existence of a personal God or the immortality of the soul, he incurs serious disapprobation and at one time he might have been put to death. Our mediaeval friend would have only been called a fool if he doubted the existence of Constantinople, but if he had questioned the significance of comets he

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might have got into trouble. It is possible that if he had been so mad as to deny the existence of Jerusalem he would not have escaped with ridicule, for Jerusalem is mentioned in the Bible.

In the Middle Ages a large field was covered by beliefs which authority claimed to impose as true, and reason was warned off the ground. But reason cannot recognize arbitrary prohibitions or barriers, without being untrue to herself. The universe of experience is her province, and as its parts are all linked together and interdependent, it is impossible for her to recognize any territory on which she may not tread, or to surrender any of her rights to an authority whose credentials she has not examined and approved.

The uncompromising assertion by reason of her absolute rights throughout the whole domain of thought is termed rationalism, and the slight stigma which is still attached to the word reflects the bitterness of the struggle between reason and the forces arrayed against her. The term is limited to the field of theology, because it was in that field that the self-assertion of reason was most violently and pertinaciously opposed. In the same way free thought, the refusal of thought to be controlled by any authority but its own, has a definitely theological reference. Throughout

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the conflict, authority has had great advantages. At any time the people who really care about reason have been a small minority, and probably will be so for a long time to come. Reason's only weapon has been argument. Authority has employed physical and moral violence, legal coercion and social displeasure. Sometimes she has attempted to use the sword of her adversary, thereby wounding herself. Indeed the weakest point in the strategical position of authority was that her champions, being human, could not help making use of reasoning processes and the result was that they were divided among themselves. This gave reason her chance. Operating, as it were, in the enemy's camp and professedly in the enemy's cause, she was preparing her own victory.

It may be objected that there is a legitimate domain for authority, consisting of doctrines which lie outside human experience and therefore cannot be proved or verified, but at the same time cannot be disproved. Of course, any number of propositions can be invented which cannot be disproved, and it is open to any one who possesses exuberant faith to believe them; but no one will maintain that they all deserve credence so long as their falsehood is not demonstrated. And if only some deserve credence, who, except reason,

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is to decide which? If the reply is, Authority, we are confronted by the difficulty that many beliefs backed by authority have been finally disproved and are universally abandoned. Yet some people speak as if we were not justified in rejecting a theological doctrine unless we can prove it false. But the burden of proof does not lie upon the rejecter. I remember a conversation in which, when some disrespectful remark was made about hell, a loyal friend of that establishment said triumphantly, "But, absurd as it may seem, you cannot disprove it." If you were told that in a certain planet revolving round Sirius there is a race of donkeys who talk the English language and spend their time in discussing eugenics, you could not disprove the statement, but would it, on that account, have any claim to be believed? Some minds would be prepared to accept it, if it were reiterated often enough, through the potent force of suggestion. This force, exercised largely by emphatic repetition (the theoretical basis, as has been observed, of the modern practice of advertising), has played a great part in establishing authoritative opinions and propagating religious creeds. Reason fortunately is able to avail herself of the same help.

The following sketch is confined to Western

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civilization. It begins with Greece and attempts to indicate the chief phases. It is the merest introduction to a vast and intricate subject, which, treated adequately, would involve not only the history of religion, of the Churches, of heresies, of persecution, but also the history of philosophy, of the natural sciences and of political theories. From the sixteenth century to the French Revolution nearly all important historical events bore in some way on the struggle for freedom of thought. It would require a lifetime to calculate, and many books to describe, all the directions and interactions of the intellectual and social forces which, since the fall of ancient civilization, have hindered and helped the emancipation of reason. All one can do, all one could do even in a much bigger volume than this, is to indicate the general course of the struggle and dwell on some particular aspects which the writer may happen to have specially studied.

First published 1913.

Project Gutenberg™'s A History of Freedom of Thought, by John Bagnell Bury
Release Date: January 11, 2004 [EBook #10684]

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