The Philosophy of Freedom: The Basis for a Modern World Conception

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Their authority was immense; but it was not binding like the authority of a sacred book, and so Homeric criticism was never hampered like Biblical criticism. In this connexion, notice may be taken of another expression and condition of freedom, the absence of sacerdotalism. The priests of the temples never became powerful castes, tyrannizing over the community in their own interests and able to silence voices raised against religious beliefs. The civil authorities [25] kept the general control of public worship in their own hands, and, if some priestly families might have considerable influence, yet as a rule the priests were virtually State servants whose voice carried no weight except concerning the technical details of ritual.

To return to the early philosophers, who were mostly materialists, the record of their speculations is an interesting chapter in the history of rationalism. Two great names may be selected, Heraclitus and Democritus, because they did more perhaps than any of the others, by sheer hard thinking, to train reason to look upon the universe in new ways and to shock the unreasoned conceptions of common sense. It was startling to be taught, for the first time, by Heraclitus, that the appearance of stability and permanence which material things present to our senses is a false appearance, and that the world and everything in it are changing every instant.

Philosophy of Freedom 2013, Lecture 7: Chapter 4

Democritus performed the amazing feat of working out an atomic theory of the universe, which was revived in the seventeenth century and is connected, in the history of speculation, with the most modern physical and chemical theories of matter. No fantastic tales of creation, imposed by sacred authority, hampered these powerful brains. All this philosophical speculation prepared [26] the way for the educationalists who were known as the Sophists.

They begin to appear after the middle of the fifth century. They worked here and there throughout Greece, constantly travelling, training young men for public life, and teaching them to use their reason. As educators they had practical ends in view. They turned away from the problems of the physical universe to the problems of human life—morality and polities.

Here they were confronted with the difficulty of distinguishing between truth and error, and the ablest of them investigated the nature of knowledge, the method of reason—logic— and the instrument of reason—speech. Whatever their particular theories might be, their general spirit was that of free inquiry and discussion. They sought to test everything by reason. The second half of the fifth century might be called the age of Illumination. It may be remarked that the knowledge of foreign countries which the Greeks had acquired had a considerable effect in promoting a sceptical attitude towards authority.

When a man is acquainted only with the habits of his own country, they seem so much a matter of course that he ascribes them to nature, but when he travels abroad and finds totally different habits and standards of conduct prevailing, he begins to understand [27] the power of custom; and learns that morality and religion are matters of latitude.

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This discovery tends to weaken authority, and to raise disquieting reflections, as in the case of one who, brought up as a Christian, comes to realize that, if he had been born on the Ganges or the Euphrates, he would have firmly believed in entirely different dogmas. Of course these movements of intellectual freedom were, as in all ages, confined to the minority.

Everywhere the masses were exceedingly superstitious. They believed that the safety of their cities depended on the good-will of their gods. If this superstitious spirit were alarmed, there was always a danger that philosophical speculations might be persecuted. And this occurred in Athens. About the middle of the fifth century Athens had not only become the most powerful State in Greece, but was also taking the highest place in literature and art.

She was a full-fledged democracy. Political discussion was perfectly free.

1. The General Idea of Human Rights

At this time she was guided by the statesman Pericles, who was personally a freethinker, or at least was in touch with all the subversive speculations of the day. He was especially intimate with the philosopher Anaxagoras who had come from Ionia to teach at Athens. In regard to the popular gods Anaxagoras was a thorough-going [28] unbeliever. The political enemies of Pericles struck at him by attacking his friend. They introduced and carried a blasphemy law, to the effect that unbelievers and those who taught theories about the celestial world might be impeached.

It was easy to prove that Anaxagoras was a blasphemer who taught that the gods were abstractions and that the sun, to which the ordinary Athenian said prayers morning and evening, was a mass of flaming matter.


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The influence of Pericles saved him from death; he was heavily fined and left Athens for Lampsacus, where he was treated with consideration and honour. Other cases are recorded which show that anti-religious thought was liable to be persecuted. Protagoras, one of the greatest of the Sophists, published a book On the Gods , the object of which seems to have been to prove that one cannot know the gods by reason. There are more reasons than one why we cannot know. There is the obscurity of the subject and there is the brevity of human life.

But there was no systematic policy of suppressing free thought. Copies of the work of Protagoras were collected and [29] burned, but the book of Anaxagoras setting forth the views for which he had been condemned was for sale on the Athenian book-stalls at a popular price. Rationalistic ideas moreover were venturing to appear on the stage, though the dramatic performances, at the feasts of the god Dionysus, were religious solemnities.

2. The Existence and Grounds of Human Rights

The poet Euripides was saturated with modern speculation, and, while different opinions may be held as to the tendencies of some of his tragedies, he often allows his characters to express highly unorthodox views. He was prosecuted for impiety by a popular politician. We may suspect that during the last thirty years of the fifth century unorthodoxy spread considerably among the educated classes.

There was a large enough section of influential rationalists to render impossible any organized repression of liberty, and the chief evil of the blasphemy law was that it could be used for personal or party reasons. Some of the prosecutions, about which we know, were certainly due to such motives, others may have been prompted by genuine bigotry and by the fear lest sceptical thought should extend beyond the highly educated and leisured class.

It was a generally accepted principle among the Greeks, and afterwards among the Romans, that religion was a good and necessary thing [30] for the common people. It was the custom, much more than at the present day, for those who did not believe in the established cults to conform to them externally. Popular higher education was not an article in the programme of Greek statesmen or thinkers.

And perhaps it may be argued that in the circumstances of the ancient world it would have been hardly practicable. There was, however, one illustrious Athenian, who thought differently—Socrates, the philosopher. Socrates was the greatest of the educationalists, but unlike the others he taught gratuitously, though he was a poor man. His teaching always took the form of discussion; the discussion often ended in no positive result, but had the effect of showing that some received opinion was untenable and that truth is difficult to ascertain.

He had indeed certain definite views about knowledge and virtue, which are of the highest importance in the history of philosophy, but for our present purpose his significance lies in his enthusiasm for discussion and criticism. He taught those with whom he conversed—and he conversed indiscriminately [31] with all who would listen to him—to bring all popular beliefs before the bar of reason, to approach every inquiry with an open mind, and not to judge by the opinion of majorities or the dictate of authority; in short to seek for other tests of the truth of an opinion than the fact that it is held by a great many people.

Among his disciples were all the young men who were to become the leading philosophers of the next generation and some who played prominent parts in Athenian history. If the Athenians had had a daily press, Socrates would have been denounced by the journalists as a dangerous person.

They had a comic drama, which constantly held up to ridicule philosophers and sophists and their vain doctrines. We possess one play the Clouds of Aristophanes in which Socrates is pilloried as a typical representative of impious and destructive speculations. Apart from annoyances of this kind, Socrates reached old age, pursuing the task of instructing his fellow-citizens, without any evil befalling him. Then, at the age of seventy, he was prosecuted as an atheist and corrupter of youth and was put to death B.

It is strange that if the Athenians really thought him dangerous they should have suffered him so long. There can, I think, be [32] little doubt that the motives of the accusation were political. He was probably known to sympathize with those who wished to limit the franchise. When, after a struggle in which the constitution had been more than once overthrown, democracy emerged triumphant B. If he had wished, he could easily have escaped. If he had given an undertaking to teach no more, he would almost certainly have been acquitted. As it was, of the ordinary Athenians who were his judges, a very large minority voted for his acquittal.

Even then, if he had adopted a different tone, he would not have been condemned to death.

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Philosophy of Freedom, Basis for a Modern World Conception (Hard Cover)

He rose to the great occasion and vindicated freedom of discussion in a wonderful unconventional speech. The Apology of Socrates , which was composed by his most brilliant pupil, Plato the philosopher, reproduces [33] the general tenor of his defence. It is clear that he was not able to meet satisfactorily the charge that he did not acknowledge the gods worshipped by the city, and his explanations on this point are the weak part of his speech.

But he met the accusation that he corrupted the minds of the young by a splendid plea for free discussion. This is the most valuable section of the Apology ; it is as impressive to-day as ever. I think the two principal points which he makes are these—. That is, he asserts the supremacy of the individual conscience , as we should say, over human law. He represents his own life-work as a sort of religious quest; he feels convinced that in devoting himself to philosophical discussion he has done the bidding of a super-human guide; and he goes to death rather than be untrue to this personal conviction.

Daily discussion of the matters about which you hear me conversing is the highest good for man. Life that is not tested by such discussion is not worth living. Thus in what we may call the earliest justification of liberty of thought we have two significant claims affirmed: the indefeasible right of the conscience of the individual —a claim on which later struggles for liberty were to turn; and the social importance of discussion and criticism.

To what extent are you truly free?

The former claim is not based on argument but on intuition; it rests in fact on the assumption [35] of some sort of superhuman moral principle, and to those who, not having the same personal experience as Socrates, reject this assumption, his pleading does not carry weight. The second claim, after the experience of more than 2, years, can be formulated more comprehensively now with bearings of which he did not dream. The circumstances of the trial of Socrates illustrate both the tolerance and the intolerance which prevailed at Athens. His long immunity, the fact that he was at last indicted from political motives and perhaps personal also, the large minority in his favour, all show that thought was normally free, and that the mass of intolerance which existed was only fitfully invoked, and perhaps most often to serve other purposes.

I may mention the case of the philosopher Aristotle, who some seventy years later left Athens because he was menaced by a prosecution for blasphemy, the charge being a pretext for attacking one who belonged to a certain political party. The persecution of opinion was never organized. It may seem curious that to find the persecuting spirit in Greece we have to turn to the philosophers. Plato, the most brilliant disciple of Socrates, constructed in his later years an ideal State.

In this State he instituted [36] a religion considerably different from the current religion, and proposed to compel all the citizens to believe in his gods on pain of death or imprisonment. All freedom of discussion was excluded under the cast-iron system which he conceived.

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