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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Just Finished Reading: Towards the Light – The Story of the struggles for Liberty and Rights that made the modern West by A C Grayling

I was doing my best to resist reading any non-fiction history on top of my recent batch of historical novels but could hardly resist something like this – a long look at the idea of liberty by one of my all-time favourite modern philosophers. Needless to say I was not disappointed.

Set within a chronological narrative Professor Grayling starts with the fight for religious freedom from was, at that time, the only major Western faith – Catholicism. The great schism that produced the Protestant churches (themselves the product of later schisms) was the spark that lit the fuse which blew apart the idea of any kind of unassailable power based on simple authority. From that point there was no going back. After religious liberty was established it, rather inevitably, led to greater and greater freedom of thought – freedom that led to scientific investigation that ultimately began to undermine the idea of religion itself. Once the authority of the church (and even God) had been questioned, challenged and, to varying degrees overthrown, it was not long before these free thinkers began looking at the power and authority (often seen as divine in nature) of those who ruled over us. Questions of their legitimacy soon followed along with calls from greater and greater enfranchisement of the population. Hot on the heels of those questions came the issues of women’s rights, slavery, and the rights of racial minorities. All in all it has been a hard fought and hard won fight for the increasing liberty of individuals within a more just society. Progress indeed!

There were many things I liked about this book – not least of which was the author’s impressive breadth of knowledge and ease of bringing an immense subject down to manageable proportions. He also introduced me to some new men and women who fought for the freedoms that many of us – including me – often take for granted. I have been quoting some of those here over the last few weeks. In the almost 300 page book I only had a single gripe. The author rightly stated that both the French and American revolutions and declaration of rights had a huge influence on liberty in the modern West. Were I disagreed with him was his seemingly blinkered statement that, before 9/11 and the resulting increase in restrictions on freedoms enshrined in the Patriot Acts and other legislation, American was in some way a singular shining paragon of virtue. Now I will be the first to say that my knowledge of American history is rather incomplete and is, in some areas, rather sketchy but just off the top of my head I can think of slavery (which the author considered to be unfortunate in the US), the virtual extinction of its indigenous population, the treatment of African –Americans after slavery was banned, the treatment of Japanese-Americans during WW2, the McCarthy witch hunts, the Salem witch trials, the treatment of women and gays, the treatment of atheists and other ‘minority’ groups, the union busting in the early 20th century and so on which do not exactly reflect kindly on a country that prides itself of being at the vanguard of liberty. But that small criticism aside, this is still a very readable and very valuable defence of the principle of liberty which is all the more valuable considering the troubled times we live in. If you haven’t read anything by Grayling before I can think of worse places to start. Highly recommended.  


smellincoffee said...

Although the United States stood apart for some of its history, liberty-wise, this owes more to the oppression in other countries than to the state of liberty in the United States. The ink on the Constitution had barely dried when John Adams put the "Alien and Sedition Acts" into effect, which made it a crime to speak ill of the government. During the Great War, Woodrow Wilson began persecuting anyone who resisted his entry into the war -- he may have been viewed as a saint in 1919 Europe for his 14 Points, but his own actions fell FAR short of that kind of idealism. These are just two examples of official anti-liberal sentiment. The general culture itself is still hostile to that which deviates from the norm. I suppose that is nearly universally true, however. :-/

I've heard of Grayling, who participated in several "Darwin Day" podcasts. Didn't he pen that "The Good Book"?

CyberKitten said...

sc said: The general culture itself is still hostile to that which deviates from the norm. I suppose that is nearly universally true, however. :-/

Indeed - which is why I took some umbrage at the authors somewhat less than critical attitude. The US may see itself as essentially exceptional but in many ways its just like the rest of us... and too often not in a good way! But at least it has some good ideals to keep aiming for... [grin]

sc said: I've heard of Grayling, who participated in several "Darwin Day" podcasts. Didn't he pen that "The Good Book"?

He did indeed. I'm not exactly sure why however... [grin]