The Birth of Freedom

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A trailer for a documentary from the Acton Institute.  This documentary examines the role of Judaism and Christianity in creating the conditions which led to the concept of human freedom cherished in the West.  A number of short clips from the video are available on-line and I will be using them in posts in the days to come.  In regard to the trailer I would state the following propositions for discussion:  (1)  The clash between Church and State that characterized Western Europe in the Middle Ages was a fundamental pre-condition for the concept of limited government as it developed in the West; (2) the insistence of the Church that all men and women were equal in the eyes of God established the basis for the concept of human rights; and (3) that as a Western society becomes divorced from its religious roots the very concept of freedom as it has been understood in the West becomes difficult to maintain from a philosophical standpoint.

20 Responses to The Birth of Freedom

  • Agreed on all three. On 2, the very concept of “person” and personhood was born out of the early Trinitarian & Christological controversies in the Church… how many secularists are even aware of that? And similarly for 3… freedom is understood as indifference, license… definitely not the more philosophically-robust concept born out of the 13th century.

  • You hit the trifecta, my friend.

    The American colonists were fighting for rights they considered theirs by birthright as Englishmen. Those rights were forged in the Middle Ages, not the “Enlightenment.”

    The “Enlightenment” gave us the Jacobins, the deification of Reason, the Reign of Terror, the Vendee, the Napoleonic Wars, and communism.

  • Nothing like a little Whig propaganda!

  • “Nothing like a little Whig propaganda!”

    Actually WJ I believe Lord Macaulay, the embodiment of Whiggish history, would have argued vehemently against all three of my propositions.

    “Those who hold that the influence of the Church of Rome in the dark ages was, on the whole, beneficial to mankind, may yet with perfect consistency regard the Reformation as an inestimable blessing. The leading strings, which preserve and uphold the infant, would impede the fullgrown man. And so the very means by which the human mind is, in one stage of its progress, supported and propelled, may, in another stage, be mere hindrances. There is a season in the life both of an individual and of a society, at which submission and faith, such as at a later period would be justly called servility and credulity, are useful qualities. The child who teachably and undoubtingly listens to the instructions of his elders is likely to improve rapidly. But the man who should receive with childlike docility every assertion and dogma uttered by another man no wiser than himself would become contemptible. It is the same with communities. The childhood of the European nations was passed under the tutelage of the clergy. The ascendancy of the sacerdotal order was long the ascendancy which naturally and properly belongs to intellectual superiority. The priests, with all their faults, were by far the wisest portion of society. It was, therefore, on the whole, good that they should be respected and obeyed. The encroachments of the ecclesiastical power on the province of the civil power produced much more happiness than misery, while the ecclesiastical power was in the hands of the only class that had studied history, philosophy, and public law, and while the civil power was in the hands of savage chiefs, who could not read their own grants and edicts. But a change took place. Knowledge gradually spread among laymen. At the commencement of the sixteenth century many of them were in every intellectual attainment fully equal to the most enlightened of their spiritual pastors. Thenceforward that dominion, which, during the dark ages, had been, in spite of many abuses, a legitimate and salutary guardianship, became an unjust and noxious tyranny.”

    Macaulay, History of England, Chapter I

  • What that old Whig, Lord Acton, would have thought about the video from the Acton Institute is interesting to contemplate. Perhaps he would merely be surprised that they got it done, unlike Acton’s History of Freedom which he spent his lifetime not writing!

  • What influence of Judaism? Judaism as a religion and social force had zero influence on historical European culture. The Catholic Church marginalized Judaism because of the anti-Christian teachings of the Talmud. It was the Old Testament, as interpeted by Jesus, the apostles, and their successors that influenced the development of polictical and religious freedom. The Jews as a social force had no influence on European-American culture until the birth of modern liberalism. And they were Jews who threw off the shackles of the Talmud and sadly rejected both the Old and New Testament. Instead, they sought to ‘free’ mankind by inventing or supporting socialism, communism, and many other various isms that bedevil s to this very day.

  • Stephen, Judaism influenced European history because Christianity was born from Judaism. Judaism influence Europe the same way the root of a plant influences the flower.

    It’s in the first book of the bible we that find the truth that we are all created in the image of God, and this is the basis for our conception of the fundamental dignity of each & every human being.

  • The American colonists were fighting for rights they considered theirs by birthright as Englishmen. Those rights were forged in the Middle Ages, not the “Enlightenment.”

    This is an iffy proposition, at best. “rights they considered theirs by birthright as Englishmen” were, as Edmund Burke (a strong, and sometimes paid, advocate of the colonies) made clear, a product of the Glorious Revolution. This can be very fairly placed under the umbrella of Enlightenment, even as we recognize the big differences between the several British ones and the several continental ones (all stand in contrast to the “Middle Ages”).

  • “Judaism as a religion and social force had zero influence on historical European culture.”

    Quite untrue. Just one of many examples: The grudging tolerance that the Church gave the Jews in the Middle Ages, often in the teeth of popular hatred, was the earliest glimmerings of the concept of religious freedom and tolerance in the modern world. Christians in the Middle Ages, at the command of the Church, had to acknowledge the existence of a group within their ranks that were alien to them. Now the expulsion of the Jews from many Western nations, England for example in the thirteenth and Spain in the fifteenth, illustrates how precarious this tolerance was, but the insistence of the Church upon it was an inmportant factor in the development of the concept of freedom in the West. It is interesting that as religious faith has waned in the West, anti-semitism has become a potent force.

  • The American colonists were fighting for rights they considered theirs by birthright as Englishmen. Those rights were forged in the Middle Ages, not the “Enlightenment.”

    Thank you Joe. The more I study of the period (and I’ve studied a lot) the less enamored I become of the so-called Enlightenment influence on America. I’ve argued that the Americans were more influenced by the Scottish philosophers than the French, but I even think that is exaggerated. If you want to see the influence of Enlightenment thought, look at France, not America.

  • As the ones with the money, and being very independent because they did not have the same status as others in the countries they were in, the Jews had a considerable amount of influence on the shape of world history. Those who got their money often got the resources needed for power; those who did not, often lost out.

  • Messers McClarey and Burgwald, you missed the entire point of what I had to say. “Christianity was born from Judaism” says Mr Burgwald. Not true. Christianity is based on the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ, who rejected the teachings of the rabbis who were the founders of Phariseeism which became Rabbical Judaism, which was codified as the Talmud. See Matt 23 Judaism is not the religion of the law of Moses, so it is impossible for Christianity to have developed from it.

    Mr McClarey, ‘tolerance’ doesn’t prove your point about “the earliest glimmerings of religious freedom and tolerance in the modern world”. The Jews were tolerated out of pity for their spiritally lost state. They were allowed to have their synagoges for worship services. But they were put under many restrictions to prevent them from having much interaction with the population. The anti-Christian attitudes fostered by the Talmud were well known to the Catholic clergy, so many laws were passed in all the Catholic contries to limit Christian exposre to Jewish perfidy.

    Yes, “tolerance” was “precarious”, but given the active Jewish hostility toward the Christian faith, (which is pretty well documented in history books such as “Reckless Rites” by Elliot Horowitz) what else could they expect?

    Mr McClarey is correct about anti-semitism becoming a potent force since religious faith has waned in the west. Since the Jews have gained their freedom from a formerly Christian European culture, they have used that freedom to support and sponser anti-Christian movements such as socialism, communism, fascism, gay rights, drug legalization,pornography, etc. Their known control of the mass media gives them the clout to pull this garbage off. Is it any wonder that anti-semitism is becoming “a potent force”?! Lets hope that Europe and America can recover its Catholic heritage before the Jews “freedom” destroys what’s left of it.

  • Judaism and phariseeism are not identical, Stephen. Jesus was a Jew, His mom and adoptive dad were Jews, He worshipped His Father in the Jewish Temple, His first followers were Jews and they likewise went to the Temple for prayer. St. Paul — also a Jew — makes clear that Christianity is the fulfillment of Judaism. To claim utter separation between Judaism and Christianity is akin to the early heresy of Marcionism.

  • The last paragraph of Mr. dalton’s 9:53am post should have the moderator’s “Danger, Will Robinson!” klaxons going off at full volume.

  • Mr Burgwald, I’m well aware Jesus kept the Mosiac law.
    He fullfilled the law. But I repeat again, The Mosiac law and Judaism are not the same thing. The Jewish Encyclopedia’s article on Phariseeism makes it quite clear that Judaism is Phariseeism, and it is not the law of Moses. Christianity is not the fullfillment of Judaism/Phariseeism, it is the fullfillment of the law of Moses.

    As for Mr Price’s comment on the last paragraph of my last post, he must not know much about the history of Eropean politics in the last three hundred years. Otherwise, he would not have made such an assinine remark.

    And in case anyone tries to use the anti-semite smear on me, I happen to come from a very old Marrano family. For the uninformed, thats a Spanish slang word for a secret Jew. So I’m very well informed about Judaism and it’s teachings. I only wish Price, McClarey, and Brugwald were too.

  • Bye Stephen, take your issues with Jews elsewhere. You are banned from this blog.

  • Johnathan,

    “This is an iffy proposition, at best. “rights they considered theirs by birthright as Englishmen” were, as Edmund Burke (a strong, and sometimes paid, advocate of the colonies) made clear, a product of the Glorious Revolution. This can be very fairly placed under the umbrella of Enlightenment, even as we recognize the big differences between the several British ones and the several continental ones (all stand in contrast to the “Middle Ages”).”

    A couple of points.

    First, do you have a problem with the phrase “Middle Ages”? We have to call those centuries something. If you don’t, why the scare quotes?

    Second, the English Bill of Rights didn’t come out of a vacuum. You can draw a line from the Magna Carta (with its own historical antecedents), through Edward I’s establishment of Parliament, and so on and so forth, up to the English Civil War, which was fought, among other reasons, over the interpretation and understanding of these rights.

    If you look at life in the Middle Ages as well, especially in England, you can see how such a conception of rights would develop. Most of the villages were autonomous, they weren’t micro-managed by lords or by bureaucrats. If a serf escaped to a town and lived as a free man for a year and a day, he became emancipated. And there was the Church, which always stood as a barrier between the people and the rapacity of secular government.

    Of course it wasn’t all fun and games, it wasn’t The Shire, there were wars, rebellions, plots, massacres, repressions – but these exist everywhere. I don’t think you can judge a society by what it shares in common with every other society, but by which is unique to it.

    I think many of these features of medieval life at the practical level were replayed on the virgin soil and boundless spaces of America after these medieval conditions were supplanted by absolutism in Europe. If not for Protestantism, I daresay that something resembling medieval Christendom could have been established in North America.

    I think therefore that in both theory and practice, the American colonists were decidedly more conservative and backward looking certainly than the French revolutionaries. I think they were fighting to preserve their rights, not to create new ones out of nothing. But I think what they were trying to preserve was also a way of life that had a tradition going back many centuries, even before medieval times, a way of life that was gradually supplanted by the encroachments of governments.

    All the English Bill of Rights did, really, was to codify them.

  • Joe, thanks for your explanation. It does not seem to me, however, that your reasoning above is in line with the claim my first comment highlighted, which was this: the American colonists were fighting for rights they considered theirs by birthright as Englishmen, rights not forged in the “Enlightenment.”

    To your points -

    First, do you have a problem with the phrase “Middle Ages”? We have to call those centuries something. If you don’t, why the scare quotes?

    Quotes because the Middle Ages, like the Age of Enlightenmnet, is a large and complicated term with a variety of meanings across a variety of time and environments. This is one reason why your claim is awkward, and why it would be awkward for me to make the opposite claim (i.e. The American colonists were fighting for rights they considered theirs by Enlightenment). I have mentioned before that my personal view is that the American founding is a mixture of Greco-Roman civic republicanism (and how much has our educational system minimized this!), Enlightmenment romanticism, and a moralistic therapeutic Deism. This is a strange, strange, strange brew, and it has allowed democracy and orthodox religion to flourish. Yet, even so, how did the Founders understand themselves? Some by your description, but not nearly enough for your generalization.

    Second, the English Bill of Rights didn’t come out of a vacuum. You can draw a line from the Magna Carta (with its own historical antecedents), through Edward I’s establishment of Parliament, and so on and so forth, up to the English Civil War, which was fought, among other reasons, over the interpretation and understanding of these rights.

    Yes, I concur completely.

    If you look at life in the Middle Ages as well, especially in England, you can see how such a conception of rights would develop. Most of the villages were autonomous, they weren’t micro-managed by lords or by bureaucrats. If a serf escaped to a town and lived as a free man for a year and a day, he became emancipated. And there was the Church, which always stood as a barrier between the people and the rapacity of secular government. ……..

    So what does this tell us other than “Enlightenment” had very deep roots? Heck, I’d argue its roots go back to Athens and Jerusalem, those places where humans were very serious about the search for knowledge!

    I think therefore that in both theory and practice, the American colonists were decidedly more conservative and backward looking certainly than the French revolutionaries.

    Without question. In fact, I’d even argue that the Federalists were conservatives.

    I think they were fighting to preserve their rights, not to create new ones out of nothing.

    Is this true of Thomas Paine? Maybe, but its not terribly clear.

    Now in some respects we have a lot of agreement on these questions, perhaps. But your generalization which I highlighted in my first comment shouldn’t be made. Let us take the dominant religious sentiment of the founders (and of many colonists, although there was great diversity of religion across the colonies, one big result of toleration by investors in England trying to make some quick money), Deism. Deism was an outgrowth of 17th and 18th Century scientific speculation! Follow Nature – not Revelation. Use math. Ect.

    What I am saying is that when it comes to America, the Enlightenment, that large and messy term, is everywhere and always present. It cannot be escaped. This is why our conservatives will always differ from European conservatives, who can root themselves in blood and soil.

  • Johnanthan,

    Well, I disagree.

    “Quotes because the Middle Ages, like the Age of Enlightenmnet, is a large and complicated term with a variety of meanings across a variety of time and environments. This is one reason why your claim is awkward”

    This can be true, but these phrases have some pretty commonly understood meanings too. Because they do, my claim isn’t awkward at all. It can be made awkward to the extent that one wants to complicate the common understanding of when the Middle Ages occurred and when the Enlightenment occurred, but it isn’t as if these two periods follow one after the other anyway.

    I’m the first to admit that all such epochal groupings can be fought with difficulties. Nonetheless there is a massive difference between the “Age of Faith”, “Christendom”, “the Middle Ages” – and all of its dominant paradigms – and the Enlightenment with its own. And that means ideas born in each, or lets say, which gestate and develop in each, will end up looking quite differently, as did indeed the American and French Revolutions.

    “Yet, even so, how did the Founders understand themselves? Some by your description, but not nearly enough for your generalization.”

    Here I think you’re wrong again. I think they all recognized that they were fighting for rights that had historical, and not merely abstract, justification – it is only a question of how many of them ALSO believed in various Enlightenment ideals.

    I suppose it might be another awkward formulation in your view, but that is another way I separate the epochs, and I think it is how Burke did as well.

    “So what does this tell us other than “Enlightenment” had very deep roots? ”

    Now see, how is this not just a fallacious expansion of an epoch to suit the need of the moment? I don’t mean that in an insulting way, please understand, but that’s how it looks, as if now we can draw no lines, we can mark no transformation from quantity to quality, we can see no essential differences between one period and another. But this is obviously false.

    The “Enlightenment” may well have deep roots, but they weren’t sprouting very much during the reign of Christendom, thanks to the Church and her true Enlightenment.

    So, what those historical facts I pointed out “tell us” is that the rights American colonists fought for were, as I said, forged during the middle ages, during the rule of the Church, Christendom, the Age of Faith, the supposedly bad old days during which everyone was oppressed. During the very time that the “Enlightenment” supposedly came to put an end to, to eradicate for all time. So to me, that’s a tension, a contradiction, and an undermining of the Enlightenment’s supposedly vast role in the American founding.

    For crying out loud, even Marxists such as Karl Kautsky saw that the “Reformation” took a much different path in England than it did in Germany, and that in the former it ended up usurping many of these rights and driving tens of thousands of peasants into starvation.

    The autonomous village and the free town of the Middle Ages must have seemed like a lost paradise in comparison, which is probably why the whole English national identity is wrapped up in the concept of “Merry Old England”, that is, the time when the Church of Rome and not that of England held sway!

    “Is this true of Thomas Paine? Maybe, but its not terribly clear.”

    Thomas Paine wasn’t a founding father, so it really doesn’t matter. I’ll even grant that it wasn’t true of him.

    ” But your generalization which I highlighted in my first comment shouldn’t be made.”

    Which one, though? If its the one about the American founders fighting for English rights, you may have a point, though I think I’m right in saying that it was a baseline view and that it was views about the Enlightenment that greatly varied. I mean, once they ceased to be Englishmen upon telling King George to stuff it, they had to have a different reason to continue the fight. Enlightenment ideals helped.

    If its the second point, though – that the rights were forged in the Middle Ages – I stand by that. Jefferson didn’t copy John Locke, after all, who said nothing about unalienable rights. Some people think he was influenced by St. Bellarmine. And Bellarmine was following Aquinas. And Aquinas was… well, we get the idea. It’s speculation but it makes sense.

    “What I am saying is that when it comes to America, the Enlightenment, that large and messy term”

    Well sure, I agree.

  • Ok, I see better the disagreement, and it would be instructive to parcel out the American revolution in this context. I believe there were two revolutions, and hopefully we can extend these conversations. And generalizations are an unfortunate necessity in blogland….

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