This book, by the well-known British philosopher, academic and broadcaster, is subtitled “The Story of the Struggles for Liberty and Rights That Made the Modern West”. It is a history of liberty in the western world and makes the case that liberty should be prized as a hard-won and permanently threatened feature of modern western society. It is a very good book, well-reasoned in its argument and very wide in the scope of its analysis.
It demands attention from the reader, though the style is accessible and there are some helpful notes. [Note on notes – I look at the notes when I begin a book, to see whether they are just references, in which case I ignore them; or substantive commentaries on the text, in which case I will read them as I read the book. Some books – Red Plenty by Francis Spufford comes to mind – have notes so extensive they are a work in their own right. The notes to this book are a bit of both.]
I learned a couple of big things I should have figured out before but haven’t. First, the arrival of Christianity and its dominance for several hundred years of thought and education is seen by many philosophers, including Edward Gibbon, as a sad and benighted misdirection of human understanding, away from the truths and insights of the ancient world. People like St Augustine are St Thomas Aquinas are often described as the great sythesisers, who took Christian doctrine and made it compatible with the wisdom of the ancients. But actually they were just fudging it – religions of all kinds are based on supernatural beliefs and are a step backwards from the secular and human-based thinking of non-theistic philosophy. So the Renaissance was not only a rediscovery of the classical civilisations, it was also the beginning of an awakening from the long dark night of Christian theocracy that reached its conclusion in the Enlightenment.
Grayling convincingly shows that liberty of thought was only achieved in the West when the impregnability of religious belief was removed. As long as you had people like Torquemada, of the Spanish Inquisition, going around torturing people because he suspected they might not be thinking in line with doctrine, liberty was impossible. It was only when religion was successfully put in its supernatural and faith-based box that people were free to think through reason and intellect alone.
Theocracies in the modern world remain in thrall to religious doctrine and the people suffer, as a result, a denial of liberty.
The second point I picked up is that liberty is not to be taken for granted. It is encroached upon all the time by, for example, changes to law, even those with clear grounding in the need to tackle human evil, like restrictions on the personal freedoms of all in order to make acts of terrorism more difficult. So it should be spoken of as a societal good, something to be protected and enhanced, and public policy should strive to achieve that.
The language occasionally gets a bit tortuous but this is a very enjoyable read. It only deals with the West, which is fair enough. I recommend it, especially to those who enjoy following the parade of history as it unfolds around a single concept.