Monday, September 21, 2009

"A History of Freedom of Thought" by J.B. Bury

Here's a very brief biography of J.B Bury from the Encylopedia Britannica:
Bury, John Bagnell (1861‑1927), British historian, was born on the 16th of October 1861, and was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, where he was elected to a fellowship in 1885. A fine Greek scholar, he edited Pindar's Nemean and Isthmian Odes; but he devoted himself chiefly to the study of history, and was chosen professor of modern history at Dublin in 1893, becoming regius professor of Greek in 1898. He resigned both positions in 1902, when he was elected regius professor of modern history in the university of Cambridge. His historical work was mainly concerned with the later Roman empire, and his edition of Gibbon's Decline and Fall, with a masterly introduction and valuable notes (1896‑1900), is the standard text of this history. He also wrote a History of Greece to the Death of Alexander the Great (1900); History of the Later Roman Empire, 395‑800 (1889), History of the Roman Empire 27 B.C.-180 A.D. (1893); Life of St Patrick and his Place in History (1905), &c. He was elected a fellow of King's College, Cambridge, and received honorary degrees from the universities of Oxford, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Durham.
And now here are some excerpts from J.B. Bury's A History of Freedom of Thought, specifically from Chapter II Reason Free, Greece and Rome. The book was first published in 1913, and the whole thing is available for free download via Project Gutenberg. All emphases have been added.
The outcome of the large freedom permitted at [classical] Athens was a series of philosophies which had a common source in the conversations of Socrates. Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, the Epicureans, the Sceptics—it may be maintained that the efforts of thought represented by these names have had a deeper influence on the progress of man than any other continuous intellectual movement, at least until the rise of modern science in a new epoch of liberty.

The doctrines of the Epicureans, Stoics, and Sceptics all aimed at securing peace and guidance for the individual soul. They were widely propagated throughout the Greek world from the third century B.C., and we may say that from this time onward most well-educated Greeks were more or less rationalists. The teaching of Epicurus had a distinct anti-religious tendency. He considered fear to be the fundamental motive of religion, and to free men’s minds from this fear was a principal object of his teaching. He was a Materialist, explaining the world by the atomic theory of Democritus and denying any divine government of the universe. He did indeed hold the existence of gods, but, so far as men are concerned, his gods are as if they were not—living in some remote abode and enjoying a “sacred and everlasting calm.” They just served as an example of the realization of the ideal Epicurean life.

There was something in this philosophy which had the power to inspire a poet of singular genius to expound it in verse. The Roman Lucretius (first century B.C.) regarded Epicurus as the great deliverer of the human race and determined to proclaim the glad tidings of his philosophy in a poem On the Nature of the World. With all the fervour of a religious enthusiast he denounces religion, sounding every note of defiance, loathing, and contempt, and branding in burning words the crimes to which it had urged man on. He rides forth as a leader of the hosts of atheism against the walls of heaven. He explains the scientific arguments as if they were the radiant revelation of a new world; and the rapture of his enthusiasm is a strange accompaniment of a doctrine which aimed at perfect calm. Although the Greek thinkers had done all the work and the Latin poem is a hymn of triumph over prostrate deities, yet in the literature of free thought it must always hold an eminent place by the sincerity of its audacious, defiant spirit. In the history of rationalism its interest would be greater if it had exploded in the midst of an orthodox community. But the educated Romans in the days of Lucretius were sceptical in religious matters, some of them were Epicureans, and we may suspect that not many of those who read it were shocked or influenced by the audacities of the champion of irreligion.

The Stoic philosophy made notable contributions to the cause of liberty and could hardly have flourished in an atmosphere where discussion was not free. It asserted the rights of individuals against public authority. Socrates had seen that laws may be unjust and that peoples may go wrong, but he had found no principle for the guidance of society. The Stoics discovered it in the law of nature, prior and superior to all the customs and written laws of peoples, and this doctrine, spreading outside Stoic circles, caught hold of the Roman world and affected Roman legislation.

These philosophies have carried us from Greece to Rome. In the later Roman Republic and the early Empire, no restrictions were imposed on opinion, and these philosophies, which made the individual the first consideration, spread widely. Most of the leading men were unbelievers in the official religion of the State, but they considered it valuable for the purpose of keeping the uneducated populace in order. A Greek historian expresses high approval of the Roman policy of cultivating superstition for the benefit of the masses. This was the attitude of Cicero, and the view that a false religion is indispensable as a social machine was general among ancient unbelievers. It is common, in one form or another, to-day; at least, religions are constantly defended on the ground not of truth but of utility. This defence belongs to the statecraft of Machiavelli, who taught that religion is necessary for government, and that it may be the duty of a ruler to support a religion which he believes to be false.

A word must be said of Lucian (second century A.D.), the last Greek man of letters whose writings appeal to everybody. He attacked the popular mythology with open ridicule. It is impossible to say whether his satires had any effect at the time beyond affording enjoyment to educated infidels who read them. Zeus in a Tragedy Part is one of the most effective. The situation which Lucian imagined here would be paralleled if a modern writer were blasphemously to represent the Persons of the Trinity with some eminent angels and saints discussing in a celestial smoke-room the alarming growth of unbelief in England and then by means of a telephonic apparatus overhearing a dispute between a freethinker and a parson on a public platform in London. The absurdities of anthropomorphism have never been the subject of more brilliant jesting than in Lucian’s satires.....
[pp. 37-40]

The relations between the Roman government and the Christians raised the general question of persecution and freedom of conscience. A State, with an official religion, but perfectly tolerant of all creeds and cults, finds that a society had arisen in its midst which is uncompromisingly hostile to all creeds but its own and which, if it had the power, would suppress all but its own. The government, in self-defence, decides to check the dissemination of these subversive ideas and makes the profession of that creed a crime, not on account of its particular tenets, but on account of the social consequences of those tenets. The members of the society cannot without violating their consciences and incurring damnation abandon their exclusive doctrine. The principle of freedom of conscience is asserted as superior to all obligations to the State, and the State, confronted by this new claim, is unable to admit it. Persecution is the result.

Even from the standpoint of an orthodox and loyal pagan the persecution of the Christians is indefensible, because blood was shed uselessly. In other words, it was a great mistake because it was unsuccessful. For persecution is a choice between two evils. The alternatives are violence (which no reasonable defender of persecution would deny to be an evil in itself) and the spread of dangerous opinions. The first is chosen simply to avoid the second, on the ground that the second is the greater evil. But if the persecution is not so devised and carried out as to accomplish its end, then you have two evils instead of one, and nothing can justify this. From their point of view, the Emperors had good reasons for regarding Christianity as dangerous and anti-social, but they should either have let it alone or taken systematic measures to destroy it. If at an early stage they had established a drastic and systematic inquisition, they might possibly have exterminated it. This at least would have been statesmanlike. But they had no conception of extreme measures, and they did not understand —they had no experience to guide them —the sort of problem they had to deal with. They hoped to succeed by intimidation. Their attempts at suppression were vacillating, fitful, and ridiculously ineffectual. The later persecutions (of A.D. 250 and 303) had no prospect of success. It is particularly to be observed that no effort was made to suppress Christian literature.

The higher problem whether persecution, even if it attains the desired end, is justifiable, was not considered. The struggle hinged on antagonism between the conscience of the individual and the authority and supposed interests of the State. It was the question which had been raised by Socrates, raised now on a wider platform in a more pressing and formidable shape: what is to happen when obedience to the law is inconsistent with obedience to an invisible master? Is it incumbent on the State to respect the conscience of the individual at all costs, or within what limits? The Christians did not attempt a solution, the general problem did not interest them. They claimed the right of freedom exclusively for themselves from a non-Christian government; and it is hardly going too far to suspect that they would have applauded the government if it had suppressed the Gnostic sects whom they hated and calumniated. In any case, when a Christian State was established, they would completely forget the principle which they had invoked. The martyrs died for conscience, but not for liberty. To-day the greatest of the Churches demands freedom of conscience in the modern States which she does not control, but refuses to admit that, where she had the power, it would be incumbent on her to concede it.

If we review the history of classical antiquity as a whole, we may almost say that freedom of thought was like the air men breathed. It was taken for granted and nobody thought about it. If seven or eight thinkers at Athens were penalized for heterodoxy, in some and perhaps in most of these cases heterodoxy was only a pretext. They do not invalidate the general facts that the advance of knowledge was not impeded by prejudice, or science retarded by the weight of unscientific authority. The educated Greeks were tolerant because they were friends of reason and did not set up any authority to overrule reason. Opinions were not imposed except by argument; you were not expected to receive some “kingdom of heaven” like a little child, or to prostrate your intellect before an authority claiming to be infallible.

But this liberty was not the result of a conscious policy or deliberate conviction, and therefore it was precarious. The problems of freedom of thought, religious liberty, toleration, had not been forced upon society and were never seriously considered. When Christianity confronted the Roman government, no one saw that in the treatment of a small, obscure, and, to pagan thinkers, uninteresting or repugnant sect, a principle of the deepest social importance was involved. A long experience of the theory and practice of persecution was required to base securely the theory of freedom of thought. The lurid policy of coercion which the Christian Church adopted, and its consequences, would at last compel reason to wrestle with the problem and discover the justification of intellectual liberty. The spirit of the Greeks and Romans, alive in their works, would, after a long period of obscuration, again enlighten the world and aid in re-establishing the reign of reason, which they had carelessly enjoyed without assuring its foundations.
[pp. 48-51]

Hinduism is not monotheistic

Indram mitram varuNam agnim ãhuh,
atho divyah sa suparNo garutmãn,
ekam sad viprãh bahudhã vadanti,
agnim yamam mãtarišvãnam ãhuh.

[They hail Him as Indra, as Mitra, as VaruNa, as Agni,
also as that divine and noble-winged Garutmãn.
It is of One Existence
that the wise ones speak in diverse ways,
whether as Agni, or as Yama, or as Mãtarišvãn.]

Below are excerpts from Sita Ram Goel's book In Defense of Hindu Society, taken from Chapter Four: Hindu Spirituality Versus Monotheism, and Chapter Five: The Basis of Universal Spirituality, and also from Ram Swarup's The Word as Revelation: Names of Gods (as quoted by Goel).

(1) "a deep sense of sanctity towards all elements and forces of Mother Nature"
[Sita Ram Goel]:
It is an intuition ingrained in the Hindu psyche to inhabit our entire environment - celestial, physical, vegetable, animal, and human - with innumerable Gods and Goddesses. Some of these divinities are installed in temples as icons, and worshipped with well-defined rituals. Some others are worshipped as and where they are invoked. Hindu shastras, saints and sages have paid homage to many Gods and Goddesses in many sublime hymns.

The Sky which forms the firmament, and permeates the whole universe as space including the interstices in human and animal and vegetable anatomies, is a great God. It is the abode of all sounds. And it harbours in its vastnesses many other Gods such as the Sun and the Moon and the Stars, and Goddesses such as the Dawn and the Dusk. These celestial Gods and Goddesses are worshipped in their own right, particularly the Sun and the Moon and the Dawn. The Air which fills the hollow between the sky and the earth, which rages as storm and blows as breeze, and which sustains the respiratory system in all that is alive, is also a great God. It is not visible to the eye but it manifests itself by its power to touch and turn.

The Earth which bears all burdens, which bestows boundless bounties from beneath and above its surface, and which is the symbol of forgiveness and forbearance, is also a great Goddess. The mountains which soar up till they become snow-capped are the abodes of Gods and Goddesses. So are the forests which are full of flowers and fruits and varied wealth. Some creepers and plants and trees are veritable Gods and Goddesses, harkening us to pay our homage to them.

The Water which is clustered in the clouds, which pours down as rain, which flows in rivers and springs, which gets stored up in tanks and lakes and seas and oceans, which showers itself as snow and gets settled as ice on mountain tops, is also a great God. It washes all dirt and slakes all thirst. It nourishes our field crops and our forests. It becomes the sap in all vegetables and fruits, and circulates as blood in all animals and humans. Lakes like the Mãnasarovara are specially sacred because Gods and Goddesses play their games in and around them. Rivers like the Ganga and the Godavari are themselves Goddesses.

The Fire which blazes in the sun, which heats up every hearth, and which is stored as energy in all fuels, is also a great God. It manifests itself not only as heat but also as light which shines in the stars, which reveals itself in a riot of colours, which endows everything with form, and which lends vision to every eye. It maintains every metabolism as vital heat without which nothing can remain alive. The Fire God is worshipped daily in the family hearth, is regarded as the ambassador of Gods in every sacrifice, and is a witness to the sanctity of all sacraments.....

The Hindu psyche has always harboured a deep sense of sanctity towards all elements and forces of Mother Nature, in all their forms and transforms. It worships these elements and forces not only outside the human body but also within it. In fact, it sees the human body as a magnificent mansion in building which all these elements and forces of Mother Nature have participated, and feels grateful towards what it greets as great Gods and Goddesses.

What is more significant, this Hindu psyche intimates that as all that is without is also within, all that is within must also be without (yathã piNDe tathã brahmãNDe). It, therefore, invests everything outside with life, with consciousness, with thought and feeling, and also with will. The inanimate thus becomes animate, the unconscious becomes conscious, the thoughtless becomes thoughtful, the insensitive becomes sensitive, and the inert becomes active......
(2) Sri Aurobindo on Goddesses, Gods and idols: "they incarnate the vision itself"
[Sita Ram Goel]:
Sages such as Sri Aurobindo who have meditated on Hindu iconography, and savants such as Ananda Coomaraswamy, Stella Kramrisch, and Alice Boner who have studied the subject, assure us that the forms and features of Hindu icons have a source higher than the normal reaches of the human mind. The icons are no photocopies of any human or animal forms as we find them in their physical frames. They are in fact crystallizations of the abstract into the concrete, of the infinite into the finite. They always point beyond themselves, and a contemplation of them always draws us from the outer to the inner.

Hindu Šilpašãstras lay down not only technical formulas for carving holy icons in stone, and metal, and other materials. They also lay down elaborate rules about how the artist is to fast, and pray, and otherwise purify himself for long periods before he is permitted, if at all, to have a psychic image of the God or Goddess whom he wants to incarnate in a physical form. It is this sublime source of the Šilpašãstras which alone can explain a Sarnath Buddha, or a Chidambram NaTarãja, or a Vidisha Varãha, to name only a few of the large assembly of divine images inhabiting the earth. It is because this sublime source is not accessible to modern sculptors that we have to be content with poor copies which look like parodies of the original marvels.

The same sages and savants inform us that the Hindu temple architecture and the rituals that are performed at the time of pûjã, also have a sublime source. This is a deep and difficult subject, largely beyond the reach of the present writer. I shall, therefore, not proceed with it. What needs to be emphasized is that the plurality of Hindu Gods, the icons in which they are embodied, the temples in which they are installed, and the rituals with which they are worshipped, are not mere accessories and aids towards some deeper spiritual vision; instead, they incarnate the vision itself.
(3) Ram Swarup on the physical and the spiritual: "things are no longer lifeless"
[Sita Ram Goel]:
Ram Swarup has presented the proper perspective on the plurality of Hindu Gods as well as their incarnation in concrete images, in his recently published book, The Word As Revelation: Names of Gods. His discussion leaves no doubt that the plurality of the Hindu pantheon, and the large use of concrete images is not only quite in keeping with but also necessary corollaries of (1) the spontaneous processes of human psychology, (2) the normal growth of human knowledge culminating in spiritual vision, and (3) the natural development of human language for incorporating and communicating that knowledge and vision. I will quote at length from Ram Swarup’s book because I find it difficult to clothe his insights in my own language. [At this point, Sita Ram Goel quotes large portions of Ram Swarup's book]:
[Sita Ram Goel quoting Ram Swarup]:
“If we study the ancient religious literature of the Hindus, particularly the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Mahabharata, certain things stand out prominently. The very first thing is a very large use of concrete image. There are Gods like Indra, PûSana, VaruNa, Ašvins for whom there are no physical correspondences, but many important Gods like Sûrya, Agni, Marut take their names after natural objects.

“There is also another important feature that we notice. The spiritual consciousness of the race is expressed in terms of the plurality of Gods. In these two respects, at least, the Hindu approach agreed with the spiritual intuition of other ancient peoples.

“The physical and intellectual are not opposed to one another. The names of physical objects become names of ideas, names of psychic truths, names of Gods; sensuous truths become intellectual truths, become spiritual truths. As the knowledge of the senses becomes the knowledge of the Manas and the Buddhi, the knowledge originating in the higher organs of the mind also tends to filter down to the levels of the Manas and the senses. So in this way even the highest knowledge has its form, colour and sound. This need not lower down its quality in any way. In fact, this is the only way in which the sense-bound mind understands something of the higher knowledge.

“This reverberating, echoing and imaging takes place up and down the whole corridor of the mind, at all levels of abstraction. Here, as we traverse the path, we meet physical forms, sound-forms, vision-forms, thought-forms, universal forms, all echoes of each other. We meet mantras and yantras and icons of various efficacies and psychic qualities. In one sense, they are not the light above but they are its important formations. They invoke the celestial and raise up the terrestrial.

“There is another reason why images in the Vedas and the Upanishads are concrete. When the fever of the soul subsides, when the mind becomes calm, when the spiritual consciousness opens, things are no longer lifeless. In this state, things which have hitherto been regarded as ordinary are full of life, light and consciousness. In this state, ‘the earth meditates as it were; water meditates as it were; mountains meditate as it were.’1 In this state, no need is felt to separate the abstract from the concrete because both are eloquent with the same message, because both image one another. In this state, everything expresses the divine; everything is the seat of the divine; everything is That; mountains, rivers and the great earth are but the Tathãgata, as a Chinese teacher, Hsu Yun, proclaimed after his spiritual awakening."

(4) Ram Swarup on monotheism versus the Vedic view: "the need for some form of polytheism"

Sita Ram Goel continues to quote from Ram Swarup:
[Sita Ram Goel quoting Ram Swarup]:
“This [Hindu] way of looking at the Godhead is disconcerting to the Western schematic mind. In the Vedic approach, there is no single God. This is bad enough. But the Hindus do not have even a supreme God, a fuhrer-God who presides over a multiplicity of Gods. If there has to be a plurality of Gods as is the case in all polytheistic religions, there could at least be a tabulated statement of Gods arranged in some order of superiority and inferiority, each God having some distinctive characteristics of his or her own. But here we have no such thing, no ranking, no order of seniority and precedence, no hierarchy, no recognizable magistracy; it is all anarchy. This melee could not even be called a pantheon - a body of Gods, however disordered (Gk. pan+theos); it is a body of demons and evil spirits, pandemonium (pan+diamon).

“It seems that the Hindus were either confused about their Gods or that these Gods were not jealous enough to be like the God of the Bible. The Hindus worshipped their Gods in turn with the same supreme epithets. It seems to be like a philanderer wooing several women at the same time with the same vows, promises, and protestations and telling each in turn that she is the only beautiful and true one for him. If they only knew what the man was doing there would be trouble enough for him. In like manner, if a Hindu God knew what his worshipper was telling his rival God, it would either expose the devotee’s insincerity or the powerlessness or his God.

But there is another approach, quite a different one, which was adopted by the people of the Vedas. According to this approach, ‘Reality is one but the wise call it by different names; they call him Indra, Mitra, VaruNa, Agni, Yama, Mãtarišvãn.’2 Reality is like the Ganges: different villages along its banks are differently named but they are all on the same river; the people drink the same water and their soil is watered and fertilized by the same source. The Reality is like an ocean rolling against different continents; you taste it anywhere, it is the same. The Reality is like a nugget of gold; it is the same at the corners, at the top, or at the bottom, or in the middle. Like a lump of sugar, it is sweet at all points. Similarly, whether you go East or West, South or North, you move in the same pervading space and you meet the same truth and principle of things.

“The Hindus do not call their Gods either “One” or “Many”. According to them, what they worship is One Reality, ekam sat, which is differently named. This Reality is everywhere, in everything, in every being. It is One and Many at the same time and it also transcends them both. Everything is an expression, a play, an image, an echo of this Reality.

“In Vedic literature, the question of the number of Gods was no point of dispute and agitated no mind. The number could be increased or decreased at will. It all depended on the principle of classification, on the context, and on the viewpoint.

“There are two ways of regarding the Godhead. In one approach, God is a jealous one. He brooks no other. He is Ismael-like, his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him. But in the Vedic concept, all Gods are friends, one and equal. BrahmaNaspati is associated with Indra, Soma and DakSiNa; they are invoked jointly. The Maruts are requested to come along accompanied, saMjagmãno, by Indra, and both are called of ‘equal splendour’, samãna varcasa. Indra and VaruNa are offered conjoint praise, sadhastut. They are invoked together. ‘I invoke you both,’ says the worshipper; or, ‘come Agni with the Maruts,’ is the repeated prayer of the devotee in another hymn.

“Spiritual life is one but it is vast and rich in expression. The human mind also conceives it differently. If the human mind was uniform without different depths, heights and levels of subtlety; or if all men had the same mind, the same psyche, the same imagination, the same needs; in short, if all men were the same then perhaps One God would do. But a man’s mind is not a fixed quantity and men and their powers and needs are different. So, only some form of polytheism alone can do justice to this variety and richness.

“Besides this variety of human needs and human minds, the spiritual reality itself is so vast, immense, and inscrutable that man’s reason fails and his imagination and fancy stagger in its presence. Therefore, this reality cannot be indicated by one name or formula or description. It has to be expressed in glimpses from many angles. No single idea or system of ideas could convey it adequately. This too points to the need for some form of polytheism."
(5) "the basis of a universal spirituality"
[Sita Ram Goel]:
It was this all-pervading sense of divinity which inspired Hindu seers and sages to sense the same Sat-Cit-Ãnanda [essence, consciousness, bliss] sleeping in the stone, stirring up in the sapling, smiling in the flower, singing in the bird, shining in the sun and the stars, and resuming its own supreme status at the summit of spiritual experience. It was in this crucible of concrete spirituality that they saw the one Divine Substance manifesting itself in a multiplicity of forms, and many Divine Diversities dissolving themselves in one ubiquitous Unity.

It was these intimations from infinity which invited Hindu saints and mystics to invoke the same Reality in many Names and Forms, and make it accessible to each aspirant according to his or her aptitude (adhikãra) and in keeping with the stage of his or her spiritual development (ãdhãra). They devised many ways of worship and sang their devotion unto the same Divinity in many languages. It was this vision of the One-in-Many and the Many-in-One which is the source of the Vedic verse, ekam sad viprãh bahudhã vadanti [Rigveda 1.164.46: reality is one but the wise call it by different names] which has now been torn out of context and turned from a trenchant truth of Sanãtana Dharma into a tawdry slogan of Monotheism.

This Vedic verse is neither a defence mechanism to be put into operation whenever the monopolises of Monotheism mouth their war-cry of the ‘true One God’, nor a secularist slogan to be shouted whenever a Muslim mob stages a riot over music before a mosque or over a pig wandering away into a Muslim mohalla. On the contrary, it is the statement of a profound principle which informs sincere spiritual seeking everywhere, at all times. It is the basis of a universal spirituality.