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A History of Freedom of Thought by John Bagnell Bury

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Note: Numbers enclosed in square brackets are page numbers.


No. 69


Prof. GILBERT MURRAY, Litt.D., LL.D., F.B.A.



J. B. BURY, M.A., F.B.A







I Introductory
II Reason Free (Greece And Rome)
III Reason in Prison (The Middle Ages)
IV Prospect of Deliverance (The Renaissance and the Reformation)
V Religious Toleration
VI The Growth of Rationalism (Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries)
VII The Progress of Rationalism (Nineteenth Century)
VIII The Justification of Liberty of Thought





IT is a common saying that thought is free. A man can never be hindered
from thinking whatever he chooses so long as he conceals what he thinks.
The working of his mind is limited only by the bounds of his experience
and the power of his imagination. But this natural liberty of private
thinking is of little value. It is unsatisfactory and even painful to
the thinker himself, if he is not permitted to communicate his thoughts
to others, and it is obviously of no value to his neighbours. Moreover
it is extremely difficult to hide thoughts that have any power over the
mind. If a man's thinking leads him to call in question ideas and
customs which regulate the behaviour of those about him, to reject
beliefs which they hold, to see better ways of life than those they
follow, it is almost

[8] impossible for him, if he is convinced of the truth of his own
reasoning, not to betray by silence, chance words, or general attitude
that he is different from them and does not share their opinions. Some
have preferred, like Socrates, some would prefer to-day, to face death
rather than conceal their thoughts. Thus freedom of thought, in any
valuable sense, includes freedom of speech.

At present, in the most civilized countries, freedom of speech is taken
as a matter of course and seems a perfectly simple thing. We are so
accustomed to it that we look on it as a natural right. But this right
has been acquired only in quite recent times, and the way to its
attainment has lain through lakes of blood. It has taken centuries to
persuade the most enlightened peoples that liberty to publish one's
opinions and to discuss all questions is a good and not a bad thing.
Human societies (there are some brilliant exceptions) have been
generally opposed to freedom of thought, or, in other words, to new
ideas, and it is easy to see why.

The average brain is naturally lazy and tends to take the line of least
resistance. The mental world of the ordinary man consists of beliefs
which he has accepted without questioning and to which he is firmly
attached; he is instinctively hostile to anything which

[9] would upset the established order of this familiar world. A new
idea, inconsistent with some of the beliefs which he holds, means the
necessity of rearranging his mind; and this process is laborious,
requiring a painful expenditure of brain-energy. To him and his fellows,
who form the vast majority, new ideas, and opinions which cast doubt on
established beliefs and institutions, seem evil because they are

The repugnance due to mere mental laziness is increased by a positive
feeling of fear. The conservative instinct hardens into the conservative
doctrine that the foundations of society are endangered by any
alterations in the structure. It is only recently that men have been
abandoning the belief that the welfare of a state depends on rigid
stability and on the preservation of its traditions and institutions
unchanged. Wherever that belief prevails, novel opinions are felt to be
dangerous as well as annoying, and any one who asks inconvenient
questions about the why and the wherefore of accepted principles is
considered a pestilent person.

The conservative instinct, and the conservative doctrine which is its
consequence, are strengthened by superstition. If the social structure,
including the whole body of customs and opinions, is associated

[10] with religious belief and is supposed to be under divine patronage,
criticism of the social order savours of impiety, while criticism of the
religious belief is a direct challenge to the wrath of supernatural

The psychological motives which produce a conservative spirit hostile to
new ideas are reinforced by the active opposition of certain powerful
sections of the community, such as a class, a caste, or a priesthood,
whose interests are bound up with the maintenance of the established
order and the ideas on which it rests.

Let us suppose, for instance, that a people believes that solar eclipses
are signs employed by their Deity for the special purpose of
communicating useful information to them, and that a clever man
discovers the true cause of eclipses. His compatriots in the first place
dislike his discovery because they find it very difficult to reconcile
with their other ideas; in the second place, it disturbs them, because
it upsets an arrangement which they consider highly advantageous to
their community; finally, it frightens them, as an offence to their
Divinity. The priests, one of whose functions is to interpret the divine
signs, are alarmed and enraged at a doctrine which menaces their power.

In prehistoric days, these motives, operating

[11] strongly, must have made change slow in communities which
progressed, and hindered some communities from progressing at all. But
they have continued to operate more or less throughout history,
obstructing knowledge and progress. We can observe them at work to-day
even in the most advanced societies, where they have no longer the power
to arrest development or repress the publication of revolutionary
opinions. We still meet people who consider a new idea an annoyance and
probably a danger. Of those to whom socialism is repugnant, how many are
there who have never examined the arguments for and against it, but turn
away in disgust simply because the notion disturbs their mental universe
and implies a drastic criticism on the order of things to which they are
accustomed? And how many are there who would refuse to consider any
proposals for altering our imperfect matrimonial institutions, because
such an idea offends a mass of prejudice associated with religious
sanctions? They may be right or not, but if they are, it is not their
fault. They are actuated by the same motives which were a bar to
progress in primitive societies. The existence of people of this
mentality, reared in an atmosphere of freedom, side by side with others
who are always looking out for new ideas and

[12] regretting that there are not more about, enables us to realize
how, when public opinion was formed by the views of such men, thought
was fettered and the impediments to knowledge enormous.

Although the liberty to publish one's opinions on any subject without
regard to authority or the prejudices of one's neighbours is now a well-
established principle, I imagine that only the minority of those who
would be ready to fight to the death rather than surrender it could
defend it on rational grounds. We are apt to take for granted that
freedom of speech is a natural and inalienable birthright of man, and
perhaps to think that this is a sufficient answer to all that can be
said on the other side. But it is difficult to see how such a right can
be established.

If a man has any "natural rights," the right to preserve his life and
the right to reproduce his kind are certainly such. Yet human societies
impose upon their members restrictions in the exercise of both these
rights. A starving man is prohibited from taking food which belongs to
somebody else. Promiscuous reproduction is restricted by various laws or
customs. It is admitted that society is justified in restricting these
elementary rights, because without such restrictions an ordered society
could not exist. If then we

[13] concede that the expression of opinion is a right of the same kind,
it is impossible to contend that on this ground it can claim immunity
from interference or that society acts unjustly in regulating it. But
the concession is too large. For whereas in the other cases the
limitations affect the conduct of every one, restrictions on freedom of
opinion affect only the comparatively small number who have any
opinions, revolutionary or unconventional, to express. The truth is that
no valid argument can be founded on the conception of natural rights,
because it involves an untenable theory of the relations between society
and its members.

On the other hand, those who have the responsibility of governing a
society can argue that it is as incumbent on them to prohibit the
circulation of pernicious opinions as to prohibit any anti-social
actions. They can argue that a man may do far more harm by propagating
anti-social doctrines than by stealing his neighbour's horse or making
love to his neighbour's wife. They are responsible for the welfare of
the State, and if they are convinced that an opinion is dangerous, by
menacing the political, religious, or moral assumptions on which the
society is based, it is their duty to protect society against it, as
against any other danger.


The true answer to this argument for limiting freedom of thought will
appear in due course. It was far from obvious. A long time was needed to
arrive at the conclusion that coercion of opinion is a mistake, and only
a part of the world is yet convinced. That conclusion, so far as I can
judge, is the most important ever reached by men. It was the issue of a
continuous struggle between authority and reason--the subject of this
volume. The word authority requires some comment.

If you ask somebody how he knows something, he may say, "I have it on
good authority," or, "I read it in a book," or, "It is a matter of
common knowledge," or, "I learned it at school." Any of these replies
means that he has accepted information from others, trusting in their
knowledge, without verifying their statements or thinking the matter out
for himself. And the greater part of most men's knowledge and beliefs is
of this kind, taken without verification from their parents, teachers,
acquaintances, books, newspapers. When an English boy learns French, he
takes the conjugations and the meanings of the words on the authority of
his teacher or his grammar. The fact that in a certain place, marked on
the map, there is a populous city called Calcutta, is for most

[15] people a fact accepted on authority. So is the existence of
Napoleon or Julius Caesar. Familiar astronomical facts are known only in
the same way, except by those who have studied astronomy. It is obvious
that every one's knowledge would be very limited indeed, if we were not
justified in accepting facts on the authority of others.

But we are justified only under one condition. The facts which we can
safely accept must be capable of demonstration or verification. The
examples I have given belong to this class. The boy can verify when he
goes to France or is able to read a French book that the facts which he
took on authority are true. I am confronted every day with evidence
which proves to me that, if I took the trouble, I could verify the
existence of Calcutta for myself. I cannot convince myself in this way
of the existence of Napoleon, but if I have doubts about it, a simple
process of reasoning shows me that there are hosts of facts which are
incompatible with his non-existence. I have no doubt that the earth is
some 93 millions of miles distant from the sun, because all astronomers
agree that it has been demonstrated, and their agreement is only
explicable on the supposition that this has been demonstrated and that,
if I took the trouble to work out the calculation, I should reach the
same result.


But all our mental furniture is not of this kind. The thoughts of the
average man consist not only of facts open to verification, but also of
many beliefs and opinions which he has accepted on authority and cannot
verify or prove. Belief in the Trinity depends on the authority of the
Church and is clearly of a different order from belief in the existence
of Calcutta. We cannot go behind the authority and verify or prove it.
If we accept it, we do so because we have such implicit faith in the
authority that we credit its assertions though incapable of proof.

The distinction may seem so obvious as to be hardly worth making. But it
is important to be quite clear about it. The primitive man who had
learned from his elders that there were bears in the hills and likewise
evil spirits, soon verified the former statement by seeing a bear, but
if he did not happen to meet an evil spirit, it did not occur to him,
unless he was a prodigy, that there was a distinction between the two
statements; he would rather have argued, if he argued at all, that as
his tribesmen were right about the bears they were sure to be right also
about the spirits. In the Middle Ages a man who believed on authority
that there is a city called Constantinople and that comets are portents
signifying divine wrath, would not

[17] distinguish the nature of the evidence in the two cases. You may
still sometimes hear arguments amounting to this: since I believe in
Calcutta on authority, am I not entitled to believe in the Devil on

Now people at all times have been commanded or expected or invited to
accept on authority alone--the authority, for instance, of public
opinion, or a Church, or a sacred book--doctrines which are not proved or
are not capable of proof. Most beliefs about nature and man, which were
not founded on scientific observation, have served directly or
indirectly religious and social interests, and hence they have been
protected by force against the criticisms of persons who have the
inconvenient habit of using their reason. Nobody minds if his neighbour
disbelieves a demonstrable fact. If a sceptic denies that Napoleon
existed, or that water is composed of oxygen and hydrogen, he causes
amusement or ridicule. But if he denies doctrines which cannot be
demonstrated, such as the existence of a personal God or the immortality
of the soul, he incurs serious disapprobation and at one time he might
have been put to death. Our mediaeval friend would have only been called
a fool if he doubted the existence of Constantinople, but if he had
questioned the significance of comets he

[18] might have got into trouble. It is possible that if he had been so
mad as to deny the existence of Jerusalem he would not have escaped with
ridicule, for Jerusalem is mentioned in the Bible.

In the Middle Ages a large field was covered by beliefs which authority
claimed to impose as true, and reason was warned off the ground. But
reason cannot recognize arbitrary prohibitions or barriers, without
being untrue to herself. The universe of experience is her province, and
as its parts are all linked together and interdependent, it is
impossible for her to recognize any territory on which she may not
tread, or to surrender any of her rights to an authority whose
credentials she has not examined and approved.

The uncompromising assertion by reason of her absolute rights throughout
the whole domain of thought is termed rationalism, and the slight stigma
which is still attached to the word reflects the bitterness of the
struggle between reason and the forces arrayed against her. The term is
limited to the field of theology, because it was in that field that the
self-assertion of reason was most violently and pertinaciously opposed.
In the same way free thought, the refusal of thought to be controlled by
any authority but its own, has a definitely theological reference.

[19] the conflict, authority has had great advantages. At any time the
people who really care about reason have been a small minority, and
probably will be so for a long time to come. Reason's only weapon has
been argument. Authority has employed physical and moral violence, legal
coercion and social displeasure. Sometimes she has attempted to use the
sword of her adversary, thereby wounding herself. Indeed the weakest
point in the strategical position of authority was that her champions,
being human, could not help making use of reasoning processes and the
result was that they were divided among themselves. This gave reason her
chance. Operating, as it were, in the enemy's camp and professedly in
the enemy's cause, she was preparing her own victory.

It may be objected that there is a legitimate domain for authority,
consisting of doctrines which lie outside human experience and therefore
cannot be proved or verified, but at the same time cannot be disproved.
Of course, any number of propositions can be invented which cannot be
disproved, and it is open to any one who possesses exuberant faith to
believe them; but no one will maintain that they all deserve credence so
long as their falsehood is not demonstrated. And if only some deserve
credence, who, except reason,

[20] is to decide which? If the reply is, Authority, we are confronted
by the difficulty that many beliefs backed by authority have been
finally disproved and are universally abandoned. Yet some people speak
as if we were not justified in rejecting a theological doctrine unless
we can prove it false. But the burden of proof does not lie upon the
rejecter. I remember a conversation in which, when some disrespectful
remark was made about hell, a loyal friend of that establishment said
triumphantly, "But, absurd as it may seem, you cannot disprove it." If
you were told that in a certain planet revolving round Sirius there is a
race of donkeys who talk the English language and spend their time in
discussing eugenics, you could not disprove the statement, but would it,
on that account, have any claim to be believed? Some minds would be
prepared to accept it, if it were reiterated often enough, through the
potent force of suggestion. This force, exercised largely by emphatic
repetition (the theoretical basis, as has been observed, of the modern
practice of advertising), has played a great part in establishing
authoritative opinions and propagating religious creeds. Reason
fortunately is able to avail herself of the same help.

The following sketch is confined to Western

[21] civilization. It begins with Greece and attempts to indicate the
chief phases. It is the merest introduction to a vast and intricate
subject, which, treated adequately, would involve not only the history
of religion, of the Churches, of heresies, of persecution, but also the
history of philosophy, of the natural sciences and of political
theories. From the sixteenth century to the French Revolution nearly all
important historical events bore in some way on the struggle for freedom
of thought. It would require a lifetime to calculate, and many books to
describe, all the directions and interactions of the intellectual and
social forces which, since the fall of ancient civilization, have
hindered and helped the emancipation of reason. All one can do, all one
could do even in a much bigger volume than this, is to indicate the
general course of the struggle and dwell on some particular aspects
which the writer may happen to have specially studied.




WHEN we are asked to specify the debt which civilization owes to the
Greeks, their

[22] achievements in literature and art naturally occur to us first of
all. But a truer answer may be that our deepest gratitude is due to them
as the originators of liberty of thought and discussion. For this
freedom of spirit was not only the condition of their speculations in
philosophy, their progress in science, their experiments in political
institutions; it was also a condition of their literary and artistic
excellence. Their literature, for instance, could not have been what it
is if they had been debarred from free criticism of life. But apart from
what they actually accomplished, even if they had not achieved the
wonderful things they did in most of the realms of human activity, their
assertion of the principle of liberty would place them in the highest
rank among the benefactors of the race; for it was one of the greatest
steps in human progress.

We do not know enough about the earliest history of the Greeks to
explain how it was that they attained their free outlook upon the world
and came to possess the will and courage to set no bounds to the range
of their criticism and curiosity. We have to take this character as a
fact. But it must be remembered that the Greeks consisted of a large
number of separate peoples, who varied largely in temper, customs and

[23] though they had important features common to all. Some were
conservative, or backward, or unintellectual compared with others. In
this chapter "the Greeks" does not mean all the Greeks, but only those
who count most in the history of civilization, especially the Ionians
and Athenians.

Ionia in Asia Minor was the cradle of free speculation. The history of
European science and European philosophy begins in Ionia. Here (in the
sixth and fifth centuries B.C.) the early philosophers by using their
reason sought to penetrate into the origin and structure of the world.
They could not of course free their minds entirely from received
notions, but they began the work of destroying orthodox views and
religious faiths. Xenophanes may specially be named among these pioneers
of thought (though he was not the most important or the ablest), because
the toleration of his teaching illustrates the freedom of the atmosphere
in which these men lived. He went about from city to city, calling in
question on moral grounds the popular beliefs about the gods and
goddesses, and ridiculing the anthropomorphic conceptions which the
Greeks had formed of their divinities. "If oxen had hands and the
capacities of men, they would make gods in the shape of oxen." This
attack on received

[24] theology was an attack on the veracity of the old poets, especially
Homer, who was considered the highest authority on mythology. Xenophanes
criticized him severely for ascribing to the gods acts which, committed
by men, would be considered highly disgraceful. We do not hear that any
attempt was made to restrain him from thus assailing traditional beliefs
and branding Homer as immoral. We must remember that the Homeric poems
were never supposed to be the word of God. It has been said that Homer
was the Bible of the Greeks. The remark exactly misses the truth. The
Greeks fortunately had no Bible, and this fact was both an expression
and an important condition of their freedom. Homer's poems were secular,
not religious, and it may be noted that they are freer from immorality
and savagery than sacred books that one could mention. 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. 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

[27] the power of custom; and learns that morality and religion are
matters of latitude. 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

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. 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. 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. The first
words ran: "Concerning the gods, I cannot say that they exist nor yet
that they do not exist. 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." A charge of blasphemy was lodged against him and he fled
from Athens. 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. 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. Men who did not believe in its truth
believed in its usefulness as a political institution, and as a rule
philosophers did not seek to diffuse disturbing "truth" among the
masses. 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

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 (399 B.C.). 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. [1]
Socrates, looking at things as he did, could not be sympathetic with
unlimited democracy, or approve of the principle that the will of the
ignorant majority was a good guide. 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 (403 B.C.), there was a bitter feeling against those
who had not been its friends, and of these disloyal persons Socrates was
chosen as a victim. 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 501 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

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--

(1) He maintains that the individual should at any cost refuse to be
coerced by any human authority or tribunal into a course which his own
mind condemns as wrong. 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. "If you propose to acquit me," he says, "on
condition that I abandon my search for truth, I will say: I thank you, O
Athenians, but I will obey God, who, as I believe, set me this task,
rather than you, and so long as I have breath and strength I will never

[34] cease from my occupation with philosophy. I will continue the
practice of accosting whomever I meet and saying to him, 'Are you not
ashamed of setting your heart on wealth and honours while you have no
care for wisdom and truth and making your soul better?' I know not what
death is--it may be a good thing, and I am not afraid of it. But I do
know that it is a bad thing to desert one's post and I prefer what may
be good to what I know to be bad."

(2) He insists on the public value of free discussion. "In me you have a
stimulating critic, persistently urging you with persuasion and
reproaches, persistently testing your opinions and trying to show you
that you are really ignorant of what you suppose you know. 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. 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 2,000 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

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. But the point of interest in his
attitude is that he did not care much whether a religion was true, but
only whether it was morally useful; he was prepared to promote morality
by edifying fables; and he condemned the popular mythology not because
it was false, but because it did not make for righteousness.

The outcome of the large freedom permitted at 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

[37] 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. [2] 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. [3] With all the fervour

[38] 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

[39] 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

[40] 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.

The general rule of Roman policy was to tolerate throughout the Empire
all religions and all opinions. Blasphemy was not punished. The
principle was expressed in the maxim of the Emperor Tiberius: "If the
gods are insulted, let them see to it themselves." An exception to the
rule of tolerance

[41] was made in the case of the Christian sect, and the treatment of
this Oriental religion may be said to have inaugurated religious
persecution in Europe. It is a matter of interest to understand why
Emperors who were able, humane, and not in the least fanatical, adopted
this exceptional policy.

For a long time the Christians were only known to those Romans who
happened to hear of them, as a sect of the Jews. The Jewish was the one
religion which, on account of its exclusiveness and intolerance, was
regarded by the tolerant pagans with disfavour and suspicion. But though
it sometimes came into collision with the Roman authorities and some
ill-advised attacks upon it were made, it was the constant policy of the
Emperors to let it alone and to protect the Jews against the hatred
which their own fanaticism aroused. But while the Jewish religion was
endured so long as it was confined to those who were born into it, the
prospect of its dissemination raised a new question. Grave misgivings
might arise in the mind of a ruler at seeing a creed spreading which was
aggressively hostile to all the other creeds of the world--creeds which
lived together in amity--and had earned for its adherents the reputation
of being the enemies of the human race. Might not its expansion

[42] beyond the Israelites involve ultimately a danger to the Empire?
For its spirit was incompatible with the traditions and basis of Roman
society. The Emperor Domitian seems to have seen the question in this
light, and he took severe measures to hinder the proselytizing of Roman
citizens. Some of those whom he struck may have been Christians, but if
he was aware of the distinction, there was from his point of view no
difference. Christianity resembled Judaism, from which it sprang, in
intolerance and in hostility towards Roman society, but it differed by
the fact that it made many proselytes while Judaism made few.

Under Trajan we find that the principle has been laid down that to be a
Christian is an offence punishable by death. Henceforward Christianity
remained an illegal religion. But in practice the law was not applied
rigorously or logically. The Emperors desired, if possible, to extirpate
Christianity without shedding blood. Trajan laid down that Christians
were not to be sought out, that no anonymous charges were to be noticed,
and that an informer who failed to make good his charge should be liable
to be punished under the laws against calumny. Christians themselves
recognized that this edict practically protected them. There were

[43] some executions in the second century--not many that are well
attested--and Christians courted the pain and glory of martyrdom. There
is evidence to show that when they were arrested their escape was often
connived at. In general, the persecution of the Christians was rather
provoked by the populace than desired by the authorities. The populace
felt a horror of this mysterious Oriental sect which openly hated all
the gods and prayed for the destruction of the world. When floods,
famines, and especially fires occurred they were apt to be attributed to
the black magic of the Christians.

When any one was accused of Christianity, he was required, as a means of
testing the truth of the charge, to offer incense to the gods or to the
statues of deified Emperors. His compliance at once exonerated him. The
objection of the Christians--they and the Jews were the only objectors--to
the worship of the Emperors was, in the eyes of the Romans, one of the
most sinister signs that their religion was dangerous. The purpose of
this worship was to symbolize the unity and solidarity of an Empire
which embraced so many peoples of different beliefs and different gods;
its intention was political, to promote union and loyalty; and it is not
surprising that those who denounced it should

[44] be suspected of a disloyal spirit. But it must be noted that there
was no necessity for any citizen to take part in this worship. No
conformity was required from any inhabitants of the Empire who were not
serving the State as soldiers or civil functionaries. Thus the effect
was to debar Christians from military and official careers.

The Apologies for Christianity which appeared at this period (second
century) might have helped, if the Emperors (to whom some of them were
addressed) had read them, to confirm the view that it was a political
danger. It would have been easy to read between the lines that, if the
Christians ever got the upper hand, they would not spare the cults of
the State. The contemporary work of Tatian (A Discourse to the Greeks)
reveals what the Apologists more or less sought to disguise, invincible
hatred towards the civilization in which they lived. Any reader of the
Christian literature of the time could not fail to see that in a State
where Christians had the power there would be no tolerance of other
religious practices. [4] If the Emperors made an exception to their
tolerant policy in the case of Christianity, their purpose was to
safeguard tolerance.


In the third century the religion, though still forbidden, was quite
openly tolerated; the Church organized itself without concealment;
ecclesiastical councils assembled without interference. There were some
brief and local attempts at repression, there was only one grave
persecution (begun by Decius, A.D. 250, and continued by Valerian). In
fact, throughout this century, there were not many victims, though
afterwards the Christians invented a whole mythology of martyrdoms. Many
cruelties were imputed to Emperors under whom we know that the Church
enjoyed perfect peace.

A long period of civil confusion, in which the Empire seemed to be
tottering to its fall, had been terminated by the Emperor Diocletian,
who, by his radical administrative reforms, helped to preserve the Roman
power in its integrity for another century. He desired to support his
work of political consolidation by reviving the Roman spirit, and he
attempted to infuse new life into the official religion. To this end he
determined to suppress the growing influence of the Christians, who,
though a minority, were very numerous, and he organized a persecution.
It was long, cruel and bloody; it was the most whole-hearted, general
and systematic effort to crush the forbidden faith. It was a

[46] failure, the Christians were now too numerous to be crushed. After
the abdication of Diocletian, the Emperors who reigned in different
parts of the realm did not agree as to the expediency of his policy, and
the persecution ended by edicts of toleration (A.D. 311 and 313). These
documents have an interest for the history of religious liberty.

The first, issued in the eastern provinces, ran as follows:--

"We were particularly desirous of reclaiming into the way of reason and
nature the deluded Christians, who had renounced the religion and
ceremonies instituted by their fathers and, presumptuously despising the
practice of antiquity, had invented extravagant laws and opinions
according to the dictates of their fancy, and had collected a various
society from the different provinces of our Empire. The edicts which we
have published to enforce the worship of the gods, having exposed many
of the Christians to danger and distress, many having suffered death and
many more, who still persist in their impious folly, being left
destitute of any public exercise of religion, we are disposed to extend
to those unhappy men the effects of our wonted clemency. We permit them,
therefore, freely to profess their private opinions, and to assemble in
their conventicles

[47] without fear or molestation, provided always that they preserve a
due respect to the established laws and government." [5]

The second, of which Constantine was the author, known as the Edict of
Milan, was to a similar effect, and based toleration on the Emperor's
care for the peace and happiness of his subjects and on the hope of
appeasing the Deity whose seat is in heaven.

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

[48] by this new claim, is unable to admit it. Persecution is the

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.

[49] 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

[50] 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

[51] 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

[1] This has been shown very clearly by Professor Jackson in the article
on "Socrates" in the Encyclopoedia Britannica, last edition.

[2] He stated the theological difficulty as to the origin of evil in
this form: God either wishes to abolish evil and cannot, or can and will
not, or neither can nor will, or both can and will. The first three are
unthinkable, if he is a God worthy of the name; therefore the last
alternative must be true. Why then does evil exist? The inference is
that there is no God, in the sense of a governor of the world.

[3] An admirable appreciation of the poem will be found in R. V.
Tyrrell's Lectures on Latin Poetry.

[4] For the evidence of the Apologists see A. Bouche-Leclercq, Religious
Intolerance and Politics (French, 1911) --a valuable review of the whole

[5] This is Gibbon's translation.




ABOUT ten years after the Edict of Toleration, Constantine the Great
adopted Christianity. This momentous decision inaugurated

[52] a millennium in which reason was enchained, thought was enslaved,
and knowledge made no progress.

During the two centuries in which they had been a forbidden sect the
Christians had claimed toleration on the ground that religious belief is
voluntary and not a thing which can be enforced. When their faith became
the predominant creed and had the power of the State behind it, they
abandoned this view. They embarked on the hopeful enterprise of bringing
about a complete uniformity in men's opinions on the mysteries of the
universe, and began a more or less definite policy of coercing thought.
This policy was adopted by Emperors and Governments partly on political
grounds; religious divisions, bitter as they were, seemed dangerous to
the unity of the State. But the fundamental principle lay in the
doctrine that salvation is to be found exclusively in the Christian
Church. The profound conviction that those who did not believe in its
doctrines would be damned eternally, and that God punishes theological
error as if it were the most heinous of crimes, led naturally to
persecution. It was a duty to impose on men the only true doctrine,
seeing that their own eternal interests were at stake, and to hinder
errors from spreading. Heretics were more

[53] than ordinary criminals and the pains that man could inflict on
them were as nothing to the tortures awaiting them in hell. To rid the
earth of men who, however virtuous, were, through their religious
errors, enemies of the Almighty, was a plain duty. Their virtues were no
excuse. We must remember that, according to the humane doctrine of the
Christians, pagan, that is, merely human, virtues were vices, and
infants who died unbaptized passed the rest of time in creeping on the
floor of hell. The intolerance arising from such views could not but
differ in kind and intensity from anything that the world had yet

Besides the logic of its doctrines, the character of its Sacred Book
must also be held partly accountable for the intolerant principles of
the Christian Church. It was unfortunate that the early Christians had
included in their Scripture the Jewish writings which reflect the ideas
of a low stage of civilization and are full of savagery. It would be
difficult to say how much harm has been done, in corrupting the morals
of men, by the precepts and examples of inhumanity, violence, and
bigotry which the reverent reader of the Old Testament, implicitly
believing in its inspiration, is bound to approve. It furnished an
armoury for the theory of

[54] persecution. The truth is that Sacred Books are an obstacle to
moral and intellectual progress, because they consecrate the ideas of a
given epoch, and its customs, as divinely appointed. Christianity, by
adopting books of a long past age, placed in the path of human
development a particularly nasty stumbling-block. It may occur to one to
wonder how history might have been altered --altered it surely would have
been--if the Christians had cut Jehovah out of their programme and,
content with the New Testament, had rejected the inspiration of the Old.

Under Constantine the Great and his successors, edict after edict
fulminated against the worship of the old pagan gods and against
heretical Christian sects. Julian the Apostate, who in his brief reign
(A.D. 361-3) sought to revive the old order of things, proclaimed
universal toleration, but he placed Christians at a disadvantage by
forbidding them to teach in schools. This was only a momentary check.
Paganism was finally shattered by the severe laws of Theodosius I (end
of fourth century). It lingered on here and there for more than another
century, especially at Rome and Athens, but had little importance. The
Christians were more concerned in striving among themselves than in

[55] crushing the prostrate spirit of antiquity. The execution of the
heretic Priscillian in Spain (fourth century) inaugurated the punishment
of heresy by death. It is interesting to see a non-Christian of this age
teaching the Christian sects that they should suffer one another.
Themistius in an address to the Emperor Valens urged him to repeal his
edicts against the Christians with whom he did not agree, and expounded
a theory of toleration. "The religious beliefs of individuals are a
field in which the authority of a government cannot be effective;
compliance can only lead to hypocritical professions. Every faith should
be allowed; the civil government should govern orthodox and heterodox to
the common good. God himself plainly shows that he wishes various forms
of worship; there are many roads by which one can reach him."

No father of the Church has been more esteemed or enjoyed higher
authority than St. Augustine (died A.D. 410). He formulated the
principle of persecution for the guidance of future generations, basing
it on the firm foundation of Scripture--on words used by Jesus Christ in
one of his parables, "Compel them to come in." Till the end of the
twelfth century the Church worked hard to suppress heterodoxies. There
was much

[56] persecution, but it was not systematic. There is reason to think
that in the pursuit of heresy the Church was mainly guided by
considerations of its temporal interest, and was roused to severe action
only when the spread of false doctrine threatened to reduce its revenues
or seemed a menace to society. At the end of the twelfth century
Innocent III became Pope and under him the Church of Western Europe
reached the height of its power. He and his immediate successors are
responsible for imagining and beginning an organized movement to sweep
heretics out of Christendom. Languedoc in Southwestern France was
largely populated by heretics, whose opinions were considered
particularly offensive, known as the Albigeois. They were the subjects
of the Count of Toulouse, and were an industrious and respectable
people. But the Church got far too little money out of this anti-
clerical population, and Innocent called upon the Count to extirpate
heresy from his dominion. As he would not obey, the Pope announced a
Crusade against the Albigeois, and offered to all who would bear a hand
the usual rewards granted to Crusaders, including absolution from all
their sins. A series of sanguinary wars followed in which the
Englishman, Simon de Montfort, took part. There were

[57] wholesale burnings and hangings of men, women and children. The
resistance of the people was broken down, though the heresy was not
eradicated, and the struggle ended in 1229 with the complete humiliation
of the Count of Toulouse. The important point of the episode is this:
the Church introduced into the public law of Europe the new principle
that a sovran held his crown on the condition that he should extirpate
heresy. If he hesitated to persecute at the command of the Pope, he must
be coerced; his lands were forfeited; and his dominions were thrown open
to be seized by any one whom the Church could induce to attack him. The
Popes thus established a theocratic system in which all other interests
were to be subordinated to the grand duty of maintaining the purity of
the Faith.

But in order to root out heresy it was necessary to discover it in its
most secret retreats. The Albigeois had been crushed, but the poison of
their doctrine was not yet destroyed. The organized system of searching
out heretics known as the Inquisition was founded by Pope Gregory IX
about A.D. 1233, and fully established by a Bull of Innocent IV (A.D.
1252) which regulated the machinery of persecution "as an integral part
of the social edifice in every city and every

[58] State." This powerful engine for the suppression of the freedom of
men's religious opinions is unique in history.

The bishops were not equal to the new talk undertaken by the Church, and
in every ecclesiastical province suitable monks were selected and to
them was delegated the authority of the Pope for discovering heretics.
These inquisitors had unlimited authority, they were subject to no
supervision and responsible to no man. It would not have been easy to
establish this system but for the fact that contemporary secular rulers
had inaugurated independently a merciless legislation against heresy.
The Emperor Frederick II, who was himself undoubtedly a freethinker,
made laws for his extensive dominions in Italy and Germany (between 1220
and 1235), enacting that all heretics should be outlawed, that those who
did not recant should be burned, those who recanted should be
imprisoned, but if they relapsed should be executed; that their property
should be confiscated, their houses destroyed, and their children, to
the second generation, ineligible to positions of emolument unless they
had betrayed their father or some other heretic.

Frederick's legislation consecrated the stake as the proper punishment
for heresy. This

[59] cruel form of death for that crime seems to have been first
inflicted on heretics by a French king (1017). We must remember that in
the Middle Ages, and much later, crimes of all kinds were punished with
the utmost cruelty. In England in the reign of Henry VIII there is a
case of prisoners being boiled to death. Heresy was the foulest of all
crimes; and to prevail against it was to prevail against the legions of
hell. The cruel enactments against heretics were strongly supported by
the public opinion of the masses.

When the Inquisition was fully developed it covered Western Christendom
with a net from the meshes of which it was difficult for a heretic to
escape. The inquisitors in the various kingdoms co-operated, and
communicated information; there was "a chain of tribunals throughout
continental Europe." England stood outside the system, but from the age
of Henry IV and Henry V the government repressed heresy by the stake
under a special statute (A.D. 1400; repealed 1533; revived under Mary;
finally repealed in 1676).

In its task of imposing unity of belief the Inquisition was most
successful in Spain. Here towards the end of the fifteenth century a
system was instituted which had peculiarities of its own and was very
jealous of

[60] Roman interference. One of the achievements of the Spanish
Inquisition (which was not abolished till the nineteenth century) was to
expel the Moriscos or converted Moors, who retained many of their old
Mohammedan opinions and customs. It is also said to have eradicated
Judaism and to have preserved the country from the zeal of Protestant
missionaries. But it cannot be proved that it deserves the credit of
having protected Spain against Protestantism, for it is quite possible
that if the seeds of Protestant opinion had been sown they would, in any
case, have fallen dead on an uncongenial soil. Freedom of thought
however was entirely suppressed.

One of the most efficacious means for hunting down heresy was the "Edict
of Faith," which enlisted the people in the service of the Inquisition
and required every man to be an informer. From time to time a certain
district was visited and an edict issued commanding those who knew
anything of any heresy to come forward and reveal it, under fearful
penalties temporal and spiritual. In consequence, no one was free from
the suspicion of his neighbours or even of his own family. "No more
ingenious device has been invented to subjugate a whole population, to
paralyze its intellect, and to reduce it

[61] to blind obedience. It elevated delation to the rank of high
religious duty."

The process employed in the trials of those accused of heresy in Spain
rejected every reasonable means for the ascertainment of truth. The
prisoner was assumed to be guilty, the burden of proving his innocence
rested on him; his judge was virtually his prosecutor. All witnesses
against him, however infamous, were admitted. The rules for allowing
witnesses for the prosecution were lax; those for rejecting witnesses
for the defence were rigid. Jews, Moriscos, and servants could give
evidence against the prisoner but not for him, and the same rule applied
to kinsmen to the fourth degree. The principle on which the Inquisition
proceeded was that better a hundred innocent should suffer than one
guilty person escape. Indulgences were granted to any one who
contributed wood to the pile. But the tribunal of the Inquisition did
not itself condemn to the stake, for the Church must not be guilty of
the shedding of blood. The ecclesiastical judge pronounced the prisoner
to be a heretic of whose conversion there was no hope, and handed him
over ("relaxed" him was the official term) to the secular authority,
asking and charging the magistrate "to treat him benignantly and
mercifully." But this

[62] formal plea for mercy could not be entertained by the civil power;
it had no choice but to inflict death; if it did otherwise, it was a
promoter of heresy. All princes and officials, according to the Canon
Law, must punish duly and promptly heretics handed over to them by the
Inquisition, under pain of excommunication. It is to be noted that the
number of deaths at the stake has been much over-estimated by popular
imagination; but the sum of suffering caused by the methods of the
system and the punishments that fell short of death can hardly be

The legal processes employed by the Church in these persecutions
exercised a corrupting influence on the criminal jurisprudence of the
Continent. Lea, the historian of the Inquisition, observes: "Of all the
curses which the Inquisition brought in its train, this perhaps was the
greatest--that, until the closing years of the eighteenth century,
throughout the greater part of Europe, the inquisitorial process, as
developed for the destruction of heresy, became the customary method of
dealing with all who were under any accusation."

The Inquisitors who, as Gibbon says, "defended nonsense by cruelties,"
are often regarded as monsters. It may be said for them and for the
kings who did their will that

[63] they were not a bit worse than the priests and monarchs of
primitive ages who sacrificed human beings to their deities. The Greek
king, Agamemnon, who immolated his daughter Iphigenia to obtain
favourable winds from the gods, was perhaps a most affectionate father,
and the seer who advised him to do so may have been a man of high
integrity. They acted according to their beliefs. And so in the Middle
Ages and afterwards men of kindly temper and the purest zeal for
morality were absolutely devoid of mercy where heresy was suspected.
Hatred of heresy was a sort of infectious germ, generated by the
doctrine of exclusive salvation.

It has been observed that this dogma also injured the sense of truth. As
man's eternal fate was at stake, it seemed plainly legitimate or rather
imperative to use any means to enforce the true belief--even falsehood
and imposture. There was no scruple about the invention of miracles or
any fictions that were edifying. A disinterested appreciation of truth
will not begin to prevail till the seventeenth century.

While this principle, with the associated doctrines of sin, hell, and
the last judgment, led to such consequences, there were other doctrines
and implications in Christianity which, forming a solid rampart against

[64] advance of knowledge, blocked the paths of science in the Middle
Ages, and obstructed its progress till the latter half of the nineteenth
century. In every important field of scientific research, the ground was
occupied by false views which the Church declared to be true on the
infallible authority of the Bible. The Jewish account of Creation and
the Fall of Man, inextricably bound up with the Christian theory of
Redemption, excluded from free inquiry geology, zoology, and
anthropology. The literal interpretation of the Bible involved the truth
that the sun revolves round the earth. The Church condemned the theory
of the antipodes. One of the charges against Servetus (who was burned in
the sixteenth century; see below, p. 79) was that he believed the
statement of a Greek geographer that Judea is a wretched barren country
in spite of the fact that the Bible describes it as a land flowing with
milk and honey. The Greek physician Hippocrates had based the study of
medicine and disease on experience and methodical research. In the
Middle Ages men relapsed to the primitive notions of a barbarous age.
Bodily ailments were ascribed to occult agencies--the malice of the Devil
or the wrath of God. St. Augustine said that the diseases of Christians
were caused by demons,

[65] and Luther in the same way attributed them to Satan. It was only
logical that supernatural remedies should be sought to counteract the
effects of supernatural causes. There was an immense traffic in relics
with miraculous virtues, and this had the advantage of bringing in a
large revenue to the Church. Physicians were often exposed to suspicions
of sorcery and unbelief. Anatomy was forbidden, partly perhaps on
account of the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. The opposition
of ecclesiastics to inoculation in the eighteenth century was a survival
of the mediaeval view of disease. Chemistry (alchemy) was considered a
diabolical art and in 1317 was condemned by the Pope. The long
imprisonment of Roger Bacon (thirteenth century) who, while he professed
zeal for orthodoxy, had an inconvenient instinct for scientific
research, illustrates the mediaeval distrust of science.

It is possible that the knowledge of nature would have progressed
little, even if this distrust of science on theological grounds had not
prevailed. For Greek science had ceased to advance five hundred years
before Christianity became powerful. After about 200 B.C. no important
discoveries were made. The explanation of this decay is not easy, but we
may be sure that it is to be sought in the

[66] social conditions of the Greek and Roman world. And we may suspect
that the social conditions of the Middle Ages would have proved
unfavourable to the scientific spirit-- the disinterested quest of
facts--even if the controlling beliefs had not been hostile. We may
suspect that the rebirth of science would in any case have been
postponed till new social conditions, which began to appear in the
thirteenth century (see next Chapter), had reached a certain maturity.
Theological prejudice may have injured knowledge principally by its
survival after the Middle Ages had passed away. In other words, the harm
done by Christian doctrines, in this respect, may lie less in the
obscurantism of the dark interval between ancient and modern
civilization, than in the obstructions which they offered when science
had revived in spite of them and could no longer be crushed.

The firm belief in witchcraft, magic, and demons was inherited by the
Middle Ages from antiquity, but it became far more lurid and made the
world terrible. Men believed that they were surrounded by fiends
watching for every opportunity to harm them, that pestilences, storms,
eclipses, and famines were the work of the Devil; but they believed as
firmly that ecclesiastical rites were capable of coping with these
enemies. Some of the

[67] early Christian Emperors legislated against magic, but till the
fourteenth century there was no systematic attempt to root out
witchcraft. The fearful epidemic, known as the Black Death, which
devastated Europe in that century, seems to have aggravated the haunting
terror of the invisible world of demons. Trials for witchcraft
multiplied, and for three hundred years the discovery of witchcraft and
the destruction of those who were accused of practising it, chiefly
women, was a standing feature of European civilization. Both the theory
and the persecution were supported by Holy Scripture. "Thou shalt not
suffer a witch to live" was the clear injunction of the highest
authority. Pope Innocent VIII issued a Bull on the matter (1484) in
which he asserted that plagues and storms are the work of witches, and
the ablest minds believed in the reality of their devilish powers.

No story is more painful than the persecution of witches, and nowhere
was it more atrocious than in England and Scotland. I mention it because
it was the direct result of theological doctrines, and because, as we
shall see, it was rationalism which brought the long chapter of horrors
to an end.

In the period, then, in which the Church exercised its greatest
influence, reason was

[68] enchained in the prison which Christianity had built around the
human mind. It was not indeed inactive, but its activity took the form
of heresy; or, to pursue the metaphor, those who broke chains were
unable for the most part to scale the walls of the prison; their freedom
extended only so far as to arrive at beliefs, which, like orthodoxy
itself, were based on Christian mythology. There were some exceptions to
the rule. At the end of the twelfth century a stimulus from another
world began to make itself felt. The philosophy of Aristotle became
known to learned men in Western Christendom; their teachers were Jews
and Mohammedans. Among the Mohammedans there was a certain amount of
free thought, provoked by their knowledge of ancient Greek speculation.
The works of the freethinker Averroes (twelfth century) which were based
on Aristotle's philosophy, propagated a small wave of rationalism in
Christian countries. Averroes held the eternity of matter and denied the
immortality of the soul; his general view may be described as pantheism.
But he sought to avoid difficulties with the orthodox authorities of
Islam by laying down the doctrine of double truth, that is the
coexistence of two independent and contradictory truths, the one
philosophical, and the other religious. This

[69] did not save him from being banished from the court of the Spanish
caliph. In the University of Paris his teaching produced a school of
freethinkers who held that the Creation, the resurrection of the body,
and other essential dogmas, might be true from the standpoint of
religion but are false from the standpoint of reason. To a plain mind
this seems much as if one said that the doctrine of immortality is true
on Sundays but not on week-days, or that the Apostles' Creed is false in
the drawing-room and true in the kitchen. This dangerous movement was
crushed, and the saving principle of double truth condemned, by Pope
John XXI. The spread of Averroistic and similar speculations called
forth the Theology of Thomas, of Aquino in South Italy (died 1274), a
most subtle thinker, whose mind had a natural turn for scepticism. He
enlisted Aristotle, hitherto the guide of infidelity, on the side of
orthodoxy, and constructed an ingenious Christian philosophy which is
still authoritative in the Roman Church. But Aristotle and reason are
dangerous allies for faith, and the treatise of Thomas is perhaps more
calculated to unsettle a believing mind by the doubts which it
powerfully states than to quiet the scruples of a doubter by its

There must always have been some private

[70] and underground unbelief here and there, which did not lead to any
serious consequences. The blasphemous statement that the world had been
deceived by three impostors, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed, was current in
the thirteenth century. It was attributed to the freethinking Emperor
Frederick II (died 1250), who has been described as "the first modern
man." The same idea, in a milder form, was expressed in the story of the
Three Rings, which is at least as old. A Mohammedan ruler, desiring to
extort money from a rich Jew, summoned him to his court and laid a snare
for him. "My friend," he said, "I have often heard it reported that thou
art a very wise man. Tell me therefore which of the three religions,
that of the Jews, that of the Mohammedans, and that of the Christians,
thou believest to be the truest." The Jew saw that a trap was laid for
him and answered as follows: "My lord, there was once a rich man who
among his treasures had a ring of such great value that he wished to
leave it as a perpetual heirloom to his successors. So he made a will
that whichever of his sons should be found in possession of this ring
after his death should be considered his heir. The son to whom he gave
the ring acted in the same way as his father, and so the ring passed
from hand to

[71] hand. At last it came into the possession of a man who had three
sons whom he loved equally. Unable to make up his mind to which of them
he should leave the ring, he promised it to each of them privately, and
then in order to satisfy them all caused a goldsmith to make two other
rings so closely resembling the true ring that he was unable to
distinguish them himself. On his death-bed he gave each of them a ring,
and each claimed to be his heir, but no one could prove his title
because the rings were indistinguishable, and the suit at law lasts till
this day. It is even so, my lord, with the three religions, given by God
to the three peoples. They each think they have the true religion, but
which of them really has it, is a question, like that of the rings,
still undecided." This sceptical story became famous in the eighteenth
century, when the German poet, Lessing, built upon it his drama Nathan
the Sage, which was intended to show the unreasonableness of




THE intellectual and social movement which was to dispel the darkness of

[72] Middle Ages and prepare the way for those who would ultimately
deliver reason from her prison, began in Italy in the thirteenth
century. The misty veil woven of credulity and infantile naivete which
had hung over men's souls and protected them from understanding either
themselves or their relation to the world began to lift. The individual
began to feel his separate individuality, to be conscious of his own
value as a person apart from his race or country (as in the later ages
of Greece and Rome); and the world around him began to emerge from the
mists of mediaeval dreams. The change was due to the political and
social conditions of the little Italian States, of which some were
republics and others governed by tyrants.

To the human world, thus unveiling itself, the individual who sought to
make it serve his purposes required a guide; and the guide was found in
the ancient literature of Greece and Rome. Hence the whole
transformation, which presently extended from Italy to Northern Europe,
is known as the Renaissance, or rebirth of classical antiquity. But the
awakened interest in classical literature while it coloured the
character and stimulated the growth of the movement, supplying new
ideals and suggesting new points of view, was only the form in which the
change of spirit

[73] began to express itself in the fourteenth century. The change might
conceivably have taken some other shape. Its true name is Humanism.

At the time men hardly felt that they were passing into a new age of
civilization, nor did the culture of the Renaissance immediately produce
any open or general intellectual rebellion against orthodox beliefs. The
world was gradually assuming an aspect decidedly unfriendly to the
teaching of mediaeval orthodoxy; but there was no explosion of
hostility; it was not till the seventeenth century that war between
religion and authority was systematically waged. The humanists were not
hostile to theological authority or to the claims of religious dogma;
but they had discovered a purely human curiosity about this world and it
absorbed their interest. They idolized pagan literature which abounded
in poisonous germs; the secular side of education became all-important;
religion and theology were kept in a separate compartment. Some
speculative minds, which were sensitive to the contradiction, might seek
to reconcile the old religion with new ideas; but the general tendency
of thinkers in the Renaissance period was to keep the two worlds
distinct, and to practise outward conformity to the creed without any
real intellectual submission.


I may illustrate this double-facedness of the Renaissance by Montaigne
(second half of sixteenth century). His Essays make for rationalism, but
contain frequent professions of orthodox Catholicism, in which he was
perfectly sincere. There is no attempt to reconcile the two points of
view; in fact, he takes the sceptical position that there is no bridge
between reason and religion. The human intellect is incapable in the
domain of theology, and religion must be placed aloft, out of reach and
beyond the interference of reason; to be humbly accepted. But while he
humbly accepted it, on sceptical grounds which would have induced him to
accept Mohammadanism if he had been born in Cairo, his soul was not in
its dominion. It was the philosophers and wise men of antiquity, Cicero,
and Seneca, and Plutarch, who moulded and possessed his mind. It is to
them, and not to the consolations of Christianity, that he turns when he
discusses the problem of death. The religious wars in France which he
witnessed and the Massacre of St. Bartholomew's Day (1572) were
calculated to confirm him in his scepticism. His attitude to persecution
is expressed in the remark that "it is setting a high value on one's
opinions to roast men on account of them."

The logical results of Montaigne's scepticism

[75] were made visible by his friend Charron, who published a book On
Wisdom in 1601. Here it is taught that true morality is not founded on
religion, and the author surveys the history of Christianity to show the
evils which it had produced. He says of immortality that it is the most
generally received doctrine, the most usefully believed, and the most
weakly established by human reasons; but he modified this and some other
passages in a second edition. A contemporary Jesuit placed Charron in
the catalogue of the most dangerous and wicked atheists. He was really a
deist; but in those days, and long after, no one scrupled to call a non-
Christian deist an atheist. His book would doubtless have been
suppressed and he would have suffered but for the support of King Henry
IV. It has a particular interest because it transports us directly from
the atmosphere of the Renaissance, represented by Montaigne, into the
new age of more or less aggressive rationalism.

What Humanism did in the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries,
at first in Italy, then in other countries, was to create an
intellectual atmosphere in which the emancipation of reason could begin
and knowledge could resume its progress. The period saw the invention of
printing and

[76] the discovery of new parts of the globe, and these things were to
aid powerfully in the future defeat of authority.

But the triumph of freedom depended on other causes also; it was not to
be brought about by the intellect alone. The chief political facts of
the period were the decline of the power of the Pope in Europe, the
decay of the Holy Roman Empire, and the growth of strong monarchies, in
which worldly interests determined and dictated ecclesiastical policy,
and from which the modern State was to develop. The success of the
Reformation was made possible by these conditions. Its victory in North
Germany was due to the secular interest of the princes, who profited by
the confiscation of Church lands. In England there was no popular
movement; the change was carried through by the government for its own

The principal cause of the Reformation was the general corruption of the
Church and the flagrancy of its oppression. For a long time the Papacy
had had no higher aim than to be a secular power exploiting its
spiritual authority for the purpose of promoting its worldly interests,
by which it was exclusively governed. All the European States based
their diplomacy on this assumption. Since the fourteenth century every
one acknowledged

[77] the need of reforming the Church, and reform had been promised, but
things went from bad to worse, and there was no resource but rebellion.
The rebellion led by Luther was the result not of a revolt of reason
against dogmas, but of widely spread anti-clerical feeling due to the
ecclesiastical methods of extorting money, particularly by the sale of
Indulgences, the most glaring abuse of the time. It was his study of the
theory of Papal Indulgences that led Luther on to his theological

It is an elementary error, but one which is still shared by many people
who have read history superficially, that the Reformation established
religious liberty and the right of private judgment. What it did was to
bring about a new set of political and social conditions, under which
religious liberty could ultimately be secured, and, by virtue of its
inherent inconsistencies, to lead to results at which its leaders would
have shuddered. But nothing was further from the minds of the leading
Reformers than the toleration of doctrines differing from their own.
They replaced one authority by another. They set up the authority of the
Bible instead of that of the Church, but it was the Bible according to
Luther or the Bible according to Calvin. So far as the spirit of
intolerance went, there

[78] was nothing to choose between the new and the old Churches. The
religious wars were not for the cause of freedom, but for particular
sets of doctrines; and in France, if the Protestants had been
victorious, it is certain that they would not have given more liberal
terms to the Catholics than the Catholics gave to them.

Luther was quite opposed to liberty of conscience and worship, a
doctrine which was inconsistent with Scripture as he read it. He might
protest against coercion and condemn the burning of heretics, when he
was in fear that he and his party might be victims, but when he was safe
and in power, he asserted his real view that it was the duty of the
State to impose the true doctrine and exterminate heresy, which was an
abomination, that unlimited obedience to their prince in religious as in
other matters was the duty of subjects, and that the end of the State
was to defend the faith. He held that Anabaptists should be put to the
sword. With Protestants and Catholics alike the dogma of exclusive
salvation led to the same place.

Calvin's fame for intolerance is blackest. He did not, like Luther,
advocate the absolute power of the civil ruler; he stood for the control
of the State by the Church--a form of government which is commonly called

[79] and he established a theocracy at Geneva. Here liberty was
completely crushed; false doctrines were put down by imprisonment,
exile, and death. The punishment of Servetus is the most famous exploit
of Calvin's warfare against heresy. The Spaniard Servetus, who had
written against the dogma of the Trinity, was imprisoned at Lyons
(partly through the machinations of Calvin) and having escaped came
rashly to Geneva. He was tried for heresy and committed to the flames
(1553), though Geneva had no jurisdiction over him. Melanchthon, who
formulated the principles of persecution, praised this act as a
memorable example to posterity. Posterity however was one day to be
ashamed of that example. In 1903 the Calvinists of Geneva felt impelled
to erect an expiatory monument, in which Calvin "our great Reformer" is
excused as guilty of an error "which was that of his century."

Thus the Reformers, like the Church from which they parted, cared
nothing for freedom, they only cared for "truth." If the mediaeval ideal
was to purge the world of heretics, the object of the Protestant was to
exclude all dissidents from his own land. The people at large were to be
driven into a fold, to accept their faith at the command of their
sovran. This was the principle laid down in the

[80] religious peace which (1555) composed the struggle between the
Catholic Emperor and the Protestant German princes. It was recognized by
Catherine de' Medici when she massacred the French Protestants and
signified to Queen Elizabeth that she might do likewise with English

Nor did the Protestant creeds represent enlightenment. The Reformation
on the Continent was as hostile to enlightenment as it was to liberty;
and science, if it seemed to contradict the Bible, has as little chance
with Luther as with the Pope. The Bible, interpreted by the Protestants
or the Roman Church, was equally fatal to witches. In Germany the
development of learning received a long set-back.

Yet the Reformation involuntarily helped the cause of liberty. The
result was contrary to the intentions of its leaders, was indirect, and
long delayed. In the first place, the great rent in Western
Christianity, substituting a number of theological authorities instead
of one--several gods, we may say, instead of one God--produced a weakening
of ecclesiastical authority in general. The religious tradition was
broken. In the second place, in the Protestant States, the supreme
ecclesiastical power was vested in the sovran; the sovran had other
interests besides those of

[81] the Church to consider; and political reasons would compel him
sooner or later to modify the principle of ecclesiastical intolerance.
Catholic States in the same way were forced to depart from the duty of
not suffering heretics. The religious wars in France ended in a limited
toleration of Protestants. The policy of Cardinal Richelieu, who
supported the Protestant cause in Germany, illustrates how secular
interests obstructed the cause of faith.

Again, the intellectual justification of the Protestant rebellion
against the Church had been the right of private judgment, that is, the
principle of religious liberty. But the Reformers had asserted it only
for themselves, and as soon as they had framed their own articles of
faith, they had practically repudiated it. This was the most glaring
inconsistency in the Protestant position; and the claim which they had
thrust aside could not be permanently suppressed. Once more, the
Protestant doctrines rested on an insecure foundation which no logic
could defend, and inevitably led from one untenable position to another.
If we are to believe on authority, why should we prefer the upstart
dictation of the Lutheran Confession of Augsburg or the English Thirty-
nine Articles to the venerable authority of the Church of Rome? If we
decide against Rome, we must do so by means

[82] of reason; but once we exercise reason in the matter, why should we
stop where Luther or Calvin or any of the other rebels stopped, unless
we assume that one of them was inspired? If we reject superstitions
which they rejected, there is nothing except their authority to prevent
us from rejecting all or some of the superstitions which they retained.
Moreover, their Bible-worship promoted results which they did not
foresee. [1] The inspired record on which the creeds depend became an
open book. Public attention was directed to it as never before, though
it cannot be said to have been universally read before the nineteenth
century. Study led to criticism, the difficulties of the dogma of
inspiration were appreciated, and the Bible was ultimately to be
submitted to a remorseless dissection which has altered at least the
quality of its authority in the eyes of intelligent believers. This
process of Biblical criticism has been conducted mainly in a Protestant
atmosphere and the new position in which the Bible was placed by the
Reformation must be held partly accountable. In these ways,
Protestantism was adapted to be a stepping-stone to rationalism, and
thus served the cause of freedom.


That cause however was powerfully and directly promoted by one sect of
Reformers, who in the eyes of all the others were blasphemers and of
whom most people never think when they talk of the Reformation. I mean
the Socinians. Of their far-reaching influence something will be said in
the next chapter.

Another result of the Reformation has still to be mentioned, its
renovating effect on the Roman Church, which had now to fight for its
existence. A new series of Popes who were in earnest about religion
began with Paul III (1534) and reorganized the Papacy and its resources
for a struggle of centuries. [2] The institution of the Jesuit order,
the establishment of the Inquisition at Rome, the Council of Trent, the
censorship of the Press (Index of Forbidden Books) were the expression
of the new spirit and the means to cope with the new situation. The
reformed Papacy was good fortune for believing children of the Church,
but what here concerns us is that one of its chief objects was to
repress freedom more effectually. Savonarola who preached right living
at Florence had been executed (1498) under Pope Alexander VI who was a
notorious profligate. If Savonarola had lived

[84] in the new era he might have been canonized, but Giordano Bruno was

Giordano Bruno had constructed a religious philosophy, based partly upon
Epicurus, from whom he took the theory of the infinity of the universe.
But Epicurean materialism was transformed into a pantheistic mysticism
by the doctrine that God is the soul of matter. Accepting the recent
discovery of Copernicus, which Catholics and Protestants alike rejected,
that the earth revolves round the sun, Bruno took the further step of
regarding the fixed stars as suns, each with its invisible satellites.
He sought to come to an understanding with the Bible, which (he held)
being intended for the vulgar had to accommodate itself to their
prejudices. Leaving Italy, because he was suspected of heresy, he lived
successively in Switzerland, France, England, and Germany, and in 1592,
induced by a false friend to return to Venice he was seized by order of
the Inquisition. Finally condemned in Rome, he was burned (1600) in the
Campo de' Fiori, where a monument now stands in his honour, erected some
years ago, to the great chagrin of the Roman Church.

Much is made of the fate of Bruno because he is one of the world's
famous men. No country has so illustrious a victim of that era to
commemorate as Italy, but in other lands

[85] blood just as innocent was shed for heterodox opinions. In France
there was rather more freedom than elsewhere under the relatively
tolerant government of Henry IV and of the Cardinals Richelieu and
Mazarin, till about 1660. But at Toulouse (1619) Lucilio Vanini, a
learned Italian who like Bruno wandered about Europe, was convicted as
an atheist and blasphemer; his tongue was torn out and he was burned.
Protestant England, under Elizabeth and James I, did not lag behind the
Roman Inquisition, but on account of the obscurity of the victims her
zeal for faith has been unduly forgotten. Yet, but for an accident, she
might have covered herself with the glory of having done to death a
heretic not less famous than Giordano Bruno. The poet Marlowe was
accused of atheism, but while the prosecution was hanging over him he
was killed in a sordid quarrel in a tavern (1593). Another dramatist
(Kyd) who was implicated in the charge was put to the torture. At the
same time Sir Walter Raleigh was prosecuted for unbelief but not
convicted. Others were not so fortunate. Three or four persons were
burned at Norwich in the reign of Elizabeth for unchristian doctrines,
among them Francis Kett who had been a Fellow of Corpus Christi,
Cambridge. Under James I, who

[86] interested himself personally in such matters, Bartholomew Legate
was charged with holding various pestilent opinions. The king summoned
him to his presence and asked him whether he did not pray daily to Jesus
Christ. Legate replied he had prayed to Christ in the days of his
ignorance, but not for the last seven years. "Away, base fellow," said
James, spurning him with his foot, "it shall never be said that one
stayeth in my palace that hath never prayed to our Saviour for seven
years together." Legate, having been imprisoned for some time in
Newgate, was declared an incorrigible heretic and burned at Smithfield
(1611). Just a month later, one Wightman was burned at Lichfield, by the
Bishop of Coventry, for heterodox doctrines. It is possible that public
opinion was shocked by these two burnings. They were the last cases in
England of death for unbelief. Puritan intolerance, indeed, passed an
ordinance in 1648, by which all who denied the Trinity, Christ's
divinity, the inspiration of Scripture, or a future state, were liable
to death, and persons guilty of other heresies, to imprisonment. But
this did not lead to any executions.

The Renaissance age saw the first signs of the beginning of modern
science, but the mediaeval prejudices against the investigation

[87] of nature were not dissipated till the seventeenth century, and in
Italy they continued to a much later period. The history of modern
astronomy begins in 1543, with the publication of the work of Copernicus
revealing the truth about the motions of the earth. The appearance of
this work is important in the history of free thought, because it raised
a clear and definite issue between science and Scripture; and Osiander,
who edited it (Copernicus was dying), forseeing the outcry it would
raise, stated untruly in the preface that the earth's motion was put
forward only as a hypothesis. The theory was denounced by Catholics and
Reformers, and it did not convince some men (e.g. Bacon) who were not
influenced by theological prejudice. The observations of the Italian
astronomer Galileo de' Galilei demonstrated the Copernican theory beyond
question. His telescope discovered the moons of Jupiter, and his
observation of the spots in the sun confirmed the earth's rotation. In
the pulpits of Florence, where he lived under the protection of the
Grand Duke, his sensational discoveries were condemned. "Men of Galilee,
why stand ye gazing up into heaven?" He was then denounced to the Holy
Office of the Inquisition by two Dominican monks. Learning that his
investigations were being considered

[88] at Rome, Galileo went thither, confident that he would be able to
convince the ecclesiastical authorities of the manifest truth of
Copernicanism. He did not realize what theology was capable of. In
February 1616 the Holy Office decided that the Copernican system was in
itself absurd, and, in respect of Scripture, heretical. Cardinal
Bellarmin, by the Pope's direction, summoned Galileo and officially
admonished him to abandon his opinion and cease to teach it, otherwise
the Inquisition would proceed against him. Galileo promised to obey. The
book of Copernicus was placed on the Index. It has been remarked that
Galileo's book on Solar Spots contains no mention of Scripture, and thus
the Holy Office, in its decree which related to that book, passed
judgment on a scientific, not a theological, question.

Galileo was silenced for a while, but it was impossible for him to be
mute for ever. Under a new Pope (Urban VIII) he looked for greater
liberty, and there were many in the Papal circle who were well disposed
to him. He hoped to avoid difficulties by the device of placing the
arguments for the old and the new theories side by side, and pretending
not to judge between them. He wrote a treatise on the two systems (the
Ptolemaic and the Copernican) in the form

[89] of Dialogues, of which the preface declares that the purpose is to
explain the pros and cons of the two views. But the spirit of the work
is Copernican. He received permission, quite definite as he thought,
from Father Riccardi (master of the Sacred Palace) to print it, and it
appeared in 1632. The Pope however disapproved of it, the book was
examined by a commission, and Galileo was summoned before the
Inquisition. He was old and ill, and the humiliations which he had to
endure are a painful story. He would probably have been more severely
treated, if one of the members of the tribunal had not been a man of
scientific training (Macolano, a Dominican), who was able to appreciate
his ability. Under examination, Galileo denied that he had upheld the
motion of the earth in the Dialogues, and asserted that he had shown the
reasons of Copernicus to be inconclusive. This defence was in accordance
with the statement in his preface, but contradicted his deepest
conviction. In struggling with such a tribunal, it was the only line
which a man who was not a hero could take. At a later session, he forced
himself ignominiously to confess that some of the arguments on the
Copernican side had been put too strongly and to declare himself ready
to confute the

[90] theory. In the final examination, he was threatened with torture.
He said that before the decree of 1616 he had held the truth of the
Copernican system to be arguable, but since then he had held the
Ptolemaic to be true. Next day, he publicly abjured the scientific truth
which he had demonstrated. He was allowed to retire to the country, on
condition that he saw no one. In the last months of his life he wrote to
a friend to this effect: "The falsity of the Copernican system cannot be
doubted, especially by us Catholics. It is refuted by the irrefragable
authority of Scripture. The conjectures of Copernicus and his disciples
were all disposed of by the one solid argument: God's omnipotence can
operate in infinitely various ways. If something appears to our
observation to happen in one particular way, we must not curtail God's
arm, and sustain a thing in which we may be deceived." The irony is

Rome did not permit the truth about the solar system to be taught till
after the middle of the eighteenth century, and Galileo's books remained
on the Index till 1835. The prohibition was fatal to the study of
natural science in Italy.

The Roman Index reminds us of the significance of the invention of
printing in the struggle for freedom of thought, by making

[91] it easy to propagate new ideas far and wide. Authority speedily
realized the danger, and took measures to place its yoke on the new
contrivance, which promised to be such a powerful ally of reason. Pope
Alexander VI inaugurated censorship of the Press by his Bull against
unlicensed printing (1501). In France King Henry II made printing
without official permission punishable by death. In Germany, censorship
was introduced in 1529. In England, under Elizabeth, books could not be
printed without a license, and printing presses were not allowed except
in London, Oxford, and Cambridge; the regulation of the Press was under
the authority of the Star Chamber. Nowhere did the Press become really
free till the nineteenth century.

While the Reformation and the renovated Roman Church meant a reaction
against the Renaissance, the vital changes which the Renaissance
signified--individualism, a new intellectual attitude to the world, the
cultivation of secular knowledge--were permanent and destined to lead,
amid the competing intolerances of Catholic and Protestant powers, to
the goal of liberty. We shall see how reason and the growth of knowledge
undermined the bases of theological authority. At each step in this
process, in which philosophical speculation, historical

[92] criticism, natural science have all taken part, the opposition
between reason and faith deepened; doubt, clear or vague, increased; and
secularism, derived from the Humanists, and always implying scepticism,
whether latent or conscious, substituted an interest in the fortunes of
the human race upon earth for the interest in a future world. And along
with this steady intellectual advance, toleration gained ground and
freedom won more champions. In the meantime the force of political
circumstances was compelling governments to mitigate their maintenance
of one religious creed by measures of relief to other Christian sects,
and the principle of exclusiveness was broken down for reasons of
worldly expediency. Religious liberty was an important step towards
complete freedom of opinion.

[1] The danger, however, was felt in Germany, and in the seventeenth
century the study of Scripture was not encouraged at German

[2] See Barry, Papacy and Modern Times (in this series), 113 seq.



IN the third century B.C. the Indian king Asoka, a man of religious zeal
but of tolerant spirit, confronted by the struggle between two hostile
religions (Brahmanism and Buddhism), decided that both should be equally
privileged and honoured in his dominions. His ordinances on the matter
are memorable

[93] as the earliest existing Edicts of toleration. In Europe, as we
saw, the principle of toleration was for the first time definitely
expressed in the Roman Imperial Edicts which terminated the persecution
of the Christians.

The religious strife of the sixteenth century raised the question in its
modern form, and for many generations it was one of the chief problems
of statesmen and the subject of endless controversial pamphlets.
Toleration means incomplete religious liberty, and there are many
degrees of it. It might be granted to certain Christian sects; it might
be granted to Christian sects, but these alone; it might be granted to
all religions, but not to freethinkers; or to deists, but not to
atheists. It might mean the concession of some civil rights, but not of
others; it might mean the exclusion of those who are tolerated from
public offices or from certain professions. The religious liberty now
enjoyed in Western lands has been gained through various stages of

We owe the modern principle of toleration to the Italian group of
Reformers, who rejected the doctrine of the Trinity and were the fathers
of Unitarianism. The Reformation movement had spread to Italy, but Rome
was successful in suppressing it, and many heretics fled to Switzerland.
The anti-Trinitarian

[94] group were forced by the intolerance of Calvin to flee to
Transylvania and Poland where they propagated their doctrines. The
Unitarian creed was moulded by Fausto Sozzini, generally known as
Socinus, and in the catechism of his sect (1574) persecution is
condemned. This repudiation of the use of force in the interest of
religion is a consequence of the Socinian doctrines. For, unlike Luther
and Calvin, the Socinians conceded such a wide room to individual
judgment in the interpretation of Scripture that to impose Socinianism
would have been inconsistent with its principles. In other words, there
was a strong rationalistic element which was lacking in the Trinitarian

It was under the influence of the Socinian spirit that Castellion of
Savoy sounded the trumpet of toleration in a pamphlet denouncing the
burning of Servetus, whereby he earned the malignant hatred of Calvin.
He maintained the innocence of error and ridiculed the importance which
the Churches laid on obscure questions such as predestination and the
Trinity. "To discuss the difference between the Law and the Gospel,

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