Free Thought, Free Society
During this period of political theatre and argumentation derived from the most basic of emotional responses rather than from the heights of intellectual discourse, I’m reminded of just how scary free thinking is to those in power. Let us have debates, let us ponder the peculiarities of the human condition and delve into the hitherto mysteries of existence and the cosmos in which we are a part of and apart from. However, we should do so from a position of humble acceptance of our own rational faculties and the constant reassessment that follows from a scientific/humanist point of view. This means understanding not just our own position, our own frame of reference, but also that of our opponent’s.
The variation in journeys is precisely what gets lost in current debates, both political and religious. We declare our ideas sacrosanct or correct, dismiss anyone else as primitive or wrong, and ignore the vast differences in life experience and the consequences such will have on what ideas develop, how they are considered and whether they’re thought of as acceptable to pursue. We forget or ignore our journeys from the wrong to the slightly less wrong. There is no set of experiences that does not limit perspective, no set of ideas that is incapable of being challenged and/or changed. Free thinking is not a trip into relativism, it is a deliberate journey into the humility brought by recognizing we’re all human.
In Principles of Social Reconstruction (1916), he (Bertrand Russell) wrote: Men fear thought more than they fear anything else on earth—more than ruin, more even than death. Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. It sees man, a feeble speck, surrounded by unfathomable depths of silence; yet bears itself proudly, as unmoved as if it were lord of the universe. Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man. But if thought is to become the possession of many, not the privilege of the few, we must have done with fear. It is fear that holds men back—fear lest their cherished beliefs should prove delusions, fear lest the institutions by which they live should prove harmful, fear lest they themselves should prove less worthy of respect than they have supposed themselves to be. (Fromm, Erich)
We rest on the shoulders of those who have come before us. They are the engineers, the scientists, the blue-collar workers, the everyday masses of civilization. They made our roads so that wagons and then automobiles could open up vistas of land for human exploration. They laid down rail tracks for travel, commerce and in so doing made the world that much closer together. They created our planes, designed our phones and created the network that makes it all work together, flattening the world so that mountains were no longer impassable and a person on one side of an entire planet could see and hear someone on the opposite, giving us the power of the gods of antiquity. None of this was built by any one person, founded upon any one idea. We come into this world screaming our existence to those around us, boldly crying out “see me!” and by that act declare a truth lost in a world of individualism hell-bent on insularity, that we are none of us an island.
“Should the working man think freely about property? Then what will become of us, the rich? Should young men and young women think freely about sex? Then what will become of morality? Should soldiers think freely about war? Then what will become of military discipline? Away with thought! Back into the shades of prejudice, lest property, morals, and war should be endangered! Better men should be stupid, slothful, and oppressive than that their thoughts should be free. For if their thoughts were free they might not think as we do. And at all costs this disaster must be averted.” So the opponents of thought argue in the unconscious depths of their souls. And so they act in their churches, their schools, and their universities.” Fromm, Erich
In the union of our shared humanity we will come across ideas and experiences that shake us, even knock us back, make us question deeply held notions of ourselves and the world in which we live. The march of rational inquiry provides no safe harbor to the familiar, or the structures of authority both terrestrial and spiritual, that we seek to reside in. But we need not despair or quiver in uncertainty, for we do indeed stand on the shoulders of all who have come before and can reach out at all times to find commonality even amongst those we find objectionable.
There is no greater or more terrible power than thoughtful, skeptical inquiry, nor any greater threat to civilization than its denial. It humbles the self-righteous, raises the common to the extraordinary and at all times reminds us that our relation to the universe and our fellow human beings is a product of our powerful and varied imagination.
© David Teachout
Fromm, Erich (2010-08-03). On Disobedience: ‘Why Freedom Means Saying “No” to Power (Harperperennial Modern Thought) (pp. 26-27). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.