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 A History of Free Thought (1906)*

By Bertrand Russell

Review of A Short History of Freethought, Ancient and Modern. By John M. Robertson. 2nd ed., rewritten and greatly enlarged. 2 vols. London: Issued for the Rationalist Press Association Limited by Watts & Co., 1906. Pp. xvi, 480; xiii, 455

HISTORIES OF OPINION are rarely, if ever, undertaken with the primary object of telling what men’s opinions have been. Almost all aim at advocating the opinions of the author, while those whose spirit is scientific make some attempt to explain the movements of opinion in the past. Mr. Robertson is no exception to this rule. Besides the general purpose of showing (as he does almost beyond possibility of denial) that free thought is beneficial and its opposite is injurious, he has certain sociological theses which, in the manner of Buckle, he illustrates by the history of one nation after another. He disbelieves absolutely in any such thing as national character; although he admits that one individual may be naturally abler than another, he thinks all differences of nations are wholly due to differences of opportunity. The great cause of rapid progress is, he maintains, contact with alien civilizations.

There seems, however, some arbitrariness in his application of this view. The Roman Empire brought about such an interpenetration of civilizations as had never existed before; yet the result was a degradation of the better rather than an elevation of the worse. His denial of racial characteristics seems also to spring less from observation than from dislike of nationalism and imperialism. No one would deny that a spaniel and a retriever have differences of natural aptitude; and it is difficult not to believe the same of a negro and a European.

Mr. Robertson traces with great ability the influence of economic causes in the growth and decay of religions. In this he appears to be much influenced by Marx, although he recognizes that Marx applied the economic principle “somewhat fanatically.” He himself only applies the principle within limits. Thus he shows how the Reformation was furthered by dislike of the tribute to Rome exacted by the Papacy, and by the desire of the nobility to possess themselves of Church lands; yet he admits that if Elizabeth had not been a Protestant, England would have returned to Catholicism. Although in this instance he concedes something to what one may call accident, he tends in general to believe, like most scientific historians, that great issues must be decided by great causes. But he shows admirably how the blood of heretic martyrs is the seed of the Church; and it is difficult to resist the conclusion that often quite trivial events decided which side possessed itself of the machinery of persecution, and thereby insured the triumph of its own views.

Mr. Robertson, I think, successfully establishes the thesis that rationalistic movements in the past have failed because they never extended beyond the cultivated classes, and were thus powerless against the forces of popular superstition. One of the great merits of his book is that, unlike most histories of thought, it does not confine its attention to the great names, but tries, at all stages, to give a picture of the opinions of the mass of the population. He traces the fatal effect, in antiquity, of the maxim that the traditional religions, though false, were politically useful in governing the populace, and that free inquiry must not extend to the lower orders. He does not recognize, however, that his own feeling of repugnance for such views is a heritage from the missionary zeal of Christianity.

The most interesting parts of this very interesting book are those that deal with the obscurer movements of early antiquity and the Middle Ages. He shows that in all ancient civilizations there was a tendency for the original national or tribal religion to give place to a purified Pantheism, under the influence of more or less rationalistic criticism; but that the new reformed religion invariably degenerated, either by coalescing with the old or by internal decay. Of this process the history of Buddhism affords a typical case. Itself the culmination of a Pantheistic movement within Brahmanism, it prevailed for some seven centuries throughout the greater part of India; but it soon became at least as superstitious as its older rival, by which, in India, it was finally worsted.

Mr. Robertson is not at his best in dealing with the great philosophers, most of whom, from Plato onwards, he depreciates, as having provided weapons for obscurantism. He tends to judge men rather by the results they reached than by the temper of their inquiries. By this test he condemns some of the most wholly reasonable men who ever lived, and it is difficult to believe that his judgments are not sometimes warped by odium theologicum. As regards the higher criticism also, he seems somewhat credulous in accepting doubtful theories which harmonize with his views.

Nevertheless, the book is an impressive and valuable array of the benefits which mankind owes to those whom priests have endeavoured to suppress, and of the almost unbelievable folly and cruelty of persecutors in all ages. It is sobering to realize that, under the name of prosecutions for blasphemy, religious persecution continued in England down to our own time, and that even now freethinkers, alone among men, are prohibited from making bequests by will for the furtherance of what they conceive to be the truth. Mr. Robertson’s very careful final summary indicates commercialism as the great danger to future free thought; but it seems legitimate to hope that the great economic interests bound up with science, together with the spread of education, will prevent any return to the more noxious superstitions of the past.


*  Bertrand Russell, “A History of Free Thought,” The Tribune (London) Jun 4 1906, 2  Review of Robertson, A Short History of Freethought, Ancient and Modern, 2nd ed. (Watts & Co., 1906)