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 Free Thought, Ancient and Modern (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

THIS BOOK CONTAINS at once an interesting collection of facts, a serious attempt to explain the movements of opinion scientifically, and a vigorous plea for free thought. For each of these three reasons it is worth reading, though in regard to each it has certain blemishes. The facts dealt with concern all ages and all countries, from the history of the Brahman Kapila, who preached atheism so eloquently and convincingly that his followers worshipped him as a god, to the history of Bradlaugh, in which this consummation has not yet been reached. Mr. Robertson mentions at an early stage Spencer’s “contrast between the modern communities of Fiji and Samoa, the former cruel, cannibalistic, and religious, the latter much less austerely religious and much more humane. The ferocious Fijians ‘looked upon the Samoans with horror because they had no religion, no belief in any such deities [as the Fijians], nor any of the sanguinary rites which prevailed in other islands.’” Other cases besides Fiji and Samoa will be found throughout the book, in which somewhat similar contrasts are exemplified. One of the most interesting of these is the crusade against the Albigenses, in which the thrifty crusaders, having been granted plenary absolution for all their sins, past, present, and future, prudently resolved that their bargain should be improved by committing as many sins as possible.

As a record of facts, however, Mr. Robertson’s book suffers, perhaps unavoidably, by being drawn mainly from second-hand sources. He also carries his doubts as to the authenticity of manuscripts and records to what seems excessive length: David and Solomon, Elijah and Elisha, it is suggested were euhemerised gods; Buddha, Zoroaster, and even the founder of the Christian religion probably never existed; only a few stray texts in the Old Testament are pre-exilic; and Tacitus is very likely a Renaissance forgery. His judgment seems sometimes unduly influenced by dislike of established opinions; thus he belittles the achievement of the Greeks (except the early Ionians), and especially dislikes the Athenians. “Athens,” he says, “continued to remain the most aggressively intolerant and tradition-mongering of Hellenic cities”; apparently because in Athens there were more prosecutions for Atheism than elsewhere. But on this ground one might consider numerous arrests for drunkenness a proof of a community’s sobriety.

Mr. Robertson holds that there is no difference in natural endowment between one race and another, and that differences in achievement are entirely to be accounted for by social and economic conditions. The great cause of advance, he maintains, is contact with other civilizations. “It is safe to say that if any people is ever seen to progress in thought, art, and life, with measurable rapidity, its progress is due to the reactions of foreign intercourse.” It would seem that ideas, like bacilli, lose their vigour by remaining too long in one community, but acquire new power when transplanted into fresh soil. Of this the stock instance is, of course, the effect of Byzantine civilization on the Renaissance. It is to be hoped that other causes of advance will operate in future, for the civilized world is so quickly becoming one society that soon no really foreign intercourse will be possible.

Very great weight is given to economic conditions in explaining movements of thought. The Reformation, in particular, is accounted for almost entirely by motives of greed. In this it is hard not to suspect a certain bias, for Mr. Robertson’s foes are those of his own household: he apparently prefers Frenchmen to Englishmen, and Englishmen to Scotchmen; Mohammedans to Christians, and Catholics to Protestants. Except as regards the Reformation, he seems to make sufficient allowance for noneconomic causes. He shows very interestingly how, in all ancient civilizations, a greater or lesser degree of free thought arose at a certain stage, but invariably died out because it failed to found institutions which could compete with the priesthood, and because it never reached the bulk of the population. Another constant refrain is that the rationalizers unduly neglected science, which Mr. Robertson regards as the chief bulwark of free thought. This accusation is no doubt generally well founded; but it seems rather inappropriately brought in to account for the collapse of English deism, seeing that the early deists were contemporaries and associates of Newton, Harvey, Boyle, and many other distinguished men of science. The other cause assigned, that the seven years’ war turned men’s thoughts to colonial expansion, seems far more adequate, particularly as it was contemporaneous with the rise of the French philosophes.

In his judgments on philosophers, Mr. Robertson is mainly influenced by the extent to which they shook religious belief. By this test much of the best thought is condemned as of but slight value; indeed this book shows little sympathy for the dispassionate attempt to understand the world in which we live. Thus Zeno and the Eleatic school are censured for occupying themselves with “the frivolous problem of Achilles and the tortoise.” Now it may, of course, have been a waste of energy to acquire the insight we now possess into the nature of space and time and motion; but this insight has probably been more furthered by Zeno’s “frivolous” problems than by anything else until the mathematicians of the nineteenth century. Plato, we are told, has “a repute above his deserts as a thinker.” Descartes, Leibniz, Berkeley, Kant, and Hegel are all very severely dealt with, as though their somewhat equivocal support of orthodoxy were the main fact about them. But Mr. Robertson is by no means a sceptic. He objects almost as much to those who throw doubt on science as to those who do not throw doubt on religion. Thus, in discussing Sextus Empiricus, he says: “Sextus, it is true, strikes acutely and systematically at ill-founded beliefs, and so makes for reason; but, like the whole Pyrrhonian school, he has no idea of a method which shall reach sounder conclusions…. Taken by themselves the arguments against current theism in the third book of the Hypotyposes are unanswerable; but when bracketed with other arguments against the ordinary belief in causation they had the effect of leaving theism on a par with that belief.”

The purpose of Mr. Robertson’s book, in fact, is political rather than historical or philosophical. He aims at proving that free thought is desirable and its opposite harmful; that this applies not only to one class or one sex, but to the world at large; and that, in view of the many obscurantist reactions of the past, it is unwise to rest in what has been achieved, without constant and vigorous efforts to secure and extend the conquests of rationalism. From this point of view the things that seem open to criticism in his work are comparatively unimportant; and it must be allowed that the cumulative force of his indictment is very great indeed. But it is always open to readers who disagree with his creed to maintain that the evils caused by theological beliefs in the past were due to elements which are absent from their own beliefs. There is one conclusion, however, on which he lays great stress, and in which it is very hard to dissent from him, and that is the undesirability of reticence on the part of those who hold unpopular opinions. In this respect he sets an example of courageous plain-speaking which ought to command the respect even of those who differ most widely from his conclusions.


*  Bertrand Russell, “Freethought, Ancient and Modern,” The Speaker, n.s. 14 (Aug 4 1906), 402-3 Review of Robertson, A Short History of Freethought (Watts & Co., 1906)