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The Struggles for Freedom and Rights That Made the Modern Western World

by A.C. Grayling

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-8027-1636-1
Publisher: Walker

Just when things were looking bad for liberty around the world, here comes a bracing burst of Whiggish optimism from philosophy professor Grayling (Birkbeck College, Univ. of London; Truth Meaning and Realism: A Personal Philosophy, 2007, etc.).

The history of the last 500 years in much of the Western world, and certainly the English-speaking one, yields at least one satisfying conclusion, Grayling writes: Ordinary people “have reached a position which at the beginning of that period was attainable by only a tiny minority of people: namely, aristocrats and senior clergy.” The attainment of general freedoms came at that minority’s expense, of course. For Western citizens to gain their rights, they had to break the hold of a single church and that of absolute monarchy, by means of a process that, Grayling observes, was mostly evolutionary if occasionally revolutionary. At those revolutionary turns come martyrs to the cause, and Grayling does good service by reminding readers of a few who are little remembered today, such as the rebel theologians Michel Servetus and Sebastian Castellio, who suggested that judgment be left to God. Elsewhere, Grayling develops what might be called a natural history of liberty: “Once people are free to think for themselves,” he suggests, “it becomes inevitable that many among them will desire a greater control over their own actions too—or at very least, to have a share in decisions that affect their lives.” Thus freedom of religion led to freedom of the press, freedom of thought, freedom of association and other freedoms contingent upon discarding any notion that kings or church elders had a divine right to rule. Tracing this growth from heretics to Luddites to John Stuart Mill and modern political philosophers, Grayling limns modern threats to freedom—not from those kings and clerics, but from civil leaders eager to battle supposed terrorism by compromising civil rights “in the name of security.”

Readers may feel a touch of Whiggish optimism themselves, especially when reviewing the various bills of rights that close the book.