Call to Be Brave
We cannot take our liberties for granted; they can be snatched away if we drop our guard
To my mind the greatest challenge of human education is the building and maintaining of historical awareness. How can we have even an inkling of where we stand and where we’re heading if our grasp of the past is feeble or non-existent? Human memory is so short, and deliberate bias is such a powerful weapon in the hands of anyone – on either side of a debate – who cares to use it. Right and left, it doesn’t matter: both will lie and distort to suit their purpose.
“Live not by Lies,” a 1974 essay by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, is inspirational. Most of us put up with liars because the personal cost of calling them out is too high a price to pay. Solzhenitsyn calls us to be brave.
In the Greco-Roman world Stoics and Epicureans, unlike in so many ways, shared the same notion that history is cyclic: things recur and recur with remorseless tedium. In political terms the process can be illustrated like this: anarchy –> democracy –> oligarchy –> monarchy –> anarchy. Ungoverned human groups, so it goes, evolve methods of self-government which come to be dominated by powerful interest groups, and they in turn succumb to single-handed dictatorships (monarchy doesn’t just mean kings, of course, but includes the Hitlers and Stalins of this world), before they blow out or implode into anarchy again.
This is an ugly picture, and doubtless too tidy and simplistic, but there seems to be a degree of truth in it. We do see societies evolving or degrading. We know that our own has changed (in the great scheme of things universal suffrage, for example, is very, very new), and is still in flux. We cannot take our liberties for granted, for we know that they can be snatched from us if we drop our guard — or we should know that, if ignorance of history has not dulled our sensitivity.
A cyclic view of history, however, is not Christian or Jewish. It is not the world view that drove the emergence of Western Civilization. Christianity believes in progress – not the materialistic sort of progress that so excited our predecessors in that dynamic nineteenth century, but the progression from a couple of people in a garden to the countless numbers in the City of God.
Whether we are religious people who firmly trust in the grace of God, or whether we’ve lost our faith (or never had one, as is true of so many in this complex world), we need to break free from that fatalistic and cyclic mode of thinking. We have to try to be brave.
The history of Slavery demonstrates this kind of progression. For millennia it was common to virtually all human societies. Under the influence of Christianity it was somewhat ameliorated but never wholly eliminated. St. Paul pleaded with Philemon to be merciful to his runaway slave Onesimus, a uniquely early (so far as I am aware) appeal for the application of what we would now call ‘human rights’ to a man who was legally a chattel. But early Christians could not have dreamed of a society in which slavery did not exist. And when Christianity grew to become a majority force in Europe it lingered and was even given new impetus by the opening up of Africa and America. The Church opposed it, and good Christians strove to improve the conditions of slaves, but as we all know the love of money and privilege usually prevails, even among many who profess themselves Christian. So it’s with us still, yet we are not the prisoners of a cyclic system, ever doomed to repeat itself, and we ought to fight against it with boldness and confidence.
My Dawson Centre newsletter has had much to say about Covid and our response to it. In doing so we have incurred the wrath of some readers and the approbation of others. I think it important to stress that our focus is not medical but political: we are deeply concerned for the growth of authoritarian forms of governance, and for political, administrative or policing decisions that lead to human suffering. Two friends of mine have been grievously affected by Covid in the past week. One died of the disease, alone until almost the end, deprived of family contact for several days in ICU with only her telephone to cry into; the other was admitted to hospital with a psychiatric illness and is unable to have visitors, even her own husband. Her mental suffering is unimaginable. Such things should not be happening, under any circumstances.
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