Understanding the future and what awaits us as a people can be done if we truly understand our past. This is one of the reasons why the modern university system has followed in the traditions of Aristotle and has included the study of history as a part of the core requirements for almost every degree. From our vantage point in the 21st century, the Enlightenment Era was the time in human history where the foundation of our nation was laid. The men and women that began to contemplate the weightier issues of life, such as the origins of individual rights and liberties, how governments form, and the origins of national wealth and prosperity had questioned everything that had formed the traditions of church, state, and life in Europe for as it had existed for millions of people over nearly a thousand years of human history.
Understanding the future of free thought
When one objectively studies the history of medieval Europe one of the first things noticed is usually the restraint on free thought and reason. Outside the orthodoxy of the Roman Catholic Church, science, philosophy, legal process, education, and even music were regulated by a strict adherence to what the leadership of the papacy regarded as being in line with its doctrines. The knowledge of the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers and jurists could not be taught within the Catholic universities because the ancients had relied on their understanding of concepts forbidden by the church. Men of science, such as Galileo, found themselves threatened with death, sent to prison, and censured as their scientific observations began to clash with accepted church doctrine. Music outside the prescribed style of the chant was seen as demonic. Kings and even the Holy Roman Emperor himself could be removed from power by a single papal decree if they defied the orders of the papacy. The threat of excommunication, a powerful spiritual weapon that condemned the subject to eternal punishment, dissuaded countless people from challenging the power of the Pope. For this reason, this era of European history has been referred to as the Dark Ages.
What this era teaches us about the past should serve as a warning about the future of free thought if we are not vigilant. Already there have been calls for jailing those who deny man-made climate change. Within the academic world, there have been those who challenge the interpretation of empirical data to find themselves censured or terminated by the research institution or university where they were a faculty member. Unfortunately, it does not stop at the doorway of climate change but is spreading to include personal views regarding homosexuality. Again, with a lack of concrete data that connects homosexuality with the human genome (which would indicate heredity as a factor), anyone who claims homosexuality is a personal choice is demonized, can face personal or professional scrutiny, and although not given the terms of the Middle Ages, such as apostate or heretic, are given names such as homophobe or labeled as intolerant. In both these subjects there is still significant room for educated, scholarly, and even moral debate, yet there is a need to silence all opposition to what has become the accepted viewpoint.
Earlier in the year, the debate on abortion took a turn as former Secretary of State and Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton stated that those Americans who were against abortion based on religious reasons would have to alter their faith to become more receptive to abortion. She reiterated that abortion was every woman’s right; her comments echo those of President Obama and other American liberal politicians who have used everything from shaming to legislation to curtail the ongoing debate about abortion. During the debate on the Affordable Care Act and in the numerous subsequent court cases, there has been an effort to force those with religious or other moral objections to abortion to not only provide funds for abortion through insurance premiums but to silence their objections to this portion of the law by assessing fines, fees, and possible criminal sanction for their opposition.
Within the last four weeks there has been a new debate surfacing regarding the Confederate Battle Flag but extends to every aspect of the history and politics of the South extending from 1859 through about 1866. Within the academic world and among some popular social organizations, the Confederacy has been equated as being the American version of Nazis. It has extended to groups now calling for the disinterment of Confederate veterans from national and state cemeteries, removal of Confederate memorials, and even calls to outlaw the display of Confederate paraphernalia on private property. Just as with the issues of man-made climate change, abortion, and homosexuality, it appears that there is no role for an honest discussion about this period of our national past beyond a universal condemnation of all white Southerners owning slaves and being racist in spite of the volumes of data indicating that less than 4% of all Southerners owned slaves and only 2.5% of the 3% owned more than 20 slaves. Other facts, such as the 13,000 black men that served in the armed forces of the Confederacy, the number of black slave owners, and the Jim Crow laws and black codes passed by Union states (similar to the ones passed in Southern states) during Reconstruction are largely ignored because they do not fit within the context of prescribed and “acceptable” history.
Unless our society begins to awaken from its self-imposed mental slumber, I am afraid we are heading towards a Second Dark Age where our very freedom of thought will not only be replaced but will resemble Orwell’s 1984 society where individuality had become criminalized for the sake of a well-functioning society. When the basic right of free thought becomes handicapped by society’s desire to create a universal consensus we are heading for a very dark future.