According to the Enlightenment mythology espoused by liberals, the course of history goes like this: After a brief flowering of about 400 years on and off in Greece and Rome, when Reason (with a capital “R”) began to supplant the mythology of the gods, the light was extinguished by the Roman Catholic Church (for approximately 1500 years). We were woken up from our slumber by the thinkers and ideas of the Enlightenment and we began once again to use our reason and press for liberty. This use of reason and drive for liberty has created the present world.

A.C. Grayling’s book Towards the Light of Liberty is a classic expression of this small “l” liberal, Enlightenment meta-narrative of history. In it he makes the bold claim that, “most of the people in the Western liberal democracies of Europe, North America and Australasia could reflect with satisfaction on at least one thing: that the history of their civilization in the preceding five centuries had been such that ordinary citizens, men and women alike, 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 major criticism of Grayling’s work, as of the liberal
meta-narrative itself, is that it credits Christianity with the neither
of the two ideas that have made the liberal project possible: the
inestimable worth of the individual, and the
possibility of thinking that all men and women are equal.

Grayling sees the history of the West and the world from the beginning of the sixteenth century as a series of “liberation struggles” whose greatest feat was gradually to prise the fingers of the rich and powerful off their monopolies of power and their hegemonies over opportunity and freedom. This, he thinks, is the West’s greatest triumph and reached its apogee in the fall of the Berlin wall. Grayling felt the need to write the book because, he claims, the story “has not so much been forgotten as never seen in its completeness”. In addition, he does not want us to forget the story now that these freedoms are being whittled away in Britain and the USA in the aftermath of the attacks of 9/11 and the subsequent Islamic terrorist attacks in Britain.

The major criticism of Grayling’s work, as of the liberal
meta-narrative itself, is that it credits Christianity with the neither
of the two ideas that have made the liberal project possible: the
inestimable worth of the individual and its correlative, the
possibility of thinking that all men and women are equal, and the idea
of freedom in the form that we understand it in the 21st century.

There is no doubt about which institution had to be conquered and shackled so that the freedom and wellbeing of the aristocrats and clergy of the middle ages could be diffused and made available to the masses; it was the Catholic Church. As Grayling admits, his narrative is in one way a dialogue with Lord Acton, a nineteenth century Catholic who endeavoured to marry the liberalism of the age with his faith and with the Church to which he belonged. Grayling sees Acton’s project as impossible. It is only secularism, he claims, which will accommodate freedom. Without secularism “there would be (because there could be) no more liberty at all”.

After the Reformation had unshackled religious belief from the hegemony of the Catholic Church, the next movement to make broader claims for freedom was the Enlightenment. The great opponent of the Enlightenment “was the beliefs systems and institutions of religion which had resisted liberty of conscience, liberty of thought and enquiry, liberty of expression, and liberty of the individual in the political sense, and which were prepared to use every weapon to inhibit the growth of liberty, from torture and burning at the stage to elaborate arguments proving the absolute monarchy is divinely established”.

Grayling’s account makes a nice neat story. It privileges secularism, urges that religion be pushed into the sphere of private conscience and configures the fight against today’s security attempts in both Britain and the United States as the next frontier in which the struggle for those hard fought freedoms must be carried out.

No credit for Christianity

Unfortunately, the narrative is wrong. By Grayling’s admission, his is a retelling of Whig history which is the history of the inexorable march of liberty — almost as a necessity of history itself. Its necessary foil is the black legend of the Catholic Church which has dominated so much of the Anglo-Saxon mindset for centuries.

To claim that the general mass of people in Western democracies now enjoy a lifestyle preserved to clergy and aristocrats before the sixteenth century as a consequence of the 200-year heroic battle for liberty is quite ridiculous. It ignores the disparities of wealth and power (realities which, in contrast with earlier ages, are now more inextricably linked than ever) within those countries as well as ignoring the exploitation and exclusion of many Third World countries from those benefits.

Grayling’s beginning of his history at the Reformation ignores 1500 years of Christianity as if they were simply the ill-famed Dark Ages first invented by his revered men of the Enlightenment. He seems to be ignorant of recent scholarship into the Spanish Inquisition and the case of Galileo which exposes tiresome shibboleths of the Whig narrative.

The major criticism of Grayling’s work, as of the liberal meta-narrative itself, is that it credits Christianity with the neither of the two ideas that have made the liberal project possible: the inestimable worth of the individual and its correlative, the possibility of thinking that all men and women are equal, and the idea of freedom in the form that we understand it in the 21st century.

The “fraternity” of the French Revolution is simply a secularised version of the Christian emphasis on the value of the individual soul and the recognition that this meant all human beings were equal. The revolutionaries might have invoked “nature” as the ground for this equality, but it was unthinkable without Christianity. The post French Revolution West could think about equality and even make it a dogma because before the revolution the West was Christian. There was no other civilization on earth which espoused it – not even enlightened Athens and Rome. The great threat to this equality which underpins our rights is not Islam or George W Bush or Tony Blair, as Grayling would have us believe, but philosophical materialism. It seems obvious that if the human person is simply matter, we can begin to make distinctions about which arrangement of it is better or worse.

Grayling does give a very good account of the importance of John Locke’s political philosophy for both the American Revolution and for the French Revolution. Locke, while certainly opposed to the perceived dangers the Catholic Church posed for democracy, is certainly no French atheist. His deism makes him ground his political philosophy in the transcendent. His attitude to rights and social organization rests on natural law: in other words, the assumption that man has an immutable nature. The rights of men belong to them not just because the society has decided to give these rights to them for good order’s sake. The rights belong to them because of a natural law. Grayling might claim that the existence of these rights is simply based on an agreement of rational and civilized human beings, but this is not Locke’s position. Locke claims for these rights a transcendence which supports their inalienability in a way which an agreement between civilized, rational humans will not.

The true history of liberty

But then there is the concept of liberty itself. Liberty in the ancient world was a very tenuous concept, which excluded to varying degrees, certain members of the societies, cities or city states that enjoyed something of it. Freedom in these societies was always subservient to the state, even in the Athens of the time of Aristotle. These limitations seemed to have been pacifically accepted by citizens as the price for the preservation of their lives.

Our understanding of freedom was changed forever with Christianity when the salvation of each soul was the responsibility of its owner, and hung on the owner’s free choice. A person’s destiny was no longer determined by family bonds and was no longer at the whim of the powerful or the twists of fate. Further light was shed on the concept of liberty by Augustine of Hippo when he gave us to understand that reason and will were not the same thing, as Socrates thought for example, and that our will could sweep aside our rationality. It is not possible to understand the emphasis placed in contemporary society on freedom of choice without these two fundamental insights. Once again, modern ideas of freedom can be seen as secularized versions — you could almost say, exaltations — of this Christian understanding of freedom.

There is no mention in Grayling’s history of the West of the preservation of the works of literature and philosophy of the ancient world in monasteries all over Europe while the remnants of the Roman Empire were being destroyed by people with mythological gods almost indistinguishable from those of Athens or Rome. There is a complete disregard for the havens of peace, learning and charity that these monasteries provided during the turbulent times of the fall of the Empire until stable governments like that of Charlemagne could once again resist the onslaught of the barbarians. There is no mention of the institutions the monasteries gave birth to inside their walls: libraries, infirmaries, pharmacies and social security services for the poor. No mention is made of the monasteries’ contribution to agriculture.

There is no acknowledgement of the contribution of the Roman Catholic Church to the development of the early systems of representative government, which were predicated precisely on the fact that those who were subservient in the social order nevertheless had rights. To ignore this and then depict the struggles for reform against tyrannous absolute monarchies as if these were spawned by the Catholic Church misses an important fact: the tyranny of monarchical absolutism reachers its apogee after the Reformation made the monarchs the heads of the churches in their territories.

Inconvenient facts ignored 

Grayling’s treatment of the Spanish Inquisition cites Henry Kaman’s nuanced work on this subject in the footnotes but ignores these nuances in the text. He takes no account of the relatively recent opening of the archives of the Inquisition to historians who have discovered that the infamous institution was much more benign than similar courts of the times.

There are annoying little inaccuracies in Grayling’s work which seem at times to have been born of a rush to publish. One is the treatment of the ontological argument for the existence of God as if it were a passively accepted part of natural theology, when it is quite well known that St Thomas Aquinas jettisoned it. And it is not simply a cheap shot to point out Grayling’s confusion of “Philistines” and “Pharisees” when trying to explain John Milton’s theology. Milton himself is made the butt of a piece of gossip: Grayling suggests that the Puritan poet was homosexual and may have been for some time a rent boy in Italy. This is stated in a footnote without any documentary evidence at all (p 303, Ch 3, note 9).

Facts that flatly contradict the liberal narrative are ignored. One notable example is the persecution of the Roman Catholic Church in Mexico at the beginning of the 20th century. Perhaps Grayling cannot be blamed for this because most of the Anglo-Saxon world seems oblivious to this shameful episode. The persecution, like that in the Vendee during the French Revolution, is justified by liberals on the basis that forced liberal expansionism was aimed at the bastion of all oppression, the Catholic Church. Never mind that most of the victims were not Grayling’s grasping aristocracy but simple people who happened to be members of the church because they found something they loved in it. Furthermore, even if one were in favour of the liberal persecution aimed at ridding the country of the virus of Roman Catholicism, the irony in the name of the “democratic” party that took over in Mexico and held power through blatant vote rigging for decades would cause a blush on the pinkest liberal cheek. The party was (and still is) called the Institutional Revolutionary Party (my italics). The Mexican experience does not sit at all well with the grand narrative that liberal historians and philosophers have been peddling for two hundred years.

Grayling is at his best in the accounts he gives of the struggles of workers against entrenched privilege in Britain during the latter part of the nineteenth century and early part of the twentieth century. His account of these gains made little by little over time fairly races along in good narrative style.

Despite the flaws in the logic at times, and the painfully stale Whiggish biases of Grayling’s account, the story of ever expanding democracy and freedom is one that has to be told and retold, so that we do not ever take it for granted. Nevertheless, the ground on which this democracy and freedom rest, and the sources from which they sprang need a more thorough and nuanced treatment than they receive in this volume.

Martin Fitzgerald is Head of Philosophy at Redfield College in Sydney.


Martin Fitzgerald has taught English, Philosophy, Latin and Rugby at Redfield College in Dural, Sydney, Australia for 28 years. He played Rugby as a schoolboy and young man and as he gets older, he says,...