Monday, August 23, 2010

Christopher Hill and thinking for oneself

To what extent to we rely upon others to do our thinking for us? The age in which the English began freeing themselves from the authority of the Church and Monarchy interested the historian, Christopher Hill. Consider the following passage from his The World Turned Upside Down, Radical Ideas during the English Revolution. It is from his "Conclusion":

". . . I have tried to stress in this book the most unusual stimuli which during the revolutionary decades produced a fantastic outburst of energy, both physical and intellectual. the civil war itself, the intellectual forcing house of the New Model Army and its Army Council, regicide, the conquest of Ireland and Scotland, the Dutch and Spanish wars, physical and social mobility, the continuous flow of pamphlets on every subject under the sun -- one could list a great many more ways in which the energy manifested itself.

"For a short time, ordinary people were freer from the authority of church and social superiors than they had ever been before, or were for a long time to be again. . . They attacked the monopolization of knowledge within the privileged professions, divinity, law, medicine. They criticized the existing educational structure, especially the universities, and proposed a vast expansion of educational opportunity. They discussed the relation of the sexes, and questioned pars of the protestant ethic.

"The eloquence of power, of the simple artisans who took part in these discussions is staggering. Some of it comes across in print -- Fox the shepherd, Bunyan the tinker, Nayler the yeoman. We tend to take them for granted. But far more must have been lost, even of those men and women who left writings. And what of those who did not? The 'men of acute wit and voluble tongues', as an enemy described them, who visited Coppe in jail at Coventry in 1650? How overwhelmingly right Milton's pride had been in the 'noble and puissant nation, rousing herself like a strong man after asleep and shaking her invincible locks, . . . a nation not slow and dull, but of a quick ingenious and piercing spirit, acute to invent, subtle and sinewy to discourse, not beneath the reach of any point the highest human capacity can sour to'."

COMMENT: Would I be wrong to suggest that our modern-day equivalent of "the simple artisans" would far rather spend time immersing themselves in the sensual and mentally stimulating "benefits" provided them by science than engage in the soul searching and intellectual investigations that occupied those Hill is here describing with admiration? Were we as intellectually curious as our "simple artisan" ancestors, we could use the many aids that are literally at our fingertips. Despite their relative disadvantage, those "simple artisans" ground out their own opinions and voiced their own arguments. As Hill wrote, they developed their opinions free "from the authority of church and social superiors."

While today neither the Church nor the State imposes their authority upon us, we are not free of the authority of the Journalist. Many, as a recent discussion I was in suggested, would rather invoke a Journalist of the Left or Right than think the various issues they are concerned with through for themselves. While this phenomenon seems to go against the Leftist view that man is in a state of continuous "progress," it wouldn't surprise such philosophers as Nietzsche and Thomas Carlyle who argued that the common man would always need a "leader" to tell him what to think.

There is a Biblical concept that would probably occur to any Christian during a discussion of the Nuremberg trials, namely that we shall be held accountable for the teachers we set over us. The blind that follow the blind shall both end up in the ditch. But in this age where many, perhaps most, fear neither God nor man, it is interesting that they do not use their "freedom" to formulate their own philosophy, but instead rely upon Journalists and political hacks who use nothing but their extremely-faulty opinions to influence the ordinary descendants of those who lived during a time in which "The World Turned Upside Down."

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