A Cautionary Tale For The Student Of Any Age: Don't Take Interpretations Of History Uncritically (Even Mine)

Culture Watch

Mr. Miller has been a speaker with the Organization of American Historians (OAH) Distinguished Lectureship Series since 1999.

Think for yourselves! That should become, if it is not already, your motto. And, with the help of such excellent web sites as this one--the History News Network--along with many fine libraries coast-to-coast in this country, as enhanced through such services as that of interlibrary loan, you can easily do your own thinking about history (and not only American) through your own research.

Any study"worth its salt" demonstrates a truth (one which must be learned, and never forgotten). It has ever been the case (and most likely will always be) that"built-in" to every society, including our own (and good as it is too in many respects) is a thinly-veiled (if not completely revealed) desire to keep you, the student (or anyone else really), from thinking for yourself. What I am driving here--all ideas or thoughts that you happen to come up with are to be"brought before the bar" of authority (sacred or secular) for clearance (or approval). That authority will (I can assure) often, if not always, be invoked to suppress free thinking, if it should be at odds with the accepted body of wisdom, including the findings (whether really supported by the"facts" or not) of previous research. You must understand, all of us are supposed to conform, that is,"go along with the crowd" (a"herd-instinct," if you will) rather than think critically (and conduct research accordingly) in an independent manner (or way).

Let me offer you but an example or two from history, all illustrative of what has been asserted above. Even in ancient Greece, where free inquiry really began in a number of realms for the human race (in such disciplines, for instance, as philosophy, science and ethics) the greatest intellect of the time, Socrates by name (ca. 469-399 B. C.), was put to death (he was given a choice between that of execution and that of drinking a draught of poisonous hemlock, so he took the latter recourse) For, the Athenian court falsely accused that great man, of corrupting the morals of the youth!

If you should doubt me on this, it is my plea that you turn at the first opportunity to Plato's (ca. 427-ca. 347 B. C.) Apology, in which that immortal student of Socrates, relates the last days of the latter-named philosopher. The Apology, let me assure you, is one of the finest works in all of literature (timeless, in fact), as well as being an indictment of all those, who would, if they could, suppress free thinking.

Now let me turn to the Middle Ages and its immediate aftermath from about 500 A. D. to 1,650 A. D., when the authority (and the suppressor of free inquiry) was represented by the teachings of the established church (the Roman Catholic). As an aside though, in offering the examples below of an attack by the church on free thinking, it is not my intention to attack religion per se. The quest for the spirit and truth of God (if existent, and I believe a God, however defined, does exist) is essential for us all! Rather, my intent is to attack something quite different--that is, the often (much too often) attempt of those adherents of any religious organization (or entity), who have the authority, to dictate what you, the student (or anyone else for that matter) should think, or accept, as truth.

Now, that is exactly what happened during the aftermath of the Middle Ages to another great thinker, Galileo Galileo (1564-1642), who with Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543), together, it might well be argued and convincingly too, had established firmly modern science, by bringing together astronomy, physics, and mathematics (by that I mean into integrated whole). How was that accomplished? To answer the question--Copernicus (from his deathbed no less, when he could no longer be subjected successfully to a likely charge of heresy, which in the Middle Ages could, quite possibly, have brought to him a death sentence, perhaps even from a burning at the stake) allowed for the publication (in full) of his De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, or in English, The Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (1543). That book, a major demonstration of free thinking in all of human history, replaced an earth-centered with a sun-centered theory of the solar system. This heliocentrism was revolutionary (and thus highly disturbing) to those in authority at the time, particularly within the Roman Catholic Church, because it (the theory) attacked established (and long-held at that) ways of thinking, even by such peoples as the Romans and ancient Greeks. In fact, no one had ever questioned the earth-centered point of view, except for Aristachus of Samos, who had proposed a heliocentric"model" for the solar system some 1,800 years before Copernicus. The"make-up" of the heavens and the earth, where the heavens had always been deemed to exist above our planet with the latter then at the center of the universe, was not ever to be disputed by anyone. For the thought of mankind being situated at the center of all things was too comforting for all, or almost all people (and certainly to church authorities)!

Well, to"round out" the story. By the 1610s, and aided by his uses of the newly-invented telescope (through which instrument he espied, among other things, mountains on the moon and four of the moons orbiting Jupiter), along with his discoveries regarding the"free fall" of objects ("explained" by a mathematical equation,"holding" valid to this day) and other insights as well, concerning the motions of bodies, including projectiles fired from cannons, Galileo published a path-breaking volume, titled (in 1632), as Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems; to be printed next (1638), with heading (but, having been re-worked under"pressure" from the church), of Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences.

That book (with its acceptance of the heliocentrism of Copernicus) brought down upon Galileo the wrath of the Catholic Church. Efforts were made, first of all, to discourage the reading of the work, as first presented to the literate public in 1632; but, soon thereafter as well, an order issued from church authorities to burn all extant copies! Shades of twentieth-century action (but not, of course, sanctioned by religion and/or a church)--the Nazi's book-burning purges in Germany's Third Reich. To return, however, to my story involving Galileo, he was put on trial, before a tribunal of the Inquisition, a church body, given the power (once again then in history an attack was begun to stifle free thought) to try offenders against established doctrines or"truths." Galileo, to make a long story much shorter, was convicted, and a life sentence of imprisonment imposed. That very harsh punishment, however, was shortly mollified somewhat by allowing for"house arrest," not the confines of a prison.

At this point in my little story, you the reader (student or otherwise) might be asking--well, the persecutions of Galileo (even the death of Socrates), related above, are"ancient history." Beware, let me caution you here, as forcefully as I am able, of what a dangerous"trap" you are entering, or"falling into," as the case may be, if you"jump" to that conclusion! For, while the Middle Ages and their immediate aftermath are no longer with us, or most certainly either the Athens of Socrates’ day, the secular realms (including governments and educational institutions, even colleges and/or universities, not just high schools) have replaced the established church as the ultimate arbiters of truth. And, to augment the"force" of that"arbitration of the mind" (especially against free, or what might well be referred to as independent thinking) those same secular authorities often, if not always, try to enlist public opinion, particularly in a democracy, such as our own, to suppress new and/or"fresh" ideas, particularly should they appear to be revolutionary. Mark Twain, the author of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) and Tom Sawyer (1903), for which books, he will ever be read and remembered, remarked wittily (and I offer the comment here, as a warning to all who should happen upon this essay, but with young people primarily in mind, who are still unsuspecting and often too trusting as well, of the"wiles" of authorities in whatever guises or disguises are concerned):"It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them" (1897), as printed in The Quotable Mark Twain: His Essential Aphorisms, Witticisms, & Concise Opinions, ed. R. Kent Rasmussen (Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1997), p. 105.

In"winding up" this article, permit me to recommend two novels--Animal Farm: A Fairy Story (1946) and 1984 (1949), both by George Orwell. Those two books, one through the actions, words, and thoughts of barnyard"folks," all controlled in time by a dictatorial pig, named Napoleon; the other, in which a futuristic society, employing sophisticated technologies, as well as thought-control, which included, but was not limited to, TV screens, built into the walls of homes (and other dwellings), together, detail Orwell's disturbing"visions" of possible"futures" for us all. So, with the quote from Twain in mind, along with the other"things" presented for you the reader to ponder, let me conclude with a repetition of my first sentence, amplified by a paraphrasing, based upon the wording of a sign, posted almost everywhere in Orwell's"world" of 1984. Think for yourself! That will always be the best way to postpone, let's hope though, forestall forever, the frightening possibility of 1984--that is, Big Brother watching you, and the rest of us, one dark day.

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Tammy - 9/11/2002