A short history of freethought- PDF by J. M. Robertson

A short history of freethought, ancient and modern

short history of freethought



Although the first edition of this work, consisting of 1,000 copies, was exhausted within a year of its publication (1899), it has not been reprinted, because the author was dissatisfied with its incompleteness. Originally planned as a mere sketch, reproducing a course of lectures, it approached, in the process of writing, somewhat to the character of a detailed and precise though curt record. Its omissions, however, were still so numerous that the author, in retrospect, determined to re-write the work before re-issuing it. 

The new edition, accordingly, is greatly expanded in every section, by many hundreds of specific additions. Several chapters are more than doubled in length, new chapters are inserted, and the book, which now appears in two volumes, is more than twice its former size, though, the author hopes, it still preserves the character of condensation. At the same time, it has of course been scrupulously revised concerning accuracy. 

That it is still an inadequate survey of a great field, no one, perhaps, knows much better than the author. The scheme, even when limited as far as may be by a tolerably strict definition, involves some approach to an outline of the history of human progress on the side of the intellectual life; and the immensity of that under- taking may be inferred from the fact that the late Lord Acton, a prodigy of erudition, who spent many years of his life in gathering materials for a "History of Liberty," died without beginning to compile it. 

It seems better to put forth even a slight record, of a connected kind, written from a sociological standpoint, than to wait for the advent of one who shall unite with Lord Acton's learning and more untrammelled sympathies the productive industry of the hardly less learned Mr Lea. 

The author has found even his own first sketch a help — by way of the skeleton — towards the arrangement of a larger amount of material; he is fain to hope that some more leisured student may find the present recast not wholly useless towards a greater end. Every year, the literature of the subject extends; and while this edition has been passing through the press the author has met with new or recent works which, had he been able to utilise them, would probably have enabled him to improve some sections. 

Among these may be named La Critique des traditions religieuses chez les grecs, by Professor Paul Decharme; Professor Parker's China and Religion, and Dr Hubert Rock's Der Unverfdlschte Sokrates. The main difficulty in historical writing is an arrangement, and the author is conscious of being often hard-pressed by it in the following survey. 

There is at least some improvement in the present edition; and where a strictly chronological order is not adopted, it is generally in consideration of the countervailing advantages from another arrangement. What was most often complained of as defective in the first edition — the chapter on freethought in the nineteenth century — was relatively scanty for the two sufficient reasons that the extent of the subject matter made impossible, in a "short" history, and save a generalised treatment, and that a highly qualified student was, to the writer's knowledge, engaged on a detailed record. 

The same reasons still subsist; and the chapter, though expanded like the others, remains relatively brief, the author being of opinion that, while a completely separate history is clearly a desideratum, the account given of the crowded nineteenth-century need not in a general survey be so fully particularised as that of previous periods, the intellectual history of which is much less generally accessible. Indeed, any larger scale of treatment would easily have carried the present work into a third volume. The author has to thank several friends for pointing out inaccuracies in the first edition — assistance hardly ever rendered by hostile critics. 

And especially he has to thank Mr Ernest Newman for a species of laborious service repeatedly received at the same hands • — that of a careful reading of the proofs. November, short histories are perhaps not among the best of disciplines; and the History of Freethought is at least as hard to write justly or master intelligently in short compass as any other. 

At the same time, the concise history, which is a different thing from the epitomes denounced by Bacon, has its advantages; and I have striven in this case to guard somewhat against the disadvantages by habitual citation of authorities, and by the frequent brief discussion, in paragraphs in smaller type, of disputed and theoretical maffers. These discussions can be skipped by the unleisured reader, and weighed by the student, at pleasure, the general narrative in larger type going on continuously. 

Such a book could not be written without much use of the works of specialists in the history of religion and philosophy, or without debt to many other culture- historians. These debts, I think, are pretty fully indicated in the notes; from which it will also appear, I hope, that I have striven to check my authorities throughout, and to make the reader aware of most occasions for doubt on matters of historic fact. The generalisation of the subject- matter is for the most part my own affair.

 I must acknowledge, however, one debt which would not otherwise appear on the face of the book — that, namely, which I owe to my dead friend, J. M. Wheeler, for the many modern clues yielded by his Biographical Dictionary of Freethinkers, a work which stands for an amount of nomadic research that only those who have worked over the ground can well appreciate. Among the many difficulties which press on the writer of such a work as the present, is that of setting up a standard of inclusion and exclusion. Looking back,

 I am conscious of some anomalies. It would on some counts have been not inappropriate, for instance, to name as a practical freethinker Leonardo da Vinci, who struck out new paths on so many lines of science. On the other hand, one might be accused of straining the evidence in claiming as a freethinker a man not known to have avowed any objection to the teaching of the Church. Difficulties arise, again, in the case of such a writer as Cardan, who figured for orthodox apologists as a freethinker, but who seems to make more for credulity than for rational doubt; and in the case of such a writer as the pro-ecclesiastical Campanella, who, while writing against atheism, and figuring only in politics as a disturber, reasons on various issues in a rationalistic sense. I can but press the difficulty of drawing the line and admit ground for criticism. 


Some contents of Volume 1


§ I. Origin and Meaning of the Word i
§ 2. Previous histories . . . . 6
§ 3. The Psychology of Freethought 9
Ch.\p. II. — Primitive Freethinking. 15
Chap. III.— Progress under Ancient Religions.
§ I. Early Association and Competition of Cults... 23
§ 2. The Process in India ... 26
§ 3. Mesopotamia. 36
§ 4. Ancient Persia 39
] 5. Egypt 44
§ 6. Phoenicia. 49
§ 7. Ancient China 53
§ 8. Mexico and Peru. 59
§ g. The Common Forces of Degeneration. 63
Chap. IV. — Relative Freethought in Israel.
§1. The early Hebrews 68
I 2. The interpolated prophetic literature. 75
§ 3. The post-exilic literature. 81
Chap. V. — Freethought in Greece. 90
§1. Beginnings of Ionic Culture . . 92
I 2. Homer, Pindar, and .lEschylus 94
§ 3. The Culture-Conditions. 96
§ 4. From Thales to the Eleatic School. 99
I 5. Pythagoras and Magna Graecia . . . ,103
§ 6. From Anaxagoras to Diagoras . . 107
I 7. Sokrates, Plato, and Aristotle,.111
\ 8. Post-Alexandrian Greece . . . 120
Chap. VI.— Freethought in Ancient Rome.
§ I. Culture Beginnings, to Ennius . . . 128
I 2. Lucretius, Cicero, Cssar . . . . 132
} 3. Decline under the Empire. 137
§ 4. The higher Pagan ethics . . . . 142

Chap. VII. — Ancient Christianity and its Opponents.
§ I. Freethought in the Gospels. 145
§ 2. The Epistles, . . . 149-
§ 3. Anti-pagan rationalism . . . 150
§ 4. Rationalistic heresy . . . . • 155
^5. Antichristian thought: its decline. i6o-
§ 6. The intellectual and moral decadence 165.
- Chap. VIII.— Freethought under Islam.
§1.. Mohammed and his Contemporaries 171
§ 2. The Influence of the Koran. 175
' § 3. Saracen Freethought in the East. 177-
^ 4. El-Marri and Omar Khayyam .... 185
§ 5. Arab Philosophy and Moorish Freethought. 189-
§ 6. Rationalism in later Islam . . . 192.
Chap. IX. — Christendom in the Middle Ages.
§ I. Jovinian. Aerius. Vigilantius. 195.
§ 2. Iconoclasm. Leo. Photius. Michael. 19&
§ 3. The early Paulicians . . . 197
§ 4. Claudius. Agobard. John Scotus. Berengar. Roscelin 199
§ 5. The Paulicians (Cathari) in Western Europe 202
§ 6. The crusade against Albigensian heresy 214
§7. Anti-clerical literature and new heresy. 220


the book details :
  • Author: John Mackinnon Robertson 
  • Publication date 1906
  • Company: London: Watts

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