فصل 33کتاب: تاریخی کوچک از جهان / فصل 33
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A TRULY NEW AGE
If you could talk to a gentleman from the time of the Turkish siege, there would be many things about him that would surprise you. The way he spoke and the many Latin and French words he used. His elaborate and convoluted turns of phrase and habit of slipping in Latin quotations that neither you nor I could place, and his grand and solemn bows. You would, I think, suspect that beneath that venerable wig was someone with a large appetite for good food and fine wines. And if you will forgive me for mentioning it you could hardly fail to notice that beneath the fancy lace, the embroidery and the silk, this prinked, perfumed and powdered gentleman stank, because he hardly ever washed.
But nothing could prepare you for the shock you would have if he were to begin to air his views. All children should be thrashed. Young girls (no more than children) should be married (and to men they barely know). A peasant’s lot is to toil and not complain. Beggars and tramps should be whipped and put in chains in the marketplace for everyone to mock. Thieves should be hanged and murderers publicly chopped into pieces. Witches and the other harmful sorcerers that infest the country should be burnt. People of different beliefs should be persecuted, treated as outcasts or thrown into dark dungeons. A comet seen recently in the sky must mean bad times ahead. As protection against the coming plague, which has already claimed many victims in Venice, it would be sensible to wear a red armband. And finally, a Mr So-and-so an English friend has an excellent and well-established business selling negroes from Africa to America as slaves: a brainwave of that most worthy gentleman since, as we all know, American Indian convicts don’t take well to manual labour.
And you would hear these opinions not only from the mouth of some coarse or uncouth fellow, but from the most intelligent and pious people in all walks of life and from all nations. Only after 1700 did things gradually change. The widespread and terrible suffering that Europeans endured during the wretched wars of religion had made some people wonder if it was really right to judge someone by his or her religious belief. Was it not more important to be a good and honest human being? Would it not be better if people got on with one another regardless of any differences of opinion or belief that they might have? Better if they respected one another and tolerated each other’s convictions? This was the first and most important idea that the people who thought about such things now voiced: the principle of tolerance. Only in matters of religion could there be differences of opinion. No rational person disputes the fact that two plus two makes four. Therefore reason or sound common sense, as they also termed it is what can and should unite all men. In the realm of reason you can use arguments to convince others of the rightness of your opinions, whereas another’s religious beliefs, being beyond rational argument, should be respected and tolerated.
And so reason was the second most important thing to these people. Clear and reasoned thinking about mankind and nature was rediscovered in the works of the ancient Greeks and Romans and in those of the Florentines during the time of the Renaissance. But, more than anywhere else, it was to be found in the works of men like Galileo, who had boldly set out to investigate the magic of nature’s mathematical formulas. Differences of belief played no part in these things: there was only experiment and proof. Reason alone could explain the appearance of nature and the workings of the universe. Reason, which is given in equal measure to all mankind the world over.
Now if reason is given to all, it must follow that all people are of equal worth, and as you remember, that was just what Christianity had taught: that all men are equal before God. But those who preached tolerance and reason took this argument one step further: they didn’t only teach that all people were essentially equal; they demanded that they be treated equally as well. That every human being, as God’s creature, endowed by Him with reason, had rights that no one might or should deny him. The right to choose his own calling and to choose how he lived: and the freedom to act or not to act as his reason and his conscience dictated. Children, too, should not be taught with the cane but with reason, so that they might come to understand the difference between right and wrong. And criminals were human beings too no doubt, they had done wrong, but they could still be helped to mend their ways. It was dreadful, they argued, to brand a man’s cheek or forehead with a red-hot iron for one wrongdoing, leaving a mark he would bear for the rest of his life so that all might say ‘That man is a criminal’. There was something, they said, which forbade a person to be publicly humiliated. It was called human dignity.
All these ideas, which from 1700 onwards were debated first in England and later in France, came to be called the Enlightenment, because the people who held them wanted to combat the darkness of superstition with the pure light of reason.
Many people today think that the Enlightenment only taught what was obvious, and that people in those days had a rather simple view of the great mysteries of nature and the world. This is true. But you must realise that what seems obvious to us wasn’t in the least so then, and that it took a great deal of courage, selfsacrifice and perseverance for people to keep on repeating them so that they seem obvious to us today. And of course you must also realise that reason cannot, and never will, give us the key to all mysteries, although it has often put us on the right track.
In the two hundred years that followed the Enlightenment, more mysteries of nature were studied and explained than in the preceding two thousand years. But what you must never forget is the importance for our own lives of tolerance, reason and humanity the three fundamental principles of the Enlightenment. Because of them we no longer take someone suspected of having committed a crime and torture them inhumanly on the rack until, half out of their wits, they confess to anything we want. Reason has taught us that there’s no such thing as witchcraft, so no more witches are burnt at the stake. (The last time a woman was convicted of witchcraft in England was in 1712.) Diseases are no longer fought by superstitious means, but mainly through cleanliness and the scientific investigation of their causes. We don’t have slaves or peasant serfs any more. All citizens are subject to the same laws and women have the same rights as men. All this we owe to the brave citizens and writers who dared stand up for these ideas. And it was daring. They may have lacked understanding and behaved unjustly in their struggle with ancient and long-held traditions, but they fought a long and hard battle to win tolerance, reason and humanity.
The battle would have taken much longer, and involved far greater sacrifices, if some of Europe’s rulers hadn’t fought in the front line for the ideas of the Enlightenment. One of the first to do so was Frederick the Great, king of Prussia.
As you know, the title of emperor, passed down through several generations of Habsburgs, was by this time not much more than a venerable title. The Habsburgs’ only real power was over Austria, Hungary and Bohemia, whereas in Germany power was in the hands of numerous princes who ruled over Bavaria, Saxony and many other big and small states. The Protestant lands in the north were among those which had paid the least attention to the Catholic emperor in Vienna since the Thirty Years War, and the most powerful of these princedoms was Prussia. Since the reign of its great sovereign Frederick William I, who ruled from 1640 to 1688, Prussia had taken more and more land from Sweden, until finally, in 1701, its princes had declared themselves kings. Prussia was a severe warrior state, whose nobility knew no greater honour than to serve as officers in the distinguished army of their king.
Now, since 1740, Prussia had been under the rule of its third king, Frederick II, who was a member of the Hohenzollern family. Known as Frederick the Great, he was without doubt one of the most cultivated men of his age. He was on friendly terms with a number of Frenchmen who preached the ideas of the Enlightenment in their writings, and he himself wrote much on the subject in French. For although he was king of Prussia he scorned the German language and customs, which, as a result of the Thirty Years War, were in a very poor state. His aim and his duty, as he saw it, was to make Prussia a model state and in so doing demonstrate the value of the thinking of his friends in France. He liked to say that he saw himself as the first servant of the state: the butler, as it were, rather than the owner. And in that role he concerned himself with every detail of his project of putting the new ideas into practice. One of the first things he did was to abolish the barbaric practice of torture. He also relieved the peasants of some of the heavier duties to their landlords. And he was always particularly concerned that all his subjects, from the poorest to the mightiest, should receive equal justice. A rare thing in those days.
But, above all, Frederick wanted to make Prussia the mightiest of all the German states, and destroy Austria’s imperial power. He didn’t foresee any difficulty in this. Austria was ruled by a woman, the Empress Maria Theresa. When she came to the throne in 1740, aged only twenty-three, Frederick thought it a suitable moment to remove one of the empire’s possessions. So he took his well-trained army to the province of Silesia and seized it. From that time on he would spend most of the rest of his life fighting the empress of Austria. The state of his army was always of the utmost importance to him. He drilled his troops unremittingly until he had the best army in the world.
But Maria Theresa was a far more formidable opponent than he had first thought, although no warmonger at heart. She was deeply religious, and first and foremost a mother. She had sixteen children in all. Although Frederick was her enemy, she followed his example in introducing many of his reforms in Austria as well. Like him, she abolished torture, made the peasants’ lives easier, and took a special interest in establishing good education throughout the land. She genuinely saw herself as a mother to her people, and never pretended to know all the answers herself. She chose the ablest people to be her advisers, among them men quite capable of holding their own against Frederick during the long wars, not only on the battlefield, but also as envoys to all the courts of Europe, where they won sympathy for her cause. Even France, which for centuries had taken sides against the empire, was eventually won over, after which Maria Theresa gave her daughter Marie Antoinette in marriage to the future King Louis XVI of France, as a pledge of their new friendship.
Frederick now found himself surrounded by enemies on all sides: Austria, France, Sweden and Russia, now a vast and mighty empire. Without waiting for them to declare war on him, he occupied Saxony, which was also hostile. He then went on to wage a bitter war that lasted seven long years, in which his only support came from the British. But his perseverance paid off, for despite the superior strength of his enemies, not only did he not lose the war, he even managed to hold on to Silesia.
From 1765 Maria Theresa ceased to rule Austria alone. Her son Joseph ruled with her and succeeded her after her death as Emperor Joseph II. He was an even more zealous fighter for the ideas of the Enlightenment than either Frederick or his mother. Tolerance, reason and humanity were all that mattered to him. He abolished the death sentence and peasant serfdom. Protestants were once again allowed to worship freely, and although a good Catholic himself, he confiscated some of the lands and wealth of the Catholic Church. He was an invalid and, knowing that he might not have long to rule, he did everything with such zeal, such impatience and such haste that it was often all too quick, too unexpected and altogether too much for his subordinates to endure. He had many admirers, but his people loved him less than they loved his more cautious and pious mother.
At the same time as Austria and Germany were witnessing the triumph of the ideas of the Enlightenment, in America the inhabitants of many British colonies were refusing to be British subjects any longer, or to pay taxes to Britain. In their fight for independence, they were led by Benjamin Franklin, an ordinary citizen who spent much of his time studying the natural sciences, in the course of which he invented the lightning conductor. He was a plain and upright man, energetic and hard-working. Under his leadership and that of another American, George Washington, the British colonies and trading ports organised themselves into a confederation and, after a long struggle, drove the British soldiers from their shores. Now they too could adopt the principles of the new way of thinking. In 1776 they declared the sacred rights of all men to liberty and equality to be the founding principles of their new state. But for the negro slaves on their plantations, life simply went on as before.