Monday, January 19, 2015

Dangerous ideas (5)


Freely expressing ideas with the pen can be very dangerous. Recently yet we have seen it in France. This danger is not something new. However, nowadays the freedom to express ideas is bigger than ever before. This now almost absolute freedom is a very recent phenomenon and it is limited to only a few countries. Terror against those who use the right of freedom of the word is not only performed by individuals and private groups. Its most important oppressor has always been the state, while individuals had to fight for this right. Nowadays it is often the other way round: It is the state that defends the freedom of expression, so that individuals can use it, although it is still so that individuals try to stretch the limits. For certain limits remain. That’s clear. It’s not allowed to offend others or to bring damage to them. But what is offending and when can we say that someone has suffered a loss? But laws change and only recently yet the Dutch law on blasphemy has been cancelled, for example. Actually, it hadn’t been applied since many years.
Not only journalists, artists and politicians have been victims of suppression of the free word and ideas. Philosophers has been as well. The German Nazi regime and the government of the Soviet Union even tried to get a hold on the thoughts of their citizens with the consequence that many philosophers kept silent or adapted their words (at least openly). Others fled, like Adorno and Benjamin. But already in the early days of philosophy freely expressing ideas could be dangerous. Socrates was sentenced to death because he was said to corrupt the minds of the youth and not to believe in the gods of the state.
Montaigne was a courageous but also careful man who didn’t want to take unnecessary risks. I know at least one case that he practised self-censorship. When he wanted to publish his Essays in 1580 he had asked and received permission to include a little book by his late friend Étienne de La Boétie. He wanted to insert it after his essay “Of friendship”, dedicated to his friend. In this little book, On voluntary servitude, La Boétie presented his theory of power and he showed how it was possible to undermine the power of rulers by refusing to obey them. (Later the book became famous among anarchists and non-violent activists). However, when Montaigne actually wanted to publish the Essays, the political situation had worsened a lot and the ghost of civil war and revolution was reigning in France. Moreover La Boétie’s book had been published already by activist reformers. Therefore Montaigne wrote at the end of his essay “Of friendship”: “Because I have found that that work has been since brought out, and with a mischievous design, by those who aim at disturbing and changing the condition of our government, without troubling themselves to think whether they are likely to improve it: and because they have mixed up his work with some of their own performance, I have refrained from inserting it here.” And instead of On voluntary servitude Montaigne published La Boétie’s twenty-nine sonnets in his Essays.
Descartes was another famous philosopher who chose to avoid possible persecution for his ideas in his country (France) and he went to live in the Netherlands. For the same reason, later Descartes accepted an invitation by Queen Christina of Sweden to come to her court, when his philosophy had been condemned at the University of Utrecht. Not so many years thereafter, Spinoza was expelled from Amsterdam, where he lived, after having been banned from the Portuguese Jewish community there because of his “abominable heresies that he practiced and taught,” and his “monstrous deeds”. A few years later Spinoza returned to his town but finally he moved to Rijnsburg and then to The Hague.
It will not be difficult to mention many other philosophers who met with the same fate or, even more, were “simply” murdered, as happened in 2003 to Zoran Djindjic, then Prime Minister of Serbia. Djindjic had been a long time opposition politician and he was a doctor in philosophy as well. He was assassinated by criminals because of his pro-democratic ideas and especially by the way he tried to put them into practice.
A German song says: “Thoughts are free, who can guess them?” Although not even this is always true – especially the first part of the sentence, but also the “who can guess them” may become something of the past one day –, real troubles can arise when you express your thoughts and write them down and try to apply them. In his play “Richelieu” the English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton lets the cardinal say: “The pen is mightier than the sword”. Wasn’t it Richelieu (among many others) who secretly read La Boétie’s On voluntary servitude, which was forbidden in those days? A book that inspired many known opponents of oppressive power, including Tolstoy and Gandhi (and that still inspires many today, directly or via Gandhi)? Even those in power or with powerful arms acknowledge the value of this saying in their hearts for otherwise they could simply ignore the pen and the words that flow from it.

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