The History of Freedom: Chronology

Figure 1.--Civilization began with the Neolithic Revolution and the development of agriculture (about 10,000 BC). The concept of freedom for most of the history of civilization did not exist. There was not even a word for it in Egypt. Interestingly while slavery existed during this era, the great civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and China. were not slave societies. (Little is known about the Indus Valley civilization.). Modern thinking, for example, is that the pyramids were built by corvées, of peasant labor and not slave labor. And while the peasants had some rights, they generally did not own land or have much control over their lives. This Egyptian tomb painting shows what look to be peasants and not slaves working the land. The smaller figures are presumably boys working the fields with their fathers. Hunter gathers in effect gave up the freedom of their nomadic life style for the more controlled lives as agricultural workers. The advantages were an enormous geberation of wealth through agriculture (very unevenly distributed) and the ability to accumulate surpluses that could feed the population in times of need (crop failures, droughts, floods, ect.).

Another way at looking at the saga of freedom in human history is a chronological approach. Early man of course had freedom, but because of the constraints of primative technology and the desperatte need to survive was make only slow advances. Civilization was born, but certainly not freedom. As civilization advanced, autoritarian political and relgious systems developed which contrained freedom. Civilization advanced over time, but freedom for the individul was very limited. Nobels controlled resources and for the most part an individul's lot in life was that of his father and his father before him. The ancient civilizations in the great river valleys were very static socities. That is not to say that there was no change, but change occurred at only a glacial pace unless outide forces intervened like invasion or natural events. The Neolitic or agricultural revolution chanbged this (about 10,000 BC), The pace of change increased, but cwas still at aglacil pace. There world freedom did not yet exist. And this did nor change until the the historical age. Suddenly on th bloody plains of Marathon, freedom was born (490 BC), It was the creation of the tiny Greek city states, espcially Athens and a Golden Age followed. It was the most creative outburst of human creativity in history which tells us something about the importance of freedom. The subsequent history of freedom is not a straight line. We see harrowing reversal and tragic suffering, but the overreaching arc of histot=ry, t lest in the est has been toward feedom. An most of the advances in himan culture and well being had been with those socities which have embraced freedom. That is not to say that tyranical societies have not been able to geneate power or imprtant achievements, especially monumental achitecture. It is to say that virtually all tght the lasting advances in human cociety have been with those societies embracing freedom. Here we d mot mean modern 21st century liberal democracy, but aocieties that offered at least degree of freedom. And remarbly this has occurred ince the Medieval era in the West. Today a simple calcltion dramaticlly shows the impact of freedom. The rih societies in the wirld are thise that have emvraced freedom, both politicl democracy and free market capitalism. The greater the embrace, the more affluent the country. The poorest countries in the wold are those that have most sevrly restricted freedom. Thi inclides totalitarian Communist countries (Cuba, North Korea, nd Vietnam)or failed societies where crime and violence rule (Haiti and Somalia). Here the few exceptions are thise countries whih sit on vast pools of oil and othger natural resources.

Ancient World

Early man of course had freedom, but because of the constraints of primative technology and the desperatte need to survive was make only slow advances. As civilization aadvanced, autoritarian political and relgious systems developed which contrained freedom. Civilization advanced over time, but freedom for the individul was very limited. Nobels controlled resources and for the most part an individul's lot in life was that of his father and his father before him. The ancient civilizations in the great river valleys were very static socities. That is not to say that there was no change, but change occurred at only a glacial pace unless outide forces intervened like invasion or natural events. The Hebrews in Canaan/Palestine were an exception, but ultimately were unable to stand militarily against the powerful empires which surrounded them. The trobelsome Greeks proved to be a very different matter when the powerful Persian Empire set its sight on its western border lands. The Greek victory heraled the birth of freedom. Helanism was the core of the claasical tradition and created the core Western value which would eventually create the modern world. Rome is not known for its contribution to freedom, but would in fact play an important role in passing on Hellanism, most importantly in the form of its legal tradition. And Rome provided the vessel in which Christianity developed and the Judeo-Christian tradition waswelded to the classical tradition. Soon after the Western Roman Empire would collapse and be overun by pagan Germanic tribes. Even so the Classical and Jrdeo-Christian trditions, the core of Western civilization, would gradually reasert themselves during the medieval era.

Pre-Colombian America

History is the experimental testing grounds for humanity. Proto Indians arrived in the New World milennia before the Neolitic Revolution and the advent of civilization. And as in the Old World, the Neolithic or Agriculturl revolution which occured indepebently in the New World created great civilizations in both Meso-America and the Andes. Some of the cultures which developed are some of the most violent and bloody societies known to mnkinds. No societies have ever come close to the levels of human scarifies conducted publically and on a massive scale by the Aztecs. And many other Native American civilizations practiced human sacrifice. Even on a smaller scale than the Aztecs, it was an important part of their culture. he Spanish friars accompsnying the Conquistadores had good reason to be horrified. These civilizations also made important cutural achievements. But at the time of contact with the Europens they were still largely stone age societies which had not even mastered the concept of the wheel or metalury beyond gold and silver, metals with low melting points and thus requiring limited technology. Thus they were conquered by small bands of European Conquistadores. The question thus rises as to why the New World lagged so far behind the Old World in cultural and technological development. There have been many theories offered. The north-south axis of the mountain ranges impeded communication and contact while the east-west axis of Eurasian mountaints promoted communication and contact. This is a strong argument because the relative isolation of the New World. This may have been an important factor. The lack of important load-bearing animals like oxen, horses, and cammels may also been a factor. [Diamond] Of course the development of corn amd potatoes were more valuable food crops than the crops developed in the Old World. A factor rarely considered is the failure of the great Native American civilizations to develop the concept of freedom. This is interesting because Native americans during the Enligtenment and today in popular culture are often seen as the embodiment of freedom.

Mohammed and Islam

Freedom ans Islam is another important topic. Modern conflicts are often described as between Islam and the West. This is a not altogther an accurate expression of the conflict. Mohammed in writing the Koran used the Jewish Old Testamnent and Christian New Testament as iportant sources. He identified the Jewish Prohets as important spiritual teachers and included Jesus in the long line of such teachers. As a result, it is not entirely possible to separate Islam from the West. Just as Paul helpfuse the Jewish Jesus movement to the classical tradition, creting Christianity, Mohammed essentially fused Jewish Old Testament teachings with Arab tribal traditions. While Mohmmed recognized Jesus as a prophet, little of Jesus's teaching and Chritian dictrine appear in the Koran, rather there is a reversion to the older harsher moral code of the Old Testament which was more in keeping with the traditions of Arab tribal culture from which Mohammed came. The interesting historical developmnt is that at the time of the rise of of Islam. Christianity in the form of Orthodoxy and Roman Catholocism was a highly repressive rpressive religion or alternate Christian ideologies, allowing no other religions except Judaism which was beng increasingly repressed. Islam offered a degre of rligious freedom, not only for the Jews, but non-conforming Christian dictries such as those of the Copts. One reson that Islam spread so widely, so fast (7th century AD) is that they offered the populatijon of the Levant and North Africa a greater degree of religious freedom than under Byzatine rule. And the result proved to be a cultural flowering at a time that Western Christendom was experiencing what we now call the Dark Ages. This was the Golden Age of Islam--the Caliphate. And the nost advnced and tolerant state in Europe was al Andalus in Spain. Tragically, the importance of freedom in the achievements of Islam is virtully unrechognized in the Muslim world today. When after three centuries of Muslim attacks and invasons, Christendom finally struck back in the form of the Crusades. The Crusaders whle abhoring Islam, could not but be impressed with the cultural levl of Muslim society. This did not begining to change until the Italian Renaissnce (13th century). This was a vital turning point in hisory. And the same time that Europe began to change and adopt new ideas and concepts, freeing itself from the dicatesxof the Church, Muslim state and Islam begn moving in the opposite direction. Islam never experienced the Renaissnce, Reformtion, and Eblightnment, key steps in the development of our modern concpt of freedom. Rather Muslim countries, especially the Arabs continued in a kind of science fiction time warp. As Mphmmed was seen as the Last ab Final Prohnet and the Koran cotinued to be views as the very word of God, new ideas and the feedom to discuss those idea were rejected as blaphmous in the sme way thatthe Catholic Church attempted, but failed to control sych thought. This can vividly be seen in ealy photographs taken in Arab world. The scenes we see are a world that is lagely unchanged foe centuries. They are images that could have been taken in the 13th century if not earlier--nothing short of the end result of supressing freedom.

Medieval Era

Europe was not the only area to experience a medieval era, but it as the only region in which the medieval era laid the foundation for freedom and liberty. Medevil history is not well understood in this regard, why it was that Europe emerged from the medieval era prepared to create the modern world. First it should be understood that the medieval era was a very long period, nearly a millenium. Second during that period, European Christendom was split. Differences between East and West developed over time, but were not formalized by the Great Schism until the mid point of the medieaval era (1054). Eastern Europe was dominated by Byzantium and the Orthodox Church. While the Western Empire was destroyed by barbarian Germanic tribes, the Eastern Empire surviced for a millenium as the Byzantine Empire. And following the tradition set by Constantine, Byzantium practiced Caesaropapism -- meaning the emperor and state controlled the church. This was the tradition passed on to the Tsars and Russia and was a factor in the developing of absolutism which still criples Russia in modern times. Western Europe developed very differntly. The colllapse of the Western Empire was a disaster for the population as Germanic barvarians swepr west all the way to the Iberin Peninsula. But it was a step in the development of freedom. The Caholic Church by this tome was an estblished institution and came to be a effective coutrpoint to secular state insitutions. A continuong theme in medieval history was a conflict between first popes and emperors and than as nation states began to coallese with the power of kings. Popes like Greogry the Great prevented tha absolutism of the East taking root in the West. This is not to say Gregory believed in democeacy or freedom of religon, it is to say that the conflict between pope and emperors laid the foundation for future liberies and freedom. Feudalism also played a role. The great feudal barons also prevented absolutism. They demanded a say in government and basic rights. The Magna Carta has been criticized for accomplishing very little. Nothing could be further from the truth. It was a repudiation of arbitrary government, beginning the long march toward democracy. The firt major expression of this was Magna Carta (1215). It would take centuries for those rights to be extended to commoners, but it was the foundation on which Western freedom would be built. Another important foundation was cannon law. The tradition of Roman law was preserved by the church nd would grdually influence common law. And with this fondation the Italian Renaisance began to introduce new ideas, epecially classical thought to Europe which would lead to the modern era and eventually the Reformation and Enligtenment.

Making the Modern West

Civilizations throughout Eur-Asia experienced medueval eras with considerable similarity a well as differences in cultural, economic, and political development as well as chronological time line. Human freedom throughout the medieval era was restricted in many ways, although the nature and extent of of those restrictions varied from region to region. Because of the power of the Catholic and Oryhodox churches, the restrictions on freedom were perhaps the most severe in Chritin Europe than the rest of Eur-Asia. As a result, the cultural abd eonomic level of Europe was below that of the other world refions. Even so tere were processes atvplay thatr would lead to three powerful movements that would fundamentally change Europe and iltimstely the world. Each of these movements only occurred in Europe. The Renaissace ocurred during theMedueval era. The Reformation is common seen as the turning point between the medieval and modern world, and the Enlightement which occured in the early modern era. The Renaissance began in the late- or high-medieval era. The term means 'rebirth' meaning the the reapparance of Classical (Greek and Roman) humanist thought. The Greeks believed that man was the measure of all things. [Protagoras] The pressure of the Ottoman Turks drove classical scholars and works out of Byzantium. This and other sources brought classical thinking to Italy first and evetually all of Western Europe at about the same time that the great European universities were being founded. Italian ciuty states like Florence, Venicea, Genoa, and others (but not the Vatican dominated Rome), sought to follow Greek and Roman models. Humanist thought was fundamentally different to established Christian thelogy which placed God at the center of human civilization. Educated Europeans began reading Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Ovid and hundreds of other Greek and Roman authors. And in the process rediscovered the genius and beauty of the human mind that had essentially been lost to the wesr for a millenium. One single monk, Martin Luther, building on the Renaissance shattered the medieval world when he nailed his 95 Thesis on the church door in Wittenberg (1517). Luther was not the first to question the Church heirarchy, but he was the first who refused to recant that survived. He survived because the time was right. Political leaders in northern Germany saw in Luther an opportunity to assert nationl indepedence from the Emperor and Pope. As strange as it may seem, German nationalism made possible the march toward fredim. Luther had a range of theological issues with Rome and with them he set in motion the movement toward our modern concept of freedom. Ironically this was mot what he wanted at all. Luther's fundamental belief was that the ultimate authority on religious, and by asociation political, matters was the inddividual conscience. The Enligtenment dominated 18th centuty thought. The Enligtenment Philosophes set out to apply the methods of the new developing scientific revolution to ocietal issues. The Philosophes did not destinguish between the pysical and social sciences as we do today. The Enligenment is also referred to as the Age of Reason and for good reason. The Philosophes committed themselves to both 'reason' and 'liberty' being commonly used rather than freedom. For the philosophs reason, led utlimately to liberty meaning freedom. Fundamental to the Enligtenment was acquiring knowledge. One of the great works of the Enligtenment was in fact Denis Diderot's Encyclopédie. The Philosophes believed that knoledge and understanding could only come from the detailed l study of a subject and conditions and the methodical application of individual reason--essentially the new scientific method. Until the Enligtenment religious dogma and traditional beliefs had dominated human thought. Liberty opened up emmense potential for understanding and progress.


For several centuries humam achievement and abilities became confused with race. This was because the Europeans made such achievenents and generated such power that they began to see themselves sipeior to other people, especially Native Americans and Africans. It seemed so obvious because technolohical advances and industry gave Europeans such massive military diminance. Anthropologist Jared Diamond's work provides important theories as to why these people lagged behind the Europeans, assigning geography, crops, animals, and diseases as major reasons for the more limited technolohcal developments of these preoples. [Diamond] In his rush to suggest that Western achievements were more accidental than any great advatage of Western Civilization, Diamond leaves out important matters. His weakest discussion is China. China was richer, unifoed, and the source of important technological discoveries while Europe was poor and technologically backward. Thus one has to ask why it was that democracy, capitalism, and the indistrial revolution--the keystones of modernity all occurred in the West. Diamond's scholarship is impressive and we agree with much of his findings, the one thing that Diamond discounts is the most impressive ahievemet of the West--freedom. The Greejs first demonstrated what freedom can produce and countless other examples occur throughout history. It is notable what the the small Greek city states produced in a narrow historical window which surpassed millenia of Chinese scholarship.

European Litrature: The Novel

The earliest Western literature was the Greek tragedies and commedies which were essential an investigation of the consequences of freedom. An entirly new literary appeared in modrn Europe--the novel (18th century). The novel has beeb called a Protestant literary form. This is because for the first time the struggles of the ordinary indivividual were presented as worrthy of literary treatment. The first major step toward the novel was John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (1678). The restored Stuart monarch bgan to limit the freedom of nonconformists. Bunyan was arrested for preeching without a license. He spent the next 12 years in gaol as he refused to stop preaching. While incarcerate he wrote a spiritual autobiography Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners and began work on his most famous book--The Pilgrim's Progress, perhaps the most important book of its day. It was an account of his life and an assessmnt ofwhether he would was one of the Elect to be saved. The novel continued this storied tradition of Western literature. It also was a new storytelling methos oftn a repackaging of the biblical narrative. It is fascinating how authors critical or even hostile to Christanity are unaware as to the extent to which they are working in the Biblial tradition and prophets.

The Anglo-American Concept of Freedom

Latin America

Latin Americans elites were optimistic in the 19th century after their Wars of Libeation from Spain (1806-26). Most thought that with independence, all that was need was capital to develop the regions natural resources and some skilled labor. There were no longer Spanish colonial regulations that impeded development. Spanish colonial regulations precented the development of indusyry. Manufacturrin wa to be soe in Spain and th colonies were to provide natural resources. Spanish regulations also prohibited trade with foreign countrie, again so Spain would benefit from all trade. The same was true for Brail after independence from Portugal. The Ltin americns now had access to the wider European markets which was widely thought would reap great bebfits. Inadequate capital and skilled labor as wll as technical expertise would restict development into the 20th century. But a more serious impediment that was poorly recognized was basically what the war of independence failed to etablish -- freedom. [Stark, p. 219.] Marxists who came to exert a powerful influence in labor and intelectual circles ernously focused on foreign investment. Cuba has, however, proven that Marxist percriptions bring poverty not prosperity.

Totalitarian Challenge

Just as the ideals of liberal democracy were being entrenched in the West, Karl Marx and othes founded socialism which morphed into the modern challenge to political freedom--the great totalitarian powers of the 20th century (Communist and Fascist). Despite ammasing massive military power and horific killing progrms) they failed to match the power of liberal democracy to unleash the creative energy of the human mind and now are in, as Bolshevik Leon Trotsky phrased it, the 'dustbin of history'.

American Exceptionalism

The great debate in American history is today if the United States is an exceptional country. It is no accident that in the same year America declared its independence as a democratic republic, that an obscure Scottish economist, Adam Smith, published The Wealth of Nations (1776). Smith explained the operation of free market capitalism and not country embraced his ideas like the new American Republic. Thus from the onset, America was an exceptional country, embracing the two killer apps of state success, political and economic liberty. Most Europeans intent on defining a nation in ethnic terms saw America as exceptional, but were convinced that it would not succeed or even last. The idea of American exceptional ism did not use to be an issue. The young men and boys who took up arms in the Civil War. They understood intuitively with only a very basic education what President Lincoln put into unforgettable words, "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure." America at the time was the only democratic republic of any importance. Left wing college professors imbued with Marxist ideology have since called that premise into question. They teach that America is not only not an exceptional country, but many believe that America has not even been a force for good in the world. They question free market economy as a engine of economic prosperity to be replace by social justice engineered by an ever-expanding and immensely expensive government. And now they are joined by a substantial part of the Democratic Party and President Obama who have largely signed on to this outlook. There are undoubtedly aspects of American history that are less than idea, even deplorable. And this is how left-wing historians present their argument, by comparing America to a utopian ideal that does not exist or has never existed. No nation on earth could stand up to such a comparison. The clear arc of American history has been for liberty, first landowners, next ordinary white males, then blacks, and finally women. And throughout this process, ordinary individuals, often uneducated and disdained by the cultural elite now dominating American universities have voted with their feet. Left-wing historians stress the tenements and crowded, unhealthy conditions of the rising American industrial cities in the late-19th and early 20th centuries, offering this as proof of capitalist exploitation of the working man. The central question which they are terrified their students might ask, is why if conditions are so bad did emigrants come to America in a steady stream. The simple answer is the obvious, living and working conditions were better in America than anywhere in Europe. And they were better because of the wealth creating engine of free market capitalism unimpeded by governmental restricts and costly bureaucracies. That dynamic of political and economic liberty crushed first the expansionist German Empire and then the totalitarian dictatorships rejecting liberal democracy and capitalism. Today many Americans unaware of the role of government in creating economic crisis are also questioning free market capitalism and American exceptionalism.


Berman, Joshua. Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought.

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (W.W. Norton & Co.: 1997). Also published with the title "Guns, germs and steel: A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years".

Fears, J. Rufus. 'A history of freedom,' The Great Courses (2001).

Protagoras of Abdera was one of several 5th century BC Greek thinkers (including also Gorgias, Hippias, and Prodicus) who are now knoiwn as the Older Sophists They were teachers or intellectuals who lectured on rhetoric (the science of oratory) and related subjects.

Stark, Rodney. The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (2006).


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Created: 4:14 AM 5/29/2015
Last updated: 7:22 PM 8/18/2015