Throughout the course of the development of western civilization, there have been varying amounts of political changes and revolutions that have come to shape the world as we know it. Topics that were of importance in the past are still just as important to take into consideration during the present day, and lay out a groundwork on which we can continue to build upon in order to help our modern society avoid problems that have risen in the past. Although there are a number of themes that can be derived from the historical evaluation of western culture, it is most important to look at the theme of freedom and equality, and how the prominence (or lack thereof) has been changing since way back in the past, and how it continues to change into the present day.
During the Age of Enlightenment, changes in thinking began to develop. People were starting to look at things from a more critical viewpoint, as well as beginning to think for themselves. Due to this sudden emergence of individual thought, there came a more heavy emphasis on the issues of freedom and equality. People began to question the things that were going on around them, and dissatisfaction was commonplace at this time. It is not as though the points of freedom and equality were not present in the past. This was just a time when people were beginning to come out from the overbearing shell of their corrupt government, and exercising their right to be heard. People were beginning to see that they had a right to equality, and the freedom to say what they needed to say. Due to this, there was also a surfacing of philosophes and individuals that had no qualms of discoursing, such as Francois Marie Arouet, famously known as Voltaire. He spoke very freely, criticizing matters of government and religion in a very sarcastic and satirical way. For example, his book “Candide”, writing with a sordid, mocking tone, made use of it’s characters (such as Professor Pangloss and Cunegonde) to fully satirize the concept of religion at the time. Although his portrayals of society were not always appreciated, they characterized the freedom of speech that the citizens were beginning to enjoy about that time.
One of the targets of Voltaire’s criticisms was the actions taken in the Calas case, as well as the execution of Damien. The horrendous amount of torture that was inflicted upon these alleged perpetrators is a gleaming example of the lack of freedom that people really had at that time. Voltaire was explicit in expressing his grievous distaste for this type of corporal punishment that the government employed. However, from these courses of events, the “Declaration of the Rights of Man” was drafted, attempting to promote the three basic values that the French Revolution was based upon: Freedom, equality, and fraternity. However, even this document was not immune to the perpetuation of inequality based on the usage of the language in the document. Based on the wording, this document favored those with a higher standing or social status, and focused on the great disparity between the classes. The original document maintained that separation, and was unfairly written to favor the upper class. However, through the amendment of article IV, which was changed to state that “…it must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes” and also that “All citizens, being equal before it are equally admissible to all public offices…and employments, according to their capacity, and without other distinction than that of virtues and talents”, more equality was established.
Developments continued to occur during this time, including the instigation of the Industrial Revolution in Europe. Great transformations were occurring, as well as women becoming able to go and work in the factories. However, despite the write up of the “Declaration of Rights of Man” and the changes that were being undertaken, there was still distrust harbored in the government at this time. John Stuart Mill, in his work “On Liberty”, talks about the conflict between “Liberty and Authority”, or rather, the struggle between the rights of the people and the actions of the government. He characterizes the same points that I had mentioned about the Age of Enlightenment and the emergence of the voice of the individual, saying that a point came “…in the progress of human affairs, when men ceased to think it a necessity of nature that their governors should be an independent power, opposed in interest to themselves”.
Within this time period of the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution in Europe, freedom and equality are two very important ideas that need to be taken into consideration when determining the health and functioning of a society. However, these continue to be important and ever changing continuing on through western civilizations historical past. With the materialization of nationalism and the unification of states, the existence and lack of freedom and equality continually affects the societies at the time.
From century to century, new developments, such as changes in political structure including anarchical overthrows if tyrannical governments continue to change the ever-fluid opinions and beliefs on what freedom and equality are, and the manifestations of such within the sociological sphere. Uprising revolutions of the 1840s, colonialism and imperialism of Europe, and the coming of the second industrial revolution are all factors that affect the stances of the ever changing ideas of freedom and equality.
The 1840s were a time of revolution, particularly within the European Nations. Countries were reclaiming their heritage and their sense of unity. Nationalism was becoming a driving factor in the reasoning behind these revolutions. Nationalistic sentiment was taking European societies, causing explosions in all places where dissatisfaction with political agenda was brewing.
During this time, freedom and equality were very important to those involved. This point was a step towards working towards a less monarchistic way of government for all, and rebuilding the ineffective governments in countries where the political processes were not conducive to the happiness of the common people. In our Western Civilization textbook, for example, Giuseppe Mazzini, trying to incite the unification of the Italian nations, attempted to cause an “awakening of the Italian people and of the common people’s mission to bring republicanism to the world” . Wikipedia defines republicanism as the “ideology of governing a nation as a republic, with an emphasis on liberty, rule by the people, and the civic virtue practiced by citizens”. It is very clear that heavy emphasis on freedom and liberty for all is a very important value during these times. However as colonial and imperialistic times began to descend, things changed drastically.
During the “new” imperialistic and colonial times, the weight of the value of freedom and equality was not as significant. To further explain, it seems as though freedom and equality were important to the Europeans, but they did not believe that all people aside from them deserved these things. For example, it is true that it was within the self interest and benefit of the Europeans to go out and explore, conquer and convert. Rudyard Kipling, in his poem “The White Man’s Burden”, delves into this topic, believing in the civilizing and “westernizing” mission of the colonialists. The poem implies that it is for the good of all mankind when It states that “By open speech and simple/ And hundred times made plain/ To seek another’s profit/ And work another’s gain”, as though they may be taking from one, but in the end working toward the betterment of them as well.
Although it has been said that the explorers and settlers were on missions due to their belief that prosperity for them meant economic and developmental gains for other parts of the world, it is accurate to say that this was not necessarily the case. Written 20 years later, Edmund D. Morel piece of work entitled “The Black Man’s Burden”, which criticized the imperialistic tendencies of Europe at the sacrifice of the indigenous people, showed how detrimental the colonialism of this time period was for the future of Africa. It seems as though it was a time of independence and freedom in Europe, but a time of domination and subjugation for any man, woman, or country that ended up in its warpath.
In the coming of the second industrial revolution, the sentiment became more inwardly directed as opposed to the external, outwardly, conquistador-like sentiment that was present for a period of time. Therefore, there was a very heavy focus and high public opinion about the values of freedom and equality. During this time, due to the changes and progressions in the industrial sector, new ways of thinking and viewpoints began to emerge. For example, with the introduction of the “Manifesto of the Communist Party”, communism was born. From the viewpoint of Marx, this was something that granted freedom from the doomed political structure that the society was currently built upon. To him it was a better plan, built upon breaking down the disparity between the classes, and empowering the working class. Marx was very cynical about the outcome of capitalism, and saw failure within its own basic structure.
Revolutions, imperialism and colonialism, and industrialization are all factors that changed and skewed the manifestation of freedom and equality in the past. Changes in political structure and conflict between the classes and government were strong driving factors in influencing public opinion. Many times, the differential in the importance of these two things were reflected in the governmental sphere. These things are all important to note so that similar mistakes are not made again. This continues to be reflected onward through the course of western civilization.
After the first world war, things were kind of in disarray around the globe. Due to bad economic health in various countries, and an increase in social conflict, things did not appear to be going to well for democracy. In the Soviet Union, under the rule of Lenin militarism was rising again, but the New Economic Policy allowed for the peasant to live in a somewhat capitalistic framework; being able to own their own land and trade, with the addition of fixed taxes. However, with the rise of Stalin, a severe dictatorship once again arose in the USSR. Collectivization completely reversed the freedom of privatization that Lenin had allowed, and the “Great Terror” destroyed important elements of the Soviet Union and killed and imprisoned many civilians. The freedom that Lenin had allowed his citizens was completely taken away. However, this was not the only place that this would occur.
Mussolini was the leader of the Italian Fascist movement. Fascism is defined as the centralization of power around an authoritative leader. Although he was taking away the freedom of his people, Mussolini defended himself by saying that he had saved the country from economic ruin. In his work “Born of a Need for Action”, Mussolini sums it all up within the first section of his writing by saying that “Fascism was not the nursling of a doctrine worked out beforehand with a detailed elaboration: it was born of the need for action and it was itself from the beginning practical rather than theoretical…”. He acknowledges taking away the aspect of freedom and equality within his society, saying that “…Fascism denies, in democracy, the absurd conventional untruth of political equality dressed out in the garb of collective irresponsibility, and the myth of “happiness” and indefinite progress”. For the betterment of the country, people needed to sacrifice themselves in order to help stimulate their motherland. However, this type of dictatorship did not end there.
One of the most poignant events that deal with freedom and equality is the rise of Nazism in Germany. The dictatorship that Adolph Hitler led was in great violation of the values of freedom and equality. However, his persecution of the Jewish people was the most blatant act of disregard to these two virtues. In his work “Mein Kampf”, Hitler talks about the poisoning of the Aryan race by the “degenerate” Jewish people. He lays out the many ways that he believes the Jewish people are inferior, as well as saying that “…the Jew possesses no culture-creating energy whatsoever, as the idealism, without which there can never exist a genuine development of man towards a higher level, does not and never did exist in him”. He goes on to say that “His intellect, therefore, will never have a constructive effect, but only a destructive one…”. Voicing these ridiculously skewed statements, Hitler continued on with his extermination of the Jewish people. He continuously had them rounded up, shipped off to camps, and then eliminated. The Jewish people had no say, no voice in any of this, living in a society where an authoritarian dictator was deciding their fate.
The emergence of the Second World War is also very significant in the issue of freedom and equality. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Japanese-Americans, under Executive Order 9066, were ordered into internment camps all along the western coast. This was quite obviously in direct violation of their freedom. However, much worse then that was the dropping of the atomic bomb on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Although it may possibly be based upon the matter of personal opinion, I believe that the dropping of the bomb violated the human rights of the thousands of innocent Japanese citizens that were mercilessly destroyed by these atomic weapons. The United States and all these other countries at war due to the fact that they were trying to preserve their own freedoms, and what they believe to be their own rights in the name of equality. However, the dropping of the bomb was a direct statement against those basic principles. Just as in the times of imperialism and colonialism, the dropping of the bomb constituted the rights of the United States, but complete disregard for anyone else beyond that. Although people try to justify this act and defend it, it was not necessary. While the two bombs did speed the ending of the war, the sacrifices that were made in the process were not worth it in the end.
With the beginning of the anti-colonialist movements, the importance of freedom and equality seem to make a reemergence, such as in the cases of the Chinese revolution, and the decolonization of India. The latter is one of the most important times for historical India, signifying a time for the Indian people that they had actually achieved freedom from British rule for the first time. The nonviolent movements that Mohandas Gandhi led were revolutionary and without them, the Indian people would never have seen peace. For many many years, India had been colonized by Britain. Everything that was produced in India was all property of the British, and there was nothing that the country could do in order to try and build up their homeland due to this reason. With Gandhi working on their side, the Indian people were eventually able to reclaim their land, and begin to establish themselves as an individual nation.
Freedom and equality are two very important themes that reoccur in different degrees throughout the course of western civilization. From the beginning of the French Revolution, to the start of the second coming of the Industrial revolution; From the rise of Nazism to the explosion of the Second World War, freedom and equality have teetered back and forth on the scale of justice, affecting societies and countries alike. It is not enough to acknowledge the disparities that have occurred throughout the course of history. It does not do us any good to just read about the atrocities that have gone on. What needs to happen is the growth of an awareness of the wrongs in the past, and what caused these things to happen. It is very important that lessons are learned from each chapter, and we do not make the same mistakes that we have made in our historical past. This is the only way that we will be able to positively affect and shape our own future.