Liberal reflections

Freedom is the precondition of progress

Nobody who has even a slight acquaintance with world history can have failed to be struck by the occurrence of periods of extraordinary creativity in a few places and for quite short times, which have made greater contributions to human progress than the whole of the rest of the world put together. It does not matter what aspect of human life you are studying; whether it is literature, or philosophy for fine art or science or technology. We find not only that there are such periods, but that the periods are the same. They are creative not only in one or two fields but in every field of human endeavour that existed at the time.

These periods of outstanding creativity are quite few. There is the classical period of China, the time of Confucius and Mencius, and the other Chinese Sages. At about the same time, there is classical Greece, the age of Aeschyius and Euripides, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Herodotus and Thucydides, Phidias and Praxiteles. The next period is less well known since most of its art and literature had perished and the only well known names associated with it are Archimedes and Euclid. It is the period of the kingdoms ruled by the successors of Alexander the Great, especially Egypt, centred on Alexandra, and Syria, centred on Antioch and forming part of the same world, the independent Greek cities of Sicily and Southern Italy, especially Syracuse. To appreciate the importance of this period we have to compare the level of general sophistication, both philosophical and technical, reflected in classical Latin literature with that of “golden age” Greek literature from four hundred years earlier.

We have to wait a long time for the next period which happened in the Middle East around 1000 AD in the Arab kingdoms, especially those centred on Baghdad and Cairo. Out of these came remarkable advances in science and mathematics and in architecture. The well-known Moorish architecture of Spain is an offshoot of this. After this, and in some ways directly derived from it, comes the flowering of Renaissance Italy, Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci, Petrarch and Boccaccio, Machiavelli and Galileo.

After this we are approaching modern times in which creativity becomes both more widespread and more continuous, but we can still see a disproportionate amount in Holland in the seventeenth century, in Britain all the way from Shakespeare times to the end of the nineteenth century, and in the United States from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day.

We may also note that right through from the middle ages to present day Western Europe as a whole, while not equalling the special periods, was creative in a way in which the Roman Empire, the later Chinese Empires and the Byzantine Empire were not.

How are we to account for all this? From the sixteenth century onwards it is not difficult to detect the correlation between creativity and (relative) freedom. Though very far from free in the modern sense, the England of Shakespeare’s time, and the Republic of the Netherlands of the same period were not merely the freest countries in the world at the time, they were among the freest that there had ever been. As the seventeenth century went on Britain (now including Scotland) became freer, while the Netherlands, locked in a desperate fight for survival, first with Spain and then with France, became less so. The degree of creativity, especially in philosophy and science, moved accordingly.

Source: This article is an extract from FMF occasional paper published by the Free Market Foundation. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation.

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