20 June, 2013

Religion Gave Birth to Democracy

History of philosophy often starts with the Greeks. Luc ferry (2011:17) states that ‘most historians agree that philosophy first saw the light of day in Greece, sometime around the sixth century BC’.  The pre Hellenistic philosophical exercise in the east by the followers of Abrahamic religions, Vedic and Pre-Vedic religions, Zoroastrianism etc. are ignored perhaps because in the philosophical literature faith is seen in contrast to wisdom / reason, and philosophy is translated as the love of wisdom. Secondly, there are no written accounts of philosophical exercise, during the time of Moses or his descendants. The Dead Sea scrolls are the oldest manuscripts available for the Old Testament and they have been dated back to 250 BC only. Furthermore, there is lot of scepticism as to when the Old Testament finally took its current form after going through various transformations over the ages. Similar reasons can be applied to other pre historic religions. Nevertheless, for someone deeply engrossed in the act of philosophizing, the struggle of overcoming one’s primitive fears, it is truly saddening that the development of thoughts in primitive man is ignored.

Most philosophical texts of today contrast the Greek schools of thought prevalent at times of advent of Christianity i.e. the Hellenistic philosophers (Epicurean and Stoics) with the new religious phenomenon. Very often, these comparisons regard Christianity as the first religious phenomenon and narrow the Christian thought to the one prevalent today in which salvation (the act of overcoming one’s primitive fears) is personalized in Christ. Philosophical implications of Trinitarian beliefs of believing in a Man-God who died for your sins, to those of Unitarian beliefs in which God is seen only as one metaphysical being are far apart, which are ignored in most philosophical literature while busy in contrasting faith with reason.

This prelude was essential in understanding the place given to religious thoughts in the philosophical literature. Luc Ferry (2011) argues that the new belief system (i.e. Christianity) brought a theme of religious humility that replaced philosophical arrogance. He contrasts between the fundamentally aristocratic views of humanity, where people at top saw those below them as inferiors, to the notion of human equality brought by Christianity. He believes that the whole world owes its entire democratic inheritance to Christianity for bringing up this concept. He elaborates that in Greek moral vocabulary virtue was almost always linked to natural endowment that is why slavery was accommodated into the society, whereas in Christian thought, these inequalities have no bearing on morals. He says that the concept of human equality which we take for granted today was unheard of at that time, and with the advent of Christianity this powerful concept turned the world upside down. In the words of Luc Ferry (2011:73): ‘We exit an aristocratic universe and we enter a meritocratic universe’; a world, which replaced the stress on inherited qualities with merit. Greek philosophers (especially the stoics) had a pantheistic view of world, in which everything ultimately fell in its place, hence, talents / superiority bestowed by nature was seen as intrinsically virtuous. Christian thought regards these natural gifts, received at birth as qualities but not on a moral place. Free will became the determining factor for morality of an action.

‘Christianity revolutionized the history of thought. For the first time in human history, liberty rather than nature had become the foundation of morality. At the same time, the idea of equal dignity of all human beings makes its first appearance: and Christianity was to become the precursor of modern democracy’ (Luc Ferry, 2011:73)

Luc Ferry, crowns Christianity as the founder of democracy and equality, for they replaced the prevalent philosophical concepts that encouraged inequality. Ancient scriptures indicate that other pre historic religions also presented similar concepts of human equality and understood morality in the framework of freewill.  The journey from an aristocratic view to a meritocratic view was of supreme importance, and essentially it was religion that brought forward this concept, as opposed to what is commonly believed today. Perhaps it is because the modern day religionists stress their ‘superiority’ merely as the ‘chosen ones’ and do not strive to prove their excellence democratically on a moral or intellectual plane. Or perhaps it is because the atheists are selective in the way they process the effect of religion on the modern world. Or perhaps it is the inability of both to look beyond the religious and non-religious paradigms of today and peek into the past to derive important lessons from it. Perhaps, it’s all of the above.

Ferry. L, (2011), A Brief History of Thought, Haper Collins Publsiher, Newyork. 

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