Toleration of Unorthodox Ideas

Toleration of Unorthodox Ideas

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Another important aspect of the ancient science outlook is related to the manner in which unorthodox points of view were received and dealt with. It too has its powerful vestiges in our own times. Toleration of unorthodox ideas was rarely a salient feature of many ancient societies.

When the Greek sophist Protagoras expressed his doubts as to the existence of gods, and added that life was too brief and the subject too obscure for anyone to say anything definite on the matter, the Athenian Assembly exiled him from the capital, his boat capsized, and his writings were burnt. This happened four centuries before Christ in a society where there was much intellectual awareness. In China the works of Confucius were burnt. In 1240, Louis IX of France ordered that every available copy of the Talmud be set to flames. In medieval Europe, wherever the Catholic Church was a mighty force, the Church fathers claimed to know what was the ultimate Truth. In the thirteenth century, to give but one example, when some professors at the University of Paris raised questions about the then accepted versions of Truth regarding the na­ture of the world, the Bishop of Paris declared that their views were heretical, which was the current equivalent of treason. It was common practice, as late as in the sixteenth century, to set fire to books containing statements markedly different from those accepted by the authorities. The practice has not entirely disappeared in the world.

Some hallowed scriptures still bar the gates of Heaven to those who do not accept their truths, and some have recommended the use of force to make unbelievers see the Truth. Even the great Maimonides recommended capital punishment to Jews who would reject Jewish Law. St. Thomas Aquinas felt that death should be meted out to heretics.

The suppression of ideas and doctrinal opponents by flagrant means may not be as common in our own times. But in more subtle and less public ways, governments in many countries still control the thoughts and ideas to which their citizens may be exposed, and sub­ject those who hold unorthodox opinions to more than mild reprimands. It would be foolhardy to imagine that in societies which have freed themselves from the shackles of intolerance, this evil will never again resurface.

Social injustices

There is another aspect of ancient worldviews that must be recalled. Certain social values which most enlightened societies normally look upon with disfavor, horror, and abhorrence in our own times, were fairly universal in pre-modern societies, and still are current in those that still function in the pre-modern framework. These include overt class exploitation and the subjugation of women, racism, torture, and the like.

Slavery was fairly common in ancient Greece and Rome, in Africa and Arabia. In the third century Arthasâstra, the eminent political thinker of India recommends that for the purpose of obtaining yarn from wool, cotton, silk-cotton, etc., one should exploit the services of “widows, crippled women, maidens, women who have left their homes, and women paying off their fine by personal labor, mothers of courtesans, old female slaves of the king and female slaves of temples whose service of the gods has ceased.” There are passages in the Holy Qu’ran which seem to suggest that slavery was acceptable as long as the slaves were infidels. The scourge of social injustice and slavery has not disappeared from human societies altogether.

The Caliphs of the Arab world had thousands of eunuchs in their courts and thousands of virgins whom they ravished for their pleasure and sold as slaves. It is said, for example, that the Caliph Muqtadir had 11,000 eunuchs, and that Musa captured 300,000 in Africa and 30,000 virgins in Spain. One historian notes in what sounds like an exaggerated account that this personage “watched emissaries from Byzantium parading before him with ‘one hundred and sixty thousand horsemen and footmen, seven thousand black and white eunuchs and seven hundred chamberlains…and a hundred lions’ .”

Hundreds of thousands of innocent people were massacred in the rampages and conquests of ancient marauders like Genghis Khan – who has been recently resurrected as a founder of modern civilization. (vide Jack Weatherford’s book of 2005. He alone is credited with the slaughter of more than a million souls.) Casteism, apartheid, subjugation of minorities and people of other races, taxing citizens of a different religion, all these were, and still are, fairly common practices in societies where ancient perspectives continue to have their hold. Deplorable as the atrocities in today’s world are, when they are put in historical perspective, things may not be as terrible for the majority of humankind.