REVOLUTIONARY THINKERS: FROM SOCRATES TO THE PRESENT
Conservatively, lets begin our listing from Socrates of Athens, Yeshua (Jesus) of Judea, Mohammed of Mecca, Thomas Bacon of Britain, Galilei Galileo of Italy, Adam Smith of Britain, Thomas Paine of Britain/United States of America, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon of France, Friedrich Nietzche of Germany, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels of Germany, John Stuart Mill of Britain, J. K. Galbraith of USA, etc. etc.
You will notice that the listing draws mainly from the Western and Middle Eastern world. It does not mean to say Africa and the Far East were bereft of serious revolutionary thinkers. We can easily name Zoroaster of ancient Iran, Confucius and Lao Tzu of China, Gautama Buddha of India as some of the notable thinkers whose ideas launched the ancient world into new orbits of value and perception. The ideas propounded by these unique individuals have certainly made a lasting difference to our world.
In Africa, the body of indigenous religious practices testified to a manifestation of appearances of thinkers even though the philosophy of the religions is almost lost under the heavy weights of codified rituals and ceremonial worships. But there is no doubt that the origins of these religions were informed by cogent revelations on the meaning of life made by some reflective local thinkers. Orunmila, Obatala, Sango, and others were men of flesh and blood revered in the South West of Nigeria as Orisa. They were ancient philosophers that threw some lights into the meaning of life. Their teachings became popular religions until the advent of the Arabs and Europeans into Africa.
It should be mentioned that there were more exchanges of ideas in the ancient world than modern people have realised. And from the history of ideas, it seems each thinker built on the existing foundation of values and ideas laid by the older ancestral thinkers. There was much borrowing of ideas from one region to another, much reflection on the failings of the old ideas, and great efforts made to improve the defects and shortcomings of the older ideas. There was less display of bigotry in the ancient world, as we know it today. People were more open and more receptive to new ideas and of course there was enough room for everyone to propound his/her ideas of how the world was made and of how the world ought to be managed.
Socrates of Athens and Yeshua (Jesus) of Judea were the most luminous stars that are still shining ever so brightly in the spiritual universe of our world. These two gentlemen were the revolutionary thinkers per excellence of their Age. The fire of their unwritten ideas are still burning fresh as ever since they were first lighted in the minds of their contemporaries about 2,400 and 2,000 years ago respectively. Although the student of Socrates – Plato and the second-hand witness of Yeshua – Paul the Apostle by proxy that popularised the teachings did more harm than good in soiling the noble ideals that these two gentlemen stood for in their life times. By some devious coincidence, the two teachers were democratically murdered by the political overlords of their days. Socrates was killed because his accusers charged him with ‘neglecting the Athenian gods, introducing new gods and corrupting the young.’ Yeshua was similarly slaughtered by an ignominious method because his accusers charged him with blasphemy against the Hebrew god. It should be noted that the religious zealots of every generation have never changed. We hope nobody is deluding him/herself that we are in a modern age and that the atrocities meted to these men cannot happen again. Just be careful.
Since the times of these two teachers, the moral pillar of our world has revolved on the fulcrum laid by the teachings of Socrates and Yeshua. Socrates revealed the body-soul components of mankind and the central importance of the soul in the pursuit of excellence necessary for good life. He opened the senses of the people of Athens to the foolishness of their social order and the wastefulness of the Athenian’s crazy pursuit of money, fame and high political positions. On the other hand, Yeshua taught the people of Judea about the easiest and shortest way by which to bring the soul to life into the free state of the reborn or awakened. He emphasised on the need to seek and search for God (knowledge), since it is only the knowledge of truth that can set mankind free. He opened the eyes of his world to the possibilities of the Good News that the Kingdom of heaven can be brought down to planet earth; and that it is possible to achieve true freedom, equity and justice for all and sundry on earth.
Whatever else was adduced to these two noble men should be seen as mere addendum and explanatory sidelines to the central theme of the role of the soul in human affairs, and the importance of the knowledge of truth to freedom. While the philosophical ideas of Socrates were meant to resolve the grey areas of the past of mankind Yeshua’s teaching was designed to link the gory past with the wretched present and to usher the world into a new future of hope, freedom and peace. His teaching tried to show the world that mankind has a duty to dismantle and to rebuild the archaic and ruinous social order.
When we look closely at the ideas popularised by the Western and Middle Eastern thinkers, there seem to be a host of concepts that derived their origins from the Far East. The concepts of body, mind and soul; the concept of justice – do unto others what you want others to do to you; the concepts of God, Devil, heaven, sin, awakening or born again, etc. are all found in the ancient texts of the Far East before the times of Socrates and Yeshua. It might shock some people to hear that Yeshua never said anything particularly new in his teachings. What made him particularly remarkable as a teacher was the breath of freshness he brought into the ancient knowledge, the down to earth manner of his practical discourses on the meaning of life, and his exceptional brilliant ability to synthesise and to simplify the religious mystics of his native land. It should be noted that he never condemned his Judaic background outright but he pointed attention of his listeners to the fundamental defects in the practice of the Mosaic laws and he questioned the unnecessary burden the religious institutions placed on the people.
Moreover, history also recorded that the Chinese were also engaged in similar intellectual and philosophical brainstorming around the time of Socrates. The teachings of Confucius, Lao Tzu, and many others have been shown to be works of very serious philosophy from thinkers fully awakened and possessing living souls. The period between 600BC and 30AD was a time of great heavenly downpour of uplifting ideas to the world. The Greek and Chinese seemed to be the only two peoples in the world who were ready with receptacles to collect the ideas and with facilities to store them as they rained down. It is likely that other regions of the world were also similarly blessed but because they lacked writing skills that is why their posterity have been denied a worthy inheritance and from benefiting directly from these heavenly feasts. Even then we could remark that other peoples of the world, without writing skills, still left their memories in religious and cultural symbols, taboos, rituals, totems, etc.
For the Western Hemisphere and the present phase of human civilisation, one could argue that the defining moment came from Ancient Greece. The Greek philosophers were the forerunners of the art of putting into writing critical philosophical analysis of the physical world in the Western Hemisphere. It was the Greek thinkers that set into motion the liberation of the mind through reason, logic and rational expositions of values. This formidable intellectual culture was abruptly brought to a temporary closure when the Roman Empire accepted Paul’s version of the teachings of Yeshua. However, after a perilous Dark Age from the 4th century to the 16th century when the Christian religion dominated the western world as the only absolute truth some flickers of light came to the world by way of Mohammed of Mecca in the 7th century and later from the Renaissance. In the Dark Ages, there was a lot of bon fire made with the books and papyri of ancient writing as the demigods of those era consigned valuable materials from ancient libraries into fire. The rejuvenation of our world came from the few materials of Greek writings salvaged by the Muslim world.
The Renaissance was an important landmark in the history of our world. It was a season of great revival of knowledge when ancient thoughts were been hungrily sought after by the starving minds of Europe. The fever of the revival in ancient thoughts caught Europe like a tidal wave as it tore the region apart. It shook the foundations of the Holy Roman Catholic Church, the global political power of the time, to its core and nothing ever remain same anymore. The fire of the revival raged from the 16th century to the 19th century. It led Europe into intellectual enlightenment, political turmoil, religious re-alignment, political inter and intra-state wars, scientific theorising and experimentation, and naval, terrestrial and space adventures and explorations.
The period set into motion the reconciliation of the grey areas of ancient thoughts and ideas. There were prolific thesis and anti-thesis propounded and refuted on the nature of God; on the origin of man; and on the forms and practices of religious beliefs and dogmas. There were earth-shaking thesis on the nature of the universe; on the human nature; and on the relationship between God and man, between man and the Church, between man and man, and between man and other creatures. There debates on the nature and limitations of religious and political authority; on the nature and extent of the absolute power to be exercised by monarchs; and on the nature and character of the fundamental principles of freedom, justice and equality in societies. The debates ranged far and wide and wars were fought on the basis of differences in perception, philosophy and understanding of the various issues that the renaissance spirit threw up.
It was a difficult time in the history of Europe as Reformation was put in place in different countries and the Church launched Counter Reformation. There were burning of heretics at the stake and there was shedding of the blood of innocent people at the instance and at the whim of the Church. The zealots led by Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesuits, fought unsuccessfully against the tide of history to no avail. They were determined to return Europe to the status quo of an all-powerful absolute and corrupt Church. There were several wars. V.H.H. Green in Renaissance and Reformation recorded that, ‘War was more usual than peace in the 16th and 17th century. It has been reckoned that there were only four years between 1450 and 1660 in which there was no organised fighting in Europe, 1548, 1549, 1550 and 1610.’ The wars were fought over ideological differences on religious dogma and over doctrinal differences within the same religious body. There were wars over freedom as individuals outside the priesthood sought to worship and to use religious texts as they deem fit. There were wars over who has the right between the Church and the monarchs to exercise territorial and political powers; over trade, gold, silver and women; and over all other kinds of pettiness.
The invention of the printing press in the 1450s firmly established that this momentous wind of change should no longer be reversible. The printing press brought in a book revolution and an explosion in written words all over Europe. Within 30 years of the invention, about 200 cities in Europe had established a press. Publication of books grew in leap and bound and the yearning spirit of the reading public was satiated with all kinds of books. The Greek writings and the Christian Bible were translated into several vernacular languages. They were printed and circulated across the frontiers of Europe. The blind was able to see and the deaf was able to hear in the true sense of intellectual and spiritual awakening. The formidable political and religious institutions of the Holy Roman Catholic Church that depended on the ignorance and gullibility of the people for their existence and power were done a fatal blow. The knowledge that books brought to the life of the people literally set the people free. The fear that was being peddled by the Church could no longer register on the awakened minds of the people. Europe became free indeed from the dogmas of religion and from the age-long travesty of priestly authorities.
The freedom of the mind attained through the Renaissance later translated into the political and industrial revolution of the western world. People across Europe fought for self-determination, first from the Church and later from the Monarchs. The expanding sphere of freedom that the Renaissance facilitated helped to usher into the world the spirit of scientific experimentation, adventure and exploration. In a nutshell, the world is where it is today because of the gains of freedom that the Renaissance spirit brought into Europe.