Wednesday, 1 January 2014

‘Question the Powerful’: quincentenary of the 1514 watershed

The progressive tradition of critical thinking and radical reform has been a driving force for intellectual and social improvement for centuries. Although it began to take shape over the first half of the 16th century, the year 1514 marked a notable watershed worthy of commemoration five hundred years on.

Down to 1514, Renaissance Humanism was still largely preoccupied with recovering ancient learning to quench the growing thirst for knowledge. After 1514, the floodgates opened and the eras of the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, and the Age of Reform rapidly came in subsequent centuries – successively advancing the frontiers of human understanding and democratic cooperation far beyond what had been previously thought possible.

Ideas articulated by a number of thinkers in 1514 cumulatively gave rise to the progressive ethos: never accept that there is no room for improvement; constantly explore alternative options; and be ever ready to question the powerful.

In 1514, Erasmus wrote Julius Excluded from Heaven, a satirical dialogue about papal abuse of power, which mocked the religious establishment for pretending that its greed and ill treatment of people were divinely sanctioned. In the same year, Thomas More, a friend of Erasmus, began writing The History of Richard III, a sharp critique of the tyrannical behaviour of kings. It cast doubt about the structure of hierarchical power as much as his other work, Utopia, questioned the socio-economic distribution of resources in the society of his time.

1514 was also the year when Copernicus wrote his Little Commentary, which challenged the view then held by everyone in a position of authority, namely, that the earth was the centre of the universe, and argued instead for a heliocentric model with the earth moving around the sun. No less revolutionary was Machiavelli’s The Prince, which he completed in 1514 to explain, along with its companion piece, Discourses, why rulers must do everything they can to take control of the apparatus of an authoritarian state, and transform it into a free republic for the common good.

One of the most dramatic exemplars of this new progressive mindset was Philip von Hohenheim, who in 1514 embarked on his medical career. He visited universities across Europe and concluded that it was wholly unacceptable to rely without question on ancient texts such as those by Celsus who wrote about medicine fifteen hundred years previously. Declaring that all texts must be critically questioned no matter how long they had been accepted, von Hohenheim changed his own name to ‘Paracelsus’ (‘beyond Celsus’), and led a movement to transform medicine by relentlessly subjecting its theory and practice to empirical analysis and experimentation.

Of course all the figures mentioned above had their share of shortcomings and intellectual blind spots, but collectively, they helped to inaugurate the progressive tradition, which in the next five hundred years transformed innumerable aspects of life for the better. And as we commemorate the quincentenary of this watershed year, we should recognise the oppressive threats posed in our times by the rise of plutocracy and resurgent fundamentalism, and draw strength from the wisdom and courage of the 1514 pioneers to persist with finding better alternatives and never desist from questioning the powerful.

To find out more about the progressive tradition, here is a list of ten books that take a closer historical look at how it has evolved, and what lessons we may draw from its development over time.

No comments: