The British classical scholar and historian John Bagnell Bury was born in Ireland, the son of a clergyman who loved the classics and a mother who loved to read. John began his study of Latin when he was four years old and became a student at Dublin’s Trinity College in 1878. He studied ancient languages in Germany, made his first visit to Italy, and was graduated in 1882, garnering prizes along the way and securing a fellowship at Trinity in 1885. In 1898, he was named reggaes professor of Greek at Trinity, and in 1902 reggaes professor of modern history at Cambridge, where he taught until his death.
Bury’s first major work, A History of the Later Roman Empire, was published in 1889; in 1900 his History of Greece to the Death of Alexander the Great appeared. Like Edward Gibbon, whose History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788) he edited and annotated between 1896 and 1900, Bury was anticlerical. His “lack of sympathy with Christianity,” as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography puts it, is evident in A History of Freedom of Thought (1913) and other works.
Accordingly, reviews were mixed. The International Journal of Ethics saluted “these pages from a great scholar’s hand, so simply written yet so suggestive of an arsenal of learning in the background” as “this brilliant book,” adding that “Since Mill, no one has stated so clearly and forcibly the argument for the supreme social importance of liberty.” Hastings Rashdall of Oxford University, reviewing the book for the Harvard Theological Review, declared, “It is strange that a writer of Professor Bury’s great ability and immense learning should have cared to write a bitter anti-religious pamphlet of this kind…Arrogant contempt for opponents is a little to be commended in the apologist of ‘Free-thought’ as in the apologist of Christianity.”
The reader who keeps in mind the author’s own prejudices will find in A History of Freedom of Thought an excellent survey of the subject form classical Greece and Rome through the nineteenth century. The author states that it is “the merest introduction to a vast and intricate subject” and “confined to Western civilization.”
When Bury introduces his subject in the first chapter, he could be writing today:
It has taken centuries to persuade the most enlightened peoples that liberty to publish one’s opinions and to discuss all questions is a good and not a bad thing. Human societies (there are some brilliant exceptions) have been generally opposed to freedom of thought, or, in other words, to new ideas, and it is easy to see why.
A History of Freedom of Thought is a provocative and controversial classic. As such, it is in itself an example of the freedoms to think, to study, and to publish that are among the marks of societies that value liberty.
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