Magazine article The Spectator

A March That Has Lost Momentum

Magazine article The Spectator

A March That Has Lost Momentum

Article excerpt

TOWARDS THE ,LIGHT by A. C. Grayling Midas, £20, pp. 335, ISBN 9780747583868 £16 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

'Do not judge a book by its cover' is not a dictum that applies in the present case. Towards the Light: The Story of the Struggle for Liberty and Rights that Made the Modern West by Mr A. C. Grayling, Printed in the year 2007, sets us up for a rollicking defence of Freedom and Enlightenment in the style of Tom Paine or William Godwin. And that is exactly what we get. This is the story of modern Europe as told by a 19th-century liberal secularist, updated but not fundamentally rethought. Beginning with the horrors of the Spanish inquisition, it moves on to liberators of the mind such as Galileo, Locke and Montesquieu, skips briskly forwards to the realisation of their ideals in the American and French revolutions, and concludes with an impassioned call not to sacrifice the freedoms so painfully won in pursuit of a nebulous 'war on terror'. Even Grayling's style has a quaint, old-fashioned ring to it. He is not one to shy away from a good stirring peroration, complete with quotations from Churchill.

Grayling is happily innocent of the complexities of 20th-century historiography. His history 'pulses' and 'throbs' with an unstoppable forwards momentum. Freedom is forever on the march, held back only by the dead hand of autocracy and priestcraft. One hates to pour cold water on such enthusiasm, but must point out that the most thoughtful liberals always had a keen eye for the ironies of progress. They knew that every advance in state organisation entails a curtailment of freedom, that democracy is inseparable from nationalism, and that material progress softens and enervates. Hitler and Stalin are not throwbacks to some theocratic past, as Grayling presents them, but typical products of the modern age. The recently proposed introduction of biometric identity cards, which Grayling so rightly protests against, is in no sense a reversal of history but the logical culmination of a process whose origins lie as far back as the first world war.

Grayling presents Towards the Light as a rejoinder to Lord Acton's never completed 'history of liberty'. Acton, a Catholic, held up Christianity as the original source of European freedom. …

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