A.C. Grayling's 'Towards the Light' is a historical overview of the development of human rights and liberal thinking in Western Civilization. Things begin with the reformation. Grayling's points out the liberal views of Castellio and Erasmus but then also shows that the likes of Luther and Calvin were - in some respects - Christianity's version of the Taliban. This may come to a shock to some but Grayling's argues well. German peasants thought that Luther would sympathise with them but instead he urged the ruling classes to crush them in his piece 'Against Murderous Thieving Hordes of Peasants'. In his 'Sermons on Dueronomy' Calvin states, it should be "severe punishment" for blashpemy and since we we "muzzle dogs", men should be treated the same way regarding free speech. But Grayling also reminds the reader of several examples where Roman Catholicism went out of its way to control human thought. Not only by using the well known stories of Gallieo but other pertinent points that most people wouldn't know. The Roman Catholic Archbishop Theophilus destroyed 200,000 volumes of literature of antiquity in the library in Alexandria, Emperor Justinian closed down the Greek philosophical schools and Bossuest provided scriptural support for absolutism rule in France. Things did get a bit better in the reformation but there was still a long way to go.
Graylings details several other important junctures in the advancement of an enlightened West. For example the American Civil War. He doesn't just detail facts but makes some very interesting points. For example, one reason why Southern states were more reticent about ditching slavery was because their economy was more dependent on it. The Cotton, Tobacco and rice plantations were labour intensive and built on slave labour. This made it more difficult for people to see the enlightened views of the likes of Thomas Paine. Similarly, on the theme of fearing change and lose of power, Grayling makes the point that when Lord Grey tried to introduce parliamentary
reforms he met inertia from none other than the Church of England. Why? because they were afraid their automatic right to 28 seats (in the House of Lords) and afraid that more democracy meant more freedom for people, ergo less power for them.
Grayling also does a good job describing the rise of political idealism. He details not just Marx and Engles, but Robert Owen - the man who coined the term 'Socialism'. Owen put forward radical ideas about the entitlement to quality of life for every living human being. His ideas would have been considered Utopian in their day but they are ideas that nowadays most reasonable people would really just take granted. But Grayling does not treat anything - including the left - with kid gloves. He details specific examples of alliances between the left and the Roman Catholic Church to stop women having the right to vote. This happened in France and South America. He suggests the left considered women more conservative and more likely to vote for their opponents. Enlightenment values are predicated on a desire to think more critically thinking and to search for accurate information. But accurate information isn't always something easy to come by. Grayling details the entry for the word 'Negro' in the 3rd edition of the acclaimed Encylopaedia Britannia (1798). This deplorably states that "negro" is a "variety of human species" which contain a range of "vices" including:"revenge, cruelty, impudence. stealing, lying". Let's be thankful we have better encyclopaedias now. But, let's learn the lesson here. Take nothing for granted and question everything. In summary, this is a great book. A huge amount covered regarding religious freedom, workers rights, universal suffrage and the abolition of slavery. Obviously not room for everything. For example Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Gandhi don't get much of a mention. In fact, it's very much a Western centric view of things. To have a full understanding one also pay homage to the East. Now, obviously
not enough in one book to do that. But it's an important footnote for the reader, something they should not forget.