I recently came across a reminder of a simple act of defiance that changed history. In 1517, Martin Luther tacked a document called the 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenburg Castle church. The 95 Theses questioned the foundations of the all-powerful Catholic church. Most specifically, the document challenged the church’s practice of “indulgences,” payments made by believers as a way to enter heaven. Indulgences empowered the church and enriched the church elite, mostly at the expense of the poor.
Luther turned out to be profoundly anti-Semitic. But the 95 Theses are credited with setting in motion the Protestant Reformation, which in time dissolved the political power of the Catholic church and laid the foundations for the modern world.
Luther’s challenge to authority was a call for freedom and seems like a metaphor for our current circumstance. Perhaps we have come upon a crisis that challenges the world order we believed would protect us and guide our entry to heaven.The contents of our own 95 Theses and the ways we respond to them could drastically affect the future of the planet. And right now, it looks like the future will depend on close race between the Leviathinians and the Transcendentalists.
“Leviathan” is the work of German philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who described a fearsome world and individual impulses that could not be trusted. Hobbes proposed that only absolute authority of government would protect civilization. The frontispiece of his original work, which Hobbes commissioned, says it well: an over-sized monarch in control of nature, sword in hand, and clothed in the heads of his subjects.
In contrast, Transcendentalism presupposes humans aspire to a higher purpose. Ralph Waldo Emerson, perhaps America’s most influential thinker, was a Transcendentalist. He believed in the goodness of people and their capacity for growth through reflection and spirituality. His Transcendentalist friend, Henry David Thoreau, argued that the pursuit of money and conformity would lead to wasted lives, and that nature demonstrated that “all good things are wild and free.”
Disney’s “Colors of the Wind” is a modern and sweet interpretation of transcendentalism.
Embedded in this battle of ideas is freedom, one of America’s most treasured values. And like most values, the meaning of “freedom” depends on who you talk to. For the men who laid the foundations of our government, freedom was relief from the oppression of an English king, and a government at home that respected the rights and dreams of individuals. ( “Hamilton” may not be a perfect retelling of history but it is a nearly perfect way to be inspired)
Today, the lines seem to be drawn between those who associate freedom with small government, gun ownership and license to make profits, and those who associate freedom with an opportunity for everyone to pursue their dreams and participate in democracy. Of course, it’s more complicated than that, but it seems to be not as complicated as it should be.
However we define it, freedom is not possible in a society where people are shrouded in fear. And for that reason alone, we should be emboldened.