The millennium story

By Joe Schembrie
web posted December 27, 1999

For many, it began just like any other millennium. The vast majority of humanity, serfs and slaves, shuffled out to the fields of their lords and masters, and brutally labored their tragically short lives away.

No one suspected that this millennium was going to be any different -- let alone very different. Or that of all places, Europe would be the setting for the transformation.

On the face of it, Europe was the most backward of civilizations. China, the Middle East, Central and South America had thriving, sophisticated cultures. Europe was still recovering from the shattering of the Roman Empire centuries before.

Everywhere else there had been long centuries of learning. Europe's recent historical memories were lost in the collective amnesia of the Dark Ages.

Underpopulated, isolated, and backward, European Christendom would seem destined for conquest by Vikings from the North, Mongols from the East, and Islamic Jihads from the South. Almost all that remained of the glories of Rome was the Byzantine Empire, which reigned over little more than Turkey and Greece. To the West were feudal barbarians.

Then a new idea came upon Europe. It was called freedom.

There always was something a little individualistic about Europe since the fall of Rome. All the other great civilizations of the world recognized their rulers as gods, prophets, holy intermediaries. The Roman Empire in its glory had done likewise. But Christianity taught that kings were not gods, they were only men. And unique to the Western European world was the schism of mutual suspicion between state and church -- a societal wedge into which freedom crept.

This lack of religious awe toward civil authorities started a slow devolution of power from the absolute monarch.

In 1215, King John was forced to transfer rights to the nobility by signing the Magna Carta. The ink wasn't dry for long before kings had trouble enough controlling the common people.

Unlike oriental-style despotisms, the kingdoms of Europe were small and in constant competition. It led to the kind of continual social disruption that an imperial bureaucracy simply would not tolerate. In China, when the rulers feared that further exploration would jeopardize the stability of the regime, they burned their long-range naval fleets and archives. But the Italian city-states, when they denied Columbus support for his ocean-crossing voyage, could not keep the great explorer from pitching the same idea to Spain.

The Pope could censor Galileo, but Galileo's ideas escaped to other European countries. The Pope could not even keep the Bible from being printed. Imagine a book published in China without the permission of the imperial bureaucracy! Intellectual freedom flourished in Europe, not because the rulers wanted it to, but because their kingdoms were too weak and disunited to stop it. Soon even the Church found its spiritual leadership split and redistributed down to the masses.

Then it was noticed that the more free the realm, the more it prospered. Despotic Byzantium shriveled and collapsed. Spain's mighty armada couldn't overcome the tiny boats of England. England had the greatest reverence for individual liberty, and soon had the greatest empire as well.

Individual freedom, unchaining millions of minds from ancient traditions and stratified class structures, led to an explosion of science and technology, commerce and industry. And the Industrial Revolution gave Europe the material power to conquer the entire world.

The most fateful date of the Millennium came in 1776, when the Declaration of Independence proclaimed that kings had no divine right to rule at all. For millennia, absolute monarchs dominated the Earth -- and then, suddenly, they were an endangered species.

And freedom marched on, its logic demanding an end to slavery and a gradual extension of citizenship to everyone.

With the twentieth century came totalitarian dogmas that disdained freedom in exchange for a promised prosperity and social justice that was never delivered. Millions had to die before humanity realized it had stumbled down the wrong path. But in the end, the truth triumphed, and freedom proved resilient against even its most harrowing enemies.

And that brings us to the present. The millennium closes with freedom having spread from Europe to America and then to points around the world. The birth of freedom, its growth, survival, and triumph, is the great story of the millennium. And considering what existed before, and what trials were endured along the way, the story has a happy ending.

But what's next?

Will we trade our freedom for the welfare state's false securities? Will the incrementalist Third Way gradually coax freedom into socialist chains? Will freedom be crushed under the jackboot of a One-World Globalist Superstate?

Or will freedom be revitalized, and spread untrammeled to every country on Earth -- and venture toward new worlds beyond?

Tune in next millennium.

Joe Schembrie is a contributor to Enter Stage Right.

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