A history of freedom

Catalonia and Barcelona must be an open space to contribute to a better Europe and a better world

ORIOL JUNQUERAS
ORIOL JUNQUERAS

When the Greeks explored the coasts of the Black Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean around the 6th and 7th centuries BC , they noticed that each people worshiped their own gods and represented them according to their own natural reality. Thus, for example, it was clear that there were no crocodile gods in Italy nor horse gods in Egypt.

The realization that this plurality of religious expression adapted to the traditions of each place opened the door to a new cultural relativism. If what had seemed to be eternal and universal truths until then were, in fact, local and impermanent expressions, new questions needed to be asked, such as what the unifying principles were of this enormous diversity that characterizes human life. And starting from this question, the Greeks laid the foundations of philosophy, because they discovered the love of knowledge.

At the end of the 6th century and at the beginning of the 5th century BCE, scientific and political thought were born and developed, respectively, in Miletus and Athens. It is, without a doubt, one of the foundational, most splendid moments in human history. Thales predicted for the first time when a solar eclipse would take place. Aristarchus claimed that it was the Sun (and not the Earth) that was at the center of the Solar System. Democritus spoke of the atomic structure of matter. Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of our planet with great precision. The sophists said that humans are "the measure of all things." Socrates established dialogue as the foundation of knowledge. And Aspasia (Pericles’ partner) directed the cultural policy of Athens and promoted the work of Phidias at the Parthenon.

To a great extent, these contributions were made and were the result of a social, political, and scientific context that, with all the limitations of the time, was characterized by space for freedom and pluralism. Freedoms and pluralism that were threatened by Persian imperialism and swept away by Macedonian authoritarianism.

Macedonian absolutism (and, later, Rome’s) led philosophy to largely abandon political, social and scientific reflection and take refuge in the internal psychological sphere of cynics and epicureans. Meanwhile, more or less simultaneously, the first emperor in China's history burned all the Confucian texts and ordered the execution of all the teachers of this philosophical tradition at the end of the 3rd century BC. A few centuries later, religious ultraconservatism destroyed the Alexandria library and led to the death of its director, Hypatia. And, in 529, the bishop of Athens ordered the closure of Plato’s Academy, after almost a millennium of existence, in the belief that philosophy had nothing new to contribute to the world of knowledge: everything that was needed was already written in the sacred texts of Christianity. Curiously, that same year the first Benedictine monastery in the history of Europe was founded, in a coincidence that provided evidence that cultural activity had changed its headquarters, and left the public squares of the cities to take refuge in the cloisters of monastic centers, constructed, on purpose, as far as possible from urban life.

Ultraconservative and totalitarian interpretations are not exclusive to any religious tradition nor to any specific ideology, so none can be vaccinated against them definitively.

Thus, for example, Venice was enriched by welcoming all those who fled from a Constantinople about to be conquered by the Turks. And in contrast, about a century later, it became impoverished due to the flight of Jews and Protestants, persecuted by the new Roman Inquisition, which had just forced its entry into that Serene Republic.

And, in another example, immortalized by Stefan Zweig in his work Castellio gegen Calvin [The Right to Heresy: Castellio against Calvin], Miguel Servet, persecuted by Catholics, was eventually executed by Calvinists.

Even in tolerant Holland, a philosopher despised by Jews, Catholics and Calvinists, was buried in a pit where someone wrote the following epitaph: "Spit on this grave, for here lies Baruch Spinoza."

For its part, modern Hispanic absolutism implemented a new Inquisition, burned Bibles translated into Catalan, expelled Jews and Moors, prevented Protestantism from taking root, centralized laws and institutions, and persecuted any sign of internal diversity

The interest in diversity and respect for pluralism and the love of freedom had to follow uncertain and sinuous paths in search of new places to take refuge and flourish.
States obsessed with uniformity and imposed unity impoverish "their" societies from a material, spiritual, and cultural point of view. And, at the same time, they contribute to drying up the creativity of children and the critical spirit of youth in schools and universities.

From this perspective, it can be especially suggestive and relevant to ask how many times repression has been, in fact, a symptom and cause of weakness and decadence.

In addition, some other questions may also be inspiring. When the Roman Empire closed its borders to the peaceful immigration of Germanic peoples in the 3rd and 4th centuries, did it consolidate its political power and economic prosperity, or precipitate its disappearance as a state in the 5th century and an unprecedented economic collapse in the Mediterranean world in the 6th century? When China destroyed its ocean fleet in the 15th century, in order not to corrupt itself with contacts with the outside world, did it manage to protect itself, or condemn itself to a very long decay that would last half a millennium? Who became wealthier, the Hispanic monarchy that expelled Jews and Moors, and France who expelled Calvinist Huguenots, or the countries that welcomed them? When Japan closed its borders in the 17th century, did it become stronger or weaker? When the United States established quotas on free immigration and adopted protectionist measures at the beginning of the 20th century, did they lay the foundations for a long period of economic growth and social progress or did they condemn themselves to the worst crisis in their history, known as the Great Depression?

I am convinced that a rigorous response to these questions (and to many other issues that appear more or less implicitly in this article) can help us to make useful and courageous decisions, in the current very complex context that we must face. And, therefore, to build a better future for all of us. Especially, if we understand this "us" in the broadest and most generous sense of the word. With this ambition and sustained effort, Catalonia and Barcelona must be an open and welcoming space for diverse knowledge, so as to contribute to a better Europe and a better world. This is the Republican undertaking.

Oriol Junqueras, president of Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, has been in pre-trial detention now for one year and one month.

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