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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Toward the Light of Liberty: The Struggles for Freedom and Rights That Made the Modern Western World by A.C. Grayling

Strong, flawed, important work with a valuable, urgent message

Published in 2007 by Walker and Company
288 pages.

 I had to pick up this book as soon as I stumbled upon it. One of the themes in my history classes is the expansion of freedom in the West following the same general timeline that Grayling follows. Who doesn't like to have his own thoughts echoed by a major English philosopher?

John Locke (1632-1704)


I do recommend this book - it is a readable, admirable attempt at covering a vast, important topic. Grayling covers John Locke especially well (although he disposes with the views of Hobbes rather quickly by asserting that people are not necessarily nasty and brutal with one another).

Grayling's most important message is quite simple: the rights that we have are the product of a lot of time and a lot of struggles and they should be cherished and well-guarded. When the reader has completed this book it should be quite clear that this inheritance is too valuable to be squandered.

To his credit, Grayling does not treat Marx and Engels as if they were true prophets. Rather, he successfully counters their arguments and, unlike many academics, expresses no sympathy with their devotees in the USSR - tyranny is tyranny, no matter its political leanings with Mr. Grayling.


Grayling has intended this book to be an answer to 19th century English historian Lord Acton's incomplete "History of Liberty" - a work that is friendly to the role of religion in Liberty and Freedom in the West. Grayling is most definitely not agreeable to that point. It is too bad that this bias runs throughout the book. This work is strong in so many ways, but this attitude is over-emphasized

Grayling begins with Martin Luther and the Reformation. The longest argument that Grayling makes is against the uniform power of the Catholic church during those dangerous times, especially the Inquisition. Grayling overplays his hand by painting all religions with the taint of the Inquisition over and over throughout the book. At one point (p. 234) he even argues that religious people are not good citizens because their loyalties are divided between the "secular state" and their religion. Too my mind, his argument comes dangerously close to swinging to becoming zealous opposite of the Inquisition - an anti-religious inquisition, if you will.

The book gets bogged down for about 20 pages in a detailed look at the labor movement in England in the 1800s. I am not quite sure why he focused this intently on reciting this story because it stands in stark contrast to the philosophical and idea-centered writing that fills the rest of the book. My advice - skim and move on to the meatier portions that follow.

Grayling includes photos in the center of the book. Oddly they include photos of Martin Luther King, anti-segregation protestors in both America and South Africa and Algerians being hassled by French troops in the 1950s - these topics are not actually addressed in the book.

A pet peeve - Grayling has lots of end notes - many of them with comments. Why not make them footnotes so the reader does not have to flip to the back so often?

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Toward the Light of Liberty: The Struggles for Freedom and Rights that Made the Modern Western World.

Reviewed on January 30, 2008.