reprinted from the Charleston Gazette-Mail
If you study history, you'll see episodes that changed civilization.
For example, in ancient Greece, for the first time, bright thinkers sought natural explanations for the world around them, instead of believing that phenomena were caused by gods and spirits. This started the science-versus-religion clash that still roils 25 centuries later.
Here's another landmark: Around three centuries ago, major thinkers began advocating democracy, human rights and personal freedoms. Their period became known as The Enlightenment. It launched the long-running liberals-versus-conservatives conflict still driving much of today's politics.
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) wrote that life can be "nasty, brutish and short" unless people bind themselves into a "social contract" under a government that protects them. Hobbes implied that kings don't rule by divine right, and that ultimate authority lies with the citizenry. Bishops tried to have Hobbes executed as an atheist, but Hobbes burned his papers and sometimes hid in exile.
John Locke (1632-1704) denied that kings are chosen by God, and recommended the separation of church and state to prevent faith-based wars and massacres. An early advocate of democracy, Locke argued that government must rest on consent from the governed.
Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755) proposed a democratic republic with powers split among executive, legislative and judicial branches.
Voltaire (1694-1778), a witty French writer, was thrown in prison for mocking a regent -- then emerged to become a lifelong crusader against abuses by ruling nobles and clerics.
America's founders -- Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, etc. -- were brilliant radicals who absorbed Enlightenment ideas and incorporated them into the first modern democracy. Less-known founder George Mason insisted on a Bill of Rights to protect each person from government and the tyranny of the majority.
The Enlightenment's premise that every individual deserves personal freedoms also spawned The Rights of Man and the Citizen in France, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations, and other moral codes.
The Enlightenment not only produced modern democracy; it also laid the foundation of liberal political values still winning victories today. For three centuries, by fits and starts, Western progress has been mostly a chronicle of progressives defeating conservative resistance. Reformers repeatedly toppled old privileges, hierarchies and establishments. Look at the historical record:
Conservatives tried to retain slavery, but they lost.
They tried to block voting by women, but they lost.
They tried to prevent couples from using birth control, but they lost.
They tried to obstruct Social Security pensions for oldsters, but they lost.
They tried to outlaw labor unions, but they lost.