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Periods of Creativity

Nobody who has even a slight acquaintance with world history can have failed to be struck by the occurrence of periods of extraordinary creativity in a few places and for quite short times, which have made greater contributions to human progress than the whole of the rest of the world put together. It does not matter what aspect of human life you are studying; whether it is literature, or philosophy for fine art or science or technology. We find not only that there are such periods, but that the periods are the same. They are creative not only in one or two fields but in every field of human endeavour that existed at the time.

These periods of outstanding creativity are quite few. There is the classical period of China, the time of Confucius and Mencius, and the other Chinese Sages. At about the same time, there is classical Greece, the age of Aeschyius and Euripides, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Herodotus and Thucydides, Phidias and Praxiteles. The next period is less well known since most of its art and literature had perished and the only well known names associated with it are Archimedes and Euclid. It is the period of the kingdoms ruled by the successors of Alexander the Great, especially Egypt, centred on Alexandra, and Syria, centred on Antioch and forming part of the same world, the independent Greek cities of Sicily and Southern Italy, especially Syracuse. To appreciate the importance of this period we have to compare the level of general sophistication, both philosophical and technical, reflected in classical Latin literature with that of “golden age” Greek literature from four hundred years earlier.

We have to wait a long time for the next period which happened in the Middle East around 1000 AD in the Arab kingdoms, especially those centred on Baghdad and Cairo. Out of these came remarkable advances in science and mathematics and in architecture. The well-known Moorish architecture of Spain is an offshoot of this. After this, and in some ways directly derived from it, comes the flowering of Renaissance Italy, Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci, Petrarch and Boccaccio, Machiavelli and Galileo.

After this we are approaching modern times in which creativity becomes both more widespread and more continuous, but we can still see a disproportionate amount in Holland in the seventeenth century, in Britain all the way from Shakespeare times to the end of the nineteenth century, and in the United States from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day.

We may also note that right through from the Middle Ages to present day Western Europe as a whole, while not equalling the special periods, was creative in a way in which the Roman Empire, the later Chinese Empires and the Byzantine Empire were not.

Correlation Between Freedom and Creativity

How are we to account for all this? From the sixteenth century onwards it is not difficult to detect the correlation between creativity and (relative) freedom. Though very far from free in the modern sense, the England of Shakespeare’s time, and the Republic of the Netherlands of the same period were not merely the freest countries in the world at the time, they were among the freest that there had ever been. As the seventeenth century went on Britain (now including Scotland) became freer, while the Netherlands, locked in a desperate fight for survival, first with Spain and then with France, became less so. The degree of creativity, especially in philosophy and science, moved accordingly.

Do we find a similar correlation in earlier times? At first sight, the answer to this question is no. None of the states involved in any of the earlier outbursts of creativity upheld individual freedom in principle; even for the members of the upper class. Republics were not necessarily better than monarchies in this respect. Socrates was put to death in the Republic of Athens (by popular vote) for teaching unacceptable ideas, and about sixteen hundred years later Dante driven out of the Republic of Florence and sentenced to death in absentia. But freedom does not have to be accepted in principle to exist in practice. It can exist because those charged with repression are half-hearted, or lazy or cannot agree among themselves. This was more or less the position in Elizabethan England.

Were the periods of unusual creativity also periods of unusual freedom, and if so, how did this come about? I think that the answer to the first question is “yes” and the answer to the second can be found. I gained the clue to this problem in a book describing the society of China under the Tang Dynasty that was one of the high points of Chinese civilisation around 1000 AD. The writer says that the people of the educated class at this time looked back to the time of Confucius as a golden age, forgetting that it was in fact a time of anarchy known as “The Period of the Warring States”, when China proper (that is excluding Tibet, Manchuria and Sechuan) was divided into five separate kingdoms, often at war with each other.

Now we see it, “The Period of the Warring States” would be a very fair description of fifth century Greece. If we started with the assumption that Greece ought to have been under a single government (as the later Chinese assumed about China), it could also be called a time of anarchy. Greece was divided into not five, but dozens of separate states which were often at war with each other. Renaissance Italy is the same story, with at least six major states, and some smaller ones, independent and sometimes at war. The Eastern Mediterranean after Alexander the Great was the same again. There were three major, and several minor, kingdoms all ruled by Macedonians, often at war with each other. The great period of the Arab world saw almost the very same kingdoms, now ruled by Arabs, independent and sometimes at war.

This is not to argue that what leads to creativity is warfare. The periods which we are considering were not exceptionally warlike, it is merely that in them people who might have been expected to be on the same side in war were sometimes fighting each other. There are plenty of examples of states devoted to war, and for a time very successful at it, which were not creative at all.

The great empires have often produced remarkable architecture and works of art, made possible by the accumulation of wealth brought about by conquest but they have never been noted for originality, least of all originality of thought. One can cite the Roman Empire after Augustus, China under the Tangs and the Mings, Spain in its period of greatness, and Byzantium over a thousand years.

Ease of Exit (and Entry)

The thing that the periods which we are considering had in common was not that there was a lot of war going on; indeed it is not clear that there was more war than at other times. It is that in each case, China, Greece, the Macedonian kingdoms, the Arab world, Italy, there were a number of independent states with the same language and the same culture, with the consequence that it was an easy matter for educated people (and others too) to move from one to another. When Socrates was sentenced to death in Athens, he could, if he so wished, and was probably expected to go into exile, which meant moving all of thirty miles to another city where they spoke the same language, had the same culture, and where he was known. When Dante was driven out of Florence, he went to live in Pisa and carried on with his writing. When Michelangelo quarrelled with the Pope in Rome, he went home to Florence and continued with his work. There are references in the Chinese classics to Sages moving from one kingdom to another because they disliked the policies of a particular king.

It is striking how many of these periods of creativity come to an end when “anarchy” was ended and unified government imposed. Particularly obvious, because familiar is the way in which the Roman world started to go downhill from the time of Augustus. The Han Empire in China (which succeeded the Warring State) was powerful and rich, but it was not creative like the time of Confucius and indeed was already looking back to that period as a golden age. The Renaissance in Italy went downhill from the time that Italy was brought under Austrian/Spanish control. The Arab world was destroyed by the Mongols but it did not recover under the unified Turkish Empire.

It is not difficult to see why this was so once we grasp that the precondition for creativity is freedom. When Dante was driven out of Florence he went to Pisa but when the poet Ovid incurred the displeasure of the Emperor Augustus, he was sent to live in the Crimea, just as under the Han or Tang emperors of China, Sages were sent to Hunan, and “dissidents” in both Tsarist and Soviet Russia were sent to Siberia.

By Galileo’s time, the whole of Italy was effectively controlled by Spain. If Galileo had wanted to leave Italy in search of greater freedom, the nearest place where he could have found refuge was Holland where the language, culture and religion were all different from his own. This was a far more formidable undertaking than going from Athens to Corinth or Florence to Pisa, but a lot better than going to the Crimea, Hunan or Siberia. People did move about Western Europe in search of religious or intellectual freedom helped by the use first of Latin and later of French as international languages, whereas in Roman or Chinese Empires there was simply nowhere to go. This no doubt explains the relative creativity of Western Europe as a whole.

We are looking at two things here, although they are closely linked. In the special cases which we have described, the ease of exit which the situation created gave to the people (or at least some of them) a degree of freedom which they could not otherwise have had. Beyond this, it inhibited the rulers’ oppressive impulses for the rulers did not wish to lose their subjects, and on the whole those who could most easily leave were those that they could least spare. Thus additional freedom was also enjoyed by people who did not wish to leave.

It is also possible that there was another factor at work. Because of the ease of movement and communication between these countries, they would have been exceptionally well informed about each other, which would have intensified competition between them and enabled them to learn from each other’s experience in a way which would have been prevented by the imposed uniformity of a large state.

Until the nineteenth century, ease of exit (which of course requires ease of entry somewhere else) does seem to have been the most effective source of freedom. The degree of freedom which is conferred, even in the best circumstances, fell far short of what we expect today and some parts of the population may not have benefited at all; but it was sufficient to make the places where it existed flower above all others in creativity and achievement.

Intellectual Freedom

It is interesting that when we look back in this way, it is intellectual freedom, freedom of ideas which appears to be most important, whereas in our own time we tend to be most impressed by economic freedom. This is a question of time scales. In order to flourish economically, a country needs economic freedom, and for a time it can do without full intellectual freedom, just as long, in fact, as it can base its economic progress on ideas and techniques borrowed from abroad, but in the long run, ideas are the most important. Countries, like Mainland China, that think they can have economic freedom without intellectual freedom will, in the long run, be proved wrong.

Fundamentally, Hegal was right and Marx wrong. Ideas come first as in fact Marx knew or why did he spend his life trying to develop ideas which he hoped would change the world? Even “means of production” are ideas before they are things. Newton’s laws of motion had to come before the Industrial Revolution, just as Einstein had to come before nuclear explosives and space travel.

Freedom is not a luxury that comes at a cost. It is the precondition of all human progress.

Disclaimer: This essay was extracted from O’Dowd’s 1999 occasional paper, “Liberal Reflections”, for the Free Market Foundation. The essay’s name was changed from the original “Freedom is the Precondition of Progress” and the headings were inserted by Rational Standard editors.

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Michael Conway O’Dowd (1930-2006) was Chairman of the Free Market Foundation from 1978 to 2005, and of the Anglo-American and De Beers Group Chairman’s Fund from 1974 to 1997. In the latter capacity, O’Dowd was a pioneer of corporate social investment in South Africa, contributing immensely to the establishment of rural schools and universities of technology for black South Africans in the previous era. A classical liberal philosopher, O’Dowd is known for his 1966 prediction that economic growth and industrialisation would lead to the demise of Apartheid.