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If you want to prove to yourself the power of ideas and, particularly, of morality — the intellectual history of the nineteenth century would be a good example to study. The greatest, unprecedented, undreamed of events and achievements were taking place before men’s eyes — but men did not see them and did not understand their meaning, as they do not understand it to this day. I am speaking of the industrial revolution, of the United States and of capitalism. For the first time in history, men gained control over physical nature and threw off the control of men over men — that is: men discovered science and political freedom. The creative energy, the abundance, the wealth, the rising standard of living for every level of the population were such that the nineteenth century looks like a fiction-Utopia, like a blinding burst of sunlight, in the drab progression of most of human history. If life on earth is one’s standard of value, then the nineteenth century moved mankind forward more than all the other centuries combined.
Did anyone appreciate it? Does anyone appreciate it now? Has anyone identified the causes of that historical miracle?
They did not and have not. What blinded them? The morality of altruism.
Let me explain this. There are, fundamentally, only two causes of the progress of the nineteenth century — the same two causes which you will find at the root of any happy, benevolent, progressive era in human history. One cause is psychological, the other existential — or: one pertains to man’s consciousness, the other to the physical conditions of his existence. The first is reason, the second is freedom. And when I say “freedom,” I do not mean poetic sloppiness, such as “freedom from want” or “freedom from fear” or “freedom from the necessity of earning a living.” I mean “freedom from compulsion — freedom from rule by physical force.” Which means: political freedom.