When we question ourselves, the world and one another, sometimes, we turn things around. As a result of this questioning, there have been bold revolutions and major breakthroughs in fields such as philosophy, science, politics or the law.

For one, philosophical revolutions boosted the rise of questioning and reason. Philosophers took on the people, who had lived for thousands of years in fear of varying enemies: famines, diseases, earthquakes, wild animals, etc. There were not many explanations about anything, except that life was an ongoing fight. It was also fabulous – full of unquestioned myths. 

In Ancient Greece, doubters emerged and encouraged others to seek more robust answers. In the streets of Athens, Socrates asked people their opinions about a variety of topics. He discovered that, under the surface, they did not know much about anything and started a revolution of one, with the message to go on questioning, whatever obstacle is on the way — one that lives on today.

Questioning returned after the Renaissance to initiate a second revolution. René Descartes started, with radical doubt, in his “Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and of Seeking Truth in the Sciences.” He put aside the medieval authority-based sciences, and in his footsteps, rationalists and empiricists used, instead, evidence-based reason, mathematics and experimentation. Henceforth, science and philosophy inexorably worked hand-in-hand. Questioning has been reinforced in its status for leading reason in both philosophy and science.

Scientific revolutions also turned around astronomy and biology. Current scientific and technical discoveries would amaze our ancestors; they would have helped to overcome many of their unfounded fears, but here again, revolutions were essential for this.

First, there was the Copernican Revolution in astronomy. Copernicus questioned the common belief that the earth was the center of the universe. He formulated a heliocentric model that the earth spun on its axis once daily and orbited around the sun, which was later confirmed by Galileo. Literally, it was a major turnaround in science, which became the prime provider of knowledge.

Second, Charles Darwin revolutionized biology. Before, human beings were the center of God’s creation, with everything else — animal, vegetable or mineral — below them. Darwin boldly questioned creationism and proved that we, human beings, are the products of the evolution of species through natural selection.

The power of questioning and reason that everyone could use percolated in all the philosophical and scientific revolutions, as well as in their discoveries. Similarly, it irrigated the next two fields: politics and the law.

Political revolutions invented democracy, self-rule and non-violence. They questioned the violence of rulers and emboldened the people who had lived in fear and never dared to say a word. Once the people started to freely reason for themselves and openly question their leaders, things changed.

Top rulers — kings, dictatorss — or a few — aristocrats, oligarchs — often abused their subjects, who felt powerless. In Athens again, citizens upset this order of things and developed democracy. Even if this revolutionary form of government perished with the Roman Republic, it was reasserted and refined in its current form through the rise of the Parliament during the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution of the 17th century. 

Colonialism, between or within nations, is another form of tyranny that people could not stand. Defeating it and granting full citizenship to all often meant armed struggles. The American Revolution was won through the War of Independence, and the abolition of slavery stemmed from the American Civil War. 

Conversely, Mohandas K. Gandhi, better known as Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King revolutionized self-rule itself through the use of nonviolence, direct action and mass mobilization. As evidence of the success of their methods, India became independent and the civil rights movement prevailed. They proved that the ends and means of politics could be reconciled in shared societies, that being oneself fully can work with recognizing fully the other.

The nonviolent revolution for inclusivity, which empowers the people, makes them the center of politics and keeps political authorities as their true representatives, has not won yet. However, liberal democracies and global citizenry are still undermined by nationalism, populism, fanaticism, terrorism and rogue capitalism. The rule of law must keep them under check, and thus the law must evolve too.Legal revolutions created the human rights and the law of the people. Citizens once revered the law as a place of eternal truths that just had to be recalled. However, questioning again helped them revolutionize it. 

The first major revolution was the shift from legal prohibitions to rights. The law was previously understood as a set of rules or obligations that political or religious leaders imposed on their subjects. Once citizens took over politics, they became the center of legal creation, and consolidated several generations of rights. The first set of liberal rights prevents the state from impeding on their individual realm and dignity: the equality before the law, the freedom of conscience, of speech, of peaceful demonstration, the right to vote, to property, the due process of law, etc. For this first set of rights not to only be formal, it was complemented by a second generation of social rights to free education, healthcare, housing, work, pension, etc. Here the welfare state regulated the economy and empowered the most disadvantaged. The third group of rights is collective and includes the right to peace, development and a healthy environment. The overall recognition of each subset of rights to every citizen, from all genders, races or creeds, is still incomplete, and thus the first legal revolution is far from accomplished. 

A second quiet revolution is underway. The law was often conceived as the realm of lawgivers, whether the legislative assemblies or the judges, as if the law always comes from above. For United States Supreme Court Justice John Marshall, the “judicial department” says “what the law is,” as written in the Marbury v. Madison decision. But what if we turned around this conception and made the law orbit around private citizens? Most legal interactions take place daily between citizens, at their own volition, without any legal supervisor. The people agree on millions of contracts and implement them properly. Besides, even during conflicts, with the development of negotiation and mediation techniques, citizens can remain still the center of decision making. “We, the people” has an extended truer meaning. We should remember Justice Louis D. Brandeis’ revolutionary vision of the law that “the most important institution is that of the private citizen.”

Let us conclude with some hopes and fears. Some revolutions have staying power. For example, in the line of philosophical revolutions, questioning and the use of reason are pervasive and remain quite successful at producing scientific progresses every day. 

Unfortunately, the picture in politics and the law is far more uncertain. In revolution after revolution, the people have questioned leaders, reached the center of the political and legal arenas, built democracies and conquered extensive rights. Yet their victories still look fragile; they could be marginalized again. 

Authoritarian tendencies, which prohibit questioning, continue to dominate many parts of the world and even tempt a huge fraction of the populace in democracies. Questioning without the use of reason might well bury both reason and questioning.