Page: 4, The Cold War generally encouraged the withdrawal of academics from trenchant social criticism. At any rate, political science lost much of its critical edge. The object of study for this so-called ‘science’ was not creative human action but rather political ‘behaviour’, which could, it was claimed, be comprehended by quantitative methods appropriate to the involuntary motions of material bodies, atoms or plants. This view of political science was certainly challenged by some political theorists, notably Sheldon Wolin, whose Politics and Vision eloquently asserted the importance of creative vision in political analysis.2 But at least for a time, many political theorists seemed happy enough to accept the place assigned to them by the ultra-empiricist ‘behaviouralists’ then dominant in US political science departments.
Page: 5, …although they would later emerge as influential ideologues of neoconservatism and as something like philosophical mentors to the regime of George W. Bush, Straussian political theorists of an earlier generation were on the whole content to pursue their reactionary and antimodernist (if not antidemocratic) political agenda on the philosophical plane – except when they ventured completely outside the walls of the academy to write speeches for right-wing politicians. Their ‘empiricist’ colleagues seem to have understood that Straussians, with their esoteric, even cabalistic philosophical preoccupations, represented no challenge to the shallowness and vacuity of ‘empirical’ political science. Yet Straussians were not alone in accepting the neat division between empirical and normative, or between theory and practice.
Page: 26, The classic texts of political theory considered in this book, then, focus upon the Western state. Generally conceived by powerful minds and often written by first-rate literary stylists, they give us unparalleled access to the West’s political history; and whether we like it or not, these works have indelibly stamped our modern culture and the world today. They have, in general, been the ruling ideas of ruling classes; and this also means, of course, that the imperial powers which have spread their tentacles throughout the world have taken these ideas with them. The spread of the West’s ruling ideas, it must be said, has had its benefits, but they have also been invoked to justify colonial oppression. For better or worse, they have, in various ways, governed the world.
Page: 27, since classical antiquity, the Western state has been marked by a systemic inequality and domination of the many by a few. This reality, too, is reflected in the canon, since the voices we hear tend to be those of the ruling classes, propertied men (it is indeed men) and those who speak for them. Although we occasionally hear dissent from below, the peasants who have made up the majority of the population throughout most of the relevant history are largely silent. Yet this silence is not a reason for neglecting the voices of the masters. On the contrary, they are often our best access to the voiceless majority, to their grievances and the challenges they posed to those who dominated and exploited them. We are able, of course, to learn a great deal more when we can also listen directly to the words of those who opposed and resisted; but even when those words are unavailable, a careful and contextual reading of the canonical texts will tell us much about what dominant classes expected from their subordinates as well as what they feared
Page: 27, This study works from the premise that it is wrong to treat the canon uncritically and to take its dominance for granted. It is equally wrong to write out of history identities and cultures not represented in canonical texts. But it is also a mistake to pretend that nothing like the canon exists or that the dominance of ruling ideas is not a major fact of history. The important thing is to recognize that this fact does indeed have a history. This means, among other things, trying to understand the conditions in which this canonical tradition emerged and developed, the social relations and struggles that shaped it. Without that kind of historical understanding, we cannot learn whatever universal lessons the classics may still have for us, but nor are we in any position to dismiss them as having nothing to teach us at all.
Page: 28, In his play, The Suppliant Women, Euripides interrupts the action with a short political debate between a herald from despotic Thebes and the legendary Athenian hero, Theseus. The Theban boasts that his city is ruled by only one man, not by a fickle mob, the mass of poor and common people who are unable to make sound political judgments because they cannot turn their minds away from labour. Theseus replies by singing the praises of democracy. In a truly free city, he insists, the laws are common to all, equal justice is available to rich and poor alike, anyone who has something useful to say has the right to speak before the public, and the labours of a free citizen are not wasted ‘merely to add to the tyrant’s substance by one’s toil’.
Page: 28, Contained in the conception of freedom exalted by Theseus are certain basic principles that the Athenians, and other Greeks, regarded as uniquely theirs, defining the essence of their distinctive state. The Greek word for freedom, eleutheria, and, for that matter, even the more restricted and elitist Latin libertas – in reference to both individuals and states – have no precise equivalent in any ancient language of the Near East or Asia, for instance in Babylonian or classical Chinese; nor can the Greek and Roman notions of a ‘free man’ be translated into those languages.1 In Greek, these concepts appear again and again, in everything from historical writing to drama, as the defining characteristics of Athens.
Page: 29, when the historian Herodotus offers his explanation for the Athenian defeat of Persia, he attributes their strength to the fact that they had shaken off the yoke of tyranny. When they were living under tyrannical oppression, ‘they let themselves be beaten, since they worked for a master . . .’ 2 Now that they were free, they had become ‘the first of all’. Similarly, the tragedian, Aeschylus, in The Persians, tells us that – in contrast to subjects of the Persian king, Xerxes – to be an Athenian citizen is to be masterless, a servant to no mortal man. It would, of course, be possible to attribute the Greeks’ clear delineation of ‘freedom’ to the prevalence of chattel… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Page: 29, The distinguished medieval historian, Rodney Hilton, once remarked that ‘the concept of the freeman, owing no obligation, not even deference, to an overlord is one of the most important if intangible legacies of medieval peasants to the modern world.’3 If Hilton was right to trace this concept to the peasantry, he was surely wrong not to give the credit for it to the ancient Greeks. It was the liberation of Greek peasants from any form of servitude or… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Page: 29, conception was increasingly associated with democracy – so much so that an anti-democrat like Plato (who, as we shall see, thought that anyone engaged in necessary labour should be legally or politically dependent) sought to subvert the concept of eleutheria by equating it with licence. At the same time, the liberation of the peasantry wiped out a whole spectrum of dependence and left behind the stark dichotomy of freedom and slavery, the one an attribute of citizens, the other a condition to which no citizen could be reduced. Although a leisurely life was no doubt a cultural ideal, the… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Page: 29, applies not only to the masterless individual but also to the polis governed by a citizen body and one that owes no tribute to another state. In its emphasis on autonomous labour and self-sufficiency, this concept of freedom reflects the unique reality of a state in which producers were citizens, a state in which a civic community that combined appropriating and producing classes ruled out relations of lordship and dependence between them, whether as masters and servants or as rulers and subjects. That civic… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
This mode of thinking was, it was suggested, rooted in a new kind of practice, which had less to do with relations between rulers and subjects than with transactions and conflicts among citizens, united in their civic identity yet still divided by class. The self-governing civic community and the practice of politics – action in the public sphere of the polis, a community of citizens – reached its apogee in democratic Athens, which was also home to the classic tradition of Greek political theory. The Rise of the Democracy The evolution of the democracy can be traced by following the development of the civic or political principle, the notion… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
the processes of politicization and democratization went hand in hand, and the most democratic polis was the one in which the political principle was most completely developed. The historic events commonly identified as the milestones in Athenian political development can all be understood in these terms. In each case, the strengthening of the political principle at the same time represented an advance in popular power and a reconfiguration of relations between classes. Archaeology and the decipherment of Linear B, the… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
analogous to other ancient states, albeit on a smaller scale, in which a bureaucratic power at the centre controlled land and labour, appropriating tax or tribute from subordinate peasant communities. Little is known about how this state-form disappeared… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
The principal social and economic unit of ‘Homeric’ society is the oikos, the household, and especially the aristocratic household, dominated by a lord who is surrounded by his kin and retainers and supported by the labour of dependents. There is scarcely any ‘public’ sphere: duties and rights are primarily to household, kin and friends; and various social functions, such as the disposal of property and the punishment of crime, are dictated by the customary rules of kinship, while jurisdiction, such as it is, belongs exclusively to lords. Yet when the epics were written, household and kinship ties were already being displaced by different principles.
ties of territoriality, around an urban centre, while the bonds and conflicts of class were at work in relations between master and servant, or lord and peasant, and in the class alliances of lordship. ‘Homeric’ lords had become an aristocracy of property, bound together by common interests as appropriators, though often in vicious rivalry with one another, and increasingly isolated from their producing compatriots. The aristocracy used its non-economic powers, especially its judicial functions, to appropriate the labour of subordinate producers.
something in common with the ancient bureaucratic state, in which the state and state office were the principal means of appropriation. The status of lords may even have been a remnant of the old bureaucratic state and its system of state-controlled appropriation. But the critical difference is that there was, in post-Mycenean Greece, effectively no state, no powerful apparatus of rule to sustain the power of appropriators over producers. Property was held by individuals and households, and the aristocracy of property had to face its subordinates not as a well organized ruling force but as a fairly loose collection of such individuals and households, often… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
complicated by the community’s growing military reliance on the peasantry. By the time we reach the first relatively well-documented moment in the evolution of Athenian democracy, the reforms of Solon, the conflict between lords and peasants had decisively come to the fore. Although Aristotle, in his account of the Solonian reforms, is no doubt exaggerating when he says that, at the time, all the poor were serfs to the wealthy few, there can be little doubt that dependence of one kind or another was very common. There was widespread unrest, which the aristocracy was in no… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
the significant point for us here is how he sought to placate the unruly peasantry. He eliminated various forms of dependence which allowed Attic peasants to be exploited by their aristocratic compatriots. He abolished debt-bondage and prohibited loans on the security of the person, which could issue in slavery in case of default; and, by instituting his famous seisachtheia, the ‘shaking off of burdens’, he abolished the status of the hektemoroi, peasants whose land, and some portion of their labour, was held in bondage to landlords.4 In… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
effects of these reforms, liberating the peasantry from dependence and extra-economic exploitation, were enhanced by strengthening the civic community, extending political rights and elevating the individual citizen at the expense of traditional principles of kinship, birth and blood. Although citizens would still be classified into stratified categories, the old division among artisans, farmers and the aristocracy of well-born clans would no longer be politically significant and would be replaced by more quantitative criteria of wealth, based on an already existing system of military classification.… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Solon also reformed the judicial system, creating a new people’s court, to which all citizens had access. Any citizen could have his case transferred to this court, taking it out of the reach of aristocratic judgment and weakening the aristocracy’s monopoly of jurisdiction. Traditionally, kinship groups had always had the initiative in avenging crimes against their members, according to age-old customs of blood vengeance. Now, any citizen could bring charges against anyone else on behalf of any member of the community. Crime was now defined as a wrong committed against a member of the civic community, not… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Solon weakened the political role of noble birth and blood, kinship and clan, while strengthening the community of citizens. It is too much to say that his reforms were democratic; but they did have the effect of weakening the aristocracy, which was increasingly incorporated into the civic community and subject to the jurisdiction of the polis. Impersonal principles of law and citizenship were taking precedence over the personal rule of kings or lords. The new civic relationship between aristocracy and peasants, together… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
state, in the form of the polis, was becoming not a primary means of appropriation from direct producers but, on the contrary, a means of protecting citizen producers from appropriating classes. The polis also created a new arena for aristocratic rivalries. Solon’s reforms certainly did not end the influence of noble families, nor did they diminish the ferocity of intra-class rivalry. Athens would long continue to be plagued by aristocratic infighting, even to the point of virtual civil war, sometimes with help from Sparta for one or another of the contenders. But it was becoming harder for landlords to contend for power just among themselves. They now had to… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
in 510–508 BC, a period of particularly violent struggle, in which the principal contenders were Isagoras and Cleisthenes, both representing noble families. When Cleisthenes prevailed, at least temporarily, he instituted reforms that would later be regarded as the true foundation of democracy. In a sense, he was simply following the logic established by Solon and the tyrants. His reforms, in 508(?) BC, further weakened the traditional authority of the aristocracy, their power over their own neighbourhoods and over smaller farmers in their area. Like his predecessors, he accomplished this by elevating the polis and the whole community of citizens over old forms of authority and old loyalties, submitting local and regional power to the all-embracing authority of the polis.
what was most distinctive about this moment in the history of Athens was that the demos had become a truly central factor in the political struggle. By now, the people were a conscious and vocal political force. Cleisthenes did not create this force, but he had the strategic sense to mobilize it in his favour. Whether he was himself a true democrat or simply another scion of a noble clan seeking to enhance the position of his own aristocratic family, his appeal to the demos was direct and unambiguous. Herodotus writes that, when Cleisthenes found himself weaker than Isagoras, he made the demos his hetairoi – a word difficult to translate but suggesting comrades or partners. It also suggests the associations, friendship groups or clubs,
The demos, in other words, had replaced friends and kin of aristocrats as the source of political power. When Cleisthenes’s enemy, Isagoras, drove him out, with the help of Sparta under its leader, Cleomenes, the demos rose in revolt, erupting into the political arena in an unprecedented way, as a conscious political force acting in its own right and in defence of its own interests. Whatever his intentions, the result of Cleisthenes’s reforms was the establishment of an institutional framework that was to govern Athenian democracy from then on, with only a few modifications.
changed the whole organization of the polis by removing the political functions of the four tribes, dominated by the aristocracy, which had been the traditional basis of political organization – for instance, in the conduct of elections – and replaced them with ten new tribes based on complex and artificial geographic criteria. More significantly, he subdivided the tribes into demes, generally (but perhaps not always) based on existing villages, and made them the foundation of the democracy, its fundamental constituent unit and the locale of citizenship. The new divisions cut across tribal and class ties and elevated locality over kinship, establishing and strengthening new bonds, new loyalties specific to the polis, the community of citizens.
the Assembly, which all citizens were entitled to attend, deliberated and decided on every kind of public question, while legal cases were commonly tried in popular courts. The council which set the agenda for the Assembly was now chosen by lot annually from among all citizens. Although election was regarded as an oligarchic practice, it was used for some positions, typically military and financial, which required a specialized skill. But in general public offices, which tended to be ad hoc, were not treated as specialized professional employments; and many officials were chosen by lot. In principle, then, and to a great extent in practice, all citizens could be involved in all government functions
aristocrats like Pericles (who reached his influential position in the democracy as a military leader chosen by the people) still enjoyed great influence, while wealthy and well-born citizens probably still had disproportionate weight in the assembly. Yet (as anti-democrats like Plato make very clear) we should not underestimate the day-to-day role of popular power in juries and assemblies, nor the significance of democratic practices like sortition (selection by lot) for various public positions.
even taking into account the historically unprecedented, and in many ways still unequalled, power of the Athenian people, we must pause here to ask whether, or in what sense, it is appropriate to call the Athenian polis a democracy. After all, this was a society in which slavery played a major role, and in which women had no political rights. In fact, the evolution of democracy increased the role of slavery and in some ways diminished the status of women, especially in respect to the disposition of property. It can hardly be denied that the imperatives of preserving property had a great deal to do with restrictions on the freedom of women, and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the position of smallholders, the peasant-citizens of Athens, generated particularly strong pressures for the conservation of family property.
Athens was a democracy in the sense – and only in the sense – that the Greeks understood the term, which they themselves invented. It had to do with the power of the demos, not only as a political category but as a social one: the poor and common people. Aristotle defined democracy as a constitution in which ‘the free-born and poor control the government – being at the same time a majority’, and distinguished it from oligarchy, in which ‘the rich and better-born control the government – being at the same time a minority’. The social criteria – poverty in one case, wealth and high birth in the other – play a central role in these definitions and even in the end outweigh the numerical criterion. This notion of democracy as a form of class rule – rule by the poor – certainly reflected the views of those who opposed it,
supporters of the democracy, even moderates like Pericles, regarded the political position of the poor as essential to the definition of democracy. The enemies of the democracy hated it above all because it gave political power to working people and the poor.
The question raised by critics of democracy is not only whether people who have to work for a living have time for political reflection, but also whether those who are bound to the necessity of working in order to survive can be free enough in mind and spirit to make political judgments. For Athenian democrats, the answer is, of course, in the affirmative. For them, one of the main principles of democracy, as we saw in Theseus’s speech, was the capacity and the right of such people to make political judgments and speak about them in public assemblies. The Athenians even had a… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
it has no parallel in our own political vocabulary. Freedom of speech as we know it has to do with the absence of interference with our right to speak. Equality of speech as the Athenians understood it had to do with the ideal of… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
While we have to recognize the severe limitations of Athenian democracy, there are also ways in which it far exceeds our own. This is true of procedures such as sortition or direct democracy, with ordinary citizens, and not just representatives, making decisions in assemblies and juries. But even more important is the effect of democracy on relations between classes. It is true that modern democracy, like the ancient, is a system in which people are citizens regardless of status or class. But if class makes no (legal) difference to citizenship in either case, in modern democracy the reverse is also true: citizenship makes little… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Peasants have been the predominant producing classes throughout much of history, and an essential feature of their condition has been the obligation to forfeit part of their labour to someone who wields superior force. Peasants have been in possession of land, either as owners or as tenants; but they have had to transfer surplus labour to landlords and states, in the form of labour services, rents or taxes. The appropriating classes which have made these claims on them have been able to do so because they have possessed not only land but privileged access to coercive military, political and judicial power. They have possessed what has been called ‘politically… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
This type of relationship, and even patronage (such as would exist in Rome), was absent in democratic Athens. Its absence certainly had the effect of encouraging the enslavement of non-Greeks. But it is, again, important to keep in mind that the majority of Athenian citizens worked for a living, mainly as farmers or craftsmen, and that citizenship in Athens precluded a whole range of legally and politically dependent conditions which throughout history have compelled direct producers to forfeit surplus labour to their masters and rulers. This is not to say that the rich in Athens had no advantages over the poor – though the gap between rich and poor was very much narrower in Athens than in… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Today, there is a system of appropriation that does not depend on legal inequalities or the inequality of political rights. It is the system we call capitalism, a system in which appropriating and producing classes can be free and equal under the law, where the relation between them is supposed to be a contractual agreement between free and equal individuals, and where even universal suffrage is possible without fundamentally affecting the economic powers of capital. The power of exploitation in capitalism can coexist… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
capitalism has created new, purely economic compulsions: the propertylessness of workers – or, more precisely, their lack of property in the means of production, the means of labour itself – which compels them to sell their labour power in exchange for a wage simply in order to gain access to the means of labour and to obtain the means of subsistence; and also the compulsions of the market, which regulate the economy and enforce certain imperatives of competition and profit-maximization. So, both capital and labour can… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
In fact, it is only in capitalism that there is a separate economic sphere, with its own imperatives, and so it is only in capitalism that democracy can be confined to a separate political domain. It is also only in capitalism that so much of human life has been put outside the reach of democratic accountability, regulated instead by market imperatives and the requirements of profit, the commodification that affects all aspects of life, not just in the workplace but everywhere. Citizenship today, in the conditions of… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
In one other respect, Athenian democracy was no less imperfect than is today’s most powerful democracy. The commitment to civic freedom and equality among citizens at home did not extend to relations with other states. Athens increasingly exploited its growing power to impose imperial hegemony on allied city-states, largely for the purpose of extracting tribute from them. The Athenian empire was, to be sure, shaped and limited by the democracy at home. Imperial expansion was not driven by the interests of a… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
The imperial mission was, in the first instance, to compensate for domestic agricultural deficiencies in order to ensure the food supply by controlling sea routes for the import of grain. This project was certainly a costly one, requiring ever-increasing revenues from tribute to maintain the Athenian navy; but the social property relations underlying the democracy ensured that Athens never established a territorial empire, as the Romans would do. While Roman peasant soldiers, as we shall see, would be subject to years of service far away from home, leaving their properties vulnerable to expropriation by aristocratic… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
in his History of the Peloponnesian War. In Pericles’s Funeral Oration, the historian puts in the mouth of the great democratic leader a speech extolling, among other things, the virtues of civic equality. In Athens, Pericles suggests, inequalities between rich and poor, the strong and the weak, are tempered by law and democratic citizenship. In the Melian Dialogue, the Athenians, in debate with a recalcitrant city-state that refuses the status of tributary ally, are made to express with unadorned ruthlessness the imperial principle that ‘right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.’
In Athens, political debate opened up a whole range of philosophical questions discussed ever since by Western philosophers: not only ethical questions about the standards of good and bad but questions about the nature and foundations of knowledge, about the relation between knowledge and morality, about human nature, and the relation between human beings and the natural order or the divine.
an idea that history involves conscious human effort to solve human problems, that there is a possibility of deliberate change in accordance with conscious human goals, and that human reason is a formative, creative principle, to some extent capable of transcending the predetermined and inexorable cycle of natural necessity or divinely ordained destiny. Such a view of humanity’s place in the world tends to be associated with some direct experience of social change and mobility, some practical distance from the inexorable cycles of nature, which is most likely to come with urban civilization, a well-developed realm of human experience outside the cycles and necessities of nature.
nowhere else had the emphasis on human agency taken centre stage in intellectual life, as it would do in Greece. The two most characteristic products of that distinctive legacy are history as practised by the Greek historians, notably Herodotus and Thucydides, and political theory, in the sense intended here. What distinguished Greece, and especially democratic Athens, from other complex civilizations was the degree to which the prevailing order, especially traditional hierarchies, had been challenged in practice; and conflict or debate about social arrangements was a normal, even institutionalized, part of everyday life. It was in this context that Athenians were faced, in new and unprecedented ways, with moral and political responsibility for shaping their own circumstances.
Debate was the operative principle of the Athenian state, and the citizen majority had a deep-seated interest in preserving it. This was so because, and to the extent that, politics in Athens was not about sustaining the rule of a dominant power but about managing the relation between ‘mass’ and ‘elite’, with the public institutions of the state acting less as an instrument of rule for the propertied elite than as a counterweight against it, and with the common people in the role of political actors, not simply the object of rule. Reflection on the state was from the start shaped by that relation and by the tensions it inevitably generated.
What happens to the concept of dik, the Greek word for justice, is a telling illustration. In Homer, there is no real conception of justice as an ethical norm. The word dik appears in The Odyssey several times but largely as a morally neutral term, describing a characteristic behaviour or disposition, or something like ‘the way of things’.
Perhaps the closest Homer comes to a moral norm of justice appears in a passage suggesting that the gods do not like foul play but respect dik and upright deeds, the right way. Yet even here, dik does not refer to an ethical standard of justice so much as correct and proper behaviour, especially the behaviour of true nobles, in contrast to the intrusive rudeness of Penelope’s suitors who, in their confidence that her husband, Odysseus, will never return to punish them, are breaking all the rules of decency. Homeric usage, then, idealizes a society in which the way of things has not been subjected to serious challenge. Dik does not appear as a standard of justice against which the prevailing order can and should be judged.
In this context, dik appears in the figure of a goddess who sits at the right hand of Zeus. Hesiod tells us that she watches and judges ‘gift-eating’ or ‘bribe-swallowing’ lords who use their judicial prerogatives to exploit the peasantry by means of ‘crooked’ judgments. Dik, Hesiod warns, will make sure that the crooked lords get their come-uppance. The poet, to be sure, is not calling for a peasant revolt, but he is certainly doing something of great conceptual significance. He is proposing a concept of justice that stands apart from the jurisdiction of the lords, a standard against which they and their judgments can and must themselves be judged. It could hardly be more different from Homer’s customary and unchallenged aristocratic way of things.
It is likely that Aeschylus was, among other things, conveying the message that this old aristocratic institution, while it still had a role to play in the democracy, had been rightly displaced by more democratic institutions. The trilogy has as its central theme a confrontation between two conflicting conceptions of justice, in the form of a contest between the endless cycle of traditional blood vengeance and new principles of judgment by judicial procedure. The first represents Destiny, the fury of uncontrollable fate; the other, human responsibility – an opposition that may also represent the antithesis of old aristocratic principles of kinship and blood rivalry as against the judicial procedures of a democratic civic order.
Prometheus steals fire from Zeus as a gift to humanity. In his anger, Zeus threatens to make humanity pay for this gift. There follows the story of Pandora’s ‘box’, a storage jar containing the threatened ‘gift’ from Zeus. Contrary to the advice of her brother-in-law Prometheus, she opens the jar and releases every evil, ending a golden age when the fruits of the earth were enjoyed without effort, and humanity was free of labour, sorrow and disease, although hope remains trapped inside. Hesiod combines this with another story about stages in the decline of humanity, which was once equal to the gods but is now a race that works and grieves unceasingly. For Hesiod, this is, in the main, a story about the pains of daily life and work.
In nature, the telos is immanent in the object itself, the final state ‘for the sake of which’ the natural processes of growth and development take place – as the oak is the telos of the acorn; and every immature object or being, including the human child, is potentially what it will (or ought to) be when it matures. Moreover, these processes, while not consciously willed, are not random but orderly and regular. Different outcomes are possible, if things go wrong, but there is only one true telos for every thing and every being in nature.
Aristotle puts this principle to use in his political theory is clear enough, as he develops his conception of the human telos and the political conditions necessary for its realization. Even clearer is the political application of his second principle: that there is, everywhere in nature, a ruling element and a ruled. Aristotle insists that the natural order is universally hierarchical and that the condition of rest towards which all nature tends forms a Great Chain of Being,
The polis must in its way reflect that natural hierarchy. It may be difficult to determine what comes first, the natural ‘science’ or the politics, or, more precisely, which has the overriding force. No doubt this doctor’s son was exposed very early to his lifelong scientific interests, particularly in biology, and no doubt these continued to shape his thinking in every domain. But it is also possible that Aristotle’s conception of nature was affected by his predisposition to social and political hierarchies.
If, in his philosophy, aristocratic principles govern both the natural and political order, it is enough for us to recognize that the questions he was seeking to answer in both his scientific and political speculations were put to him by his social no less than his natural context.
FROM POLIS TO EMPIRE From Aristotle to Alexander Plutarch, in one of his accounts of Alexander the Great and his achievements, writes that Aristotle advised his pupil to distinguish between Greeks and barbarians and to deal with the former as a leader or hegemon, while behaving towards the latter as a master, a despotes. Alexander, says Plutarch, did just the opposite. Refusing to divide men between Greek friends and barbarian foes, he chose rather to distinguish simply between good men and bad, whatever their origin. Alexander, it has been said, was in effect inventing the notion of a cosmopolis,
Stoic philosophy, replacing the polis with a universal human community and stressing the equality and fraternity of humankind as against the particularisms of the polis.
Aristotle’s advice to Alexander is authentic, it does correspond to a distinction between different kinds of rule that the philosopher draws in the Politics: There is rule of the sort which is exercised by a master [over slaves] . . . But [besides rule of the sort exercised by their ruler over persons in a servile position] there is also rule of the sort which is exercised over persons who are similar in birth to the ruler, and are similarly free. Rule of this sort is what we call political rule; and this is the sort of rule which [unlike rule of the first sort]… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Aristotle later elaborates on this distinction by contrasting two modes of government: ‘One way is to govern in the interest of the governors: the other, to govern in the interest of the governed. The former way is what we call “despotic” [i.e. a government over slaves]; the latter is what we call “the government of freemen.”’2 The rule of a master over slaves, ‘though there is really a common interest which unites the natural master and the natural slave, is primarily exercised with a view to the master’s… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
another category, household management (oikonomia), rule over wife, children and the household in general, which ‘is either exercised in the interest of the ruled or for the attainment of some advantage common to both ruler and ruled.’4 The philosopher’s distinctions did not preclude a despotic relation between rulers and ruled in… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Aristotle wanted to preserve the civic ideal of the polis, its principles of freedom and equality, while giving new life to old principles of rule, grounded in a natural division between ruler and ruled. The political relation among citizens was a relationship among equals, but there remained a fundamental inequality between the civic community and those outside it. The notion of rule applied to the life of… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
But a far more rigid and permanent division was preserved for relations between the ‘parts’ and the ‘conditions’ of the polis, between true citizens and all those subordinate human beings whose purpose was to serve their rulers’ interests, just as the purpose of slaves is to serve the despotes. If Alexander really did refuse his teacher’s advice, he surely cannot have done so because he rejected the principles of rule,… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
policies hardly bespeak a doctrine of human equality and brotherhood. If the accounts of Alexander’s ostensibly humanitarian views are correct, it would be absurd to take them at face value without considering their ideological or rhetorical function in his imperial project. Perhaps he had in mind something like what Aristotle himself hints at in the… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
This mode of imperial rule through the medium of local aristocracies allowed Alexander, like the Romans after him, to govern a far-flung empire without a massive imperial state. In this respect, both Hellenistic and Roman empires contrasted sharply with other great imperial civilizations like the Chinese, whose imperial states were more directly in command of their subjects, by means of much larger imperial bureaucracies. This also meant that the ‘cosmopolitan’ empire did in a sense preserve, or revive, at least the form of the Greek polis. Reliable cities could be permitted a degree of local self-government;
At least, the old liberties of the polis, their eleutheria and autonomia, served a useful propaganda purpose – though there were cases in which, with the help of one or another imperial rival, oligarchies established, for instance, by Antipater, actually were overthrown in favour of ‘democracy’. Reality may not have measured up to rhetoric; but the old Greek culture of the polis, and even of democracy, was so deeply ingrained that no imperial ideology was likely to succeed without invoking it. Thereafter, this strategy would survive, even if only in rhetorical form, as a means of maintaining friendly relations among monarchs and cities, as an excuse for war, or as a form of diplomatic language to describe the relations of domination by stronger over weaker powers.
Sparta, paradoxically, which had remained a vigorous and independent polis, was also the site of a particularly notable revolution in the third century BC under kings Agis IV and Cleomenes III, instituting land reforms, cancellation of debts and an extension of citizenship based on fairly extreme conceptions of equality. The effect was to alarm the propertied classes throughout the Greek cities. Fearing social unrest and reform at home more than they did Macedonian dominance, they allied themselves with the Macedonians; and Sparta was finally defeated. The pervasive unrest, and the fear it inspired in propertied classes, form the background against which Hellenistic thinkers embarked on their philosophical projects.
The primary idea of the state that Hellenistic rulers had to work with was the old conception of the polis as a community of citizens. Imperial rhetoric, and even, up to a point, imperial reality, oscillated between, on the one hand, a conception of empire as a collection of poleis, each allowed at least nominal autonomy and governed by its own particular laws, and, on the other, the idea of the cosmopolis as one universal polis, with its nomoi writ large.
The idea of the king as ‘living law’ has much in common with – and is related to the polis in much the same way as – Plato’s redefinition of nomos in the Statesman. As we saw, he argues that nomos in its conventional Athenian sense is opposed to the art, the techn, of statesmanship; and he elaborates a new conception of the rule of law which would imitate, not thwart, the political art. Plato reappropriates nomos by detaching the rule of law from the community of citizens and personifying it in the monarchical statesman, who must be free to exercise his art on behalf of the community, unchecked by a self-governing community of non-expert citizens. Absolute rule replaces the civic traditions of the democratic polis by turning them against themselves.
It is possible to read both Stoicism and Epicureanism as more or less apolitical responses to the decline of the polis or to the general uncertainty and turbulence of the times. It is certainly true that, as polis gave way to empire, the main arena of philosophical reflection shifted. The sphere of civic action and deliberation receded, bringing into focus the private individual at one extreme – most notably in Epicureanism – and the universal order of the cosmopolis at the other, especially as conceived by the Stoics. While there was certainly a place in Stoicism, especially in its later Roman form, for civic duty and political activism, both these major Hellenistic schools located human happiness not in the polis but in the individual’s inner resources.
‘epicureans’) and the avoidance of pain. Above all, happiness requires the peace that comes with the absence of fear, and this means in particular fear of death and the afterlife. If there is one single overriding purpose in Epicurean philosophy and its conception of nature, it is to banish such fears, which requires liberation from religion. This involves an explanation of natural processes without the intrusion of divine or supernatural forces, relying on a conception of material bodies composed of atoms, and an account of the human psyche in terms of materially generated sensations, which are, on the whole, accurate sources of knowledge.
Its central theme was not the life of the citizen but the experience and ethics of the individual person; and the highest relation among individuals was not the civic bond but personal friendship. At the same time, while the shift from polis to empire created a powerful impetus to apolitical withdrawal, we need to remember that Hellenistic philosophers were writing against a background of war and social turmoil, particularly as, in various city-states, conflicts between classes or between democrats and oligarchs were drawn into imperial power struggles. Social upheaval and political instability certainly encouraged a search for comfort in the cultivation of one’s own garden;
Like Epicureanism, Stoicism is concerned above all with ethics and the well-being of the individual. The self-control, even self-abnegation, that we associate with ‘stoicism’, the aspiration to eliminate the passions that cause human misery and the emphasis on the internal goods of the soul, may seem to argue for a withdrawal from political life altogether. Although civic life did play an important part in the ethical philosophy of Stoicism, at least in some of its forms, Stoic cosmopolitanism, with its emphasis on the universal bonds of humanity against all social and political particularities, may seem to have an apolitical charge.
At the heart of Stoic doctrine is the notion of logos, the universal reason of a divine cosmic order, the dynamic principle in material nature. The universe is completely unitary. In sharp contrast to the Platonic dualism of sensible and intelligible worlds, the rational and the non-rational, body and intellect, there is in Stoic philosophy – at least in its original form – no division between mind and matter. Mind permeates all material things, as the universe is united by the dynamic principle of cosmic reason, logos, which both activates the universe and holds it together. Human reason partakes of this universal logos. It is effectively one with the cosmic or divine logos.
this means that human sensation and perception, which have direct access to reality, are reliable foundations of knowledge – not the imperfect sources, at best, of mere opinion, to be distinguished from the true knowledge that is accessible only to reason. It also means that, since there is no mind–body split in Stoic psychology, Stoic philosophy departs radically from the principles underlying the fundamental Platonic division between ruling element and ruled.
Stoicism suggests that human beings are capable of acting in opposition to the logos, that is, in a less than rational manner. In that sense, they have the freedom to choose or repudiate virtue. If humans simply acted unconsciously or non-rationally in accordance with the laws of nature, as animals do, it would be impossible to speak of human virtue. But, by definition, the truly rational – hence virtuous – person is the one who can live only in accordance with the universal principle of nature, aligning the individual soul with the divine cosmic order.
The idea of a universal community, subject to a universal law, can be understood as a counsel of universal compassion; but it can also support a harsh moral rigidity. It can underwrite deeply egalitarian principles; but, as we have seen, it can also be used to justify empire. The idea of a transcendent natural equality, which attributes to all human beings a common logos, can be used to underwrite social and political equality, even the equality of women, and the repudiation of slavery. But it can also serve as a pretext for accepting inequality in the material world, while relegating equality to some higher realm which leaves existing social and political hierarchies intact. This, as we shall see, was certainly the effect of Stoic influences in Rome and, for instance, in the political theory of Cicero.
It is presumably significant that he used the term commonly applied to human word, thought or reason to denote the universal principle of cosmic order; and it seems reasonable to suppose that, if the logos represented both the cosmic order and human intelligence, this had implications for the possibilities of human knowledge.
two related ideas that are central to Heraclitus’s philosophy: that everything is in continuous motion, so that, while the cosmos is lawful, its operative principle is a law of change; and that the cosmic order is constituted by opposites in tension, a harmony of opposites, so that strife and war are the universal principle of nature. For Plato, Heraclitus’s conception of the cosmos leaves no room for the dichotomy between the constant change of becoming and the permanence of being, or for the essential distinction between knowledge and opinion and the two distinct levels of reality that correspond to them.
there can be little doubt that Plato thought in such terms. Writing in democratic Athens, however, he could not have envisaged a Milesian resolution to the social conflicts of his day. Athens had already long ago passed through the kind of balance in tension which Solon, for instance, had sought to establish. The balance had long ago shifted too far towards the demos, and Plato could no longer imagine a stabilization of tension in the interests of the wealthy or the aristocracy. The demos now had to be unambiguously subordinate. His idea of social and political stability was uncompromisingly an order of motionless hierarchy, with lower elements in complete submission to the higher.
As we have seen, Rome’s well defined conception of exclusive property was accompanied by a particular distinction between public and private. This invited a definition of the public sphere, specifically the state, in a way that Greek experience did not. Just as the Greeks never elaborated a clear idea of property, they never went beyond the notion of the public sphere, the polis, as synonymous with the community of citizens. The Roman Republic, and the Roman law, encouraged a perception of a clearly defined public sphere and a conception of the state as a formal entity apart from the citizens who comprised it, even distinct from the particular persons who governed them
Cicero takes on the challenge of defining the state in a manner befitting the Roman conception of property and the relation between property and state. He does this for fairly obvious reasons. His ideal ruling class is one that combines the enjoyment and enlargement of their estates with the demands of civic virtue, and so he sets himself the task of conceptualizing the relation between public sphere and private in such a way as to maintain the sanctity of private property while stressing public duty. At the heart of his definition is his characterization of the state as ‘a union of a large number of men in agreement in respect to what is right and just and associated in the common interest’.28 Justice and the common interest are inextricably linked in Cicero’s formulation,
in all matters private and public, we should give each person his due, his dignitas, while preserving the common interest. To give each person his due means that everyone should refrain from injuring another without due cause, keep promises and contracts, and respect all property, private and public. But what is due to any person depends on his worth; and Cicero leaves us in no doubt that, whatever else may determine the value of a man, wealth and birth are critical, and the life of a gentleman is worth more than that of a labourer. These principles of justice… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
natural justice, argues Cicero; and it must also be reflected in customary and statutory law. If man-made laws do not conform to the dictates of natural law, they are not true law; and a state governed by such laws is not a true state. The hierarchy of law, descending from the law of nature, is at the centre of Cicero’s political theory. Law, he writes, is not a product of human thought, nor is it any enactment of peoples, but something eternal which rules the whole universe by its wisdom in command and prohibition. Thus they have… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
for it is the reason and mind of a wise lawgiver applied to command and prohibition.29 In the Republic, having insisted on the universality and immutability of true law, he goes on to warn that ‘We cannot be freed from its obligations by senate or people’. By placing natural justice at the heart of his conception of the state, Cicero has certainly ascribed some kind of moral purpose to the state. Yet that purpose is impossible to dissociate from his notion of the common interest, which… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
there is even a certain similarity between Cicero’s conception of justice as an innate and universal human sense, which enables people to live together in comfort and harmony, enjoying the benefits of reason and the arts, and Protagoras’s conception of the innate and universal sense of justice and respect for others which make possible the civilized, comfortable life of the polis. But Cicero’s political conclusions are different from those of Protagoras. He… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
In the Laws, as well as other works and speeches, he makes very clear his disdain for those engaged in menial occupations and his utter contempt for the poor, as if they were criminals, while heaping praise on occupations appropriate to gentlemen, such as war, politics or philosophy, and farming or commerce on a large scale. The ideal gentleman and political leader is the… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
when, in the Republic, Cicero surveys the various types of constitution, he concludes that, of the simple types – kingship, aristocracy and democracy – democracy is clearly the worst. Democratic equality, even when the demos governs wisely, violates the principles of justice and equity by denying men their just – unequal – deserts: ‘For when equal honour is given to the highest and the lowest – for men of both types must exist in every nation – then this very “fairness” is most unfair; but this cannot happen in states ruled by their best citizens.’30 The best type of state is a mixed constitution, striking a balance in the class conflict… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
in the Roman Republic, there is a hierarchy of social orders, and with it a hierarchical order of political rights. Cicero thus manages to combine what appear to be democratic principles of arithmetic equality with an aristocratic notion of ‘proportionate’ equality, attributing to all men a sense of justice in the manner of Protagoras, while identifying justice with social and political hierarchy in the manner of Plato. Cicero sees no contradictions between his own political principles and Plato’s and presents himself as following in the Athenian philosopher’s footsteps, even down to the titles of his two major works in political theory. But he distinguishes… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
the egalitarian dangers of the cosmopolitan idea seemed less immediate to a defender of the propertied elites in republican Rome, where their supremacy was effectively unchallenged, than a principle of equality seemed to propertied classes in democratic Athens. It may be useful here to recall the role played by ‘unwritten law’ in Athenian democracy.
the relation between such laws and the nomoi of the polis had become an urgent practical issue in ways that put unwritten laws in question altogether, whether they were man-made or decreed by nature. We witnessed the tensions between unwritten, timeless laws and civic law in Sophocles’s Antigone; but they were particularly visible when, after the oligarchic coup of the Thirty Tyrants, the conflicts between democrats and oligarchs prompted the restored democracy to prohibit the invocation of unwritten law because of its deeply oligarchic associations. For supporters of democracy,
not simply a question of committing laws to writing in order to make them known to all citizens and protect them from aristocratic judges. More fundamentally, the notion of unwritten law had come to be identified with oligarchic principles of natural inequality, the idea that men were unequal by physis, which, in the eyes of democrats, had been rightfully challenged by civic equality. Plato, of course, was the principal philosophical exponent of this oligarchic view, especially in his identification of justice with inequality, on the basis of a higher principle of cosmic order. For his democratic opponents, unwritten law represented injustice, not justice, and men had to turn to the… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
civic law, not unwritten laws of nature, that represented the triumph of reason and ‘Holy Persuasion’. In Cicero’s conception of natural law we see something quite different. It is certainly true that his natural law included norms of behaviour that would have been congenial to democrats no less than oligarchs, as would his conception of a universal moral equality among all men. But inscribed in his universal law of nature and the transcendent laws of reason is a fundamental human inequality, which means that the principles… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
The combination of natural law and proportionate equality, as Cicero presents it, seems to come down to this: equality of obligation, inequality of rights. With his specific political project in mind, it is not surprising that the burden of natural law is ‘restraint’, ‘prohibition’ and ‘compulsion’ – which applies to all classes, calling upon elites to act with restraint and the people to stay in their place. In the immediate historical and political circumstances confronted by the Roman statesman, the advantages of his formula are… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
vesting rule in an aristocratic elite. It also has the virtue of calling an unruly aristocracy to order, reining in its excesses while respecting its property and its political dominance. Finally, although Cicero has remarkably little to say about the empire he served and from which he benefitted personally, his political formula has its uses in defending Roman imperialism, giving philosophical support to the Roman idea of a benevolent empire, in which the superior rule the inferior in the interests of both, according to the law of nature. In this defence of empire, as… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
the Roman Empire depended in large part on the so-called municipal system, an alliance of ostensibly self-governing units dominated by local aristocracies. And, on the other hand, just as Alexander had defined his imperial rule as cosmopolitan, the idea of the cosmopolis could be translated into the ‘universal’ Roman Empire, which would extend Roman citizenship far beyond the borders of metropolitan Rome. Citizenship, of course, no longer meant what it had done in the democratic polis, but it was an effective ideological instrument of imperial hegemony. Eventually, that… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
The story of that transformation begins with Paul of Tarsus and culminates in Augustine of Hippo. Its essence is the creation of a distinctive universalism which allows the supreme omnipotent authority of one God to coexist with the more or less absolute temporal powers of emperors and kings, and the equality of all humanity before God with the most extreme social inequalities and rigid earthly hierarchies – not unlike the delicate balance we have already encountered in the modified cosmopolitanism of Roman Stoicism and Cicero’s concept of natural law.
the triumph and elaboration of Pauline Christianity depended on the increasing divergence of Eastern and Western empires, which saw the emergence of a distinctively Latin theology rooted in the western provinces and reaching fruition in Romanized North Africa. Christianity developed in tandem with the imperial state. The development of Christian doctrine, its conception of divinity and the relation of humanity to God, is inextricably bound up with the Roman imperial idea, which underwent significant changes in the first few centuries of the Christian era.
imperial state displaced the old republic and developed according to a logic of its own, the early imperial myth of the princeps governing in tandem with the senate inevitably gave way to the emperor conceived as absolute dominus. At the same time, the republican notion of empire as the product of legitimate conquests by the city-state of Rome would be replaced by a more cosmopolitan idea of a ‘supra-national world empire’, in which all peoples were equally ruled by one absolute ruler no longer centred just… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
thanks to a military and bureaucratic revolution, which would be completed by the Christian emperor, Constantine, and buttressed ideologically by his conversion of the empire to Christianity. But the consolidation of the state bureaucracy did not mean a weakening of the imperial aristocracy. On the contrary, it produced a new and larger ruling class, an ‘aristocracy of service’, whose military and official functions gave its members unparalleled access to wealth.33 At the same time, the western provinces, where the gulf between rich and poor was growing ever wider, were… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
meant a significant change in the urban culture of the empire, as the public life of ancient civic communities gave way to inward-looking domesticity, and aristocratic civil benefaction gave way to lavish displays of private wealth. Both the consolidation of the imperial state and the ascendant aristocracy, especially in the west, shaped the evolution of Christian theology. While changes in the imperial idea can persuasively be represented as… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Byzantine ‘Caesaropapism’ emerged in the east, a unity of religion and state in which Christianity acknowledged its subordination to political authority, leaving a spiritual residue of mysticism outside the state. By contrast, the West would eventually produce its distinctive notion of two equal powers, temporal and spiritual, each with its own earthly institutions and hierarchies. The idea of two equal powers may always have been as much myth as reality,… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
sources of Western Christian dualism may be found in social and cultural conditions we have already encountered in our discussion of the Roman property regime and the distinctive public/private dichotomy that it engendered. The Romans, in their very specific social conditions, elaborated a conceptual apparatus which lent itself particularly well to apprehending distinct but coexisting structures of authority – as in their conceptions of property and state, or dominium and imperium. The same distinctions could be used to modify the principles of… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Seneca (c.3 BC–AD 65) explicates Stoic doctrine by demonstrating how all things can be considered common, at least to wise men, while still remaining individual and private property. He draws a significant analogy with the rights of the emperor: ‘all things are [Caesar’s] by right of his authority [imperio]’; yet at the same time the sense in which everything is his by right of ‘imperium’ must be distinguished from the way things… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
the conceptual logic that joins the idea of divine authority to Roman conceptions of property: ‘while it is true that all things belong to the gods, all things are not consecrated to the gods, and . . . only in the case of the things that religion has assigned to a divinity is it possible to discover sacrilege.’34 Here, then, was a way of thinking about property and spheres of authority that made it possible to insist on one universal cosmic logos, a universal and common natural law, the equality of all human beings, and even the exclusive supremacy of one omnipotent God; while still declaring the sanctity of private property, the legitimacy of social inequality and… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
reflected the historical realities of a cosmopolitan empire, which appealed to universalistic principles to sustain its legitimacy, while coexisting with, and supporting, a regime of private property of an unprecedented kind: a distinctive union of a powerful state and strong private property quite different, as we have seen, from other ancient high civilizations. Much of Roman Stoic philosophy, to say nothing of the Roman law, was dedicated to maintaining this… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
The Bible attributes to Jesus himself the principle that we should ‘Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.’ Stated in this simple form, the principle is nicely consistent with Seneca’s modified Stoicism. While certainly not questioning the supremacy of God, the universality of His divine law or His ‘ownership’ of everything in this world and beyond, it nonetheless finds room for Caesar’s realm of absolute authority. God’s cosmic imperium coexists with… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Paul, the founder of Christianity as we know it, who, in his defence of absolute obedience to earthly powers, began the process of translating into systematic Christian theology the doctrine of universal divinity and the spiritual equality of all human beings before God, combined with the earthly inequalities of property, social hierarchy and absolute political authority. He establishes his universalistic principles by dissociating Christianity from Jewish law, replacing the particularism of an essentially tribal religion with a… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
‘righteousness of God’, he writes, manifests itself apart from any law. In this, he belongs to Hellenistic and Stoic traditions of cosmopolitanism, which he may have learned not only from Stoic philosophy but from the Septuagint, the Hellenistic Greek translation of the Old Testament, where the Hebrew Bible’s Jewish exclusiveness is modified by a certain cosmopolitan opening to gentiles.35 Yet Paul’s universalism is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it asserts the equal moral value of all human beings. On the other hand, it leaves completely unchallenged, indeed supports, the social inequalities of the temporal sphere, enjoining their acceptance, and emphatically asserts the absolute… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
he who resists the authority, withstands the ordinance of God; and those who withstand will receive to themselves judgment. For rulers are not a terror to the good work, but to the evil. Do you desire to have no fear of the authority? Do that which is good, and you will have praise from the same, for he is a servant of God to you for good. But if you do that which is evil, be afraid, for he doesn’t bear the sword in vain; for he is a servant of God, an avenger for wrath to him who does evil. Therefore you need to be in subjection, not only because of the wrath, but also for conscience’s sake. For this reason you also pay taxes, for they are servants of God’s service, attending… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
The ideology supporting the first Christian emperor, Constantine, as spelled out by the Bishop Eusebius in his famous oration in praise of Constantine (which is hard to match in its obsequious grandiosity), would identify the emperor as God’s representative, even his partner, the earthly embodiment of the divine logos. But as far-reaching in its consequences as this doctrine certainly was, there is in Pauline theology another theme, which would be fully elaborated only in the Christian West, in specifically western conditions: the emperor not as God’s… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Apart from any other implications of Pauline doctrine, and whether a conflict between universalist ‘Hellenists’ and particularist ‘Hebrews’ ever actually took place among the early Christians, Paul’s universalism had some very obvious advantages for the pagan Roman authorities and imperial elites. Christianity may have begun as a movement of the urban poor; but Paul’s message to the prosperous classes was decidedly more reassuring than were, for instance, the convictions of other early Jewish Christians who, following Jesus, preached an egalitarianism not… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Slavery itself was compatible with Paul’s doctrine of universal equality. He calls upon servants to ‘be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ . . . knowing that whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free.’37 Pauline principles oblige the master to recognize his servant’s moral equality by treating him well, but they represent no challenge to the institution of slavery. Paul’s most… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
when rebellious Jews were resisting Roman hegemony and refusing to acknowledge the divinity of the emperor, while Jewish Christians pointedly denied the divinity of Caesar by asserting the lordship of Christ, Paul’s universalistic attack on Jewish particularism, and his replacement of Jewish monotheism with a cosmopolitanism which at the same time renders unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, nicely undercut any such challenge to imperial authority. It gave support to the secular universalism of the Roman Empire, replacing, among other things,… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Pauline Christianity, in other words, effected an adaptation of universalism analogous to the changes in Stoic doctrine, which blunted its egalitarian implications and its potential challenge to existing authorities, making the doctrine more congenial to Roman elites. It might be said that, like the Roman Stoics, Paul – who was familiar with and influenced by Stoic philosophy – achieved this effect by reintroducing a kind of dualism that allowed a separation between, on the one hand, the moral or spiritual sphere, in which the cosmic logos dictated a universal equality, and, on the other hand, the material world in which social… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Christianity required its own distinctive means of dividing the spheres of authority. For the Stoics, it was enough to acknowledge that, in the real world, not all human beings are wise, so that the ordinary earthly life of ordinary earthly men and women must be governed by some kind of practical ethics and a legalism tempered by equity. The Stoic case for Roman property, political hierarchy and empire was obviously strengthened by attempts to replace the Early Stoic monism with something like Platonic principles of rule and subordination. But for the most part, Roman Stoics, as… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
a Neoplatonist strand in Christianity, which adapted Plato’s conception of a transcendent realm beyond empirical reality and posited the One, the ultimate unitary and unknowable divine reality from which all other levels of reality emanated. Platonic philosophy could, to be sure, supply a cosmic principle of rule and subordination, which could be used – as some Stoics did use it – to justify earthly hierarchies; and perhaps the idea of the One from which descending orders of reality all emanated could be invoked in support of the emperor’s absolute power, for instance in the manner of Eusebius and his invocation of the… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Christian Neoplatonism was not particularly well suited to give positive support to existing social and political arrangements. It tended rather to devalue earthly existence and the material realm, and encouraged Christians to seek mystical release from it, always striving to attain the spiritual realm and assimilate the human soul to God as much as possible. This could no doubt encourage a passive acceptance of worldly injustice and in this way support existing authorities at least by default; but it did little to bolster the claims of property and state. For Christians a defence of the… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Earthly governments and total obedience to them are necessary, according to this version of Christianity, because and only because human beings are sinful by nature. It is true that, for Paul, Christ represented salvation from the universal taint of sin, but in this life, if not the next, there was no escaping human sinfulness; and that made Caesar’s authority an unavoidable necessity. The principle that human sinfulness legitimates earthly authorities, already present in Paul, would reach its full development in Augustine; and here begins a long tradition in Western… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
among the earthly institutions that organize this fallen world, there is the Church – and here too the distinctiveness of Western Christianity is manifest. The focus on the role and structures of the Church belongs to the West no less than does the emphasis on sin and personal salvation. In the development of Christianity from the Eastern Roman Empire through Byzantium, the state effectively became the Church. The empire was the Church on earth, as the emperor was its head. The Western approach was different. Here, the Church was responsible for organizing the personal salvation of Christians, who could have no hope of seeing… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
The Church, in fact, became a parallel structure, a mirror image of the Roman state, in which religious functions were conceived as offices. Even the outlines of the Western Roman social hierarchy were mirrored in the Church, with bishops playing the part of the landed senatorial aristocracy. Indeed, the ecclesiastical aristocracy tended to be drawn from the same social source; and the episcopacy would become one of the landed aristocracy’s principal institutions, a relocation of aristocratic power at a time when secular authority was crumbling.38 Western bishops were, in… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
continue to represent as much a secular as an ecclesiastical power; and the particular development of Western Christianity would, as we shall see in the next chapter, continue to mirror the destiny of landed aristocracies, sometimes reflecting their dominance and at other times manipulated by kings engaged in centralizing projects against aristocratic autonomy. It is one of history’s many ironies that, while the empire collapsed in the west, as the imperial state gave way to a fragmented order dominated by… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
the first major figure in the development of a distinctively Western theology, the son of a Roman centurion based in Carthage, was trained in Roman law and that, in the absence of any Latin theological tradition, he drew on the concepts and language of the Roman law. Tertullian’s legalistic temperament and training may also help to explain his particular emphasis on sin; and his doctrine of original sin (he has even been credited with inventing the term), as inherited by every human individual from Adam, made each member of humankind the bearer of guilt – a doctrine perhaps particularly well suited to a theology that… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Western Christianity would thereafter continue to develop under this legalistic influence. Tertullian’s legalism can hardly be just the accidental consequence of his personal experience. He was surely a creature of the Western Roman Empire; and against the background of Pauline doctrine and its place in imperial history, there is nothing surprising about the reflection of Roman institutions and the Roman law in the organization and… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
in the third century, Cyprian, bishop of Carthage and a Roman citizen of noble birth, elaborated the most authoritative Latin doctrine on the hierarchy of the Church in his De Catholicae Ecclesiae Unitate (On the Unity of the Catholic Church). But by far the most important product of the western… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Augustine’s masterpiece, the City of God, is conventionally taught in English-speaking universities as a classic of medieval political thought; but, while it profoundly influenced medieval Christianity, it is very much a product of the late Roman Empire. It is precisely his engagement with imperial realities that compelled him to break new ground, not only in theology but in political theory. In his interrogation of the relation between Christianity and empire, which took to new extremes the dualism of St Paul and his doctrine of obedience to even the most sinful of temporal powers, Augustine… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
of the curial class – the prosperous, if not aristocratic, class from which local magistrates were drawn and who were responsible for funding various public functions. After studying and teaching, first in Rome and then in Milan, and having flirted with Manichaeism and Scepticism, he finally underwent his own conversion to Christianity, which was powerfully influenced by Neoplatonism. He was particularly affected by its idea of God as spirit and the conception of evil as withdrawal from God rather than an independent malign force, but also… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
he enjoyed the friendship and patronage of the Romanized aristocracy; and, after spending much of his youth in the fleshpots of Rome, he became bishop of Hippo in his native North Africa in 395. This was the granary of the empire, a land of huge estates, worked not by slaves but by peasants, many of them dependent. Augustine’s life in the late empire was a time of acute economic and social strife in the region, plagued by agricultural decline, rural unrest, popular revolts against Roman colonial rule, a polarization of the population… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
The social unrest that accompanied economic decline was aggravated by the Christianity of the African peasantry and schisms like the Donatist Church, which included some members of the educated classes and their clients but whose base of support was among the lower orders. An extremist fringe of Donatism, the Circumcellions, probably drawn from Libyan-speaking landless peasants, some renegade slaves and migratory labourers, represented not only a theological or political danger but also a social one.40 While there has been much debate about whether the motivations of this movement were primarily social or religious, there seems little doubt that Romanized landed elites perceived it as a threat to their very… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
North Africa was spared Alaric’s attack by a storm that turned back the invaders, and Carthage became a haven for aristocratic refugees from Rome. Among them were wealthy educated pagans who blamed the disaster on the abandonment of ancient ways, above all the repudiation of paganism in favour of Christianity. Augustine set out to demonstrate to such imperial elites that Christianity was not their enemy, that it was not inconsistent with earthly government, social order or duty to the state – or, indeed, to property and social inequality. In the process of making his… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
predestination, precisely because it makes grace and punishment independent of specific human actions, has no necessary implications for individual free will. But the fundamental purpose of the doctrine is not to resolve the conflict between the principles of individual freedom and determinism but rather to construct a foundation for his conception of two ‘cities’, the City of God and the earthly city. In his earlier years, Augustine essentially shared the view of other Christians concerning the role of the Roman Empire as God’s providential instrument for the Christianization of the world, in the manner proposed by Eusebius in praise of Constantine.
the disasters experienced by the western provinces, both from external threats and internal disorder, posed a challenge to such Christian optimism and put in question the position of Rome as God’s chosen earthly medium of salvation. Had Augustine written the City of God in different historical circumstances, at a time when Constantinian triumphalism may have seemed more convincing, it might be plausible to suggest, as some commentators have done, that Augustine’s most important accomplishment in that work was to ‘relativize’ the empire by challenging its universalistic claims.
history had already made a mockery of Rome’s presumption, whether pagan or Christian; and in that context, Augustine’s argument was less a challenge to Rome’s imperial pretensions than, on the contrary, a new way of buttressing imperial authority without appealing to an implausible divine election. Western Christianity, in contrast to the Byzantine East, faced very specific difficulties because of its relation to the Roman Empire. The empire in the West preceded Christianity, and after its conversion – in many eyes, because of it – seemed on the verge of destruction. The East faced no such complications. Imperial Christianity and the eastern empire were born together under Constantine, and the east did not face the same barbarian threat.
While the East was able to assume the unity of empire and Christianity, Church and state, and even the subordination of the Church to the secular state, Western Christianity was obliged to deal not only with the rupture between imperial paganism and Christianity but also with the near-collapse of empire after its conversion. That precluded any easy assumptions about relations between Church and state. This affected not only teachings with immediate consequences for the understanding of divine and secular authority but even the most arcane of Christian doctrines, such as interpretation of the Trinity. Much of Augustinian theology was an attempt to come to terms with a secular authority whose Christian foundations were ambiguous and a Christianity which seemed to endanger secular order.
Cicero’s definition of the state, in the speech attributed to Scipio in the Republic, which we have already encountered: the state, says Scipio, is ‘a union of a large number of men in agreement in respect to what is right and just and associated in the common interest’. Augustine rejects this definition, on the grounds that it does not conform to historical experience. Neither the Roman Republic, nor the Roman Empire (despite its many contributions to the welfare of humanity), nor indeed any other pagan state could ever fit this definition, since justice cannot exist except under the rule of God.
Augustine’s objective is not to delegitimate the pagan state. On the contrary, the effect of his argument is to make it clear that the pagan state is no less a state and no less entitled to obedience than any other state on earth. It is striking that, while his discussion concentrates on pagan states and the City of God, no special status is granted to the Christian state – which, when all is said and done, is prey to all the evils of humanity’s fallen condition. His purpose is not to maintain that Christian states are more… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Rome was never a commonwealth in Cicero’s sense because it never enjoyed true justice, so Christianity cannot be blamed for destroying the Roman commonwealth; and, on the other hand, in the transformation from paganism to Christianity, it retained the qualities of a genuine state despite the absence of true justice in both cases. There is nothing, then, in Christian doctrine which can be used to advocate disobedience to the imperial state or to promote civil disorder. To explain the evils facing Rome, while at the same time justifying obedience to its earthly authority, required something very different… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Just as he lost faith in the empire’s divine purpose, his hopes for human virtue were replaced by a preoccupation with humanity’s innate sinfulness. Augustine also now rejected his earlier Platonist belief in the rational order of the cosmos descending from the heavens to earth, and any conception of natural law in which human law is an earthly reflection… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
one represents the saintly, holy, elect, pious and just; the other designates the impure, impious, unjust and damned. But, while the two are antithetical, they exist inextricably together; and both run inseparably through every human society. Augustine even rejects the distinction between the sacred and profane as two discrete spheres – so that the Church itself, while holy, is for him an earthly institution plagued like all others by the conflict between holiness and sin. Even those who belong to the City of God must pass through the earthly city and share its tribulations; and the conflict between the two forces will go on until the end of history, when the City of God… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
best that can be hoped for until the end of historical time is the maintenance of earthly peace and social order, which are no less necessary to the City of God as it passes on its earthly pilgrimage than they are to the damned while they live on this earth. Every person and all institutions, the holy no less than the transparently unholy, must therefore subject themselves to the earthly powers whose purpose is to maintain peace and order in this world – not a just or rightful order but a measure of security and physical comfort, to… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
the notion of humanity’s fallen condition and the power of sin. In this, Augustine was a true and explicit follower of Paul; and like Paul, he concluded from this that Caesar’s earthly power, while not fulfilling any truly divine mission, was nevertheless providentially ordained by God. But Augustine takes the doctrine much further, systematically elaborating the reasons for obedience to a pagan emperor like Julian the Apostate, no less than to Constantine the Christian, even… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
The very notion of ‘heresy’, in fact, is, on Augustinian assumptions, theoretically problematic. But there is no mystery about it if we consider that Augustine’s principal aim is to sustain the power of existing authorities and the imperial state. The effect of his doctrines was not only to uphold the authority of an imperfect Church, whose right to obedience did not depend on the personal virtues of its clergy, but also to underwrite obedience to the secular state. His notorious campaign against the Donatists, for instance, was directed against their challenge both to the Church and to the… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Augustine was keen both to preserve the inviolability of the Church hierarchy and to circumvent the problem of relations between secular and ecclesiastical authority, effectively declaring the supremacy of imperial power in the absence of any possible justice on earth. By identifying the Church as a secular institution, not a distinct sphere that must be rendered unto God, he ensured that… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Here is a Christian bishop who is seeking to assert the supremacy of secular authority, as well as to preserve the social arrangements based on the rights of property conferred by the authority of kings and emperors. These secular authorities, which Christians are enjoined to obey, may include non-Christians and even the unholiest of tyrants; yet their authority applies equally to saints and to sinners. Now, it is much easier to justify the subjection of all humanity, regardless of virtue or vice, to the same worldly tribulations, or to insist on the absolute… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
No human being can be compelled to disobey authority or to challenge unjust institutions on the grounds of higher moral principles if such moral resistance is as futile on earth as it is inconsequential in heaven. This was the crux of the dispute between Augustine and Pelagius, another victim of his anti-heretical zeal, who not only insisted on human… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Human beings, obliged to live a virtuous life, were intrinsically capable of living without sin. The issue between these two theologians had less to do with free will itself – a problem which, as we have seen, Augustine sought to finesse – than with the underlying concept of original sin and its implications for human conduct in this world. The Pelagian heresy may seem very harsh in the demands it makes on free human beings, imposing on the individual the responsibility of a holy and ascetic life;… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Augustine gave comfort to a wealthy and predatory ruling class, making demands on their thoughts but not on their deeds, Pelagius exposed the immorality of wealth and was a uniquely harsh critic of Roman society. Augustine’s campaigns against Donatists and Pelagians, argues his biographer, Peter Brown, together represent ‘a significant landmark in that process by which the Catholic Church had come to embrace, and so to tolerate, the whole… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
He strongly opposed the version of the Trinity more common among early Greek Christians, which seemed to suggest not only that Christ received the Holy Spirit from God but that ordinary mortals participated in the Holy Spirit in much the same way as did the Son, ‘begotten’ of God. The Augustinian version of the Trinity drove a wedge between ordinary mortals and a direct experience of the Holy Spirit and made them more dependent on intercession by the Church.42 At the same time, it buttressed the doctrine of original sin which had as its corollary the obligation to obey the temporal powers of both Church and state.
Eastern Christianity never faced the same political dilemmas as confronted the West and perhaps for that reason was not so compelled to resort to doctrines of original sin or all the theology supporting them.
we should not overlook the deeper political significance of such arcane doctrines in sustaining temporal powers in the West. Augustine provides a powerful, and Christian, justification for both ungodly rule by non-Christian rulers and ungodly or unchristian behaviour by Christian emperors and kings. He not only finds a way of reconciling Christian morality with amoral earthly rule but even establishes Christianity as a way of justifying immoral earthly rule. What makes the paradox even more paradoxical is… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Greek political theory, as we saw, emerged in response to the dissolution of traditional relations between rulers and ruled and the emergence of a new form of political organization, a civic community. Its central category was citizenship, not rule and obedience, and it conceived of politics not as a relation between rulers and ruled, or masters and servants, but as a transaction among equal citizens. Antidemocratic philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, who sought to restore a relation between rulers and ruled, still felt obliged to operate within these civic categories. Plato did much to re-establish the principle of rule as the central category of political thought;… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Plato, for instance, in the Statesman distinguishes between the royal art of politics and other, subordinate arts which serve the political without partaking of it. For Aristotle, the relations that characterized the polis, as distinct from other forms of association like the oikos, were relations among equals, while relations among unequals – between, for instance, ‘parts’ and ‘conditions’ of the polis – were not political. The civic categories of Greek political theory persisted in Rome, even when empire… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
these questions re-emerged in a context where traditional principles of domination and obedience had long been undermined by the civic relations of polis and republic, where there could be no easy assumptions about an inevitable division between rulers and ruled or about a correspondence between class inequality and political hierarchy, meant that the Roman… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
But the Roman Empire broke new ground in justifying inequality and domination. We have seen how thinkers like Cicero sought to meet the requirements of justifying inequality; but no one before Augustine was so systematically preoccupied with questions of rule and obedience – and it was Christianity that provided the necessary conceptual tools. The development of Western Christianity was, as we have already seen, shaped in very particular ways by the specificities of Greco-Roman political life. We have also seen how the… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
to explain the need for obedience to a secular authority which could no longer be plausibly regarded as the privileged agent of God’s mission on earth. But obedience and obligation posed more general problems in a… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Imperial rule, which required obedience to one supreme ruler, meant that it was no longer enough simply to divide the social world between a political community of citizens and those outside it, as Plato and Aristotle had done. In any case, the equality of human beings before God was an essential principle of Christianity, so political rule could not be justified in Christian terms by dividing humanity between those who belonged to a civic community and those outside and subordinate to it. Within those constraints, the most effective way to justify a secular imperial authority… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
the old Greek principles of political community presupposed some kind of human capacity for self-government – whether innate in all men, as assumed by Protagoras, or confined to a few, as in Plato’s political theory – those civic principles could best be challenged by denying any such capacity for civic virtue or self-rule.… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
A.R.W. Harrison, The Law of Athens: The Family and Property (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1968), p. 201. It may be misleading to call Roman property ‘absolute’, but perhaps no more misleading than is the concept of ‘absolute’ property itself. If ‘absolute’ means completely inviolable, without restrictions on its use, or without any obligations (such as taxation) attached to it, there has never been a truly absolute form of property. But it would be a mistake not to acknowledge the distinctively exclusive quality of Roman property, the degree to which it belonged to the individual to the exclusion of others, even if certain obligations might be associated with it.
Cicero, Off. II, 78–80, Loeb Library translation. 24 Rep. III, 36–7, Loeb Library translation. The translator remarks that these fragments ‘are part of the argument for the justice of slavery and imperialism, in which it is maintained that certain nations and individuals are naturally fitted for and benefited by subjection to others.’ He points out that St Augustine later explained the meaning of these passages in The City of God, XIX, 21. The relevant passage in St Augustine reads ‘ . . . the rule over provincials [according to Cicero’s Republic] is just, precisely because servitude is the interest of such men, and is established for their welfare when rightly established; that is, when licence to do wrong is taken away from wicked men; and that those subdued will be better off, because when not subdued they were worse off. In support of the reasoning a striking example is introduced, as if drawn from nature, and stated as follows: Why, then, is it that God commands man, the soul commands the body, the reason commands lust and the other vicious parts of the soul?’
40 See Neal Wood, ‘African Peasant Terrorism and Augustine’s Political Thought’, in History from Below: Studies in Popular Protest and Popular Ideology in Honour of George Rude, ed. Frederick Krantz (Montreal: Concordia University, 1985), pp. 279–99.
Elaine Pagels, in her book, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (New York: Random House, 1988), has argued that the transformation of Christianity into an imperial religion by the conversion of Constantine was accompanied by ‘a cataclysmic transformation in Christian thought’ effected by Augustine, who replaced the early Christian doctrine of moral freedom with an ineluctable bondage to original sin, providing a justification for Christian submission not only to ecclesiastical authority but to imperial power. Christian attitudes on sexuality were part of this transformation. But these transformations were surely already present long before the conversion of Constantine, in the doctrines of St Paul, whose attitudes on sin and sexuality, no less than submission to imperial authority, prefigured Augustine’s.
Paul may not have transformed Christianity into an imperial religion – a change that awaited the Constantinian conversion – but he certainly made Christianity compatible with submission to imperial power, on the grounds of humanity’s inevitable sinfulness. Augustine’s version of the Trinity, however, was truly distinctive and took Christianity even further in the direction of submission to both ecclesiastical and secular power. Eugene Webb has argued that, by interpreting the symbols of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in a way that made impossible the Christian’s… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
From Imperial Rome to ‘Feudalism’ ‘[T]here seems little doubt,’ writes the eminent medieval historian, Rodney Hilton, that peasantries were the basis of the ancient civilizations out of which most European feudal societies grew . . . In fact, viewed from the standpoint of this most numerous class of rural society, the difference between late Roman and early medieval civilization may not have been all that easy to discern.1 Yet, despite this fundamental continuity, some conventions of Western culture have produced a sense of profound… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Enlightenment conceptions of progress and classical political economy, for instance, tended to view the Middle Ages as an interruption in the progressive development of Western civilization from its roots in classical antiquity, a hiatus that delayed the inevitable triumph of rationalism and/or ‘commercial society’ after their promising beginnings in the ancient Mediterranean. The natural course of history, it seems, resumed only with the Renaissance. Feudalism, in these conventions,… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
More recent scholarship has done much to correct this disconnected view of history. But the legacy of old conventions has been hard to uproot, not least because the continuities are more visible from the vantage point of peasants, and history… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
the continuous history of philosophy and ‘canonical’ political theory, which is particularly circumscribed by the experience of dominant classes and cultural elites, is perhaps even more inclined to obscure the underlying social continuities in relations between landlords and peasants. To emphasize the continuities is not at all to deny the social transformations that took place in the dying years of the empire and thereafter. On the contrary, the point is to observe the development of feudal society precisely as a transformation and not an alien intrusion.
Between the sixth and tenth centuries, the period commonly identified as the era of feudalization, the Roman Empire was replaced by what has been called the ‘parcellization of sovereignty’.3 Persuasive arguments have recently been made that the process was much more sudden than medieval historians have conventionally suggested and that there was a ‘feudal revolution’ only at the end of this period;4 but whether the process was gradual or revolutionary, the imperial state gave way to a patchwork of jurisdictions in which state functions were vertically and horizontally fragmented. Domination by an overarching imperial state was replaced by geographic fragmentation and organization by means of local or regional administration, perhaps in the form of contractual arrangements within the ruling class, between kings and lords or lords and vassals
longstanding relations of exchange, which served to aggravate social differentiation within the German tribes and to destabilize relations among Germanic communities themselves, provoking constant warfare and increasing militarization. By the time their incursions into Roman territory became a decisive factor in determining the fate of the empire, the Germans were already deeply marked by their long interactions with Rome. There has been considerable debate about whether relations between landlords and peasants should be included in the definition of feudalism.
it should go without saying that feudal lords, however we define them, depended for their very existence on their relations with peasants. Wherever there were lords, there were peasants whose dependent labour sustained them. On the other hand, a diluted definition of ‘feudalism’, which embraces any kind of relationship between landlord and peasant, obscures the specificities of agrarian relations in the medieval West. What is distinctive about the Western case is the exploitation of peasants by lords in the context of parcellized sovereignty – with or without the relations of vassalage.
economic relations of appropriation were inextricably bound up with political relations, as they had been in ancient bureaucratic states. But, in sharp contrast to those ancient civilizations where subject peasants were ruled by monarchical states, the feudal state was fragmented by parcellized sovereignty; taxation by the state gave way to levies collected by lords and appropriation in the form of rent; and lordship combined the power of individual appropriation with possession of a fragment of state power. Lordship, which constituted a personal relation to property and command of the peasants who worked it, took over many of the functions performed in other times and places by the state.
The effect was to combine the private exploitation of labour with the public role of administration, jurisdiction and enforcement. This was, in other words, a form of ‘politically constituted property’, a unity of economic and extra-economic power, which presupposed the uniquely autonomous development of private property in ancient Rome. In the preceding chapters, there was some discussion of property relations in ancient Greece and Rome, emphasizing their distinctiveness when compared to other ‘high’ civilizations. Property in land… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
peasant producers were subject to surplus extraction less in the form of exploitation by individual private proprietors than in the form of collective subjugation to an appropriating, redistributive state and its ruling aristocracy, typically in the form of taxation and compulsory services. In Rome, private property developed as a distinct locus of power in unprecedented ways; and peasant producers were more directly subject to individual private appropriators, who extracted surplus labour in the form of rent. These developments, as we have seen, were reflected in the Roman law, which formally recognized the exclusiveness of private… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
When a massive imperial state did emerge, with its own bureaucracy and system of taxation, it was already fundamentally different from the other imperial or monarchical states of antiquity. Even at the height of the empire, the primary form of appropriation by dominant classes was not through state office by means of taxation but the acquisition of land and direct exploitation of the labour that worked it, whether peasants or slaves. Landlords and peasants confronted each other more directly as individuals and classes, as distinct from… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
This mode of imperial rule had the effect of strengthening property, in contrast to other ancient states which impeded the full and autonomous development of private property or propertied classes independent of the imperial bureaucracy. When the empire adopted the expedient of paying for military services by grants of land, this property in land preserved the attributes of Roman ownership.6 The existence of two poles of power, the state… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
aristocratic autonomy would continue to grow, even when some form of public power continued to exist. The devolution of public functions to local lords occurred even where monarchical powers succeeded, at least for a time, in their attempts to recentralize the state. Monarchies typically depended, to varying degrees but always unavoidably, on territorial aristocracies which… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
the functions of public courts fell into the hands of local lords, with regional counts appropriating jurisdictions not as public offices but as private property. If any legal and political order existed in these regions, it has been said, the only sector of the population that remained subject to any social discipline was the peasantry, under the control of individual lords. 8 Aristocratic autonomy now truly became the parcellization of sovereignty. To put it another way, the public or civic sphere completely disappeared. This was so not only in the sense that the state apparatus effectively disintegrated but also in the sense that public assemblies in which free men could participate, of a kind that survived throughout the Carolingian realm, no longer existed.
distinctions between free men and slaves gave way to a complex continuum of dependent conditions. The category of ‘free’ man effectively disappeared in the former Frankish empire, where even owners of free land might be subject to seigneurial jurisdiction and feudal obligations, while the concept of slavery was overtaken by a spectrum of dependence, in relations between lords and ‘their’ men. By the thirteenth century, more firmly established feudal monarchies restored effective systems of administration.
the autonomous powers of lords, with their administrative and jurisdictional challenges to royal authority, would remain defining features of the medieval order. When a public realm and spheres of civic participation re-emerged, it typically took the form of corporate entities, internally self-governing yet bound by charters defining their corporate relation to superior authorities. Far from resolving the old jurisdictional conflicts, the new configuration of power in the later Middle Ages created even more virulent contests, with seigneurial and corporate claims to autonomous jurisdiction vying with, and intensified by, the powers of emperors and popes.
where landholding patterns produced a larger proportion of free peasants as distinct from serfs, the seigneurial system was comparatively weak. This was true in northern Italy, where towns had remained relatively strong, and the legacy of the Roman municipal system was more persistent. Just as towns had been the social and political domain of Romanized local elites, who effectively governed the surrounding countryside, the city continued to be the administrative centre of the secular and ecclesiastical authorities that carried on the legacy of Rome. A typical pattern was administration by bishops who preserved something of the Roman Empire and its municipal government, though this relatively unified civic administration increasingly gave way to a more fractured system of governance by various corporate entities and guilds.
Some of the urban communes became prosperous commercial centres, with dominant classes enriched by commerce and financial services for kings, emperors and popes. Collectively, they dominated the surrounding countryside, the contado, extracting wealth from it in one way or another, not least to sustain the public offices that, directly or indirectly, enriched many members of the urban elite.
money rents were a prominent feature of relations between landlords and peasants, while commercial transactions – typically, in luxury goods – were very much a part of the feudal order.10 The thriving commercial centres of northern Italy may have stood somewhat apart from the seigneurial system, but they served a vital function in the larger European feudal network, acting as trading links among the segments of that fragmented order and as a means of access to the world outside Europe. Nor did these cities escape the parcellization of sovereignty. While other parts of Europe were experiencing feudalization, municipal administration was undergoing its own fragmentation. The communes became and remained, in varying degrees, loose associations of patrician families, parties, communities and corporate entities with their own semi-autonomous powers, organizational structures and jurisdictions, both secular and ecclesiastical, often in fierce contention with each other and in battle among warring civic factions.
cities with effective civic self-government were essentially oligarchies, but also because they never constituted a truly united civic order, with a clearly defined public sphere detached from private powers of various kinds. In moments of more effective republican government, greater efforts were made to unite the civic community; but no medieval Italian commune ever succeeded in transcending its inherent fragmentation or the fusion of public power with private appropriation. The triumph of more despotic oligarchies did not represent a major rupture with republican forms but belonged to the same dynamic of what we might call urban feudalism.
Even the most centralized of ‘Renaissance’ states in post-medieval Italy would continue to be divided by party, privilege and confused jurisdictions. The most notable exception to the feudal breakdown of state order in the West was England, with significant implications for later European development and for the history of political theory. Although the collapse of the Roman Empire in Britain seems to have produced a breakdown of material and political structures more catastrophic than anywhere else in the West and a more drastic discontinuity with Roman forms, in Anglo-Saxon times a process of state-formation was already well advanced, with kings, landlords and church hierarchy working in tandem to produce an unusually centralized authority.
the feudal parcellization of sovereignty never took hold in England as it did elsewhere. The Norman ruling class arrived, and imposed itself on English society, as an already well organized and unified military force and consolidated the power of its newly established monarchical state by adapting Norman traditions of aristocratic freedom to Anglo-Saxon traditions of rule. It is certainly true that lords of the manor in England had substantial rights and jurisdictional powers over their tenants; but the centralized power of the monarchy remained strong, and a national system of law and jurisdiction emerged very early, in the shape of the common law, the king’s law.
development of the English monarchy was, and continued to be, at bottom a cooperative project between monarchs and landlords.11 Even when open conflict and, indeed, civil war erupted between king and aristocracy, the stakes had less to do with a contest between centralized government and parcellized sovereignty than attempts to correct imbalances in the partnership between monarchs and lords. The baronial challenge to monarchy in the documents that make up Magna Carta, for example, can certainly be construed as an appeal to reinstate some kind of feudal right; but, while barons may have been demanding that they should have the right to be tried by their peers in their own courts, they were not asserting their own jurisdiction over other free men.
English barons were claiming their rights at common law, that is, as rights deriving from the central state. The barons took that state for granted hardly less than did the king himself; and this would continue to be true in every episode of conflict between the monarchy and propertied classes, up to and including the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution of the seventeenth century. The relative strength of the centralized state in England, however, did not mean the weakness of the landed aristocracy. In significant ways, the contrary is true. There emerged a cooperative division of… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
just as effective central administration was re-established in England more quickly than elsewhere, a strong and exclusive form of property would emerge in England as it did nowhere else. English property law would, on the face of it, become the most ‘feudal’ in Europe. This was so in the sense that here, as nowhere else in feudal Europe, there were no… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
If all land had its lord, it was only in the formal sense that the monarch was conceived as the supreme landlord. Yet, in practice, tenements held directly, in common law, under the jurisdiction of the king – including certain types of humble property held by tillers and freeholders who owed no military service and were free of lordly jurisdiction – constituted private property more exclusive and less subject to obligations to an overlord than anything that existed on the Continent, despite (or in some ways because of) the growing dominance of… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
the regime of exclusive private property was more forcibly implanted and rigorously imposed. Nonetheless, despite this significant exception, parcellized sovereignty continued to be a dominant theme in medieval European history. It is true that, by the end of the twelfth century, more or less stable political administrations began to re-establish themselves in various parts of Europe, either in the form of monarchical states or as autonomous urban communes. The classics of medieval political philosophy belong largely to this later period, and are preoccupied not so much with tensions between feudal lords and monarchical states as with conflicts among kings, popes and Holy Roman emperors.
corporate entities of one kind or another continued to assert their autonomy against various claims, secular and ecclesiastical, to a higher unified sovereignty. In all these cases, the question of legal and political sovereignty was always inseparable from tensions between the authority to govern and the power of property; and political conflicts were often conducted through the medium of controversies on property rights. In the feudal unity of property and jurisdiction, institutions claiming legal or administrative powers of any kind were inevitably obliged to confront competing rights of property; and questions about the relation between imperium and dominium were bound to pose themselves with special urgency.
The effects of parcellized sovereignty are strikingly apparent in the development… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
In a letter to Emperor Anastasius in Constantinople, conventionally entitled Duo Sunt, Gelasius defended the Roman Church against the imperial claims of Byzantium by insisting on the superiority of the spiritual over temporal power: There are two powers, august Emperor, by which this world is chiefly ruled, namely, the sacred authority of the priests and the royal power. Of these that of the priests is the more weighty, since they have to render an account for even the kings of men in the divine judgment. You are also aware, dear son, that while you are permitted honorably to rule over human kind, yet in things divine you bow your head humbly before the leaders of the clergy and await from their hands the means of your salvation. In the reception… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
it not only presupposes the duality of power but, like Pauline doctrine, it can also – and perhaps even more readily – be understood as leaving the secular power essentially in command of this world, while relegating the Church to an elevated sphere beyond the daily practices of governance. The message seems to be that the ‘two swords’ which govern the world should be wielded by two different hands, and the sword of temporal power should be rendered unto Caesar. But, as the empire disintegrated, Christianity was obliged to adapt to new conditions. The relation between secular and ecclesiastical authority… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Charles Martel’s principal strategy in consolidating his rule was to use the Church hierarchy and episcopacy, with all its property and perquisites, as a means of countering the challenge of aristocratic autonomy by creating a friendly aristocracy of his own. He also established an alliance with the papacy, largely in order to detach Christianity from local loyalties (including reverence to local saints) which had helped to sustain regional lords opposed to his centralizing project. This alliance between papacy and monarchy or empire would later, of course, become deeply… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Charlemagne would continue to mobilize the ecclesiastical apparatus to sustain his own rule. This meant, above all, that Christian conversion was imposed and enforced by the sword, and that he sought to make religion uniform throughout his realm. His religious strategy required, among other things, a literate clergy; and this requirement was not the least important motivation in the cultural renaissance conventionally attributed to his reign. It also meant that Christian dogma and ritual were made to encompass all aspects of life… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
The state administration was supplemented by the Church bureaucracy, from bishops, the Church aristocracy, down to lowly priests who were conceived as a means of transmitting the royal will to peasants.15 The clergy was just as much a part of the state’s administrative hierarchy as were regional counts. It is not surprising, then, that Carolingian rule is often described as theocratic, not only because its claims to legitimacy relied on its association with the Church and mutual obligations in the community of faith but also because the state apparatus was so dependent on the clergy.
However much relations between Church and state would fluctuate throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, the doctrinal effects of Christianity’s administrative and correctional function would remain deeply ingrained in Christian theology. At the same time, the fragmentation of secular authority and jurisdiction would be aggravated by the parallel structures of ecclesiastical power and property. Although Carolingian rule represented a partnership between Church and secular state, it was bound eventually to increase tensions between them, precisely because it confirmed the Church itself as a temporal power. These tensions would be felt throughout our period.
the growth of papal government and papal claims to a ‘plenitude of power’. The division of labour between secular and spiritual spheres, which may have seemed a relatively simple matter in relations between the Roman Church and Caesar, was implicated, in ever more intricate ways, in the complex… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Successive popes went beyond the Gelasian division of labour between secular and spiritual authority to assert the temporal superiority of ecclesiastical power far more unambiguously than Gelasius himself had done. At a particularly critical moment in the eleventh century, Pope Gregory VII set out to deprive kingship of any remaining sacral or theocratic elements, bolstering papal claims to a plenitude of power by asserting that kings were simply secular, and above all removable, officials. He skilfully turned Germanic notions of elective monarchy against the German emperors… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
ecclesiastical authority in the public sphere, its jurisdiction over mundane and material matters, was identified with its control of wealth and property. The vast wealth of the Church could become the basis of a claim to temporal authority on the… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Defenders of papal authority would, for instance, argue that dominium or ownership of the Church’s temporal goods resided in the Christian community as a whole and that therefore the ecclesiastical establishment which administered the vast wealth of the Christian community – that is to say, exercised jurisdiction over it – was in effect a governmental power, wielding coercive force on behalf of the faithful in pursuit of the common good, just as secular governments purported to do on behalf of their own subject communities. Ecclesiastical jurisdiction thus challenged the jurisdiction of secular powers on their own terrain.… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Pope Boniface VIII, at the beginning of the fourteenth century, in conflict with Philip IV of France over the very temporal matter of taxation. Declaring the pope’s plenitude of power in the most uncompromising way, his papal bull, Unam sanctam, proclaimed the unambiguous superiority of papal authority over every temporal power, the spiritual sword over the… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Parcellized sovereignty, in turn, presupposes the autonomous development of property in classical antiquity and the emergence of aristocratic power grounded in landed property, as against the public power of the state. The various overlapping and contending jurisdictions of feudalism were all shaped by that original duality of power. A bureaucratic state in which authority is delegated from the centre and the boundaries of office are well defined – imperial China comes to mind – may generate its own conflicts between emperors and local officials. But these disputes are of a different kind and need not produce a legal apparatus designed to negotiate contesting and overlapping jurisdictions or, indeed, the discourse of jurisdictional disputes. This kind of legal and discursive apparatus is distinctively Western.
The feudal parcellization of sovereignty, then, produced a very particular need to negotiate jurisdictional disputes in theory and practice; but the idea of jurisdiction in the West would not have taken the form that it did without the legacy of Roman property, and the history of Western political theory would continue to be shaped by the relations between property and state inherited from Rome. In the empire, as we saw, the distinction between imperium and dominium was relatively clear, representing two distinct forms of power, public and private, in varying degrees of tension depending on the claims asserted by the imperial state against the rights of private property. The legacy of Roman property survived the parcellization of sovereignty; but as the imperial state gave way to fragmented jurisdictions, there were corresponding changes in the concept of dominium and its relation to governmental power,
While feudal lordship certainly presupposed the autonomous development of property and landed aristocracies in ancient Rome, the complete and exclusive ownership suggested by dominium could not accommodate the conditional property of feudalism. Nor could the distinction between imperium and dominium adequately capture the unity of appropriation and governance in the ‘politically constituted property’ of feudal lordship. Changes were needed on both sides of the duality. On the one hand, the line between dominium and possession could no longer be so clearly drawn. The Roman law in classical times had provided for rights in property short of absolute ownership, so that possession or usufruct could be separated from legal… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Jurisdiction could be exercised by authorities without imperium, or authorities apart from, and indeed opposed to, the secular state; or it could even be vested in the property rights of lordship in which private rights and public powers were united. Jurisdiction could belong to landlords or popes no less than to emperors or kings. The distinction between dominium and jurisdictio did not require a clear separation of private property and public power; yet, while it allowed for the unity of property and government, it did not rule out a distinction between dominium and administration or control – so that, for instance,… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
The confusions of possession, use and ownership involved in feudal property inevitably raised questions about the relations among them, in particular whether people with acknowledged rights of use could claim, simply by virtue of use, the kind of mastery implied by dominium. If effective ownership could be derived from use, did this mean that property was a kind of natural right, independent of law and convention? Or was property a right conferred by civil government, entailing only such rights acknowledged by law, and their attendant obligations? Property rights were an issue for… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
new mendicant orders whose self-imposed poverty was meant, among other things, to defend Catholic orthodoxy against such heresies. The poverty of the mendicant orders then required explanation: did it represent a challenge to property itself, or was there a way of reconciling ‘apostolic’ poverty with rights of property? Since mendicants made use of material goods to sustain themselves, were they effectively asserting rights to property; or was use, in this case as in others, distinct from ownership? Beyond that lay questions about the moral order ordained by God: must Christians assume that the existing disposition of property and power on this earth, whatever its apparent evil, is divinely ordained and, in that sense, ‘natural’; or can there be a conflict between temporal realities and a divinely ordained moral order?
in general Roman jurists regarded property as a convention established by states and enforced by civil law. In the late empire, the Church fathers, notably St Augustine, had proposed a resolution that would continue to be influential throughout the Middle Ages and beyond. Both government and property, according to this doctrine, were necessary evils after the Fall. This meant that, while property was a human convention created and enforced by the state, its function in maintaining peace and social order, like the function of government itself, was sanctioned by divine authority. It followed that apparently inequitable dispositions of property and power could command the acquiescence of Christians, just as Caesar could command their obedience.
Franciscan thinkers found ways of demonstrating that use could be separated from ownership. The theologian and philosopher Duns Scotus (1266–1308) in particular argued that, in the state of innocence, all things had been used in common. This meant that common use was ordained by natural law. But common use did not entail common ownership, since everyone was only entitled to use what was necessary without excluding use by others. It followed that use and ownership were separate; and no form of ownership, let alone private property, could be regarded as… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
power. The Franciscans adopted the view that, since God gave the world to humanity for its common use, no one, neither individual nor corporate entity, could claim rights of ownership grounded in nature. Both ecclesiastical and secular powers could never do more than administer property as stewards. In the first instance, this principle could be construed as giving an advantage to ecclesiastical authority, if only because, since both ownership and jurisdiction derived from God rather than from any temporal power, the pope, who represented Christ on earth, could effectively claim to act on behalf of the true owner and to exercise superior jurisdiction, while other authorities, both… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Dominicans (most notably Thomas Aquinas) argued that use could not be separated from ownership, and that a transfer of use amounted to a transfer of ownership. On the other hand, they insisted on the separation of ownership and jurisdiction and denied that there was any sense in which either secular or ecclesiastical authorities… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
The strongest argument against the Franciscan position was laid out in Pope John XXII’s papal bull, Quia vir reprobus. The pope maintained that God’s dominium over creation was analogous to human dominium over earthly possessions, that this was true before the Fall as well as after, and hence that property was indeed natural. Furthermore, use and ownership could not be separated. Only ownership could justify the consumption of goods – that is, in effect, their destruction – because only owners had the right to destroy their own possessions; and even the use of non-consumable goods required a right to use. Medieval debates about the right of property would continue to shape the development of Western political theory.
Both Islam and Judaism were distinguished from Christianity by their belief in a single divinely revealed system of law, encompassing the whole range of human practice, secular as well as religious. Christianity, by contrast, had been transformed from an essentially Jewish cult into a ‘universal’ Church and an imperial religion precisely by distancing itself not only from the old Law of Judaism but from the very idea of a single all-embracing religious law applied without distinction to both matters of faith and the mundane practices of everyday life. The ‘universal Church’, in other words, was born out of the distinction between Caesar and God and a conviction that each had his own proper sphere. The effect, perhaps indeed the purpose, of this distinction was to legitimate Caesar’s claims – that is, the claims of the secular state – as the dominant temporal authority and as a source of law.
it gave theology its own exalted status, as, at least in principle, the highest form of knowledge, uniquely grounded in divine revelation. Christian doctrine was capable of underwriting the obligation to obey even the most irreligious and sinful secular power, while still imposing rigid demands in the domain of faith. This did not necessarily preclude the invocation of religious principles to oppose this or that secular power; but, however much the boundaries between the spheres would be disputed in medieval Europe, the defining principle of Western Christianity remained the rendering unto Caesar and God their respective domains of law and obedience. Indeed, in the absence of that principle, which recognized both the support that each sphere derived from the other and the ever-present tensions between them, there would have been no such boundary disputes.
Marsilius of Padua, whose Defensor Pacis is often read as a pioneering republican tract. For the moment, let us consider a more general suggestion put forward by a distinguished historian of political thought, who argues that medieval political theory and practice, at least when compared to ancient Rome, were more, rather than less, attuned to active citizenship and the civic community: Medieval political theorists and practitioners were to take literally and then transform the maxim of late Roman law that ‘what touches all should be approved by all’ (quod omnes tangit ab omnibus tractari et approbari debet), wrenching it out of the context in Justinian’s Codex where they found it, and thereby emphasizing a deliberative participation by the ‘people’ in consenting to the laws.
the people would be declared capable of electing removable public officials as the executive government . . . This was something of which the ancient Romans . . . would never have approved because ‘the people’ for them were never considered to be a deliberative body.18 ‘[M]edieval jurists’, the argument continues, ‘gave preference to the substance of citizenship rather than simply to the abstract principles of Roman legal rules’; and this preference derived from ‘the peculiar contractual genesis of medieval city communes, where the citizen was an active rather than a passive member of the city.’19 The contrast suggested here between medieval conceptions of active citizenship and the passive variety devised in ancient Rome does point to certain significant differences between them. The Romans certainly invented a new conception of passive citizenship when they conferred a civic identity on their imperial subjects, and even the Roman people themselves never exercised the deliberative functions of the Athenian demos.
it is certainly important to acknowledge distinctively Western conceptions of rule by consent and how they are rooted in the medieval experience, with its unique dependence on contractual arrangements of various kinds. It is also true that these conceptions implied distinctive notions of participation in sovereignty which suggest a kind of active citizenship absent in ancient Rome. Yet it is no less important to recognize how such notions of consent, or ideas about participation in the feudal distribution of sovereignty, differed from ancient Greek notions of active citizenship and the civic community. A comparison between medieval and ancient conceptions should not disguise the ways in which medieval forms of parcellized sovereignty shifted political discourse away from what the Greeks in particular… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
the civic sphere of the polis, where the citizen was the essential political agent and political relations were relations among citizens, not between rulers and subjects, presupposed specific social conditions distinct from others in the ancient world. The democratic polis represented a case perhaps unique in pre-capitalist history in which a propertied class for various historic reasons had neither the military nor the political predominance required to sustain its property and powers of appropriation. Unable to impose an unambiguous dominance, it depended on political accommodations with subordinate classes. The reforms of Solon and Cleisthenes, as we saw, were designed to manage class relations in the absence of a clear class… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
created an unprecedented juxtaposition of, and new tensions between, economic inequality and civic equality. In the new civic sphere, deep social divisions played themselves out in political terms, not simply in overt struggles for power but in the deliberations and debates of assemblies and juries. This was the setting in which the theory and practice of active citizenship emerged, as a means of comprehending and negotiating a very specific configuration of social power and the very specific conflicts it engendered. While the classics of ancient Greek political theory were written by philosophers who had no great love for the civic unity of rich and poor, their ideas were inevitably shaped by it. Even an antidemocratic thinker like Aristotle, in his philosophical… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
constitutive social relations of feudalism precluded the kind of civic accommodation that underlay the ancient polis and political theory. Relations between landlord and peasant depended on precisely the kind of juridical inequality ruled out by ancient Greek citizenship – or, indeed, Roman republicanism, for all its oligarchic limitations on the civic role of lesser citizens. The economic power of feudal landed aristocracies, their access to the labour of peasants, was inseparable from their… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
a civic identity uniting the appropriating and producing classes in one political community in the way landlords and peasants, as well as craftsmen, were united in the ancient polis – or even in republican Rome – would, by definition, have been the end of feudalism. Theories of government in the medieval West, then, did not concern themselves with a civic relation between landlords and peasants; but nor was their principal theme a relation between rulers and producers. The constitution of relations between feudal lords and peasants as essentially a nexus of rulers and producers was taken as given, and the relation between classes ceased to be the central subject of political discourse. The… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
when the ultimate power was said to derive from ‘the people’, this principle was invoked to support the claims of one ruling power – kingly, imperial or papal – against another. Conceptions of consent or popular participation in sovereignty could be mobilized as instruments of rule by those who claimed their own authority on the grounds of popular consent; but they could also be employed even more ingeniously – not to say cynically – to challenge the legitimacy of a competing power by questioning its consensual authority, as we saw in the case of Pope Gregory’s challenge to European kings and Holy Roman emperors. Even to the extent that feudal relations were relations among equals, they were not… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
the emphasis here was not on active citizenship but on the right to rule. Ideas of active citizenship as conceived in classical antiquity would, later in the development of Western political theory, be replaced by conceptions of passive, indeed tacit, consent. In their more benign forms, these notions of consent simply extended the principles of medieval corporations, grounded in Roman law, according to which the corporate whole could be bound by the decisions of the few who represented it. But the early modern idea of consent, whether corporate or individual, could be compatible even with absolute monarchy (most notably in the work of Thomas Hobbes), and with notions of sovereignty deriving from ‘the people’ in which the people, however narrowly… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
We have alluded in previous chapters to Aristotle’s distinction among different forms of rule. There is, for instance, the kind of rule exercised over men in servile conditions; but there is also a ‘political’ kind of rule among free men, in which political equals govern and are governed in turn. What makes this form of rule ‘political’ is that it occurs in, and only in, a civic community, a community of citizens of intrinsically equal status, all of them entitled to participate in rule. There is a certain ambiguity in Aristotle’s conception of ‘political’ rule and whether it can apply to all forms of polity, from democracy to monarchy – whether, in particular, a monarchy can be ‘political’;
what is clear is that rule can be political only among men who are free and equal, in principle capable of ruling as well as being ruled. In Aristotle’s ideal polis, where the civic community is limited to the rich and well born and where that community rules over subordinate producing classes excluded from citizenship – that is, a polis that distinguishes between the ‘parts’ of a civic community and the ‘conditions’ necessary to, yet always governed by, the citizen body – the relation between conditions and parts, rulers and ruled, is not ‘political’.
for Thomas Aquinas, as we shall see, rule is ‘political’ to the extent that the ruler himself, like his subjects, is bound by laws. The ‘political’ sphere as a relation among civic equals altogether disappears. It is, indeed, far from clear that the category of citizenship as Aristotle understood it was meaningful at all in medieval terms. People might enjoy rights by virtue of lordship, or as members of a guild or corporation with a charter of freedom; but the complex hierarchical structure of feudal lordship and corporate entities that constituted the medieval order was something very different from the ancient Greek community of citizens.
in France corporate entities were stronger than in England, where the relative weakness of corporate powers in relation to the monarchy gave greater prominence both to a unified central state and to the private individual, or to relations between private rights and public sovereignty. These differences, as we shall see, expressed themselves in theory no less than in practice. Nevertheless, in neither case was the political domain defined by a civic community. Italy was different again. In the north, where landlordly power was relatively weak and, instead, an autonomous civic commune exercised a kind of corporate, collective lordship over the contado,
In the relatively small civic republics of the north, where the material interests of urban elites were heavily invested in the commune – not only in its power over the contado but more particularly in its commercial strength and the profits of civic office – support by one or another of the greater powers, papal or imperial, could be critical to the dominance of this or that civic faction and its access to wealth. Although conflict between urban elites and those beneath them was always a central fact of civic life, it is not surprising that politics in the republics typically took the form of factional struggles within the urban patriciate, often with external support, for control over the lucrative resources of the commune.
political philosophy had to adapt to the absence of a neatly defined political terrain, not a civic community such as the polis but a particularly convoluted network of secular and ecclesiastical institutions, together with the unity of property and jurisdiction.
The feudal parcellization of sovereignty was still a major fact of life in thirteenth century France, where seigneurial rights and jurisdictions were very much in evidence – as they would continue to be until the rise of a strong central state in the form of an ‘absolutist’ monarchy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, never to be completely eradicated until the revolution of the eighteenth century. At the same time, the monarchy had made important advances in its territorial ambitions, and by the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries was already working to establish Paris as a national centre, not only a seat of government but the fount of education and culture.
in tension not only with seigneurial autonomy in the surrounding countryside but also with the claims of autonomous urban corporations. Even the government of Paris, by now a thriving commercial centre, was a complex network of royal and corporate institutions, much of its public life governed by powerful merchants and guilds. Beyond the kingdom’s still unstable boundaries, there were challenges from the German princes of the Holy Roman Empire, whose authority the French refused to recognize, and bitter conflicts between the royal power and the papacy, culminating in the struggle between King Philip IV and Pope Boniface VIII.
precociously centralized state in tandem with uniquely exclusive individual property. In place of seigneurial jurisdiction, the English established a unitary state, while the common law increasingly recognized an individual ‘interest’ in property independent of any extra-economic claims, privileges or obligations. This was distinct from the right, also enjoyed by the French in the later Middle Ages, to defend individual property rights before the law. The latter, even before royal courts, could (as in France) exist where property was still held on feudal principles, with the attendant obligations, and where each seigneurie continued to have its own system of law and its own autonomous jurisdiction. In England, the individual right of property itself was far more independent of feudal obligations and seigneurial jurisdiction.
the English state was increasingly constituted as a collection of free individuals, subject to no lord except the king (notwithstanding the private powers of manorial lords). These differences would be reflected in the English system of representation, giving rise very early to a unitary parliament, conceived as representing not corporate bodies (as the French estates represented corporate entities) but the whole national community, composed of individual free men and propertyholders. Parliament would also exercise legislative powers far earlier than French representative bodies, the powers of propertied classes not as possessors of feudal jurisdiction but as participants in the centralized state.
philosophers like Aquinas continued to be deeply influenced by early Christian Neoplatonism, particularly in its Augustinian form; but their needs were different from those of earlier Christians. The other-worldliness of Neoplatonism, with its devaluation of earthly existence in favour of spirituality and mystical release from the material realm, served Christians reasonably well in the later Roman Empire. Where the civic community had given way decisively to imperial rule, there was no need for Christian subjects to concern themselves with the intricacies of secular governance. It was enough for theologians like Augustine to underwrite the division of labour between Caesar and God; and good Christians, while rendering obedience to Caesar, could get on with minding their own spiritual business.
he emphasizes two principles: the purpose or telos towards which every process tends, and the intrinsic hierarchy of the natural order. Aristotle applies these principles to the polis by arguing that this form of human association is the highest form, and that it perfects human development; that ‘man is by nature a polis-animal’, a creature intended to live in a polis, because it is only in the polis that he can fulfil his own telos as a rational and moral being. It is the polis, with its customs and laws, that habituates people to living in accordance with the principles of virtue and the good required for the happiness appropriate to human beings.
he suggests that the ‘best practicable polis’ is one that combines elements of oligarchic and democratic forms, to reduce the disorder generated especially by the conflicts between rich and poor and their divergent conceptions of justice. Aquinas’s Aristotelianism, spelled out above all in his Summa Theologica, begins with the treatment of humanity as part of the natural order, in which each part is directed toward its own proper natural telos. Human beings are uniquely endowed with reason, and, as rational creatures, have a unique cognitive access to reality, which includes a natural capacity to understand the fundamental moral principles required to achieve the happiness specific to humanity. The human telos is to realize those rational capacities, in pursuit of the good, which is accessible to natural reason.
practical reason, enabling human beings to make rational judgments not only about how things really are but also about right actions. While the principles of goodness are accessible to reason, human goodness in practice is a function of feelings directed by reason. It is a matter of training and habituation, which produce a disposition not only to pursue the good but to love it; and, like Aristotle, Aquinas argues that life in a… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
the natural telos of humanity is best achieved in ‘political’ communities governed by law. The highest virtue is justice: affording to people that which is due to them; and this can probably best be achieved in some kind of ‘mixed constitution’. The ‘naturalization’ of man, virtue, justice and the ‘political’ community in the manner of Aquinas is a major departure from earlier Christian doctrines, and in this respect he differs substantially from Augustine. Aquinas’s account of… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
political association for him is not just a necessary evil to deal with a fallen humanity. Since political order is natural, it must have existed before the Fall, even if the tendency of human beings to sin has required coercion to maintain peace and order in a way that it did not in the prelapsarian condition. The Fall has not meant the loss of natural reason; and, while human beings are capable of choosing not to follow the… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
achieve happiness or fulfilment (beatitudo) in this world by living in accordance with the principles of reason and morality. The temporal political order, directed towards a common good, is the means to accomplish that end. It is worth adding here that such a conception of temporal power would have… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
there can be no mistaking the value for Aquinas of the beatitudo available in the here and now to human beings living in ‘political’ communities. It is also clear, although he never systematically elaborates his views on the relation between spiritual and temporal powers, that he grants a substantial degree of independence to the secular political community, the civitas. There certainly remains a vital function for the spiritual community and the Church that represents it, in preparation for eternal life; but this does not… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
eternal law, which represents the principles of a cosmic order governed by God. To the extent that human reason has access to this cosmic order, we can speak of natural law. Natural law is that aspect of divine regulation accessible to human reason, establishing the basic principles of the good in human practice and legitimate government. This, in turn, should be embodied in the positive laws enacted by governments on earth.
Aquinas could not settle for a truly Averroist solution, which presupposed a single system of law; so, unless he was prepared to accept a ‘double truth’ relating to two completely separate worlds, natural law was an exceedingly useful idea. Not the least of its functions is that it can both situate secular associations in a divinely ordered cosmos and at the same time grant the secular civitas its independence from spiritual authority by emphasizing that human reason, even without divine revelation, has substantial access to the good. Human convention can, indeed, supplement natural law, or perhaps even modify its secondary principles.
God, he argues, has dominium over the nature of material things, but man has effective dominium over their use. There is no principle in nature that determines whether possession is, or should be, private or communal; but private property does exist by the ius gentium. While the material world was originally intended for the use of all humanity, the utility of private property has made it consistent with natural law. It even serves a higher purpose, contributing not only to the sustenance of families but also to relief of the poor and promotion of the common good. There are in Aquinas’s work severe moral strictures against such economic practices as usury or fraud, and commerce for him is not a particularly noble activity;
the idea of ‘just price’ is central to his ethical philosophy, he certainly accepts the benefits of trade – as one might expect of a philosopher so deeply rooted in a major medieval commercial centre like thirteenth-century Paris. If he perceives moral dangers in wealth and commerce, which require regulation of property and commercial activity by civil law and even princely rule, he clearly favours private property and wealth when used in accordance with reason.
There are, to be sure, suggestions in Thomas’s work that, even if he takes princely government for granted, rule in accordance with the common good entails some kind of consent on the part of those who are ruled that the relation between them and the ruler has something like the character of a covenant and that tyrannical rule – that is, rule in the interests of the ruler and not the common good – is a breach of the covenant which may perhaps produce an entitlement to depose or even kill the tyrant.24 This is, however, not a private but a public right, nor is it a civic right belonging to individual citizens; and, while Aquinas is never precise on this question, it is likely that the public authority in which it resides is, for Aquinas as for his contemporaries in general, a function of feudal or corporate status.
In his discussion of the conflict between democratic and oligarchic conceptions of justice, the one committed to ‘numerical’ equality, the other to ‘proportionate’, Aristotle makes it very clear that both are incomplete, since they ignore the proper criteria of equality and inequality, the qualities that properly dictate what, in true justice, is due to each man. It is wrong to assume, as the democrat does, that all free-born men are equal, and it is also wrong to treat wealth as the relevant criterion, in the oligarchic manner. The proper measure is the contribution men make to the fulfilment of the state’s essential purpose, the truly good life. At the same time, the oligarchic commitment to proportionate equality, for Aristotle, most closely approximates the perfect form,
It often appears that his principal moral standard is the aristocratic gentleman. In Aquinas’s universe, by contrast, where class differences are inextricably bound up with ‘extra-economic’ powers and ‘politically constituted property’, the criteria of difference have less to do with simple distinctions of wealth and more to do with legal relations, juridically defined status differences, contractual networks and corporate hierarchies. Aristotle’s conception of justice, in other words, reflects, yet again, his preoccupation with the civic accommodation between classes, while Aquinas is more concerned with the intricacies of medieval governance and jurisdiction, in a society where economic power is still closely tied to legal status, corporate identities and jurisdictional rights.
John of Paris asserts the spiritual authority of the pope while denying his absolute dominium and hence his temporal supremacy. At the same time, he argues that the universality of the spiritual realm cannot apply to secular kingdoms, with their diverse conditions, which means there can be no universal empire. John draws on Aquinas’s theory of kingship and builds on his theory of property. The argument proceeds from a defence of private property, as against communal ownership, on the grounds that, if everything were held in common, it would be difficult to keep the peace. The common good can best be achieved by permitting individuals to put their property to fruitful use under supervision by some kind of secular power whose object is the common good.
Defining dominium in narrow terms as dominium in rebus – that is, in material things – and not as lordship in a wider sense, he argues that individuals have inalienable rights in property deriving from their own labour and industry, which precede both secular and ecclesiastical institutions. The secular state, then, has jurisdictional power to regulate the property of individuals and to arbitrate disputes among them, but it has no dominium. The fact that propertied individuals retain their rights and autonomy in relation to the powers of the state implies that the state is, in some sense, a fiduciary power whose authority is conditional on its pursuit of the common good.
The idea that government derives its authority from the ‘people’ was widely accepted by medieval thinkers, and it was generally agreed that kings had a duty to protect the rights of their subjects. Yet these principles were compatible with a broad range of political commitments, including the conviction that monarchical power should be virtually unlimited. If anything, the ‘people’ – as a corporate entity – was more often invoked in support of monarchical authority than as a limitation on its power, let alone in favour of more democratic forms of government. Even when the ‘people’ were granted a right to depose kings who failed in their duty, that right was typically vested in a corporate entity or its representatives, not least in feudal magnates of one kind or another. For John of Paris, for instance, the rights of individuals do seem to constitute significant limits on government,
he invokes this right on behalf of feudal magnates and he does so primarily in order to deny that right to the pope, while the prince remains the arbiter of the common good.28 This is not to deny that feudal conceptions of the fiduciary relationship between kings and the people, however narrowly the ‘people’ was defined, could place severe restrictions on monarchical power. Nor is it to deny the profound influence that such medieval ideas would have on the development of modern constitutionalism, however misleading it may be to speak of them as anticipations of modernity. Precisely because they were predicated on the autonomous powers of magnates or corporate bodies, they could, indeed, be more restrictive than some later conceptions of individual consent,
might be superior to any lesser individual, but that he was inferior to the corporate entity constituted by the whole community. This doctrine – applied by John of Paris himself among others – was used against the pope, arguing that the general body of the Christian faithful, in the shape of a general council, was the ultimate ecclesiastical authority, which could even depose popes. This idea would… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
conciliarists would elaborate the idea that it was not the pope but the corporate body of Christians in the form of a general Church council that held ultimate authority in spiritual matters. Although a resolution would emerge from a series of Councils, conciliarism would give way to a revived papal dominance, while surviving as a model for secular theories of consitutional government. It is, nevertheless, important to keep in mind that conceptions of the social contract as a deliberate transaction between consenting individuals and a government whose only purpose is… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
they presuppose, on the one hand, a centralized state not fragmented by parcellized sovereignty and, on the other, a political community of individuals detached from corporate identities. It is not insignificant that such an idea would first emerge clearly in England, where corporate principles were weaker and Parliament was conceived as both a representative body – representing a national community of free individuals – and… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
Marsilius’s conception of law is significant for two principal reasons. First, he emphasizes its coercive function, as a means of achieving peace and not, in the Aristotelian or Thomistic manner, as a means of habituating citizens to virtue. This emphasis, as he elaborates his argument, places jurisdiction firmly in the hands of secular authority and rules out ecclesiastical jurisdiction in the temporal sphere. Civil peace and tranquillity are the responsibility of secular powers, while the Church has no coercive function. The rewards and punishments promised by Christianity await the afterlife,
Marsilius makes it clear that the Church remains subordinate to secular power in the temporal domain. This does not mean, however, that his view of the state prefigures a modern secular state. His argument remains, in this respect as in others, firmly rooted in the medieval order, not only because of the importance he attaches to the priestly function but because, as we shall see in a moment, his challenge to the temporal authority of the Church is mounted on behalf of other unmistakeably medieval claims to temporal power.
a human legislator, whom Marsilius identifies with the whole civic corporation, ‘the universal body of citizens’ (universitas civium). The ultimate authority of civil government derives from the whole corporation of citizens and requires its ongoing consent. This is where we confront the question of the philosopher’s republicanism, and certain immediate problems arise. We have already remarked that there was nothing unusual in medieval political thought about the conviction that civil authority derived from the ‘people’; and we have also observed that this proposition was perfectly compatible, and indeed commonly associated, with the defence of powers that were far from democratic, up to and including unlimited monarchy.
the legislative function and the ultimate power of consent could, then, reside in a very small number. Nevertheless, Marsilius does go substantially further than other medieval thinkers in his ascription of sovereignty to the corporation of citizens. His theory, writes one historian of medieval political thought, ‘is medieval corporation theory with a vengeance’, placing great confidence in the capacity of the corporate body (as distinct from any individual wise man or men) – both as the unversitas civium and as a community of faith, the congretatio fidelis or universitas fidelium – to judge and enact the laws most conducive to the sufficient life.30
Marsilius uses scripture and the example of Christ, his poverty and his benevolence, to demonstrate that the Church has no role in temporal affairs or in coercive governance. The historical argument is intended to demonstrate that the history of the Church is, to quote one commentator, ‘a history of gradual, papally inspired perversion’, driven by ‘greed for temporal possessions and ambition for secular dominium’, as a consequence of which modern priests are antithetical to the example of Christ and his apostles.
Once Constantine’s conversion made it possible for Christians to gather and regulate questions of ritual and faith, it was no longer necessary for the Church or the pope to act on their behalf. Yet it was precisely then that the bishops of Rome asserted their pre-eminence over other bishops and priests. They did so on the basis of the so-called donation of Constantine, an edict that was supposed to have granted jurisdictional superiority to the Roman pontiff, St Sylvester. Although the authenticity of the donation was always in question, Marsilius chooses to accept it as historical fact, and argues that, while Constantine was simply and with good intentions following the practice of the early Church under infidel emperors, the circumstances had radically changed and the consequences would prove to be disastrous.
Marsilius suggests several times in the Defensor pacis that, while various provinces or cities have their own legislators, they must be subordinate to the supreme human legislator of the Roman Empire, to avoid precisely the state of war that now exists within the Holy Roman Empire, where the pope has usurped the universal human legislator’s role. This conception of a universal prince may not have quite the geographic reach of Dante’s world empire, but it does suggest that the emperor has an essential role in reversing the papal usurpation which has destroyed the peace within the existing boundaries of the Holy Roman Empire.
William of Ockham was born in the 1280s in Surrey and was educated at Oxford in theology and philosophy, continuing his studies and going on to teach as a member of the Franciscan order. There is some dispute about when and how he first came into conflict with the papacy, but the most common view is that he was summoned to Avignon to defend his theological and philosophical work before a papal commission for some suspected heresy and then found himself drawn into the dispute on apostolic poverty. John XXII’s papal bull, Quia vir reprobus, was, as we saw, the most powerful challenge to the Franciscan position; and in his response, Ockham came to believe that the pope himself was guilty of heresy.
his theory of rights and corporations is so strikingly congruent with the realities of English law, property and governance that a failure to take note of the connections and correspondences would surely be a careless oversight. Ockham starts from the premise that there is nothing in this world but individuals, and that no universals or essences exist except as abstractions constructed by the mind from reflection on particulars. Knowledge derives from individual cognition, which is by definition particular and contingent, and universal concepts do not reflect an external reality but rather the operations of the human mind.
Universal concepts are names or signs human beings ascribe to particular things in the effort to find commonalities among them; and it is these linguistic creations, not the substance of things, that constitute the objects of knowledge. Ockham’s views on society and government start from analogous premises. The body politic, too, is a world constituted by individuals and nothing else. Collective opinion can never be more than a product of individual opinions, and no collectivity is ever more than the sum of its parts.
Individual wills cannot be represented by a corporate entity, nor can individuals alienate their autonomy, their rights or their responsibilities. It is, however, true, according to Ockham, that the Fall made secular authority necessary, since individuals could no longer rule themselves by their reason alone. Ockham not only allows for secular authorities that can impose their coercive powers on free individuals but even accepts the possibility of governments that stand above the law. Governments are established by the universal consent of individuals who will be governed by them; but thereafter circumstances will dictate whether the ruler will, or should, act in accordance with positive law. There is no need for repeated acts of consent by the governed.
What, then, of individual rights and especially the right of property? In the debate on apostolic poverty, Ockham explored the concept of dominium, distinguishing between conditions before and after the Fall. In the prelapsarian condition, humanity enjoyed a capacity to make use of all creation but not the ownership of property. Once Adam’s sin transformed the human condition God provided the means of improving human life by giving humanity a capacity to appropriate temporal goods, in the form of individual property, and to protect their rights of property by instituting government.
since both property and government result from Adam’s sin, they clearly belong in the temporal sphere, under the direction of secular authority, which means that the pope can claim no plenitude of power. His argument, however, has wider implications. Although property is a human creation, dependent on civil authority, the capacity to exercise dominium in its postlapsarian form was a gift from God. The utility of private property, recognized not only in civil law but in the ius gentium, suggests that it conforms to natural law, even if it does so in a different sense than did common possession before the Fall; and once acknowledged, it constitutes an inalienable right.
Franciscan defending apostolic poverty, Ockham opposed Dominican doctrines on the unity of use and ownership, together with the separation of ownership and jurisdiction. But the principle that property was a civic institution had already been accepted by Dominicans like Thomas Aquinas and other medieval theologians. For Ockham’s purposes, this doctrine had the advantage of undercutting the pope’s authority by placing property squarely in the realm of secular authority. He also had in common with Aquinas a distinction between different forms of natural law and the suggestion that private property is, in its own way, consistent with natural law.
if Ockham’s theory of property, despite his insistence on its civic institution, nevertheless brings us closer than do other medieval theories to the notion of private property as an irreducible natural right, inherent in the human individual independent of civic authority, it is because of the priority he gives the individual as the most fundamental constitutive unit of the social order, in contrast to the corporatism of other medieval theorists.
Individuals, he argues, are both spiritual and secular beings, so any resolution between the two jurisdictions must acknowledge that duality. As spiritual beings, individuals are governed by divine laws, while as secular beings they are subject to positive law. Since individuals are irreducibly free and autonomous, they are entitled to establish their own secular governments with their own systems of law. Ockham may not go as far as Marsilius’s outright subordination of Church to state, but his separation of the two jurisdictions represents a significant challenge to the temporal power of the Church and the papacy.
just as he denies the primacy of corporations in the secular sphere, he gives little credence to general councils of the Church. Some individual Christian, even a child or a woman, might come closer to the truth than a general Church council. Just as there is no secular corporation that is more than the sum of its individual parts, with a right to represent them, no spiritual collectivity has any superior standing. Unlike Marsilius and John of Paris, whose cor poratism extended to general councils of the Church, granting them an infallibility that endowed them with a right to depose popes, Ockham had no such corporatist weapon available to him
his doctrine of individual autonomy and rights could be adopted in support of constitutional limits on government. Once the representative can no longer be identified by definition with the collectivity it represents, the way is open to raise questions about the conformity of the representative’s will to the desires of the individuals he claims to represent and therefore about the accountability of representatives to their constituents. No such questions arise, by contrast, in Marsilius’s theory of the corporation. The will expressed by the corporate body, in the person of its representatives, necessarily defines the common good, whatever any individuals may think or wish.
Landlords certainly enjoyed great local powers; but outside the manor, and in relation to free men, they acted as delegates of the Crown. While there remained a sharp distinction between freehold property and unfree tenures, subject to manorial lordship and with no access to the royal courts, the free Englishman was a unique formation, with an individual ‘interest’ in property, recognized in common law and independent of any extra-economic claims, privileges or obligations. In France, by contrast, free status was more ambiguous. Charters of freedom did not dissolve seigneurial obligation, and even peasants who owned land and had access to royal protection could still be subject to seigneurial jurisdiction and its attendant obligations, in a society governed, even at the height of absolutism, by hundreds of local law codes, customs, and fragmented jurisdictions.