Man and Politics
An eighth century Anglo-Saxon tale went;
This warrior's lament was that he no longer had a master to whom to pledge his fealty. Note that this is a voluntary pledge and that it was made to a man. Feudalism in the Middle Ages was a voluntary association of free men with a set of clearly developed exchanges of responsibility that particularly suited life in Europe. There were no large cities. The population of Paris was probably not over one hundred and fifty thousand. People lived in scattered communities separated by vast tracts of forest.
But in Islam, life was quite different. To Moslems, Islam is a single community with a rigid hierarchical structure devoted to Allah. The warrior followed the hallowed traditions of the desert, not for himself but for Islam. "May God keep you safe and bring you much Booty," Muhammad is said to have told a warrior. The warrior protested that he had not become a Muslim for the sake of wealth, to which Muhammad answered, "Honest wealth is good for an honest man." The difference is quite dramatic. In one case a free man offers his abilities to another with a clear expectation of reward; In the second the warrior is offering himself to God and the reward is irrelevant.
While Charlemagne was trying to put the Roman Empire back together The Abbasid Caliphate assumed control of eastern Islam and through their support of scientists, philosophers, and intellectuals built their capitol, Baghdad, into the major scientific and cultural city in the world.
Today, thirteen centuries later, in the deserts surrounding Baghdad, two great armies face each other. One, with nearly unlimited resources, is without question the most efficient killing machine ever known to man. The other, with unlimited reinforcements from over the borders, is populated by men not afraid to die. It is neither possible nor desirable that either should win. They simply form the background behind which cooler heads attempt to decide what kind of country Iraq will become.
This drastic difference in world views was the result of the reactions of two very different cultures faced with very similar problems, the problem of disintegrating cultural mores. First we will look at events in the seventh century deserts of Arabia. At the beginning of the seventh century Byzantium, the Eastern Roman Empire, completely separated from the disintegrated west, was the most powerful force in the world rivaled by Persia under the Sassanian dynasty. But in a small settlement in south Arabia a man was born who was to change the history of the east forever. In God, Science, and Reason I explained the differences between "inner-directed' and "outer-directed" cultures as it applied to the Roman empire in its Middle years. In an inner directed culture all of the activities allowed by the culture are determined by the members of the culture as they faced its emerging needs. For example, Periclean Athens where all activities were determined by the glory of the state and of the citizens who made up the Democracy. In the harsh environment of the Arabian desert life was determined in response to powers of nature which were seen as divine entities. It is necessarily outer-directed. Life in such an outer-directed culture is simpler. Cultural norms and activities are determined and enforced by the outer agency. In this case the desert. A culture which can come to grips with life in an outer-directed sense can achieve a degree of closeness that is not possible in an inner-directed culture because restrictions on activities are never arbitrary. And their authority is the world itself as represented by undeniable divine entities. The inhabitants of Mecca were Bedouin tribesmen with a long history of nomadic life in the Arabian steppes. They came from a life lived by a strict code developed in response to the harsh environment of the desert. Life in Mecca itself, on the other hand, was completely different It was developed around its value as an oasis that lay on the crossroads of a number of highly successful trading routes. Success in Mecca was secular. Life was arbitrary. It was suffering the fate of millions of cities throughout the world where secular success becomes a new driving force. When Muhammad developed his new religion his purpose was to bring back the kind of community spirit that existed in the old life on the steppes. But, if there is anything that is consistent with secular success regardless of the culture, it is the loss of community, and more importantly a loss of the energizing spirit that makes community possible. In the nineteenth century Nietzsche called it 'Nihilism', a feeling of nothingness. In either case it is derived from the loss of an outer-derived, and thus objective source of truth. It is in this sense that Islam developed as a community of man in the service of Allah, the one God, the God of Abraham. By the eighth century the Moslem's had conquered Persia, Byzantium, had spread across Africa, and held practically the entire Iberian Peninsula.
We tend to look on Europe in the Middle Ages as a society lost in a dark age, a period of torment and misery. But in doing so we lose one of the most important effects of the Middle Ages. However, if we think of the period as the birth pains of a new world our vision is of an entirely different kind of period. The idea of free men interacting together out of free choice is a concept totally alien to any non-European culture in past history. The building of a new world out of the chaos that resulted from the disintegration of the Roman Empire had to have been an arduous task. In the anarchy that prevailed over most of Europe nobles of all descriptions held their domains from each other and from the marauding bandits of the forests by developing armed retainers to protect them and their lands. But these were selected from men who considered themselves free. This goes as well for those who tilled the land. Of course there were slaves, but the majority of men who made the Middle Ages work were free men bound together by mutual agreements and obligations. This was the system we call "feudalism".
The underlying mechanism that made feudalism work was the act of commendation, an agreement where one free man places himself for life at the service of another. The act was known by many names and differed considerably from occasion to occasion. However, whether king or peasant, just about everyone throughout the Middle Ages was bound to someone in some way by one form or another of commendation. Notice that the implied obligations operate in both directions.
The changes that occurred during the Middle Ages were entirely internal. From the disintegration of the Roman Empire to its reconstruction under Charlemagne it was largely a matter of developing stable institutions which would provide continuity to a largely rural Europe. However true, this statement is misleading because it suggests the existence of some structural mechanism which would choose which of the possible cultural institutions should be selected, as though some higher power chose feudalism after considering all other possibilities. Most discussions of the period describe the currents of change occurring in western society as though they had a dynamic existence of their own. There is no higher cultural structure, and social and cultural systems do not live breath and walk on their own. Feudalism emerged out of the anarchic interactions of men who considered themselves free. The stability it provided was insured only by its own success. But, from the Carolingian period to the thirteenth century another counter culture slowly emerged, that of the cities, of commerce and industry. At the time of Charlemagne the church owned most of the land in Europe. The realities of feudalism provided the church with a solid economic base and made it one of the stabilizing structures in the new developing world. But by the thirteenth century land was no longer the primary source of wealth in western society and by the sixteenth century the church leaders found themselves deriving their financial support directly from the people. The role of the church as a stabilizing element had been essentially destroyed and nothing had emerged to take its place.
The Christian God and The Moslem One God are both the God of Abraham. Among the Moslems Jesus is revered as a great prophet. But, faced with secular success Islam turned inward and created the greatest civilization of their day with the center at the great city of Baghdad. The Christians too looked inward and held to the platonic doctrines as laid down by the North African Bishop Augustine in the fifth century. However, the growth of the cities and the development of personal power and wealth took the Westerners in a different direction that would lead in time to a culture built on the secular principles of science and economics. This has led to the inevitable confrontation on the battlefields of Iraq.
When I started this work thirty years ago, I was looking for a way to find other like-minded people who would join me in a search for a way to fight the power of governments run by and for the privileged few. It wasn't until I finally put my ideas all together that I discovered something about being human that I had never seen shown before. And it is not some new truth. I am a rationalist philosopher and, as I will show, rationalist philosophy is not concerned with truth. It is concerned with understanding. What I want to show in this work is that, by understanding this new view of what it means to be a human being, perhaps we can find a new advance in governing our selves and a new way to find each other.
Does Philosophy offer an answer? Philosophy in the classical sense was the exploration of our universe through the use of reason. This entailed an assumption that the universe is rational. The impact of the assumption on the evolution of western society is the subject of God, Science, and Reason. The application of this form of exploration changed with the introduction of Aristotelian thought first by Moslem philosophers, and later by the Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas. Aristotle's works had been lost to European philosophers for several centuries. Philosophy, following the lead of Augustine, was used to increase understanding of the words of the Bible or the Koran. With the advent of Aristotelian thought it now included applying reason to understanding the world itself. The use of this approach to philosophical thinking reached its peak during the period of the seventeenth-century Rationalists. For out purpose we are interested in the eighteenth century English who rejected the pure rationalist approach saying that questions of this kind cannot be solved by pure reasoning thus they are not important. What is important is knowledge that can change the way men live their lives, like the invention of Gunpowder, the printing press, the magnet, and other practical sciences.
The work of any philosopher who is remembered beyond his time is an expression of the the dominant thought of his time. Those who do not reflect the thoughts and attitudes of their period are quickly forgotten. From this we should be able to see that the role of his work is a mechanism that directs the progress of cultural evolution through positive feedback. With this understanding, we can approach the direction that Eighteenth-Century western political evolution took as an expression of the cultural changes that were occurring at that time. The fundamental precepts of modern liberal democracy were developed primarily during the heady political storms that raged through the British political system between the death of Elizabeth and the advent of the Glorious Revolution. It was during this period that two new visions of the role of government appeared. The first was presented by Thomas Hobbes, who had been part of the Elizabethan government, and the second was by John Locke, one of the authors of the Glorious Revolution.
We can understand this better if we look back to the first of these rationalist philosophers, the Twelfth Century Christian philosopher, Thomas Aquinas. This is his description of what government should be, taken from the Summa Theologia.
Aquinas, as you see here, has developed a view of the validity of government that is dependent on conditions that would be acceptable to men in a state of innocence. While laws that hold in a state of innocence are natural laws, the laws that form a government are man-made. Beginning with the Aristotelian assumption that man is naturally a political animal, he argued, as Aristotle would, from final causes. In other words, arguing from the aim of the common good to the necessity, and therefore inevitability, of an authority to bring this common good about. The point is, with Aristotelian assumptions, the emergence of a leader is not only a natural outcome of people living in society, it is a necessary outcome. This is because people, being naturally social animals, not only cannot but would not live otherwise. In this excerpt taken from Aquinas' Commentaries on Ethics, we can see the importance of the concept of final ends in his theory of government.
Although Aquinas' Aristotelian background assumed man as a political animal, Athens had been ruled by law and not by men. That made law, as the action of legislators, the final arbiter of what is allowed and disallowed in a law-abiding community. But that law must be developed for the good of the community and not that of the lawgivers. Aquinas said that "law is nothing other than a reasonable direction of beings toward the common good, promulgated by the one who is charged with the community." He laid out a necessary threefold order for man. The first, he said, was developed from the rule of reason, inasmuch as all our actions and our passions should be measured by the rule of reason. The second came from the rule of divine law, through which man ought to be directed in all things. "If man were naturally a solitary animal," he said, "this double order would suffice; but because man is naturally a social and political animal, as is proved in Politics I.2, it is necessary to have a third order. Regulating man's conduct with the other men with whom he must live."
Aquinas was the only rationalist philosopher to probe the question od how men should govern themselves. Five hundred years later, In England, where Empiricism, or knowledge derived only from experience, was taking hold. Two philosophers provided new theories about government. Both, like Aquinas, argued from the natural state of man. The first was Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes did not argue from a state of innocence as Aquinas did but from man in a perpetual state of war. This is his description of the motivation for a society of men as he found it (taken from his book, Leviathan).
The difference between arguing from a state of war among men who are constantly at each others' throats and arguing from a state of innocence among men who are naturally social, implies a very great difference in the kind of institution required to bring about a just society. Remember now, we are arguing from the need to overcome a state of war amongst all men to a social institution that would bring about a just law-abiding society. We are also arguing with Hobbes's methods; that is starting from definitions, treating them like axioms, and applying logical arguments to them. Thus, let us begin with his definition of civil law. "Civil Law is to every subject, those rules which the common-wealth hath commanded him, by word, writing, or other sufficient sign of the Will, to make use of, for the distinction of Right and Wrong; that is to say, of what is contrary, and what is not contrary to the Rule."
This is a definition that makes sense if you are coming from an assumption that man in a state of nature is in a state of constant war with every other man. From this basic definition, Hobbes, then, was led to the implication that an absolute Sovereign is necessary in order for there to be a peaceful society, though that Sovereign may be a single man or a committee. In his words, "The legislator in all Commonwealths is only the Sovereign, be he one man, as in a monarchy, or one assembly of men, as in a Democracy, or Aristocracy."
It is important to realize that Leviathan was published while Cromwell was Lord Protector of England and, following its publication, Hobbes returned to England from the Continent. The deduction above shows us that he meant his description to apply to any form of government and not simply to monarchies. This left it open to express the concept of absolutism in a way that applies to parliaments as well as Kings. He did this as a second deduction from the initial assumption: "The Sovereign of a Commonwealth, be it an assembly or one man, is not subject to the Civil laws. For, having the power to make and repeal laws, he may when he pleaseth, free himself from that subjection by repealing those Laws that trouble him, and making of new; and consequently he was free before. For he is free who can be free when he will."
The absolute power of the Sovereign extends even over unwritten laws. These obtain their legitimacy from the silence of the Sovereign. They serve only at the will of the Sovereign and may be terminated by him at any time. Natural law and Civil law, he said, contain each other and are of equal extent. Natural law pertains to the moral virtues which are simply those qualities that dispose men to peace and obedience. The necessity of a Sovereign, and of the necessity of power to exercise that Sovereignty, implies that power defines the Sovereign. Thus, if the Sovereign of one commonwealth should subdue the people of another, the laws that are in power are the laws of the victor, not those of the vanquished.
These deductions are derived directly from the first assumption (taken as a definition and thus as an axiom) that men are naturally in a state of war amongst each other, and that Civil laws are the set of rules men must be forced to obey in order that there be civil society.
Our next political philosopher, John Locke, played a strong part in the Glorious Revolution, the act that brought stability back to England through a mutual agreement between Parliament and the Crown concerning the extent of each other's powers. The difference between his thought and that of Thomas Hobbes lay in his vision of man in the state of nature. As you recall, Hobbes saw man in the state of nature as in a state of war one against another. Locke's vision was almost totally opposite.
Compared with Aquinas' state of innocence, Locke saw man more like a free and independent individualist not naturally dependent on a need for socialization. But compared with Hobbes, Locke appears the optimist while Hobbes a pessimist. However, if we examine the periods in which they lived we can easily understand their differences. Hobbes was a member of Queen Elizabeth's inner circle. She was a strong queen who understood the relationship between the Crown and Parliament. Thus, she could keep a strong rein on Parliament without exerting excessive control. But he wrote Leviathan while in exile during the period of Cromwell, for whom the peace of England depended entirely on his control of the military. Locke, on the other hand, was one of the architects of the Glorious Revolution.
We can see this effort as showing that a rational sense of the importance of individual responsibility was uppermost on his mind as he detailed his idea of the state of nature.
You may recall that Aquinas set human reason right alongside Natural Law and Divine Law as the three precepts for man living as a social creature. Living through human reason implies for both Aquinas and Locke a responsibility toward the world around them, toward other human beings, and toward oneself. As Locke put it, "But though this be a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of license; though man in that state have an uncontrollable liberty to dispose of his person or possessions, yet he has not liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession." Of course, for Aquinas, Natural Law was what every animal must obey for their own preservation.
But Locke wanted to see Natural Law in a different sense. He interpreted the idea in a fashion consistent with Galileo and Newton. For Natural Law, like the law of gravity, compels obedience. But for man that compulsion is through a life of reason. As he put it, "The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one; and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that, being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions." However, this Natural Law is a law of God and not of man, "For men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise maker—all the servants of one Sovereign master, sent into the world by His order, and about his business—they are His property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during His, not one another's pleasure." Then, in a sharp blow against any kind of absolutism, he declared the equality of all men.
European man, even back in the days of Charlemagne, has always been extremely jealous of his own independence. Whether a peasant or a knight in a ninth-century manor or a master craftsman in a fourteenth-century guild, European man felt secure in his own individuality. Hobbes saw this as a problem, a source of inevitable tension leading to a state of constant war and a need for powerful leadership, the kind of leadership England experienced under Elizabeth. Aquinas saw it tempered by an inner need for a social life. John Locke's Natural Law is a constraint on individuality. But it is a rational constraint because, as he saw it, reason will direct any sensible man that its requirements are necessary in order for a state of society to become stable.
Individuality aside, man must still live in society. But if this is to be a rational society, Locke said that man's role in it must be validly derived from the power he held as an individual in a state of nature. From the above discussion, we see that the Law of Nature, or as Locke would have it, the Law of Reason, compels man to behave in a responsible manner with his fellow men.
Since government is a social contract, an agreement entered into freely by all those who desire to live within its jurisdiction, it can only be derived from the powers owned by the individual prior to entering into the contract. Therefore, government is inexorably bound to the same natural laws that bind the individual. And it only applies to those who have freely accepted, by their free choice of living within it, the terms of the contract. The contract, then does not extend beyond the jurisdiction of that particular government. Since the justification for government in Locke's sense is derived from a state of nature where every man is free yet constrained by a common law of nature, a law described as reason, its power will of necessity be limited by that same law of nature. The only two powers that the individual has over others in a state of nature are: the power of punishing another who has injured the individual, though only to the extent that it tends to discourage further transgressions by that individual or others; the power of seeking reparation for the harm done by another. Therefore, the only powers that a government may have are those that can be derived from these. The limits of government, then, are derived from two directions. First, from the rights of man in the state of nature. Since it is man who must create government, he can bestow on it nothing he did not possess prior to the creation. Second, through the Natural Law, which Locke meant as laws dictated by reason.
Some years after the end of the American Revolution, John Adams wrote to Jefferson and stated this simple fact:. "The American Revolution was a revolution of ideas. The fighting was only an aftermath." The underlying political ideas that brought about the success of the American Revolution may have been straight out of John Locke, but the expression of these ideas was purely American. Thomas Paine was not an American but he caught the fever that was pervading the colonies toward the end of the eighteenth century.
This is a major step from the English adoption of John Locke. In a government of laws, the laws are derived from the rights of the individual through a voluntary loan. The American constitution places limitations on the power of government. The English have no corresponding document.
Democracy is a powerful source of freedom, but only if the citizens of the democracy feel personally responsible for the acts of the government and those citizens are willing to exercise the power needed to curb its excesses. Only humans make the kinds of choices that carry with them the burden of responsibility. To understand the implications of this, we must first understand what it means to be human. We have discussed three approaches to political philosophy arguing from assumptions--first from the idea of natural man in a state of innocence, second in a state of war, and third in a state of responsible anarchy. However, each of these is an assumption made by the philosopher and derived neither from experience nor history. If we are going to develop a political philosophy on what it means to be a human being, then we must first develop a well-grounded description of the unique position of man in the universe. The first step toward that understanding requires that we understand what we mean when we say that something is, that it exists.