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Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Original Sin and Late Medieval Political Thought #3

Hello, all. I will be posting over the next few weeks the results of my 2017 undergraduate thesis. The work focused on the relationship between the Christian concept of Original Sin and its relationship to political theory from the 13th to 16th centuries. My principal argument is that Original Sin plays both a conscious and sub-conscious role in the political thought of the middle ages, and re-enforced a natural understanding of human limitations in the political sphere serving as a natural inoculation against utopian thinking and high ideals that would emerge in more secularize thought.  Furthermore, Original Sin as a political concept played an important role in defining the limitations of peace as a concept and as a pragmatic ideal in medieval thought. If you see any issues with the arguments presented please bring them up to me in the comments as I I know the effort was sophomoric, and I could always use feedback. 

Likewise, my apologies in advance for its limited scope and lack of Nicholas of Cusa as a prominent example of the concepts focused upon. Sadly, this was a single semester project, and both Cusa as well as Richard Hooker, and King James I/VI. If you can forgive this oversight I feel you might have a genuinely enjoyable read on your hands.  


The humanist movement that emerged in the 14th century serves as a fascinating contrast to scholastic thought before it, [i] and though humanists had in some respects a more optimistic understanding of human nature than their scholastic counterparts, the humanist movement itself did not abandon these trends. Nor are its consequences for politics immediately clear. Humanism is difficult to define, and characterise, and many scholars see it as indistinct or part of a great continuum of medieval thought. [ii] Contrarily, the continuous thread of limitation and constraint re-emerged in the humanist thinkers of the Reformation, Thomas More and Martin Luther. One way in which humanism can be understood as a change from scholastic thought is that it often engaged in implicit assertions of a more optimistic human nature. One that could be corrected through knowledge and virtue. This emphasis on virtue and knowledge existed in the works of many the humanist writers hence the emergence of the Mirror for Princes literary genre which sought to provide practical advice to rulers and would-be rulers. For example, three authors wrote a mirror for princes. Desiderius Erasmus wrote Education of a Christian Prince, Christine De Pizan composed her Book of the Body Politic, and Niccolo Machiavelli published his infamous text The Prince.[iii] 

As an important humanist Desiderius Erasmus produced works, which hold within them his relatively optimistic understanding of human nature, and his desire for peace.[iv] Erasmus knew that the world was in the grips of corruption and he divided the secular and the spiritual upon those principles “there are really two worlds, in conflict with one another. . . . One gross and physical, the other heavenly.” Each world had different aims and measures. The earthly is measured by its accumulation of earthly goods and sins such as pride, avarice, violence, and lust; the heavenly by contrast succeeds through temperance, sobriety, wisdom, justice, and “spiritual riches.”[v]

In brief, he viewed a lack of knowledge as one of the critical failings of political leadership, and knowledge, if one understands his writings correctly, particularly the Sileni of Alcibiades consists of a capacity to discern. To identify the truth and ignore or reject the evil, the superficial, and the transient.[vi] In this way, the ruler both creates himself as the philosopher and a true Christian.[vii] This was important because “in human beings, the part that is most divine and is immortal is the only one that is invisible.” The part that connects human beings to the imperceptible God and the unity of the cosmos.[viii]  In turn, it was only true Christians who could see the truth and discern what lay beyond the corporeal crust.[ix] In this way, the political leaders of Europe could rule in virtue. 

This virtue and the cultivation of it remained elusive because rulers did not know how to achieve and maintain peace. Rather rulers had been left hollow, empty of the three qualities of rule “goodness, wisdom, and power.” The world stripped goodness and wisdom from the ruler and by extension the polity, and in turn, a superficial tyranny reigned.[x] Thus to make peace a certain character is necessary for the ruler to be a peaceful, and this is the reason why Erasmus wrote his educational tracts The Manual of a Christian Knight and Education of a Christian Prince because a ruler, if taught well could surpass his worldly dilemmas and engage with politics and good government free from the vicissitudes of the moment.[xi] 

Pizan wrote her work The Book of the Body Politic in 1407;[xii] In the work, the same need for education is on display. Though not espousing an explicit political theory as such, her works do provide clues to the concepts that underlie her political vision. Predominately that the attainment of virtue is possible in the earthly life. The polity in turn, receives its virtue through imputation from above by the prince.[xiii] Only the properly ordered polity subject to a virtuous ruler, a ruler who has mastered justice, can be peaceful.[xiv] She still holds to a vision of human nature open to corruption, but it is not determinative, she notes that even Athens, a pre-Christian society, fell because it submitted to “pleasures and lust.”[xv] As a result, there is a fluidity to the character of the prince who is infused with the potential to be the best of people. The prince from his birth has care taken for his soul first so that he may achieve his potential.[xvi] To play the role of shepherd and rise to Roman heights and foster the same respect, admiration, and goodness in his people by ordering them rightly.[xvii] Her tripartite division consists of France’s three estates, and she sees the prince as the absolute head, and therefore all is contingent upon his character including peace.[xviii] Arising from this notion of a virtuous prince shepherding his sheep with the assistance of his sheepdogs—the knights—Pizan exposes her rather modest view of government.[xix] The city is best when everyone knows their role and plays their part. 

For these reasons, all authority stems from the prince and originates his the office. Which due to the temporal nature of man, must always be renewed in virtue by generations of men educated with the right qualities.[xx] By asserting the pertinence of roman virtue for the Christian prince, insisting on the efficacy of education, dividing the contemplative and active lives, and seeing the potential for a ordered polity on earth Pizan is an example of early humanism that proposes the renewal of virtue and potential of man despite his nature. Political theorist Alan Ryan identifies not a concern for all the elements of a city, but a of exceeding nature that originated in her determinations that women could work and live equally with men something evident in her oeuvre.[xxi]

In contrast with Erasmus and Pizan, Niccolo Machiavelli promoted a different type of political understanding, one shaped by the world and man’s role in it that did not gauge the efficacy of politics in relation to human nature, but alternatively examined politics as its own substantive end. By moving from Machiavelli to the reformation authors this theme ought to be kept in mind as one approaches the Discourses on Livy as it will illuminate the depth of continuity with the scholastic approach that emerged in the wake of his divergence. The Machiavellian spirit is commonly held by scholars to one of realism, truly political politics, through action and virtue or as Machiavelli redefines it virtù: ability and mastery in politics over fortune.[xxii] The discourses then can be thought of as a reflection of the virtù of a people, the Prince a reflection of the virtù of one man.[xxiii]

To Machiavelli peace is unnatural, and the nature of politics is constant flux.[xxiv] He does not see this as a bad thing, but rather an opportunity, and views the failure of polities such as Sparta as a product of their stasis because in the human  

world “all things of men are in motion and cannot stay steady, they must either rise or fall.”[i] It's not a turning from the world that frustrates Machiavelli, but stasis. Evidence for this is in Machiavelli’s argument against gentlemen and the propensity to adopt their manners, gentlemen “live idly in abundance . . . without care. . . . such as these are pernicious in every republic.” The answer is to kill them if they arise in a political state because they are “the beginnings of corruption and cause of every scandal.”[ii] Worse, he held that polluted Christianity symbolized the decadence and stasis that had led men to lose their historic virtù by turning men toward the heavens making them “‘humble and contemplative.”[iii]

His response to this tendency then was an active republican constitution. Machiavelli viewed the rule of one with a skeptic's eye and maintained that the prince’s interest always opposes the common good.[iv] Republics could avoid these issues, however, because well-ordered republics to Machiavelli, will always elect virtuous rulers who will beat the problem of inconsistent inheritance and therefore become more stable and well-ordered over time assuming they are governed by good laws.[v] 

After one examines examples of the humanist tradition it is evident, that it is difficult to see the humanists as qualitatively different from other writers because humanism served diverse ends and became established in the political system as a sort of rhetorical swiss army knife as historian Anthony Grafton states. “Humanism, in short, had established itself as vital to the public justification of political power: it could legitimate or attack a regime, defend a war, instil patriotism, and offer advice in time of crisis.”[vi] Though it may appear that more drastic changes had occurred when one considers the optimistic propositions for education in virtuous ways and the propositions of Machiavelli that the political order was in flux and self-justifying. This divergence is nulled when one can see how Reformation thought focused on human nature as one of the primary concerns of politics. 

[i] Ibid., 23, 133-134.
[ii] Ibid., 111.
[iii] Ibid., 131.
[iv] Ibid., 130.
[v] Ibid., 16, 54. 
[vi] Anthony Grafton, "Humanism and Political Theory," in Cambridge History of Political Thought 1450-1700, ed. J.H Burns (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 14. 
[i] Skinner, Foundations of Modern Political Thought, 103-104; Ryan, On Politics, 293.
[ii] Cary J. Nederman, "Empire and the Historiography of European Political Thought: Marsiglio of Padua, Nicholas of Cusa, and the Medieval/Modern Divide," Journal of the History of Ideas 66, no. 1 (January 2005): 1-2.
[iii] Skinner, Foundations of Modern Political Thought, 128-129, 241; Ryan, On Politics, 295-296.
[iv] Ryan, On Politics, 301-302;
[v] Erasmus, "The Sileni of Alcibiades," 185.
[vi] Erasmus, "The Sileni of Alcibiades," 175-177. 
[vii] Ryan, On Politics, 301-302, 310-311.
[viii] Erasmus, "The Sileni of Alcibiades," 174.
[ix] Ibid., 176.
[x] Ibid., 178.
[xi] Skinner, Foundations of Modern Political Thought, 241-242.
[xii] Ryan, On Politics, 296.
[xiii] Christine De Pizan, The Book of the Body Politic, Trans. Kate Langdon Forhan (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 3-4, 38, 92-93.
[xiv] De Pizan, The Book of the Body Politic, 5. 
[xv] Ibid., 24.
[xvi] Ibid., 8-9.
[xvii] Ibid., 16-18.
[xviii] Ibid., 3-4, 92-93.
[xix] Ibid., 16-18.
[xx] Ibid., 11-12.
[xxi] De Pizan, The Book of the Body Politic, 42-43, 54; Ryan, On Politics, 295-296.
[xxii] Ryan, On Politics, 370, 375; Skinner, Foundations of Modern Political Thought, 121-122; Alison Brown, "Review Article: Political Thought in Early Modern Europe I: The Renaissance," Journal of Modern History 54, no. 1 (March 1, 1982): 48-49.
[xxiii] Ryan, On Politics, 375.

[xxiv] Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, 25.