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Monday, 2 October 2017

Original Sin in Late Medieval Political Thought #4

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.  


Thomas More, who follows wrote no traditional mirror for princes or political treatise, however, it will be in light of the principles of the other authors that one must proceed to determine what role human nature plays in both the peace and destruction of the polity. More published his seminal work Utopia in 1516.[i] On close examination the work can be understood as a discussion between More as a contemporary man and politician trying to reconcile and with a Platonic man, embodied by Raphael Hythloday, who himself, despite his pretensions to rationality, and his readiness to flee from politics is espousing the most unnatural state possible; in this way Hythloday himself is nonsense because he fails to realize that the classical Platonic arguments he makes in book I are defeated by the absolute divorce from nature that exists in book II. Alternatively, More argues that man is best off when he lives within the bounds of man's fallen nature as best he is able and produces the best politics that is possible through ready engagement with the political world even if the best that may be hoped for is an adequate degree of peace. 

The discussion begins when More visits friend and colleague Peter Giles in Antwerp and is introduced to a strange and enigmatic man, Raphael Hythloday.[ii] Indeed, Hythloday is immediately compared with the Greeks and Plato, and it is made clear that he only tangentially understands the more pragmatic philosophy of the Romans.[iii] Furthermore, Hythloday is a pilot, who in Plato’s eyes is the best for the ship and serves the ship of state; In the Republic, Plato intends to prove the philosopher is not “useless to cities.”[iv] The pilot knows and navigates by the cosmos, as the demos struggles to pull him and each other down to take the position of the pilot for themselves. To the crew down below he looks like a madman because the sailors and ship-owner do not partake in the knowledge of the philosopher,[v] and yet, the implicit connection is clear, Plato does not see a place for the philosopher among such people, until their nature and their souls are ordered. Otherwise the philosopher is redundant in the city. For he claims it is not natural for the pilot of the ship or the philosopher to beg to guide the sailors rather they must come to him.[vi] Philosophy, in this case, is reactive and requires that the worldly have insight into themselves and their own needs before opening to philosophy. Here is exactly what Hythloday will argue going forward, that as a philosophical man he has no place in the world of government until the people themselves change. More disagrees: his argument will be that the Utopian city cannot exist. This is More’s critique of idealism.

As the dialogue proceeds, Hythloday paints his first picture of nature. Nature and men who are “wild and uncultivated. . . . no less savage and dangerous than the creatures they live among.”[vii] Once Hythloday passed hostile nature he was welcomed on the ships of many nations and met new civilizations alien to the Europeans. Nations prepared to accept him for his knowledge. Hythloday gave these people a sense of direction and oriented them as a true philosopher by providing them a compass. Something that directs truly from any place. It is a substitute for the cosmos, a compass will point toward the north, like the north star, but it does not require knowledge of the stars. Hythloday uses technology to transcend the limits of man. More notes, however, that the compass made them too confident and “cost many lives.”[viii] Nature’s danger is re-emphasized by More as more notes that monsters are more common than civilized men.[ix] 

Afterward, More and Hythloday continue to discuss, this time about whether the philosopher should or should not advise the court. They draw from a hypothetical about the French court that warfare finds its origin in competition, greed, and pride.[x] In this conversation too Hythloday displays his limited thinking about politics and asserts another contradiction when he argues that the people ought to “choose a ruler to further their own interests.” In this way, he hopes the rulers will rule as shepherds fattening their sheep, precisely what brought so much harm to England with enclosures; however now it is inverted, the peoples’ greed ought to be satiated by the ruler rather than his own but the orienting principle remains the same yet not understood by Hythloday.[xi] Meanwhile, More the active politician understands the people cannot rule absolutely and to satiate them with the choice of a ruler would be wrong. He attests to this skepticism throughout. He does this in his reverence of Morton, his skepticism toward Utopia, and the rigour that must be exercised over the Utopians’ social life to ensure the success of their popular regime.[xii] Meanwhile, More cannot conclude that advising the ruler is an absolute redundancy instead he attacks the Platonic ideals of Hythloday in favour of a philosophy that adapts itself to time, circumstance, and contingency.[xiii] More can accept this position and reconcile it because he is aware of the fallen nature of man and the politics it brings. He makes an analogy to the ship of state when he suggests that because the ship is tossed about by the seas—which represent nature—the pilot ought not to leave. Instead, he argues for modesty, and knows that you can at least prevent politics from decaying further, he knows that a perfect state cannot exist “unless you only have perfect people.”[xiv] The irony in this will be betrayed again when the Utopians themselves are exposed as lacking in perfection. In this way, even the ideal Utopian city, the engineering city, the city that constructs its environment and its people, cannot exist. Correspondingly, the text exposes Hythloday’s ideal city, which itself perverts Plato’s egalitarianism that was by no means universal.[xv] 

Utopia itself then will refute the arguments of Hythloday. This refutation is more powerful when read in the light of the conclusion where More claims the “customs and laws established in that country were simply absurd,” and More recognizes the need for “nobility” and “majesty” in the commonwealth. Rather than proceed in an argument with Hythloday he leaves his objections unspoken. As an alternative, More informs the reader that he appreciates the affairs of the utopians, but he does not expect to see any part of their constitution “realized.”[xvi] Coming back to the beginning of the text, one discovers that Utopia from its outset was established by an engineer, someone who constructed Utopia from the ground up. This man is Utopus, who severed the island of Utopia from its isthmus and conquered the native population; therefore, from its birth Utopia is a work of war against nature and the men living in it, those who preceded Utopus.[xvii] The war against nature is embodied in the social life of the Utopians. Utopia exists for pleasure.[xviii] Yet all pleasures, aside from the gardens, are regulated to an obscene degree.[xix] The only place man's nature exists is in the garden where competition flourishes.[xx]

Nature likewise furnishes the sins of the utopians. Nature deprives Utopia of iron yet provides great volumes of gold and silver in its place. This paucity of iron in Utopia and its consequence, the reaction to the foreign diplomats, furnish two of the largest contradictions in the text. Firstly, the possession of great quantities of silver and gold permits the utopians to hire mercenaries to fight on their behalf, [xxi] but it also betrays a larger problem. This because the hiring of mercenaries refutes the notion that the idyllic and irenic city can truly exist and escape the nature of man because it must still reckon with enemies even in its perfection. Likewise, the text asserts many times that money itself is corrupting yet the Utopians must soil themselves with it to buy their peace.[xxii] Likewise, the like lack of iron becomes problematic because it is the metal that is most conducive to their own existence and in the words of Hythloday “iron is as essential to human existence as fire and water,”[xxiii] in this way More through Hythloday shows us that the Utopians do not have a human existence, they have elements of humanity sprinkled throughout the text but lack the essence of man, the essence that makes politics and man’s political nature the way it is in the real world. Secondly, and as consequential as the lack of iron is the treatment of the Anemolian diplomats who visit Utopia adorned with gold, which the Utopians spurn. For it has already been noted throughout that pride and hubris are the root of the evils of the community, and the reason for warfare lies in competition and pride.[xxiv] Despite this prior knowledge the Utopians themselves implicitly embrace pride because they are aspiring to be like gods. Meanwhile, the Anemolians dress like gods adorned with gold and jewels, but they do not act like the Utopians who though dressed plainly embrace godhood.[xxv] Hythloday demonstrates the spirit of the Utopians during the procession “I wouldn’t have missed for anything the sight of [the diplomats].”[xxvi] Meanwhile, the Utopians line the streets to gawk at the procession, and they derive great pleasure from the humiliation of the Anemolians until in their shame they change their fashion to match the utopians.[xxvii] In this brief exchange both show their contemptibility. 

These contradictions illuminate the full meaning of the text. The men in Utopia attempt to live like Gods, they preside over life and death through euthanasia,[xxviii] they kill their enemies and take colonies,[xxix] they govern life down to the minutia and still cannot expunge the criminals from their cities,[xxx] they preside over marriages and dissolve contracts that More would note belong only to God,[xxxi] and finally they conform nature to their will in their great engineering projects. Despite all these marvels or shames Utopia still must reckon with gold, and its pollution to achieve security, and it still cannot free itself from sin. Even the best efforts to construct the ideal city fail because the Utopians are guilty, despite striving to become Gods, despite their abundant wealth of which they place no value, of the ultimate sin: pride.

In this way, the work of More may be placed in dialogue with the other authors. It is evident that More accepts the fall of man, and the limits of politics, but unlike Erasmus and Pizan he does not see room for significant improvements in the condition of man.[xxxii] Likewise, when placed in contrast with Aquinas, there is no absolute end for man in the polity: no absolute common good intelligible and rational. Alternatively, politics just is. Politics is natural insofar as man is bound by it in the oceans of nature.[xxxiii] Consequently, individuals must concern themselves with politics because they are bound by life on earth. 

The upcoming week will focus on Martin Luther and the Reformation turn toward the fallibility of reason. 

[i] Ryan, On Politics, 311; Thomas More, "Utopia," in Utopia with Erasmus's The Sileni of Alcibiades, trans. David Wootton (Cambridge, UK: Hackett Publishing Company, 1999), 36.
[ii] More, "Utopia," 57.
[iii] More, "Utopia," 58.
[iv] Plato, The Republic of Plato, 487b-487e..
[v] Plato, The Republic of Plato, 488a-488e.
[vi] Plato, The Republic of Plato, 489a-489b.
[vii] More, "Utopia," 59.
[viii] Ibid., 59.
[ix] Ibid., 60.
[x] Ibid., 80, 82-83.
[xi] Ibid., 81.
[xii] Ibid., 76, 102-107,159-160.
[xiii] Ibid., 83-84.
[xiv] Ibid., 84.
[xv] Plato, The Republic of Plato, 416a-417b 546a-547a. Plato’s critique of egalitarianism lies in the failure of the nuptial calculations and the inability of the ideal regime to replicate itself without decaying in Book VIII. This is in spite of the fact that the ideal city he proposed uses advanced mathematics and all the means of engineering both social and biological for its own self-preservation, yet this exactly the foundation Hythloday plans to build Utopia upon: the engineering capacity of man and the supersession of nature.
[xvi] More, "Utopia," 159-160.
[xvii] Ibid., 91.
[xviii] Ibid., 99-100, 107, 117-123.
[xix] Ibid., 98.
[xx] Ibid., 95.
[xxi] Ibid., 109-110.
[xxii] Ibid., 82-83, 86-87 158-159.
[xxiii] Ibid., 110.
[xxiv] Ibid., 80, 82-83.
[xxv] Ibid., 112.
[xxvi] Ibid., 112.
[xxvii] Ibid., 112.
[xxviii] Ibid., 128.
[xxix] Ibid., 103, 130, 141-144.
[xxx] Ibid., 128, 131.
[xxxi] Ibid., 129-130.
[xxxii] Ibid., 84.

[xxxiii] Ibid., 59, 84, 160.