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Thursday, 14 September 2017

Original Sin and Late Medieval Political Thought #1

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 Human Condition and the Prospect of Peace in Late Medieval Political Thought

Political thinking in the late middle ages had an immensely Christian character that imparted its theological premises on politics itself as is evident in the political philosophy of the thinkers Thomas Aquinas, Dante Alighieri, Marsilius of Padua, Thomas More, and Martin Luther. Despite an interlude where humanist thinking brought forth some elements of a more malleable nature in man, this understanding of the permanence of sin in man, as a mark upon his creation in absolute goodness did not disappear. Instead, it seems imperative to understand that man, as understood by late medieval thinkers was because of original sin, not a properly natural man, rather he was fallen man; political theorist Erik Von Kuehnelt-Leddin asserted that the need for politics can be understood as a direct consequence of the fall.[i] In adopting this paradigm late medieval political thought in relation to expectations regarding the attainability of peace can be more clearly understood. Likewise, questions regarding the aims of politics, and their relative modesty or immodesty can be brought into clarity. Late medieval political thought in this way can be understood as attempting to reckon with a unique and complex political problem, which will better inform one's understanding of political thought throughout the period and political expectations as a result. 

The first authors to be considered are Thomas Aquinas, Dante Alighieri, and Marsilius of Padua. Each author is representative of late medieval political thought, and each is similar in that they relied on the scholastic method to make their claims. The scholastic method originated with the discovery of Aristotle’s writing in the 1250’s and the subsequent translation into Latin by William of Moerbeke[ii] who’s translation would serve as the basis for the work of Thomas Aquinas; as a result of this synthesis the propositions of the Greek political thought became complicated by a new monotheistic end and a new nature of man.

Due to Thomas Aquinas introducing this new monotheistic system to the methodology of Aristotle, to understand Thomas Aquinas in relation to peace, one must first understand the origin of politics as Aquinas perceived them. To Aquinas, the first precept of natural law is to “seek good, and shun evil.”[iii] This first precept, however, is incomplete without the administration of justice, which itself cannot be practiced outside the political community because the political community binds us in stable relation with one another and provides the means to administer justice as properly understood by Aquinas.[iv] This is encapsulated in his definition of justice which states “justice is the habit whereby one with a constant and perpetual will renders to others what is due to them.”[v] This is necessarily political justice, by virtue of the other, Aquinas elevates the persons beyond their individual pursuit of virtue and their particular interest and directs them toward a new good: the common good, alternatively described as happiness.[vi] Moreover, the common good is the authoritative good insofar as it permits for coercion both in the facilitation of virtue, and the protection of the political community. The capacity to enforce the law by promulgation and execution is what divides the political community from all other communities and defines its unique character. This is most obviously contrasted to the practice of ruling the family. This rule lacks the character of law in that it pertains to particulars and is not enforced in a uniform fashion due to the family being a single being and subject to paternal justice.[vii] Meanwhile, within the political realm, this capacity for coercion and authority extends to the purposes of uniformly “induc[ing] subjects to . . . virtue.”[viii]

This seeking of the good, which is living in harmony with the natural order prescribed by God, and living in comity with the will of God is a necessary element of human flourishing; human flourishing that encompasses the best of human life. To Aquinas, people live as virtuously as they are able, but only reach the truest and most perfect blessedness or summation of human happiness through union with God who’s will they attempt to abide by in the political realm.[ix] This will of God is the eternal law, which is expressed by the natural law; the natural law being the law of reason, in which human beings due to their rational nature participate in.[x] Yet, adherence to the natural law lacks, because human nature lacks,[xi] and therefore its precepts, touched through Synderesis and understood through reason, require application to the necessarily contingent circumstances of the human world.[xii] This human world possesses the potential for happiness in the cultivation and exercise of the individual human virtues: moderation, courage, justice, and practical wisdom, but it is justice and its political nature that serves to guide these individual virtues, and justice can be considered the virtue of a citizen not necessarily a virtue of the individual. In this way, it is not “identical with all virtue” because it directs the other virtues that themselves terminate in the common good.[xiii] This places specific demands upon the rulers who uphold the political order that enables and facilitates the flourishing of these virtues under the auspices of justice as exercised through human law; primarily, this obligation to virtues requires that they rule in the interest of those they govern, and take upon themselves the responsibility of inculcating and educating those who participate in the community so that they are most able to pursue the common good.[xiv] This is the origin of the human law and the subject of politics. 

If politics is natural and peace is natural then by necessity the things that disturb peace will be unnatural; in this case, then it becomes pertinent to identify how exactly the peace is disturbed in political communities.[xv] In the case of war, Aquinas subscribes to a just war theory that receives its positive sanction from the intention of the ruler, the authority of the ruler, and the cause of the war.[xvi] In this case, peace is the superior of war and it is by virtue of securing peace that states ought to go to war.[xvii] Just war is initially defined by a reaction on behalf of the common good, and the key to its justice for the individual is that the sword is not taken up on his own behalf but in the name of the common good.[xviii] This is one of the key instances where he draws a line between the private individual and those who have authority. The evil of violence does not come from the those who commit violence necessarily, but those who commit it as private persons, not deferring to those who have been assigned the role of judgment and decision, that natural leaders who act as arbitrators are stewards on behalf of the common good.[xix] 

War then for Aquinas in a complex fashion originates within, for its first genesis is within the sinful soul of a person whose intention is to secure their desires or has succumbed to sinful compulsion to harm others by acting as a judge in in their own case.[xx] For the war exists to punish sinners against their will who have done wrong to the whole. In this case then the sinner is stimulated by his will and compelled by it, indicating the sinner is sinning by free choice and has determined it is to his advantage to subject what is not naturally his own, to his own will, while also neglecting to air his grievances to the appropriate authority.[xxi] This is the origin of war within the disordered soul succumbing to sin. 

Yet, war also comes from without, for the invader has placed himself beyond the common good by bypassing the proper authority of the ruler as an arbitrator and sought to act in his own interest.[xxii] He is different from the warrior who takes up the sword rightly insofar as the one who fights with good intent, under legitimate authority, for the defence of the common good does so with the approbation of God and the law.[xxiii] Furthermore, the soul of the sinner is being sentenced by the sword in that it is for the benefit of the sinner that he dies and faces his judgment under God, and if the sinner does not die by the hand of an enemy he dies the worst death in his own soul when he truly perishes.[xxiv] These linkages demonstrate that to Aquinas there cannot be a war that originates within the natural political community, but within man’s fallen nature and his will’s impulsion toward sin and his acceptance of it. This further binds the political thinking of Aquinas to the notion that the political community is inexorably linked to the good of its subjects and the good of mankind in general. Virtue is paramount, for the proper character does not make war, but knows how to rectify himself to the common good via proper channels under law.[xxv] To Aquinas, the soul and politics are inseparable and will be explicated further in his thoughts on rebellion, for they are qualitatively alike. 

Rebellion, and disobedience, to Aquinas, are mortal sins in direct contradiction with one of the highest virtues for they violate and attack the common good.[xxvi] Human beings are obliged to obey others based upon the understanding that some are closer to the divine will. These individuals are higher and designated to move the lower in the direction of God’s will.[xxvii] Yet a potential for valid disobedience remains. For the system to breakdown justice itself must breakdown and this is exactly what Aquinas tells us when he informs one that “human beings are obliged to obey secular rulers insofar as the order of justice requires.” He then provides the example of a usurper and the ruler who “command[s] unjust things.”[xxviii] This then is the ruler, who being an absolute tyrant rebels against the common good, as rebellion as commonly understood is the rebellion against the common good and divine order, which is as wrong for the subject as it is for rulers.[xxix] Aquinas then defines rebellion as a mortal sin meriting punishment, and if the people topple a ruler, who by ruling against the common good, is himself in rebellion their action becomes valid. In the case of rebellion then, the ruler rebels, and is himself acting in sin, which is an inward force motivating him to pursue his own good at the expense of the common as Aquinas states “discord from what is clearly good cannot happen without sin.”[xxx]


[i] Erik Ritter Von Kuehnelt-Leddin, Liberty or Equality: The Challenge of Our Times (Auburn, AL: Mises Institute, 2014), 92-94.
[ii] Nicolai Rubenstein, “The History of the Word Politicus in Early-Modern Europe,” In The Languages of Political Theory in Early-Modern Europe, Ed. by Anthony Pagden. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 41. 
[iii] Thomas Aquinas, On Law, Morality, and Politics, ed. William P. Baumgarth, trans. Richard J. Regan (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2002), 43.
[iv] Aquinas, On Law, 108.
[v] Ibid., 106. 
[vi] Ibid., 13, 103.
[vii] Ibid., 103-104.
[viii] Ibid., 27, 29, 164.
[ix] Ibid., 20-21.
[x] Ibid., 18.
[xi] Aquinas, On Law, 20; Alan Ryan, On politics: a History of Political Thought From Herodotus to the Present (New York: Liveright Pub. Corp., 2012), 240. 
[xii] Ibid., 2, 18-19.
[xiii] Ibid., 113.
[xiv] Ibid., 189, 200, 202-203. 
[xv] Ibid., 165.
[xvi] Ibid., 165.
[xvii] Ibid., 166. 
[xviii] Ibid., 166.
[xix] Ibid., 166, 168.
[xx] Ibid., 165, 189.
[xxi] Ibid., 14, 165.
[xxii] Ibid., 167-168.
[xxiii] Ibid., 166.
[xxiv] Ibid., 166.
[xxv] Ibid., 58-60, 173-174. 
[xxvi] Ibid., 188-189.
[xxvii] Ibid., 174, 177.
[xxviii] Ibid., 185.
[xxix] Ibid., 185, 206.
[xxx] Ibid., 189. 
The upcoming week will focus on two prominent Italian thinkers of the early Humanist period of the late 14th Century. Marsilius of Padua and Dante Alighieri.