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The Roman empire officially collapsed in 485 CE, overrun by various tribes who had come in large numbers from the east and the north, the barbarians (from another word derived from Greek, barbaros, or foreigners).
Every society is born out of chaos. Strong people create order out of chaos, which creates a different set of conditions and needs. Once order is established, people start thinking about other things, including food and wealth and a more comfortable existence. The Dark Ages (roughly 500–900 CE) and the Middle Ages (900–1200 CE) weren’t periods of total chaos. There were states, sometimes quite substantial, but they typically were born of violence and often succumbed to the same. Charlemagne carved out an empire covering much of Europe, but it was subdivided between his sons, and not everybody wanted to be a part of it anyway. It didn’t last another 100 years.
But for some time after the fall of the empire, in Europe, human human misery increased. It was often unsafe to travel, trade dried up, and people sought security above all else. This eventually gave rise to the economic and political system called feudalism. In feudalism, ordinary people agree to work for and feed the biggest, baddest guy with the pointy stick, who in return agrees to keep the peasants safe from danger and attack. Feudal states were self-sufficient, because there was very little trade (remember, it wasn’t safe to travel). As not every place is equally good at producing every kind of good or service, this is not an economically very efficient way to organize things. It did, however, eventually, restore order.
All knowledge was not lost, however. With the rise of Islam in the eight century CE, another rich and powerful civilization was born. Moslem philosophers built on the work of Plato and Aristotle. For both early Christian and early Moslem thinkers, the challenge was to reconcile earthly government with the idea of an all-powerful God who commanded strict adherence to his laws. St. Augustine (354–430 CE) saw the state as God’s punishment for man’s sinfulness. The City of God matters; the city of man, not as much. Moslem philosophers such as Al-Farabi (872–950 CE), Avicenna (980–1087 CE) and Averroes (1126–1198 CE), built on Plato’s idea of a philosopher-king (in this case, a prophet-imam) who would combine both religious righteousness with just rule. These Arab philosophers had access to both Plato and Aristotle, and Aristotle in particular had been lost to the Christian west.
But in 1085, the European Spanish reconquered the city of Toledo from the Moslem Spanish (the Moors), and Toledo had a really big library that, miraculously, wasn’t burned to the ground. Works of all kinds were translated from Arabic and Hebrew to Spanish and Latin, which meant that they were accessible to a much larger group of people. Aristotle was troubling at first to medieval Christian scholars; he said things that weren’t in the Bible. Eventually, however, he became the chief source for everything that wasn’t in the Bible, which, in fields such as science, wasn’t always the best choice.
Aristotle was partially rehabilitated in the west by St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), whose work was to have enormous impact on the development of the Catholic Church. Aquinas said it was not necessary to have a theocratic state, ruled by the church, and that it was acceptable to have a secular (non-church government). The church in the form of the pope still had supreme authority, but unlike St. Augustine, Aquinas seems to be saying that it’s not just the next life that matters; this life matters a little too.
In Aquinas’ time, Europe was at last on the road to recovery from the collapse of the Roman Empire. That meant increasing stability and order. That produced the conditions that make it possible to trade. So, for example, by the 1200s, trade fairs began to spring up in the Champagne region of France. The rise of trade began to increase the demand for goods, such as cloth, which created a new class of people—merchants, bankers, the people of business. And their needs weren’t the same as those of the feudal lords.
In the midst of this change, things happened. Disagreements between English barons and King John led to the creation of the Magna Carta, which led to the creation of the English Parliament, the most representative body since the Roman Senate. A century later, in 1295, the English Kind Edward I called Parliament into session all on his own. Why? Because he needed them to raise taxes to pay for wars. Having Parliament pass taxes legitimized them more than the king just calling for them on his own. That single act gave Parliament a power that was to change the nature of the state forever.
This era became known as the Renaissance, when, in Europe, cities began to grow and trade resumed and there was a rebirth of art, culture and science. (When people have time to think, they often do.) This struggle between the old feudal order, whose wealth and power was based on land, and the new business order, lasted for hundreds of years. Why it happened in Europe and not in, say, China or India, which also had very advanced societies, is hard to say. There have been a lot of theories, none of them completely satisfying. But it did happen in Europe, and, if nothing else, that had a great impact on what happened in America.
So whereas the political theory of the pre-Renaissance period was largely about how much power should be possessed by the church, after the Renaissance began theory increasingly was once again about what the ideal state should look like. Niccolo Machiavelli (one of history’s most misunderstood philosophers) barely even mentions God and the church; he doesn’t spend pages justifying the need for a state. Contrast that with St. Thomas Aquinas, who was still arguing that the state was divinely ordained and therefore, at the end of the day, subservient to the church. Machiavelli says, in effect, “get real” and assumes there will be a state. Writing at a time when Italy was a collection of uncertain city-states, and also the training ground for the armies of Europe, Machiavelli argued that 1. You don’t get very far by playing fair if your enemies don’t and 2. The ideal state has a balance of power that keeps tyranny from taking over. Machiavelli tried to look at what states were really like, and to deduce from that how we might make them better. People have tended to look at Machiavelli’s most famous work, The Prince, and be horrified that anyone would say, in effect, if your enemies are trying to kill you, take them out first. But if you read his work carefully, you begin to understand that Machiavelli wanted 1. A free and united Italy and 2. A state that, when secure, would be governed fairly and for the benefit of the people. If nothing else, Machiavelli gives us the first truly practical discussion of political science since Aristotle.
Machiavelli is sometimes considered the first “modern” political philosopher. “ModernityThe era after the Middle Ages, and the problem of a world where reason and rationality have begun to replace faith.” is a funny sounding word (if you put the accent on the second syllable instead of the first, it will sound about right), but an important idea. As later thinkers such as Max Weber (1864–1920) were to recognize, the separation of church and state demystified the world. We might still believe in God, but we don’t expect him to part the Red Sea or deliver messages through burning bushes. Without the moral guide rails of a universal faith, we are left to figure things out on our own. Our senses of right and wrong must be redefined. So, if life is really a journey and not a destination, modernity means we just lost the map.
Amid all this came the Reformation. Martin Luther, a German churchman, became frustrated with the excesses of the Catholic Church, such as shaking down people for money (indulgences) so as to buy their way into heaven. (The money, at that time, wasn’t going to help the poor. It was going to build fancier palaces, fight more wars, and throw bigger parties.) Luther wasn’t a political radical—he didn’t argue that kings and princes didn’t have the right to rule. But he did say that we are all equal for before God, regardless of wealth or privilege. And if we’re all equal before God, it’s not a great step to thinking we’re also equal before the state. Luther probably didn’t realize it, but he had just helped let the genie out of the bottle. Increasingly, from this point forward, more political philosophers began to argue that more people—not less—should participate in governing the state.
But not everybody, and not all in the same way. The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) argued that government is a contract between the ruler and the ruled. Hobbes saw government and civil society as the antidote to what he called “the state of nature,” in which every person was out for him or herself, and in which life was best described as “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short” (spelling at that time being a somewhat creative affair). Hobbes’ social contractAn agreement between people to create a certain type of government., therefore, keeps us and the barbarian hordes in check, allowing people to live better, longer, easier lives.
Hobbes granted the ruler, who he called the sovereign, pretty much absolute power (Hobbes had worked for the English king. In politics, where you stand often depends upon where you sit.) He thought that the sovereign would realize it’s in his own self-interest to treat people well, because if your kingdom is decrepit, you won’t be in power long. Having lived through the long and violent English Civil War, Hobbes thought that the contract was all about security. Having established the sovereign by mutual consent, the people were bound to support and obey the sovereign up to the point at which he or it could no longer protect them. (The fact that if the sovereign fell to such a level of powerlessness, he wasn’t really a sovereign anymore, seems to have escaped Hobbes.)
The challenging part about Hobbes’ argument is that it relies on the king understanding that the people’s well-being was in his own best interest. And yet it doesn’t always work out that way. Eventually, the English kings, thinking they were the only thing that mattered, so angered much of the rest of the country that they chased King James II away and replaced him with William and Mary (in what the British refer to as the Glorious Revolution of 1688). Another Englishman, John Locke (1632–1704) writing at about that time, argued for the supremacy of the legislature—Parliament. Soon after, increasingly, Great Britain was, for all purposes, ruled by Parliament, not by the king.
Locke is important because he had such a big impact on so many others, including the American revolutionaries who were to create the United States. Like Hobbes, Locke saw government as a social contract between the governed and the governors. Unlike Hobbes, Locke didn’t see people as inherently selfish and therefore potentially dangerous. They could, in fact, be charitable and rational. Government’s role is not to restrain people, but to protect their rights to “life, health, liberty or possessions,” (in some references rendered as “life, liberty or property”), as he put it. Any social contract that led to oppression was null and void before the ink had dried. Locke thought that sovereignty lay with the people, not kings, and that therefore an elected parliament was the best form of government. Although Locke acknowledged that kings did not have an exclusive franchise on tyranny, the only check on the power of parliament he provided was elections, short of revolution. Locke, like others who were involved in revolutions, argued that there was a right to revolution, which probably sounds better when you’re on the front end than when you’re on the receiving end.
Locke was also an influence on the Swiss-French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), one of those historical curiosities who loved humanity but wasn’t so good with people (he gave up his own children for adoption, for example). Rousseau’s state of nature was the opposite of Hobbes’—an idyllic Eden in which people lived peacefully, long and well before being corrupted by the advent of organized society. (This was to have a great impact on anarchist thinkers down the road.) “Man is born free,” he wrote in The Social Contract (1762), “and everywhere he is in chains.” Despite what sounds like a call to anarchy, Rousseau proceeded to argue that the chains would be much lighter in a properly constituted republic. Sovereignty rests with the people, who rule through a combination of magistrates (who don’t make policy on their own) and direct democracy. The ideal republic is a city-state, like Geneva, the Swiss city where he was born. It’s worth noting that Geneva was republican on the surface and a theocracy underneath, and of the latter Rousseau clearly did not approve. Unlike the real Geneva, proper government should be an expression of the general will (one of those somewhat hazy ideas that sound pretty good until you try to define it and make it practical). In his defense, Rousseau did appear to think that the general will should not be used to oppress the individual. Nonetheless, Rousseau’s work influenced thinkers from anarchists to liberals to Marxists, everyone seeming to find a suitable present under the tree of his varied thought.