February 12, 2013 essays

This is part of a series

Freedom, Rights, and Political Philosophy, Part 3

When combing the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and other ancient philosophers for ideas that influenced later political philosophers, it is easy to overlook the most influential source of all: the Bible, especially the writings of St. Paul. As the distinguished medieval historian Walter Ullmann wrote (The Individual and Society in the Middle Ages, 1966, p. 10):

Most, if not all, of the basic principles relative to the individual as subject to higher authority are contained in the Bible, notably in the Pauline letters. If one realizes—as every medievalist ought to, but so few in fact do—what an unparalled influence the Bible as the repository of divine wisdom exercised in the Middle Ages, one will have no difficulty in appreciating that it was taken not merely as a model, but above all as a ready-made philosophy relative to matters of public government. The all-pervasive Christian theme made the Bible a pattern—a whole philosophy was so conveniently assembled within two covers…. Quite especially it is in the Pauline arsenal that the crucial concepts and terms of the subject, of the subditus, and the corollary of the higher, of the sublimis, as well as the corresponding concept of obedience, appear most fully.

The influence of Paul’s pronouncements on the duty of political obedience extended well beyond the Middle Ages. Indeed, the major Protestant reformers, having denuded the pope of all political authority, sought to strengthen the authority of the secular state beyond what most Catholics were willing to accept, and they frequently appealed to the writings of Paul. For example, in his article “On Secular Authority,” Martin Luther followed the common practice of citing the following passage by Paul (Romans 13.1-2, RSV) in order to find “a firm grounding for secular law and the Sword, in order to remove any possible doubt about their being in the world as a result of God’s will and ordinance.”

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.

That government is a divinely ordained institution, one that we are obligated to obey, was a dominant theme in Christian political philosophy; and passages such as the above were frequently cited against those Christians who defended the rights of resistance and revolution.

Perhaps the first American to tackle this problem in detail was Jonathan Mayhew (1720-1776), a New England minister who, in 1750, delivered a sermon in Boston titled A Discourse concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers: with Some Reflections on the resistance Made to King Charles I. The point of this sermon was to defend the execution of Charles I a century earlier (1649)—a controversial stand, even among Radical Whigs.

The pamphlet version of Mayhew’s sermon was widely admired by American revolutionaries, and it had an especially strong influence on a young John Adams, who said that it “was read by everybody” and had “a great influence in the commencement of the Revolution.”

In his Discourse, Mayhew examined the various New Testament passages, especially the passage quoted above, that had traditionally been used to teach passive obedience to government. He agreed that obedience to a just government is commanded by God, but he went on to argue that the Bible does not demand obedience to an unjust government. The fact that particular rulers may claim the moral authority needed to command obedience does not make it so.

In essence, Mayhew appealed to a distinction that I mentioned in my last essay, namely the difference between political obligation as a general principle and political allegiance to a particular government. To disobey a just government is a serious sin, according to Mayhew, but unjust rulers can lay no legitimate claim to political authority and may therefore be resisted and even overthrown.

When philosophers discuss political obligation they sometimes ignore the crucial distinction between political obligation and political allegiance, despite the fact that many early political debates focused on the latter issue. Political obligation in some form was taken for granted, but this did not answer the crucial question: What makes a government legitimate in the first place?

As I explained in my last essay, John Locke and other defenders of natural rights and the consent theory of government were frequently accused by their critics of implicitly justifying “anarchy,” because their standards for a just government, if consistently applied, were so stringent and unrealistic that no real government could possibly meet them. Such theories made all governments vulnerable to revolution.

John Locke made it abundantly clear that the problem of political allegiance, not the more general problem of political obligation, is the great problem of political philosophy. Unfortunately, Locke’s remarks on this topic appear in his First Treatise of Government (a detailed rebuttal of Robert Filmer’s arguments for absolute monarchy), and his First Treatise has not received nearly the attention that has been bestowed on his more famous Second Treatise. Locke’s comments are sometimes bypassed, even though they are essential to understanding some of his arguments in the Second Treatise.

Locke agreed with Filmer that “there ought to be Government in the World,” so (as I have stressed before) the general problem of political obligation was not an issue in his debate with Filmer. But even if we grant Filmer’s contention that absolute monarchy is the form of government decreed by God, this does not solve the problem of political allegiance—for we must also know the specific person or persons to whom we owe obedience. For practical purposes the most significant issue in political philosophy is not whether political power can be justified (or in what form) but who has the right to exercise this power. As Locke stated in his First Treatise:

The great Question which in all Ages has disturbed Mankind, and brought on them the greatest part of those Mischiefs which have ruin’d Cities, depopulated Countries, and disordered the Peace of the World, has been, Not whether there be Power in the World, nor whence it came, but who should have it.

A political theory that cannot answer this Great Question serves “very little purpose,” except to generate contention and disorder. Power can be dressed up with “all the Splendor and Temptation Absoluteness can add to it,” but if a theory fails to indicate the particular individual or individuals who have a right to exercise political power, then it cannot protect us against the perils of anarchy.

’Tis in vain then to talk of Subjection and Obedience, without telling us whom we are to obey. For were I never so fully persuaded, that there ought to be Magistracy and Rule in the World, yet I am nevertheless at Liberty still, till it appears who is the Person that hath Right to my Obedience: since if there be no Marks to know him by, and distinguish him, that hath Right to Rule from other Men, it may be my self, as well as any other. And therefore though Submission to Government be every ones duty, yet that signify nothing but submitting to the Direction and Laws of such Men, as have Authority to Command, ‘tis not enough to make a Man a Subject, to convince him that there is Regal Power in the World, but there must be ways of designing, and knowing the Person to whom this Regal Power of Right belongs, and a Man can never be oblig’d in Conscience to submit to any Power, unless he can be satisfied who is the Person, who has a Right to Exercise that Power over him. If this were not so, there would be no distinction between Pirates and Lawful Princes….To settle therefore Mens Consciences under an Obligation to Obedience, ‘tis necessary that they know not only that there is a Power somewhere in the World, but the Person who by Right is vested with this Power over them.

Locke concluded that Filmer’s patriarchalism, even if we accept it (which of course Locke did not), cannot identify the legitimate heirs of Adam’s supposed monarchical authority. This means that patriarchalism cannot answer the Great Question of who should exercise political power. And by leaving us in dark about this crucial matter, “it will destroy the Authority of the present Governours, and absolve the People from Subjection to them, since they having no better a Claim than others to that Power, which is alone the Fountain of all Authority, can have no Title to Rule over them.”

Thus did Locke turn the tables on Filmer by charging him with promoting anarchy!

Modern political philosophy, as it emerged in the late sixteenth century, was largely concerned with justifying political sovereignty and thereby justifying the monopoly of political power claimed by emerging nation-states. It has been said that few people doubted the existence of God until philosophers attempted to prove it. It may also be said, with equal justification, that few people doubted the legitimacy of established governments until philosophers attempted to justify that legitimacy by appealing to reason.

Attempts to justify the modern state quickly developed into a double-edged sword. Philosophers, such as Jean Bodin, Robert Filmer, and Thomas Hobbes, who presented detailed arguments in defense of political sovereignty virtually compelled their critics to develop opposing theories based on self-sovereignty—theories that cut to the heart of absolute sovereignty.

Although the French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) is rarely discussed in histories of political theory, he was among the first to recognize the explosive potential of modern political philosophy.

In his Pensées, Pascal took a brief but fascinating detour into political sociology. He identified reason itself, as manifested in the attempt of philosophers to justify political power, as the ultimate source of revolutionary fervor.

According to Pascal, human reason, having been thoroughly vitiated by original sin, can no longer discern the true law of justice, so people must be ruled by custom rather than by reason. Social order requires blind, unconditional obedience to established laws solely because they are established laws, and for no other reason. Man-made laws have the force of habitual custom and are routinely accepted by the masses. This is the “mystic basis” for the authority of law.

Philosophers who attempt to trace the authority of man-made laws to their objective foundation in reason will inevitably destroy the authority of established laws in the process. Even a cursory examination of various legal systems will reveal their relativity, inconsistencies, and how they were designed to serve the interests of the rulers instead of a greater public good. Consider this striking dialogue by Pascal:

“Why are you killing me for your own benefit? I am unarmed.”

“Why, do you not live on the other side of the water? My friend, if you lived on this side, I should be a murderer, but since you live on the other side, I am a brave man and it is right.”

“…Larceny, incest, infanticide, parricide, everything has at some time been accounted a virtuous action. Could there be anything more absurd than that a man has the right to kill me because he lives on the other side of the water, and his prince has picked a quarrel with mine, though I have none with him?”

Rather than pin blame on a specific political theory, Pascal targeted political philosophy itself as the source of disobedience, resistance, and revolution. The very process of philosophic inquiry, which probes the moral foundation of political authority and allegiance, will reveal that no such moral foundation exists. Political philosophy thereby becomes the “art of subversion, of revolution.”

In seeking a justification for political power, philosophers demanded that we inquire into the origin of governments. Pascal had no doubt that governments began in violence and plunder, so it was extremely dangerous to encourage this kind of investigation.

There is no surer way to lose everything; nothing will be just if weighed in these scales. Yet the people readily listen to such arguments, they throw off the yoke as soon as they recognize it, and the great take the opportunity of ruining them and those whose curiosity makes them examine received customs. That is why the wisest of legislators used to say that men must often be deceived for their own good, and another sound politician: When he asks about the truth that is to bring him freedom, it is a good thing that he should be deceived. The truth about the usurpation [in the founding of governments] must not be made apparent; it came about originally without reason and has become reasonable. We must see that it is regarded as authentic and eternal, and its origins must be hidden if we do not want it soon to end.

The essence of Pascal’s argument—that to inquire into the origin of governments will undermine the legitimacy of all governments, past and present—would later be repeated by critics of Lockean consent theory, most notably David Hume.

This is part of a series