The Great Conversation:
Authority—Part IV

By Gabriel Blanchard

Having discussed power in the spheres of religion and the individual conscience, we now come to the public sphere of civics.

This post is Part III of a series: you can find Part I here and Part II here.

St. Thomas Aquinas* defines a law as “an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by one who has care of the whole community, and promulgated.” This is more or less the standard ancient and medieval idea of law, and, correspondingly, its rationale for civic authority: “the care of the whole community,” “for the common good.” Note, too that it must be promulgated—it would obviously be unfair to punish someone for breaking a law nobody knew about. While we must allow that the medievals were often wrong about matters of fact, it is worth noting that in terms of temperament, they were quite rationalistic.

Contrary to widespread belief, the theory of the divine right of kings was not especially popular during the Middle Ages; despite their predilection for monarchy, those who thought about the question at all were just as likely, if not more so, to argue that monarchy was a preferable form of government on grounds of ancient custom without special divine sanction attached. Some even argued for monarchy on strictly practical grounds: it is easier for one person to coordinate deliberate efforts toward a single goal than it is to put every individual step of the process to a vote. (As Chesterton put it, “If the house has caught fire a man must ring up the fire engines; a committee cannot ring them up.”) All the same, there were republics in medieval Europe too. Florence is perhaps the most famous example—the thirteenth-century party politics of that city remain a vital background to works as influential as the Divine Comedy. Nor were monarchies as uniform as we tend to imagine them: for example, the Holy Roman Emperors and the Kings of Poland were elected, not hereditary, monarchs (a system which is still in use today in a few parts of Asia and, of course, the Vatican).

In either case, law and government were conceived of principally as rational solutions to the question How are we to live in harmony as a community?, and to disobey authority was thus as much irrational as rebellious. It is partly for this reason that, while the medievals certainly appreciated tragedy and long odds and so forth as much as anybody else does, and furthermore experienced uprisings like every other period of history, there is little of the romance of revolt in their literature. Not until the, well, Romantics (especially William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley) do we get clear sympathy with the “Promethean”** figure who defies his superiors. This is also why modern readers are so apt to think that Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost is the hero of the piece—some of the exact same traits that made Satan loathsome to a seventeenth-century audience endear him to a twenty-first century one.†

All this is in part because, from the second or third century right down until the eighteenth, there was a vague but general consensus in European cultures that reality was hierarchical (a consensus deriving, logically and historically, from Neoplatonism). Besides any other value or importance something might have, every individual thing had some natural superior it needed to obey, and some natural inferior it needed to rule. Far from sounding tyrannical to our ancestors, this seemed to them a strong defense against tyranny: the tiered order of the “great chain of being” (a favorite theme of the Elizabethans) meant that might was not allowed to triumph over right, at least not permanently. Without that tiered order, they believed, brute force would indeed rule the world. Disobedience to one’s natural superiors introduced chaos and injustice into the world; moreover, failure to rule one’s natural inferiors was a kind of irresponsible cruelty, because it deprived them of the guidance and protection they needed.

This worldview had another consequence as well. According to most medieval jurisprudence, the justice of any given society’s political system depended not upon a list of rights to which people were (or weren’t) entitled, but upon whom the people in the society were—their appropriate “rank” in the great chain of being. This was determined principally by character and intelligence (in theory, anyway!). If you had a society in which everyone was equal, or as near equal as made no difference, then a monarchical form could actually be unjust: after all, if hierarchy is to be taken seriously, it’s bad to be servile to people who in reality are your equals, and also bad to try and usurp power over said equals. A society where everybody was equal, according to Aristotle, ought to be ruled democratically (i.e., almost every political office should be filled by lottery). On the other hand, a society in which the people were not equal had no business instituting an egalitarianism of legal fiction; the “betters” had no right to shirk their responsibilities. To be a king and rule with cruelty was a sin against one’s neighbor, as in its own way it was for an underling to be a fawning flatterer. But the rebel and the roi fainéant, the snob and the sniveler, were all alike sinners not only against their neighbor, but against the right order of things.

If the government becomes a law-breaker, it breeds contempt for the law. It invites every man to become a law unto himself. It invites anarchy.

This is a favorite theme of Dante’s, not only in the Comedy but in his political treatise De Monarchia. He here argued—strange though it may sound to modern ears—for a robust separation between the Church and the state, and even for the dissolution of the Papal States. That is, this was part of its argument. His central thesis was that just as there is one human race there ought to be one state, namely the Roman Empire, whose ideal of the rule of law was of divine origin, independently of the Church. The embodiment of law in the emperor was in Dante’s view a prerequisite for world peace, since there can be no worldwide conciliation of disputes unless there is a judge with both competence and final say-so over the whole globe.

Dante’s peculiar brand of sacral imperialism was not a roaring success. The Renaissance was rapping at the door, with “national consciousness” in its train; over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the idea of the nation-state took shape—that is, the idea that ethnicities (nationes in Latin) should each have their own highest secular authority in a defined geographical area, within which none could gainsay them. 

Hot on the heels of the nation-state came the doctrine of classical Liberalism, which declared “these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. (We need not linger over the fact that there were, and still are, people who don’t find these truths self-evident at all: Jefferson’s argument was not necessarily that everybody does in fact intuit these things, but that they are known by means of intuition to be true—either you see it or you don’t, so to speak.)‡ In any case, one of the seminal doctrines of classical Liberalism was that the legitimacy of the state’s authority rested not on venerable tradition, nor on the divine right of kings or anybody else, but simply and directly upon the consent of the governed. This concept of sovereignty has never been wholly absent from the Western tradition—the slogan vox populi vox Dei (“the voice of the people is the voice of God”) is, well, old enough that it’s generally cited in Latin. But Liberalism exalted it, and within “the people” exalted the importance of the individual, a great deal more than any previous political thesis had done.

Whatever rationale is accepted for it, however, state authority is accepted by nearly everyone on earth. This has a very good and very simple reason, best put by the late C. Northcote Parkinson: “A verdict (whether right or wrong) is better than a ceaseless quarrel.” Ironically, this expresses a value system almost opposite to that of the next type of authority we have to consider …

Part V to come!

Suggested reading:
Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War
Aristotle, Politics
Eusebius of Cæsarea, Life of Constantine
Magna Carta
Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract
George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia
C. Northcote Parkinson, The Evolution of Political Thought

*All practicing Catholics are required by law to bring up St. Thomas Aquinas at least weekly.
**Prometheus was a titan who drew the anger of Zeus for many reasons, but above all for giving humanity fire. One of Æschylus’ handful of surviving plays, Prometheus Bound, is about the titan’s punishment for his revolt against Zeus as an embodiment of cosmic order.
†This is by no means as simple as “sixteenth century good, twenty-first century bad,” though sadly we have no space to flesh the problem out here. I recommend C. S. Lewis’s incomparable Preface to “Paradise Lost” to anyone who wishes to explore the specific topic of Milton further.
‡This works in much the same way that we intuitively see that two and two make four, or that we should treat others as we wish to be treated. On rare occasions, we do meet people with some sort of problem that prevents them from recognizing some truths as obvious, such as a learning disability or a severe personality disorder. But, for that precise reason, you’re probably not going to be able to prove to them why these things are true.


Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor at large, and lives in Baltimore, MD.

If you enjoyed this piece, you might also like our podcast, Anchored. Further posts from our series on the great ideas can be found peppered throughout the archives of the Journal—or go here for a more topical shortcut! Thank you for reading, and have a pleasant weekend.

Published on 1st June, 2023. Page image of The Coronation of Napoleon (1807) by Jacques-Louis David, here depicting Napoleon, himself already crowned, crowning his wife Josephine as empress.

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