The Watershed of Modern Politics: Law, Virtue, Kingship, and Consent (1300-1650)
by Francis Oakley
Yale University Press, 440 pages, $85
In an average college course, the history of Western political theory typically follows a simple plot: A flowering of secular, republican rationality in Ancient Athens and Republican Rome foundered on a combination of Imperial overstretch and civil war. This heritage was resurrected during an Italian Renaissance in which the secular/autonomous individual flowered once more, nothing much of consequence having occurred in the intervening centuries. Machiavellian amoralism begat Hobbes’s secularized absolutism, and then (all rise, queue Hallelujah Chorus) we got Enlightenment Reason, in which we rest easy, the self-evident good of the secular liberal state being the only teleology presently tolerable in polite society.
Enter the final volume of Francis Oakley’s The Emergence of Western Political Thought in the Latin Middle Ages, which concludes the author’s overall case that “sacral kingship” has been political theory and practice for most of humanity, most of the time. When the principle of sacral kingship did finally collapse in the West, Christian thinkers from late Imperial Rome to James I's England were largely responsible. On Oakley’s account, the vision of politics as integral to the redemptive order had never sat well with Christianity, and so Oakley maintains, with Hobbes, that Christianity was the “new wine” destined to break the “old empty bottles of Gentilism.” In 1649, Oakley concludes, these incrementally weakened bottles finally shattered, implicating Christianity itself in the creation of a modern era of political distinction between sacred and profane.
Oakley arrives at this broad-gauge conclusion as follows: Looming large in volume one are Eusebius and Augustine. The former he casts as the foremost architect of the Christian accommodation with the ancient “political commonsense” of sacral kingship, where kings—in everything from Babylonian fertility rites to sacred kings in the Hellenistic era—played an essential part in the popular sense of sacred order. Eusebius’s signal accommodation was to make the argument that Rome and Rome’s rulers provided a providential context in which Christianity could spread, and so in Eusebius, the priest-king motif survived.
Moving beyond his early Eusebian sympathies, Augustine provided the counterweight in The City of God, arguing that the heavenly City is, well, Heavenly, and rejecting the view that earthly rulers have a positive and divinely appointed role to play in the order of salvation. Politics is punishment, for Oakley’s Augustine. In his writings against the Donatists, however, Augustine suspended his skepticism that the state had any active role to play in the drama of redemption, arguing instead that the authorities might usefully intervene to put down heresy. This argument was pivotal for early Medieval political thought, Oakley contends, since The City of God was almost always read through an anti-Donatist lens. This resulted in a “political Augustianism,” where the existing, institutional church could be seen as the “City of God.” Hence, Christian writers such as Gregory the Great were free to think within the Eusebian framework, having co-opted Augustine to that purpose.
Volume two covers the 11th-13th centuries. On Oakley’s account, this period saw the first real cracks in Hobbes’s “old bottles” of sacral kingship, with the onset of the Gregorian reforms and the Investiture Controversy. The understandable desire to create more definitional space between sacred and profane rulership had at least two key results. First, it created a space for casting temporal rule in a more secular fashion. Second, and central to volume three, it led to what Oakley terms “high papalist” theory, which in turn played its part in generating the Conciliar movement of the late 14th and early 15th centuries. Emerging as a response to the Schism, at Constance (1414-1418) and Basel (1431-1449) conciliar theorists elaborated various theories of government by consent, particularly as to when an illegitimate and/or heretical pope might be rightfully deposed. While the theorists of papal monarchy eventually had their way, the body of theory developed by both sides of the conflict then leached into the subsoil (Oakley is fond of such metaphors) of temporal political theorizing. This is where some of Oakley’s most interesting analysis can be found, as for example, in his analysis of William Barclay’s Concerning Kingship and the Royal Power (1600), whose logic leads clear back to Hostiensis, the 13th century canonist. Likewise, Oakley identifies influential Huguenot commentators who, inspired by the conciliar movement, argued forthrightly that if a council could rightfully depose a pope, then a representative body could depose a secular tyrant.
Any project as sweepingly ambitious as this will undoubtedly be subject to criticism on this or that academic point. (I myself wondered at the virtual absence of the Thirty Years’ War, in a work ending its history of political theory in 1650). That said, Oakley’s work is a refreshing antidote to the tendency of historians to know more and more about less and less. So, given the scope of the work’s ambition and achievement, I offer, rather, a few suggestions as to what readers of First Things might take from the series in general and the conclusions of the final volume in particular:
First, Oakley’s argument makes the Ancient-Medieval-Modern paradigm deeply problematic. If the roots of post-1650 Western political theory lie in an uneasy and ultimately unsustainable melding of archaic political theory with Christianity, then the usual historiographical hop from Athens to Machiavelli’s Florence to “Hobbes-Locke-and-Rousseau” just won’t do. (Not that it ever has, really). And, for better or for worse, religion—not some periodic ex nihilo secularism—is implicated in this story from beginning to end.
Second, Oakley offers a reworked secularization thesis that is worthy of attention. While rightly rejecting the “decline” of religion as a necessary adjunct of modernity, Oakley argues that the “defensible core” of secularization theory lies in a “differentiation” between sacred and secular realms in political thinking. If we understand “the process whereby the political came to be (at least partly) desacralized and comprehended no longer as something pertaining to the order of redemption,” we may acknowledge that the sacred and the profane are more sharply differentiated than in previous centuries, without conceding the field to the generals of secularism regnant.
A final claim that ought to prompt reflection is Oakley’s attempt “to make the case that that process of desacralization was itself religiously driven.” Happily for First Things’ Christian readers, Oakley’s case is nicely ecumenical: radical 16th century reformers and theorists of Papal power alike were responsible for the ultimate ejection of the sacred from modern political theory. As present-day Christians ponder their relationship with the state, we would do well to grapple with Oakley’s contention that the logics of our own tradition helped create the political theory and practice with which we find ourselves increasingly at odds. Perhaps Oakley’s work enables us to see that, from the vantage point of the end of Christendom, we now stand to return to a more natural—if not more comfortable—state of affairs.
Aaron Weinacht is Associate Professor of History at the University of Montana Western.