Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The REAL Dismal Science, III: The Philosophers of the Absolutist State


In the previous posting we mentioned that Walter Bagehot, whose economic theories were a strong influence on John Maynard Keynes (whose own theories have pretty much wrecked the global economy), wrote favorably of the political theories of the totalitarian philosopher Thomas Hobbes.

Hobbes is probably remembered as a proponent of a discredited political theory called the “divine right of kings.”  This is the theory that God somehow directly vests the State in the person of the ruler with the right to rule.  This makes disobedience to the State the same as disobedience to God, making the State (in Hobbes’s terminology and creative spelling) a “Mortall God.”

Divine right theory is the basis for the modern Totalitarian State.  All good comes from the State, and there is no recourse against its judgments or actions; anything coming from the State or done by the State is by definition “good.”

Hobbes did not, however, invent divine right, nor did he manage to stir up the controversies in the way as did an earlier proponent, Sir Robert Filmer, chief theologian of James VI/I Stuart of Scotland/England.  (It wasn’t the “United Kingdom” until later, making numbering without offending someone or being confusing difficult.)

It was Filmer’s work, not Hobbes’s, that called forth the work in political science of John Locke and Algernon Sidney.  Both Locke and Sidney were strong influences on America’s Founding Fathers, although authorities are divided as to which was the greater influence.  The strongest influence on Locke and Sidney, however, was a Vatican curial official from an obscure mountain town in Italy, Montepulciano, Robert Cardinal Bellarmine.

According to Bellarmine, building on the work of Aquinas and other Scholastic philosophers, God does not grant a special power of rule to anyone.  Rather, rights are inherent in each person by nature.  People make a revocable grant of power to government, which legitimately governs only with their consent.  This so irritated Filmer that he opened his posthumous work Patriarcha, or, The Natural Power of Kings, with a blast at all those democratic “Papists”:

“1. SINCE the time that school divinity began to flourish there hath been a common opinion maintained, as well by divines as by divers other learned men, which affirms:

“ ‘Mankind is naturally endowed and born with freedom from all subjection, and at liberty to choose what form of government it please, and that the power which any one man hath over others was at first bestowed according to the discretion of the multitude.’

“This tenet was first hatched in the schools, and hath been fostered by all succeeding Papists for good divinity.”

Bellarmine’s learning was so wide and deep and his output so scholarly that some of his opponents claimed that “Bellarmine” was actually a pseudonym for a group of scholars working day and night against the political and religious philosophies of the Reformation.  Today’s opposition, fully aware that all this work came from a rather diminutive and frail individual, take another tack.  They assert that Bellarmine, who intervened in the first trial of Galileo (there were two) on Galileo’s side, getting him off with a warning, was actually instrumental in Galileo’s condemnation at his second trial . . . years after Bellarmine’s death. . . .

In any event, by the 18th century, it appeared as if Locke, Sidney, and others had put period to divine right as a viable political theory.  The conflict between Catholic and Protestant also became less acrimonious.  This made Bellarmine’s work seem to be an interesting relict of a less-enlightened age, something of interest, perhaps, to scholars, but no one else.

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