May 11, 2010

Augustine, the Pirate and Alexander

I said Augustine compared Kings and Emperors to robbers in my last post, this was a mistake. Augustine doesn't describe Kings alone as robbers, but states as bands of robbers. Consider what he writes,

Justice removed, then, what are kingdoms but great bands of robbers? What are bands of robbers themselves but little Kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is governed by the authority of a ruler; it is bound together by a pact of association; and the loot is divided according to an agreed law. If, by the constant addition of desperate men, this scourge grows to such a size that it acquires a territory, establishes a seat of government, occupies cities and subjugates peoples, it assumes the name of kingdom more openly. For this name is now manifestly conferred upon it not by the removal of greed, but by the addition of impunity. It was a pertinant and true answer which was made to Alexander the Great by a pirate whom he had seized. When the King asked him what he meant by infesting the sea, the pirate defiantly replied 'The same as you do when you infest the whole world; but because I do it with a ship I am called a robber, and because you do it with a great fleet you are an emperor (IV 4)

Augustine's words there have been miscaracterised by many, including me, because of the last Alexander anecdote, that appears to focus Augustine's scorn upon the King, the greatest robber. But to do that is to neglect the earlier part of the passage where Augustine compares the kingdom, the nation itself, with a band of robbers. What binds it together are the same things which bind them together, a rule of government, distribution and a desire for increased wealth (desire is the keynote to any association as we shall see in Augustine). Nations therefore not just their leaders are condemned by Augustine. In part this is an ironic slight on Rome itself: she owed her origins in part, according to myth, to those scoundrels that Romulus was able to bring with him to the site. In part though it is a serious point: for Augustine there is no difference between a nation and a gang of theives. He thinks that 'England', 'France', 'Scotland', 'Zimbabwe', 'America' the mafia and the Triads are all bodies of the same type. Both may control territory, both may administer their version of justice (according to Aristotle distribution) and both may want to enforce their wills on others, both may beleive they are right: for the author of the City of God, the key difference between criminals and citizens is not virtue but the scale of that which they are committed to and the recognition that attaches itself to them. States are recognised and large: gangs only recognised by other small units, other gangs and are small.

Only the denizens of the City of God belong to an association which is not by its very nature vicious! Augustine points the finger not at Alexander but at all those who accompanied and supported Alexander.

May 10, 2010

St Augustine the Classicist

The City of God is an attack on the whole of Roman history and the whole of classical civilisation: and yet the more you read it, the more it appears written from that civilisation rather than against it. Take for example Augustine's attack on the Roman Empire in Book 4. Augustine famously compares Rome to a band of robbers, what is a state or an empire he asks accept for a band of succcesful robbers. He also, less famously makes another analogy that any reader of Aristotle would immediatly find helpful. He asks about the happiness of the Romans: 'is it wise or prudent to wish to glory in the breadth and magnitude of an empire, when you cannot show that the men whose empire it is are happy' (IV 3). Augustine illustrates that argument by reducing it to the personal level, asking his readers to neglect the vainer baubles of political authority and concentrate instead on happiness itself.

He asks us to imagine two men. One of whom is wealthy, but 'troubled by fears, he pines with grief; he burns with greed. He is never secure, he is always unquiet and panting from endless confrontations with his enemies. To be sure he adds to his patrimony in immense measure by these miseries; but alongside those additions he also heaps up the most bitter cares. By contrast the man of modest means is self sufficient on his small and circumscribed estate. He is beloved of his own family and rejoinces in the most sweet peace with his kindred, neighbours and friends. He is devoutly religious, well disposed in mind, healthy in body, frugal in life, chaste in morals and untroubled in conscience. I do not know of anyone could be such a fool as to dare to doubt which to prefer' (IV 3). Augustine here is making an important point: it still holds true for many today (amongst the reasons Gracchi isn't a corporate lawyer, investment banker or dare I say it this week, politician is that I don't fancy the privilege of greatness) but it is profoundly classical. It is the ideal of otium, leisure, and it is the idealisation of the mean- of private virtue.

Of course there were other traditions in the classical world that lauded public engagement- but Augustine confronts and attacks those. We should not see him neccessarily as a partisan against the classical world but as a partisan within it. Much early Epicurean philosophy at its base sounds like Augustine. Augustine of course gives this an other worldly spin, indeed the whole of the City of God is about the futility of life on earth, the futility of this dream of moderation, but it is still there in Augustine. Even in the City of God, there is this remnant of a classical view. It should not neccessarily surprise us: Augustine was a classicist as well as a Christian polemecist, during my most recent reading of City of God I've counted quotations by Sallust, Cicero, Livy, Seneca and of course Varro amongst others. It would be amazing if this did not touch Augustine: in this case his arguments against earthly happiness are discarded in favour of rebuking one type of conquering happiness with another quieter happiness. Augustine in the end does oppose the entire pagan world and all the classical philosophers, but he also speaks their language and his attacks reflect their influence.

May 09, 2010

Review: The Hebrew Republic

Republican exclusivism [the belief the only legitimate government was a republic], [economic] redistribution and toleration have all been defended on different grounds in the intervening centuries: but in the beggining, all were authorised by the divine will made manifest in the constitution of the Hebrew Republic. (Nelson 139)
Eric Nelson's recent book is a shot across the bows of almost everyone who studies the seventeenth century or who thinks seriously about politics. The first shot is to the presumptions of historians. We all know or think we know that the roots of seventeenth century Republicanism lay in Rome. In particular English thinkers are said to have concentrated their thinking upon Rome as interpreted by Machiavelli and as discussed in Cicero. Nelson suggests we are wrong. He suggests that there was a second less scholastic republicanism which opened up around the Bible. Here comes the second shot. He suggests that that second Republicanism advocated religious toleration, economic equality and the principle that Republics were the best and only good form of government: all of this he traces to the discussion of particular biblical passages in early modern Hebrew and then English writing. For the historians the shock is the creation of a new republican tradition, for everyone else the suggestion that the origins of the left lie in Biblical fundementalism.

Let us take each of the three themes that Nelson identifies. What in particular did he say that early modern thinkers were doing with the Bible. What are the texts that they drew upon? His three themes are separate and relate to three different passages within the Hebrew Bible, what brought them together was that their discovery by the Republicans followed from a particular method of scholarship. Firstly Republicans argued that republicanism was the only good system. Aristotle and most classical writers had suggested that any system might be good. It was from scripture though that the republicans learnt that the monarchy of Saul had been rejected: the choice for Isreal had been between a monarchy of God or a monarchy of men and they had chosen the latter. For a thinker like John Cook, Lord President of Munster under Cromwell, this demonstrated that monarchy was an evil and pernicious system: it was cursed as Samuel had told the Jews. If the republic of the Jews was a republic founded by God, they argued that it must have had nigh on perfect laws. Christ had dispensed with some of those laws- ceremonial laws to do with the Sabbath but had said nothing about the other laws. The Republicans adopted from the Jewish Republic the Mosaic law of property: this stated that the land of Israel was divided by tribe into equal lots and at the end of the fiftieth year, each tribe and each man had returned to him his lot. Inequality could never be perpetual. Indeed as Nelson points out it is crucial in this context that ancient Hebrew has one word for the concepts of Justice and charity! Lastly they found in scripture a justification for toleration as well: based upon the postulate that in the Bible the authority to bind men religiously is given to the civil power rather than the church. Teachings could be repressed if they threatened the stability of the state but not if they threatened the queasy stomach of a cleric.

These are radical doctrines to derive from the Old Testament. Nelson suggests that they arose at this point in time because of the growing awareness in Christian debate of Jewish thought concerning these matters. He attempts to suggest, not merely that biblical ideas were crucial in the development of early modern thought, but also that they were crucial as transmitted by a Jewish and Talmudic tradition into that thought. So for example he shows how the details of the treatment of the landlaw in early modern Europe came in part from the interpretation of the great Jewish scholar Maimonides. Equally in interpreting the passages in Samuel when Israel asked for a King, European scholars turned to Jewish sources: in the controversy between Milton and Salamasius about whether the English could and should execute their King and inaugurate a republic, both glossed the comments of Rabbi Yose and referred directly to a debate in the Talmud. Milton and Salamasius mention a Rabbi Jose, but it is clear who they mean. Harrington when discussing toleration mentions 'a tradition with the Rabbins' about who should control religious life and justifies through it the imposition only of universal, not particular religious obligations. Nelson produces several other examples of major thinkers quoting and considering the work of the Rabbis in elucidating passages from the Hebrew Bible.

The scholarly dust will take a while to settle on this thesis. To say it is provocative is to say the straightforward. There are some obvious strengths to the argument and there are some obvious weaknesses. The first strength is that Nelson is definitely right. Early modern thinking revolved around the Bible. Whether you are thinking about John Selden, Hugo Grotius or even Thomas Hobbes, they all published long pieces (particularly the first two) about what the Old Testament meant for modern Europe. Early modern Protestants in particular really did see Isreal as a model. They thought that Isreali law could be brought in tout court: hence the suggestion in 1653 that England might, at a moment of constitutional crisis, be governed by a Sanhedrin The eyes of historians tend to glaze over when confronted with a 500 page treatise on the resemblance of a true church to a garden, using gospel analogies, but those treatises were read. The weakness of the argument lies in the fact that this was always an elite discourse; very few of the early modern thinkers could read Hebrew, very few knew of these debates, what Nelson is studying is something that lay at the far end of discussion: the equivalent of the meetings of MIT's quantum physicists! Perhaps more disturbing is that Nelson still thinks in a constitutional mode: my own work on seventeenth century English protestants, and Jonathan Scott's (more importantly as he is a published Professor) suggests the importance of the spirit and providence as against constitutions. The insight goes back to John Pocock but sees the Christian caught up in time, making decisions about salvation, rather than designing a perfection that could only be reached when Christ arrived. Thomas Harrison warned the Whitehall debates in 1648 that England could not anticipate the only truly virtuous rule of God: Oliver Cromwell told the army that constitutions were but 'as dross and dung' compared to Christ. Others may criticise as well, particularly on Nelson's treatment of the big authors- I am not qualified to do so.

Having said that, I welcome this book. It is a slim volume and it is provocative and it will shake up the study of the century. It is important as it suggests some of the radical potential embodied in Christianity and some of the Christian roots of radicalism. There is a fond idea around that Christianity has had nothing to do with the story of democracy, socialism or toleration in the West, that idea is absolutely false. Another story we need to add to our account of the seventeenth century is the story of the influence of Biblical models on radical thought or republican thought, whether elite or not.