Freedom's Progress?: A History of Political Thought, by Gerard Casey
…compared with the statist, pillaging, slave-based and tax-burdened nightmare that was fifth-century Rome, ‘the world of the so-called barbarians was free and enlightened,’ with superior economic and personal freedoms.
Casey offers an examination of the European Middle Ages. To summarize my view of this period: the European Middle Ages – at least for those regions influenced by the combination of the Germanic and the Christian – offered the most libertarian law and decentralized society that I have found in history.
There is much in Casey’s treatment of this period that will be familiar to those of you who have been here awhile.
The Unfree World
Casey offers that the empire did not fall because of unstoppable barbarian hordes (“The numbers of barbarians were always small”); it fell due to its internal corruption and contradictions, it fell because its citizens emigrated to the freer barbarian lands.
The late Roman Empire was, according to Lucien Musset, a ‘totalitarian state, which was almost constantly in a state of siege, using savage means in its attempt to ensure the survival of a limited ruling class made up of learned senators and uncouth military officers.’ It was, he says, ‘A regime of appalling social inequality, a political organization which for the previous two centuries had been based on constraint and suspicion, biased courts and laws of an absurd and ever-increasing savagery….’
Next time you need a quick reference to the similarities of the fall of Rome and the fall of the current global hegemon (well, except for the “learned senators” part), come back here.
The Rise of Freedom
Until the rise of Islam, Western Civilization continued centered in the Mediterranean; with Islam in the south, the Vikings in the north, and the Magyars and Slavs to the east, the center of Western Civilization moved to the center of the continent, and land came to be the source of political power and wealth.
What followed was a civilization built on Roman, Germanic, and Christian traditions. The “barbarians” were indispensable to creating and developing this “Western aristocratic-libertarian spirit.” What held these decentralized societies together – ultimately uniting them all – was the acceptance of Christianity and the authority of the Church.
The secular and the spiritual. It is in the dynamic relationship of the two where the defining elements of the liberty of the time would be formed. According to Carlyle, “The king is subject to the bishop in spiritual matters, the bishop to the king in temporal matters.” The working out of and working through this relationship (with regular conflict, tension, and testing of bounds) was to be a constant theme for one-thousand years.
This duality of centres of authority, of allegiance, is central to any understanding of Western thought. Neither the spiritual power nor the secular power could command the total allegiance of any person and the space created by the tension between the two authorities was the breeding ground for liberty.
St. Paul offered in Romans that the law was written in men’s hearts. Was this idea taken from the Jews or the Greeks? Casey responds: “Who can say?” In any case, it was through the Church that this “natural law” was integrated into the custom of the time.
St. Hilary goes so far as to give an idea of the content of this law. It includes forbidding a man to injure his fellows, to take from them what is theirs, and to engage in fraud. All these are actions that a libertarian would recognise as falling under the zero-aggression principle.
The individual was found during this time – not later than the twelfth century; it did not take the Renaissance to discover the value of the individual. But it was an individual grounded in a culture and tradition through which he could work out his freedom.
Corporations were formed, not via permission from any “state,” but voluntarily and privately formed organizations – formed to advance a common goal, any common goal. Such corporations could place requirements for membership and enforce rules on its members.
Casey examines four medieval institutions: two concrete, and two somewhat abstract: the University, the City, feudalism, and Law and Kingship.
By 1400, there was something more than 50 universities in Europe, teaching law, medicine and theology. Models were provided by Bologna, Paris and Oxford. These were international institutions, drawing students from all across Europe and beyond, all teaching in a common language – Latin.
Aristotle received an expanded audience – at the same time a threat to the Church yet ultimately assimilated by its brightest thinkers. Unlike Judaism and Islam, which offered divinely revealed laws to live by (thereby not distinguishing between secular and religious authorities), Christianity brought a set of fundamental beliefs while allowing its followers to organize politically outside of religion (leaving room for the bishop and the king, therefore leaving space for freedom to flourish).
The Free City
The city, an organization often formed by merchants, offered a further form of decentralized governance – apart from the noble. These were self-governing entities, not based on land but based on a money economy. Such associations were formed by and its members bound by oath. Many cities gained immunities in exchange for loyalty – hence, “free cities.”
An example is given of such a free city: Freiburg im Breisgau, located in the southwestern corner of Germany. A free-market town, founded in 1120, it sits at “a junction of trade routes between the Mediterranean Sea and the North Sea regions, and the Rhine and Danube rivers.”
Living in a city came with privileges, but also obligations; one could not expect to benefit from the advantages of the immunities without also contributing – for example, to the city’s defenses. It seems that reciprocity among equals is expected if one is to achieve some level of freedom.
Of course, the birth of the city also began the breakdown of the family as a functionally important governance unit. The advantages of this to a man’s freedom are obvious; the costs to liberty in the long run would not be known for some time.
Feudalism, the oft-abused and misunderstood term, cannot be understood unless one first grasps the radical decentralization of the time. If a man did not have to power to defend himself, he would offer service to one who could provide for his defense. The obligations flowed both ways – the serf was by no means a slave, nor was a he a “subject.” Further, the serf was not bound to the lord’s lord. Each was bound only to whom he bound himself.
It was in this relationship that one can find the anarchical governance structure: the serf and the lord were bound to each other by oath. The oath was more than a contract – consider it a covenant, with God as a third party and witness. The covenant called for loyalty, even in hard times; it may even require self-sacrifice.
It was not subordination that men feared – feudal society was a hierarchical society, complete with accepted status-based relationships; instead, what men feared was arbitrary power and control. The idea of mere freedom – not only free of arbitrary control but also free from all hierarchical and status-based relationships – was “colourless, almost meaningless.”
And not workable.
Kings and Law
Breaking from Augustine’s view, the period was marked by an understanding that unjust rule was no rule at all. The king, like all men, was subject to the law.
Kings became king partly by election, often to include a kinship or heredity basis; election was based on mutual promises and oaths. If the king did not keep up his end of the bargain, the nobles were free from any obligation to obey. Unlike prior Roman and later European rulers, such power granted to medieval kings was conditional and revocable – not permanent.
The law was not written; it was custom. It was tied to the tribe (therefore, the individual) and not to the land. Law was not “legislated”; it was to be found in tradition. It was not to be commanded, only enforced. Only in the thirteenth century is there the first glimpse of law being “made.” Customary law could change, but slowly and based on the lived experiences of the people: the people’s customs and traditions formed the law; as actions became tradition, law was formed.
For the first portion of this period, from the fall of Rome until perhaps the tenth century, the region is governed first by the Merovingian “do-nothing” kings, followed by Charlemagne’s brutal forming of empire, followed then by the fall of Charlemagne’s empire and subsequent political decentralization.
But it was in the period from about 1050 to 1350 that the region formed what can be described as an undifferentiated cultural unit. In addition to the Church, monasteries, cathedral schools, and universities helped to bind together the civilization.
Europe was comprised of perhaps 100 ethnic, linguistic and quasi-political groups – each keeping their own unique identity while respecting the unique identities of the others. This “undifferentiated cultural unit” was bound together not by force or by a centralized bureaucracy, but by the shared values found in the Germanic and the Christian.
Wars and conflict? Sure, but small and local; involving the aggrieved and not the masses. It took the first movers toward monarchy – France and England – to create something as horrendous as the 100 Years’ War.