Liberty Matters

Why Only in the West?

My good friend George Smith is, in all likelihood, the premier scholar of freethought of the present day, besides being an excellent historian of modern political thought in general.  His new book will doubtless be an important contribution to the history and philosophy of classical liberalism.
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I wonder, though, whether George has ever considered why liberalism and the idea of freedom originated in the West and not in other great civilizations, such as China, India, and Islam.  Ludwig von Mises noted the fact that liberalism is quintessentially Western, but, again, did not explain why. In fact, in Europe even classical antiquity lacked the idea of individual freedom. For the Greeks, the polis was the center of their existence. The Romans worshipped their city; Roma was a goddess, with temples and priests to serve her.
What made the difference in the West was the introduction of a powerful new factor: Christianity.
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Christian contributions include the mitigation of slavery and a greater equality between parents within the family. But the crucial political impact of Christianity emerged with the critique of state-worship of the early Church Fathers, particularly St. Augustine, who contrasted the City of God to the City of Man, giving unquestionable priority to the first.  Karl Ferdinand Werner, in (Baechler, Hall, and Mann, eds. Europe and the Rise of Capitalism, 1988) pointed out that St. Augustine and other Christian writers had desacralized the state and thus radically altered the conception prevalent in Greco-Roman antiquity.
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In my view, a reliable guide to the history of liberty is Lord Acton. In his great essays, "The History of Freedom in Antiquityhe History of Freedom in Christianity," and “T” Acton traced the dichotomy that made liberty possible to the words of Jesus Himself:
When Christ said: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,” those words, spoken on His last visit to the Temple, three days before His death, gave to the civil power, under the protection of conscience, a sacredness it had never enjoyed, and bounds it had never acknowledged; and they were the repudiation of absolutism and the inauguration of freedom. [From "The History of Freedom in Antiquity".]
A Roman Catholic, Acton explains how Jesus provided, in addition to the idea, the practical means for its achievement:
For our Lord not only delivered the precept, but created the force to execute it. To maintain the necessary immunity in one supreme sphere, to reduce all political authority within defined limits, ceased to be an aspiration of patient reasoners, and was made the perpetual charge and care of the most energetic institution and the most universal association in the world. The new law, the new spirit, the new authority, gave to liberty a meaning and a value it had not possessed in the philosophy or in the constitution of Greece or Rome before the knowledge of the truth that makes us free. [From "The History of Freedom in Antiquity".]
Acton records the results of the medieval struggle between the Catholic Church and the state:
To that conflict of four hundred years we owe the rise of civil liberty…. [A]lthough liberty was not the end for which they strove, it was the means by which the temporal and the spiritual power called the nations to their aid. The towns of Italy and Germany won their franchises, France got her States-General, and England her Parliament out of the alternate phases of the contest; and as long as it lasted it prevented the rise of divine right. [From "The History of Freedom in Christianity."]
In recent years, Acton’s conclusions have come to be supported by a large body of scholarship.  Harold J. Berman, in his essay, “The Influence of Christianity on the Development of Western Law” (1974) and his work, Law and Revolution: The Transformation of the Western Legal Tradition (1983),has stressed that with the fall of Rome and the eventual conversion of the Germans, Slavs, Magyars, and other peoples, Christian ideas and values suffused the whole blossoming culture of Europe. Importantly, such Christian ideas included the concept of natural law, including the legitimacy of resistance to unjust rulers.
Berman, like Acton, focuses attention on a critical development that began in the 11th century: the creation by Pope Gregory VII and his successors of a “corporate, hierarchical church … independent of emperors, kings, and feudal lords,” [p. 56] and thus capable of foiling the power-seeking of temporal authority. In this way, he bolsters Acton’s analysis of the central role of the Catholic church in generating Western liberty by forestalling any concentration of power in the secular rulers such as marked the other great cultures.
Berman’s work is in the tradition of the learned English scholar, A. J. Carlyle, who, at the conclusion of his six-volume study of political thought in the Middle Ages, A History of Medieval Political Theory: Political Theory from 1300 to 1600 (1950), summarized the basic principles of medieval politics: that all--including the king--are bound by law; that a lawless ruler is not a legitimate king, but a tyrant; that where there is no justice there is no commonwealth; and that a contract exists between the ruler and his subjects.
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Other recent scholarship has supported these conclusions. In his last, posthumous work (Religious Thought and Economic Society, 1978), the distinguished historian of economic thought, Jacob Viner, noted that the references to taxation by St. Thomas Aquinas “treat it as a more or less extraordinary act of a ruler which is as likely as not to be morally illicit.” Viner pointed also to the medieval papal bull, In Coena Domini--evidently republished each year into the late eighteenth century--which threatened to excommunicate any ruler “who levied new taxes or increased old ones, except for cases supported by law, or by an express permission from the pope.”
Throughout the Western world, the Middle Ages gave rise to parliaments, diets, estates-generals, Cortes, etc., which served to limit the powers of the monarch. A. R. Myers (Parliaments and Estates in Europe to 1789, 1975) notes:
Almost everywhere in Latin Christendom the principle was, at one time or another, accepted by the rulers that, apart from the normal revenues of the prince, no taxes could be imposed without the consent of parliament…. By using their power of the purse [the parliaments] often influenced the rulers policies, especially restraining him from military adventures. [pp. 29-30]
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Popular rights, above all protection against arbitrary taxation, were defended by representative assemblies elected by the tax-bearing classes and were often enshrined in charters that the rulers felt more or less obliged to respect. In the most famous of these, the Magna Carta, which the barons of England extorted from King John in 1215, the first signatory was Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury.
In a synthesis of modern scholarship (Inventing the Middle Ages, 1991), Norman F. Cantor has summarized the heritage of medieval times
In the model of civil society, most good and important things take place below the universal level of the state: the family, the arts, learning, and science; business enterprise and technological process. These are the work of individuals and groups, and the involvement of the state is remote and disengaged. It is the rule of law that screens out the state’s insatiable aggressiveness and corruption and gives freedom to civil society below the level of the state. It so happens that the medieval world was one in which men and women worked out their destinies with little or no involvement of the state most of the time. [p. 416]
One highly significant factor in the advance of the West is its relative lack of institutionalized envy. The sociologist Helmut Schoeck (Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior, 1987) has drawn attention to the omnipresence of envy in human societies. Perceived as a grave threat by those at whom it is directed, it typically results in elaborate envy-avoidance behavior: the attempt to ward off the dangers of malicious envy by denying, disguising, or suppressing whatever traits provoked it. The anti-economic consequences of socially permitted--or even encouraged--by envy and reactive envy-avoidance scarcely lend themselves to quantification. Nonetheless, they may clearly be highly damaging. Western culture has somehow been able to inhibit envy to a remarkable degree, a fact that Schoeck links to the Christian faith: “It must have been one of Christianity’s most important, if unintentional, achievements in preparing men for, and rendering them capable of, innovative actions when it provided man for the first time with supernatural beings who, he knew, could neither envy nor ridicule him.”
Thus, long before the 17th century, Europe had produced political and legal arrangements and personal attitudes—a whole way of life—that set the stage for both individual freedom and the later industrial “takeoff.”
With the Reformation and the French Revolution, the Church felt compelled to turn to the state to fight its Protestant and then its anti-Christian enemies (an alliance that lasted into the 19th century). By then, though, the job of the Catholic Church in engendering Western liberty was done.