Liberty Matters

A Summing Up

It’s time, I think, to sum up the discussion between George Smith and me, as I see it.
There is no doubt that George is learned in the thought of a number of figures highly important in the early modern history of classical liberalism and well versed on liberalism in general. I don’t find, however, that he has sufficiently considered the question I raised in my first post: “Why the West?” Why did liberalism arise in the West -- the lands that were or had been in communion with the bishop of Rome -- and not anywhere else in the world, not even in the rest of Europe, for example, in Russia?
George concedes that Christianity desacralized the state, a very great step forward from the Greeks and Romans, who deified it. The bishop of Hippo may well have derived the story of Alexander the Great and the pirate from Cicero. But it was his formulation that became famous. It so caught the eye of Noam Chomsky, the philosopher and left anarchist, for instance, that he used it as the title of one of his books.
George states that St. Augustine and other Christian leaders were prepared to use state power to persecute dissenters, which, sadly, is all too true, as I have said in previous posts. According to George, the saint “blamed the moral laissez faire of Rome” for helping to cause its downfall. I dislike the use of laissez faire in this connection, since to me it’s an honorific. George makes no mention of the blood games in the arena, the favorite entertainment of the Roman populace. This perhaps casts “Roman morality” in a more sinister light than as simply a system protecting life and property. It was the Church that put an end to these games. In the ruins of the Coliseum today stands a large Cross commemorating that event.
I find George’s discussion of “totalitarianism” curious. He says that the medieval church was totalitarian in that it claimed jurisdiction over all of Christendom and some papalists even claimed jurisdiction over the whole world. He believes that no thinker of the time on the state’s side made comparable claims for the state.
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But “papalists” like Pope Boniface VIII maintained not that the Church should exercise secular power, but that secular rulers were under the authority of the pope. There was at least one medieval thinker who did argue for universal secular monarchy: Dante, in his De Monarchia.
When we consider the real existing totalitarian states of the 20th century, instead of the putative ones of the 12th, we discover that they were anti-Christian. The heroes who stood up against them -- Claus von Stauffenberg, who tried to kill Hitler and was executed when the plot failed, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who exposed the Gulag to the world and was imprisoned and then sentenced to internal exile for his pains -- were both inspired by their Christian faith.
George passes over in silence the chief occupation of kings, presidents, and the other masters of states throughout history: war. The misery that it has brought down on mankind is infinitely greater than the oppression of any church. In an important article, Joseph R. Stromberg shows that even the so-called religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries were actually carried out by secular rulers, to further their own ends. [37] Stromberg aptly cites the social historian Charles Tilly’s line: “War made the state and the state made war.”
Out of self-interest, the Church thwarted the state during a few crucial centuries. It could do that because it was independent, international, and powerful. George thinks it was tending to total power, and the medievalist scholar he cites held it was already all-powerful in the early middle ages. R. W. Southern also seems to have believed it would remain so for the indefinite future. But these are speculations. History is full of surprises, and there were other forces working against Church omnipotence besides the state. It was the state that veered off towards omnipotence. We are living in a world where it is approaching that goal, and there is no longer any church that can act as a counterweight.
[37] Joseph R. Stromberg “Onward Secular Soldiers, Marching as to War,” The Independent Review, vol. 17, no 3, Winter 2013, 461-65. Online at <>. Chapter 3 of Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990-1990 (Basil Blackwell, 1990) is called “How War Made States, and Vice Versa”.