Monday, August 2, 2010

Aquinas, the Social Contract, and Catholic Resistance Theory

Here is a good article on Aquinas, the social contract, and Catholic resistance theory.

A taste:

"One of the myths of the English-speaking world is that there was an internal connection between Protestantism and freedom. Martin Luther supposedly instituted an age of individual freedom of expression when he challenged the monolithic authority of Pope and Church. In fact, the vast majority of Protestant Reformers were just as intolerant as their Roman Catholic counterparts. There was no more tolerance of heterodox views in Calvin's Geneva or Cotton's Massachusetts than in Spain under the Inquisition.
In Hispanic countries, in contrast, Catholicism is often seen as the seed bed of democratic ideas. Thomist notions (that is to say, notions derived from the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, 1225-74) of natural law were inherently hostile to arbitrary or despotic government. During the Religious Wars in France, Roman Catholic Leaguers wrote tracts in support of resistance to tyrannical rulers, and developed theories of original popular sovereignty.
In much of Central and Eastern Europe, the Counter-Reformation Church allied with secular authorities to reconvert the population to Catholicism and so (particularly from the later 17th century) Catholicism and Absolutism became seen as natural allies - embodied in the person of the Catholic absolutist Louis XIV of France. But this link was far from clear in Western Europe in the age of Shakespeare."


Tom Van Dyke said...

For the record, according to the Catholics, and even many historians, the "Counter-Reformation" was actually an internal reform of the Roman Church, not just a defense of its corrupt status quo.

Just so's everybody knows. Carry on.

Pinky said...

In the shadow of complaints about bringing Strauss in to any discussion, he gives absolutism an intense focus in his lecture on relativism.
It's recommended reading for all.

King of Ireland said...


I have actually learned a lot in our discussions of Strauss. For one I never picked up how heavily Jon's arguments are influenced by him and now understand Jon a lot better. I also think that by framing the discussion on the founding in the larger context of the history of political theory Strauss aids the discussion.

I just disagree with what I have gathered are his conclusions.

King of Ireland said...

I have been going back and forth for years on what I want to take as I pursue Grad school. If I get the job I am applying for at a Catholic hs I think I am going to go to Catholic U and study political theory and see if they will let me minor in theology.

All in the hope of studying some of the medevil and even later constitutional governments in Europe. Tom made a great point about one needing to know latin. I already know Spanish and latin would not be that hard a leap plus I need two languages if I were to go all the way to a PHD.

All that to say that I think I will find that when people call the birth of the US some kind of miracle and the birth of freedom it is a myth.

I think I will find more pockets just like that in Aragon in the 1300's that were rights oriented and constitutional.

If so then there is some major revisionism going on. It is almost like are Protestant ancestors just erased all of Roman Catholic history.

I bring this up because it kind of builds on the author's point about Hispanic countries. Interesting to say the least.

Magpie Mason said...

I can't believe there really is a doubt that the rise of Protestantism was an indispensible step toward the Enlightenment. Okay, maybe Luther himself had no intention of unleashing the religious liberty evident in the existence of so many denominations, but what he started proved to be crucial to establishing the Right of Conscience.

As for Thomism, was not the medieval philosopher interpreting Aristotle, thus introducing Natural Law to the Church?


Magpie Mason said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom Van Dyke said...

Jay, Protestantism and the Right of Conscience definitely expanded that notion of liberty to the political realm as well [especially the Calvinists of Britain and America].

As for Aquinas, there's a lot of useful background in the comments of late and a little late to recap it all. It's not just Aristotle he "Christianizes," but apparently Cicero as well. Neither does Protestant America ignore natural law. That comes later in both Protestant and Enlightenment/"modern" thing.

You are right about Luther. See his contemporary, partner and successor,

whose view of the relation of natural law and the Gospel appears identical to Locke's.

King of Ireland said...

But did not Luther say reason was the Devil's whore?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Don't get hung up on Luther. From what I've read, Melanchthon is also considered a founder of Lutheranism. Look at the whole.

bpabbott said...

Re: "But did not Luther say reason was the Devil's whore?"

It would be interesting to read the quote in context. Might Luther have a high regard reason but realize that it may be corrupted?

I did find a portion with some context, but not sufficient for me to reach a conclusion.

"But since the devil's bride, Reason, that pretty whore, comes in and thinks she's wise, and what she says, what she thinks, is from the Holy Spirit, who can help us, then? Not judges, not doctors, no king or emperor, because [reason] is the Devil's greatest whore"

Luther is also quoted with;

"so it is with human reason, which strives not against faith, when enlightened, but rather furthers and advances it"

and ...

"Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has: it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but--more frequently than not --struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God."

as well as ...

" Reason must be deluded, blinded, and destroyed. Faith must trample underfoot all reason, sense, and understanding, and whatever it sees must be put out of sight and ... know nothing but the word of God."

Quite a mixed bag ... unless we know the context. For example, is the last quote a criticism of reason, or of the frailty of some faith claims?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well done, Ben.

The funny thing is that the [British] Enlightenment figures who influenced the Founding era distrusted reason too. And Hume influenced Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason." Hume and Kant kind of bookend the Founding, although I don't see much of them in the Founding itself.

King of Ireland said...


Hard to say why he seems to contradict himself. Maybe a different word for reason in German is used in different contexts. Hard to say. Good find though.

bpabbott said...

Re: "[British] Enlightenment figures who influenced the Founding era distrusted reason too."

It is unfortunate that this distrust is often cast as contempt by some who argue against reason.

However, I notice that most (all?) who argue against reason use it themselves (i.e. they present philosophical reasoning intended to convince others of their conclusions).

It would be interesting to look into the context of the objections so that false dichotomies can be avoided.

I expect what we'd find, in all cases, is an agreement that reason is the best means to reach the truth, but that the necessary level of knowledge and and cognitive ability make its reliability difficult to have confidence in, or even to qualify ... but maybe I'm just patronizing myself. As a empiricist, I have an inherent distrust for my own cognitive insight, but an even greater distrust for the non-evidenced claims of others.

bpabbott said...

Re: Hard to say why he seems to contradict himself."

I wish I had the time to study his work in the original German. Unfortunately, its been 20+ yrs since I studied the language, and then my reading comprehension was quite poor.

My guess is that he isn't contradicting himself. We just lack to context to properly understand him.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Ben, I should have written there was a distrust of man's ability to use his reason honestly. The distrust is not in reason itself, since it is only a tool.

There is also the matter of reason's inadequacy for describing reality, which is why Richard Hooker wrote

"For to make nothing evident of itself unto man's understanding were to take away all possibility of knowing anything. . . . In every kind of knowledge some such grounds there are, as that being proposed the mind does presently embrace them as free from all possibility of error, clear and manifest without proof."

Hence the concept of "self-evident." Speaking properly philosophically, nothing is self-evident, is it?