“The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”
- Edward Grey, Secretary for Foreign Affairs, on the eve of the Great War
Genesis 2: 9 The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
16 And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”
Genesis 3: Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”
4 “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
You know the story: they ate the fruit, their eyes were opened, God banished them from the Garden, and man has been cursed to toil and eternal damnation ever since.
Of course, I am not insisting that you believe the story.
The Middle Ages
I take from Fritz Kern, author of “Kingship and Law in the Middle Ages”:
For us law needs only one attribute in order to give it validity; it must, directly or indirectly, be sanctioned by the State. But in the Middle Ages, different attributes altogether were essential; mediaeval law must be “old” law and must be “good” law….If law were not old and good law, it was not law at all, even though it were formally enacted by the State.
Law was in fact custom. Immemorial usage, testified to by the eldest and most credible people; the leges partum….
Where we moderns have erected three separate alters, to Law, to Politics, and to Conscience, and have sacrificed to each of them as sovereign godheads, for the mediaeval mind the goddess of Justice is enthroned, with only God and Faith above her, and no one beside her.
Another who has written of this time is Jacques Barzun, a phenomenal scholar of European history and culture. His book, “From Dawn to Decadence,” is a must read for anyone interested in European history of the last 500 years. Barzun offers, regarding the law of the Middle Ages and the Middle Ages generally:
The truth is that during the 1,000 years before 1500 a new civilization grew from beginnings that were uncommonly difficult….showing the world two renaissances before the one that has monopolized the name.
…the Germanic invaders brought a type of custom law that some later thinkers have credited with the idea of individual freedom.…no rule was held valid if not approved by those it affected.
Anglo-Saxon law…defined crime literally as breaking the peace.
Such was a nation of laws, not men; every noble vested with veto power; the king below the law, whose duty was limited to enforcing the law – not creating the law; law based on oath – sacred oath between the parties and including God.
All in a cultural milieu that fully incorporated the Church; kingly authority tempered by the competing governance structure that the Church offered.
Returning to Kern:
For us, the actually valid or positive law is not immoral but amoral; its origin is not in conscience, God, nature, ideals, ideas, equity or the like, but simply in the will of the State, and its sanction is the coercive power of the State. On the other hand, the State for us is something holier than for mediaeval people….
Such is our lot: legislation and regulation by men wiser than us and wiser than God. I know many readers don’t like the “God” part of this; just stick to customary law as it was known in the Middle Ages: the old and good law, with crime defined as breaking the peace. I can live with this if you can.
Law must come from somewhere. Which of these two models is more predictable, less arbitrary, more libertarian? To ask the question is to answer it; yet, many libertarians (and most everyone else) avoid (or even fight against the logical answer to) this question.
The one that monopolized the name….
The Renaissance was a period in European history, from the 14th to the 17th century, regarded as the cultural bridge between the Middle Ages and modern history. It started as a cultural movement in Italy in the Late Medieval period and later spread to the rest of Europe, marking the beginning of the Early Modern Age.
The intellectual basis of the Renaissance was its own invented version of humanism, derived from the rediscovery of classical Greek philosophy, such as that of Protagoras, who said that "Man is the measure of all things."
That Protagoras; in seven simple words he said so much. Man is the measure; of all things; science advances; progress, always progress; we know better today than yesterday.
Man is the measure. Talk about a flexible standard. Those of you who value Austrian Economics might consider how well this has worked out regarding money: the flexibility of man-made money as opposed to the standard offered by commodity, market-derived money.
As opposed to custom, man can make better laws, scientific laws. How is that working out for you?
The Enlightenment was an intellectual and philosophical movement which dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 18th century, The Century of Philosophy. The Enlightenment included a range of ideas centered on reason as the primary source of authority and legitimacy, and came to advance ideals like liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state.
“…a range of ideas centered on reason as the primary source of authority and legitimacy…” Where else would the Renaissance lead?
In the West, we are trained to believe that this is the height of man’s achievement. All men created equal and all that. Well, if all men are created equal, those who create and enforce the law due to man’s reason being superior to God’s reason (or to custom, if you prefer) must be more equal. This reasoned, intellectual, more equal man will do all in his power to remind you of his more equal status.
Laws to make all men – around the world – equal. How is that working out for you?
The Progressive Era
The Progressive Era was a period of widespread social activism and political reform across the United States, from the 1890s to the 1920s.
Some Progressives strongly supported scientific methods as applied to economics, government, industry, finance, medicine, schooling, theology, education, and even the family. They closely followed advances underway at the time in Western Europe and adopted numerous policies, such as a major transformation of the banking system by creating the Federal Reserve System in 1913. Reformers felt that old-fashioned ways meant waste and inefficiency, and eagerly sought out the "one best system".
You cannot have the Enlightenment without also accepting the Progressive Era, I am afraid. Once you accept the wisdom of man’s laws, you must accept the wisdom of man’s laws (funny how that works). Was Woodrow Wilson an inevitable consequence of Denis Diderot, Adam Smith, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson? Hard to escape this possibility…or likelihood…or certainty.
Man’s wisdom regarding law as opposed to God’s wisdom (or custom and culture, if you prefer). Are you sure you know the libertarian answer?
Return to the Garden
But wait! One can certainly suggest that the tremendous advances in our economic lives all occurred around 225 years ago, about the same time as the Enlightenment. Correlation or causation?
For this, I offer Deirdre McCloskey. She (or he) is perhaps the most informed student of the transformation: for countless thousands of years, man has lived as he always did – basically an agrarian life, basically a simple village life. You could transport someone from 2000 BC to 1700 AD and they would have little trouble adapting.
But not so from 1700 to 1900 – certainly not to 2000. The advances since around 1800 have been exponential. McCloskey explains, offering the seven Bourgeois Virtues:
Seven. That's the number of the primary virtues according to the Western tradition from Plato through Adam Smith. Or according to the Confucian tradition since 479 BCE. Or according to a startling book, published in 2004 under the auspices of the American Psychological Association, written by forty professors of psychology and edited by Christopher Peterson and Martin E. P. Seligman, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. Or, when you come to think about it, according to pretty much any theory of what makes for a flourishing human life.
Justice; Temperance; Courage; Prudence; Faith; Hope; Love. Seven. All pre-dating the Enlightenment.
Who can say how Medieval Law might have developed if not consumed by man’s reason? Was air conditioning only possible due to Diderot’s Encyclopédie? One can say that man’s reason (regarding law) was not necessary to bring on the economic progress of the last two hundred years; after all, these “Bourgeois Virtues” predate or otherwise come from outside of the Enlightenment tradition.
Yet, man’s reason was chosen: law by science; law placing some men above the law, making some men more equal than others. To whose benefit would this be? Yours?
So, we come full circle. For this, I return to Barzun:
The blow that hurled the modern world on its course of self-destruction was the Great War of 1914-18.
The suicide of the West. Barzun offers, and this is quite consistent with his view of “Dawn” and “Decadence,” that there was what he calls The Great Switch – from liberalism to socialism:
It was the pressure of Socialist ideas, and mainly the Reformed groups in parliaments and the Fabian outside, that brought it about. By Great Switch I mean the reversal of Liberalism into its opposite.
Liberalism triumphed on the principle that the best government is that which governs least; now for all the western nations political wisdom has recast this ideal of liberty into liberality. The shift has thrown the vocabulary into disorder.
But what if the switch was inevitable? What if the seeds were sown in the Renaissance? What if, once man decided he was brighter than God, eventually man’s scientifically enacted laws would destroy man’s freedom? What if communism is the inevitable extension of “all men are created equal”?
I recall reading often enough: communists in the early years referred to their political philosophy as “democracy.” America’s founding generation feared “democracy.” Yet, is communism / democracy what they ushered in?
I am with you on this; it is difficult for me to grasp the possibility. It is completely contrary to 100% of all we are taught. Yet there it is. I will say…it is easier for me to accept this today than it would have been ten years ago.
It is interesting: reaching the height of western liberal values immediately preceded the destruction of the West. The nineteenth century, in many ways, was the most liberal, free, equal period for the West – perhaps in its history. And then the Great War – suicide, built on the scientific wisdom of man’s reason.
What’s new? Many revolutions follow the liberalization of the old order. It was true in France; it was true in Russia. A disaster for both.
The Great War accelerated and exaggerated the “all men are created equal” stuff. Political, economic, cultural, and social life were all completely transformed throughout the West after this war.
1 Corinthians 3: 18 Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise.
19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness”; 20 and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.”
21 So then, no more boasting about human leaders!
Recall the Edward Grey quote with which I opened this post. Note that when news of the war broke out, in every European capital the crowds flooded the streets…