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.