Friday, April 20, 2018

Popular Sovereignty in an Unlikely Context: Spanish Scholasticism

A century before John Locke, a Spanish cleric named Juan de Mariana articulated what would become known as key Lockean concepts. In his writings, which are part economics and part political science, Juan de Mariana asserted that a king cannot claim that he owns the property of his subjects.

Juan de Mariana is analyzing feudalism, and more particularly, a late form of feudalism as he encountered it in Spain. In such a structure, all land was ultimately understood to be royal property - understood as the king’s personal property. Through layers of subinfeudation, it was parceled out to vassals and serfs.

This economic system is often called ‘manorialism’ or ‘seignorialism.’

Earlier Germanic forms of feudalism featured a mutualism or reciprocity in which the lord and the serf each owed things to the other. This later form of feudalism had decayed into more of a top-down structure.

As a scholastic, Juan de Mariana developed his thought systematically. It is noteworthy that he took property rights as an axiom in his logical system. This foundation entails political liberty and personal freedom.

Writing about him, Jesus Huerta de Soto notes that

From this, Mariana deduced that the king cannot demand tax without the consent of the people, since taxes are simply an appropriation of part of the subjects’ wealth. In order for such an appropriation to be legitimate, the subjects must be in agreement. Neither may the king create state monopolies, since they would simply be a disguised means of collecting taxes.

The notion that each individual person can have property, and that the king may not violate the property of his subjects, is foundational to other human rights and civil rights.

Juan de Mariana is formulating something very near the ‘consent of the governed,’ a phrase which would become associated with Locke’s thought, although Locke himself seems not to have ever written this exact phrase.

As an economist, he was alert to the subtle ways in which the king might violate the property rights of the ordinary people. Jesus Huerta de Soto writes:

And neither may the king - this is the most important part of the book’s contents - obtain fiscal revenue by lowering the metal content of the coins. De Mariana realized that the reduction of the precious metal content in the coins and the increase in the number of coins in circulation is simply a form of inflation (although he does not use this word, which was unknown at the time) and that inflation inevitably leads to a rise in prices because, “if money falls from the legal value, all goods increase unavoidably, in the same proportion as the money fell, and all the accounts break down.”

Segueing from economics to political science, Juan de Mariana went on to note that as the total number of laws or regulations increases, the likelihood of an individual being aware of any specific one of them decreases. A state with a high degree of regulation will find itself therefore unable to accurately enforce all of them.

He lived in Spain, which at the time was shaped by the Habsburg absolutism. There was no parliamentary body.

The laws would therefore be enforced on a hit-or-miss basis, and as the general population becomes aware of this pattern, corruption and lawlessness will increase. As a state legislates more and more laws, these laws will receive less and less respect.

A state with few laws will be more likely to be able to enforce them consistently, accurately, and thoroughly. Juan de Mariana’s advice to the monarch is, therefore, to make as few laws as possible.

He articulated principles of Lockean political liberty and personal freedom, and did so long before Locke.

Monday, April 16, 2018

The Middle Ages: When and What

What is that period of time we call the ‘Middle Ages’? When was that period of time?

These two deceptively simple questions are challenging, in part because the Middle Ages is a construct. In history, a ‘construct’ is something which is not an event, not a place, not a person, and not a date. A construct is not a specific, concrete, verifiable datum.

Instead, a construct is a vague generalization which attempts to capture a pattern or trend among historical events. In the language of the mathematical sciences, it is a best-fit line.

There is a precise and unambiguous answer to questions like these: When was the Battle of Hastings? Where was the Battle of Hastings?

But a construct, like the Middle Ages, is rather impressionistic and does not admit of such precision or verification. As historian Irma Simonton Black writes,

The Middle Ages, then, was a time of excitement and danger, of isolation and self-reliance, of faith, progress, and much, much more.

Note that the concept is large enough to embrace opposites: medieval thought contained seeds of both free-market capitalism and statist communism. It laid the foundations for the zenith of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but also for atheism. It modeled both political liberty and authoritarian control.

Notably, the Middle Ages took the Germanic structure of early feudalism and created a system which, unlike the previous Roman imperial system, imposed mutual obligations: the vassal was obliged to serve the lord, but the lord was equally obligated to provide for the vassal.

Attempting to give temporal starting and ending points for the Middle Ages is a vain task; author Irma Simonton Black presents her effort:

The term refers to a period of time of about one thousand years following the collapse of the Roman Empire during the fifth century (400 to 500 A.D.). Modern historians divide this era into the Early Middle Ages (until about 1050), the High Middle Ages (from 1050 to 1300), and finally the Late Middle Ages or Renaissance.

Note that she identifies the ‘Late Middle Ages’ with the ‘Renaissance’ in contradiction to numerous other historians. Such a conflict in definition will have no resolution, because of the high degree of ambiguity inherent in the concepts.

Debates about when the Middle Ages ended and when the Renaissance began are fruitless because the question itself is malformed. Unlike that Battle of Hastings, or the Coronation of Charlemagne, or the signing of the Magna Carta, a conceptual construct like the Middle Ages or the Renaissance cannot have a precise date.

If we cannot answer the question about when, perhaps we can explore the question about what.

“Middle” was used because historians used to think of these years as a time of intellectual stagnation which came between the high civilizations of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, and modern times. More modern historians looked more closely into the period, however, and recognized it as a time of great and valuable change and growth.

In the Middle Ages, thinkers like Thomas Bradwardine laid the foundations for modern physics. The Magna Carta established legal rights for women.

Women in the Middle Ages still faced challenges, but had gained a social and civil status far greater than women in Greece and Rome. Scholastic philosophers argued that the universe was organized around rational thought, and that therefore it was valid to use mathematics to explore the observational and empirical sciences; they thereby set the stage for modern chemistry.

Although some scholars had used the word ‘Renaissance’ to intimate that the medievals were ignorant, they in fact had access to the large corpus of text which the Romans and Greeks had left for them. John Scottus Eriugena, for example, was carefully analyzing Greek text in the 800’s A.D., centuries before the self-proclaimed ‘Renaissance’ declared that it had ‘discovered’ them.

Questions about the ‘what’ and the ‘when’ of the Middle Ages will never receive fully satisfactory answers.

Importantly, however, it is clear that the centuries after 476 A.D. were filled with formative and influential events. Thinkers and writers established what would become the modern notions of mathematics, chemistry, physics, and philosophy. Artists produced works of lasting value. Engineers and mechanics developed significant machinery.

Writers during the Renaissance era attempted to cast the medievals in a bad light. They argued that the people of the Middle Ages were ignorant and superstitious.

The conventional image, which relied on generalizations, of medievals as oppressed and unimaginative has been shattered by research about the specific people and events who lived during these centuries.