Friday, January 16, 2009

History 112: The Challenge of Political Authority in the Seventeenth Century

The second most interesting question in political theory is why government authority fails. Yesterday we looked at the English Civil. The Monarchy of Charles I collapsed and he lost his head. This sort of collapse has happened many times in history. Think of France in 1789, the Bastille, or Berlin in 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall. Throughout much of the world, particularly in Africa, the collapse of a political system is a regular occurrence. This is an interesting question, one that I do not have an answer for; I cannot predict which regimes will be overthrown or when it will happen. The most interesting question, though, is why governments manage to stay up in the first place. There is a man by the name of George W. Bush. He says that he is my president and that I should pay taxes. Next week there is going to be a man named Barack Obama claiming to be my president and he also will also want me to pay taxes. Why should I care? Why do we take it as a given that, come next week, George W. Bush will peacefully step down from power and assume life as a private citizen? Maybe he will retreat to his ranch down in Crawford TX and declare himself King George W. Bush. Maybe the state of Texas will break away from the union and form their own country under Bush’s most Christian rule. Alternatively, why should Obama allow Bush to peacefully step down? It is dangerous to allow one’s leading opponent to stay alive; much safer to eliminate them. There are millions of Republicans out there who do not support Obama. Maybe Obama should send his Gestapo police knocking on doors and ship outspoken Republicans to concentration camps to be reeducated. The state capitol of Ohio is only a few miles down High St. and does not appear to be well guarded. Why not, instead of sitting around in class, grab some assault weapons, storm the capitol building so I can make myself the new governor of Ohio. Keep in mind that all of these things do happen around the world on a regular basis. Law and order functional governments are hardly the norm.
For people in England in the seventeenth century these issues were very real. We have all religion wars in Europe. England itself is going to have its own civil war and numerous revolutions. What authority can government claim that people should obey it? In your reading you have seen a number of possible answers from James I, Charles I, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.

James I claimed that he ruled by divine right and used the Bible, but he also showed recourse to rational arguments. He compared himself to father of a family. He saw the state as a single organism made up off all of his subjects, with him as the head. Charles I, in making his case in front of parliament, sounds downright liberal. He argued that it was his duty to protect the liberty of his subjects and that if he would submit to parliament there would be no legitimate government authority left. Everything would therefore collapse and chaos would reign. These are perfectly plausible arguments that even an atheist could accept.

Thomas Hobbes most likely was an atheist. He was clearly not someone who accepted the authority of religion or the Bible. If we were to accept the Whig narrative than we would expect that someone like Hobbes, the one secular person we are dealing with here, would be a supporter of Liberty and Democracy. Hobbes, though, supported absolutist monarchy. John Locke on the other hand is our supporter of constitutionalism. While Locke was an Englishman, for all intents and purposes, he is one of our founding fathers. Much of our Declaration of Independence and Constitution comes straight out of Locke. Locke was also one of the premier advocates for religious toleration of his time. We might think this was due to his secularism. On the contrary Locke was trying to build a Christian state. He believed that by tolerating even non Christians such as Jews, they would come to see how wonderful Christianity was and convert, hardly a secularist agenda.

As with religion, absolutism is also part of the modern story. James I, Charles I, and Hobbes were not simply relics of the Middle Ages to be defeated by John Locke. The absolutist state, with its absolute monarch backed by a well developed bureaucracy, was a major innovation that did not exist in the Middle Ages. Those who defended absolutism were also reacting to the changes of the early modern period just as the supporters of constitutionalism were. Everyone was affected by the Reformation. There is now no one Christendom. One cannot simply appeal to God and the Bible; which God, the Catholic, the Lutheran, the Anglican or the Reformist one? In such a situation, everyone is looking for an alternative. Much of what goes on in the modern story is precisely this search for an alternative. Our liberal Democracy was simply one of the possible solutions. We should not assume that the victory of liberal Democracy was inevitable or that it was obviously the best solution.

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