The notion that the same rules apply to all men later found a home with the kings of Northern Europe.  These tribes still possessed that Indo-European culture of the rule of an, albeit, customary law and the right to resist tyrants, with kings being answerable to the rulings of another lord’s court.  Therefore, the European Christendom of the Middle Ages presented a rather unique situation in which there was no state per se.  This continued throughout the period primarily because natural law teachings of the Church largely comported with and developed the customary laws of the Germanic tribes, which, as Prof. Gerard Casey eloquently notes, always tend to the natural law anyway, being a ‘local concretization’ of it.[1]

In Kingship and Law in the Middle Ages, Fritz Kern explored the two major, similar concepts of law which the Church found among the Germanic tribes (the rule of law and the right to resist tyrants).  The Church was able to exert a certain amount of influence in limiting the kings dominium but expanding his imperium, that is, obliging him to ‘rule and defend this the realm which is vouchsafed to thee by God’, as the German coronation order of the tenth century provides.  Therefore, he was not to exercise any supposed superior rights, as a tyrant.  Otherwise, the king was not consecrated or was excommunicated by the Church; likewise, he would not be considered a valid king by the people, but rather a criminal who could rightly face justice.  Therefore, Kern concluded that a legally absolute king was impossible in the earlier Middle Ages.[2]

It is certainly the case that the aristocratic heritage of the Indo-European civilizations provided a plurality of judges, with the king being merely a first among equals, each lord’s court exercising authority.  Such an environment ensured (albeit imperfectly) competition in rationalizing about resolutions to conflicts between parties and that no individual or group was beyond adjudication.  Prof. Hoppe describes this non-exclusive territorial rule as an ‘aristocratic natural order’, as he expresses the attitude which allowed private systems of government and defied the creation of a state:

The king is supposed to only apply law, not make it. And to assure this, the king will never be granted a monopoly on his position as judge… [E]veryone remains free to select another judge, another noble, if he is dissatisfied with the king… If he is found to make law, instead of just applying it, or if he is found to commit errors in the application of law, i.e., if he misconstrues, misrepresents, or falsifies the facts of a given case, his judgment stands open to be challenged in another noble court of justice, and he himself can there be held liable for his misjudgment. In short, the king may look like the head of a State, but he definitely is not a State but instead part of a natural, vertically and hierarchically structured and stratified social order: an aristocracy.[3]

 

As for the influence of the Church, whilst she had freedom to choose her own leaders, aristocrats would secure bishoprics etc. for family and friends, including the accompanying privileges and lands.   Certainly, competition prevented the later rise of constitutional monarchs and subsequent states who sought greater revenue from the gradual monopolisation of judicial services.[4]  But, as the emperor effectively hand-picked the pope, this allowed kings to corner the market on authority.

Pope Gregory VII understood this to be the source of corruption in the 11th century and so, whilst still a cardinal-subdeacon, established the College of Cardinals to elect the Pope; of course, they promptly elected him.  The Gregorian Reform would furthermore establish judicial independence for the Church, producing the first proper system of law in the world – Canon law, built largely on natural law and various private law decisions from Roman and customary, Germanic laws which accorded with it.  This event would then secure similar self-determination for universities, guilds, merchants, entire cities etc.[5]  Of course, the battle was not over; this was the start of the Investiture Controversy which commenced the battle for superior authority between the Church and kings, later resulting in the Reformation, the rise of the nation-state, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the modern liberal-democracies, ubiquitous today.

We can conclude that the ‘libertarian’ aristocracy of the Indo-European civilizations produced and was, in turn, preserved by the philosophy of natural law into the feudal period, ‘where no authority, not even the pope or the king, had complete political, religious, or intellectual jurisdiction.’[6]  Although imperfect in many ways, natural law could be said to rule during this period in a way we cannot say of ancient Rome or the West today.  So, the role of the Church in the widespread teaching of natural law (particularly as developed by the Scholastics) and the preservation of this traditional European system of rulership should not be underestimated; rather, it should be celebrated.

Nevertheless, it has been argued by various modernists, especially New-Right thinkers, that pre-Christian Rome and the revival of its more anti-Christian features during the Renaissance and Enlightenment, is more in-keeping with the ancient culture and principles of European civilization; what’s more, that Christianity was essentially an alien, even subversive, Jewish ideological influence on European civilization and one which has been, at least in some ways incompatible with the culture of Europeans.[7]  On the contrary, as shown above, the Roman state was a divergence from Indo-European ideas of rulership in significant ways, such as the Greek experiments in freedom and the kings of the Germano-Celtic tribes.  Now, I shall argue that Christianity is Hellenistic and a rightful successor of the natural law tradition and, therefore, at the heart of Western civilization.

In his article of the same name, Prof. Duchesne argues that ‘Christianity is a Hellenistic Religion, and Western Civilization is Christian’, following the scholarship of Prof. Martin Hengel – still the best source for the study of the Hellenistic period of Second Temple Judaism, from which Christianity emerged.  He concluded that because of the interchange between Judaism and Hellenism, it is impossible to define Judaism as separate from it: ‘It is too easily forgotten that in the time of Jesus Greek had already been established as a language for more than three hundred years and already had a long and varied history behind it… The victorious Maccabaean revolt and the national and religious renewal associated with it had hardly changed anything in this respect.’[8]

But, it was not simply popular language which was affected during this period.  Remarking that Jerusalem had effectively become a Greek polis by 175 B.C., Prof. Hengel noted, ‘It is evident here that the Hasmoneans did not really slow down the “process of Hellenization” in Palestinian Judaism, but in fact continued it as soon as they themselves came into power.’[9]  The evidence for Greek being used as the lingua franca for trade, commerce and administration throughout Palestine has obviously increased since Prof. Hengel wrote those words, but he was still able to list an impressive amount: Greek schools in Jerusalem as early as 3rd century B.C., bilingual coins (Herod produced purely Greek inscriptions on Jewish coins), borrowing Greek words to fill out the Jewish vocabulary (especially in Rabbinic literature), Greek architecture and public entertainment and Greek public inscriptions (some of the earliest evidence being in Jerusalem).  Most significant, perhaps, is the development of individualism in the Second Temple Period literature as a result of this influence:

‘This point of the discovery of the individual before God is probably the greatest gain of that encounter between the Jewish and Greek spirits which was so influential and at the same time so passionate. The certainty of the overcoming of death and the stress on the value of the individual unite in the glorification of the martyr. The Old Testament could not yet know the praise of the hero who dies for his ancestral city and its gods, but we find this praise of heroes all the more, say, in Greek poetry during the period of the Persian war. Although there are many reports in ancient Israel of the death of prophets and their faithfulness to YHWH, the prophets are never transformed into martyrs: in contrast to Greece, in Israel before the Hellenistic period (apart from the enigmatic text Isa.53) there is never any mention of a heroic “dying for”… That changes at a stroke in the Maccabean period…’[10]

Prof. Hengel wasn’t surprised, as Jerusalem ‘was…a metropolis of international, world-wide significance, a great “attraction” in the literal sense, the centre of the inhabited world.’[11]  Indeed, the number of dispersed Jewish pilgrims from all over the Roman Empire outnumbered the inhabitants of Jerusalem and brought with them that foreign cultural influence.  Jews of the Diaspora had been slaves in Greek homes, soldiers in Greek armies and even held worship services in Greek.  ‘The influence of Greek education and literature extends very much wider. We already find it in late Hebrew and Aramaic literature, for example in Koheleth, Ben Sira, Daniel or the Enoch writings.’[12]  Notably, of course, St. Paul of Tarsus had received a Greek education which coloured his thought throughout his New Testament letters.

Many of the early Church, composed largely of Gentiles, intuited this strong connection with the natural law tradition of the Greeks.  For example, St. Justin (early 2nd Century A.D.), in his proselytising Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, developed the identification of Christ as the Greek notion of the logos in the opening of John’s Gospel.  The logos is the ordering principle of the universe or ‘Divine Reason’, according to the Stoics.  Therefore, St. Justin asserted that those Greeks who sought the natural order through reason had been led by God as much as the Old Testament figures, especially those who awaited the Messiah.  ‘[Christ] is the Word [logos] of whom every race of men were partakers; and those who lived reasonably, are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists; as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus, and men like them; and among the barbarians, Abraham, and Ananias’.

According to the data, St. Justin was right – there isn’t simply a bridge between the natural law of Indo-European thought and Christianity, but, as Prof. Hengel observed, these movements are historically impossible to separate for definition.  What’s more, Christendom produced the personalistic form of individualism we know and take for granted as so typical of Western culture.[13]

Conclusion

It is hardly surprising that so many today complain that justice is blind.  Our system of law is no longer based on the principles of Western natural law; that is, legislators can make up the rules as they go, only recognising artificially determined persons for the achievement of an artificial order.  Without any significant consensus to recognise principles of a natural order of human societies, there is nothing to mitigate the above process and so the criteria of posited ‘social justice’ seem to be increasing exponentially in our time.

This is painfully and poetically clear when we consider the blind goddess of Justitia.  Lady Justice is known today as a solitary figure.  Long forgotten is her sister, Prudentia, with whom she was portrayed in times past.  Alone and blind, the law is indeed an ass for she doesn’t have her sister to guide her toward any rationally observable order.  Traditionally, however, the Church presented a universal moral framework for the West – one which reinforced the classical virtues, spurring Christians to strive for a more perfect world, with none other than prudence as the ‘charioteer’ of the classical or cardinal virtues.

The modern and especially post-modern mindset which has gripped the West has certainly blinded most of us from the objective principles which were the heart and soul of our civilization, and without the heart of natural law establishing our families, communities and beyond, we can hardly be surprised our civilization is dead.  At least we know the philosophy which gave it life and which could yet revitalise it.

(Originally published at The Ludwig von Mises Centre website – MisesUK.org)

 


[1] Casey, G. (2012) Libertarian Anarchy: Against the State, Continuum International Publishing Group, pp.42 & 98

[2] Kern, F. (Tr. Chrimes S. B.) (1968), Kingship and Law in the Middle Ages, London: Basil Blackwell, Intro. xix – xx

[3] Hoppe, H. (2015) A Short History of Man: Progress and Decline, Alabama: Mises Institute, p.110

[4] Benson, B. L. (1990) The Enterprise of Law: Justice Without the State, Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, pp.29-30

[5] See Berman, H. J. (1983) Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition, Harvard University Press

[6] Duchesne, R. (2011) The Uniqueness of Western Civilization. Leiden: Brill, p.275

[7] For example, de Benoist, A. & Champetier, C. (2012) Manifesto for a European Renaissance, Arktos Media Ltd.

[8] Hengel, M. (1989) The ‘Hellenization’ of Judaea in the First Century After Christ, SCM Press, pp.7-8

[9] Hengel, M. (1980) Jews, Greeks and Barbarians, SCM Press, p.117

[10] Hengel, M. (1989) The ‘Hellenization’ of Judaea in the First Century After Christ, SCM Press, p.51

[11] Ibid., p.11

[12] Ibid., p.21

[13] See Siedentop, L. (2014) Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, Allen Lane

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