Category Archives: Political Theory and Government

Shakespeare’s King Henry the Fourth

A play by Shakespeare’s being part of the English curriculum each year when I was in high school impressed on me that his plays are literary classics. This is confirmed by Encyclopedia Britannica’s describing him as “widely regarded as the greatest writer of all time.” It goes on to say, “No writer’s living reputation can seriously compare with that of Shakespeare, whose plays, written in the late 16th and early 17th centuries for a small repertory theatre, are now performed and read more often in more countries than ever before,” and to devote a full twenty pages to its article on him.

But Shakespeare’s plays works on government and politics? Here is how Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff justify their including his two plays on King Henry the Fourth in their The Great Ideas Program collection of works on political theory and government:

“Shakespeare’s historical plays are not merely dramatic re-enactments of actual events. They reveal what motivates and what happens to men in the struggle for power. Shakespeare probably never read a line of Machiavelli, but there were Machiavellian currents and Machiavellian figures in the Elizabethan court. He himself created many such figures, full images of flesh and spirit, with an anguished self-awareness.” (Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government in The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959, page 117)

Adler and Wolff survey the historical context in which the two plays were set, consider two problems running through the plays which are important in political philosophy: the question of the legitimacy of a ruler and the question of how to educate a ruler, and discuss other three questions about the plays. Here I’ll just summarize what they say about the two problems.

Legitimacy of a Ruler

Henry IV’s grandfather, Edward III, reigned from 1327-1377. He was succeeded by his son, Richard II, who ruled from 1377-1399. Richard was a minor when he became king, and the time of his minority was one of popular discontent and political strife. After he declared himself of age in 1389, a period of constitutional rule and of general peace and prosperity followed. However in 1397 he assumed the role of an absolute ruler, crushing the opposition of parliament and the barons. In 1399, while Richard was suppressing a rebellion in Ireland, Henry of Lancaster, a cousin of his who had been exiled by him, organized a plot to overthrow him and landed in England, where many of the barons rallied to his cause. When Richard returned from Ireland, he found himself without supporters and was forced to abdicate. Parliament was summoned, accepted Richard’s abdication, and declared Henry to be king, as Henry IV, in 1399.

According to hereditary right Henry’s claim to the throne was not as good as that of some other claimants‒the House of March, who were descended from the third son of Edward III (Lionel, Duke of Clarence) whereas Henry was descended from the Edward’s fourth son (John of Gaunt, Dike of Lancaster). Thus the declaration of Henry as king set a precedent for the principle that Parliament is superior to the king. However at that time England was not yet a constitutional monarch and so Shakespeare’s Henry IV felt that his title to the crown was weak, telling his son:

“God knows, my son,
By what by-paths and indirect crook’d ways
I met this crown; and I myself know well
How troublesome it sat upon my head.”
(Second Part of King Henry IV in Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, volume 26, page 496)

Adler and Wolff discuss how Hobbes, whose views I considered in my last post, would have viewed Henry’s concern. Although Hobbes would have opposed Henry’s gaining the throne by rebellion against the legitimate ruler (Richard II), when Henry had succeeded in making himself king (and thus becoming the legitimate ruler) Hobbes would have upheld him against those who rebelled against him. “Hobbes, in other words, is always on the side of the ruling party and condemns all rebellion‒always mindful of the fact that a state of war is a state of misery” (Adler and Wolff, page 124). The rebels, on the other hand, viewed Henry as still an illegitimate ruler and thus thought that it was acceptable to try to usurp his power. What do you think?

How to Educate a Prince for His Royal Office

The qualities of a prince or ruler and how they should be developed are discussed in various works‒Plato’s The Republic, Aristotle’s Politics, Plutarch’s The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, Tacitus’s The Annals, and Machiavelli’s The Prince‒that we have already considered in working through The Development of Political Theory and Government. Although the problem of princely education has become less important in modern times, a similar and related replaces it: in a government by the many or by all, it is necessary to educate everyone so that each citizen will be able to assume the responsibilities of political action.

Nobody seems to be in charge of the education of Prince Hal (Henry IV’s son, Henry Monmouth) for his royal office, unless we call Sir John Falstaff (his fat, boastful, and cowardly companion) his tutor, and the King expresses concern over what he is learning. In the very first scene of Part I, the King expresses his discontent with his son and his wish that he would be more like Harry Hotspur (Henry Percy, the son of Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland). And Act III, Scene 2, of Part I, consists mainly of a dialogue between the King and the Prince in which the King exhorts his son to change his ways and be more like the King in his youth or like Hotspur, who threatens to take the crown from Henry IV. However, although the Prince vindicates himself to a certain extent by beating Hotspur in combat at Shrewsbury near the end of Part I, he continues to behave just as before.

Why does the Prince seem to ignore his father’s advice and public opinion? A partial answer is given by him himself in a soliloquy at the end of the first scene in which Falstaff appears:

“So, when this loose behaviour I throw off…
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which has no foil to set it odd.
I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill;
Redeeming time when men think least I will.”
(First Part of King Henry IV in Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, volume 26, page 437)

After he becomes king, he fulfils this promise to himself and rejects Falstaff when the latter approaches him in a crowd of people and seeks his attention. In a separate question Adler and Wolff discuss whether Prince Hal’s earlier seeking the companionship of Falstaff in order to seem the nobler when he reformed was a worthy purpose. What do you think?

Hobbes’s Leviathan

“Thomas Hobbes, whose long life actively covered most of the 17th century, was one of the greatest of British political philosophers…. His importance lies in his having insisted that the first requirement of political and moral institutions is that they should provide the citizens with security. Thus, Hobbes’s starting point was the individual, his rights and need for security–from which he passed to the social contract by which a sovereign is invested with absolute authority.” (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1974, volume 8, page 970)

In the eighth reading of their The Development of Political Theory and Government (volume 2 of The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959), Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff consider the introduction to and chapters 13-21 of Hobbes’s Leviathan. After introducing Hobbes, they discuss his notion of the state of nature which he characterizes as a state of war, his affirmation that people can escape that state by following natural law to form a commonwealth or Leviathan, and the rights which he attributes to the sovereign and to his subjects in a commonwealth. They then compare Hobbes’s thought with the thought of some other writers considered in The Great Ideas Program: with Aristotle on whether the state is natural or conventional, with Locke on how they view the state of nature, with Aquinas on how they conceive natural law, and with Plato on how they picture justice. Here I’ll sketch Hobbes’s life and summarize Adler and Wolff’s presentation of his political theory. However, because of my limited knowledge of the thought of the other writers, I won’t try to compare Hobbes’s thought with theirs.

Hobbes was born in 1588 and lived through one of the most turbulent periods in English history‒from Elizabeth I to Charles II, including the Commonwealth and Oliver Cromwell. Feeling that his defence of the monarchy made it dangerous for him to be in England during the struggle between the king and Parliament, he spent eleven years in self-imposed exile (1640-51), mostly in Paris. However although Cromwell was still in power when he returned to England, he was unharmed. After the restoration of the monarchy he was protected by Charles II, whom he had tutored in mathematics while in Paris, but had difficulty in getting his work published, being suspected of teaching atheism in Leviathan. Thus many of his writings weren’t made public until after his death at ninety-one in 1679.

Leviathan was published in 1651. The political theory which Hobbes expressed in it is built around the notion of a state of nature, a primitive condition in which there was no king, no law, and no civil society. It is a state of war―“during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war”―caused by competition, diffidence, and glory. “The first makes men invade for gain; the second, for safety; and the third for reputation.” To be in a state of war, it is not necessary to be fighting all the time; it is enough that people are ready to fight. “For the nature of war consisteth not in actual fighting, but in the known disposition thereto during all time there is no assurance. All other time is peace.” Adler and Wolff observe that this description fits what we call a “cold war” and that “Hobbes clearly thought that sovereign states in the seventeenth century were as much in a condition of ‘cold war’ as the United States and Russia are in the twentieth” (Adler and Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, page 103; the other quotes in this paragraph are from Leviathan in Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, volume 23, page 85).

“It takes very little imagination to see that men’s condition in such a state of war…must be miserable. Few, however, have described this state as eloquently as Hobbes did: ‘In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. (p. 85c).’ Should men, then, quit the state of nature or war? Hobbes’s answer is an emphatic Yes. His affirmation is drawn from the natural law.” (Adler and Wolff, pages 103-04)

Hobbes defines a law of nature as “a precept, or general rule, found out by reason, by which a man is forbidden to do that which is destructive of his life, or taketh away the means of preserving the same, and to omit that by which he thinketh it may be best preserved.” He identifies the first such law of nature as “that every man ought to endeavour peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it; and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek and use all helps and advantages of war” and the second as “that man be willing, when others are so too, as far forth as for peace and defence of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down [his] right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men as he would allow other men against himself.” (The quotes in this paragraph are from Leviathan, pages 86-87.)

However, Hobbes argues, it isn’t enough for us to be willing to give up our natural rights. Others must be willing to do so too. But agreements to do so “are but words and of no strength to secure a man at all.” Thus “something else [is] required, besides covenant, to make [men’s] agreement constant and lasting; which is a common power to keep them in awe and to direct their actions to the common benefit.” This power can come about only if people “confer all their power and strength upon one man, or upon one assembly of men, that may reduce all their wills, by plurality of voices, unto one will.” This person or assembly “is called a COMMONWEALTH” and “he that carryeth this person [or assembly] is called sovereign, and said to have sovereign power; and every one besides, his subject.” (The quotes in this paragraph are from Leviathan, pages 99-101.)

Hobbes devotes a whole chapter of Leviathan, Chapter XVIII, to identifying the rights of the sovereign. Adler and Wolff summarize them thus:
(1) The subjects cannot, under any conditions, cast off the sovereign and institute a new one.
(2) The sovereign has made no covenants with the subjects; rather they have made covenants among themselves. The sovereign cannot, therefore, ever be said to have broken the covenant with his subjects, and they can never be free from their subjection.
(3) When the majority of men has declared someone to be sovereign, the minority must go along.
(4) The sovereign can commit no injury against his subjects.
(5) Therefore, the sovereign can never be justly punished.
(6) The sovereign has the right of censorship over opinions and books.
(7) The sovereign’s will is the sole source of civil law.
(8) The sovereign has the judicial power in the state.
(9) The sovereign has the right of making wear and peace.
(10) [The sovereign has the right] of choosing his officers, counselors, ministers, etc., in both peace and war.
(11) The sovereign has the right of punishing and rewarding his subjects.
(12) [The sovereign] has the right of awarding honors and titles.
(Adler and Wolff, page 107)

Adler and Wolff sum up the above list by saying that for Hobbes “sovereignty is absolute” (Adler and Wolff, page 107). They then consider whether subjects retain any rights and conclude they do retain some rights, rights which they cannot give away, described thus by Hobbes: “As first a man cannot lay down the right of resisting them that assault him by force to take away his life, because he cannot be understood to aim thereby at any good to himself. The same may be said of wounds, and chains, and imprisonment” (Leviathan, page 87). Thus, as Adler and Wolff point out, Hobbes acknowledges only the first of the three inalienable rights mentioned in the American Declaration of Independence‒life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. “The right to life or of self-preservation is inalienable for him. As for the other two…liberty is quite alienable for Hobbes, being in fact totally alienated from the subjects by the social contract and given to the sovereign. Hobbes is silent on any right to a ‘pursuit of happiness.’ (Adler and Wolff, page 108)

Where does Leviathan get its title? Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines “leviathan” as “anything huge or very powerful.” The only place in which I saw the word used in the part of Leviathan discussed in The Development of Political Theory and Government is where Hobbes tells how people enter into a covenant to give up their natural rights. Here is what he says: “This done, the multitude so united in one person is called a COMMONWEALTH…. This is the generation of that great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently, of that mortal God, our peace and defence. For by this authority, given him by every particular man in the Commonwealth, he hath the use of so much power and strength conferred on him that, by the terror thereof, he is enabled to form the wills of them all, to peace at home, and mutual aid against their enemies abroad” (Leviathan, page 100). (Although Hobbes refers here to “that great LEVIATHAN as “he” and as having his authority “given” to him, elsewhere he clarifies that it can be a single man or an assembly of men (see above in the paragraph beginning, “However, Hobbes argues”) and can attain its power by force or by voluntary agreement.) “That great LEVIATHAN” described by Hobbes certainly fits the dictionary definition of “leviathan.”

Machiavelli’s The Prince

“Machiavelli, Niccolo, was an Italian statesman and student of politics. His name has long stood for all that is deep, dark, and treacherous in political leadership. In Elizabethan literature, for example, there are hundreds of references that connect him with the Evil One or the Devil.” (The World Book Encyclopedia, 1978, volume 13, page 10)

In the seventh reading of their The Development of Political Theory and Government (volume 2 of The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959), Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff consider Machiavelli’s The Prince. They discuss the period and place in which Machiavelli wrote–the Renaissance and Florence, Italy; his aims and the means he proposed to reach that end; and whether The Prince is immoral. Here I’ll sketch Machiavelli’s life, summarize Adler and Wolff’s examination of Machiavelli’s aims in writing The Prince, evaluate their discussion of whether it is immoral, and share and comment on two quotations on Machiavelli’s influence.

Machiavelli’s Life

Machiavelli was born in Florence in 1469, the son of a minor official. He became a leading figure in the Republic of Florence after the Medici family was driven out in 1498, serving as secretary to the magistracy which directed foreign affairs and defence for fourteen years. Being in charge of the diplomatic correspondence of his bureau and serving as Florentine representative on nearly thirty foreign missions gave him an insight into the politics of Italy and Europe. He also attempted to organize a citizen militia to replace the republic’s mercenary troops.

When the Medici family returned to power in 1512, they dismissed Machiavelli from his position and shortly afterwards imprisoned him on suspicion of being implicated in a conspiracy against the new government. After being released, he spent the remaining fourteen years of his life in retirement on a small farm near Florence inherited from his father. Despite having to spend most of the day working the farm, he spent up to four hours a night in his study, writing The Prince (in 1513) and various other works in the hope of winning the approval of the government. He died in 1527.

Machiavelli’s Aims in Writing The Prince

Adler and Wolff open the main section of their consideration of The Prince with, “Let us examine Machiavelli’s aims and the means he proposes to reach that end” (page 90). Here is part of what they say in that examination:

“[The Prince] is not addressed to all of mankind; it is rather meant only for a prince or king…. Again, The Prince is not a theoretical exposition of its subject…. Rather, it is a practical political treatise; that is to say, it is directed toward action…. The guiding principle of Machiavelli’s writing is the following statement…taken from another book: ‘Whoever desires to found a state and give it laws, must start with assuming that all men are bad and ever ready to display their vicious nature, whenever they may find occasion for it.’ (Discourses, Book I, Ch. 3)

“This statement is not, of course, very flattering to man. Nevertheless, it may well be correct that practical political action takes its beginning from it. Certainly there is much evidence that states deal with one another in a fashion that is based precisely on some such assumption. Power politics, Realpolitik, ‘brink-of-war-policies’ are all based on the hypothesis that sovereign states (and presumably the people composing them) are concerned solely with survival and domination and respect nothing but force and the threat of force.

“Machiavelli can find support in other writers for his position. [Adler and Woolf give quotes from Plato’s The Republic and Aristotle’s Politics which reflect the same low opinion of man.] Machiavelli, therefore, is simply dealing with men as they are, not as they should be…. Both Plato and Aristotle want to check man’s bestiality. Plato propose to do it through education; Aristotle through the state and law. Both of these, of course, are long-range projects. Machiavelli, concerns with man’s present bestiality, suggests that he combat his subjects’ bestiality by becoming a stronger and more clever beast himself.” (Adler and Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, pages 90-92)

Adler and Woolf close their examination of Machiavelli’s aims in writing The Prince by quoting this famous passage from it:

“…there are two ways of contesting, the one by law, the other by force; the first method is proper to men, the second to beasts; but because the first is frequently not sufficient, it is necessary to have recourse to the second…. A prince, therefore, being compelled knowingly to adopt the beast, ought to choose the fox and the lion; because the lion cannot defend himself against snares and the fox cannot defend himself against wolves. Therefore, it is necessary to be a fox to discover the snares and a lion to terrify the wolves.” (Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, volume 23, page 25)

The Morality of The Prince

Adler and Wolff open their discussion of whether The Prince is an immoral book by showing that Plato and Aristotle also advocated that rulers use questionable means to achieve political ends and asking, “Is there any difference…between The Prince, the Republic, and the Politics, or are all three alike immoral books concerned merely with political expediency?” (page 95) They answer that although all three books deal with the means needed to accomplish political ends, they differ greatly in the ends they advocate. They continue:

“Plato’s purpose [in The Republic] was the discovery of justice and the establishment of a perfectly just state. That purpose certainly is highly moral and laudable, whatever we may think of some of the means involved. Aristotle’s Politics is a direct continuation of his moral treatise, the Ethics. Far from considering the state and its laws as things that concern only the rulers, he considers the state necessary for human happiness and thinks that the constitution is man’s salvation. All of his remarks, therefore, must be understood as being governed by the essential moral role which he feels that state plays in man’s life.

“But The Prince is altogether different in its purpose. We can discover no moral end that Machiavelli’s remarks are to serve. There seems to be, in fact, no end that he has in mind except that of success. Machiavelli’s maxim seems to be that everything is permissible as long as it succeeds…. The Prince would seem to be, then, at best an amoral book, and at worst, actually immoral.” (Adler and Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, page 95)

Personally, I consider The Prince to be immoral in that it advocates that rulers use any means, good or bad, to accomplish their purposes. The only condition that Machiavelli places on their doing so is that they give the appearance of doing what is right. This is brought out in this short excerpt from it:

“Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite.

“And you have to understand this, that a prince, especially a new one, cannot observe all those things for which men are esteemed, because often forced, in order to maintain the state, to act contrary to faith, friendship, humanity, and religion. Therefore it is necessary for him to have a mind ready to turn itself accordingly as the winds and variations of fortune force it, yet, as I have said above, not to diverge from the good if he can avoid doing so, but, if compelled, then to know how to set about it.” (Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, volume 23, page 25)

Machiavelli’s Influence

“Machiavelli’s writings soon became known in Italy and other European countries, particularly France and England, although in 1559 his works were placed on the Index [a list of books that the Roman Catholic Church forbade its members to read]. Generally he was considered an advisor of cruel tyrants, an advocate of evil….

“In the nineteenth century, students of Machiavelli…[b]ecause the last chapter of The Prince contains an appeal for the liberation of Italy from the barbarians…assumed that Machiavelli had permitted the violation of moral rules only for the purpose of a higher ethical goal…the foundation of a unified Italy. Thus…Machiavelli became respectable as the prophet of the national state. In the latter part of the century Machiavelli was also referred to by those who wanted to free man from the oppressive shackles of traditional morality and believed that man’s faculties could be fully developed only if he placed himself ‘beyond good and evil.’” (Felix Gilbert, “Machiavelli, Niccolo,” The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, New York/London: MacMillan, 1967, volume 5, page 121)

“Machiavelli’s advice [that princes fortify their cities] is…tailored to the conditions of the fifteenth century. Nevertheless, the policy which the United States is following in the twentieth century seems to be not too different. Like Machiavelli’s prince, the United States is fortifying itself; i.e., building up its defences so that a potential aggressor will be deterred. At the same time, the United States is trying to keep the good will of allies all over the world.” (Adler and Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, page 93)

What about today? Although Donald Trump is early in his tenure as President of United States, it seems to me that he is following the same policy as Adler and Wolff attribute to the United States of the twentieth century. Adler and Wolff don’t claim that twentieth century United States was influenced directly by Machiavelli, and neither do I claim that President Trump is. However the American “What is good for United States is good for the world” policy is certainly an offspring of the nationalism which the The Encyclopedia of Philosophy article quoted above describes Machiavelli to be the prophet of. Thus I can imagine Machiavelli’s applauding Donald Trump’s first one hundred days.

Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica

Ever since encountering Thomas Aquinas’s arguments for the existence of God in his Summa Contra Gentiles when I was a young man, I’ve been impressed by his work. Thus when I acquired Great Books of the Western World, I was pleased to find that it contained his other masterpiece, Summa Theologica. (However I was disappointed that it didn’t also contain John Calvin’s The Institutes of the Christian Religion, an omission that was rectified when the set was later expanded.) I still respect Summa Theologica, but I don’t use it as much as I use some of my other systematic theologies, its being much older than them (it was written in 1267-73) and from a Roman Catholic perspective, its being somewhat difficult to read (see below), and its seeming to treat Aristotle (“the Philosopher”) and Augustine as being as authoritative as the Bible.

In their The Development of Political Theory and Government (volume 2 of The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959), Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff consider part of “Treatise on Law” in Summa Theologica. They consider questions 90-97, which deal with law in general, eternal law, natural law, and human law, but not questions 98-108, which deal with the law of the Old Testament and the law of the New Testament. Here I’ll give Aquinas’s definitions of law, eternal law, natural law, and human law and summarize what he discusses about each. I’ll also note and comment on the two reasons which Adler and Wolff give for most people’s finding Summa Theologica difficult to read.

“Law” is “a rule and measure of acts, by which man is induced to act or restrained from acting” (vol. 20 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 151, page 205). Aquinas discusses the essence of law, the kinds of law, and the effects of law. Under the essence of law he considers whether it is something pertaining to reason, whether it is always directed to the common good, whether the reason of any man is able to make laws, and whether promulgation is essential to a law. Under the kinds of law he identifies eternal law, natural law, human law, Divine law (which he divides into the Old Law and the New Law), and the law of sin. Under the effects of the law he considers whether the effect of law is to make men good and whether the acts of law are suitably assigned as consisting in command, prohibition, permission, and punishment.

“Eternal law” is “the Divine Reason’s [eternal] conception of things” (page 208). Aquinas discusses what eternal law is, whether it is known to all, whether every law is derived from it, whether necessary things are subject to it, whether natural contingents are subject to it, and whether all human beings are subject to it.

“Natural law” is “the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law” (page 209). Aquinas discusses what natural law is, what its precepts are, whether all acts of virtue are prescribed by it, whether it is the same in all, whether it is changeable, and whether it can be abolished from the heart of man.

“Human law” consists of “particular determinations, devised by human reason … provided the other essential conditions of law be observed” (page 210). Aquinas discusses it in itself, its power, and its mutability. In his discussion of human law in itself he considers the usefulness of laws framed by men, the derivation of human laws from natural law, the quality of human law, and the division of human law. In his discussion of the power of human law he considers whether it should be framed in a general way rather than for a particular case, whether it should repress all vices, whether it should direct all acts of virtue, whether it binds men in conscience, whether all men are subject to it, and whether those who are under a law may act beside the letter of the law. In his discussion of change in laws he considers whether human law is changeable, whether it should always be changed whenever anything better occurs, whether custom can obtain the force of law or abolish a law, and whether the rulers of the people can dispense from human laws.

As Adler and Woolf observe, Summa Theologica was written for the instruction of beginners but most people find it difficult to read. Adler and Woolf give two reasons, the first being that although the “beginners’ whom Aquinas had in mind were beginners in theology they were also university students with good training in the liberal arts. Related to this difficulty are Aquinas’s numerous references to writers not familiar to or accessible by most modern readers.

The second reason which Adler and Woolf give is the structure of the articles into which Summa Theologica is divided:
– a title; for example, the title for the first article in “treatise of Law” is “Whether Law Is Something Pertaining to Reason”
– an “It would seem” statement indicating the opposite of Aquinas’s conclusion; for example, the statement for the first article in “Treatise on Law” is “It would seem that law is not something pertaining to reason”
– three or four arguments in favour of the “It would seem” statement; Aquinas calls them “objections” because they are opposed to his view
– an “On the contrary” statement usually containing quotations from one or more authorities stating a view contrary to the “It would seem” statement
– a lengthy “I answer that” section arguing for Aquinas’s view
– replies to the objections, usually one for each objection
Adler and Woolf recommend reading the “I answer that” section before reading the objections and reading the replies to the objections with the objections. Although following their advice would likely make following Aquinas’s discussion, I still read his presentation in the order in which he gives it.

Tacitus’s The Annals

“Renowned as a public orator and high official in Rome’s imperial administration, Tacitus achieved lasting fame with the historical writing of his later years, in which his political experience and literary skill combine to describe the character of 1st century Roman rule. Though soundly based, this work was often adapted, even distorted, to fit his own view of the empire, which he saw as a study in the pathology of tyranny, where power corrupted and impotence had led to degeneration. Tacitus exploited a brilliant style to emphasize, as well as to record, his interpretation.” (“Tacitus, Cornelius,” in Encyclopedia Britannica, 1974, volume 17, page 982)

In their The Development of Political Theory and Government (volume 2 of The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959), Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff consider Books I and XIII-XVI of Tacitus’s The Annals. Book I describes the beginning of the reign of Tiberius, the immediate successor of Augustus, and Books XIII-XVI the reign of Nero. Although I was often confused by Tacitus’s references to people and events which I knew nothing or little about, I understood enough to appreciate his loathing of Nero, who had killed his brother Britannicus, his mother Agrippina, his wife Octavia, the Stoic philosopher Seneca (once his teacher), and numerous Roman senators, nobles, and officeholders. But contributing even more to Nero’s very bad reputation was the fire which almost destroyed Rome. It was even rumoured that he had started the fire but, as Tacitus indicates, it may have started accidentally.

However the fire started, Nero tried to get rid of the suspicion that he had ordered it by fastening the guilt on someone else. Here is what Tacitus says about his doing so:

“To get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite torture s on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the supreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurator, Pontius Pilate, and a mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, and immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.” (The Annals in volume 15 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952, page 168)

Nero’s having killed so many family members and other important people and his treatment of Christians certainly demonstrate “the pathology of tyranny” which Tacitus viewed the history of Rome to be a study in.

As usual, Adler and Woolf follow their consideration of the reading with the discussion of a few questions about the reading. The last of the questions they pose about The Annals is whether “imperial rule over colonies and dependencies [is] compatible with constitutional government” (The Development of Political Theory and Government, page 67). After quoting the following passage from a later work by Tacitus, “That old passion for power which has been ever innate in man increased and broke out as the Empire grew in greatness. In a state of moderate dimensions equality was easily preserved; but when the world had been subdued, when all rival kings and cities had been destroyed, and men had leisure to covet wealth which they might enjoy in security the early conflicts between the patricians and the people were kindled into flame” (The Histories, in volume 15 of Great Books of the Western World, page 224), they suggest that he is implying that imperial expansion will lead to civil war because all want to share in the new luxuries and that despotic rule is the only way to avoid civil war. They conclude their discussion by saying that sympathy with this thought “may help explain the traditional American fear of entangling alliances or any form of empire building” (The Development of Political Theory and Government, page 68). I found this observation particularly interesting in light of the current discussion in the USA about involvement in alliances.

Old Testament and New Testament

“The Western tradition is heir to Judaeo-Christian as well as to Greco-Roman thought. The Bible is an important source for our basic political ideas….

“The biblical questions and answers differ from those in Greco-Roman thought. For the latter, the problem of the form of government concerns the alternatives of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. In the Bible, it concerns the choice between God and man, between divine and human law. The question is not one of freedom or slavery in a political sense, but adherence or nonadherence to the rule of God. This concern played a part in Western political thought down to fairly recent times.” (“Old Testament…New Testament” in Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, volume 2 of The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959, pages 43-44)

Adler and Wolff go on to consider three unconnected texts from the Bible: 1 Samuel, Matthew 22:15-22, and Acts 21:1-26:32). I’ll quote and comment on at least part of each of them. All Biblical quotations are from the ESV.

1 Samuel 8:4-22

“The selection from the Old Testament deals with the problem of how a people which has agreed to be ruled by God can appoint a human king. Is there a basic tension between religious and political loyalties?” (Adler and Wolff, page 43)

4 Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah 5 and said to him, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” 6 But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” And Samuel prayed to the LORD. 7 And the LORD said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. 8 According to all the deeds that they have done, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you. 9 Now then, obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”
(Verses 10-18 record Samuel’s warning to the people of the ways of the king who would rule over them, some inevitable but others abuse of power.)
19 But the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel. And they said, “No! But there shall be a king over us, 20 that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.” 21 And when Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the LORD. 22 And the LORD said to Samuel, “Obey their voice and make them a king.” Samuel then said to the men of Israel, “Go every man to his city.”

The Jewish people regarded themselves as being ruled over by God Himself who had made a covenant with them and appointed Moses, Joshua, and a succession of judges to lead them on His behalf. In the years before the above passage the prophet Samuel fulfilled this role, but having grown old he had recently appointed his two sons to judge Israel (the Jewish people). Unfortunately they “accepted bribes and perverted justice” for the sake of “dishonest gain” (8:3). Thus the elders asked Samuel to appoint a king for them, giving as reasons for their request his age and the misconduct of his sons. However their real reason is revealed in their answer to his warning them of the ways of a king–they wanted to be like the nations around them with a king to lead them in battle. When they rejected the warning and continued to insist on having a king. God told Samuel to do what they wanted.

Actually God had long before foreseen such an event occurring, telling the Israelites in the wilderness through Moses, “When you come to the land that the LORD your God is giving you and dwell in it and then say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,’ you may indeed set a king over you, whom the LORD your God will choose,” and giving them some rules regarding those kings (Deuteronomy 17:14-20). The king was to be chosen by God and to be under him just as the judges had been, but the king would reign like the kings of the nations around Israel, as Samuel warned the elders, and would be succeeded by a son.

Adler and Wolff pose the question, “Is there really such a form of government as theocracy [rule by God}? Or are there only various forms of government, such as monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, each of which may claim to be led by God?” (page 50). In their discussion of the question they distinguish between Moses, Joshua, and the judges, who were viceregents for God, and kings, who although they were picked by God had more autonomy than judges.

Matthew 22:15-22

“The passage from Matthew deals with the problem of conforming to the administrative requirements of a pagan empire. Whom shall we serve, God or Caesar?” (Adler and Wolff, pages 43-44).

15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. 16 And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21 They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.

Two groups with opposing views of Roman rule came together to try to trap Jesus, the Pharisees who were ardent nationalists opposed Roman rule and the Herodians who supported the Roman rule of the Herods. They began by flattering Jesus and then sprang the question “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” Jesus realized that if he replied positively to the question the Pharisees would accuse him of impiety towards God but if he replied negatively to it the Herodians would accuse him of sedition towards the Roman empire. Instead he asked for a coin, drew attention to Caesar’s image on it, and said that it belonged to the imperial rulers. Thus he separated the political and religious realms and said to render to each what belongs to it.

Adler and Wolff pose the question, “What are the things which are Caesar’s, and what are the things which are God’s?” (page 52). They open their discussion of the question by observing that in Israel even under the monarchy the sacred and secular realms were hard to separate but that in a universal faith like Christianity separation between them is necessary. They go on to consider which functions belong to the state and which to the church, looking at their roles in education and in contractual matters. Then they consider what is to be done if there is conflict between the commands of the state and those of religion. Finally they consider whether the state must respect all religious practices and whether the church must respect all secular laws.

I like John Calvin’s comment on “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Here is part of what he says:

“The error Christ wanted to refute is the idea that a people cannot belong to God unless it is free of the yoke of human rule. Paul presses the same point home. No man should think he is giving less service to the one God when he obeys human laws, pays tax, or bows his head to accept any other burden. In short he declares that God’s Law is not violated or His worship offended if the Jews in external government obey the Romans. I think that he is looking askance at their hypocrisy in allowing God’s worship to be violated in so many things…yet taking up with such burning zeal a trivial matter…. But to get His message across to the man in the street Christ is content to distinguish the spiritual Kingdom of God from the political order and round of current affairs. Keep the distinction firm: the Lord wishes to be sole Lawgiver for the government of souls, with no rule of worship to be sought from any other source than His Word, and our adherence to the only pure service there enjoined, yet the power of the sword, the laws of the land and decisions of the courts, in no way prevent the perfect will of God from flourishing in our midst…. In short the overthrow of civil order is rebellion against God, and obedience to leaders and magistrates is always linked to the worship and fear of God, but if in return the leaders usurp the rights of God they are to be denied obedience as far as possible short of offence to God.” (A Harmony of the Gospels Matthew, Mark and Luke in Calvin’s Commentaries, Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1972, volume III, pages 26-27)

Acts 23:26-30; 25:14-21

“And the third text, from the Acts of the Apostles, shows how the Roman concept of citizenship conflicts with the demand of religious orthodoxy” (Adler and Wolff, page 44).

26 “Claudius Lysias, to his Excellency the governor Felix, greetings. 27 This man was seized by the Jews and was about to be killed by them when I came upon them with the soldiers and rescued him, having learned that he was a Roman citizen. 28 And desiring to know the charge for which they were accusing him, I brought him down to their council. 29 I found that he was being accused about questions of their law, but charged with nothing deserving death or imprisonment. 30 And when it was disclosed to me that there would be a plot against the man, I sent him to you at once, ordering his accusers also to state before you what they have against him.”

14 …”There is a man left prisoner by Felix, 15 and when I was at Jerusalem, the chief priests and the elders of the Jews laid out their case against him, asking for a sentence of condemnation against him. 16 I answered them that it was not the custom of the Romans to give up anyone before the accused met the accusers face to face and had opportunity to make his defense concerning the charge laid against him. 17 So when they came together here, I made no delay, but on the next day took my seat on the tribunal and ordered the man to be brought. 18 When the accusers stood up, they brought no charge in his case of such evils as I supposed. 19 Rather they had certain points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a certain Jesus, who was dead, but whom Paul asserted to be alive. 20 Being at a loss how to investigate these questions, I asked whether he wanted to go to Jerusalem and be tried there regarding them. 21 But when Paul had appealed to be kept in custody for the decision of the emperor, I ordered him to be held until I could send him to Caesar.”

Adler and Woolf survey the incidents between Paul’s being rescued from a Jewish mob by a Roman tribune and his soldiers in Acts 21 to his appearing before the Jewish king in Acts 26 prior to his being sent to Rome. All that I’ve given above are the letter written by the tribune, Claudius Lysias, to the governor of Judea, Felix, and what the successor of Felix, Festus, told the Jewish king, Agrippa II, about Paul in preparation for Paul’s appearing before Agrippa.

The tribune’s letter omits a detail that could have gotten him in trouble. He’d been about to have Paul flogged to find out why the mob was so angry with him when Paul asked, “Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?” It wasn’t, and immediately the tribute countermanded his order that Paul be flogged. Thus Paul took advantage of his Roman citizenship to escape being flogged.

Festus’ account to Agrippa refers to another time when Paul took advantage of his Roman citizenship. Having heard the Jews’ charges against Paul and Paul’s defence, Festus had concluded that the issue was a religious one and proposed Paul’s going to Jerusalem to be tried by the Jews. To avoid this Paul exercised his right as a Roman citizen to have his case heard by the emperor.

Adler and Wolff pose the question, “What are the rights and duties of citizenship especially with respect to religion?” (page 53). They prelude their discussion of the question by comparing Roman citizenship and American citizenship with respect to the rights of a person with either when in another province or country. Then they show that religious toleration (a citizen’s being able to oppose the state on religious matters) is only possible where there is true separation of state and religion. Finally they quote the first amendment of the Constitution of the United States, Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…,” and present these questions to demonstrate that the problems of religious tolerance are complex:

“Does a citizen only have the right to freedom of religious belief and worship or are there certain duties connected with this? Does the state have any rights against the church? Does the separation of church and state imply not only that there is no established religion, but also that secularism is officially advocated by the state? Or is secularism as much a religion as any of the particular faiths? Is it consistent with the doctrine of separation of church and state to include in the oath of allegiance the phrase ‘under God’? Does this take away religious freedom from citizens who do not believe in God?” (pages 54-55)

Plutarch’s Lives – Tiberius Gracchus & Gaius Gracchus

“Political and social ideas which may have been remote abstractions for us now take on life. From Plato we got the image of an ideal state, from Aristotle the insight that the conflict of the rich and the poor is a permanent feature of political life. In the present reading, we see what actually happened in Sparta when two young, idealistic kings tried to restore the virtue, austerity, and glory of olden times. Their efforts to divide land equally and cancel debts met the implacable opposition of the wealthy classes. The lives of both kings ended in tragic and violent deaths, one by legal lynching, the other by suicide. Plutarch also tells us the parallel story of two brothers from a noble family in Rome who became leaders of the common people and sponsored a program of social reforms. They, too, met the opposition of the wealthy and well-born. One of them was lynched by a mob of senators. The other escaped a similar fate by suicide.” (“Plutarch: The Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans” in Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Woolf, The Development of Political Theory and Government, volume 2 of The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959, pages 31-32)

My reading about the two Roman brothers, Tiberius and Gaius (Caius in Plutarch) Gracchus, in Plutarch’s Lives was not my first encounter with them. I’d previously met them in Ancient History in university and possibly even earlier in Ancient and Medieval History in high school. However about all that I remembered about them from those earlier encounters was that they met their deaths trying to win rights for the ordinary people. Besides reading Plutarch’s accounts of their lives (guided by Adler and Woolf), I read the articles about them in Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia.

Tiberius and Gaius were born about 163 and 153 B.C., respectively, in a distinguished patrician (upper class) family. Tiberius served with distinction as a junior officer in the Third Punic War (147-146 B.C.), the last of three wars between Rome and Carthage in northern Africa. In 137 B.C. his personal integrity and family reputation enabled him to save the Roman army in Spain from destruction by signing a peace treaty with the Numanites.

In 133 B.C. Tiberius was elected to the office of tribune, a position designed to protect the rights and interests of the plebeians (the lower class) from the patricians. Immediately he began pushing for a program of land reforms. Much land acquired by the Roman state in its conquest of Italy had fallen into the hands of large landholders, who drove peasants off their farms and worked the land with slaves. The peasants were often forced into idleness in Rome, having to subsist on handouts due to a scarcity of paid work. Tiberius invoked an old law that limited the amount of land that could be owned by a single individual and established a commission to oversee the redistribution of illegal land holdings from the large landowners to the poor and homeless in Rome in plots large enough to support themselves and their families. The large landowners would be paid for the land that they had to forfeit.

Knowing that the Senate (composed of patricians) wouldn’t approve the proposed land reforms, Tiberius took them directly to the Popular Assembly, which was legal but insulting to the Senate and thus alienated senators who might otherwise have supported him. The Senate persuaded another tribune, Marcus Octavius, to use his veto to prevent the submission of the bill to the Assembly. Tiberius got the Assembly to vote to remove Octavius from office. The bill then passed, but the expulsion of Octavius alienated many of Tiberius’ supporters, their feeling that it undermined the authority of the tribunate.

Another complication arose in effecting the land reforms–the Senate allocated trivial funds to the commission that had been appointed to carry them out. However when the king of Pergamum died, he left his kingdom and fortune to Rome and Tiberius used his power as tribune to assign the fortune to the land commission. His doing so challenged the Senate’s traditional control of public finances and foreign affairs and increased its opposition to Tiberius and his policies. It threatened to prosecute him at the end of his term as tribune for his actions against Octavius.

Tiberius responded by standing for a second term in 132 B.C. Unsuccessful in getting a consul (chief magistrate) to stop the elections by force, the senators started a riot. Although it may have begun as an attempt to disperse the electoral meeting, it ended with the clubbing to death of Tiberius and about 300 of his supporters and the throwing of their bodies into the river. Following the massacre many more of Tiberius’ followers were punished. However to mollify the people, the Senate allowed the land commission to continue.

Gaius’ political career began in 133 B.C. when he was one of the three members of Tiberius’ land commission (the others were Tiberius and his father-in-law). In 126 B.C. he became a quaestor, an official concerned mainly with finance, in the Roman province of Sardinia. In 123 B.C. he was elected to be a tribune. Besides reviving his brother’s land reform program, he proposed laws providing free clothing for the common soldiers, giving all Italians the right to vote in elections, setting lower prices on corn, and joining three hundred knights with the three hundred senators who sat as judges; Plutarch says that he gained his greatest reputation by the last of these. Most of his legislation passed and he was elected to a second tribunate in 122 B.C.

Feeling threatened by Gaius’ popularity and legislation, the Senate backed another tribune, Marcus Livius Drusus. He was told not to incite violence but instead to propose legislation that would please the common people and make it known that he had the Senate’s backing. His doing so made some people more kindly toward the Senate. As well, not wanting to share the benefits of Roman citizenship, even the plebians didn’t approve of Gaius’ franchise bill that sought to extend Roman citizenship to Latin-speaking allies and the status of Latin allies to other Italic people. The bill was rejected and Gaius failed to secure election to a third term as tribune.

A new consul (chief administrator), Lucius Opimius, a strong conservative who wanted to restore power to the Senate, made it his mission to unseat Gaius. Aided by Drusus, he set out to repeal as many of Gaius’ measures as possible. On the day that he planned to repeal them, a scuffle arose between the supporters of the two opposing groups on the Capitoline Hill which led to the death of an attendant of Opimius. This gave him a pretext for action and he got the Senate to pass a bill giving him the right to protect the state and suppress tyrants. He organized a heavily armed force and the next day a massacre followed. Knowing that he’d be executed if he were arrested, Gaius committed suicide. 3000 of his supporters were subsequently arrested and put to death. All of his reforms were undermined except the grain laws.

However the people, “though humble, and affrighted at the time, did not fail before long to let everyone see what respect and veneration they had for the memory of the Gracchi. They ordered their statues to be made and set up in public view; they consecrated the places where they were slain, and thither brought the first-fruits of everything, according to the season of the year, to make their offerings. Many came likewise thither to their devotions, and daily worshipped there, as at the temple of the gods.” (Plutarch, The Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans, volume 14 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page 689)

Following their introduction to Plutarch’s accounts of the lives of Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus (and of the two Spartan kings referred to in the quotation with which I opened this post) in The Great Ideas Program Adler and Wolff pose some questions to provoke thought about them. One that prompted thought in me was, “Were the demands of these reformers just?” Adler and Woolf begin their response to the question by observing that taking property from the very rich and giving it to the poor may have had a worthy end and been good for the state but go on to ask if it accorded with the just rights of the rich. “Is what these men proposed and executed not expropriation? Is employing such a means justified by their end?” (“Plutarch: The Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans” in Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Woolf, The Development of Political Theory and Government, volume 2 of The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959, page 40)

Reading about the lives of Tiberius and Gauis Gracchus prompted me to reflect on the contemporary situation in the United States. Like them its president, Donald Trump is a member of the upper class acting (or claiming to be acting) for the lower class; like them he has sparked opposition from those wanting to maintain the status quo and their position in it; and like them he has responded aggressively. Hopefully his life won’t end the way that their lives did.

The quotation from The Great Ideas Program with which I introduced this post refers to two Spartan kings as well as to two Roman brothers. The kings were Agis IV and Cleomenes III and, in doing the The Great Ideas Program reading, I read encyclopedia articles on them as well as Plutarch’s accounts of their lives. However I decided to consider in this post just the Roman brothers, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, whom as I observed above I’d encountered earlier.