One of the great changes of the last fifty years is that broad populations have lost their respect for politicians. Such changes can have profound effects. Without legitimacy, it’s only a matter of time before an empire fails.
Continued from last week…
LIFE IN THE NEW EMPIRE
Daily life during the reign of the Church in Europe was stable. Life was not especially good – there were, for example, frequent famines and ever-changing political alliances – but the Church was clearly regarded as the moral center of the universe, and they were generally able to move the various secular rulers into paths that the Church chose, or at least into paths they could use with a back-up plan.
The Pope reigned as a king of kings, by maintaining a monopoly on legitimacy.
The Europeans of the Middle Ages were convinced that the order of their lives had been established by God and that to challenge that divine order would be a horrible offense. They saw a world made up of three types of people:
- Latores– The kings and lesser nobles, who protected everyone else.
- Oratores– The clergy, who interceded with God for everyone else.
- Laboratores– The peasants, who fed everyone else.
There were always a few specialists on the fringes, such as itinerant traders and Jews, but they were not terribly many and always subject to violence if they attracted too much attention. So, they seldom made much trouble.
Obviously, this was a horrible structure for production. Humans, after all, vary greatly in their talents, and any system that makes good use of human ability must allow people to operate where their personal talents are most effective. But, if breaking out of your hereditary ‘place’ is a sin, your talents are a non-issue. It was God’s will that you were born into a certain class, so that is where you had to stay. And, once again, this rigid structure was first prescribed by Plato. He writes:
You are brothers, yet God has framed you differently. Some of you he has made like gold, who have the power of command, and also they have the greatest honour; others he has made of silver, to be auxillaries; others again who are to be husbandmen and craftsmen he has composed of brass and iron; and the species will generally be preserved in the children. … God proclaims as a first principle to the rulers, and above all else, that there is nothing which should so anxiously guard, or of which they are to be such good guardians, as of the purity of the race. … If the son of a golden or silver parent has an admixture of brass and iron, then nature orders a transposition of ranks, and the eye of the ruler must not be pitiful towards the child because he has to descend in the scale and become a husbandman or artisan … When a man of brass or iron guards the State, it will be destroyed.
A very interesting comment follows, after someone asks whether installing this idea in the populace is a practical possibility in the current situation. Plato goes on:
Not in the present generation… there is no way of accomplishing this; but their sons may be made to believe in the tale, and their sons’ sons, and posterity after them.
This is precisely what was done in medieval Europe. The people were made to believe something that did not come naturally to them – and it enslaved their minds for a thousand years. And, to an extent, this idea remains. This formulation of Plato and his empire has strongly contributed to the gut feeling of many mixed-race people that they are somehow inferior. The amount of human suffering caused by this giant lie has been astronomical.
GATHERING THE SURPLUS
We have previously described methods of expansion for previous civilizations, and showed that they all involved surplus production. This is a critical mechanism, and one that Professor Quigley defines as the defining characteristic of a civilization.
In the Mesopotamian civilization, surplus went directly upward from the people to a ruler. Then, as small centers of ruler-dominance were strung together into empires, portions went upward through middle layers of administrators and to the top levels of kings-of-kings, also called emperors. All through this era, surplus was used to build armies and monuments, and very little went to productive uses, such as the improvement of agriculture, metallurgy or the like.
In classical civilization, surplus-gathering was decentralized. Surplus passed into the hands of a local farmer, who put it to work productively. In the early days of Greece and Rome, very little surplus left the places where it was used productively, and the civilizations thrived. Only later did both groups divert surplus to central political centers, where, again, it was used for armies and monuments. And, once again, the civilizations rotted.
During the time of this Platonic Empire, surplus was gathered by spiritual coercion far more than it was by direct force or even by political authority. Although production through this era was relatively low, there was surplus, and it was primarily gathered by the Church in the form of tithes, alms and other donations. (Some did go to kings, who used it for the usual armies and lavish living, though not much for monuments – that would have been condemned by the Church, so it was not done. The kings and princes did not want to risk the little legitimacy they retained.)
Probably the most effective method of surplus-gathering was bequests to the Church. A bequest to the Church assured that the deceased would have many Masses said for him, greatly reducing the unpleasant time he would otherwise have to spend in Purgatory. By the time of the Protestant reformation, the Catholic Church owned a shockingly large number of properties in Europe. This may have exceeded a third (and possibly approached half) of all the land that comprises modern France.
ONCE AGAIN, LEGITIMACY FAILS
In the film, Ben Hur, the Tribune Messala utters a memorable line, saying: I’ll tell you how to fight an idea – with another idea! This is what happened to the Church of Rome. In fact, it was a source of their own legitimacy that ruined them, a great irony.
During the reign of the Church knowledge was contained and controlled, but it could not be utterly done away with. For one thing, they needed to be the arbiters of Jesus, and that required the ability to quote him. With their legitimacy justified by being the successors to Jesus, Church functionaries had to be familiar with the story. They were very careful, however, that only the clergy had full access to Jesus’ words. In fact, there are comments from the end of this period where the scriptures are called “the pearl of the clergy,” which is taken from a saying of Jesus. Seeing this passage to completion, it was said that this pearl should not be “cast to the swine.” The “swine,” of course, being common people.
But, Jesus’ words had been written. They remained. The Empire tried to keep them wrapped up, but they also needed literacy in order to operate their empire. And that meant that real human beings had to be able to read. And that was risky. The Church losing control of Jesus’ words would make alternate interpretations possible. This would bring them back to the days before Constantine’s council of Nicea and a unified doctrine. And if that happened, their legitimacy would be fractured and scattered in any number of directions. With no monopoly on legitimacy, their rule would end.
There are anecdotal stories all though the rule of the Church, telling of non-conformists in the Alps who retained both the scriptures and their own interpretations of them. Additional stories tell of these people doing things like smuggling passages of scripture into schools. But, there is little confirmation for these stories. It is certain that such people did exist by the 12th century (1101-1200), commonly called Waldensians1. And, the Church, understanding the threat, used great effort to eliminate them by any means available, including massacre.
There were always clergymen differing with the Pope during the rule of the Church, but the massive authority of the papacy was quickly brought against them and none spread their variant ideas very far. Ironically, it was the writings of Plato’s ancient adversary, Aristotle, that were pivotal in turning the tide.
While manuscripts of Aristotle had long existed in Latin, they didn’t get much play. The Crusaders, however, returned from the east in the 11th and 12th centuries with more and better copies in Greek. Aristotle’s ideas were not only new to most of the Europeans, but they had been highly respected in ancient times, which gave them some legitimacy. This made them very attractive in a time when thinking was restricted to one path only.
By the early 13th century, Aristotle was very popular in the schools of Paris. As a result, a Papal legate in Paris forbade teachers to lecture on Aristotle in 1225. Deeming this insufficient, Pope Gregory IX formed a commission to edit out all objectionable passages of Aristotle’s works in 1231. But there were, at this moment, another group of forgotten heroes in Paris – more of the true benefactors of our race, whose names are lost to history. These people were willing to face serious risks for what they believed, and they simply disobeyed the Pope, his emissaries and his orders. The seemingly omnipotent authority of the papacy was unable to stop them. As a result, by 1260 Aristotle was taught in virtually every Christian school. The Church did its best to merge Aristotle with their teachings, but it was a difficult mix. The Church had been built upon Plato, and Aristotle wrote some of his works in refutation of Plato.
It is fairly well known that most early Christian reformers were clergy. These were the people who had access to the New Testament, and reading Jesus’ teachings led them to question the system they served. Ultimately, it made the bravest of them reject the Roman Catholic system, which had become horribly corrupt over time… as structures of central power always do.
The first great reformer was John Wycliffe, and he undertook the work of condemning the Church for extra-biblical teachings and corruption with exceptional ability. Then, Wycliffe created an even greater irritation to the Church by publishing the New Testament in English. This was a gigantic threat to the Church’s precious legitimacy. Once anyone could read the record of Jesus for himself, he could form his own opinions and the Church’s monopoly on legitimacy would be dead.
The Church tried to stop John Wycliffe, but he was far from Rome and the processes of the day were ill-designed for this sort of threat. By the time they came for Wycliffe, he was already dead2. Worse, there was a decentralized group of followers called Lollards continuing his work. Over time, they influenced many more reformers, such as Hus and Luther, who put a final end to Rome’s monopoly on legitimacy.
The Church struggled long, dirty and hard to reverse the situation, but by the year 1500 it was clear that the changes were unstoppable. Guttenberg’s printing press not only made Protestantism’s victory certain, but it greatly sped up the process. The official end of Plato’s Empire came in 1638, when the Peace of Westphalia legally removed religious compulsion from rulership and gave Protestantism (in any number of forms) equal standing with the Church of Rome.
Certainly the Church of Rome continues, and certainly it continues to claim a special legitimacy, but its ability to maintain a monopoly on legitimacy is gone, and with it, its empire.
1There are stories tracing the line of the Waldensians back to Claude of Turin in the 9th Century, but though these stories do have their appeal, I have yet to find much evidence to support their authenticity.
2They did dig up his body, burn it, and throw his ashes in a nearby river.
To be continued…
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