The Medieval Christian Origins of Western Democracy: Response to ‘Loki’

‘Loki’ has posted this comment on my blog piece, The Medieval Christian Origins of Western Democracy: Part Two:

The government of the USA is based partly on Rome’s model, which is centuries older than Jesus. Direct democracy existed in Athens, Greece centuries before Christ was even born.

Christianity was a speedbump for Western democracy, not it’s origin.

Let’s deal with the individual statements in the post.

Firstly, the point

‘The government of the USA is based partly on Rome’s model, which is centuries older than Jesus. Direct democracy existed in Athens, Greece centuries before Christ was even born.’

I don’t dispute that. Indeed, I say that the Patristic writers, such as St. Augustine, took their contract view of the origins of society from classical writers, like Plato. Furthermore, when constitutional writers and political theorists like Algernon Sidney went on to discuss these issues in the 17th and 18th centuries, they frequently made use of events in the classical past. Sidney uses Roman history to justify popular rebellion against a tyrant. The anonymous author of England’s Misery and Remedy cites classical authorities, such as Camillus and Pliny. So no, I don’t actually deny that modern democracy is based on ancient Roman and Greek precedents.

However, there are strong differences between ancient democracy and our own. Ancient Greek society was strongly oligarchical. Women, slaves and resident aliens – metics – did not possess the right to vote. Neither labourers, artisans or merchants. When Aristotle talks about democracy in The Politics, he actually refers to the condition where the vote is still restricted to individuals with incomes from their land, in other words, leisured gentlemen. He did not believe that the hoi polloi – ordinary people, who had to work for their living – should have the vote as they did not have the time or education to devote to politics.

Now we come to your second point:

Christianity was a speedbump for Western democracy, not it’s origin.

Firstly, this assumes that the autocratic character of medieval and early modern politics was solely due to Christianity. This is not the case. Christianity may have reinforced the power of the king through St. Paul’s dictum that rulers should be obeyed, but democracy or popular politics had declined in the ancient world before Christianity became the state religion. To most people in the early modern period, when modern theories of government were being formed and constructed, democracy was a failed experiment. It was associated with political instability and civil war. If you remember, the first Roman Emperor, Philip Augustus, took power after a series of popular rebellions, which he put down. He closed the political clubs, though to prevent anyone becoming suspicious of his own political ambitions, called himself ‘First Citizens’ – princeps, rather than a title like ‘king’. The period of democracy in Athens was actually quite short-lived, perhaps only twenty years or so. More recently a book has been published stating that the ancient Greek’s legacy to medieval Europe wasn’t democracy, but sacral kingship. As for medieval feudalism, Fernand Braudel and other historians of medieval European society have shown that it arose through the retreat of the ancient Roman senatorial aristocracy to their estates on the one hand, and the military aristocracies of the invading barbarians on the other. Economic and social forces from the Second Century onwards worked to force the free Roman classes into a position where they were no better than slaves. The result was the rise of feudalism, where political power and military service are collapsed together in the power of the local landlord. By the 16th century, the view had arisen that nations were free to choose whichever system of government most suited them. However, they felt that monarchy was the best, as it gave the king absolute power to check dangerous rebellions and threats to public order. In practice it was expected that the monarch would not do so, and would respect his subjects’ liberty and property.

The Reformation and Wars of Religion brought issues of government, its forms and the power of monarchs and their legitimacy to a head. As a result, theologians and political philosophers drew on ancient and Biblical history to explore these issues, and this included arguing for representative government and popular liberty.

So no, I don’t deny that modern American democracy is ultimately based on that of ancient Greece and Roman. However, these classical precedents were revived, modified and expanded in the largely Christian culture of late medieval and early modern Europe.

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