Step Aside Beza and Locke, Say Hello to Almain and Mair

A week away gave me the chance to read another very impressive book by Francis Oakley, this time on conciliarism. I will be posting about the implications of Oakley’s argument not only for claims of papal supremacy but also for considering the relations between the Middle Ages and the Reformation. But for now, here’s an earlier argument from Quentin Skinner on the import of medieval conciliarism for resistance theory and revolution:

The study of radical politics in early modern Europe has for some time been dominated by the concept of “Calvinist theory of revolution.” I have now sought to suggest that strictly speaking no such entity exists. The revolutions of sixteenth-century Europe were, of course, largely conducted by professed Calvinists, but the theories in terms of which they sought to explain and justify their actions were not, at least in their main outlines, specifically Calvinist at all. When the Calvinist George Buchanan stated for the first time on behalf of the Reformed Churches a fully secularized and populist theory of political resistance, he was largely restating a position already attained by the Catholic John Mair in his teaching at the Sorbonne over a half a century before. Mair and his pupils had bequeathed to the era of the Reformation all the leading elements of the classic and most radical version of the early modern theory of revolution, the version most familiar to us from the closing chapters of John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government. It only remained for Mair’s pupil Buchanan to take over the concepts and arguments he had learnt from his scholastic teachers and press them into service on behalf of the Calvinist cause. (“The Origins of the Calvinist Theory of Revolution,” in After the Reformation, 324-25)

Striking to observe is Skinner’s account of when the scholastic conciliar ideas regained traction in Europe:

Early in the sixteenth century these legal and conciliarist ideas were revived and extended by a group of avowed followers of Ockham and Gerson at the University of Paris. The occasion for this development was provided by the fact that the French king, Louis XII, became involved in a quarrel with Pope Julius II in 1510, after the collapse of the League of Cambrai. Alarmed by Louis’ decisive victory over the Venetians in the previous year, Julius sought to repudiate the alliance he had formed with the French in 1508. Louis responded by appealing over the pope’s head to a General Council of the Church, calling at the same time on the University of Paris to confirm his claim that the Church as a body possessed a higher authority than the pope. The professors at the Sorbonne produced in reply a number of systematic works of political theory, defending the idea of popular sovereignty not only as a claim about the government of the Church, but also as a thesis about the location of political authority in the State.

Skinner notes that one of these professors was John Mair (1467-1550), under whom Buchanan and Calvin studied.

For Almain as well as Mair the point of departure in the analysis of political society is the idea of the original freedom of the people. . . . The origin of political society is thus traced to two complementary developments: the fact that God gave men the capacity to form such communities in order to remedy their sins; and the fact that men duly made use of these rational powers in order to “introduce kings” by “an act of consent on the part of the people” as a means of improving their own welfare and security. (321-22)

Rather than the papacy being a solution to the disorder of the modern world, the popes’ assertion of power in the heady days of the 13th and 14th centuries may have produced reactions that allowed republicanism and constitutionalism to eventually prevail in the West.

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10 thoughts on “Step Aside Beza and Locke, Say Hello to Almain and Mair

  1. “The study of radical politics in early modern Europe has for some time been dominated by the concept of “Calvinist theory of revolution.” I have now sought to suggest that strictly speaking no such entity exists.”

    How can it be that CTR doesn’t exist? There’s a Wikipedia page on it and lots of quotes by Calvinists endorsing ideas described by CTR. Clearly Skinner is a quack who hasn’t spent enough time on the interwebs.

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  2. Heh. More like Calvinist resistance to “Calvinist Resistance Theory.” Yes, it has Roman Catholic origins. Like, duh. It was their ox that got gored first. It was the Jesuits who first and best fought James I [yes, King James of the King James Version of the Bible] on the Divine Right of Kings. James I had Fr. Francisco Suarez’s De Fide burned in public.

    Good to see you finally hitting the books, though, D. A lot of fresh new research since your postgrad days. It’s a very exciting time for historians.

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  3. Tom, weren’t you the one who said Locke learned his theories from Calvinists? Now, you tell me you already know all this? That’s odd. I search at American Creation for Mair, Almain, and Gerson in vain (except for the contemporary Michael Gerson). You’re a bluffer.

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  4. D. G. Hart
    Posted August 6, 2013 at 6:25 am | Permalink
    Tom, weren’t you the one who said Locke learned his theories from Calvinists?

    Now, you tell me you already know all this? That’s odd. I search at American Creation for Mair, Almain, and Gerson in vain (except for the contemporary Michael Gerson). You’re a bluffer.
    ___________________
    Cut the crap, son. I haven’t gone into Gerson because most simpletons are too entrenched in their opposition to a “Calvinist resistance theory” and can barely handle the most obvious stuff*. Most are strict secularists, Darryl, but a few of these intellectual miscreants are Calvinists who fight the idea tooth and nail. Can you believe such a thing?

    And it’s good to see you reading the American Creation blog, even if it’s skimming and even if it’s just to hunt for weapons. Whatever it takes!

    Thanks for the tip on John Mair. I’ll see go deeper into it, as my original interest was aquinas and natural law. Might be a missing link between the Thomists and the Calvinists. Quentin Skinner is one of the few who’s really on top of the Calvinist-Founding connection. Mark David Hall speaks very well of him. You must have missed this in your skimming/searching of the American Creation blog:

    http://americancreation.blogspot.com/2010/06/mark-david-hall-influence-of-reformed_29.html

    “One might object that nothing in the preceding section is distinctive to the Reformed tradition. Indeed, Quentin Skinner has argued that even works like Vindiciae are not “specifically Calvinist at all,” but that ideas contained in them were borrowed from Scholastic authors.

    As a matter of the genealogy of ideas this may be the case, but what is critical for the purposes of this essay is that these ideas were most extensively developed, defended, and applied within the Reformed tradition. Within a generation of Calvin virtually every Reformed civil and ecclesiastical leader was convinced that the Bible taught that governments should be limited, that they should be based on the consent of the governed, that rulers should promote the common good and the Christian faith, and that unjust or ungodly rulers should be resisted or even overthrown. Whether or not these ideas are inherently connected to Calvinism, the Reformed tradition became a major means by which they became a part of American political culture.”

    Bold face mine. That’s become my position as well over the years as I discovered the Calvinist connection. The Thomists laid the theoretical/theological ground, but the Calvinists put it all into action. Do you remember ever reading me write that? I’ve that written on many occasions, Darryl.
    _____________________
    *For instance, John Adams wrote of the work of Calvinist bishop John Ponet [Ponyet] that he set forth “all the essential principles of liberty, which were afterward dilated on by Sidney and Locke.”

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  5. TVD, it’s not a question of ideas and their trajectory. It is one of law and limits. Constitutionalism emerges in the middle ages and constitutions put limits on power (well, they used to).

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  6. D. G. Hart
    Posted August 6, 2013 at 10:10 am | Permalink
    TVD, it’s not a question of ideas and their trajectory. It is one of law and limits. Constitutionalism emerges in the middle ages and constitutions put limits on power (well, they used to).

    _____________

    Ah yes, I see. Thank you.

    http://www.davekopel.com/religion/calvinism.htm

    The most horrific incident came in August 1572, when thousands of Huguenots in Paris and elsewhere were slaughtered in the government-approved St. Bartholomew’s Eve massacre.

    The massacre radicalized many Huguenots. After fleeing to Calvinist Geneva, François Hotman, a professor of law, wrote “Francogallia” (1573). The book drew on French history to argue that France’s ancient constitutional law, which was still valid according to Hotman, recognized the separation of powers, and the right of the people to overthrow a bad dynasty. Like other Calvinists, Hotman was less inclined than the Catholics to rely on natural law, preferring instead to focus on the contractual relationship between the ruler and the people. His argument for the importance of the long-ignored Three Estates of France was consistent with Calvinist theory that sovereignty did not reside exclusively in the supreme magistrate. The king might be the ruler, but he did not possess all the sovereignty.

    Like some English works which sought to revive ancient Anglo-Saxon liberties and deploy them against modern despots, “Francogallia” does not always hold up well as history, but it did inspire Calvinists all over the world about the legitimacy of resistance, and of the people’s right to restore the ancient social contracts.

    In 1574, Theodore Beza, one of the most influential Calvinists, published “On the Right of Magistrates over Their Subjects and the Duty of Subjects Towards their Rulers,” to advance Calvin’s doctrine on the rights of intermediate magistrates. His book begins by examining the nature of government. Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27.) Beza echoed this language: “peoples were not created for the sake of rulers, but on the contrary the rulers for the sake of the people, even as the guardian is appointed for the ward, not the ward for the guardian, and the shepherd on account of the flock, not the flock on account of the shepherd.”

    Turning to 1 Samuel 8, in which the Israelites decided to establish a monarchy, Beza found that the people and king were bound to each other by covenant. Therefore, he surmised, the people (acting through “estates”—that is, intermediate magistrates) have the right to remove the crown which they have awarded, if the king does not obey his part of the covenant.

    Calvinists were much more favorable to contract theory than were the more authoritarian and submissive Lutherans, and parts of Beza’s book applied pure contract law. Like many other Calvinist writers, Beza also admired the ancient Romans. He cited a famous remark of the Roman Emperor Trajan, which had been recorded by the historian Dio Cassius:

    [W]hen he [Trajan] was appointing Sura as military tribune and handing him the customary unsheathed dagger, he remarked: “Take this weapon which you shall draw on my behalf only if I have given a just command; but if you should learn that anything wrong is being done by me, I would have you use it for my destruction.”

    Beza agreed with St. Augustine that evil governors are simply a type of robbers. Just as people had an obvious right to resist highway robbers, people likewise had a right to resist the tyranny of the state:

    “Hence it comes about that the man who meets with highway robbers, by whom no one is murdered without the consent of the will of God, has the power in accordance with the authority of the laws to resist them in just self-defense which incurs no blame because no one forsooth has (received) a special command from God that he meekly allow himself to be slain by robbers. Our conviction is entirely the same about that regular defense against tyrants which we are discussing.”

    More so than any previous resistance writer, Beza looked not only to ancient Israel and Rome, but also to more recent polities. Examining Denmark, Switzerland, Scotland, France, Poland, Venice, Spain, England, and the Holy Roman Empire, Beza found many examples of intermediate magistrates enforcing their contract with the king, representing the people as a whole, and leading armed revolution against tyranny when necessary. Beza lauded the Lutheran resistance at Magdeburg (against the Holy Roman Emperor, who was trying to wipe out the Reformation) as a perfect example of intermediate magistrates restraining an evil prince. Government, wrote Beza, was not created by God so that people were born into servitude.

    Instead, “man’s fundamental condition must be one of natural liberty.”

    It’s clear that the “contract” angle was appealing to Calvinists. Samuel Rutherford’s famous “Lex Rex” [The Law is King] takes on an added poignancy. Again, thx.

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  7. In 1574, Theodore Beza, one of the most influential Calvinists, published “On the Right of Magistrates over Their Subjects and the Duty of Subjects Towards their Rulers,” to advance Calvin’s doctrine on the rights of intermediate magistrates. His book begins by examining the nature of government. Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27.) Beza echoed this language: “peoples were not created for the sake of rulers, but on the contrary the rulers for the sake of the people, even as the guardian is appointed for the ward, not the ward for the guardian, and the shepherd on account of the flock, not the flock on account of the shepherd.”

    BTW, in another discussion someone points out that Madison echoes Beza’s argument in Federalist 45

    We have heard of the impious doctrine in the Old World, that the people were made for kings, not kings for the people. Is the same doctrine to be revived in the New, in another shape that the solid happiness of the people is to be sacrificed to the views of political institutions of a different form?

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  8. In a recent article of my own, I pointed out that Robert Filmer mentioned this in his Patriarcha:

    Since the time that School-Divinity began to flourish, there hath been a common Opinion maintained, as well by Divines, as by divers other learned Men, which affirms,

    Mankind is naturally endowed and born with Freedom from all Subjection, and at liberty to chose what Form of Government it please: And that the Power which any one Man hath over others, was at first bestowed according to the discretion of the Multitude.

    This Tenent was first hatched in the Schools, and hath been fostered by all succeeding Papists for good Divinity. The Divines also of the Reformed Churches have entertained it, and the Common People every where tenderly embrace it, as being most plausible to Flesh and blood, for that it prodigally destributes a Portion of Liberty to the meanest of the Multitude, who magnifie Liberty, as if the height of Humane Felicity were only to be found in it, never remembring That the desire of Liberty was the first Cause of the Fall of Adam … Yet upon the ground of this Doctrine both Jesuites, and some other zealous favourers of the Geneva Discipline, have built a perillous Conclusion, which is, That the People or Multitude have Power to punish, or deprive the Prince, if he transgress the Laws of the Kingdom.

    But the scholastics were not the originators of these concepts. I have traced them back through Aquinas to Augustine to the church fathers and even to the Law of Moses itself. Nor am I alone in this recognition. I pointed out in a comment on American Creation that James Harrington also traced these principles back to the government of ancient Israel, and I could list several others as well. The principles of what we know of as constitutionalism are at least as ancient as the Pentateuch.

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