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The Origins of the Modern State: A Conservative View

Part I

Over the last several years, amidst the swirls of overt corruption, immigrant “hordes,” rising “national security” concerns, police militarization, bloated empire, and the so-called deepening of the “deep state,” conservatives and libertarians of all stripes have pondered the meaning of the modern state. Most recently, Paul Moreno has brilliantly considered the rise of The Bureaucratic Kings, Alex Salter has wisely questioned the relationship of anarchy (the Bohemian, Nockian variety) to conservatism, and, though I have yet to read what the always thoughtful Jason Kuznicki of Cato recommends, there is also James C. Scott’s Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. Believe me, I am intrigued.  Each of these authors and recommenders, of course, owes an immense debt to the pioneering work of Robert Higgs’s magnum opus, Crisis and Leviathan (1987), and Higgs, in turn, had followed in the footsteps of such 20th century greats as Christopher Dawson, Robert Nisbet, Friedrich Hayek, and Joseph Schumpeter.  

Some conservatives will immediately balk at such analyses. Students of Leo Strauss want to remind us that politics, properly understood in the Aristotelian sense, is high, not sordid. Students of Russell Kirk want to remind us that order is the first concern of any society and that to look too deeply at the origins of a state is a form of pornographic leering and peeping. And, Christians of every variety, consider the 13th chapter of St. Paul’s letters to the Church in Roman as having closed the matter before it ever needs discussion. God, according to a literal reading of St. Paul’s letter, commanded us each to “submit to the supreme authorities. There is no authority but by act of God, and the existing authorities are instituted by him; consequently anyone who rebels against authority is resisting a divine institution.”

While modern Christians might claim this answers every question about the legitimacy of state action, they are not necessarily mainstream in the history of Christianity.  The Prophet Samuel, feeling outcast by the ill favor of his people, of course, had a fierce argument with them, after consulting with God about the necessity of centralizing the government under a monarch.  God assured him that this would be foolish:

He will take your sons and make them serve in his chariots and with his cavalry, and will make them run before his chariot.  Some he will appoint officers over units of a thousand and units of fifty.  Others will plough his fields and reap his harvest; others again will make weapons of war and equipment for mounted troops.  He will make your daughters for perfumers, cooks, and confectionaries, and will seize the best of your cornfields, vineyards, and olive-yards, and them to his lackeys.  He will take a tenth of your grain and your vintage to give to his eunuchs and lackeys.  Your slaves, both men and women, and the best of your cattle and your asses he will seize and put to his own use.  He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves.

God seems to have been the first hard-core decentralist anti-statist, but Samuel’s people refused to listen, and God granted them, against His better judgement, a monarchy.

Jesus, holding a coin of his day, stamped with Ruler of Things Temporal on one side and Ruler of Things Spiritual on the other, told His followers that they must render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. For better or worse, He did not elaborate, but it is rather clear that the body politic has no right to interfere with the body spiritual.

Even St. Paul, when he wrote the thirteenth chapter of Romans, wrote his chapter in the context of a much larger letter that dealt entirely with the nature of the human person as citizen. Not surprisingly, he wrote this letter to the Christians who lived at the very center of the empire. The letter itself is deeply complex, full of nuances, and, one would wish, resistant to proof texting. In order, St. Paul addresses citizenship to and within the Natural Law, to Judaism, to and within the Gospel of Jesus, to and within Creation itself, a return to the topic of Judaism, to and with God’s will for each person within history, in the Body of Christ, and, finally, in chapter 13, to and within the secular authorities of the world. To suggest that one could readily take any one of these discussions and commands apart for any other is as wrong as it is absurd. While I would never proclaim to know exactly what St. Paul wants of us, I can state with certainty that no easy answer suffices. St. Paul was as individual in his personality as he was in his thought.

Three centuries after St. Paul wrote his letter to the Romans and after horrific massacres, huntings, and martyrdoms at the hands of the Roman Imperials, Christians found themselves, if not quite legal, no longer illegal after the Edict of Milan of 313.  Not until 380, did the Roman government declare Christianity fully legal, and, twelve years later, in 392, it offered Christianity a monopoly. For eighteen years, though many Romans grumbled about the privilege given exclusively to Christianity, none openly challenged it until the barbarian hordes invaded the city of Rome on August 24, 410.  Then, all hell broke loose, and the grumbling pagans became outraged pagans, demanding the recognition that the forsaking of the gods for the Christian God had resulted in the fall of the Eternal City.

In those years prior to the invasion, St. Ambrose of Milan had forbidden the Roman Emperor from receiving communion after the emperor had sanctioned the massacre of rebellious civilians.  This Ambrosian doctrine established that while the powers spiritual did not possess force of arms, they did have the right to deny those who wielded political and military power from enjoying the sacraments of the Holy Church when they were in grave sin.  Ambrose’s excommunication worked, and the emperor accepted and endured an extended penance before being received back into the arms of the church.  Such power remains to this day, as seen most recently and most powerfully in the modern age in a Polish Pope’s shaming of an Evil Empire.

Ambrose’s close friend, St. Augustine, elaborated this Catholic distrust of state power most effectively and most persuasively in his magisterial, The City of God (412-428).  Though long, it is worth quoting at length.

Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity. Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, “What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor. [St. Augustine, City of God, Book IV]

Whatever one might personally think of St. Augustine in the early 21st-century, it matters little.  Outside of Holy Scripture, nothing in the western middle ages mattered as much as his City of God. For all intents and purposes, it was the handbook for the next thousand years of the West. As such, we moderns and post-moderns almost never turn to the medieval period to understand political theory. For the medieval greats, what mattered most was not what form government took, but how moral it was, how ethical it was, and how protective of the powers spiritual it was.  As much as the Medievals studied Paul, they did so through the lens of Augustine.  Paul’s Letter to the Romans, especially chapter 13, was anything but simple.

For those of us living in the last six-hundred years of history, attuned as we are to the doings of the nation-states, at home and abroad, the Medieval is as far from us as is Ray Bradbury’s imaginary civilizations on Mars.

Yet, as good and true conservatives, we in this present whirligig we call civilization, must return to first principles and right reason.  If we are to understand the modern state, we must understand its origins.

Part II, coming to an American Conservative website near you.

Bradley J. Birzer is the president of the American Ideas Institute, which publishes TAC. He holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "The Origins of the Modern State: A Conservative View"

#1 Comment By Youknowho On December 12, 2017 @ 9:54 pm

Alas, if you read the Bible you see why people ended up accepting Kings.

“In those days there was no king in Israel, but every man did that which was right in his own eyes.”

See the story that follows. A sordid tale of rape and murder, and revenge killing. Which happened because there was no way to keep law and order.

And religion helped give rise to the modern state, with the Wars of Religion. After Catholics and Protestants slaughtered each other with depressing regularity, a State that made them keep the peace was seen as a blessing.

(Which reminds me of the story of the Christian publication which went to record religious persecution in Yugoslavia – when there was still a Yugoslavia. They talked to the evangelicals there whose position vis a vis the communist government was one of gratitude – because it kept the Orthodox and the Catholic from persecuting them)

The State is God’s punishment for those who cannot keep peace with their neighbors.

#2 Comment By EliteCommInc. On December 12, 2017 @ 10:41 pm

” And, Christians of every variety, consider the 13th chapter of St. Paul’s letters to the Church in Roman as having closed the matter before it ever needs discussion. God, according to a literal reading of St. Paul’s letter, commanded us each to “submit to the supreme authorities. There is no authority but by act of God, and the existing authorities are instituted by him; consequently anyone who rebels against authority is resisting a divine institution.”

The problem with this thinking is that in a democratic Republic such as we have whatever authority exists is subject to the will of the population.

And that is where “the law and order” crowd fall apart. Further exacerbating the dilemma is that whenever the secular authority violates tenets of Christ — Christ wins. That means unjust policies in the name of order or law fail. Rebellion against the will of god can be forgiven — but it’s clear that the revolutionary war was in fact a violation of God’s established authority – a democracy in the works, but one that did not acknowledge the public as the authority or people’s rights as per our Constitution.

Hence policies that legalize the injustices of “jim crow” or the criminal justice system would fail the test of the ultimate authority — Christ. It’s one thing to rail on about Chapter 13 of, it’s quite another to see apply it. And that chapter would condemn the rebellion against the King and Parliament as wholly against the will of God, making the founders completely out line with God.

As for kings, in the old testament, the concept was warned against.

#3 Comment By William Dalton On December 13, 2017 @ 2:25 am

What I find most interesting about the passage in the history of Samuel from which you draw the conclusion that “God seems to have been the first hard-core decentralist anti-statist,” is that it is clear God has no great concern about His people (the people of Samuel) holding others as slaves. (Other portions of the Scriptures, of course, say much more about how slaves are to be treated.) Instead, the focus of Samuel should be in not allowing God’s people to become slaves themselves (as they were before God rescued them from slavery in the Book of Exodus), which they were certain to become were they to submit to the rule of a king. In our own day, we can expand that prophecy to note than any people who submit themselves to the rule of a state which denies God and asserts the same authority to demand the wealth and service of its citizens according to its own dictate will, at the least, be as likely to the become the slave-masters of the people it rules.

Why are the people of this day, who are so more concerned about their attitudes towards slavery, even that in the distant past, than is God, so much less concerned about becoming slaves themselves – in the very way prophesied through the mouth of Samuel?

#4 Comment By William Dalton On December 13, 2017 @ 2:31 am

What I find most interesting about the passage in the history of Samuel from which you draw the conclusion that “God seems to have been the first hard-core decentralist anti-statist,” is that it is clear God has no great concern about His people (the people of Samuel) holding others as slaves. (Other portions of the Scriptures, of course, say much more about how slaves are to be treated.) Instead, the focus of Samuel should be in not allowing God’s people to become slaves themselves (as they were before God rescued them from slavery in the Book of Exodus), which they were certain to become were they to submit to the rule of a king. In our own day, we can expand that prophecy to note than any people who submit themselves to the rule of a state which denies God and asserts the same authority as kings to demand the wealth and service of its citizens according to its own dictate will, at the least, be as likely to the become the slaves of the state which rules them.

Why are the people of this day, who are so more concerned about their attitudes towards slavery, even that in the distant past, than is God, so much less concerned about becoming slaves themselves – in the very way prophesied through the mouth of Samuel?

#5 Comment By William Dalton On December 13, 2017 @ 2:47 am

EliteCommInc. –

“The problem with this thinking is that in a democratic Republic such as we have whatever authority exists is subject to the will of the population.”

Really, do you honestly think that in the United States today (not to mention all the “democratic republics” which submit to the U.S. “New World Order”) there is a government “subject to the will of the population” – even when after the election of such heralds of “hope and change” as Barack Obama and Donald Trump the fundamental policies and goals of the government have changed little at all from a long record of its own self-service?

Paul’s admonition is as wise in its understanding today as in the days it was set down by the apostle’s amanuensis. As we are not to put our hopes in princes, neither are we to put our hopes in any stillborn enterprise to change who are princes are. The rule Paul sets down is not that we must always obey the rulers who have governing authorities over us. If we are faced with the choice of obeying our rulers or obeying the contrary command of God we obey God. But we don’t go into rebellion against our ruler. The clearest example of each was seen in the Christian resistance to Nazi rule in wartime Germany. Those who adhered to Paul’s lesson refused to bear arms in Hitler’s armies, they hid and sought to carry to safety the innocent victims of Hitler’s religious and political persecutions. Those who did not engaged in conspiracies to topple and even assassinate Hitler.

In our day, no matter how bad our government grows, how bad the situation becomes for the faithful, we are to follow the former, not the latter, example.

#6 Comment By b. On December 13, 2017 @ 12:42 pm

I never knew that secular conservatism does not exist. Intriguing.

#7 Comment By EliteComminc. On December 13, 2017 @ 7:33 pm

“Really, do you honestly think that in the United States today (not to mention all the “democratic republics” which submit to the U.S. “New World Order”) there is a government “subject to the will of the population” – even when after the election of such heralds of “hope and change” as Barack Obama and Donald Trump the fundamental policies and goals of the government have changed little at all from a long record of its own self-service?”

As a conservative I have a heavy distrust of government period.

As for paul, it is inconceievable t5hat Paul was calling the world’s governemnts just. It makes absolutely no sense in light of Paul’s own experience.

Note his admonition — dispensing justice. Anyone who thinks government on its own accord delivers justice in lieu of the inadequacies, and mistakes and downright misuse — absolutely misses Paul’s point.

It is that the believer is to act according to justice as governments are designed to do — as opposed to what actually occurs. And despite the failings . . .

I lean heavily on the guarantees and protections of the Constitution. They supersede our governments actions which are subject to the same.

Further, I think you are missing the take, in order to challenge what is in the end my own critique of government. I am not a huge fan of the public, but I am unwilling to toss the Constitution simply because fallible men miss the mark.

Which us back to Paul, of course he was not saying that governments operate minus error. But the ultimate authority in out republic is the Constitution against government error — so the admonition to obey the authorities rests in rests ultimately in the people as expressed to endorsed by the constitution, however, the elected managers abuse of fail to meet the promise.

Had Paul merely listened to the immediate authorities, he would not have ended in Rome. But his appeal was to the authority granted as citizen, not that of the actors.

Goodness, gracious, given your attitude if adopted suggests that there’s no cause to participate in a government by the people because the people’s servants are a band of miscreants. One can only hope we have not become so dead to responsible citizenship.

I choose otherwise. misbehavior by government does not demand my acquiescence or approval.

#8 Comment By EliteComminc. On December 13, 2017 @ 7:34 pm

Nor have I any intention of giving my rights anymore than Paul did his own.

#9 Comment By EliteComminc. On December 13, 2017 @ 7:47 pm

“The rule Paul sets down is not that we must always obey the rulers who have governing authorities over us. If we are faced with the choice of obeying our rulers or obeying the contrary command of God we obey God. But we don’t go into rebellion against our ruler.”

wow, what a strange understanding of a democratic Republic. As i understand the US the founders rebelled in complete contradiction of Christ and Paul’s admonition to provide a government that was established in which the rulers are the people. – hence the constitution.

We don’t have Caesar, nor a king, nor a Parliament, not a politburo, or a Reichstag or an emperor. i am fully confident that paul would stand by my understanding —

I always love the use of this scripture to impress obligation to nonexistent rulers. Since free speech, assembly is a part of that people’s ownership as is redress . . . all of which places ownership on the citizen as opposed to government —

It is not uncommon for christians to use Paul as short form for law and order which is short form — people deserving injustice because they stood ion their rights.

risky perhaps, gar less out of line than than a rebellion against the duly acknowledged authority of the king and parliament.

So if in fact, you are willing to grant that the founders were completely in rebellion to God to establish what we have now — your advance is as hollow as the substance it leans on.

No. Authorities don’t get to short change the rights of those granting the authority because they can it benefits some level of the population’s own agenda. I am familiar with that social polity.

#10 Comment By EliteComminc. On December 13, 2017 @ 7:51 pm

“In our day, no matter how bad our government grows, how bad the situation becomes for the faithful, we are to follow the former, not the latter, example.”

I am afraid you have completely misconstrued Paul’s commentary.

Christ says, “Be as innocent as doves and shrewd as a serpent.”

#11 Comment By EliteComminc. On December 13, 2017 @ 8:04 pm

and I might add,

“God save the Queen.”

Laughing. Scripture is tricky business. Now you have to acknowlege that the revolutionary war was a rebellion against God based on your own press. then you have to explicate why a christian must be subject to an entire system established by those against god. And that burdened is tripled by defending the founders war for freedom for men (people) as they enslaved others 00 defending hypocrisy is a tough slog in lieu of Paul’s integrity. But you are free to give it a whirl.

I amnot a fan of violence. Nor am i a fan of fighting every injustice for the sake of fighting. But I amn ot going to admonsih anyone for standing on their rights as citizens unless said right contradicts the call of Christ. And standing on said rights otherwise — do not.

Nor am I going to shoot anyone because they chose to stand on their right/power as citizen so that they can be patted on the back by any congregation on a misapplication of scruipture or the hypocrisy that accompanies it.

I take it you and others who hold this view support the arrest of illegal immigrants who violate the rulers laws on sovereignty which in no manner challenges the principle and practice of charity.