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The Origins of the Modern State: A Conservative View

God seems to have been the first hard-core decentralist anti-statist but how did we get here? It's worth unpacking.

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.



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