Alexis de Tocqueville on Government and War

“I think that extreme centralization of government ultimately enervates society and thus, after a length of time, weakens the government itself; but I do not deny that a centralized social power may be able to execute great undertakings with facility in a given time and on a particular point.  This is more especially true of war, in which success depends much more on the means of transferring all the resources of a nation to one single point than on the extent of those resources.  Hence it is chiefly in war that nations desire, and frequently need, to increase the powers of the central government. All men of military genius are fond of centralization, which increases their strength; and all men of centralizing genius are fond of war, which compels nations to combine all their powers in the hands of government.  Thus the democratic tendency that leads men unceasingly to multiply the privileges of the state and to circumscribe the rights of private persons is much more rapid and constant among those democratic nations that are exposed by their position to great and frequent wars than among all others.” Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. II, trans. Henry Reeve (New York, 1945), pp. 300-01. [Italics added]


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God Makes Rulers Mad

For God the Almighty has made our rulers mad; they actually think they can do–and order their subjects to do–whatever they please.  And the subjects made the mistake of believing that they, in turn, are bound to obey their rulers in everything.  It has gone so far that rulers have begun ordering the people to get rid of books, and to believe and conform to what the rulers prescribe.  They are thereby presumptuously setting themselves in God’s place, lording it over men’s consciences and faith, and schooling the Holy Spirit according to their own crackbrained [sic] ideas.” Martin Luther, Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed, in Luther’s Works, vol. 45, pp. 83-84.  [Italics added]

In this work (1523) Martin Luther explained the limits of the authority of worldly rulers. In 1522 Duke George of Saxony (cousin and rival to Luther’s own ruler, Frederick the Wise) had begun confiscating and destroying Luther’s books.  Dr. Luther explained his famous teaching on the two kingdoms (or governments) in this text also.  God has established a temporal government to rule the world and a spiritual government “by which the Holy Spirit produces Christians.” (Ibid., p. 91) While Luther certainly recognized that God had established temporal authority, he never hesitated from criticizing rulers publicly.  For example, here he rebukes rulers for their greed and lack of true ethics:

“…the temporal lords are supposed to govern lands and people outwardly.  This they leave undone.  They can do no more than strip and fleece, heap tax upon tax and tribute upon tribute, letting loose here a bear and there a wolf.  Besides this, there is no justice, integrity, or truth to be found among them.  They behave worse than any thief or scoundrel, and their temporal rule has sunk quite as low as that of the spiritual tyrants.  For this reason God so perverts their minds also, that they rush on into the absurdity of trying to exercise a spiritual rule over souls, just as their counterparts try to establish a temporal rule.  They blithely heap alien sins upon themselves and incur the hatred of God and man, until they come to ruin together with bishops, popes, monks, one scoundrel with the other.” Ibid., p. 109. [Italics added]

Notice how Luther describes God as working against sinful rulers.  In fact, he portrays the confusion of temporal and spiritual rule as God’s judgment on these rulers.  In this section of the work Luther also attacks bishops who act as worldly rulers and not shepherds of souls.  God’s judgment exposes the misuse of both governments.  In light of this judgment, did Luther believe temporal rulers could act justly?  For Luther it was unlikely.  At best rulers could keep social order and punish criminals.  Consider the following statement:

“You must know that since the beginning of the world a wise prince is a mighty rare bird, and an upright prince even rarer.  They are generally the biggest fools or the worst scoundrels on earth; therefore, one must constantly expect the worst from them and look for little good, especially in divine matters which concern the salvation of souls.  They are God’s executioners and hangmen; his divine wrath uses them to punish the wicked and to maintain outward peace.” Ibid., p. 113.






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Petrarch on Copying Books

“Your Cicero has been in my possession four years and more.  There is a good reason, though, for so long a delay; namely, the scarcity of copyists who understand such work. It is a state of affairs that has resulted in an incredible loss to scholarship.  Books that by their nature are a little hard to understand are no longer multiplied, and have ceased to be generally intelligible, and so have sunk into utter neglect, and in the end have perished. This age of ours consequently has let fall, bit by bit, some of the richest and sweetest fruits that the tree of knowledge has yielded; has thrown away the results of the vigils and labours [sic] of the most illustrious men of genius, things of more value, I am almost tempted to say, than anything else in the whole world….” Petrarch, “To Lapo de Castiglionchio, 1355,” in  The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to Be An Educated Human Being, ed. Richard M. Gamble. Wilmington 2007, p. 304.

In this letter Petrarch explained to his friend, Lapo da Castiglionchio, why he had not returned the copy of Cicero’s writing(s) to his friend for many years.  Petrarch lived before movable type printing existed in Europe.  This meant that books had to be copied by hand in order to make a new manuscript of the original text.

Petrarch lamented his ability to read while he copied the text.  He wrote to Lapo da Castiglionchio: “So the pen held back the eye, and the eye drove on the pen, and I covered page after page, delighting in my task, and committing many and many a passage to memory as I wrote.  For just in proportion as the writing is slower than the reading does the passage make a deep impression and cling to the mind.” Ibid., p. 305.

Is this not the same method that medieval monks called lectio divina? Copying, reading, and memorization transform the one who performs this task.  However, Petrarch will demonstrate the classical foundations of this practice.  How fitting for the father of Renaissance humanism!

“And yet I must confess that I did finally reach a point in my copying where I was overcome by weariness; not mental, for how unlikely that would be where Cicero was concerned, but the sort of fatigue that springs from excessive manual labour [sic].  I began to feel doubtful about this plan that I was following, and to regret having undertaken a task for which I had not been trained; when suddenly I came across a place where Cicero tells how he himself copied the orations of—someone or other; just who it was I do not know , but certainly no Tullius, for there is but one such man, one such voice, one such mind.” Ibid., p. 305.

Copying a book was difficult physical work.  Reading and remembering the text exercises the intellect.  Petrarch realized that Cicero himself copied texts to study them more closely and to avoid idleness.  Filled with shame, Petrarch now understood the importance of copying significant texts to study them more closely.  This fact inspired him to continue the arduous physical task of copying the text and the mental effort associated with reading them.


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The Power to Tax is the Power to Control

“This power, exercised without limitation, will introduce itself into every corner of the city, and country.—It will wait upon the ladies as their toilett [sic], and will not leave them in any of their domestic concerns; it will accompany them to the ball, the play, and the assembly; it will go with them when they visit, and will, on all occasions, sit beside them in their carriages, nor will it desert even at church; it will enter the house of every gentleman, watch over his cellar, wait upon his cook in the kitchen, follow the servants into the parlour [sic], preside over the table, and note down all he eats or drinks; it will attend him to his bedchamber, and watch him while he sleeps; it will take cognizance of the professional man in his office, or his study; it will watch the merchant in the counting-house, or in his store; it will follow the mechanic to his shop, and in his work, and will haunt him in his family, and in his bed; it will be a constant companion of the industrious farmer in all his labour [sic], it will be with him in the house, and in the field, observe the toil of his hands, and the sweat of his brow; it will light upon the head of every person in the United States.  To all these different classes of people, and in all these circumstance, in which it will attend them, the language in which it will address them, will be GIVE! GIVE!”  ‘Brutus,’ Essay VI (December 27, 1787) in The Anti-Federalist Papers and the Constitutional Debates, ed. Ralph Ketcham (New York, 2003), pp. 297-98.

This excerpt comes from the comments of an Anti-Federalist critic of the Constitution submitted to the States by the members of the Convention in Philadelphia.  The anonymous, ‘Brutus,’ was responding to those who promoted ratification of the new constitution by New York, that is, what is now called the Federalist Papers. Has the history of the United States since 1789 justified these predictions of ‘Brutus?’

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C.S. Lewis on Education

“For every pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity.  The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.  The right defence [sic] against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments.  By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes.  For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.” C.S. Lewis, Abolition of Man in The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York, 2007), p. 699.

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Luther on the Crusades

“The popes have never seriously intended to wage war against the Turk; instead they used the Turkish war as a cover for their game and robbed Germany of money by means of indulgences whenever they took the notion….If they had seriously wished to fight the Turk, the pope and the cardinals would have had enough from the pallia, annates, and other unmentionable sources of income so that they would not have needed to practice such extortion and robbery in Germany.” Martin Luther, On War Against the Turk, in Luther’s Works vol. 46, p. 164.

Dr. Luther published this treatise in 1529 to explain his understanding of warfare against the Ottoman Turks.  In 1518 Luther had rejected the promotion of a war against the Turks.  The popes still granted indulgences for wars against the Turks in the sixteenth century.  According to most scholars today, this would make these crusades.  Throughout the 1520s the Ottoman army had advanced steadily north to the outskirts of Vienna.  Luther wrote this work in order to explain how a soldier could justly defend Germany without participating in a crusade.  Luther explains:

“But what motivated me most of all was this: They undertook to fight against the Turk in the name of Christ, and taught and incited men to do this, as though our people were an army of Christians against the Turks, who were enemies of Christ.  This is absolutely contrary to Christ’s doctrine and name….This is the greatest of all sins and is one that no Turk commits, for Christ’s name is used for sin and shame and thus dishonored. This would be especially so if the pope and the bishops were involved in the war, for they would bring the greatest shame and dishonor to Christ’s name because they are called to fight against the devil with the word of God and with prayer, and they would be deserting their calling and office to fight with the sword against flesh and blood.  They are not commanded to do this; it is forbidden.” Ibid., p. 165.

According to Luther, the Christian’s vocation determined how he or she reacted to the Turks.  Popes and priests were to serve in the spiritual office, not the office of military defense.  Luther explained how God had established different offices to fulfill various vocations.  Additionally, popes and priests did not have the right to call for a war.  Luther concluded:

“…if I were a soldier and saw a priest’s banner in the field, or a banner of the cross, even though it was a crucifix, I should run as though the devil were chasing me; even if they won a victory, by God’s decree, I should not take any part in the booty or rejoicing.” Ibid., p. 168.

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God’s Little Puppet Show

“Now the blind world, because it does not know God and his work, concludes that it is owing to its own cleverness, reason, and strength that a community or dominion endures and thrives.  Accordingly, they gather together great treasures, stuff their coffers, construct mighty towers and walls, provide suits of armor and vast supplies of provisions, enact wise laws, and conduct their affairs with courage and prudence.  They just go ahead in their arrogance without even consulting God about any of it, like those who built the Tower of Babel [Gen. 11:1-9].” Martin Luther, “Exposition of Psalm 127, for the Christians at Riga in Livonia,” in Luther’s Works, vol. 45, p. 328.

Luther’s exposition of Psalm 127:1b (Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain) allowed him to discuss the nature of human society and government.  In this case, he explains how the sinful world ignores God and trusts in its own efforts and greatness.

“Meanwhile, God sits above and watches how cleverly and boldly the children of men proceed, and he causes the psalmist to sing in his praise, ‘God brings the counsel of the nations to naught’ [Ps. 33:10].  Again, ‘God knows the thoughts of man, that they are vain’ [Ps. 94:11].  And yet again, ‘He takes away the spirit of princes, and deals strongly with the kings of the earth.’ [Ps. 76:12].  He allows such cities and dominions to arise and to gain the ascendancy for a little while.  But before they can look around he strikes them down; and in general the greater the kingdom, the sooner.  Even though they flourish for a short time, that is in the sight of God little more than a beginning. Never does one of them arrive at the point it strives to reach.” Ibid., pp. 328-329.    

Despite worldly arrogance and the cleverness of rulers God brings down great kingdoms and replaces them with ease.  Luther then presented a number of examples of God’s actions.

“If you look at the history of the kingdoms of Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, and all the rest, you will find there exactly what this verse says.  All their splendor is nothing more than God’s little puppet show.  He has allowed them to rise for a time, but he has invariably overthrown them, one after the other.  As they gained a brief ascendancy, through human wit and arrogance, so much the more quickly did they fall again; not because they lacked manpower, money, goods, and all manner of resources, but because the watchman had ceased to uphold them, and cause them to see what human wit and power could accomplish without his watchful care and protection.  So it turned out that their cause was nothing but vain counsel and a futile undertaking which they could neither uphold nor carry out.” Ibid., p. 329. [Emphasis added]


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The Foundations of Understanding

“Tender years should first be instructed in rules of the art or grammar, in analogies, in barbarisms, in solecisms, in tropes and schemata.  These are the studies on which Donatus, Servius, Priscian, Isidore, Bede, and Cassiodorus expounded with much diligence, which rest assured they would not have done if the foundation of science could be laid without these.  For Quintilian, too, who transmits this discipline and asserts it should be transmitted, extols it with such praises that he openly protests that without it the name of science cannot exist.  Caius Caesar published books on analogy, knowing that without this science neither prudence, in which he was most perfect, nor eloquence, in which he was most potent, could easily be obtained by anyone.  Marcus Tullius, as is plain from his frequent letters, diligently invites his son to study grammar which he cherished most tenderly.  And what use is it to evolve schedules, to found verbose Summae and invert cunning sophismata, to damn the writings of the ancients, and to reprove everything not found in the syllabi of their masters. It is written, that science is in the ancients….For one does not ascend from ignorance to the light of science, unless the writings of the ancients are pored over zealously.” Peter of Blois, “A Letter Written About 1160 by Peter of Blois, ‘Concerning Two Boys Whom He is Tutoring,’ ” in University Records and Life in the Middle Ages, ed. and trans. Lynn Thorndike (New York: Columbia University, 1944), pp. 16-17.

In this text Peter of Blois described the foundations of understanding in the 12th century: grammar.  ‘Science’ in this reading should be translated as ‘knowledge’ because it does not mean ‘science’ in the current 21st-century meaning.



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Luther on Rulers and History

“A prince must also be very wise and not always try to impose his will, even if he has the right and the best of all reasons to do so.  For it is a far nobler virtue to put up with a slight to one’s own rights than [it is to risk damage] to life and property, where this is to the advantage of the subjects.  As we know, worldly rights are valid only with respect to the things of this world.” Martin Luther, Treatise on Good Works, in Luther’s Works, vol. 44, p. 94.

Dr. Luther wrote these words in his discussion of the Fourth Commandment (Thou shalt honor thy father and mother) in this famous treatise from 1520.  In this section Luther examines obedience to governmental officials and the proper behavior of temporal rulers.

“Therefore, it is absolutely foolish to say, I have a right to it and will therefore take it by force and hold on to it, although all sorts of misfortune may come to others in doing so.  In this connection we read of Caesar Augustus that he did not want to wage war, however right he was, unless there were sure indications of greater benefit than harm, or at least of a bearable harm.  He said that war can be likened to to fishing with a golden net–you never catch as much as you risk losing.” Ibid.

Luther referred to Caesar Augustus as a positive example for rulers.  In this case, he uses Caesar Augustus’ worldly wisdom regarding the risks of war.  The ruler must always know that his actions (even when justified) may lead to his own ruin and the ruin of his people.  Luther concludes that a good ruler must be willing to sacrifice his own will for the needs for his subjects.

“He who drives a cart must act differently than if he were walking alone.  When he is on his own he can walk, jump, and do what he likes, but when he is driving he must control and guide so that the horse and cart can follow.  He has to pay greater regard to the horse and cart than to himself.  A prince is in the same position.  He stands at the head and leads the multitude, and must not go or do as he wants but as the multitude are able.  He has to pay more regard to their needs and necessities than to his own will and pleasure. When a prince rules according to his own mad will and follows his own opinion he is like a mad driver who rushes straight ahead with his horse and cart through bushes, hedges, ditches, streams, uphill and downdale [sic], regardless of roads and bridges.  He will not drive for very long.  He is bound to smash up.” Ibid., pp. 94-95.

An evil prince neglects his people or exploits them for selfish gain.  If he is not educated properly his actions will lead to destruction.  What is the solution?  Study history!

“Therefore,” Luther writes, “it would be of the greatest value to the ruling class if from their youth up they were to read, or have read to them, history books, both sacred and secular.  They would find in these books more by way of example about the art of ruling than in all the law books…Historical examples give and teach much more than laws and statutes.  In the former a particular historical experience teaches, in the latter, untried and uncertain words.” Ibid., p. 95

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Cicero on Wisdom and Action

“The foremost of all the virtues is the wisdom that the Greeks call sophia.  (Good sense, which they call phronensis, we realize is something distinct, that is the knowledge of things that one should pursue and avoid.) But the wisdom that I declared to be the foremost is the knowledge of all things human and divine; and it includes the sociability and fellowship of the gods and men with each other.” Cicero, On Duties I. 153. eds. and trans. M.T. Griffin and E.M. Atkins (Cambridge 1991), p.59.  [Italics in original]

While Cicero praised the search for wisdom, he emphasized the social nature of human existence expressed in marriage, the family, and then the larger community. As he wrote: “Moreover, learning about and reflecting upon nature is somewhat truncated and incomplete if it results in no action.  Such action is seen most clearly in the protection of men’s interests and therefore is concerned with the fellowship of the human race.  For that reason this should be ranked above mere learning.” Ibid., pp. 59-60.

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