Boethius on Good Fortune

“What I want to tell you is something wonderful, which makes it very difficult for me to put it into words.  For I think that ill fortune is better for men than good.  Fortune always cheats when she seems to smile, with the appearance of happiness, but is always truthful when she shows herself to inconsistent by changing.  The first kind of fortune deceives, the second instructs; the one binds the minds of those who enjoy goods that cheatingly only seem to be good, the other frees them with knowledge of the fragility of mortal happiness.  So you can see that the one is inconstant, always running hither and thither, uncertain of herself; and the other is steady, well prepared and–with the practice of adversity itself–wise.  Lastly fortune when apparently happy leads men astray by her blandishments, wandering from the true good; when she is adverse, she commonly draws them back, as it were with a hook, towards it.” Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy II. viii. Loeb Classical Library No. 74, trans. S.J. Tester. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1918), p. 225.

In this famous work from late antiquity Boethius discusses the true nature of Fortune. Good fortune is temporal and vanishes quickly.  It deceives because it does not endure and human beings who experience it forget the true and highest good.  Adversity acts to draw us back to permanent things, that reside only in God and are under the control of Providence.  This work was not simply philosophical speculation for Boethius.  He wrote this work during his time in prison in the early 520s.  Boethius had lived as a philosopher and state official under the Ostrogothic king, Theodoric.  He accused Boethius of treason and imprisoned him.  Later, Boethius was executed.

Augustine on Learning and the Human Teacher

“My argument is with Christians who congratulate themselves on a knowledge of the holy scriptures gained without any human guidance and who–if their claim is valid–thus enjoy a real and substantial blessing.  But they must admit that each one of us learnt our native language by habitually hearing it spoken from the very beginnings of childhood, and acquired others–Greek, Hebrew, or whatever–either by hearing them in the same way or by learning them from a human teacher.  So should we now (I ask you!) warn all our brethren not to teach these things to their small children on the grounds that the apostles spoke in the languages of all peoples after being inspired in a single moment by the coming of the Holy Spirit? Or should we warn those to whom such things do not happen to stop thinking of themselves as Christians and start doubting that they have received the Holy Spirit? No, they should learn, without pride, what has to be learned from a human teacher; and those responsible for teaching others should pass on, without pride or jealousy, the knowledge they have received.” Augustine of Hippo, “Preface,” On Christian Doctrine, trans. R.P.H. Green (Oxford 1999), pp. 4-5.

Apparently, some Christians in Augustine’s lifetime claimed to have received a knowledge of the Bible through the Holy Spirit without a human teacher.  However, Augustine assumes that most Christians do not possess such a gift, but rather they must acknowledge the need to learn language through imitation or study.  Thus students need teachers and both should avoid pride, particularly, a pride that drives one to reject the teacher and seek only special knowledge directly from God.

Locke on Parents, Children, Liberty, and Natural Law

“55. Children, I confess, are not born in this full state of equality, though they are born to it.  Their parents have a sort of rule and jurisdiction over them when they come into the world, and for some time after, but it is but a temporary one.  The bonds of this subjection are like the swaddling clothes they are wrapt up in and supported by in the weakness of their infancy.  Age and reason as they grow up loosen them, till at length they drop quite off, and leave a man at his own free disposal.

56. Adam was created a perfect man, his body and mind in full possession of their strength and reason, and so was capable from the first instance of his being to provide for his own support and preservation, and govern his actions according to the dictates of the law of reason God had implanted in him.  From him the world is peopled with his descendants, who are all born infants, weak and helpless, without knowledge or understanding.  But to supply the defects of this imperfect state till the improvement of growth and age had removed them, Adam and Eve, and after them all parents were, by the law of nature, under an obligation to preserve, nourish and educate the children they had begotten, not as their own workmanship, but the workmanship of their own Maker, the Almighty, to whom they were to be accountable for them.

57. The law that was to govern Adam was the same that was to govern all his posterity, the law of reason.  But his offspring having another way of entrance into the world, different from him, by a natural birth, that produced them ignorant, and without the use of reason, they were not presently under the law.  For nobody can be under a law that is not promulgated to him; and this law being promulgated or made known by reason only, he that is not come to use of his reason cannot be said to be under the law; and Adam’s children being not presently as soon as born under this law of reason, were not presently free.  For law, in its true notion, is not so much the limitation as the direction of a free and intelligent agent to his proper interest, and prescribes no farther than is for the general good of those under the law.   Could they be happier without it, the law, as a useless thing, would of itself vanish; and that ill deserves the name of confinement which hedges us in only from bogs and precipices.  So that however it may be mistaken, the end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom.  For in all the states of created beings, capable of laws, where there is no law there is no freedom.  For liberty is to be free from restraint and violence from others, which cannot be where there is no law; and is not, as we are told, ‘a liberty for every man to what he lists [chooses].’  For who could be free, when every other man’s humor might domineer over him?  But a liberty to dispose and order freely as he lists [chooses] his person, actions, possessions, and his whole property within the allowance of those laws under which he is, and therein not to be subject to the arbitrary will of another, but freely follow his own.” John Locke, An Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent and End of Civil Government, ed. Edwin A. Burtt, The English Philosophers from Bacon to Mill (New York: Random, 1939), pp. 424-425. [Emphasis and brackets added]

In Chapter VI of this work John Locke addressed the issue of paternal power and its relationship to civil government.  First, in the previous section, he specifically stated that parents, not just the father, have authority over their children and their children are bound to honor and obey them.  He affirmed this with biblical citations (Exodus 20:12; Leviticus 20:9; Ephesians 6:1).  Since Locke had argued that human beings have certain rights granted by God in creation, he sought here to explain why children did not exercise those rights completely. Notice how Locke identified children as God’s workmanship and did not believe parents have absolute authority over their offspring. According to Locke, parents only oversaw their children’s development and education during their imperfect state of childhood.  Parents had the duty to educate their children to use the gift of reason so that they may become free individuals who could freely live, dispose of their possessions, and govern themselves.

Unlimited Power is Bad

Unlimited power is in itself a bad and dangerous thing.  Human beings are not competent to exercise it with discretion.  God alone can be omnipotent, because his wisdom and his justice are always equal to his power.  There is no power on earth so worthy of honor in itself or clothed with rights so sacred that I would admit its uncontrolled and all-predominant authority.  When I see that the right and the means of absolute command are conferred on any power whatever, be it called a people or a king, an aristocracy or a democracy, a monarchy or a republic, I say there is the germ of tyranny, and I seek to live elsewhere, under other laws.” Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. 1. (New York: Knopf, 1945), p. 260 [Emphasis added]

Alexis de Tocqueville published Democracy in America in two volumes (1835 & 1840) after traveling to the United States in the early 1830′s.  Originally in French, it was translated into English quickly and became well known in Europe and America.

Thomas Jefferson on History

History, in general, only informs us what bad government is.  But as we have employed some of the best materials of the British constitution in the construction of our own government, a knowlege of British history becomes useful to the American politician. There is, however, no general history of that country which can be recommended.”     “Letter of Thomas Jefferson to John Norvell Washington,” June 14, 1807.


What did Thomas Jefferson Read on Government? 

In 1807 President Thomas Jefferson responded to the questions of John Norvell Washington regarding the study of civil government and history.  The letter is dated June 14, 1807.  Jefferson answered plainly: “I think there does not exist a good elementary work on the organization of society into civil government: I mean a work which presents in one full & comprehensive view the system of principles on which such an organization should be founded, according to the rights of nature.”

However, did Jefferson know of any books that might suffice?  He wrote, “I should recommend Locke on Government, Sidney, Priestley’s Essay on the first Principles of Government, Chipman’s Principles of Government, & the Federalist. Adding, perhaps, Beccaria on crimes & punishments, because of the demonstrative manner in which he has treated that branch of the subject.”

First, he recommended John Locke’s Treatises on Civil Government.  This is no surprise since he borrowed heavily from Locke’s ideas to write the Declaration of Independence.  Second, he recommended Algernon Sidney’s Discourses Concerning Government.  Sidney was a republican contemporary of Locke who opposed the Restoration Monarchy and suffered execution for it in 1683.  Both authors wrote in response to Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha (a defense of the divine right of monarchs) and both dealt with the arguments of Thomas Hobbes regarding absolute rule.  Third, Jefferson referred to Joseph Priestley’s Essay on the First Principles of Government in which he argued for political and religious liberty in England in the late 18th century.  Fourth, Jefferson recommended Nathaniel Chipman’s Sketches of the Principles of Civil Government.  Chipman was a lawyer, politician, and judge from Vermont.  He had fought in the Revolutionary War.  Lastly, Jefferson recommended the Federalist Papers written by James Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton.  One could argue that these works form the basis for classical liberal and early American political thought.  Cesare Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments laid the foundation for modern criminology and called for reform of prisons in 1764.  It condemned both torture and the death penalty.

Jefferson could have stopped there but he chose to recommend two works on money and commerce.  First, he encouraged Mr. Washington to read Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations which rejected government-regulated mercantilism and argued generally in favor of free markets and self-interested merchants.  Second, Jefferson recommended Jean-Baptiste Say’s work on economics which at the time was only available in its original French Traité d’économie politique. It was later translated into English and influenced economic theory in the 19th century. (Do a search on Say’s Law.)

In this letter Thomas Jefferson has recommended the works we should read to understand civil government and economics in the early 19th century.  He set forth a list of works on classical liberalism and free market economics.  They are all available in print and many of them in complete texts online.  Perhaps, we should at least be familiar with the basic arguments of these works.



Martin Luther on the Source of Reason and Intellect

“It is amazing that the evangelist St. John is able to discuss such sublime and weighty matters in such plain and simple language.  He wants to say the Son of God draws so close to men that He is their Light.  And this Light is far different from that which all the irrational animals perceive.  The cows and the pigs, to be sure, also enjoy the universal light of the sun by day and the light of the moon by night.  But man alone is endowed with the glorious light of reason and intellect.  Man’s ability to devise so many noble arts and skills, his wisdom, dexterity, and ingenuity, all are derived from this Light, or from the Word, who was the Light of men.  Thus this Light, Christ, is not merely a light for itself; but with this light He illumines men, so that all reason, wisdom, and dexterity that are not false or devilish emanate from this Light, who is the Wisdom of the eternal Father.”  Martin Luther, Sermons on the Gospel of St John, in Luther’s Works, vol. 22, p. 30. [Emphasis Added]

While preaching on John 1:4, Luther explains the significance of human beings made in the image of God.  Notice that Christ as the Light illuminates humanity and provides all intellectual, artistic, and even mechanical gifts.

Martin Luther on Studying Theology and Reading Scripture

“Moreover, I want to point out to you a correct way of studying theology, for I have had practice in that.  If you keep to it, you will become so learned that you yourself could (if it were necessary) write books just as good as those of the fathers and councils, even as I (in God) dare to presume and boast, without arrogance and lying, that in the matter of writing books I do not stand much behind some of the fathers.  Of my life I can by no means make the same boast.  This is the way taught by holy King David (and doubtlessly used also by all the patriarchs and prophets) in the hundred nineteenth Psalm.  There you will find three rules, amply presented throughout the whole Psalm.  They are Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio.” Martin Luther, “Preface to the Wittenberg Edition of Luther’s German Writings,” Luther’s Works, vol. 34, p. 285.  [Italics in original]

Prayer, meditation, and tribulation (Anfechtung) laid the foundation for Luther’s understanding of Scripture.  Here Luther seeks to demonstrate the proper means to study theology and he begins with Psalm 119.  Studying theology takes place as a part of true piety and within the struggles of the Christian life.

“Firstly, you should know that the Holy Scriptures constitute a book which turns the wisdom of all other books into foolishness, because not one teaches about eternal life except this one alone.  Therefore you should straightway despair of your reason and understanding….But kneel down in your little room [Matt. 6:6] and pray to God with real humility and earnestness, that he through his dear Son may give {p. 286} you his Holy Spirit, who will enlighten you, lead you, and give you understanding.” Ibid., pp. 285-86.

Luther believed a true understanding of Scripture could only take place through prayer inspired by true faith.  The entire Trinity acts as we pray for God to enlighten our understanding by the Holy Spirit through the Son.  For Luther (as with many Christians before him) God acts through the devout, prayerful study of his Word:

“Secondly, you should meditate, that is, not only in your heart, but also externally, by actually repeating and comparing oral speech and literal words of the book, reading and rereading them with diligent attention and reflection, so that you may see what the Holy Spirit means by them.  And take care that you do no grow weary or think that you have done enough when you have read, heard, and spoken them once or twice, and that you then have complete understanding.  You will never be a particularly good theologian if you do that, for you will be like untimely fruit which falls to the ground before it is ripe…For God will not give you his Spirit without the external Word; so take your cue from that.  His command to write, preach, read, hear, sing, speak, etc, outwardly was not given in vain.”  Ibid., p. 286. [Emphasis added]


Martin Luther on Music

“I would certainly like to praise music with all my heart as the excellent gift of God which it is and to commend it to everyone.  But I am so overwhelmed by the diversity and magnitude of its virtue and benefits that I can find neither beginning nor end or method for my discourse.  As much as I want to commend it, my praise is bound to be wanting and inadequate.  For who can comprehend it all?  And even if you wanted to encompass all of it, you would appear to have grasped nothing at all.” Martin Luther, “Preface to Georg Rhau’s Symphoniae iucundae,” in Luther’s Works, vol. 53, pp. 321-322.

Martin Luther demonstrated his love of music, especially in Christian worship, throughout his adult life.  Luther studied music as one of the liberal arts.  In this famous preface, written in 1538, Luther described music as a divine gift that appears throughout nature but reaches its perfection in human beings.

“First then, looking at music itself, you will find that from the beginning of the world it has been instilled and implanted in all creatures, individually and collectively.  For nothing is without sound or harmony.  Even the air, which of itself is invisible and imperceptible to all our senses, and which, since it lacks both voice and speech, is the least musical of all things, becomes sonorous, audible, and comprehensible when it is set in motion….Music is still more wonderful in living things, especially birds….And yet, compared to the human voice, all this hardly deserves the name of music, so abundant and incomprehensible is here the munificence and wisdom of our most gracious Creator.” Ibid., 322.

After Luther marveled at the human voice as an instrument that confounds philosophers, he praised the benefit of the divine gift of music.  He understood its power over the human mind and soul to be next to Holy Scripture.

“We can mention only one point (which experience confirms), namely, that next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise.  She is mistress and governess of those human emotions….which as masters govern men or more often overwhelm them….For whether you wish to comfort the sad, to terrify the happy, to encourage the despairing, to humble the proud, to calm the passionate, or to appease those full of hate….what more effective means than music could you find?” Ibid., 323. [Emphasis added]

For this reason, Luther explained that the ancient prophets and fathers combined music and God’s Word.  Thus humans combine the gifts of language and song to praise God.

“But when [musical] learning is added to all this and artistic music which corrects, develops, and refines the natural music, then at last it is possible to taste with wonder (yet not to comprehend) God’s absolute and perfect wisdom in his wondrous work of music.” Ibid., 324.


Peter of Celle on Monastic Reading

“What should I say about reading? I consider a room without reading to be hell without consolation, a gibbet without belief, a prison without a light, a tomb without a vent, a ditch swarming with worms, a suffocating trap.  A room without reading is the empty house of which the gospel speaks, where the nocturnal and noonday devils assault the idle hermit with as many thrusts of the useless and harmful thoughts as there are hours and moments in the day and night.” Peter of Celle, On Affliction and Reading. 8. in Peter of Celle: Selected Works, trans. Hugh Feiss (Kalamazoo, 1987), pp. 133-134.

Peter of Celle came from minor nobility in the Champagne region of medieval France. He spent most of his adult life as an abbot at Celle, then later at St Remi in Reims.  Peter became bishop of Chartres in 1181, but he only served a short time since he died on February 19, 1182.  Although he remained a traditional Benedictine, Peter had good relations with the Cistercians and the Carthusians.  Additionally, he corresponded with the abbots of Cluny and Pope Alexander III.  He befriended John of Salisbury and supported Archbishop Thomas Beckett in the contest with Henry II of England.