Exploring modern thinkers and ideas

European Intellectual History from Rousseau to NietzscheEuropean Intellectual History from Rousseau to Nietzsche by Frank M. Turner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A nice, clear overview of major European thinkers and intellectual trends during this time, in less than 300 pages. It’s a reproduction of Turner’s lectures from his Yale course, put together after his death. One of the best features is how well the lectures show the connections and influences between different thinkers, ideas, and Western society from about 1750-1900. So, for example, the lecture on Richard Wagner illustrates how many of these trends came together in the composer’s life.

The lecture “Race and Anti-Semitism” included a wise reminder. Turner notes that racial thought had connections with many of the leading intellectual trends of the 1800s, such as “opposition to the unbridled advance of capitalism,” imperialism, nationalism, and “the new sciences of anthropology, philology, evolution, eugenics, and public health. Racial thinking rose to the crest of this apparently and so-called progressionist wave. The forms of mass murder and mass degradation in Europe and within the various colonial empires brought about by such thinking — murder and degradation carried out for allegedly high principle and with sincere, educated conviction — should encourage all of us to show more scepticism toward embracing any set of ideas simply because they are called new, advanced, scientific, or progressive” (191).

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A political history of medieval and early modern Europe

Birth of the Leviathan: Building States and Regimes in Medieval and Early Modern EuropeBirth of the Leviathan: Building States and Regimes in Medieval and Early Modern Europe by Thomas Ertman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ertman gives a very helpful comparative history of the development of different European states, categorizing them as patrimonial absolutist (mainly France and Spain), bureaucratic constitutionalist (England/Great Britain), bureaucratic absolutist (mainly Prussia), and patrimonial constitutionalist (Poland and Hungary). The absolutist/constitutionalist contrast is well-known, but the patrimonial/bureaucratic contrast adds an interesting twist. In patrimonial systems, officials view positions of power as their own property, while bureaucratic systems place a premium on trained and qualified officials.

It’s understandable that Ertman favors the British system of strong central government with oversight by a Parliament responsible to local communities within the realm. After all, Britain outmatched its competitors in power, stability, and the ability to finance its wars in the early modern period. It was an age of centralizing states that were at war with each other, and so it makes sense to focus on how the states met this challenge. Yet there does seem to be a conceptual bias toward the centralized nation-state, and I wonder how a book that had a different standard for political development might have looked. I also would have liked to see more on Habsburg Austria.

Those are quite small nits to pick considering Ertman’s accomplishment in producing a history of over 1000 years of political development in Western Christendom.

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Philip II’s world

The World Is Not Enough: The Imperial Vision of Philip II of SpainThe World Is Not Enough: The Imperial Vision of Philip II of Spain by Geoffrey Parker

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a good overview of how Philip II thought about his reign. He was devout and also saw himself as a key instrument in God’s design for the advancement of the Catholic faith, identifying his own plans closely with God’s. Parker contends that his empire was so massive that it could not be adequately defended, and that Philip’s absolute belief that his cause and God’s were the same harmed his ability to make realistic plans.

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Modern State 1.0 (the confessional state)

Note: This semester in my Western Civ classes, I tried to emphasize more about the development of the modern, centralized state. I tried to explain it in three stages, 1.0 (the confessional state), 2.0 (the nation-state), and 3.0 (the welfare state). I’m posting my slightly edited explanations here to get feedback on how accurate and helpful this history is.

You might wonder why there’s a software reference in the title of this term, especially from a history professor who knows next to nothing about software. Here’s why: we will be studying different stages of the “modern state” this semester, and this is the first.

Another quick note is that “confessional” in this context refers not confessing one’s sins to God or someone else, but to confessing a certain religious belief. After the breakup of the Western Christian church in the 1500s, leaders of various Christian groups wrote documents, often called “confessions,” that explained what their group believed and what they they did not. The Augsburg Confession (Lutheran) and the Heidelberg Catechism (Reformed or Calvinist) are two of many examples.

The pre-modern state: Of course, political life existed before the modern state. Medieval kingdoms were often patchworks of regions with local laws, privileges, identities, and traditions. Nobles often could govern their local regions and even maintain armies and fight wars. As I explained when discussing the three estates, rights came from one’s membership in a group. Two examples from France given by Michael Burger illustrate this. The city of Béarn in France was exempt from the salt tax, and nobles and clergy in France were exempt from the taille, which was an income or property tax (depending on the region) and the most important tax levied by the king.

Characteristics of Modern State 1.0: We have already noted that one of the reasons for the Crisis of the 17th Century was that kings did not accept this state of affairs, and wanted to impose their authority throughout their entire kingdoms. For example, Louis XIV told the city of Béarn that it had to pay the tax, and sent troops to force them to comply. As Michael Burger writes, this illustrates how taxes funded the more expensive royal armies of the time, and the royal armies also allowed kings to force their subjects to pay the taxes.

Here are the main characteristics:

1. Centralized power: the modern state is a clearly defined territory with a central government that aspires to exercise supreme political power throughout that territory. The nobles and church were clearly subordinated to central government, even if they had their own rights.

The most important powers for these states were the power to collect taxes, enforce laws, and have control of the military and war. This last was critical: few if any monarchs would want to allow nobles to maintain armies and fight each other.

2. A confessional state: as noted before, all European countries had an official church. According to William Cavanaugh, in the 1500s and 1600s, political and religious authorities often cooperated to standardize the religious beliefs and practices of the people of their kingdom, hoping that people would become better Christians and better subjects. This meant sending church and state officials to check in on local churches. This also meant trying to replace at least some local traditions with practices approved by the central authorities.

3. New justifications for the power of governments: the institutional breakup of the Christian church and the political-religious debates and wars that followed, some political thinkers offered new explanations for why governments could hold power.

One idea was divine right absolutism, which meant that the king ruled and was accountable only to God. Louis XIV of France was the most famous ruler to claim this power, but many absolutist rulers did so. This week, you will read an excerpt from Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet’s Political Treatise that defined and defended divine right monarchy.

Another was secular natural law theory, which said that there were certain laws of nature that governed politics. Because of the divisions in the church, writers in this school of thought tried to use nature rather than the Bible or church teachings as their foundation so that they could have a basis on which everyone could agree. For example, Hugo Grotius even argued that people had certain “natural rights” that governments had to respect. These natural laws and rights were said not to be based on any religious authority at all, but only on nature. Natural law theory did not tend to be adopted by rulers, who usually preferred religious justifications for their power in this time.

Some governments did not seem to use either of these. As far as I understand it, constitutional monarchies like England and Poland were based on traditional notions of rights that certain groups had that the king could not violate, along with new agreements like those spelled out in the English Bill of Rights. I’m not aware of the justification for the Dutch Republic’s form of government.

Absolute monarchy and constitutionalism: In Chapter 16, you will read about both absolute monarchies and constitutional forms of government. Modern, confessional states could be either absolutist or constitutional.

Absolute monarchs claimed to have all political power in their kingdoms. As Kagan, Ozment, and Turner point out, they could do all of the things that the centralized governments of the time could do: make war, collect taxes, control the economy and church, and pass laws. The famous (supposed) statement by Louis XIV is a nice summary: “I am the state.” It’s important to remember, though, that absolute monarchs did not have the kind of power that modern dictators like Hitler or Stalin had over their people. The technology did not exist to give them that kind of power.

Constitutionalism meant that power was somehow divided. In a constitutional monarchy like England or Poland, kings shared power with Parliament (in England) and the Sejm (in Poland). In the Dutch Republic, the Estates General elected the stadholder as an executive power. Constitutionalism came only after a struggle between Parliament and kings who wanted to be absolutists.


Burger, The Shaping of Western Civilization

Hunt et al.., The Making of the West

Kagan, Ozment, and Turner, The Western Heritage

Huppert, After the Black Death

Strayer, The Medieval Origins of the Modern State

Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence

Wiesner-Hanks, Wheeler, and Ruff, Discovering the Western Past

The emergence of the modern state

Note: This semester in my Western Civ classes, I tried to emphasize more about the development of the modern, centralized state. I tried to explain it in three stages, 1.0 (the confessional state), 2.0 (the nation-state), and 3.0 (the welfare state). I’m posting my slightly edited explanations here to get feedback on how accurate and helpful this history is. This post shows how I tried to set up the background.

As we begin the course, we find Western Europe in a tumultuous state. Europe in the 1500s was going through a critical period of transformation for three reasons:

  1. Rulers continued to attempt to increase their power over their territories. Their efforts were most successful in England, France, Spain before 1650, and Austria after 1648. There will be more explanation of this trend as we go.
  2. European exploration of Africa, Asia, and especially the Americas meant that European countries began to build global empires that allowed for worldwide trade. Spain and Portugal were most successful at first, and England and France eventually built great empires as well. This allowed for the rise of the Atlantic economy described in Chapter 17.
  3. The Protestant Reformation led to the fracturing of the Western European Christian church into the Roman Catholic Church led by the pope and bishops and different groups of Protestants like the Lutherans, Reformed (Calvinist), Anabaptists, and the Church of England (Anglican). Two important consequences of this period stand out for our purposes:
    • The division of the church led to the “denominations” of Christianity that we now take for granted.
    • It also made an important political development possible. Rulers had long sought power over the church in their territories, sometimes quite successfully. The division and weakening of the Catholic Church meant that rulers, whether Catholic or Protestant, had an even greater opening to become the senior partner in the relationship between church and state in their kingdoms. Both Catholic and Protestant rulers tended to exercise great control over the church in their kingdoms.

Thus, the increasing power of rulers, European exploration, and the breakup of the Christian church were all part of important changes in Western Europe. These new developments helped to bring important changes to the political, economic, and religious landscape of the European continent.

All of these things contributed to what historians sometimes call the Crisis of the 17th Century. Here’s how:

Centralization of power:

Kings and emperors in various countries had been attempting to establish centralized control over their kingdoms for a long time. While we might think that kings automatically had all the power that they wanted, that’s not actually the case. Local nobles often wanted to control their their own lands as much as possible, and preferred that their kings be distant figure that they could respect from a long way away. They wished to provide justice, collect dues from their peasants, and even wage war against each other if they wanted to.

During the High and Late Middle Ages (roughly 1000-1500), the English, French, and Spanish kings began to expand their power over their kingdoms. They claimed the rights to collect taxes and to provide justice to their subjects. They also maintained royal armies and cracked down on nobles who challenged their authority.

The rulers who notably failed to do this were the emperors of the Holy Roman Empire (a huge entity in central Europe made up of what we now call Germany and some other countries). In the Holy Roman Empire, local rulers were able to maintain their own rights and attempt to build their own lands into smaller centralized kingdoms.

Having more power sounds good in theory, but there were problems.

  1. It turns out that centralization was expensive. Hiring soldiers (often mercenaries) for the royal army and officials to help the kings judge cases and collect taxes takes a lot of money. This meant that there was a constant effort to collect taxes, which meant that subjects sometimes revolted against their kings. At a smaller scale, peasants sometimes revolted against nobles who were taxing them more heavily.
  2. Also, the nobles often resisted the king’s plans. One incentive for German nobles in the Holy Roman Empire to become Lutherans and French nobles to become Huguenots (Calvinist Protestants) was that the Catholic Holy Roman Emperors and the Catholic kings of France desired to expand their power. (This wasn’t the only reason to convert, of course.)



European exploration:

You probably know that the voyages of Christopher Columbus (beginning in 1492) allowed Europeans to begin establishing colonies in the Americas. It seems that a larger population in Europe and huge amounts of silver and gold that were plundered and mined under Spanish authority seemed to cause a rise in prices (inflation). This made it harder for average people to afford food and other items, and made it harder for kings and emperors to pay for soldiers and officials discussed above. This is discussed in Chapter 15 of The Making of the West.



The breakup of the Christian church:

Nobles in Germany and France were not the only ones to convert to forms of Protestantism. Some kings, like Henry VIII of England and the kings of Sweden and Denmark, became Protestants. While most Western Europeans were still Catholic, many Dutch, English, northern German people (along with others) became Protestants.

These religious changes within the kingdoms of France, England, the Holy Roman Empire, along with the quest for rulers to gain more political power, set off wars between various factions within these countries. The French Wars of Religion and the Thirty Years’ War in the Holy Roman Empire are discussed in Chapter 15, and the English Civil War is covered in Chapter 16.

Religious differences between different kingdoms also played into the wars between England and Spain, the Eighty Years’ War between Spain and its Dutch subjects, and the entry of the kings of Denmark and Sweden into the Thirty Years’ War to protect Protestants.

At the same time, there were other factors besides religion at work in these wars. For example, Catholic France sometimes allied with Protestants in order to hurt the Habsburg dynasty that ruled both Spain and the Holy Roman Empire.

Historian Joshua Cole summarizes different views of the crisis here:

So the Crisis of the 17th Century involved wars between countries, civil wars within kingdoms, food shortages, high prices and taxes, and the religious concerns of people great and small. What would emerge from this crisis? This we will see as we continue with the class.



James Gelvin, The Modern Middle East: A History

Joshua Cole (above video for Norton History)

Hunt et al.., The Making of the West

Kagan, Ozment, and Turner, The Western Heritage

Huppert, After the Black Death

Strayer, The Medieval Origins of the Modern State

Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence

Wiesner-Hanks, Wheeler, and Ruff, Discovering the Western Past

Sunshine, Why You Think the Way You Do

The character and history of the modern state

In a paper given at a conference on the state, Chandran Kukathas of the London School of Economics gave a definition of the state and discussed its origins. Here are some key passages:

The state as a corporation (a collective “person” that has its own legal existence):

The question now is: what does it mean to say that a state is a corporate entity? The state is a corporation in the way that a people or a public cannot be. It is a corporation because it is, in effect and in fact, a legal person. As a legal person a corporation not only has the capacity to act but also a liability to be held responsible. Furthermore, a corporation is able to hold property. This is true for incorporated commercial enterprises, for institutions like universities and churches, and for the state. A corporation cannot exist without the natural persons who comprise it — and there must be more than one, for a single individual cannot be a corporation. But the corporation is also a person separate from the persons who comprise it. Thus a public company has an existence because of its shareholders, its agents and their employees, but its rights and duties, powers and liabilities, are not reducible to, or definable in terms of, those of such natural persons. A church or a university has an existence because of the officers who run them and the members who give them their point, but the property of such an entity does not belong to any of these individuals. The state is a corporation in the same way that these other entities are: it is a legal person with rights and duties, powers and liabilities, and holds property that accrues to no other agents than itself. The question in political theory has always been not whether such an entity can come into existence (since it plainly has) but how it does so. This is, in a part, a question of whether its existence is legitimate….

The significance of the capacity for political corporations to hold property ought to be noted. Of critical importance is the fact that this property does not accrue to individual persons. Revenues raised by such corporations by the levying of taxes, or the imposition of tariffs or licensing fees, or by any other means, become the property of the corporation–not of particular governments, or officials, or monarchs, or any other natural person who is able to exercise authority in the name of the corporation. The political corporation, being an abstract entity, cannot enjoy the use of its property–only redistribute it among the agents through whom it exercises power and among others whom those agents are able, or obliged, to favor. The state is not the only political corporation capable of raising revenue and acquiring property, though it will generally be the most voracious in its appetite.

Explaining the rise of the modern state:

According to Martin Van Creveld, the state emerged because of the limitations of the innumerable forms of political organization that existed before it. The crucial innovation that made for development of the state was the idea of the corporation as a legal person, and thus of the state as a legal person. In enabled the emergence of a political entity whose existence was not tied to the existence of particular persons–such as chiefs, lords and kings–or particular groups–such as clans, tribes, and dynasties. The state was an entity that was more durable. Whether or not this advantage was what caused the state to emerge, it seems clear enough that such an entity did come into being. The modern state represents a different form of governance than was found under European feudalism, or in the Roman Empire, or in the Greek city-states.

Having accounted for the concept of the state, however, we now need to consider what kind of theory of the state might best account for the nature of this entity. Ever since the state came into existence, political philosophers have been preoccupied with the problem of giving an account of its moral standing. To be sure, philosophers had always asked why individuals should obey the law, or what, if anything, could justify rebellion against a king or prince. But the emergence of the state gave rise to a host of new theories that have tried to explain what relationship people could have, not to particular persons or groups of persons with power or authority over them, but to a different kind of entity.

To explain the emergence of the state in Europe from the 13th to the 19th centuries would require an account of many things, from the decline of the power of the church against kingdoms and principalities to the development of new political power structures with the transformation and eventual disappearance of the Holy Roman Empire; from the disappearance of towns and city-states, and extended associations like the Hanseatic League, to the rise of movements of national unification. Attempts by theorists to describe the state that was emerging are as much a part of the history of the state as are the political changes and legal innovations. Bodin, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Montequieu, Hume, Rousseau, Madison, Kant, Bentham, Mill, Hegel, Tocqueville, and Marx were among the most insightful thinkers to offer theories of the state during the course of its emergence, though theorizing went on well into the 20th century in the thought of Max Weber, the English pluralists, various American democratic theorists, and Michael Oakeshott. They offered theories of the state in the sense that they tried to explain what it was that gave the state its point: how it was that the existence of the state made sense. To some, this meant also justifying the state, though for the most part this was not the central philosophical concern. (Normative theory, so called, is probably a relatively recent invention.)

Kukathas adopts Hume’s view that the state arose by chance, and this is the least satisfying part of the article. I thought that his overview was helpful, though.

Political theology’s relationship to liberal democracy

A little over a year ago, I read The Stillborn God by Mark Lilla, which I briefly commented on here. Because it’s a provocative book, I had wanted to read some reviews of it, and I found a collection of blog responses here, of which the James K.A. Smith review that I mentioned in my comments was a part. The best response that I have read so far was by Daniel Philpott, who criticizes Lilla’s thesis that “the idea of modern liberalism depends decisively on a jettisoning of theology as a source for arguing about politics. As Philpott writes, Christians have often been the most effective advocates for liberal ideals:

Many scholars have charted roots of the separation of religious and political authority to events, episodes, and ideas that long predate Hobbes. Jesus’ own commandment to render to God and Caesar what is proper to each, Pope Gelasius’ enduring fourth century doctrine of the two swords, the growth of emperor and pope as twin authorities in western Christendom (contrast with eastern Christendom where this separation did not occur and where democracy remains weak), and medieval conciliarism were all important. Historian Brian Tierney has made a compelling and respected case for the growth of the notion of rights in medieval canon law. Theologian Christopher D. Marshall even makes a strong case for the origins of human rights in Old Testament texts. In the fifteenth and sixteenth century, theologians like Vitoria and de las Casas argued against their king for the rights of Indians, rooting their case both in biblical scriptures and in Thomistic natural law (which Hobbes also rejected). All of this occurred long before Hobbes, sprouted from the very heart of traditional political theology, and arguably helped lay strong foundations for features of modern liberalism. At the very least, none of this can be dismissed, as Lilla appears to do. (Curiously, in Chapter One, he presents a sketch of classic Christian political theology in which he recognizes many of these features but then argues that they were abruptly severed from, and presumably rendered impotent in western political thought).

Indisputably, the Reformation and the attendant wars of religion in early modern Europe propelled the development of liberalism, too. But did liberalism arise only through a rejection of traditional political theology brought about by ferocious fundamentalism and bigoted bloodshed? It is a story that contemporary liberals commonly tell, including the Dean of Contemporary Liberalism, the late John Rawls. But is it accurate? In his book, How The Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West, historian Perez Zagorin has argued that this era’s bloody struggles produced three kind of intellectual reactions: first, religion [sic] skepticism, second, the politique approach of temporary accommodationism, but thirdly, and most surprisingly for Lilla’s thesis, arguments for religious freedom and tolerance that were in fact rooted in Christian theology. Diggers, Levelers, other radical Protestants, Mennonites, Anabaptists, Baptists, Quakers – all reached into the very scriptures of the New Testament to argue that expressions of faith ought not to be enforced through the sword. These arguments were in fact the most robust. As Lilla partially acknowledges, Hobbes’ arguments were not very good ones. His scientific materialism, like other forms of deep skepticism, simply cannot sustain arguments for religious toleration – or for virtually any principle of political morality at all. The politiques were pragmatists, open to accommodating religious dissent but also to quashing it if stability demanded it, as King Louis XIV did when he expelled the Huguenots from France in 1685. These theological defenses of religious freedom were not without consequence. As Jose Casanova argues in his post on Lilla, it is virtually impossible to conceive of the religious freedom and establishment clauses of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution apart from the theological arguments of Protestant Christians in the American Colonies, those of Roger Williams being the most famous. As we know, the American constitution was then pivotal in modeling religious freedom for other countries in the world.

You can see the rest of his post for his inclusion of 19th-century American evangelicalism, the beginnings of American feminism, the civil rights movement, and 19th- and 20th-century developments in Catholicism. However one conceives of the proper relationship between church and state, Philpott gives some necessary context for considering the history of liberalism