All posts by Chris Scruggs

Chris Scruggs is a retired Presbyterian Pastor and Attorney. Chris is the author of three books on Christian life, wisdom, and discipleship and is working on a fourth. He authors the blog Path of Life.

Rousseau 1: The Romantic Turn

Jean-Jacque Rousseau, a native of Geneva Switzerland, spent a large portion of his adult life in France and deeply influenced French thinking and European and American thinkers generally. He is often referred to as the “Philosopher of the French Revolution,” which many scholars feel results from a misreading of his work by French revolutionaries. It is possible that even revolutionaries today misread his work and intentions. Rousseau seems to me to be a bridge between the Classical, Renaissance Heritage of Western Culture and the Modern World. Although he writes during the Enlightenment (1685-1815), in my view he is not fully an Enlightenment thinker. His work is often a critique of the Enlightenment optimism concerning the powers of human reason. As such, Rousseau is the intellectual father of the Romantic Movement. He rejects the over-estimation of the powers of human reason and the myth of progress characteristic of the Enlightenment and of Western Culture for the past several hundred years. His influence continues to this day, for we live in a politically romantic age, with all of its irrational revolutionary potential, given legitimacy in part by his work.

Early Biography

Rousseau was born in June 1712. His mother died when he was young, and his father deserted the family, abandoning his child. As an orphan with little or no prospects, he was apprenticed to an engraver and mistreated by his master. He fled Geneva at age 16. In this second phase of his life, he converted to Catholicism, forfeiting his citizenship in Geneva, a Protestant city. He drifted around the neighborhood of France and Italy, was a servant, and then returned to Switzerland, where he became the lover of a wealthy woman.

Around age thirty, Rousseau arrived in Paris, becoming one of the young intellectuals (called “Philosophes”) who were the center of the intellectual life of the city. Around thirty-seven, he had an inspiration that modern progress was a corrupting influence over people rather than a help. Out of this experience he wrote his First Discourse, in which he argues against the theory of human progress and for a theory that civilization has been corrupting on the human race. This idealization of primitive man is the first important characteristic of his writing.

Return to Geneva and Its Place in His Writing

In 1754, Rousseau returned to Geneva after a long absence, “reconverted” to the Calvinist faith of his mother, and began another phase of his life and work. Geneva was an essential part of his life and works, despite the fact that, in faith and practice, Rousseau drifted from an orthodox Calvinism for which the city was known. Although he lived outside of Geneva most of his life, his most important works bear the inscription “Jean-Jacque Rousseau, Citizen of Geneva.” This connection with Geneva is important for understanding his thought.

Geneva marks the place he called home, and a place he idolized. He published his Discourse on Inequality in1754, which many believe to be his finest work. In the beginning of his “Discourse on Inequality,” which he dedicates to The Republic of Geneva, he says the following:

If I had had to choose my birthplace, I would have chosen a society of a size limited by the extent of human capacity, that is limited by the possibility of being well governed, and where, with each being equipped perform his task, no one would have been forced to delegate to others the functions with which he is charged; a state where, with   all private individuals being known to one another, neither the obscure maneuvers of vice nor the modesty of virtue could be hidden from the notice and the judgment of the public, and where the pleasant habit of seeing and knowing one another turned love of homeland into love of citizens rather than into the laws of the land. [1]

This aspect of Rousseau’s character and thought is important. A part of his romanticism was a love of the organic and small. He could see that large, impersonal governments, far from local communities might be less human and less effective. This is a part of this thought continued in the late modern era through works like Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. [2] This ideal of a more personal and organic society is a part of the New Agrarian movement in America and the movement of people to smaller cities. In larger communities, it manifests itself as a concern for neighborhoods as essential to metropolitan health.

Final Paris Period

In 1762, Rousseau returned to Paris to recover his friendships there and find a place where he could continue to work. However, he was now alienated both from his fellow philosophes, and their belief in Enlightenment, the inevitability of human progress, and attacks on religion. Although not himself fully-orthodox, he felt the attacks on religion were harmful to society, particularly to Geneva, because of attacks on Calvinism by intellectuals. Unable to feel at home, he left Paris, living on the estate of a wealthy friend. During this phase, he completed The Social Contract, (1763), which I will look at next.

Final Years and Mental Illness

Alienating his former supporters, he fled again into exile, renounced his citizenship in Geneva, and spent the rest of his life moving around, living for a time in England, but never finding the place of where he could find a home. He degenerated into mental illness from which he suffered the reminder of his life. During his final period, he wrote his Confessions, named after St. Augustine’s work of the same name, and other autobiographical works. His literary output is overwhelming: essays, books, novels, articles and the like.

He died in July of 1778, at the age of sixty-four.

Rousseau and Religious Faith

Rousseau conducted a life-time spiritual pilgrimage, that led from his parent’s Protestantism, to Roman Catholicism, back to Protestantism, to flirting with a form of Deism, to a quasi-unitarianism, back to some kind of orthodoxy, and perhaps at the end of his life to a kind of Romantic Pietism. What can be said for certain is that Rousseau should not be read as anti-religious or anti-Christian. In fact, his break with his fellow Parisian intellectuals was partially based on his rejection of this feature of Enlightenment thought. Rousseau respects religion, has faith in God, and seeks in his life and work to be some kind of Christian.

In the end, Rousseau was impacted by the skepticism of his age, but unwilling to sever his ties with Christian faith. His Romanticism led him to a kind of intuitive faith, one based upon an intuition or feeling of the divine. In this way, he is the forerunner of Friedrich Schleiermacher and a version of Christianity based upon feeling. [3] In this sense, Rousseau is a sympathetic figure for post-modern people seeking to form a faith under the conditions of our culture, which stands at the end of the culture the Enlightenment created.

Rousseau and the Myth of Progress

Unlike the majority of Enlightenment thinkers, Rousseau is critical of the idea of human progress, and especially the inevitability of human progress based on human reason. Rousseau believes civilization is as much the cause of the human problem as it is the solution. In his “Discourse on the Science and the Arts, he says:

Almighty God, you who hold minds in your hands, deliver us from the enlightenment and deadly arts of our fathers and give us back to ignorance, innocence, and poverty—the only goods that can bring about our happiness and that are precious in your sight.” [4]

For Rousseau, all the supposed progress of the sciences and arts has added little to actual human happiness, but instead corrupted morals, and the purity of the original human condition. [5]

One sees in Rousseau the inevitable reaction against the excessive idealization of mind and human reason that is fundamental to the Enlightenment view of human nature. Rousseau sees the need to appreciate the intuitive and pre-rational aspects of human life. In so doing, however, he often overstates his case. This series of blogs, which adopts a view I call “Sophio-Agapic” is inclined to see the need to avoid the modern separation of mind and matter, of the intellect and emotion and adopt a position intentionally different from that promoted by the severance of mind and matter in modern thought.

Rousseau and Human Nature

This leads us directly to Rousseau’s theory of human nature. If there is any single doctrine (other than double predestination) for which Calvinism is known, it may be its strong, Augustinian Doctrine of the Fall. Rousseau is often cited for the reverse view: that human beings are basically “good.” While this simplistic summary is partially correct, it ignores the complexity of Rousseau’s analysis of human nature. It might be better to say that according to Rousseau human beings are by nature morally neutral, but that the impact of heredity, family life, human history, culture, and the like infect all human beings with what religious people call sin. Human civilization is the history of the infection of the human character with the defects Christians call “sin.”

This view has something in common with a more orthodox Calvinist view that sees human beings as made in the image of God, but captured by sin from birth. Both Calvin and Rousseau tend to miss the impact of human finitude and anxiety concerning the future that impacts human selfishness. This kind of analysis of sin awaited the 19th and 20thCenturies to come to full bloom.

Next week, we will look at Rousseau’s Social Contract Theory, and in so doing we will return to his theory of human nature, which impacts his political theology in a major way. Suffice it to say that Rousseau understands that it is nearly impossible at this late stage of history to know the precise nature of our first forbearers. Thus, he says:

“For it is no light undertaking to separate what is original from what is artificial in the present nature of man, and to have a proper understanding of a state that no longer exists, that perhaps never existed, that probably never will exist, and yet without which it is necessary to have accurate notions to judge properly our present state. [6]

In this brief sentence, there is illuminated, not just the defect in Rousseau’s idea of a basic State of Nature of human beings, but the defect of all such endeavors: We cannot know by human reason alone what the “State of Nature” might have been. The Bible gives Christians a revelation and interpretation of the nature of human beings older than almost any we possess, and it sees human beings as flawed.

Interpreters, theological and philosophical, have attempted endless explanations. In the end, we are left with the idea that human nature today is what it as always been: noble but inclined towards self-centered, self-interested, and self-destructive behavior damaging to the self and others. It seems to me that political philosophy cannot and should not begin with some supposed “state of nature” but with the human animal as we experience it day by day. Instead it must begin with the long history of human political organization as we can understand it. I will return to this again next week, for any “Social Compact” theory of government must either suggest a “State of Nature” or as in Rawls, some neutral state that allows the social compact to be instituted.

Rousseau and Human Society

Having briefly understood Rousseau’s view of human nature (basically good, but corrupted by civilization), we are in a position to understand and critique his idea of human society and origins of inequality. This is important for it informs his view of the Social Contract, for if he is wrong in his views of human nature and the human inequality, then his views on the Social Contract are suspect.

One might say that for Rousseau, human history and the evolution of human society is a mistake. Human beings once lived in a state of nature, without property or worries, in a state of perfect equality. This natural state did not endure, for “In becoming habituated to the ways of a society and a slave he becomes weak, fearful, and servile; his soft and effeminate lifestyle completes the enervation of both his strength and his courage.” [7]

The Discourse on Inequality begins with a long interpretation of human history based upon the idea that human beings in a state of nature were superior beasts, stronger and wiser than any of their natural enemies, existing in a state of perfect equality. One commentator says all that needs to be said:

In the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, dating from 1754, Rousseau gives a philosophy of history, resting on a condensed account of the development of the human race, and the whole essay is saturated with that passionate hatred of inequality which may not unfairly be regarded as the dominant feature of his character. It is almost unnecessary to say that for Rousseau’s history there is not the faintest shadow of a particle of evidence. [8]

Indeed, a reader cannot be but struck by the naïve understanding of Rousseau of the condition of primitive peoples.

According to Rousseau, the degeneration of the human race to its current state began with the institution of private property, which began the development of human society. The first person, who having enclosed a plot of land, took it into his head to say, ‘This is mine,’ and having found people simple enough to believe him was the true founder of civil society.’” [9] Here we see the beginning of the modern communist and socialist movement. Rather than seeing private property as an engine of the development of human culture and civilization, it sees private property as a mistake to be corrected.

From this point, Rousseau constructs an “imaginary history” of the decline of the human race from its original equality to its present inequality. Human society bred an understanding of differences, of the difference between the strong and the weak, the intelligent and the not so intelligent, the talented and the not so talented. Human pride then took over and took advantage of the differences that were now seen among human beings until the current state of inequality took over. [10] Once this understanding of the differences among human beings was fully integrated into the human psyche and society, the result was certain. Thus, Rousseau says:

With things having reached this point, it is easy to imagine the rest. I will not stop to describe the successive invention of the arts, the progress of languages, the testing and use of talents, the inequality of fortunes, the use or abuse of wealth, now all the details that follow these and that everyone can easily supply. [11]

Political Consequences of Inequality

The result of the inevitable progress of civilization was an increase in inequality. This inequality is economic, social, legal and political. The growth of wealth enabled an increasing difference in economic circumstances. The growth of social institutions gave advantage to those with the intelligence and social skills to prosper. The growth of courts of law and the need for social arbitration increased the ability of the rich to get advantage over the poor. Inequality of power, allowed increasing distinctions between those in power and those out of power, with those with power increasing their social advantage.

Rousseau describes this process as follows:

Such was … the origin of a society and laws, which gave new fetters to the weak and new forces to the rich, irretrievably destroyed natural liberty, established forever the law of property and of inequality, changed adroit usurpation into an irrevocable right, and for the profit of a few ambitious men henceforth subjected the entire human race to labor, servitude, and misery. [12]

 Here one sees clearly the implications of Rousseau’s original decision to see human beings as originally equal, with inequality a development of society. This, however, seems to me to the opposite of the truth. A more likely and historically defensible opinion would be to see the original situation of the human race as one in which physical size, strength, and the like assured the rule of the “fittest,” with protection of the weak, the less intelligent, and others as a development of civilization—and particularly of Christian civilization, which rejected much of the pagan ethic.


Rousseau is complex. His dislike of inequality is visceral, perhaps a result of his early poverty and struggle to achieve financial security and social prominence. For this we can admire his views, and learn from them to ameliorate the worst consequences of inequality. However, his analysis makes human society not an achievement but a mistake, which is not the most logical conclusion to draw from human history. Instead of seeing human history as a long series of errors ending in bondage, it might be more accurate to see human history as a long journey from bondage to a precarious freedom. This will be the subject of the next blog.

Copyright 2021, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] “Letter to the Republic of Geneva” in Jean-Jacque Rousseau: The Basic Writings 2nd ed. Trans and Edited by Donald A. Cross (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Press), 31.  All citations in this blog are from this edition of Rousseau’s work.

[2] E.F. Shumacher, Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (Vancouver, BC: Hartley and Marks, 1973). There are many other aspects of modern and post-modern thought that are impacted by Rousseau. In many ways, he anticipates the postmodern critique of modernity, which is another reason that it is difficult to call him an “Enlightenment figure” without qualification.

[3] Schleiermacher developed a complex theology, including a political theology, in response to the Enlightenment critique of Christianity and was influenced by, and representative of, the Romantic movement. His theology continues to have impact in some circles, where his impact is as great as any historical thinker. His basic idea is that human beings are by nature religious, and have a religious intuition or feeling that is fundamental, a feeling of absolute dependency.

[4] Rousseau, Discourse on Science and the Arts, at 33.

[5] Id.

[6] Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, at 40.

[7] Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, at 51.

[8] Alexander Gray, Mises Daily Articles, “Rousseau’s Form of Socialism” (September 22, 2009), reprinted from The Socialist Tradition, Moses to Lenin London, ENG: Longmans, Green & Co., 1946),, downloaded April 3, 2021.

[9] Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, at 69.

[10] Id, at 70-76.

[11] Id, at 70-71.

[12] Id, at 79.

Calvin 3: The Christian Duty of Obedience and Resistance

One thing this series of blogs has tried to do is put into historical perspective the actions and views of the various writers. In the case of Calvin, the situation in which he wrote profoundly impacted his views on a number of issues.

To begin with, Calvin was raised in, and left in danger because of his religious views, the France of his day—an absolute Roman Catholic monarchy. France, Spain, and most of the rest of Europe were ruled by monarchs of one form or another. Above all these monarchs, there was an entity known as the Holy Roman Empire, a weak and eventually to disappear “High Kingship.” [1] Even in Calvin’s day, the empire was a weak. Nevertheless, in the time of Calvin, the Holy Roman Emperor was the protector of the Roman Catholic faith and hostile to the Reformation and reformers. Luther, Calvin and others were from time to time in personal danger from the Catholic princes of Europe and the Holy Roman Emperor.

Second, having left France, Calvin ended up in Switzerland, which like Germany was divided up into both Catholic and Protestant areas. The threat of persecution was a real possibility, since the political winds could easily change. As a citizen of Geneva, Calvin lived near France, and thus had to consider the potential for a French invasion. Geneva was open to the Reformation, but this openness was not a sure thing for most of Calvin’s time there.

Third, Calvin was familiar with the dangers associated with the Radical Reformation. In Germany and Switzerland, the Reformation, begun as an attempt to purify the church not to radically change it. However, in some cases the Reformation took a different, more dangerous, and sometimes violent turn. Radical violence was sometimes fomented by an expectation of an early end to history and return of Christ. Sometimes, it involved a resistance against all earthly authority. Often, it involved unbalanced leaders who lacked practical wisdom or theological training and who led their adherents into error. In Germany the princes of combined to forcibly put down some radical reformers and many people died. Calvin, like Luther before him, was appalled by the Radical Reformers, which contributed to his lack of sympathy for Michael Servetus and his unitarian brand of reform. In any case, this political theology is formed by this history.

Christians and the Courts

In Calvin’s day, as in our own, there were misunderstanding as to whether, and to what extent, Christians can or should avail themselves of secular courts of law. According to Calvin, Christians are entitled to use the courts of law, and indeed ought to do so in order to prevent the evil of private vengeance. It is not appropriate, therefore, for a Christian to quote Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians to avoid a litigious spirit and of suing one another without restraint as forbidding their use of public courts where appropriate (4.20.21). Once again, Calvin places his emphasis on love, reminding readers that whatever Christians do they must do in love, and anything done apart from love is suspect from a Christian perspective (4.20.19). It would never be appropriate for a Christian to use the courts to secure vengeance or an unjust result.

As to civil matters, Christians clearly are not acting properly if they do not submit a valid claim to the decision of the courts, for to do otherwise is to invite private vengeance and violence. The same is true of criminal matters. So long as a litigant is motivated by the desire for justice and not by a desire for revenge or resentment over a private injury, there is nothing to forbid Christians (or anyone else) from availing themselves of the judicial system (4.20.19). Thus, Christian, like everyone else, may defend their rights in a court of law, so long as the defense of their rights is done without rancor, passion, a desire for revenge, malice or other improper motive (4.20.19).

Thus, the act of defending justice and seeking equity is blameless and should not be prohibited to Christians or others; however, Christians do have a special duty to behave in the proper manner:

For this must be a set principle for all Christians: That a lawsuit however just, can never be rightly prosecuted by any man, unless he treats his adversary with the same love and good will as if the business under controversy were already amicably settled and composed (4.20.18).

The fact that such a spirit is largely absent from litigants in Calvin’s day as in our own does not detract from the desirability of just and orderly behavior by those who use the court system, and especially by Christians.

According to Calvin, a willingness to submit to public judicial process is not contrary to Christ’s in junction to “turn the other cheek.” Christians ought to bear with slanders and injustice, forgiving others for malice and deceit and a variety of wrongs, displaying that spiritual composure that identifies a follower of Christ (4.20.20). This characteristic of Christians does not, however, prevent them from defending rights and property:

Yet, this equity and moderateness of their minds will not prevent them from using the help of the magistrate in preserving their own possessions, while maintaining friendliness toward their enemies; or zealous for public welfare, from demanding the punishment of a guilty and pestilent man, who, they know, can be changed only by death (4.20.20).

Duty of Obedience to Rulers

The first duty of citizens is to honor the office of those appointed by human agents and God to exercise public authority, including legislatures, magistrates, and courts of law (4.20.22). It is important, Calvin believes, for Christians to remember that public officials are not merely a necessary evil, but an accommodation of grace by God to the human need of leadership and governance. From the duty to honor their follows a duty of obedience to those with magisterial authority:

From this also something else follows: that, with hearts inclined to reverence their rulers, the subjects should prove their obedience toward them, whether by obeying their proclamations, or by paying taxes, or by undertaking public offices and burdens which pertain to the common defense, or by executing any other command of theirs (4.20.23).

Where a Christian believes a ruler has acted mistakenly, and their ordinances require some kind of amendment, they should not raise a tumult or create trouble, but work diligently to resolve the problem peacefully and within the law (4.20.23). Here we see a beginning of Calvin’s attitude towards any kind of resistance. In the first instance, Christians should work in love within whatever political system they find themselves to resolve public wrongs without violence.

The duty of Christians to obey laws does not pertain only to laws passed by just and righteous rulers, but also to rulers who do not act wisely or with justice towards those they lead (4.20.24). According to Calvin, it is the example of nearly all ages of human history that rulers have acted without care, lazily, corruptly, and without compassion draining the people of their money and livelihoods (4.20.24). While such magistrates are a disgrace to the offices they hold, Christians are to give such rulers the dignity and respect the authority of the offices they hold (4.20.25). Here we see a second principle of obedience: Even bad rulers hold their offices from God and are due the respect of their office (Exodus 22:28; Ecclesiastes 10:20; Romans 13:1-7).

Beyond corrupt, lazy, and incompetent rulers, there are also wicked rulers, which God periodically allows to gain power and oppress their people (4.20.25). They too are to be obeyed:

But if we look to God’s Word, it will lead us further. We are not only subject to the authority of princes who perform their office uprightly and faithfully as they ought, but also to the authority of all who, by whatever means, have got control of affairs even though they perform not a whit of the prince’s office (4.20.25).

 Christians are subject such underserving princes just as they are subject to those who are deserving of the honor of their office (4.20.25). From time to time such rulers are raised up to punish public wickedness or otherwise accomplish the purposes of God, and the Bible is full of examples, from Pharaoh to Nebuchadnezzar. Christians are to obey bad rulers just as they obey good rulers (4.20.26). Nebuchadnezzar is used by Calvin as a case in point of a foolish, vain, violent, and unwise ruler whom God placed over the Jewish people, and through Daniel was used by God for his purposes and to display his glory (4.20.26-27).

This is the final, and perhaps most controversial, of Calvin’s points. Clearly, one thing that Christians should consider is whether a bad ruler is a judgement of God to which the church must submit in humility and endure. Second, it is not always wise or possible to resist a ruler, a situation with which Calvin was familiar. In our day, we are accustomed to democratic freedoms and may not be as sympathetic as we should be with Christian groups who have had to submit to wicked rulers to survive. Overt resistance is not always either wise or possible.

Resistance Against Edicts that Violate Conscience and Duty to God

As the preceding clearly reveals, Calvin was extremely reluctant to justify disobedience to established rulers. He was familiar with the damage the Radical Reformation had done in Germany and the way in which even well-meaning radical reformers had damaged the cause of the Reformation in fruitless revolt against authorities. Nevertheless, at the end of the Institutes Calvin does find some room for disobedience under the caption “Obedience to man must not become disobedience to God” (4.20.32). Obedience to earthly rulers must not be such that it leads to disobedience to God, for public officials are subject to God and own obedience to God. Where Christ has spoken, “he alone must be heard” (4.20.32).

Clearly, in this passage, Calvin has in mind the kind of passive resistance that the early church demonstrated, when Christians sometimes refused to deny Christ and paid for their refusal with their lives. He has in mind the resistance that figures in Scripture demonstrated, particularly the resistance Jesus demonstrated before the Sanhedrin and Pilate, a resistance that did not revolt against authority but instead accepted the injustice of authority in faithfulness to God.

This view of a right to resist flows from the commandment of love. Christians are commanded to love their neighbor has themselves, but prior to that commandment is the command to love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength (Matthew 22:35-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:27a). The love of God takes precedence over any earthly love, and so where the two loves become estranged, the Christian must choose the love of God and accept the consequences.

From Resistance to a Right of Revolution

The right of passive resistance was as far as Calvin himself would go in his direct writings, but his followers would look at the implications of listening to Christ alone and reach different conclusions. Other thinkers influenced by his theology, as well as the contract theory of law, reached conclusion the conclusion that there might be a right to revolt against magistrates who abused or neglected their responsibilities as leaders.

In the first place, Calvinism itself originated in the free states of Switzerland and spread most easily to free states. In such a situation, the idea that the citizens had duties to magistrates led easily to the reverse idea: Rulers had duties to their subjects. Secondly, within a short period of time, the notion of society being formed by a social contract between governments and their subjects became popular, as did “covenant theology,” which is a direct outgrowth of Calvinism.

The idea of a social contract has implicit within it the idea that the rulers and subjects are each bound by the contract. While Hobbes and others tried to suggest that the social contract could not be voided by subjects, this is not the most natural interpretation of a contract theory. Nearly everyone is directly or indirectly aware that contracts can be broken and if broken, contracts are either void or some kind of redress is due the injured party. The merger between covenant theology and the theory of a social contract was nearly certain to end with some kind of a right of revolution.

Thus, as Calvinism developed, it tended to include within its political ideas the notion that some revolutions were in fact necessary and permitted to Christians. It is not likely that Calvin himself would have agreed given his restraint as to such a right in the Institutes. [2] His emphasis on the Christian duty of love would have mitigated against such a result. The Christian duty to love is not dependent upon whether and to what extent the beloved is worthy.

Whatever the exact historical details, by the time of the American revolution, most Americans believed that there was a right of revolution and that King George III had violated the social contract by his policies towards the colonies. The Declaration of Independence is filled with reasons its writers believed justified the American Revolution because of the wrongs inflicted by the British king. While Calvin himself is not the direct source of this view, the development of his theology, particularly in England, laid some of the groundwork for the political view that rulers who abused their powers can be overthrown.

Copyright 2021, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] The Holy Roman Empire officially terminated on August 6, 1806, when the last emperor, Francis II of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine,  abdicated his throne and released his subjects from any further obligation.

[2] Almost every student of Calvin sooner or later hears a professor speak the words, “Calvin was not always as much a Calvinist as his followers.” This is often true.

2. Calvin on Law

The last blog introduced Calvin as a political thinker and dealt with the powers and responsibilities of the magistrate in public life. For Calvin, the magistrate is the embodiment of the laws of a polity, and is the active element that ensures its active success (4.20.14). [1] If the magistrate is the embodiment of a polity, its laws are the sinews, the glue that holds a political unit together. Magistrates have a duty to enact just laws, and citizens a duty of obedience to those laws, even laws with which they disagree or which are imposed by rulers who act in an immoral and oppressive way. For Calvin, only when laws and rulers interfere with the worship and obedience that Christians owe God does a limited right of passive resistance apply. The duty of obedience and the right of resistance will be dealt with next week. This week, we look at Calvin and the laws of a society. In my view, this is one of the most important blogs I have done because of the essentially relational view of law Calvin takes.

Distinguishing Between Ceremonial, Judicial, and Moral Laws of Israel

In Calvin’s day, as in our own, there were those who believed that the laws of the state ought to mirror the laws instituted by Moses, a view that Calvin regards as false and foolish (4.20.14). In responding to this error, Calvin begins his analysis of law with the commonly recognized distinction between (i) the ceremonial laws of Israel, (ii) its judicial laws, and (iii) the moral law found in the Old and New Testaments. These three aspects of Old Testament law must be carefully distinguished and are differing importance to those interested in human social life. 

The ceremonial law was enacted to create a holy and set-apart people of God. The people of Israel were chosen by God to be different from the surrounding nations. From a Christian perspective, this separation was for the tutelage of the Jewish people as they prepared for the Messiah. The ceremonial law contained the outline of a religious system, involving festivals, and a sacrificial system, appropriate for a stage in human development when sacrifices to the gods was commonly practiced. This ceremonial law was an important preparation for the revelation of Christ, but could be and has been abrogated without loss. 

The moral law stands upon another footing and cannot be abrogated by human beings. The moral law is founded upon the rational nature of human beings created in the image of God and summarized by the Great Commandment, which is given in Mark in the following way: 

“The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.  And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29b-31, NKJV). [2]

This commandment of love stands at the root of the moral law and is a perpetual “natural” law designed to provide a structure for all of human life (4.20.15). In the language I have been using in these blogs, the moral law, which is an outgrowth of the law of love, is founded upon the self-giving love and relational wholeness that exists within the Trinity and which is embedded in the nature of creation as a relational whole. We give the name “love” to this relational wholeness that leads to peace (shalom) and human thriving. [3] The object of this moral law is to enable human beings to navigate life successfully.

Natural law as “Sophio-Agapic”

In this view, which I term “Sophio-Agapic,” natural law derives from the hidden wisdom through which God created the world and the self-giving love by which God creates and sustains the universe. Because God is wise, there is embedded in God’s creation an order. Because God is essentially relational, the universe reflects at every level a relationality that is foundational and which is reflected in the human capacity for love. [4] Implicit in the kind of wise relationality that underlies human society is the notion that humans must have both order and freedom to thrive. It is the search for wise relationships that drives human beings to create systems of law to ensure public peace and order, and it is the desire for loving relationships that drive human beings to freedom-in-relationship. This sophio-agapic relationality is the foundation of what we term “natural law.”

It is important to reflect upon the difference that a relational, sophio-agapic theory of natural law makes to morality and law. Often, natural law theorists focus upon the moral content of natural law (murder is wrong) without proper consideration of the relational foundation of that rule in the desire for human harmony and peace (murder is antithetical to human striving and shalom). A focus on the relational foundation of law in love allows a recognition that all law, including moral law, rests upon something deeper than law itself—on the love and wholeness for which human beings were created. This is an important insight for our society in order for it to exit the period of decay and polarization in which we find ourselves. 

Public Law as Contextual

The moral or natural law is not sufficient to organize any particular society. For there to be social order, there must be a system of public law. The specific laws of Israel were given to them so that they could live together peacefully under the conditions of the ancient world in which they lived. Once again, the judicial law of Israel was not eternal and could be abrogated in order to accommodate a different people and culture (4.20.15). Thus, the specifics of the judicial law of Israel are not binding upon other societies and may be changed to meet different social circumstances as human history unfolds.

Thus, the result of a proper understanding the differences in the ceremonial, moral, and judicial law of Israel is that the nations of the world are free to craft their own laws so long as they are respectful of the law of love that stands beneath and is the foundation of all law. Thus, “…every nation is left free to make such laws as it foresees to be profitable to itself. Yet, these must be in conformity to that perpetual law of love, so that they indeed vary in form by have the same purpose” (4.20.15, emphasis added). This standard of love means that barbarous laws that would give honor to thieves, justify murder, or permit savagery are to be condemned. [5] All laws have as their purpose the creation of a just and loving social order.

Because laws are intended to create and maintain the relational wholeness of a particular society, Calvin sees equity, that is the giving of each person and group his or her due, as the foundational way in which love is worked out in any concrete set of laws. Thus, the law of love is the foundation of “natural law,” which is the moral law of God and is engraved on the human conscience (4.20.16). [6] This does not require that modern people believe that every single insight of the ancients as to the nature and character of the natural, moral law were in fact correct.

Any law framed so as to create equity is to be approved of irrespective of whether it differs from Jewish public law. This is an important insight, for it allows a progressive understanding of human law throughout human history and the accommodation of the laws of a society to the circumstances of that particular society. 

For example, Calvin notes that, even where societies universally condemn an action, such as stealing, there can be differing penalties for the violation of that law, and the Old Testament penalties are not binding upon any particular society. Thus, some societies treat various crimes more or less seriously and throughout history differing penalties have been thought just for the same crime. This is to be seen as an accommodation of a particular society to its own circumstances (4.20.16).

This view leaves human actors with space within which to adapt their society’s laws to specific economic, geographic, cultural, and other circumstances which differ from time to time and place to place. For Calvin, society is not an entity decreed to have only one set of laws based upon one culture’s reading of the Bible, the revelation of God, and circumstances. Instead, different societies are free to experiment and to create their own laws, subject always to the kind of relational wholeness that would be called “equity” that results in social peace.

To say that societies are free to experiment is not to say that there are no guiding principles to be followed in the search for equity. For example, laws that would be destructive of social peace, of equity among citizens, of the family upon which society rests, of the ability of people to have productive work and earn a living, etc. would all be suspect from this perspective. Underneath all of the possible guiding principles, there is one supreme guiding principle, the law of love, and any law that ignores this guiding principle is suspect. 


I have found Calvin’s insights not only consistent with an older, organic view of society and law, but also consistent with a constructive post-modern view of human nature and society as rationally evolving in accordance with a deep desire for community built into both the universe and human nature itself. This evolution means that each society must adapt and construct itself, hopefully adapting to new conditions under the constraints of the “Law of Love” that sits at the foundation of all human community, from the nuclear family to the modern state.

Every society of whatever kind or nature has a status quo and a set of social relationships that have evolved over time. In enacting new laws, leaders have a need to respect the existing set of social relationships and gradually make changes. This principle of gradual change is important in maintaining the legitimacy of governments and the social support any government needs to survive. One of the unfortunate consequences of the American preoccupation with “nation building” in the Middle East has been a set of policies that initially ignored the existing fundamentally tribal nature of the societies in question. In any situation, there are limits to productive change, however valuable it might be over the long run.

I invite readers to consider whether or not some of the problems of our society stem from the loss of a sense of community bound together by a kind of social love that seeks equity for all citizens, whether of our particular party, race, sex, or social group. In addition, I invite readers to consider whether the difficulty we have in maintaining true freedom of expression and development of people and groups is not related to a distinctly modern notion that “might makes right” and that history is merely the unfolding of the search of social groups for power. If love sits at the foundation of society, then this view is surely incorrect.

Copyright 2021, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion Volumes 1 & 2, ed. John McNeill. trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1960). All quotations are from this version of the Institutes in the form: book.chapter.section).

[2] The Great Commandment is found in all three of the synoptic Gospels, Matthew 22:35–40, Mark 12:28–34, and Luke 10:27. It is implicit in the “new commandment” that John records, “To love one another” (John 15:9-12).

[3] In prior blogs, I have distinguished self-giving love, erotic or desire-based love the brotherly love of siblings and friends, affection of neighbors and loved ones, and political love that binds a culture together. All these loves are derivative of the transcendent, self-giving love of God.

[4] See, John Zizioulas, Being as Communion (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1985) for an orthodox look at relationality as constitutive of persons.

[5] This is an area within which Christians and non-Christians may see substantial disagreement. For Calvin, laws protecting marriage, etc. reflect the law of love. One might presume that laws forbidding practices like abortion might have been included in this catalogue of laws that violate the command of love. While not minimizing the extent of debate about this foundation of law in love, I think that Calvin has made a valuable contribution to public debate by considering that all laws should work to cement the social bonds of a society in relational wholeness and peace.

[6]  I term use the term “Sophio-Agapic,” to describe that relational wholeness that finds its completion in God and in the transcendent justice towards which human beings strive. As indicated in the main text, this “sophio-agapic” relationality is the foundation of what we term “natural law.” Sophia refers to the wisdom of God, and agape to the self-giving love of God.

The Political Theology of John Calvin 1

Readers who know that I am a Presbyterian pastor may have wondered why I skipped Calvin during our chronological look at political theology from Augustine through Luther. At the time, I did not know what to say. Frankly, after dealing with Luther, I needed a break from a theological look at political philosophy. Since we are now at the time to look at Jean-Jacque Rousseau, also a Genevan, it occurred to me that this is a good time to look at Calvin as a political theologian and practitioner. Therefore, for the next two weeks, I am going to look at John Calvin as a political thinker. [1]

John Calvin

John Calvin (1509-1564), was a Frenchman who spent most of his professional life in Switzerland, deeply influencing both the Reformed areas of Switzerland and the thinking of intellectuals all over Europe. His major work, Institutes of the Christian Religion was first published in 1536, and was revised and enlarged until shortly before his death. [2] Originally trained as a lawyer, Calvin became a Protestant in 1530. Forced to flee France, he ended up in Geneva, Switzerland, where he remained for the rest of his life, except for a short time of exile. He never became a priest or ordained cleric.

Upon his return from exile in 1541, Calvin embarked upon an amazing career, preaching, teaching, educating pastors from all over Europe (including the founder of the Presbyterian form of government, John Knox), instituting reform of the doctrine and practice of the Genevan churches, and reforming the life and morals of the city. During his lifetime, he reorganized the doctrine and liturgy of the Genevan church, wrote the Genevan Catechism, created a psalter and wrote hymns, wrote commentaries of most of the Bible, and created a school in Geneva that influenced all of Europe. While never a political leader of Geneva, he influenced the leadership of the city in many ways. 

Consistent with the idea that actions invoke reactions, Calvin faced substantial opposition to his ideas. A group referred to as the “Libertines,” consisting of some of the wealthiest families in Geneva, opposed his moral and political innovations. This opposition, sometimes in the majority, continued for most of Calvin’s ministry.

The most famous and difficult of Calvin’s political involvements in Geneva relates to the conviction and death of Michael Servetus, a unitarian thinker condemned to death by the consistory of Geneva. Scholars differ as to whether and how seriously Calvin was involved in the death, but it is clear that he accepted the conviction and condemnation to burning at the stake. (It is important to note that the conviction of Servetus for heresy was sought not just be Genevans and Protestants, but also by Roman Catholics because of his denial of several important doctrines of the faith, most importantly, the Trinity.) This event was consistent with the practice of the day, but today we would find it horrific that a person would be executed for his religious views, however obnoxious.

In 1558, Calvin became ill with a fever that weakened him and began in a decline that ended with his death in 1564. He did not want to die before completing the last edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, which he finished in 1559. He died on May 27, 1564, at the age of 59. At his own request, he was buried in an unmarked grave.

Outline of Calvin’s Political Thought

Calvin’s training was as a lawyer, and his first book was on the Roman legal thinker, Seneca. He was well read in the classics, as well as being a Biblical scholar and theologian. His classical training is evident in his views on politics. Calvin was not primarily a political theologian, but a biblical expositor and systematic theologian. It is clear, however, that Calvin was familiar with and approved the classic notion of separation of powers, and mixed government in which the common people and the aristocracy both received some kind of protections. 

Two Kingdoms. Calvin, like Martin Luther and other reformers, was a disciple of St. Augustine, and he espouses a version of the Augustine’s “Two Kingdom’s Doctrine,” just as did Luther. [3] His first defense of the Two Kingdoms idea is found near the end of his discussion of Christian freedom in order to make clear that the freedom of a Christian does not involve freedom from the supervision of the state. At the end of this section of the Institutes, he says:

Therefore, in order that none of us may stumble on that stone, let us consider that there is a twofold government in man: one aspect is spiritual, whereby the conscience is instructed in piety and in reverencing God; the second is political, whereby man is educated for the duties of humanity and citizenship that must be maintained among men. These are usually called the “spiritual” and “temporal” jurisdiction (not improper terms) by which is meant that the former sort of government pertains to the life of the soul, while the latter has to do with concerns of the present life—not only with food and clothing but with laying down laws whereby man may live is life among other men holily, honorably, and temperately (3.19.15).

This is important for understanding Calvin. Many of his detractors and admirers, left and right accuse Calvin of seeking a “theocracy.” This is an unfortunate charge, inconsistent with his fundamental view that the kingdom of God and the various kingdoms of this world are two different kinds of kingdoms. While Calvin lived before the modern notion of a secular/sacred distinction, he accepted that the rule of any existing social order (the kingdom of this world) was different from the rule of Christ (the kingdom of God). As we shall see, he did not believe that the entirety of the Old Testament law was appropriate for the Geneva of his day, but that laws were to be adapted to the necessities of the time and society in which they are enacted. While the two kingdoms were separate things, they were intertwined, and secular rulers had duties to the church and religious leaders had duties to the state.

Implications of the Fall. Some of the most important political implications of Calvin’s theology flow from his view of human nature. Calvin believed that human beings are fallen and infected with sin. As a result, in the political arena as well as other areas of life, human beings are inevitably tempted to misuse power. Both those in power and those seeking power need limitations on their ability to misuse the rights and powers given them. This is particularly true of inflamed mobs, with which Calvin was familiar. Thus, Calvin was a proponent of the kind of mixed government of checks and balances of the type exemplified in the United States Constitution.

 John Weatherspoon, a member of the Second Continental Congress and delegate to the New Jersey state convention that ratified the Constitution, was a Calvinist, Presbyterian minister and strong proponent of limited government and checks and balances. Through Witherspoon and his own reading, James Madison, the principle author of the Constitution, was also influenced to prefer a limited government with many checks and balances on the people who occupied positions of influence. At least one legal scholar has argued that the Calvinist emphasis on human limitations resulted in an attempt to create a system that would render human sin less likely to result in oppression rather than the illusory attempt to create a new human being less susceptible to sin and oppression. This is an insight that contemporary leaders might ponder.

Forms of Government. As one trained in the classics, Calvin is familiar with the division of governments into monarchies, aristocracies, and democracies. As a citizen of Geneva, he saw the importance of democratic representation, something lacking in his native Franc. Nevertheless, he recognized that the precise nature of government must be adapted to the circumstances of a particular society (4.20.8). In Calvin’s personal view, aristocracy or a government combining elements of aristocracy and democracy are the best forms of government (4.20.8).

Magistrates, Laws and Citizens. Calvin divides his discussion of Civil Government into a discussion of the duties and roles of public officials, public laws, and the citizens. In so doing, he outlines his own views of government (4.20.3). Although the majority of his analysis deals with the powers and responsibilities of magistrates, he has important things to say about laws and the duties of citizens. This week, I will deal with the powers of public officials. Next week, I will deal with law and the duties of citizens.

Magistrates. In Calvin’s view, public officials have their offices as part of a mandate from God for the coordination and ordering of human life (4.20.4). They are God’s representatives and have therefore a duty to steward the powers and responsibilities they have been given and for such stewardship they will be responsible (4.20.5). As stewards, they are to be prudent, gentle, self-controlled, diligent, and benevolent servants of God (4.20.5). As stewards of responsibilities and powers given by God, they are not to ignore the fact that sound government rests upon spiritual and moral foundations that are beyond the power of magistrates to ignore (4.20.9). [4]

Magistrates possess the power of coercion and are responsible for its wise and restrained use (4.20.7). In point of fact, public officials cannot perform their important functions without the power of conversion, which must be used wisely, but used nonetheless:

But since they cannot perform this unless they defend good men from the wrongs of the wicked, and give aid and protection to the oppressed, they have also been armed with power with which severely to coerce the open malefactors and criminals by whose wickedness the public peace is troubled or disturbed (4.20.9).

Private citizens cannot object to this power for public officials are responsible for the orderly and just administration of justice and the public peace. (4.20.10).

The power to protect the public peace extends to the power to wage war:

For if power has been given them to preserve the tranquility of their dominions, to restrain the seditious stirrings of restless men, to help those forcibly oppressed, to punish evil deeds—can they use it more opportunely than to check the fury of one how disturbs both the repose of private individuals and the common tranquility of all…? (4.20.11).

Notwithstanding the need for war, magistrates are responsible to wage war in a human and restrained way (4.20.12). In particular, in waging war, leaders must not give way to their passions in such a way as to act unjustly (4.20.12). [5] Thus, Calvin says:

But it is the duty of all magistrates here to guard particularly against giving vent to their passions even in the slightest degree. Rather, if they have to punish, let them not be carried away with headlong anger, or be seized with hatred or burn with implacable severity. … Or if they must arm themselves against the enemy, that is, the armed robber, let them not lightly seek occasion to do so; indeed, let them not accept the occasion with offered, unless they are driven to it by extreme necessity (4.20.12).

In reaching this conclusion, Calvin warns that if even pagans (Cicero) knew that war should not be entered into except with a view towards peace, then Christian rulers should use arms as a last resort (4.20.12).

Finally, Calvin deals with the right of public officials to exact taxes and duties to finance public life. While public officials must be prudent and self-controlled, they are still empowered to perform certain important tasks, and as such they must be able to finance them (4.20.13). They should, however, always remember that the public treasury is not their private chest to raid at will, but the treasury of the people for which they are stewards (4.20.13). This does not mean that public officials do not have expenses and outlays that would not be available to private citizens (4.20.13). The magnificence of a government will be reflected in public expenditures. However, when public officials waste the public treasury or live in excessive luxury, they are no longer good stewards of the wealth that has been entrusted to them for the public good. 


As in so many areas, Calvin is a mediator. In theology he sought a middle position between Roman Catholicism of his day and the radical reformers. The same is true in his political theology. He seeks a middle ground between the proponents of the “Radical Reformation” with their idealistic and other-worldly proposals and no reformation of public life at all. His version of the Two Kingdom’s doctrine is less absolute than Luther’s and includes a duty of public officials to improve the lot of citizens. He was inclined to view the church as gradually improving human society in such a way that the church and institutions influenced by the church would gradually bring into being the Kingdom of God. In this sense, he might be termed a “Post-Millennial” political thinker.

Calvin does believe that the Gospel has implications for public life, but does not believe that the freedom Christians enjoy in their spiritual relationship with God extends to an unworkable freedom from legitimate government. Next week, we will look at the role of law in public life and then at the duties of citizens to obey legitimate government and explore the way in which Calvin’s ideas also legitimate opposition to tyranny.

Copyright 2021, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] For readers who would like a deep dive into Calvin as a Political theologian, Matthew J. Tuninga, Calvin’s Political Theology and the Public Engagement of the Church: Christ’s Two Kingdoms (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

[2] Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion Volumes 1 & 2, ed. John McNeill. trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1960). All quotations are from this version of the Institutes in the form: book.chapter.section).

[3] The legal scholar is Marc Hamilton. See, “The Calvinist Roots of American Social Order: Calvin, Witherspoon, and Madison” in The Journal of the Witherspoon Institute (April 13, 2017), downloaded March 7, 2021, at

[4] One of the most important gifts of Calvinism was an insistence found in Calvin and his interpreters that sound government rested on a foundation of personal morality. By the time of the American Revolution, via the preaching of pastors influenced by Calvin, it had become common place to believe that any democracy fundamentally rests on the virtue and morality of the citizens of the nation. Once again, contemporary Americans might ponder this insight.

[5] I have written elsewhere of the what might be called, “Just War Pacifism,” which I find in other religious traditions, for example Taoism. The idea, which Calvin seems to accept is that, while war is a permanent feature of human experience, it is also an evil to be avoided if at all possible. See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love rev. ed. (Cordova, TN: Booksurge, 2016).

A Quantum Influenced Approach to Leadership

Last week, I posted a blog on humility in leadership. This week, I want to explore another area of leadership–what modern physics might teach us. One of factors that underlies the struggles we face in many areas, including leadership, discipleship, and government has to do with the fundamental outlooks on reality that sit behind many of our social and institutional problems.

From Machine to Organism

What is sometimes called the Newtonian world view encourages a view of the world and human beings as essentially machines. There is force and there is matter. Originally, the founders of this world view placed God, in whom they believed, in the position of a Transcendental Watch Maker. God designed the watch. Then, God built the watch. God then left the watch to run itself. Famously, one of the proponents of the world view indicated that if he could no the position of every particle in the universe and the forces on it, the future could be mathematically calculated. No one believes this is true any more.

A Quantum world view encourages us to the the world as more like an organism than a machine. At a fundamental level, the world does not seem to consist of matter and energy. Matter is a form of energy. Even more mysteriously, fundamental particles seem to be ripples on a quantum field. There is both freedom and uncertainty in the emerging world view on both a fundamental level (quantum uncertainty) and everyday level (chaos theory).

Like and organism, the world is constantly changing and evolving: In other words, it is not at all like a watch that is designed once and for all,  built and then runs until it breaks. Instead the world  is constantly evolving in a creative process.

God, on this view, is no distant Divine Architect. God is a loving and wise participant in the ongoing process of an evolving universe. We are not fixed and determined creatures either. Human beings and human society are constantly changing over the course of our lives.

From Determinism to Freedom

As mentioned earlier, the world of Newton was a material world held together by forces. While the everyday world we observe and inhabit does have these kinds of qualities, and the impact of power and force cannot be underestimated in human organizations, underneath this world is a vast world of potentiality and freedom. It is also not “material” in any sense of the word. There is both freedom and order built into the universe. The world, human beings, and human organizations are characterized by both a level of determinism and of freedom. (Or, as I like to put it, I cannot be a professional basketball player, but I can get into shape and play a reasonable game of golf!). We do not have complete freedom in how to organize our lives or our social systems, but we do have freedom.

In addition, this freedom and immateriality that characterizes the subatomic world also characterizes our minds, which seem to operate something like a “quantum computer.” Moreover, the laws of mathematics and physics encourage us to understand that their is “noetic” world of mathematics and physical laws that exist outside of our minds and can be discovered and used by human beings. It is only a short jump from this notion to the notion that the world somehow prefers beauty, truth, goodness, justice and love. We live in a world that has ideal, moral, aesthetic, and ethical potential just as we live in a world with physical potential.

Application to Leadership

I have only a cursory understanding of quantum physics and of the other matters that I have briefly described above, but as a pastor and leader, I have tried to read some of the literature and adapt my teaching and leading to what a lay-person, with no real technical understanding can learn from those with such talents who write for lay-persons.

One night alone in my office pondering a particularly difficult and unpleasant decision, I wrote down the following as a way of guiding my thoughts:

  1. Every leader of an existing organization inherits the organization in an “initial state.” That initial state is comprised of every decision and action taken in the history of that organization and the complex organization that has emerged from that past. The entire past of an organization, the actualized facts of its prior existence, both create opportunities and limitations. Wise leaders do not make decisions or take actions radically unconnected to the past history and tradition of the organization. This is the “Principle of Evolutionary Historicity.”
  2. Past actions and decisions have consequences and provide both opportunities and restrictions on the future, and therefore, on what kind of decisions can or should be made. A wise leader attempts to understand as much of the past as possible, and especially that past which directly or indirectly opens up or limits the potential future. Even in a new organization, there are limits on the future and on the decisions and actions leaders can prudently  take. Humble and wise leaders do not attempt the impossible.  This is the “Principle of Organizational Opportunities and Limits.”
  3. A leader’s decisions or actions are not the only factors controlling the future of an organization. Organizations exist within a complex and interrelated political, social, and economic environment. All decisions and actions by all of the participants in any such complex system impact the future state of an organization or the impact  of an action. The decisions of others in the organization, leaders of related organizations, and a multitude of others can and will impact the future. These factors often dictate the most prudent future route for the organization, and counsel against radical action. This is the “Principle of Opportunities and Limits.”
  4. The future state of an organization involves chance (multiple possible futures and unforeseen events), necessity (those things that are structurally certain or nearly certain to happen), and the relational wholeness the leader intends to achieve (the goal of the leader). Because trhe future is and will be impacted by events over which a leader and organization have little or no control, things over which leaders have control, and the quality of our intentions and actions, there is always uncertainty in decision-making. This is the “Principle of Determinacy and Indeterminacy.”
  5. The potential for organizational wholeness and health is the area in which leaders can make the biggest impact in the organizations they lead. Good leaders inject wisdom, self-giving love (Agape), and peace (Shalom) into the organizations they lead. This is the “Principle of Positive Energy.”  There is a reverse possibility. Leaders that do not care for all participants and act unwisely and unlovingly, causing conflict and chaos inject negative energy into the organization causing decline This is the “Principle of Negative Energy.”
  6. Almost inevitably there are many potential outcomes to a decision or action (i.e., more than one potential future state of the organization). Seldom is there only one positive final state. Often there are many potential positive and negative outcomes. A good leader evaluates as many potential outcomes as possible before choosing a course of action. Of all possible outcomes, good leaders choose that outcome that has the greatest potential to maximize the adaptation of the organization to its environment over the relevant time period. This is the “Principle of Realistic Maximization.”
  7. As indicated above, good leaders inject positive energy (physical, mental, emotional, moral, and spiritual) into an organization as they make decisions, deploy resources, and guide the organization into the future. Positive energy is injected by the decisions made among available options, the character of the leader, and the actions taken. Wise leaders love the organization they lead, care deeply about all the persons and stakeholders of the organization, and wisely seek to see that the health of the organization as a whole is enhanced by any decision or action. Bad leaders can inject negative energy into the organization, which always results in future problems. IN making choices, good leaders choose to encourage factors that are positive for the group. This might be called the “Principle of Leadership Energy Prehension.” [1]
  8. Good leaders also identify and reject negative factors within and without the organization in making decisions. What is rejected as a potential action, decision, or future is just as important as what is decided and done. One duty of a leader is to minimize future negative factors in making any decision. This might be called the “Principle of Negative Leadership Prehension.”
  9. Because each new state of an organization will ultimately degenerate, leaders must constantly inject positive energy, in the form of wise and loving actions and decisions, into the organization in order to prevent decay. This means that leaders must maintain their own level of positive energy, and place limitations on their activities in order to assure that they can continue to function positively. Wise leaders retire from leadership when they can no longer do this. This is the “Principle of Positive Energy Reserve and Limits.”
  10. In order to function positively, leaders need to learn to meditate about problems bringing into consciousness as many of the decisions, facts, relationships, personalities, historic traditions, past actions, systematic responses, and other factors in the organization’s history as possible. One technique is to create a “Mental Matrix” of all the people, organizations, and social systems impacted by a decision or action to. Be taken and the likely response of other actors to the decision or action. This is the “Principle of Meditative Matrix Decision-making.”

Why Think About This?

At the very beginning of the series of blogs I have been writing on political philosophy and theology, I quoted a physicist on the proposition that many if not most people in positions of authority in the church, in private organizations, in government, and in business hold to an outdated world view that underestimates the inter-relatedness of things and the impact of human decisions. He ends saying,

As a consequence of this widely disseminated misinformation, “well informed” officials, administrators, legislators, judges, educators, and medical professionals who guide the development of our society are encouraged to shape our lives in ways predicated on known-to-be-false premises about “nature and nature’s laws”. [2]

I am convinced that the author is correct in these views. In this blog I have tried to seek a means by which leaders can productively use the insights of postmodern science to improve  decision- making and encourage leaders to a better form of decision-making. In the political sphere, which I have been examining recently, leaders need to adopt a strategy for leading our nation that avoids both the polarization and materialistic bias of many current leaders and policies. A more humble, historically and systematic sensitivity would go a long way towards improving both our political climate and the quality of decision-making by our leaders.

Copyright 2021, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] I have used the term “prehension” from the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead instead of “decoherence” which is he actual term for the creation of a final state of a quantum system. My reason has to do with clarity. Whitehead uses the term “prehension” for the way in which an actual occasion incorporates or rejects potential influences in the emergence of an occasion. I think this is clearer. See, A. N. Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York, NY: Free Press, 1978).

[2] Henry P. Stapp, “Whitehead, James, and the Ontology of Quantum Theory” Mind & Matter Vol. 5(1) (2007 imprint), at 85.



Locke 3 “A Letter Concerning Toleration”

The blogs for the prior two weeks covered the thinking of John Locke as found in his “Two Treatises on Government”. [1] This week, I am covering his “A Letter Concerning Toleration”. [2] As previously mentioned, both of these contributions to political thought were published after the Glorious Revolution (1688), which brought William, Prince of Orange and his wife, Mary, to the throne in place of James II. The Glorious Revolution marked an end to a period of English political instability, characterized by conflict as Protestants and Catholics vied for power. Most scholars believe A Letter Concerning Toleration was initially composed around 1685, just before the deposing of James II, while Locke was in exile in Holland.

Locke’s thinking is critical for understanding the creation of American political institutions and the emergence of the American ideal of religious liberty. The American Revolution was deeply impacted by his thought and by the European experience of religious persecution and conflict, an experience that formed English and European history. The founders were well aware of the history involved and of the conclusions of the deepest thinkers concerning these problems, chief among which was John Locke.

Prior to the Reformation, Europe was Christian, and Western Europe was Roman Catholic. The early division between the Eastern and Western Churches, had little impact on Europe. In England, the Roman Church and its rites were dominant after the year 1000 or so. Beginning around 1500, this dominance was shattered. Western Europe was divided into Catholics and Protestants. Protestants were divided between Lutherans, Zwinglians, Calvinists, Unitarians, Trinitarians, Anabaptists, and other sects. Not only was there conflict between Protestants and Catholics, there was conflict among the doctrines and practices of many emerging Christian sects. Eventually, Europe was involved in devastating religious conflict.  In England, there was strife between Catholic and Protestant parties, and after Henry VIII declared himself head of the Church of England, there was strife between the established Church and various sects that split away from the Church of England. All over Western Europe, intellectuals were appalled by the violence and bloodshed that resulted from these conflicts.

The Two Spheres

Fundamentally, in A Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke argues that the Church (and by implication all religious institutions) and the State (and by implication all of the institutions of civil government) are two separate types social institutions, with different goals and purposes. Religious institutions are concerned with the ultimate meaning of life, personal salvation, and the worship or lack of worship, of a God. Civil government is concerned with the right ordering of a society to protect persons and property. While these two social powers have some interaction, as to the use of civil power to establish or control religious thought, Locke believes it is not appropriate for the state to interfere with religious affairs or for religious groups to use, or attempt to use, force, legal or otherwise, in achieving their aims. This insight finds its way into the American Constitution in the form of the First Amendment, with its protection of religious liberty.

Limitations on State Power to Establish a Particular Religion

As mentioned earlier, by Locke’s day England had experienced a degree of religious conflict that sometimes worked to deprive some persons of life and property. Initially, Henry VIII separated from the Roman Church and used the power of the state to restrict Roman Catholic influence. When Charles I, a Catholic, ascended to the throne, there was conflict that resulted in the Cromwellian Revolution and the ultimate execution of Charles. When Charles II was restored to the throne, conflict reemerged and only finally terminated with the Glorious Revolution that assured the dominance of the Protestant Church in England. This conflict, however, was not the end of the matter, for the emergence of various “free church sects” and theological divisions within the Church of England meant that the Church of England was tempted to use its political influence as the established church to eliminate what it considered heretical ideas. In Scotland, there was always opposition to repeated attempts to institute an episcopal form of government and to interfere with their Presbyterian forms.

In response to these problems, Locke argued that it is not appropriate for the power of the state to be used to establish or enforce private religious beliefs. Civil government is established for the protection of persons and property, so that individuals can pursue their private interests in peace. Civil government is formed to deal with the external, physical things of life not sacred aspects of life.  Thus, Locke says:

The commonwealth seems to me to be a society of men constituted only for the procuring, preserving, and advancing of their own civil interests, Civil interests I call life, liberty, health, and indolency of body; and the possessions of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture and the like. It is the duty of the civil magistrate, by the impartial execution of equal laws, to secure unto all people in general and to each one of his subjects in particular the just possession of those things belonging to this life. [3]

Here we have a principle that limits the power of the state in matters of religion: In contemporary terms, the state has to do with secular things, with the regulation of civil life for the benefit of a society. The protection of life and property, the defense of persons against aggression, foreign and domestic, and equal protection of non-discriminatory laws are the duties of civil government. As a corollary to this limitation, civil government should not interfere with the private religious beliefs of persons or groups.

In Locke’s terms, responsibility for the cure of souls is not given to secular civil government.[4]  According to Locke, this is true because:

  1. Such power over the human was never given by God to civil authorities;
  2. The only power that the state possesses is exterior, physical force (the power of law and the sword), which is not effective to create true, effectual, inward, private belief; and
  3. The powers and penalties of the civil estate cannot, for these reasons save human souls or advance any true form of religion.

As is often true with Locke, these arguments combine a Christian theological and a secular philosophical set of arguments.

The Religious Duty of Toleration

Religious groups are (or at least should be) private, voluntary societies formed for the worship of God. Thus, Locke states:

A Church, then, I take to be a voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord for the public worship of God in such manner as they judge acceptable to him, and effectual for the salvation of their souls. I say it is a free and voluntary society. [5]

The importance of the word “voluntary should not be overlooked. Throughout human history very few people considered religion “voluntary. Parents, local chieftains, kings, and emperors normally regulated religions within their boundaries. With few exceptions, the choice of the dominant religion was that of the ruler, and only in a few cases did these rulers feel that religious toleration was necessary or desirable. Locke’s view is, therefore, revolutionary. Religion should be a matter of private choice.

There are important implications of this notion of the church as a private, voluntary society formed by human beings for their own private religious edification:

  1. Just as the state should not abuse its civil power to establish (or de-establish) a religion, no religious group should seek to use civil power to promote the primacy or rights of their group.
  2. Because there will always be differences of opinion among various religious groups and sub-groups concerning matters of worship, faith, and practice, no religious group should be able to use the power of the state to assure their victory in such matters nor should the state interfere with matters of worship or belief.
  3. People, therefore, must be free of state interference to choose for themselves which group to belong to and what religious views to hold. [6]

Just as the state must refrain from interfering with religious groups by the use of civil power, so also religious groups should tolerate other groups and refrain from attempting to use civil power to forward their religious group. The powers of religious groups are purely private and ecclesiastical and do not include any resort to civil power.

This duty of toleration goes beyond mere passive tolerance.  Locke believes that religious groups have a positive duty of toleration of other groups and of restraint from seeking to harness state power to secure their beliefs. This is true for the following reasons:

  1. No church is bound to retain any person within its society who does not believe and adopt its beliefs and practices and so has no need for civil power to maintain its own beliefs and practices. In addition, no private person has any right to complain of another person’s or group’s faith or practice. This extends to pagans and persons of different religions. In other words, religion is a private matter.
  2. Different religious groups should tolerate each other just as they are tolerated. Thus, Locke says, “… peace, equity, and friendship are always to be observed by particular churches in the same manner as private persons, without any pretense of superiority or jurisdiction over one another.” [7] This kind of forbearance is difficult to achieve because all religious groups conceive that their doctrine and practices are correct. In Christian terms, there is a natural tendency for each group to consider themselves orthodox and others in some way heretical. The only way to maintain social peace in his kind of situation is to deprive any group of the power and opportunity to persecute any other group. Where there is no such power, the virtue of toleration will be present. [8] This is the genesis and genius of American freedom of religion.
  3. Finally, in what I think is the finest passage of A Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke concludes that religious leaders have a positive duty and obligation not just to maintain toleration but to preach and work for toleration:

It is not enough that ecclesiastical men abstain from violence and rapine and all manner of persecution. He that pretends to be a successor of the apostles, and takes upon him the office of teaching, is obligated to admonish his hearers of the duties of peace and goodwill towards all men, as well as towards the erroneous as the orthodox: towards those that differ with them in faith and worship as well as towards those that agree with them therein. [9]

Locke concludes this argument warning religious leaders that they will be held accountable by the Prince of Peace for their words and actions in this area of toleration.

The Civil Duty of Toleration

When Locke says that civil authorities are not to interfere with religion, he does not mean that there are no civil duties with respect to toleration. Civil authorities are to work from a recognition that their powers and duties are purely civil in nature, given to them for the sole purpose of creating social peace and providing for the general welfare. This has implications for the conduct of public affairs:

  1. Civil magistrates should not interfere with religious worship and belief and should resist any attempt by religious groups to secure advantages due to a partnership with public powers. Civil wisdom gives government no insight into religious faith or its proper forms, and therefore civil authorities are incompetent to make such decisions.
  2. Civil authorities cannot and should not interfere with religious matters under the guise of supporting the decisions of religious authorities as to religious matters, since such authorities sometimes err and are, in any case, often self-seeking.
  3. Finally, and back to a constant argument Locke makes: force is not an appropriate way to decide private matters of conscience. Even if the magistrate is correct in his or her judgement, even if the ecclesiastical authority upon which the magistrate bases his or her action is correct, force is not an appropriate way to resolve matters of private conscience. [10]

While civil authorities should not become involved in either external forms of worship or internal matters of belief, they do have continuing functions that impact religious matters and may and do restrain religious activity:

  1. Civil authorities may make laws that prohibit certain otherwise religious activities. For example, if a group wished to institute child sacrifice as a private religious rite, authorities prohibit such behavior generally and may continue to do so, even if a religious group is impacted. This restriction has been important in areas such as bigamy and the use of illegal drugs in worship.
  2. Civil authorities may make laws to protect society that indirectly impact religious groups. Most recently, for example, states have restricted religious groups as well as secular groups in the ways they can meet as a result of Covid19. [11]
  3. In the exercise of its rights and duties to protect and promote the public welfare, however, the state must be diligent not to unduly or subversively interfere with the rights of religious groups to worship. [12] Thus, laws and policies designed to harm worship should be avoided. Recent decisions by some states to open up bars and other places of entertainment but cause churches to remain closed are good examples of violations of this restriction.
  4. Finally, the protections of religious toleration have limitations for Locke, some of which we would not consider valid today. Atheists and those who would under the guise of religious freedom secure religious domination are not protected or would be religious groups formed for the purposes of overthrowing the state or preventing the state from achieving the purposes for which a commonwealth is formed—the protection of persons and property.


As has often been the case with these blogs, the complexity of Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration and its importance for American democracy goes beyond the power of a short summary like this one. It requires some thought to adjust some of Locke’s thinking to a religiously plural society such as ours. It takes a willingness to recognize that secularism is itself a kind of religion and it must abide by the same restrictions as do Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindu’s, and others in the advancement of their “religious” views. Nevertheless, A Letter Concerning Toleration remains a fundamental document of both interest and learning when it comes to understanding the past, present, and most desirable future of American thought.

One of the reasons that I began this series of blogs was to defend the role of religion in American public life. This endeavor requires an understanding of both the opportunities and limitations on religious groups, and importantly the duty of tolerance among religious groups, including groups that deny the importance and validity of religious faith and practice. This is the first stop in a long journey in the development of a way of defending religious toleration in contemporary society.

A clue to the way in which the argument may unfold is the role of what I have called “political love” in public life. Toleration is a fundamentally negative concept, meaning that toleration allows without wishing the best for those of other beliefs. The Christian view, taking love as the fundamental character of God that believers are to emulate requires of Christians not just toleration but positive love for those who faith and practices differ from ours.

Copyright 2021, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] John Locke, Two Treatises of Government Revised Critical Ed. (New York, NY: Mentor Press/Cambridge Press, 1960, 1963), 376.

[2] John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration tr. William Popple (1689, republished 2014). All quotations are from this edition.

[3] Id, at 8.

[4] Id.

[5] Id, at 11. I have taken liberty with this quotation to clarify the grammar for the modern reader, it goes without saying that this insight of Locke is monumental and undercuts any kind of state-established religion.

[6] I have summarized arguments Loke makes throughout A Letter Concerning Toleration. See for example, Locke, at 8-19, 42.

[7] Id, at 17.

[8] Id, at 19.

[9] Id, at 21.

[10] Id, at 25-29.

[11] Id, 30-36.

[12] Id, at 36.

Locke 2: The Social Compact

There is no notion more fundamental to American constitutionalism than the notion of a “Social Compact,” and there is no thinker more fundamental to the American notion than John Locke. The ideal of a Social Compact as fundamental to human society has, as we saw, roots in Greco-Roman thinking. It also has roots in Judeo-Christian thinking as well, for the people of Israel believed that their very existence as a nation depended upon a “Covenant” made by them with God at Mount Sinai, wherein they had promised loyalty and faithfulness to God, and God had adopted them as his people and promised them a land of their own. This notion of “Covenant” as fundamental to the people of God was picked up by the Reformers, and an entire theology of Covenant was developed, especially in England. [1] In any case, Locke almost certainly knew of this movement, and his political thought is infused with references to Christian themes and Biblical insight, of which the covenant of God with the People of Israel is one. [2] Hobbes and Locke develop the religious idea of a people formed by covenant into the secular notion of a people formed by compact.

What is a Social Compact?

For Locke, a government is formed when a group of human beings, by mutual consent, form together a government which binds them together as a political society and obligates them to submit to the legitimate rule of the society. [3] As mentioned last week, for Hobbes, Locke, and their intellectual followers, governments are formed by essentially free and “governmentless” individuals who are in a “State of Nature,” out of which the covenant to come and form a common government.  This consent can be either tacit, by in fact submitting to and receiving the benefits of the government so formed, or actual, by formal agreement to the government so formed. Locke does not think that this consent needs to be of all the members of the society, but only by the majority of those forming the society. [4] Once formed, such a government is binding until properly altered.

I have previously noted my problems with the idea of a “state of nature,” which in the work of contemporary thinkers, like Rawls, becomes an “original state.” In Rawls this original state has become a purely hypothetical state, once again a conceptual device unsupported by history but necessary to continue one particular theory of democracy. In my view, a more evolutionary, process-oriented defense of the notion of a “Social Compact” is both necessary and possible.

Locke’s Response to Human History

Last week, I mentioned that the most common defect noted in Locke’s theory was the absence of historical evidence. Locke is aware of this argument and gives much attention to responding to this criticism. His first response is that due to the absence of historical information about the earliest state of human nature and the formation of human society, it is not surprising that we have no such evidence. He then gives supposed examples from history, including examples purportedly existing in America among the American Indians. Locke knew of the American Indian tribes, and new of the arguments that they existed in a “state of nature,” lacking the supposed civilization of Europe. [5] We know better that the Indians of North and South America had well-developed societies including both tribal and monarchical forms. In retrospect, this argument looks almost chauvinistic.

This is not the only argument Locke makes from history. He also uses the formation of the Spartan government as an example. [6] Once again, in Locke’s day this particular appeal to history might have force, but the long history of the Greek city states and the gradual evolution of each of their system of government is known to us; and, there was not, in fact, a time when they were without governments as far back into human history as we can look. To the extent that Athens or Sparta give examples of a “Social Compact,” that social compact was a matter of gradual evolution of their institutions and not an act of a people leaving a “State of Nature” by social agreement.

These arguments, which might have had some force in Locke’s day, have been substantially eroded by historical and archeological evidence of the existence of human societies around the world far into prehistory, and such evidence as we have supports the claim that human beings have always been organized into political communities. This would come as no surprise to Locke, for he understands that human beings are social by nature, and that sociability would have always drawn them into some form of society.

It is important to recognize that Locke wrote before Darwin and the gradual growth of understanding of human beings and human societies as resulting from a long process of evolution from more primitive to more advanced forms. The progress of human society from the ancient world, to the Greco-Roman World, to the Medieval World, to the Modern World, and now the slowly evolving Post-Modern World, reflects a slow evolving of institutions having long periods of gestation in human history. This evolutionary approach has the benefit of “fitting the facts” of human history and making sense of why it is the nascent ideas, such as the ideas of republican democracy were invented, fell into dormancy, were resurrected, and became driving forces in the Modern era.

Locke’s Appeal to Reason

In the end, Locke makes an appeal to reason to justify his theory of social compact, but as we shall see, in so doing, he makes a case for another and more “scientific” approach to social compact theory. Here is how he begins his second analysis:

“But to conclude, Reason being plainly on our side that Men are naturally free, and the Examples of History showing that the Governments of the World that were begun in Peace, had their beginning laid on the foundation of the Consent of the People; there can be little room for doubt, either where the right is, or what has been the Practice of Mankind, about the first erecting of Governments.” [7]

Locke goes on to affirm that as far back as one can look in history, the most common form of government is the rule of a single individual. [8] This rule of a single individual has its roots in both the family and the long tradition of parental authority and in the practical impulse of the need for unified command in times of danger. Locke concludes this section with an observation that is important. Locke concluded that whether societies were formed out of families by gradual evolution, with each generation tacitly approving of the leadership, or in response to the need for a military leader, in each case the government existed to promote the public good. [9]

If I were to rephrase Locke, my conclusion would look something like this:

But to conclude, an analysis of history shows that human society gradually evolved out of the human family, to small family groups, to tribal groups, to small urban societies, and by a slow process to the enormous societies that populate the world today. History shows that this history involves an historic preference for the rule of one or a few, but the gradual emergence of democracies patterned in some fashion after Greek Athens and Rome. At most the earliest governments were formed by tacit consent, but the preference gradually arose for larger political groupings for this consent to in some way be actual. Today, even dictators find it necessary to give their regimes legitimacy by holding periodic elections, even if they are hardly free, open, or honest.

This analysis fits the facts that Locke presents and the facts of history as we understand it.

What one can say is that in the West, where the Christian notion of the individual being made in the image of God was strong, the notion that every person had value, and there existed an historic notion of the creation of societies by compact (or covenant), there gradually evolved in the Reformation, Renaissance, and Modern era a strong feeling that societies should be organized around the consent of the people governed.

Locke’s Notion of Governmental Limitations

Unlike Hobbes, who sees no limitations to the rights and powers of a sovereign, Locke is no totalitarian. From the very beginning, Locke believes that “no body was ever instituted … but for the public Good and Safety….” [10] Locke recovers the classic notion that political bodies are formed for the public good, to achieve public human ends, and have no other purpose for existence. As such, there are and ought to be limitations on the power of the state.

Locke’s notion of the limitations of government and its duties gives some clues as to when its dissolution might be justified. For Locke, one of the chief duties of government is the protection of Life, Liberty, and Property. When a government no longer protects the lives of its citizens, their freedoms to earn a living and conduct their lives with as much freedom as possible, and what property they have required, it has ceased to perform the functions for which it was formed and gives it legitimacy.

Locke believes that the right to property is fundamental to human society. In the beginning every man has property in his own person. [11] Governments are responsible to protect that property we have in our own life and being. As human beings labor and create, they have a right to the property that they have created, whether it be physical or intellectual. [12] No government can be legitimate which does not protect the life and property of its citizens.

Locke’s Notion of Constitutional Government

Locke advocates a separation of powers. In particular, Locke believes that there needs to be an independent and supreme legislative power. This is the fundamental characteristic of every commonwealth.  [13] In the end, for Locke, the people rule and the Social Compact is fundamentally executed by the legislative power.

Unlike Hobbes, Locke understands that it is not desirable for one facet of government to dominate without checks and balances. [14] The state needs a strong executive, especially to deal with international conflict. The executive must have the power necessary to protect the common good. [15] This is true because legislatures cannot foresee all the possible dangers to society. [16] Locke, like contemporary theorists, believes that the Executive power must have such prerogative power as enables it to react to unforeseen dangers.

This power of prerogative is both necessary and dangerous, as recent American history reveals. The great expansion of the Administrative state during the last century, the creation and existence of secret agencies designed to protect the people against terror and other foes raise issues of judgement that must be faced.

The Dissolution of the State

It might be noted that Locke lived through a turbulent period of English history. The memory of the revolutions of recent years, culminating in the Glorious Revolution discussed in the last blog, was recent and vivid. He had lived to see established governments replaced, and new that there was no necessary finality in governments. Governments that no longer were instruments of the public good and public safety were to be replaced.

Locke understands that to say that governments are formed by consent, actual or tacit, involves the potential for their dissolution. In speaking of the dissolution of governments, he sets out a distinction that I believe is important for American society today: a distinction between societies and polities. Societies are the product of human culture through generations. Thus, there is an American society that could survive the end of American democracy. There is a Chinese society that could survive the end of the current regime. There is a European society that could survive the dissolution of the European Union. However, the reverse is not true. Political organizations evolve out of a given society, and the dissolution of that society, with its given social mores and values, necessitates the dissolution of a government. “…where the Society is dissolved, the Government cannot remain, that belongs to the impossible….” [17] This is an important idea to get firmly fixed in our minds: Where a society dissolves, the government of that society cannot remain. This is not to say that the existing government will not fight to remain-it will. But, the fight is doomed over the years, because the foundation upon which the government was formed and rests no longer exists. In the end, the people are the judge of whether the Social Compact has been broken and a change in government is necessary.


The condition of American culture gives reason to ponder deeply the ideas of Locke. English democracy evolved out of the fertile ground of English society, including the religious presuppositions. We live in a world much different than that of Locke, or the Founders of our nation. This requires a consideration of the need to solidify the social bonds of our society and moderate its dissolution in endless political conflict. It also gives us reason to ponder how to overcome the inequalities of our society and to see that all Americans have the benefits of the creation and ownership of the results of their labor.

Copyright 2021, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See, Donald S. Lutz, The Origins of American Constitutionalism (Baton Rouge, LA:  Louisiana State U Press, 1988), 43 and Lynn D. Wardle, “The Constitution as Covenant” (BYU Studies copyright 1987), downloaded February 7, 2021,

[2] See, Nathan Guy, Finding Locke’s God: The Theological Basis of John Locke’s Political Thought

(London, ENG: Bloomsbury Press, 2020).

[3] [3] John Locke, Two Treatises of Government Revised Critical Ed. (New York, NY: Mentor Press/Cambridge Press, 1960, 1963), 376. All quotations are from this edition.

[4] Id, at 376.

[5] Id, at 379.

[6] Id, at 379.

[7] Id, at 380.

[8] Id, 380-386.

[9] Id, at 386.

[10] Id, at 386.

[11] Id, at 328.

[12] Id, at 329-331.

[13] Id, at 401.

[14] Id, at 403.

[15] Id, at 424-425.

[16] Id.

[17] Id, at 455.

John Locke: Philosopher of Anglo-American Enlightenment

John Locke (1632-1704) brings this series of blogs to a new place: there is now a direct link between a philosopher and the American Revolution. In fact, there is no single philosopher more important to the founding of the United States of America than Locke. Many of the founders read Locke, and his ideas were influential in shaping their thinking. His works were paraphrased  by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. [1]

John Locke was born into what we would call an upper middle-class family. His father was a lawyer and small landowner who served in Cromwell’s army. His son was educated first in London at Westminster School and then at Oxford. After graduation, Locke worked for a time as an administrator and teacher in Oxford. While at Oxford, Locke became interested in the natural sciences and became interested in medicine, a profession he followed during his lifetime. In 1667, Locke left Oxford for London, where he became associated with the family of Anthony Ashley Cooper (Lord Ashley, later made the Earl of Shaftesbury).

The Earl of Shaftsbury was an important figure from the time of Cromwell through the reign of Charles II. He was a philosophically astute politician and played a role in the founding of South Carolina, among his many other accomplishments. Locke’s duties with the Cooper family were varied: he was a tutor, a physician (whom is patron felt saved his life in an operation), counselor, and friend. Locke also held governmental positions during this period. It was at this time that Locke began his most famous philosophical work, “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” a founding work of what we today call “Empiricism.”

Around 1674, Shaftesbury left government for a time.  Locke then went back to Oxford, where he acquired the degree Bachelor of Medicine and was licensed to practice medicine.  After traveling for a time, Locke went back to London around 1675. Unfortunately, the political fortunes of his sponsor had changed dramatically. The Earl of Shaftsbury was a part of a group which attempted to prevent James II from succeeding to the throne of England. When that attempt failed and the Glorious Revolution occurred, Shaftsbury’s was forced to flee to the Continent to escape persecution and Locke soon followed. [2]  During this period of time, Locke wrote the original drafts of the that have made him famous, including the two works to be reviewed in these blogs: Letter Concerning Toleration and his Two Treatises on Government.” While in exile, Lock also finished An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

In 1688, after the Glorious Revolution was complete and William and Mary replaced James II on the throne of England, Locke returned on the same vessel that carried Mary to her new home. Soon after his return, Locke published An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) and The Two Treatises of Government (1690) as well as A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689).  It is notable that the latter two books were not published under this name during his lifetime.

In addition to his philosophical and practical efforts in government, Locke was a doctor and had deep scientific interests. Locke knew Sir Isaac Newton and a member of the Royal Society, which is the most prestigious scientific society in England.

The State of Nature

There is no aspect of Locke’s work more complex and filled with difficulties than his treatment of “Natural Law” and his reliance on an original “State of Nature” preceding the formation of societies and a “Natural Law” giving order to that state. He begins his analysis of the formation of governments as follows:

“To understand Political Power rightly, and derive it from its Original, we must consider what State all men are naturally in, and that is a State of Perfect Freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their Possessions, and Persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the Law of Nature, without asking leave or depending upon the Will of any other man. [3]

For Locke, political power involves the right to make laws and institute penalties for their violation, regulate the use of property, and employing necessary force to both protect the commonwealth and enforce its laws. [4] Such a right emerges out of an original state of perfect freedom. In this state, subject to natural law human beings can live and dispose of their possessions without restriction of others.

Locke is aware that there is a powerful objection to this posited State of Nature, which is the denial that any such state ever existed. His answer, echoing Hobbes, is that the rulers of the world, who can act without restriction, are and always have been in a state of nature. [5] To the author, this answer is not satisfactory. As will be seen, Locke, unlike Hobbes, understands human sociability and the way in which that sociability draws men into society. However, he fails to reflect upon and give theoretical primacy to the fact that all people in all times of human history have been in some kind of society, and no one has ever been able to do  exactly as they pleased with their persons or property.

This is an instance of Locke “clamping down” a theory on the facts despite a lack of sufficient evidence to justify the theory—or at least in the face of substantial contrary facts. [6] Human societies have existed as long as we humans can understand the past.  The primitive societies of the past emerged from families and extended families, together with others who came to rely upon the community for shelter and support. Human choice has always been limited by genetic, personal, familial, social, geographic, economic and other factors inherited by every individual who ever lived. Even emperors, kings and rulers have had restrictions under which they lived, restrictions placed on them by the factors mentioned as well as by their armies, nobles, wealthy families and others. [7]

Locke goes on to posit that, in this illusory State of Nature, human beings were equal. That is to say, in the State of Nature human persons were, in the beginning equal in property, equal in “the advantages of nature,” and equal in social status and social advantage. [8] It is even harder to believe that this state ever existed. First, human beings are and always have been born with differing levels of intelligence, strength, and position within their families and social network. It is certain that there was never a time when the strongest did not possess more, have more power, and enjoy a higher social status. Once again, Locke is allowing his commendable political and moral intentions to ignore the facts of human history and human society.

Natural Law

Locke then goes on to derive the beginnings of his theory of Natural Law from his notion of original equality, and in do doing shows both his reliance upon the social history of Christianity and its basic moral code. Quoting Richard Hooker, an earlier thinker and bishop in the Anglican Church, Locke supports the notion that because of our common human equality, we all not only wish to be treated with charity and justice, we are under a moral obligation to treat others in according to the Golden Rule, which constitutes the first principle of Natural Law: that one ought to treat others with the same fairness and concern as one wishes to be treated one’s self.

To anticipate a future position and argument, one does not have to posit an original state of nature in order to defend some version of natural law or the Golden Rule. All one needs to posit is that this rule or maxim of life, which appears in more than one religion in more than one place and time, represents the results of the experience of countless persons in countless societies of countless types, democracies, monarchies, and oligarchies. Instead of being an axiom derived from reason from an “original state,” it is principle that emerged from concrete human experience, just as all wisdom maxims do. [9]

The development of the notion of Natural Law in Locke is important. For Americans, it is important because the founders universally subscribed to some version of natural law and a version of Natural Law is fundamental to American Constitutionalism as it was originally concieved. This is true for other democracies which either patterned themselves after the American form of Government or the ideas of Locke as they influenced British and European democratic regimes. As such, it is worth some time and effort to understand Locke’s view of “Natural Law.”

Natural law is different from, and acts as a guide for, humanly created laws. Natural law is essentially moral in nature, it posits that our common human nature and experience provide certain fundamental principles that can and ought to guide every human being and human society. These principles are not simply human drives or human will made into principles. Instead these principles derive from human reason—from our human capacity to reflect upon experience and mold the future. For example, we all know that the Golden Rule does not come naturally. If it did, my mother would not have had to repeat it to me so often as a child with respect to my treatment of my brother and others. However, human experience, when rationally considered, leads one to conclude that the Golden Rule is a reliable guide to action. This reliable guide emerges from the way the world is constructed and operates. [10]

It is time to draw this blog to a close, but the discussion will need to be continued later. There is a tendency to think of Natural Law as non-existent unless its conclusions are logically or empirically necessary. In my view, this is a mistake. Natural law is not like a mathematical law nor is it like an empirical law of science. It is a theoretical moral guide to human action based upon past human experience. As such, we may be mistaken as to the nature of the natural law, and future experience and changes in human society may force changes in human intuitions of the best forms of behavior for humans and their societies. This does not mean that “Natural Law” is whatever we wish it to be, for there are continuities in human life and experience that are at least as important, perhaps more important, than contemporary changes. I doubt that there are legitimate future facts that will make, “Thou Shalt Not Kill” any less fundamental to a good society than it was for the earliest human societies.

Copyright 2021, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Locke’s influence appears in many speeches and writings of the founders. His  political writings heavily influenced Thomas Jefferson in writing the Declaration of Independence. Some of the language of the Declaration of Independence is directly derived from Locke’s works. See, Brennee Goforth, “How John Locke  influenced the Declariation of Independence” (July 4 2019), at (Downloaded January 27, 2021).

[2] The Glorious Revolution, “The Revolution of 1688” or “The Bloodless Revolution,” took place from 1688 to 1689. During this time, of the Catholic king James II was overthrown and replaced by his Protestant daughter Mary and her Dutch husband, William of Orange. In the process, the power of Parliament was greatly increased and the foundations for the modern English parliamentary democracy laid.

[3] John Locke, Two Treatises of Government Revised Critical Ed. (New York, NY: Mentor Press/Cambridge Press, 1960, 1963), 309. All quotations are from this edition.

[4] Id, 308. This definition assumes that the ruler has the right and at this juncture Locke has not made known his views concerning how that right arises. To anticipate a future blog, it arises via the Social Compact that creates a political society.

[5] Id, at 317.

[6] Any theoretical enterprise involves creating a theoretical framework to explain the facts as nature and history disclose them to be. A sound theory emerges from those facts as an explanation of their coherence and meaning. When a theory is clamped down on facts, the theory takes precedence over the facts of nature and history, causing the theoretical to ignore important facts not explainable by the theory. For a very important exposition of this phenomena, see Thomas F. Torrance, “Chapter 2: The Integration of Form in Natural and Theological Science” in Transformation and Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge: Explorations in the Interrelations of Scientific and Theological Enterprise (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1984). A specific discussion of the results of “camping down” is found at page 80.

[7] One of the interesting factors concerning the Roman Empire is the extent to which Emperors were chosen by the Praetorian Guard and removed if ever the Roman Armies turned upon them. Their freedom was a bounded freedom at best. In my view, it is best to begin a defense of representative government with the facts of human history and its gradual movement towards forms of representative democracy as “emergent phenomena” that represent real progress.

[8] Id, at 309.

[9] See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ-Followers (Eugene OR: Wipf & Stock, 2016). One does not have to be a Christian or even the follower of any religion to eventually conclude that life is better for all concerned if one treats others as one wishes to be treated.

[10] Once again, to anticipate a future argument, it is not necessary to be religious to grasp certain features of human experience.

Disciple-Making in a Time of Covid19

This week, my intention was to write a blog on the way in which modern physics can illuminate decision-making, with an emphasis on political decision-making. Then, in trying to answer a friend’s question about disciple-making, I realized it might be a good idea to talk about disciple-making in a time of Covid19.

Some readers will recall that with my wife I have written a curriculum on disciple-making and a series of blogs that are now a book in process on the subject. [1] Inherent in both these attempts is the principle that disciple-making takes place within and is an activity of the entire church, whether that church is a formal body or a small group of people. Jesus said, “Wherever two or more are gathered in my name, there I will be with them” (Matthew 18:20). In Hebrews the author admonishes the church, “Let us not give up the habit of meeting together, as some are doing. Instead, let us encourage one another all the more, since you see that the Day of the Lord is coming nearer”(Hebrews 9:25). The example of Jesus, Paul, and the early church encourage us in the belief that meeting together as Christians, and discipling people in groups, is not an optional thing for Christians.

Enter Covid19

The emergence of Covid19, and the responses of our government and governments throughout the world, have made difficult, and in some cases impossible, the work of sharing the Good News of God’s love within local congregations and beyond. The experience of our family is common. Initially, we could not attend church nor could our church hold services at all. We could not engage in our normal business and social life. This lasted for some weeks. Our small group did not meet during the first period of quarantine. In particular, Church committees and ministry teams stopped meeting. Mission trips were cancelled and local mission projects were put on hold. Everything was at a standstill.

At first, many of us thought to ourselves, “This is temporary and will soon pass.” But, that is not what happened. The absolute ban on church services ended in most states and communities by sometime in May or early June 2020, but there were still serious restrictions on groups and their meetings. A sanctuary built for 500 or so people might only hold 100 or so given the restrictions on the size of groups that might meet and social distancing requirements.  Many people, especially older people, no longer attended because of a continuing fear of exposure to the disease. This was true for both churches and small groups. In one older congregation with which I am familiar, the small groups ceased to operate all-together, and are still not meeting in any organized way.

Then, it became obvious that the disease was going to emerge in waves, and the lock downs might appear or reappear at any time. New strains of the disease were reported in newspapers and other media. In some places, churches that had begun worshiping in person stopped doing so for a period of time. Christmas programs were shortened and held online. By the first of this year, most pastors with whom I visited were of the opinion that between 10 and 30 percent of their congregations would never return. In some cases, budgets, were being cut. In a few cases, pastors would admit that they were not sure that their congregation would survive.

Going On-Line

The first response of most congregations to the problem was to go online. Facebook, U-Tube, Vimeo, and other technologies and platforms made this possible. In the beginning, larger congregations had a distinct advantage, many of whom were already recording or streaming their services. Then, smaller congregations began streaming their services. What was most amazing and comforting to me was the speed at which the availability, content, and professionalism of the new online participants increased. In some cases, some smaller congregation worship services seemed more real and more moving than those of larger, more technologically-savvy congregations.

One way in which the church of Jesus Christ may have been permanently changed by Covid19 is that smaller congregations that never broadcast their services in the past will probably continue to do so for shut-ins and others into the future. In at least one case of which I am aware total attendance is up for last year when “on-line” and “in person” attendees are put together. While this congregation has seen some financial pressures and program realignment, it has managed to enter 2021 in sound condition.

Touch by Phone and Mail.

Most pastors early-on recognized the potential of Covid19 to harm their Christian community. In every case of which I am aware, pastors, deacons, elders, small group leaders, and staff members began to call, email, and write shut-ins and others who were physically distant and unable to attend. In some congregations within the first two months every member was called, including inactive members. The purpose of these calls was to re-establish personal connection with the membership of the church. This was an initial positive of Covid19.

Many churches began or continued programs of sending cards to elderly members and others with pastoral needs that could not be met because of Covid19 restrictions. This was especially important in bereavement situations, where funerals were cancelled or delayed due to Covid19. Of course, those congregations which sent cards to visitors were constricted in this form of evangelism by the absence of visitors, a problem that continues to this day.

Media Meetings

Almost immediately, church groups, many of whom met weekly or monthly were faced with the need to find ways of meeting online. When the pandemic began, many church leaders had never heard of “Zoom.” Today, I attend some kind of Bible study or meeting every week on Zoom alone. Zoom is not the only alternative out there for online meetings, there is Google Hangout, Skype, Microsoft Teams, Free Conference, Group Facetime, and other platforms can be used to have such meetings.

Having visited with a number of pastors and executives about “Media Meetings,” I think that there are nearly always three responses:

  1. First, holding  Media Meetings has been a success, even where it was not the perfect way to hold the meeting.
  2. Second, Media Meetings are especially successful where the meeting has a concrete purpose and a decision to be made based upon information that can be sent to attendees in advance.
  3. Third, Media Meetings are not the perfect vehicle for brainstorming, evaluating potential courses of action, personnel matters,, or evaluating the emotional commitment and responses of people to a problem or opportunity.

Just a few weeks into the pandemic, our small group decided that we had had enough isolation and decided to meet by Zoom, which one of our members knew how to use and who sponsored the meeting. It was surprising how well the group adapted to the situation. As far as the content of the Bible Study and the sharing of information and prayer requests was concerned, on the surface we noticed no particular problems. We were excited to experience something new.

Under the surface, there were problems. For one thing, we could no longer eat a meal together. That element dropped out of our meetings all together. In addition, the men and women who were accustomed to a few moments together alone during the meeting to share concerns, ideas, and the like could no longer do so easily. Inviting new people to the study, while possible, did not seem likely. Informal disciple-making within the group was not easy. Part of our small group is sharing with the group opportunities we have shared our faith during the past week. This became very difficult except for those with an online platform through which to do so. As excited as we were to be meeting together in some form, the form was not perfect.

Virtues and Limitations of Virtual Church

As can be easily seen from the foregoing, there are both strengths and limitations in the notion of a “virtual church.” Most congregations have been able to “muddle through” Covid19 restrictions by adapting to the crisis and taking advantage of some of the opportunities that technology affords. This is a good thing.

The success many have had in adapting can, however, mask the limitations on “Virtual Community.”  My dictionary defines “Virtual” as “being such in power, force, or effect, though not expressly such”. As to computer generated virtual worlds, the same dictionary defines virtual as “a reality temporarily simulated or extended by a computer device.” From these definitions, we can see two characteristics of “Virtual Community” that should be concerning to all of us:

  1. Virtual Community is not “real”. It is virtual. Virtual community is a simulation or imitation, a temporarily created reality dependent upon the ability and willingness of those who control the technology to continue.
  2. Virtual Community should be temporary. Once again, virtual community does not exist without the creation of the virtual reality by those who control the technology. It is not a good substitute for people meeting together in the flesh and sharing their lives in deep and personal ways.

While technology has created the ability to continue the power and efficacy of Christian communities for a time, and in some cases for a long time, Christian leaders should not rely solely on virtual community for the extended future. There is no substitute for actual, in-person, human community. There is no substitute in disciple-making to one-on-one or small group disciple-making connections.

In the long run, no church can be and become all that God wants it to be unless it reaches out physically and personally to those who are without a local Christian community within which people grow in Christ-likeness. In the long run, those congregations that take Acts 2:42-47 seriously, and create the kind of growing, vibrant, spirit-filled community that Acts portrays, are those that will prosper during and beyond the current epidemic. [2]

Going Forward

Not long ago, I visited with a pastor about the challenges Covid19 poses for congregations. We were both aware of the many problems Covid19 has posed for pastors and leaders. As I write, there is no obvious end in sight for the dislocations of Covid19. The need for some kind of virtual church will continue for some time—in some form probably forever.

At the same time, my experience has been that those congregation with a strong small group program already in existence have fared better under COvid19 than those without a vibrant small group community. This would argue for congregations to continue and expand their disciple-making programs to the maximum extent possible, despite the current crisis and to respond to any opportunity to create and nurture small disciple-making groups within the local congregation.

Here are a few suggestions based upon my experience and the experience of those I have consulted:

  1. Make Forming Disciple-making Groups a Priority! Every pastor should make disciple-making a priority. This was true before Covid19. In multi-staff congregations there should be at least one staff member whose primary or sole duty is the formation and support of small groups. The focus of the pastor or single individual on disciple-making groups should not inhibit church leaders from making disciple-making and group formation “the business of everyone.” The Great Commission was for all disciples of Jesus, and all disciples of Jesus need to participate in this endeavor. Covid19 does not change the business of the church; it only changes our methods.
  2. Commit to Supporting and Growing your Program. In this environment, small, disciple-making groups usually need some kind of technology and help in making it work for their group. New groups will need access to technology as well as curriculum. Do not be satisfied with the status quo, be committed to growth by whatever means are possible for your congregation.
  3. Understand and Support Existing Groups. In one of my former congregations we realized we did not have a clear idea of how many small disciple-making groups we had! This church had a variety of Bible study, prayer, ministry, mission, reunion, monthly fellowship, and other smaller discipling groups. We were amazed at the number of people we had the ability to touch weekly. You may be surprised as well. Having identified these groups, find ways to encourage and expand their activities despite Covid19. For larger churches this is an opportunity to have all staff members and leaders grow in their capacity to take advantage of disciple-making opportunities.
  4. Identify and Train Leaders. A growing church has to grow new leaders. In the current environment, many new leaders may be younger members who were not previously in leadership but whose age and careers make them comfortable in virtual groups and “tech savvy” concerning their operation. In fact, Covid19 presents an opportunity to recruit a new generation and type of church leader. These group leaders should be asked to make a list of potential members, including people inside and outside of an existing congregation. Having recruited leaders, it is the business of pastors, staff, elders, and existing leaders to train and equip them for success.
  5. Give People Technology Options. Leadership should not try to make disciple-making groups a “one-size fits all” process. This is certainly true of the technology used by the group. For example, for one-on-one disciple-making, Phone calls, Facetime, Skype and the like may be just fine. Larger groups will need different and more complex technology. Having said this, churches and groups of churches that are able to should consider investing in their own platform designed or adapted for their needs.
  6. Curriculum and Management. As to curriculum, consider making your congregation’s basic small disciple-making group program an extension of the pastor’s text and sermon for the week. This requires that each pastor evaluate carefully where he or she wishes to take the congregation spiritually in the next period of time. It has the advantage of creating unity and cohesion among many people in a time when achieving such is hard. As to existing groups, offer them options, but allow them to decide for themselves what they will study and how they will meet.
  7. Make Your Program a “Hybrid” Program. As mentioned earlier, our group went from meeting in person weekly, to meeting online, to meeting both online and personally. When the initial Covid19 restrictions were lifted in our area, we began meeting in person, but some folks were either unwilling or unable to attend in person. My wife and I were among the latter for a good length of time, and occasionally even now. We have continued to allow members to meet virtually, not just because of Covid19 but also to accommodate people as the travel and conduct their professional lives in the face of Covid19.


I hope that this little blog is helpful to pastors and church leaders who are faced with the continuing restrictions Covid19 imposes on church activities. The basic message is simple: We cannot use Covid19 as an excuse to put the Great Commission on hold. Second, modern technology gives us some tools past generations lacked with which to meet the crisis. Finally, however competent we become at the art of virtual community, it will not be a substitute for in-person Christian community.

Copyright 2021, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] G. Christopher and Kathy T. Scruggs, Salt & Light: Everyday Discipleship (Collierville, TN: Innovo, 2017).

[2] They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved (Acts 2:42-47). Every church should make this the center and goal of their church life—and this means creating and maintaining smaller, disciple-making groups.


Hobbes: Implications of a Limited View of Freedom

As earlier mentioned, Hobbes holds a mechanistic view of the world in which matter and force are ultimate realities. Everything is determined by the mechanical operation of force on matter. In such a universe, there is little room for freedom in nature or in human life. In fact, one sees in Hobbes the shadow of an understanding doctrine of predestination prevalent among Reformed theologians, a doctrine in which it was (and is) difficult to find a place for a coherent doctrine of human freedom. [1] The result, for Hobbes, and for all those who follow his way of thinking, is a universe without meaning, in which the idea human freedom is ultimately meaningless. Such a vision of reality is inclined to some form of totalitarianism when applied to government. In its Marxist form, it becomes a doctrine of an inevitable materialistic course of human history. In its capitalist form, it becomes submission to a “free market” and its operation.

The position outlined in these blogs is quite different. The human experience of freedom is not a mere illusion based upon a lack of understanding of the world. Historical material forces do not fully or finally determine the future. The world in both its quantum and everyday aspects displays an astonishing amount of freedom. At the most basic level of reality, events contain an element of indeterminism and at the macro-level self-organizing systems reveal a kind of freedom from determinism, seen for example in chaos theory. As physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne puts it:

“Modern science has come to recognize that the processes that give rise to genuine novelty have to be at the “edge of chaos” where order and disorder, chance and necessity, creatively interlace. Otherwise, things are either too rigid for anything really new to happen or too haphazard for novelty to persist. The intrinsic unpredictabilities of quantum physics and chaos theory can be seen theologically as gifts of a Creator whose creation is orderly and open in this way. [2]

The universe humans inhabit does not appear to be fully deterministic. There is a place for both natural and human freedom. In particular, the emergence of the human race brought into existence beings with the ability for conscious choice and the creative ability to both adapt to the determinative elements of the material environment and creatively exploit its potential future organization. Human beings are true participants in the unfolding of a meaningful history, a history in which our choices are real and have real potential to bring about a better and freer future for ourselves and our families (or the reverse).

Hobbes on Freedom

Hobbes begins his analysis of the meaning of human freedom by defining freedom as follows, “Liberty, or Freedom, signifies the absence of opposition; by opposition I mean external impediments of motion; and may be applied to less to irrational and inanimate creatures than to rational.” [3]  There are two aspects of this definition that readers should bear in mind:

  1. Freedom is freedom from “opposition” or “impediments” of motion. In the end, freedom for Hobbes is the freedom to do whatever we wish or will to do without any restraint. [4] Those wishes and wills, however, are determined by material forces. Human freedom is no different from the freedom of a rock to fall under the force of gravity.
  2. Lack of freedom is a matter of external restraint. A rock falling is free to fall under the impact of gravity so long as no other force acts upon it. Translated to human freedom, freedom is the freedom to act without external restraint. A free person is one who is free to do whatever he or she wills to do without external hinderance. [5] Physical infirmity and external laws are natural and human imposed restraints on freedom.

Thus, Hobbes freedom is a freedom “from” restraints on the human will, not a freedom “for” human achievement and flourishing. In the classical view, freedom was not simply a freedom from restraint but a freedom of each individual to achieve the end for which human beings were made. In a classical view of freedom, while freedom from restraint is an aspect of freedom, that freedom from restraint is a freedom to achieve the good for which human beings were created. There is a “telos” (or goal) to human freedom. In Hobbes constricted view there is only a freedom from, for there is no goal to human existence.

For Hobbes every action is caused (determined) by physical causes that mean all human behavior is necessary. The final cause in Hobbes mind is God. [6] Everything that occurs in the universe is determined by necessity, including human actions. Real existential freedom is not part of the universe. According to Hobbes, the fact that an action is caused, and the cause is determinative, does not make it less free.

Political Consequences

At this point, it is important to recall that Hobbes’ view of society as instituted because of fear, the fear of chaos and violence. In order to achieve peace (an absence of the fear of violence and chaos), human beings give up their freedom, human society is formed, and human laws are enacted. These laws are “artificial chains”. [7] The use of the term “artificial chains” is instructive. Laws are external rules imposed upon citizens that constrict their freedom in the search for social peace. Political freedom simply refers to those areas of life that are currently not the subject of some legal impediment to action.

Notice that, unlike a classical or Christian view, laws are not constructed by free agents to seek a common good or the good of families or communities. Political society is not formed for the purpose of providing a social structure within which human freedom can be exercised and human potential realized. There is no common good to which all human beings and their leaders should strive within human society. Political society is formed solely to eliminate chaos, violence and fear, which Hobbes believes to be the “natural state” of the human agent. In Hobbes, the more organic and historically accurate view of the origin and evolution of human society is lacking.

One result is to discourage looking at laws as essential to human thriving. For example, the laws against murder and assault are surely partially enacted to prevent social chaos. Nevertheless, they are also a guide to healthy human life. If we believe that human beings were meant to be rational, cherishing human life and human potential, then the laws against murder and violence, as well as a great many other laws, are not merely restrictions on liberty, but also guides to the achievement of human potential. Even with respect to such mundane matters as traffic laws, a Hobbesian view sees these laws as restrictions of human activity (such as speeding). This overlooks the common objective of such restrictions: allowing people to travel safely and reach their destinations without accident, so that they can conduct their lives and businesses profitably. This is an aspect of law that Hobbes misses entirely.

Consequences of the Unlimited Power of the Sovereign

Because Hobbes believes the sovereign has unlimited power (that is an unlimited capacity to restrict human freedom), he is required to defend his notion of freedom in a way consistent with the notion of absolute sovereign power. Hobbes begins by taking the position that there is nothing a sovereign can do that constitutes an unjust deprivation of human freed, even putting a subject to death. [8] This is a totalitarian position granting to sovereigns unchecked power.

In fact, only a sovereign is truly free under Hobbes doctrine. The state, and therefore its rulers, are free because the sovereign and it alone can do whatever it pleases without restraint. [9] This notion of absolute sovereignty flows from his fundamentally material and antisocial view of the human race and its condition without laws: the war of “everyman against his neighbor.” [10] Once again, we see in Hobbes’ limited, dark and entirely constricted view of human beings and of human society—and one that flies in the face of a good portion of human experience.

Liberty without Freedom

According to Hobbes, once a sovereign is either acknowledged or established, having submitted to a government in order to achieve some kind of social peace, the subject has the duty and obligation to support the state. The freedom established by Hobbes notion of sovereignty is not the freedom to achieve “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” unimpeded by the power and interference of the state. In the first instance, human freedom is the freedom to obey the sovereign. Hobbes’ freedom is the freedom to obey and support the state, having authorized its actions in advance by submission to its power. [11] However, another remaining liberty is the right to refuse to obey and suffer the due consequences of refusal or the establishment of a new sovereignty. [12] Thus, a sovereign can order the suicide of a subject with no injustice, and the subject can refuse according to the law of nature—but must expect to suffer the consequences.

As for any other form of liberty, it depends upon the “silence of the law.” [13] The only area of human freedom is whatever area is left without legislation or regulation restricting that freedom: “In cases where the sovereign has prescribed no rule, there the subject hath the liberty to do, or forbear, according to his own discretion.” [14] This is again a concrete example of Hobbes negative, “freedom from” view of the nature of liberty. Within his system, there is simply no coherent way to object to a decision of a sovereign. The only real appeal to a decision of the sovereign cannot be to reason, but to force of some kind to remove the sovereign and create another sovereignty by force. There is no notion of freedom as an open area within which the good of human society and the achievement of human potential can be achieved.

An Agapistic Response to Hobbes

There are continuities between some versions of the post-modernist outlook and response to political realities and the dark ideas of Hobbes. Both are radically materialistic in their vision. Both are inclined to see sovereign power as a guarantor of “safety” from violence, physical, social and emotional. Both are inclined to disregard the existence of limitations on what government might do to enforce their vision of social reality.

Interestingly, both can be suspicious of communal norms. This concern of the post-modernists was kindly communicated to me by a philosophy professor with whom I was discussing a communitarian ethic. His concern was the absorption of the individual into the community and the lack of any limitations on what kinds of morality and law a community might enforce. In his mind the state was the guarantor of the individual’s rights to be “different.” At the time, I had no response to his concern. However, I do think a response is possible—but only for those who embrace an ontology and political philosophy of love, what I have called an agapistic political theory.

A politics of love rejects the notion that there are no limits on what governments can and ought to do, on the grounds that the freedom is necessary for human beings to flourish and for human culture to progress. The natural tendencies for political units to increase their power and control has to be balanced by a desire to allow persons, families, neighborhoods, churches, communities, and other social groups form themselves and those who belong to the group. Love, by its nature, sets limitations on power.

Of course, those who believe in God and in some transcendental purpose to life will defend the maximization of social free space as allowing individuals the freedom to achieve their true end, their true nature, as reflected in the nature of God. [15] Christians will believe that this free space is necessary for believers to truly become like Christ in their capacity for self-giving love. Those who do not believe in God can also participate in this vision because they too believe that human beings ought to be free to become their true, chosen selves.

From a theological point of view, God created the universe with a kind of freedom through which human beings eventually evolved. Throughout eons and eons, God has allowed and continues to allow the evolution of human society as a place of freedom from the absolute control of the creator so that this creature might freely embrace fellowship with God and others, creating a social life that achieves a not the abstract dictates of a Divine Dictator, but the free choices of human persons. One of the purposes of human society is to protect the maximum amount of that freedom consistent with human safety and society.

On the other hand, a politics of love recognizes that love can only be experienced and practiced within social realities, marriage, family, neighborhoods, communities, social organizations, and even in political institutions. The social fabric of a sound society is necessary as a place where love can flourish, and so it is necessary to build up the social bonds of that kind of love that we can call “social pragma,” the love of members of a society for the society as a whole and all of its members, not just for members of its own social group. [16]

Finally, freedom cannot exist without sacrifice—a kind of sacrificial love in which the individual is cherished by his or her society and given the social space to be achieve their own individual destiny and purpose. In this view, society is almost like a dance, with the partners being freedom and community, with each individual both respecting communal norms and being granted the space to grow and flourish, even in some instances in responsible dissent from those norms.

This defense of freedom will be the subject of future blogs.

Copyright 2021, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] This is not the place for a discussion of the Doctrine of Predestination or the various forms it takes in Catholic and Protestant circles.

[2] John Polkinghorne & Nicholas Beale, Questions of Truth: Fifty-one Responses to Questions about God, Science, and Belief (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox 2009), 43.

[3] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan: Or the Matter, form, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil ed. Michael Oakeshott (New York, NY: Collier-McMillan, 1971), 159. All references herein are to this edition of Leviathan. I have taken the liberty of rendering Hobbes language into more contemporary English, since we do not use terms like “signifieth” in normal conversation.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id, at 160. This is not a theological essay, but it is fascinating how Hobbes and other early mechanists appear to be influence by an extreme predestinarian outlook on the world. One might say that a dark result of extreme Calvinism is the loss of freedom for both the individual and for creation as a whole.

[7] Id.

[8] Id, at 161.

[9] Id, at 162. Notice again that sovereigns are free because they lack restraint. Thus, the kind of checks and balances that prevent democracy from degenerating into mob-rule, aristocracy from degenerating into oligarchy, and kingship into tyranny is entirely lacking any foundation.

[10] Id.

[11] Id, at 164.

[12] Id, at 165.

[13] Id, at 165-166.

[14] Id, at 166. To anticipate a future argument, the so-called “legal realism” of is an adaptation to American law of this principle, which once again, I think can be mistaken.

[15] The idea for this section came to me in reading John D. Zizioulas, Communion and Otherness (London, ENG: T & T Clark, 2006. For those not familiar with Zizioulas, he is a Greek Orthodox theologian, most well-known for his insistence that the trinity is constituted by the relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and therefore, communion precedes being. John D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church (Crestwood NY: St. Vladimir’s Press, 1985). His communal ontology has been influential in Christian circles far beyond Eastern Orthodoxy. Communion and Otherness was written to defend his approach against the complaint that it tends to diminish “otherness” or the personal. Among others, John Polkinghorne has noted the similarities between certain aspects of quantum physics with this kind of ontology. See, John Polkinghorne, ed., The Trinity and an Entangled World: Relationality in Physical Science and Theology (Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans, 2010).

[16] Pragma matures and develops over time in persons and society. It is not merely physical nor does it focus on attraction (as in eros). It is not primarily based on genetic or personal commonality (as in filios). Pragma involves a degree of self-denying commitment (like agape), and results in a personal and social harmony formed over time as a result of human effort. Whether personal or social, pragma requires reason, compromise, dialogue, patience and tolerance. Persons and institutions are formed in love when formed in pragma.

Hobbes on the Social Compact

Last week, we took an initial glance at Thomas Hobbes, looking at his place in history and basic worldview, one he developed based on the emerging scientific outlook of his day. It is important to note that, while his outlook reflects the beginning of the modern world, Hobbes is not a modern person. (One of the benefits of the kind of walk through the history of ideas that we are taking in these blogs is that one sees not the sharp breaks in historical outlook that often reflected in textbooks and other historical summaries, but the gradual development of new ways of thinking.) [1] Hobbes is an early example of the kind of mechanistic materialism that further developed in the 18th and 19th centuries. As mentioned in the last blog, Hobbes worldview is no longer fully adequate given the emergence of relativity and quantum theory in the 20th Century.

This week, we will look at Hobbes version of the Social Compact theory, a theme that we will touch on again in Locke, who was more instrumental in the thought of the drafters of the American Constitution. Before launching off into this examination, a bit more biographical information is helpful. Hobbes lived during the reign of the Stewart kings, and was impacted by the Cromwellian revolution. Politically, Hobbes was a Royalist and defended the Stewart Monarchy in his writings. As Charles I and Parliament moved in the direction of Civil War, Hobbes left England for Paris and the Continent. While in exile, he tutored the young Charles II. While in exile, Hobbes presented the Leviathan to Charles II.

Remembering that Cromwell was a Protestant and the Stewart Kings were aligned with the more traditional Catholic Christian faith, the conflict impacted his views on both religion and politics. Hobbes was deeply concerned about the religious wars of his day, and this impacted his view of religion. One of his main motives in writing was to defend monarchy. [2] Therefore, his version of Social Compact theory is what might be called, “Monarchist.” Nevertheless, since he did consent to live under Cromwell and his son, he is also concerned to defend his own actions.

The Social Compact

Hobbes is an originator of the modern Social Compact theory of government, but his version of the theory is not in any way democratic. Hobbes begins his analysis of Social Compact theory in Leviathan as follows:

A commonwealth is said to be instituted when a multitude of men to agree and covenant, every one, that to whatever man, or assembly of men, shall be given by the major part, the right to present the person of them all, that is to be their representative; every one, as well as he who voted for it, as he that voted against it, shall authorize all the actions and judgements of that man, or assembly of men, in the same manner as if they were his own, to the end, to live peaceably among themselves, and be protected against other men. [3]

There are several aspects of this definition that are important to unpack, because Hobbes theory, as fully developed is somewhat different from the theory as it finally impacted the American Constitution.

First, note that Hobbes defines a commonwealth without any reference to history or to existing institutions, such as the family and clan. The individualism of the modern world view is fully present. A commonwealth is formed by individuals, not by existing social units. Once formed, a commonwealth binds individuals, both those who approved of its formation and those who opposed it. The full implications of Hobbes thought only becomes apparent later when he reveals that a “compact” can be made whenever the conquered submit to the rule of a conqueror. The mere act of submission violence is enough to establish the state. Hobbes goes on to say that once formed, the “subjects” have no legal right to change their form of government. [4]

Second, this submission authorizes all the actions of the person or persons who are authorized by the formation of the commonwealth to act on behalf of the state. In other words, once sovereignty has been granted, whether by assent or submission, the state may act without restraint, and no action of the sovereign breaches the compact by which the commonwealth was formed. [5] In fact, the sovereign, once established can to anything without the subjects having any right to object to injustice. [6] If the reader has not already figured this out, Hobbes is a totalitarian. There are no moral constraints on what a sovereign can do. [7]

Finally, Hobbes theory of sovereignty leads him to the position that the sovereign is the sole judge of what policies are required to create social peace, what should be taught, what laws and rules should be instituted, what decisions should be made by courts, issues of war and peace, the choice of ministers, counselors and civil servants, who and how persons should be rewarded and punished, and all other aspects of government. [8] The historic notion of balancing governmental powers to restrain the sovereign is absent in his absolutist vision.

Formation of the Commonwealth

Hobbes indicates two methods by which a commonwealth can be established: Force and Institution. [9] One would think that a “social compact theory” would require the second means be used since “compacts” require some kind of consent, but that would be a mistake. According to Hobbes, the legitimacy and rights of the sovereign are identical by whatever means sovereignty is acquired. Hobbes also distinguishes between acquiring sovereignty by right of birth and/or conquest. [10] (In Hobbes day, these were the two most common means of acquiring sovereignty.) Once again, in either situation, the sovereign possesses all the rights of sovereignty. Whether by choice, birth, or conquest, the rights are the same.

It might be time to ask a question, “How in the world could there be a compact which is made by force?” Here we have recourse to Hobbes’ view of the world and of human nature: It does not matter how sovereignty is acquired because in each case the cause is fear. People fear social chaos, so they democratically agree to a government. People fear a king, so they accept an heir to power. People fear a conqueror, so they consent to the rule of a despot. People fear the absence of social order, so the rule of an elite is legitimate. In the end for Hobbes, all government is based on the power of those who rule to impose that rule on others.

Dangers and Fallacies of Hobbes Theory

It does not take much thought to understand just how dangerous Hobbes theory is and why dictators and others have found it so appealing: It is a thoroughly nihilistic theory that can be used to justify any action, however violent, deceitful, or decadent so long as the attempt is successful. Once successful, the sovereign is legitimate irrespective of how sovereignty is acquired. His thinking is a far distance away from what might be called the classical political thinking of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Aquinas, and the like.

Is Hobbes correct? Is it correct to see power as the only reality and fear as the only motivator in human government? I believe that the answer is “No.” While fear is a powerful motivator in human affairs, and one cannot underestimate its force, people are also motivated by love of their family and friends, by social bonds within communities of all types, by the desire to exercise their mental and moral powers, by a desire to improve their situation, by the creative desire to improve the world, and by a host of other motives that are not reducible to fear of social chaos. Human beings sense invisible realities like justice, freedom, and social good that they seek and which motivate their actions. The reduction of politics to power and the acquisition of power to an end not to be critiqued by resort to moral and other values is simply less than fully human.

In prior blogs, I have reviewed the classical division between monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy and their decadent forms: despotism, oligarchy, and mob rule. For Hobbes, the latter are simply names human beings apply to things they subjectively and without other grounds do not like. In other words, the words despotism, oligarchy and mob rule do not refer to a moral reality beyond themselves. Thus, Hobbes says:

There be other names of government, in the histories, and books of policy; such as tyranny, and oligarchy: but these are not names of other forms of government but of the same form misliked. For they that are discontented under monarchy call it tyranny; they that are displeased under an aristocracy call it oligarchy; so also, they that find themselves aggrieved under democracy call it anarchy.” [11]

Here we see the impact of Hobbes radical nominalism at work and in the process creating a nihilistic vision of human political life. One who abuses power as tyrant, oligarch, or leader of a mob is not at odds with an invisible moral order which can be discovered by a community of citizens and rulers seeking a just and fair polity. There is no such thing. There is only desire and the search for power. Moral objections are nothing more than statements of personal preference.

This view of Hobbes, however, flies in the face of both human history and human experience. Human beings do in fact judge their leaders, and their judgements are not merely subjective. Would Nazi Germany have been a just polity and not a tyranny if it had only won the Second World War and there was no one left to complain? Was Stalinist Russia not a tyranny despite its claims to the contrary? Were not critics of both systems such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Alexander Solzhenitsyn in fact in contact with a moral reality when they condemned the actions of these governments and not just expressing personal dislike? Human beings do in fact judge governments, and when we do so, we make recourse to a reality that is real, though invisible and not available to those who refuse to seek it.


I am going to spend one more week on Hobbes, for Hobbes political philosophy, flawed as it is, is still a powerful guide of modern political life, as we see it played out around us every day. On the left and right of modern society there has been a loss of faith in democracy and in the values of Western societies, given philosophical legitimacy by a development of the world-view and politics of Hobbes. Next week, we will begin by looking at Hobbes definition of liberty and the ways in which this definition is used to undergird his vision.

One final and personal word this week. I am not writing these blogs out of an abstract interest in political philosophy, but out of a concern for the way in which Western society is developing. As opposed to Hobbes politics of “the war of all against all” I suggest a politics of community and of human concern for others as well as self. As opposed to the tactics of “the war of all against all” I suggest dialogue about serious social problems. As opposed to the proud idea that my group has the correct answers to the state of our society and when in power should enact them, in humility I propose the idea that none of us have a complete understanding of the issues we face, and we need each other’s idea and approaches. As opposed to the notion that we need the power to enforce a solution to the problems we face, I propose that we need the wisdom to compromise to make the problems better as we seek a more just society.



[1] For example, I have in my library a book in which Machiavelli and Hobbes are put together in one volume. As this blog has mentioned in the past, there are similarities between Machiavelli and Hobbes, and both represent a movement away from Renaissance and Reformation ways of thinking, yet Machiavelli is almost a quasi-Renaissance thinker, while in Hobbes one sees the modern world emerging with a new way of looking at the world.

[2] An orderly account of Hobbes life is beyond this blog. Hobbes did return to England and lived through the rule of Cromwell and his son. His submission to Cromwell did not sit well with Charles II and the Royalist faction when Charles returned to power in 1660. Charles defended his old tutor but did not permit the publication of his history of the English Revolution or to reprint Leviathan. See, Great Thinkers: Thomas Hobbes (downloaded January 6, 2021).

[3] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan: Or the Matter, form, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil ed. Michael Oakeshott (New York, NY: Collier-McMillan, 1971), 134. All references herein are to this edition of Leviathan.

[4] Id, at 134.

[5] Id, at 135.

[6] Id, at 136.

[7] In fact, Hobbes holds that a sovereign cannot be punished for any act, a position that flows from his doctrine that no action of a sovereign can be claimed to be unjust. Id, at 137.

[8] Id, 137-139.

[9] Id, at 151.

[10] Id, at 153.

[11] Id, at 142.

Hobbes: The Modern Materialist Turn

Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) was the son of an English Vicar who unfortunately deserted his family after an altercation at his church. He was raised by a relative, who saw to his education at Magdalen Hall, Oxford. After graduating in February 1608, Hobbes went to work for the Cavendish family, initially as a tutor to William Cavendish (1590–1628), who later became the second earl of Devonshire. Hobbes was employed by the Cavendish family for most of the rest of his life. [1] He died at the age of ninety-one.

Hobbes traveled widely, and was friends with Rene Descartes and other figures of the early Enlightenment. He was acquainted with Galileo and other founders of modern science. Hobbes was initially trained in the classics, but became proficient in law, in philosophy, mathematics, and the science of optics. His work reflects the emerging scientific worldview of his day.

Politically, Hobbes was aligned with the Stewart Monarchy, which eventually resulted in his exile to Paris for a time. In 1651, he published Leviathan, which forms the basis of this blog. [2] In addition to Leviathan, he published other works, notably another work on political philosophy. His influence on philosophy has been enormous, and he is justly considered the founder of modern political thought. Leviathan is considered one of the great works, perhaps the greatest work of modern political philosophy.


Hobbes is an early example of the materialist tendency of modern thought. Hobbes was a student of optics and considered himself to be a scientist as well as a philosopher. [3] He intended, in Leviathan and his other works, to produce what he would have termed “scientific” philosophical account of reality, human perception, and human life and society. In his view, the world is made up of “one stuff” (matter), and the relationships between material particles can be explained on the basis of causal relationships between such material bodies (force). Even more complex phenomena, such as human society, can in principle be explained on this basis. Human beings are simply extremely complex material phenomena.

Here we see at work the reductionist and materialist bias of the modern world in its original form. Reading Leviathan can be a daunting task. For example, while Hobbes does express some form of traditional religious belief, he is skeptical of any kind of non-physical reality, miracles, angels, etc. In the end, while Hobbes expresses some degree of religious belief, his system is thoroughly non-religious and many, if not most, of his ideas are contrary to traditional  religious faith. In addition, he is uninterested in or rejects many themes that animated classic political thought.

For example, Hobbes is hostile to any final causation or any form of goal directed behavior cut off from the human propensity to seek pleasure and avoid pain. His view of human society is similarly cut off from a notion of the commonwealth seeking a common good unconnected to the private goods sought by individuals. For Hobbes, people are not communal by nature, we are communal by necessity to avoid the conflict that inevitably characterized human society. In his view, the fundamental state of people is “the war of all against all.” [4]

It is important to note that post-modern science, that is the worldview emerging from the 20th Century revolution in modern physics, is neither materialistic nor is it deterministic. [5] The fundamental sources of physical reality are not themselves material. There is built into in reality a principle of indeterminacy that prevents any form of absolute determinism—a feature of Hobbes thought. In addition, the world is deeply relational not just on a quantum but also at a Newtonian level of reality. The human sciences also reveal a deep relationality built into human beings. As we go through Hobbes, I will be alerting readers to the limitations on Hobbes thought and some of its fundamental flaws, which he could not have understood due to his place in human history. Therefore, where limitations are noted, it should not be read to indicate a lack of respect for his thought and conclusions.


Hobbes was a “nominalist,” that is one who believes that only particulars exist, and universals are “mere names.” The result of this view is that historically important virtues, such as Truth, Goodness, Justice, and the like are in no sense “real.” [6] Whatever value there may be in such ideas come from their utility in serving as names of human experiences that are explainable on other grounds.

Hobbes’ nominalism is deeply related to what I will call his “Naive Empiricism”. For Hobbes thoughts are simply images for the thing we are thinking about. The “thing” is a part of the exterior, material world. Contrast this view with the semiotic views of Pierce, where signs do not necessarily involve images of things but are part of the cognitive process of understanding. For Hobbes universals are “just names,” that is to say for example, that while there are Peter’s, Mary’s James’ and John’s, the designation “human being” is a mere name signifying some similar characteristic among the individuals. [7]

It might be best to say that Hobbes is correct but for the word “mere.” A “mere” name has a reality, albeit a noetic (mental) reality, in that it describes a real characteristic of a group of particulars discerned by human reason. For Hobbes, universals, like “justice,” for which there is no image can have no meaning and to be understood must be reduced to some material entity or process. The word “justice” is merely a matter of linguistic convention. There is no reality that we call “justice” or “injustice.”

For critical realists, universals have a reality in their cognitive role in understanding reality. Universals provide a noetic insight into reality. The realities they describe are not material, but exist as theoretical and moral ideas. This may seem like quibbling over words, but there is a deep difference in the two world-views. For Hobbes, and for many moderns, there is an unbridgeable gap between the world of things (the material world) and the noetic world (ideas). The world of ideas is not real (i.e. has not external verifiable reality) but a characteristic of the mental state of a thinker.  For a critical realist, the noetic world is not material, but is “real” in that it describes an unseen attribute of reality.

The theoretical insights of this mental world have a verifiable reality in the consensus of a community of inquiry devoted to the study of a phenomena. This consensus is provisional at any point and subject to revision based upon new evidence or a new and different interpretation of existing facts. The notion of a community of inquiry is not necessarily limited to science or empirical observation. It can include the realities of justice as disclosed in a legal system, of beauty as disclosed by an artistic community, and of meaning as disclosed by a religious community.

Political Consequences

The “super-nominalism” of Hobbes when applied to political reality results the view that all decisions about things like “justice” and “the general welfare” are simply matters of convention and differences can only be resolved by force, physical, legal or otherwise. This leads Hobbes to his theory of politics, which entails a preference for absolute monarchy, a dictatorship, whereby force is used to control “the war of all against all.” Thus, the totalitarian tendencies of modernity can be directly traced to the way of thinking that emerged at its inception. It is no surprise that Hobbes has been a favorite of modern totalitarian thinkers and regimes.

For the classic tradition, the notion of a “general good” was not simply a matter of power. The general good was an ideal towards which society moved over time and which was to guide political leaders in use of their power. The critical realistic formulation of this idea is the notion that at any point in time, we may be wrong concerning what constitutes the general good, but the general good as a goal, constitutes a transcendental ideal towards which a community can move by committing itself and its institutions to the task of seeking that good.


One cannot read Leviathan without seeing the continuity between Machiavelli and Hobbes. In a way, Hobbes gives a theoretical basis for the political views of Machiavelli. On the other hand, one cannot but be aware that Machiavelli is a classicist in his method, while Hobbes method is founded not on the classics but on applying the principles of the Scientific Revolution to philosophy and the political philosophy in particular. While the Renaissance thinkers were conscious of their continuity with the ancients, Hobbes is consciously opposed to the work of Aristotle and the classics. This is a feature of modern thought that we will see again and again in coming months.

Right at the beginning of the English Enlightenment, Hobbes rejects all thoughts of final causes; he wants to focus only on material cause. Thus, he cuts himself loose from the work of Aristotle. Hobbes also rejects the idealism of Plato; he wants to focus only on what can be empirically known. He rejects any form of superstition or mysticism in politics—anything that cannot be reduced to fit into his materialistic agenda. He cuts himself off from the communitarian insights of both Plato and Aristotle, as well as Cicero and the medieval thinkers.

Finally, Hobbes is captivated by a kind of monistic, individualistic anthropology characteristic of the modern world. At the basis of his society is not the individual in relationship with human family or community, but the individual as a solitary actor bound to others not by love, communion, partnership, family or the like, but by the force of will and desire. This is contrary to the classic notions defended by Plato and Aristotle—the notion that human beings are by nature social and that human society begins with a bond deeper than force, the bonds of love, be it marital love, familial love, community loyalty, or national love.

Hobbes materialism leads him to a notion of human society as made up of material beings bound together by force. Modern science, both physical and social does not lead in this direction. Reality is deeply relational and so are human actors. While force is a factor in human relations, it is not the only factor. These are aspects of Hobbes thought that we will examine next week. In the next blog, I will continue with Hobbes thought focusing on his version of the social compact theory that is basic to modern political thought in our society.

I know that this blog, and the next couple, will be challenging for readers and for the writer, but it is important to see, right at the beginning, some of the features of the Modern World and its dominant political ideas that are outdated. This does not mean that the ideas of Hobbes and some of his successors are unimportant or completely wrong or that we have nothing to learn from him. The modern critique of ancient and medieval thought brought progress, and no one would want to return to the Greco-Roman or medieval world. However, the intellectual energy of the Enlightenment has burned out, and we are now in its decadent phase. Sometimes, to go forward one must retrace a few steps and recover lost wisdom. Fortunately, the world view that is emerging from the advance of science in the early 20th Century gives philosophy adequate tools to respond and move forward. That is the task of these blogs in 2021.

Finally, I do hope everyone had a Merry Christmas and will have a wonderful New Year.

Copyright 2021, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See, “Thomas Hobbes” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (Downloaded December 17, 2020)

[2] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan: Or the Matter, form, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil ed. Michael Oakeshott (New York, NY: Collier-McMillan, 1971).

[3] Hobbes life intersects the life of Isaac Newton (1642-1727) whose work laid the intellectual and mathematical foundations for modern science and which laid out a theory that undergirded the materialistic world view of people like Hobbes. It is important to note that Newton was deeply religious and spent much of his life studying religious phenomenon. Newton was also a student of optics, as was Hobbes.

[4] Leviathan, 100-101.

[5] I have dealt with this insight in prior blogs and will not repeat here what I have said elsewhere. By “postmodern science” I mean science after the early 20th century with the development of quantum physics and relativity theory.

[6] This contrasts with the view these blogs defend, which is called “Critical Realism”. Critical Realism argues that scientific laws, and universal ideas (like justice) are real, though revisable in the face of new information. While I have failed to give full credit to them in this blog, it should be obvious to readers that I am deeply in debt to C. S. Peirce and Michael Polanyi for much of the response to Hobbes contained in the blog.

[7] This is not the place or time to completely unpack the error Hobbes makes here. The “image” theory he advances ignores the multiple kinds of meaningful signs that human beings in fact us in thinking and communicating. This is a specific area in which I am in debt to C. S. Peirce and his followers.

Our Hope: The One with Shoulders Big Enough To Hold Us

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this
(Isaiah 9:6-7).

The Project of these Blogs

This year I began a project that was planned some years ago when I decided that, when I retired from full-time ministry, I would begin a project to write my reflections on what is called, “Political Theology.” The book, if it is ever written, will be a pastor’s look at how Christians can best serve the secular state in which we live and a defense of religious liberty. The idea began long before Donald Trump was elected President (and especially before this difficult election year), but the Trump Presidency and this difficult past year seems to me to validate the underlying notion of the project: We must develop a politics founded on government by wisdom and the nurturing of a deep, communal relational reality. We must step away from the “Politics as War for Power” that dominates our political life in America. In order for our freedoms to survive, we must rebuild our national culture, of which politics is only a part.

If you have been following the blog, you know that, in 2020, there were a series of posts about the issues of our day, and then a look at political philosophy from its Greco-Roman beginnings, through the Renaissance, to the dawn of the Modern Age. In 2021, I hope to move from Hobbes and the dawn of the Modern Era, through the Modern Era, to the emerging Post-Modern Era now emerging. If this pace can be met, by the dawn of 2022, this series of blogs will be nearly complete.

The Hidden Wisdom of Christmas

Christ and the earliest Christians explained the meaning of the incarnation from the texts of the Old Testament, and especially from Isaiah. It was from Isaiah that Jesus and the Apostles taught:

Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself (Luke 24:26-27, see also Luke 18:31-34; 22:37; 24:44-47; Acts 28: 23-28; I Peter 1:10-11).

The expectation of the Jews was for a Messiah that would give them a victory over their oppressors within their national history— Messiah who would be a great conqueror, hero and king. Instead, they received a crucified Messiah who ruled in weakness and powerlessness upon a cross, defeating the enemies of evil, division, and death in a way that no one could have imagined. This was the “foolishness of the Cross” of which Paul spoke to the Corinthians:

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men (I Corinthians 1:18-25).

Just as the earliest Christians and Jews had difficulty understanding how the Creator God of Wisdom and Might could rule from a Cross, so contemporary Christians have the same problem. We find the tactics of self-giving love hard to understand.

The Moral Energy of Christmas

One great need in contemporary American politics is for those on the left and right to recognize that there can be no perfect society inside of human history. We are finite, imperfect creatures incapable of accomplishing such a task even if it were possible, which it is not because of the nature of human growth and understanding. Furthermore, we are filled with endless hopes and dreams and are never satisfied with any accomplishment, however grand. All we can do is respond to the needs and issues of our own day and try to make things better within the limits of our place in history, avoiding the madness and violence that comes with every attempt to impose a perfect order of things upon others within history.

We can and should long for a “Wonderful Counselor” and “Prince of Peace,” whose shoulders are strong enough to bear the brokenness of the world and the hopes and dreams of a finite and flawed human race, but we should not delude ourselves that such a person can appear within the history of any secular, human society. He came once, and it was not to produce a secular paradise. It was to bear the brokenness of his and every human society.

His next appearance will, instead, mark the end of history as we know it. His coming will not mean a perfect socialist or capitalist world, for whatever world exists at that final moment in time will pass away in the face of the “New Heaven and New Earth” of which Isaiah and Revelation speak. The world we inhabit with all its beauty, glory, uncertainty and violence must pass away when the one who can meet our deepest desires, the Desire of Nations, finally arrives.

Conclusion: The Need for a Politics of Humility

Although a great deal of 2020 was spent in looking at great thinkers of history, it began with a look at a few of my favorite thinkers and their meaning for political thought. The most important of these insights is that the Christian passion for the coming of a New Heaven and New Earth, for the coming of a Righteous King and an end to the wars, poverty, oppression, and the like represented the deepest moral passions of the human race, when cut off from faith that endures and transforms the pain and brokenness of human history with hope and love, results in a moral passion cut off from the roots of morality itself, a passion capable of great evil, as we have seen repeatedly in the 20th Century.

What can be achieved within history is what I would call a humble politics of wisdom and love, of nurturing slow organic change; of eliminating evils gently, even when working with diligence and speed; of patiently working to end poverty and war and all the other scourges of the human race with a wise understanding that we will ultimately fail, because the creation of a perfect world is a task too great for our limited human moral and spiritual abilities. “The poor will always be with us” and “Only the dead will never now war again.” This is the tragedy of history.

I hope by the end of next year we will all recognize that the Romantic hope of a perfect world within history that gave us the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Communist Chinese Revolution and numerous bad policy decisions in the Western Democracies was based upon a harmful delusion concerning the possibilities and potentials of secular politics. What is needed is not a continuation of the Nietzschean, Marxist, or Laisse Faire Capitalist ideal, but something new and different. When we finally end the period of decadent, Hyper-Modernity we are in, there is hope for a more human future.

Jesus and the Apostles urged us to not look at the worldly wise or the worldly powerful for our salvation. Instead, as we celebrate this week, they suggested that we look at a baby born in a manger and at a broken body nailed to a cross. We do not want to think that our true hope lies in a poor helpless baby in a manger or a dying man, but paradoxically, this is our best and only hope.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!


Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

Niccolo Machiavelli: The Pragmatic Turn

Niccolo Machiavelli was born in Florence, Italy in May 1469 and died in June 1527, also in Florence. Machiavelli is the most important Renaissance political philosopher with great influence on contemporary politics. Machiavelli was a lawyer, a diplomat, statesman, and secretary of the Republic of Florence. His most famous work, The Prince, is still a textbook of political pragmatism. [1]

Machiavelli is a good thinker to follow Sir Thomas More. Like More, Machiavelli was not a professional scholar, but a person of practical affairs with an inclination to reflect upon the meaning and purpose, the strategies and tactics, the ultimate principles of his life’s work. Like Cicero, when out of favor, he wrote books, some of which can be seen as a partial defense of his ideas. If More represents the continuity of the Renaissance with the thought and values of the Ancient and Medieval worlds, Machiavelli represents a pragmatic break with previous thought, though how serious a break is a matter of debate. [2] After Machiavelli, political thought begins its journey into the modern world.

The Context of the Prince

Italy at the end of the 15th and beginning of the 16th centuries (the boundaries of Machiavelli’s life) was unstable. In fact, what we know as “Italy” did not exist as a unified political entity. Its territory was divided into a series of principalities that were constantly at war with one another and constantly in danger of domination by the great powers of the day. The fact that Rome was the center of the Roman Catholic Church, and the geographic area we know as Italy was in the center of Europe, made control of the area attractive to foreign powers, especially France, Germany and Spain. Machiavelli’s home, Florence, was inevitably caught up in the intrigues and conflict both of the princes of Italy and the kings of Spain and France. In 1494, Pietro Medici made a series of diplomatic and political mistakes, which ended the rule of the Medici and brought into existence the Florentine Republic. In the end, the Florentine Republic backed France, and the result was a disaster in which Florence was aligned alone against all the other principalities of Italy.

The end of the Medici dynasty left Florence without an established constitution and form of government, open to any kind of intrigue. There were those who wished the return of the Medici.  there were those who desired an oligarchy of the best families. Into this cauldron of intrigue, the priest Savonarola took power for a time and pitted the poor against the rich in a time of religious rule. He was eventually deposed and executed as a heretic.

Into the political vacuum thus created came Piero Soderini and his chief secretary, Niccolo Machiavelli. In his new position, Machiavelli was the chief diplomat of Florence and had influence over its military policy. He was a practitioner of what we today would call “real politic,” or the concentration of political life on the acquisition and use of power.

The Roman Catholic Church, which might have made the situation better, unfortunately made the situation worse under a series of popes. [3] In particular, Pope Alexander VI conspired with the French for aid for his son, the ruthless and immoral Cesare Borgia.  Alexander hoped his son could carve out a central Italian principality.  Unfortunately, Cesare made enemies easily and died young, leaving this dream empty.  Alexander’s successor Julius II was just as worldly and conniving as Alexander had been, often taking the field himself against his enemies as he attempted to create his own papal empire.

It was Julius who finally ended the Florentine Republic.  With Florence allied with the French, Julius conspired for his Spanish allies take the city and hand it back to a Medici, a cardinal who soon after became Pope Leo X, and thus ruled both Rome and Florence. This event ended Machiavelli’s political career. He retired in disgrace and fear of imprisonment.

I have taken the time to set out this history so that readers can understand that Machiavelli’s approach to politics was profoundly impacted by the unstable times in which he lived, the mendicity of the Catholic Popes of the day, and the machinations of European politics generally and that of Italy in particular. [4]

The Prince

In 1512, the Medici family regained their power and position in Florence. Machiavelli was dismissed and faced exile from public life. Whether to ingratiate himself with the Medici’s and thereby regain his political standing or from a desire to make amends for the past, Machiavelli The Prince, dedicating it to “the Magnificent Lorenzo de Piero of Medici.” The book a handbook for politicians on the use of ruthless, self-serving cunning, inspiring the term “Machiavellian” and establishing Machiavelli as the “father of modern political theory.”

Unlike other such handbooks for princes of the period, such as Erasmus’ The Education of a Christian Prince,” Machiavelli does not use his treatise to urge Medici to become a model Christian prince, but instead urges dramatic and effective action to eliminate the chaos of the Italian peninsula. In other words, Machiavelli’s expressed motivation is to remedy the difficult situation in the Italy of his day through the efforts of a strong ruler.

This is important in understanding exactly what Machiavelli is about in the book. As mentioned earlier, Machiavelli’s views were formed by his experience as diplomat with both influence over, and some responsibility for, military policy. Most of the writers we have considered thus far focused to at least some degree on the communal aspects of government and the responsibly of political leaders to seek the common good and provide a just society. In Machiavelli, establishment of a sound polity able to achieve the good of a unified and stable Italy is the goal, and Machiavelli assumes this goal to be in the best interests of the people. A good bit of the bitterness of the advice given in the book can be attributed to the political situation of Florence and the other provinces of Italy as Machiavelli perceives it to be in The Prince. [5]

Fortune and Ability in The Prince

There are two concepts that are central to understanding The Prince: Fortune (Luck or Chance) and Virtue (Ability). Leaders come to power in a variety of ways: through their own merit or as a result of the merit of others, through inheritance from their forbearers or through their own abilities and success, yet all of this inevitably involves Fortune.  Political leaders, whatever their ability, arrive in power and remain in power in the face of a chaotic reality, good fortune and bad fortune, which Machiavelli terms “Fortuna.” I want to call this aspect of reality, “Chance.” The opportunity to lead is given to some and denied to others. Once in power, most leaders will experience both undeserved success (or at least success greater than their expectation) and opposition, difficulties, failure, and challenge. These circumstances provide the test of the abilities and character of every leader, political and otherwise.

In the end, however, no leader remains in power without the ability to secure his or her hold on power. This capacity and ability to rule is what Machiavelli terms “Virtue.” Machiavelli’s “Virtue” is what the Greeks termed “Dunamis” or the power to achieve a political end. I will refer to this capacity as “Ability.” The virtues of a Machiavellian leader are those that enable him or her to acquire and retain the power to rule the state.

In this regard, the categories of Machiavelli, Fortune and Virtue bear some resemblance to the categories of chance and order that have been referred to in prior blogs. The world is filled with both principles of order and of chaos, and leaders must use the tools they are given to bring order out of chaos. What is missing in Machiavelli is the third category, what I have called Political Love, and what one in the Augustinian tradition might call the love of Justice and the Common Good. If I am correct in my own reading of Machiavelli, this is related not so much to his underlying beliefs about reality but to the situation in Italy to which he is responding. Justice, order, and love all led Machiavelli to the belief that drastic action was needed, action that would require unusual action.

A Hobbesian View of Human Nature

In order to begin to see Machiavelli from a Christian perspective, one must begin with his view of human nature. Christians view human beings as made in the image of God, of inherent nobility, but flawed by what Christians call, “The Fall’” that is our inherent tendency towards sin, violence, greed, selfishness and other character flaws. In Machiavelli, the nobility of the human race is submerged (as we shall see when we discuss Hobbes) and is replaced by an almost entirely negative view of human character. Thus he says,

For of men it may generally be affirmed that they are ungrateful, fickle, false avoiders of danger, greedy for gain; devoted to while you work for their good, and ready while danger is distant to shed their blood, and sacrifice their property, their lives and their children for you, but in the hour of need they turn against you. [6]

The prince must govern with an eye both to the glory and the infamy of human nature.

The Nihilistic Maxims

I have already said enough to alert a reader that the traditional interpretation of Machiavelli may need reinterpretation in light both of his other writings and the historical context in which he lived. Nevertheless, it is his advice to a Prince that has ensured his place in history. Many politicians and political thinkers have read The Prince. It is said that Adolf Hitler kept a copy at his bedside. Religious leaders have sometimes condemned his thinking. Therefore, it is important to give this aspect of his thinking some consideration.

The first aspect is what I will call the moral limitations upon leaders. Every leader knows that solving institutional problems can and does often require compromise, some of which compromises are moral in character. For Machiavelli, the situation facing Italy was of such a nature, that success in the endeavor of unifying its polity was a supreme value justifying deceit and dissembling in a leader. Those who are familiar with the art of diplomacy know that deceit concerning the objectives of a state, such as the Japanese deceit before attacking Pearl Harbor, is a part of the “Great Game” that nations play. As the example just given illustrates, deceit can backfire, as it did upon the Japanese during World War II. Nevertheless, it is not possible to rule wisely if one’s opponents know of every move in advance and can easily predict what response will be made to a strategy. Political leaders must often use stratagems.

Perhaps more disturbing from a moral perspective is the advice of Machiavelli to a new prince to completely destroy the family of the one he is replacing. [7] This tactic, used to kill millions by various totalitarian regimes, is justified by the danger of the family (or group of leaders) being deposed to create difficulties or even overthrow the new prince. This maxim is only one among many in which Machiavelli seems to justify lying, deceit, subterfuge, violence, and even criminal behavior. There is no getting around this aspect of his thought, though it helps to see his thought in a broader context of the good he seeks for Italy and the character of the powers he faced.

A few of his more famous nihilistic maxims are as follows:

  1. A prince never lacks legitimate reasons to break his promise
  2. A wise ruler ought never to keep faith when by doing so it would be against his interests.
  3. If an injury has to be done to a man it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared.
  4. Hatred is gained as much by good works as by evil.
  5. It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.
  6. A prince also wins prestige for being a true friend or a true enemy.[8]

One can see from these maxims why the name “Machiavelli” is associated with amoral power-seeking.

The Pragmatic Maxims

Often forgotten in both scholarship and in popular writing are the many maxims and advice in The Prince that are simply common sense and also moral in their content. I do not have time to set out all of them in this blog, but here are just a few:

  1. A wise leader is careful not to prematurely change laws or impact the freedom, property or rights of the people. [9]
  2. The importance of presence: A wise leader is seen and loved by his or her people. [10]
  3. Time and fortune govern the actions and fortunes of leaders and territories. [11]
  4. The wise leader should study history and emulate successful leaders of the past. [12]
  5. Fortune may bring a leader to power, but it is time, ability and merit that brings success in maintaining and using power. [13]
  6. A wise leader should cultivate “Fortunate Astuteness” that is an understanding of the accidents of history and wisdom in guiding the state. [14]
  7. It is dangerous for a leader to rely upon other powers, mercenaries or paid soldiers from another state. [15]
  8. The mainstay of all states are good laws and sufficient defensive power to secure its safety. [16]
  9. A wise leader is never idle, being always vigilant in the care of the state. [17]

In these and other of his maxims, there is nothing amoral, only the common sense of the ages.

Christian Faith and Church in Machiavelli

As previously mentioned, the Roman Catholic Church, which might have been an influence for good in Italy of Machiavelli’s day was not. Instead, it was a part of the problem. During the Middle Ages. the church became both rich and deeply involved in the rule of Europe. In addition, various popes attempted to carve out for themselves or their family a secular kingdom in Italy. Thus, instead of being an influence for wisdom and love among the warring powers, the church became one of the warring powers. In so doing, it gave up any semblance of moral authority.

This historic circumstance has a message for religious institutions of our own day: Whenever we curry favor with those in power or seek to have secular power or maintain our positions by means of alliances with secular powers, we open the door to a kind of corruption that can injure our witness and message for a long time. The distaste of the Renaissance and Enlightenment leaders for the corruption of the medieval church is with us today, 500 years after the offenses complained of began to be eliminated.


Machiavelli is a writer well worth reading for both practical and historical reasons. He is of continuing importance to contemporary politics, which is drunk with a concentration on power to the exclusion of morals. A close reading, including a reading of his other works besides The Prince, is a corrective to the amoral purely pragmatic reading which is most commonly given the work. The good and bad uses to which The Prince has been put is both an encouragement and a warning: we cannot go back to a time before the Modern Era and its preoccupations with power and control. We can only transcend it.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See, Niccolo Machiavelli in the Britannica Online at (Downloaded December 9, 2020. Quotations are from The Prince are from Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince tr, N.H. Thomas (New York, NY: Dover Thrift Edition, 1992).

[2] Though The Prince is his most famous book, he also wrote Discourses on Livy (1551) in which the classical elements of his thought are more prominent. As will become clear, my own reading of Machiavelli is more balanced than many. In particular, I do not think that Machiavelli eliminated the moral element in political leadership.

[3] In this part of the blog, I am reliant upon Steve Muhlburger “Italy in the Time of Machiavelli” (Nipsing University, History 2155—Early Modern Europe) (Downloaded December 9, 2020). I have also relied upon Niccolo Machiavelli Biography (1469–1527) at (Downloaded December 13, 2020).

[4] In some ways, the rise of the American empire and the tendency of American political leaders to employ military force to achieve objectives is a similar result of the unstable and dangerous years of the 20th century, with two world wars, three very dangerous dictatorships (Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and Chinese Communism), and the emergence of nuclear weapons. America has increasingly become narrowly and simplistically “Machiavellian” in its foreign, domestic and military policies.

[5] Thus, I do not believe that Machiavelli supports the amoral search for and acquisition of power as many if not most of his interpreters and practitioners believe. Instead, the moral elements of power are submerged in the book because of the need that Machiavelli perceives for a strong ruler to unify Italy and end its endless conflicts and wars.

[6] The Prince, 43. See also, Andrew Curry, “Political Morality: Machiavelli Encouraged a Flexible Approach Five Centuries Ag, at (Washington Post, January 13, 1999) (Downloaded December 15, 2020). This is an excellent article on Machiavelli’s thought.

[7] The Prince, 3.

[8] I took much of this from a school list because it illustrates what young people are taught about Machiavelli in a simplistic way in our schools. Machiavellian Maxims. I edited the maxims because some of them were not so much Machiavellian as revolutionary maxims, showing the way in which complex matters are presented to young people. (downloaded December 16, 2020).

[9] The Prince, 3, 11

[10] The Prince, 4, 11

[11] The Prince, 6

[12] The Prince, 12

[13] The Prince, 13, 15, 39

[14] The Prince, 24. This particular phrase is used in describing the leader who comes to power neither by heredity nor fortune alone, but by service to the state and the favor of the people. In a constitutional system such as ours, this is the kind of leader we should seek.

[15] The Prince, 17

[16] The Prince, 31

[17] The Prince, 39.

Sir. Thomas More: A Man for All Seasons

When I was in High School a Robert Bolt play, “A Man for All Seasons” was made into a movie. [1] At the time, I was a High School debater and sometimes helped with the drama team competition. The play was one of my favorites, and the character of Sir Thomas More was important in my intellectual development. In my first semester of college, I took an English course entitled, “Utopias and Anti-Utopias,” and More’s book, “Utopia” was on the reading list. [2] This experience only accelerated my admiration for the man and his legacy.

I am including More in this series of blogs for a number of reasons. First, he is both a Renaissance and Reformation writer. Second, he was close friends with Erasmus, who has already been the subject of a blog. Third, because of his character and the fact that he, like Marcus Aurelius, was a practical man of action as well as philosophically minded, he represents a way of reflecting on some of the more abstract thinkers. Fourth, he is a counterpoint to Machiavelli, who will be reviewed next week. Finally, because of his martyrdom by Henry VIII due his refusal to recognize the validity of Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, he is widely recognized as a martyr for religious freedom and in opposition to the nascent immorality of the secular state.

Brief Biography

Thomas More was born on February 7, 1478, the son of a successful lawyer. [3] He studied at Oxford and qualified as a lawyer. In 1517, More entered the king’s service and became an influential confidant and advisor to Henry VIII. From 1510 until 1518, he was an Under Sherriff of London. He was knighted in 1521. In 1523, he was elected Speaker of the House of Commons, and in 1529 was made Lord Chancellor of England.

Despite a busy professional and legal career, More was a lay-scholar. He became friends with Erasmus and was a figure of importance in the English Renaissance. He wrote a history of Richard III, and in 1516 published his most famous work, “Utopia”. More also published a series of polemics against Martin Luther and the German reformation, while backing the more moderate reformation stance of his king and his friend, Erasmus.

More was opposed to the plan of Henry VII to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn. In 1534, Henry declared himself Head of the Church in England, which allowed him to end his marriage to Catherine and marry Anne Boleyn. Unable to compromise further, More resigned his office. More was subsequently arrested after refusing to swear Act of Succession and Oath of Supremacy, which acknowledged Henry’s position as head of the English Church and recognized the annulment of Henry’s marriage and the legitimacy of Mary, his daughter by Anne Boleyn. Because of his refusal, More was tried for treason at Westminster, and on July 6, 1535 was executed at the age of 57. He was made a saint by the Roman Catholic Church in 1935.

At his trial, More made a speech that is widely regarded as one of the greatest of human history related to the relationship of church and state. It reads in part:

Forasmuch, my lord, as this indictment is grounded upon an act of Parliament directly repugnant to the laws of God and his holy church, the supreme government of which, or of any part thereof, may no temporal prince presume by any law to take upon him, as rightfully belonging to the See of Rome, a spiritual preeminence by the mouth of our Savior himself, personally present upon the earth, to Saint Peter and his successors, bishops of the same see, by special prerogative granted; it is therefore in law amongst Christian men, insufficient to charge any Christian man…. More have I not to say, my lords, but that like as the blessed apostle Saint Paul, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles, was present and consented to the death of Saint Stephen, and kept their clothes that stoned him to death, and yet be they now twain holy saints in heaven, and shall continue there friends forever: so I verily trust and shall therefore right heartily pray, that though your lordships have now in earth been judges to my condemnation, we may yet hereafter in heaven merrily all meet together to our everlasting salvation. [4]

This defense illustrates More’s character, and especially his refusal to place temporal law above the laws of God and his refusal to acknowledge the power of the king to ignore the spiritual authority of the church. While his position may seem anachronistic to the modern mind, it represents an early expression of the importance of religious freedom and limitations on the secular power of the prince. His willingness to die as a martyr was based upon his firm belief in eternal life and the reward in heaven of the saints.

More and Utopia

More’s most famous writings is Utopia, which literally means “Nowhere.” The book was written in 1516 and remains of interest to readers even today. As with many such works, it is not easy to discern More’s precise relationship to the work. The work clearly suggests Plato’s Republic. Remembering that one characteristic of Renaissance figures is to rediscover and reembrace Greco Roman civilization, it is not surprising that More chose Plato and his Republic as a way of making social commentary upon his own day and time. In the Renaissance, one sees the emergence of a willingness to critique and suggest changes, even radical changes, in society and social institutions, and one sees this as a part of More’s project. More alludes to Plato in thinking about possible changes in his own society.

On the other hand, More as a protagonist in the Utopia, often expresses doubt upon the wisdom and practicability of some of the utopian suggestions made in the dialogue. In other words, it is not clear exactly what More’s position is concerning many of the comments made by his protagonist on the benefits of the way of life recommended. In fact, it is fairly clear that More is dubious about many of the suggestions taken from the Republic.

One example is More’s response in Utopia Book 1 to Plato’s idea of abolishing private property:

“I believe just the opposite,” I said “For men cannot live in harmony where everything is held in common. How can there be an abundance of everything when there is no incentive to work? [5]

In my view, what we see in Utopia is two sides of More’s character: One the one hand, he is a scholar, romantic, and Renaissance figure, willing to consider alternatives to the current social order. On the other hand, he is a lawyer and a man of practical experience, unwilling to embrace the elimination of private property and other suggestions that have not proved workable in human experience. In the end, however, it is the pragmatic orientation of a person of affairs with vast institutional experience that prevails in his thinking.

More and the Reformation

More, like Erasmus, was a devout Catholic, sympathetic with the reformist desire of the Protestant Reformation, but not willing to either leave the Catholic Church nor to abandon its beliefs and practices. He was willing to dispute with Luther and to address weaknesses in his position on Scripture, on the Sacraments, and other areas in which the Reformation was taking positions at odds with the church. On the other hand, his intent was to purify the existing church, not to split the church of his day.

It is this aspect of More’s thought that is most interesting because it is here that he eventually took a stand that cost him his life. It is to be remembered that Henry VIII himself wrote a defense of the Catholic faith and was during More’s lifetime made “Defender of the Faith” by the Pope. More, in fact, read and commented upon Henry’s project as a lawyer, even recommending he tone down passages where he might (and in fact did) eventually end up in opposition to the Pope and to the implications of his own argument. More’s disputations against Luther were not at all at odds with the desires or proclivities of Henry. More, like Erasmus, and Henry were loyal Catholics and held to the historic doctrines and morals of the church. [6]

More’s Arrest, Martyrdom and Death

To modern Americans, where “no fault divorce” is the norm and previously divorced leaders are often elected, the events that resulted in More’s death are hard to understand. It is easy for us to minimize More’s predicament and to make Henry VIII into a complete villain. To understand the reasons for the eventual martyrdom of Thomas More, one needs to give a sympathetic ear to Henry’s predicament. Henry Tudor was not the first son of Henry VII of England. His elder brother was to be king. Catherine of Aragon had first been engaged to Henry’s brother and only became Henry’s wife after his brother’s untimely death. She was older than Henry, and for whatever reason had multiple miscarriages and a son who died shortly after his birth. Thus. she was unable to provide a male heir. [7]

In Henry’s day and time, there were no elections, and if a king died without a male heir there was likely to be conflict until a new clamant to the throne emerged victorious. The Tudor dynasty emerged after just such a period of English history. There was every reason to believe that if Henry failed to provide a male heir, there would be conflict upon his death, a conflict he desired to avoid at all costs.

As a result, Henry was determined to have an heir to his throne. When it became obvious that Catherine was unable to provide such and heir, Henry sought an alternative, which he found in his mistress Anne Boleyn. In order to have an heir by Anne, however, Henry needed to divorce Catherine and marry Anne, having her children declared to be legitimate, which would allow their child to succeed Henry. [8]

Unfortunately, there were obstacles to his plan, not the least of which is that Catherine’s relative, Charles V, was the king of Spain, and the Pope was unwilling to grant Henry’s petition to annul their marriage. [9] In response, Henry declared himself to be the head of the English Church (hence Anglicanism was born) and passed a law through parliament declaring that the child of his marriage to Anne Boleyn, the future Elizabeth I of England, was his legitimate heir. [10]More, as a devout Catholic refused to publicly support Henry.

It is also hard for a contemporary American to fully understand and appreciate the subtlety with which More attempted to avoid martyrdom as a result of his unwillingness to recognize the validity of Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn and the resulting legislation. Fundamentally, his tactic was to remain silent, refusing to give his reasons for resigning is position and refusing to swear a required oath regarding the matters at hand. While refusing to swear and support Henry’s marriage and status has head of the British church, he continually expressed his loyalty to Henry as king. It is difficult in a short blog to express the complexity and subtlety with which he attempted to walk a fine line that would allow Henry to avoid putting him to death for treason. His correspondence and statements reflect a subtle lawyer’s mind attempting to both save his own life, avoid making an oath against his conscience, and continue his loyalty and friendship with the king. In the end, his prominence made it impossible for Henry not to act against him, and he was made a martyr in the cause of religious freedom.


I end this blog with a quote from “A Man for All Seasons” that summarizes the reason why More was made a saint and is a martyr for religious freedom in the political arena:

Since the court has determined to condemn me – God knoweth how – I will now discharge my mind concerning the indictment and the King’s title. The indictment is grounded in an act of Parliament, which is directly repugnant to the law of God and His Holy Church, the supreme government of which no temporal person may, by any law, presume to take upon him. This was granted by the mouth of our Savior, Christ Himself, to St. Peter and the bishops of Rome whilst He lived and was personally present here on earth. It is, therefore, insufficient in law to charge any Christian to obey it. And more than this, the immunity of the Church is promised both in Magna Carta and in the King’s own coronation oath. [11]

More attempted to remain loyal to his faith, to uphold the laws of England from Magna Carta to his own day, and to remain loyal to his king. He succeeded, but it cost him his life. There are some men who cannot be fully understood, only admired. Sir Thomas More is one.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Zinnemann, Fred. A Man for All Seasons (Columbia Pictures, 1966).

[2] Thomas More, “Utopia” in The Essential Thomas More ed. James J. Greene and John Dolan (New York, NY: Mentor Books, 1967). All quotations in this blog are from this volume of More’s work.

[3] The biographical information herein can be found on the internet in a number of sources, including “Sir Thomas More” in The Ancient History Encyclopedia at (downloaded December 3, 2020).

[4] Safire, William, ed. Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History Rev. Ed. (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1997), 328-330, found at (downloaded December 3, 2020).

[5] The Essential Thomas More, 51.

[6] Henry himself remained a devout, if not very moral, Roman believer for his entire life. His quarrel with the Pope, unlike Luther, was not about the content of doctrine, but about the relative powers of the church and monarchy.

[7] Henry and Catherine of Aragon had one child, Mary, who became Queen for a short time. Her Catholicism made her a poor choice and she was eventually deposed.

[8] Eventually, their child Elizabeth, would be become Queen of England.

[9] Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon were Roman Catholic, and the Church forbade divorce. The Pope at the time, Pope Clement, denied Henry’s request for an annulment for several reasons, one being that Catherine’s nephew, Catherine was the daughter of devout Catholics, Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile. Catherine’s nephew was the current Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (also the current King of Spain). At one point, Charles had laid siege to Rome and essentially held Clement prisoner. Henry’s claim that his marriage to Catherine was contrary to God’s will and law because he had been married briefly to his dead brother was seen as fatuous. In any case, perhaps primarily for political reasons, Clement could not or would not grant Henry’s request.

[10] I have neither the time nor the desire to fully set out Henry’s marriages and potential heirs. Eventually, Anne Boleyn was beheaded for infidelity, but she also could not provide Henry with a male heir. Henry eventually married another mistress, Jane Seymour who give him an heir in Edward VI, (born October 12, 1537, London, England died July 6, 1553, London), king 1547 to 1553. He was succeeded first by Edward, then by Mary and finally by Elizabeth. Thus, Catherine’s child became second in line to the throne and Elizabeth third.

[11] A Man for All Seasons, Sentencing Scene. I recommend that all my readers rent this film and watch it.