August 9, 2013

We all swim in a sea of "conventional wisdom"

[This is a re-posting of something from years ago.]

I recommend this excellent essay by Paul Belien, Europe Must Find its Roots in America

....In the 17th and 18th centuries North America was colonised by freedom loving people who brought the political institutions and traditions from Europe to a new continent across the sea. Many of them had left Europe because they wanted the freedom to live according to their own conscience instead of the conscience of the centralist absolutist rulers of the new age that was sweeping across Europe from the 16th century onwards. Their traditions were rooted in the decentralized traditions of the late Middle Ages and the Aristotelian philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Europe’s Middle Ages had been characterized by an absence of central power, while man was bound to multiple legal systems: the legal order of his city, that of the land, that of his guild, that of the church. There was not one monopolistic ruler, as in China or in the Muslim world, but many, which guaranteed greater freedom for the individual...

...The philosophy of Aquinas, moreover, was centered on the individual. God had called man to be free from sin, but in order to be free from sin he had to be virtuous, and in order for virtue to have any value it had to be voluntary, implying that the virtuous man had to be free in every aspect of his life including, as Aquinas’ followers later pointed out, his economic activities.

Hence the paradox came about that the civil society developing in the new continent was in a sense older than the new Modern Age of the absolutist monarchs governing Europe...

We all swim in a sea of "conventional wisdom," and a lot of it is not just wrong, but wrong in ways that make it hard to think clearly about things. One of the falsehood is the idea that the Middle Ages were a swamp of poverty and knuckle-dragging backwardness. And that the "Age of Enlightenment" came along and dragged us out of the muck.

Actually in some ways the opposite is true. Especially in the realm of freedom and democracy, which we built on the foundation of England's parliamentary government. We think of England as exceptional, but "parliaments" of all sorts were the norm in Medieval Europe. They were destroyed on the continent by the rise of the Absolute Monarchs, who also limited or co-opted various other institutions that had served to spread power widely.

The people who write the history books tend to be of the absolutist tradition (socialists, leftists) and have judged, say, the France of Louis XIV to be "successful," because it could raise large armies and crush opponents such as small independent states, or awkward medieval institutions, or religious groups such as Huguenots or Jansenists. It would be better to think of this as failure, failure to preserve things that have been very beneficial to us in the Anglosphere.

Posted by John Weidner at August 9, 2013 7:08 AM
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