What Exactly Did the Reformation Reform?


The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century reformed nothing but it changed everything. It was a crucially important factor in the demise of Medieval Latin Christendom and its rapid transformation in what we now know as Europe or, more generally, the West. Philosophically and religiously it rede­fined and revolutionized Western civilization, for, what characterizes a civiliza­tion is not so much what people do (which is pretty much the same always and everywhere) as what they conscientiously believe they ought to do: its fundamental scheme of justification and rectification — in a word, its conscience.

In the medieval, pre-Reformation period, the concept of conscience gyrated around the idea of Wisdom (or Reason[2] and Goodness), the culmination and integration of man’s intellectual and moral skills or virtues. It had been a central theme of Classical Greek philosophy; and a number of early Church Fathers had used it to bolster the intellectual status of their faith, stressing wisdom, reason and goodness as cardinal attributes of the god they believed in. Medieval Christianity developed that ancient philosophical idea into a coherent theology of rational being and, later, in the thirteenth century, tried to incorporate it into a comprehensive theology of all natural things.

When the Reformation abandoned the wisdom-based idea of conscience, Christianity lost much of its philosophical (“wisdom-seeking”) focus. Consequently, every moral concept, once under­stood, however dimly, as a part of a single Moral Truth, had to be re-defined in what was effectively an anti-philosophical manner. The idea of God got a similar treatment, as most bridges between philosophy and theol­ogy were shunned if not demolished. The Reformers appealed to a primitive understanding of God not as the fount of wisdom but as an almighty force, an irresistible will that “governed the world”. God was not something to be conscien­tiously sought but a master to be loved blindly and obeyed willy-nilly.

Under­standing the revolutionary character of the Protestant Reformation requires an appreciation of how it redefined the ideas of conscience and conscientiousness, morality and divinity. The major part of this lecture will be devoted to those philosophical and theological aspects. Understanding the historical success of the Reformation in redefining Western civilization requires an appre­ciation of the particular circumstances in which it happened, i.e. the state of Latin Christendom in the fifteenth century, as well as an appreciation of forces the Reformation helped to unleash. I shall touch briefly on some of these historical aspects in the last section of this text.


The Reformation, started by Martin Luther (1483-1546), gave rise to a bewil­dering variety of “protestant” movements, each of which deferred to one or other version or critical interpretation of the Bible; professed one or other doctrine of divine grace, salvation, the sacraments or the liturgy; or sought fulfilment in a Christ-centred feel-good spirituality, informed, if at all, only by a supposed “’inner light” or “inner longing”. As all those movements implied a denial of the authority of the Catholic Church, “Protestantism” is readily understood as a negative concept, viz. “non-Catholic Christianity”. Whether it has also a positive meaning is far from clear.

The famous Princeton theologian B.B. Warfield (1851-1921) tried to salvage the notion that Protestantism is indeed a positive thing:  “Before all else, Protestant­ism is, in its very essence, an appeal from all other authority to the divine authority of Holy Scripture”[3] — in a word, Luther’s Sola Scriptura. Of course, appealing to Biblical authority is not particularly useful for reconciling divergent, mutually incompatible appeals to and interpretations of Biblical authority. Appeals to some other authority are necessary for that purpose, but what could it be, if it would have to be validated only with appeals to the divine authority of Holy Scripture? Without an answer to that question, it was not possible to settle disagreements on fundamental values and opinions among Christians by rational discourse or argument, i.e. by appealing to a common Christian conscience. Various Protes­tants proposed various answers, but they could not agree on any of these. Consequently, discussions about the true Protestant religion dragged on and multiplied, until the participants tired of them or concluded that there was no point to discussing fundamental values and opinions with dissenting others.

By default, the fait accompli, always an attractive pre-negotiation move and a pre-emptive substitute for argumentation, took on an ever greater importance in interactions among religiously divided Christians. As a result, worldly success — power and wealth, no matter how achieved — became its own justification.


With their incessant quarrels and intransigent commitments to their divergent interpretations of the Biblical words, Protestants suc­ceeded in undermining the authority of the Bible very quickly indeed. Because the Bible was their only link to God, this meant that their disagreements made atheism respectable. As H.L. Mencken put it, “The chief contribution of Protestantism to human thought is its massive proof that God is a bore.”[4] Obvi­ously, the various Protestantisms could not all be right in their claims about God, his declared “will” or his relation to the world, but it was logically possible that all of them were wrong.

Absent a personal appearance of God himself, who could claim to be his certified spokesperson? Who could verify the authenticity of such certification without believing himself to be a certified, authentic judge of such matters? The multitude of mutually dissenting Protestantisms suggested only one final answer to those questions: Every individual person for himself. In the words of the Dutch poet, Willem Kloos, “I am a god in the deepest of my thoughts.”[5] Taken out of context (a reflection on a poet’s absolute freedom to write whichever verses he wants), it is as good a definition of atheism as any. However, taken literally, it would have turned every human interaction into a battle of gods, a holy war of all against all that can be resolved only by force — if not by the forces of Nature (e.g. blind natural selection) then by political and economic power struggles. Noting that “justice” had become a partisan, divisive notion, Blaise Pascal lamented that “unable to make what is just strong, we have made what is strong just.”[6]


‘Conscientious’ means heeding conscience. Conscience (conscien­tia) is, of course, knowledge shared in common. It is a necessary condition of argumentation and, by implication, of all actions that can be justified argumentatively. After all, in argumentation, arguers appeal to knowledge shared in common to expand the range of things on which they can conscientiously agree (even if it implies critical revisions of what was supposed to be common knowledge). Without such shared knowledge, the argumentative exchange of questions and answers degenerates quickly into negotiations (which are appeals to one another’s particular interests, prejudices, fears or desires), dialogues of the deaf or pointless shouting matches. At best, it degenerates into mere debates, which differ from argumentations in that they consist of attempts to secure the agreement of a third party, an audience, a jury or a judge, by appealing to its prejudices. In debates, ignoring or ridiculing one’s opponent’s arguments is standard practice, as rhetoric usually trumps logic.

Martin Luther rejected rational argumentation from the start. He claimed that human reason is as corrupt as human nature is depraved, declaring in his last sermon in Wittenberg that “reason is the Devil’s whore”[7]. Thus, for Luther, the medieval notion that man is somewhat able to infer God’s truths or laws by a kind of participation in divine reason was outright blasphemy. As far as man’s understanding was concerned, God was an arbitrary tyrant, unfathomable except for his Biblical self-revelations (provided, of course, these passed Luther’s self-defined tests of authenticity).

At the Diet of Worms (1521), Luther allegedly declared “Here I stand; I can do no other.” Thus, he defined himself as unique and exceptional, owing explanations or justifications to no one, yet insisting that everybody else recognize that he was right, no matter who or how many disagreed with him, because he had Holy Scripture on his side. With Luther, ‘conscience’ came to mean “knowledge shared only between oneself and God”, a direct, personal and private revelation that no other man can be permitted to question. Inevitably, ‘conscientiousness’ lost the meaning of taking the questions and arguments of other people into considera­tion.

That kind of self-righteousness was logically necessary to justify Luther’s refusal to justify his position to the Church as well as his rapidly emerging desire to destroy, not reform, the Church. If he had wanted to reform the Church, he would have taken his place among many, for he was not alone in being scandalized by the state of the Church in the fifteenth century and the conduct and politics of Renaissance popes such as Alexander VI [r. 1492-1503] and Julius II [r. 1503-1513]. Instead, declaring himself a mortal enemy of the “Antichrist” (the Papacy, the Church), he became a trailblazer for others who thought redefining Christianity itself was far more important and less time-consuming than making a case for specific reforms and submitting it through the estab­lished and, despite the grave troubles, still open and functioning channels within the Church.

Of course, for Catholics, such self-righteousness was (and is) heresy: The knowledge that people can share with God must be discovered in open, public argumentation lest the common faith be dissolved into any number of private, purely personal convictions. Keeping the search for conscience going is as important a function of the Church as are her liturgical and pastoral functions. With her general councils, from the Council of Nicaea (AD 325) onward, she had inaugurated the method of addressing doctrinal, theoretical and practical problems in open sessions to which bishops from all over the Christian world were invited. These Councils complemented the practices of local or more topical synods and frequent correspondence by letter among bishops, in particular with the Pope, the Bishop of Rome and successor of Saint Peter, the “rock on which Jesus had founded his Church”. In medieval times, this ecclesiastical tradition merged with the Germanic tribal tradition of general assemblies or councils, which met to advise the king or to grant or refuse his requests for specific powers or more money.

Within the Church, conciliarism remained a robust living tradition, until the Refor­mation denied the idea of a universal (“catholic”) conscience.  However, conciliarism survived in the non-religious context of science, first in the active correspondence among leading scientists, mathematicians and philosophers from all over Europe, and later, in the twentieth century, in the emerging practice of international scientific confer­ences with participants from all over the Western (Westernized) world. The tribal idea of the general assembly of the people survived in demands for a significant role for representative bodies in political, govern­mental decision making. Such demands persisted even after the Reformation had cleared the way for the rise of the Absolutist State by removing the Church as the voice of an inclusive Christian conscience and its function as the institutionalized check on the ambitions of political power.

The Way of Opinion and the Way of Truth

Protestantism was a revolt not just against medieval Christendom but also against the entire philosophical tradition that had started around the year 500 BC in Ionia, Sicily and the southern regions of Italy. That tradition had taken off with the discovery that although it makes sense to think of each human being as having a body of its own, it makes no sense to think of it as having a mind of its own. Philosophy came to be defined as the search for things such as truth, logic, reason and justice, which people can have only as things shared in common, things which only the conscientiously thinking mind can perceive. Such things are distinct from ordinary, merely distributed things that all people possess privately, as individual bodies (e.g. hearts, stomachs, livers, brains, feelings, sense impressions, memories, anxieties and ambitions). All human beings have a stomach, but there is no stomach that is the stomach of all human beings. In contrast, if two or more people possess the Idea of truth, logic, reason or justice then they share it in common, as something that is the same for all of them, even if not all of them possess it with the same degree of understanding. Such non-distributed things are at the centre of man’s ability to perceive what the ancient philoso­phers came to call the logos, the totality of all things that can only be thought of conscientiously as the same for all. ‘Private truth’, ‘private logic’, ‘private reason’, ‘private knowledge’ and ‘private conscience’ — each of these expressions is an oxymoron. Christianity expanded this philosophi­cal insight by declaring the concepts of tribal truth, logic, reason, conscience equally oxymoronic. To be sure, personal opinions and local or temporary conventions or mores should not be despised a priori, but their authority is never beyond question. They need to be conscientiously justified, taking into account the local and historical circumstances under which they appear or are proposed.

Two propositions about the conscientiously thinking mind and the logos it set out to discover were at the heart of specifically philosophical thinking: 1) What conscientious thinking cannot deny is real, and 2) What it cannot fail to deny is not real.[8] They were implicit in the distinction Heraclitus of Ephesus made between the unruly varieties of sensory appearance and the oneness of reality, and they were made explicit in the distinction Parmenides of Elea made between the Way of Opinion and the Way of Truth.

Heraclitus (°ca 535 BC) liked to denounce the stupidity of the masses that congregate on the Way of Opinion but offered only obscure hints about the divine laws of reality of which only the enlightened few are aware. The Way of Opinion offers no sense of direction. “The way up is also the way down.” About those who are stuck on the Way of Opinion, he asked: “What sort of mind or intelligence do they possess? They believe popular folk-tales and follow the crowd as their teacher, ignoring the saying that the many are bad, the good are few”. Truth cannot be gauged from the impressions gathered along the Way of Opinion, where arguments are weighed, if at all, by the amount of applause they elicit from the crowd.

For Parmenides (°ca 540 BC), the Way of Opinion gives us nothing more than fancy guesswork, hypothetical constructs and a multitude of opinions which some consider true, others false, and still others either doubtful or irrelevant. To make matters worse, it does not offer any method for resolving questions concerning truth or falsity. In contrast, in following the Way of Truth in its proper direction, the mind should arrive at knowledge of ultimate reality, i.e. of that which cannot be thought false — for what the mind, proceeding cautiously and competently, cannot deny must be real. Following it in the opposite direction, we should not expect to find anything worth knowing; we can only expect to find that which is literally unthinkable and therefore cannot be real. Only the conscientious mind is capable of disclosing reality. These insights into the radical, logical distinction between the realm of knowledge and the realm of opinion became the basis of Plato’s theory of the reality of Ideas, which launched philosophy as a rigorous discipline of conscientious thinking.

Denial of those insights launched anti-philosophical thinking, which is dogmatically rooted in the opinion that there is no Way of Truth; or that, if there is, we cannot know it; or that, if anyone can know it, he cannot communicate it to others. In short, the logos or conscience is, if not in theory then certainly for all practical purposes, a chimera. The truth is that there is no truth — that is to say, no objective or real standard of truth. We know only that we cannot really know anything — there is no objective standard of knowledge. Often ironically called ‘philosophical scepticism’, anti-philosophy was exemplified in Antiquity by Sophists, Epicureans, Pyrrhonists and followers of other minor movements who claimed that the Way of Opinion is the only way. For them, the things that philosophers mistakenly  call ‘Ideas’ are nothing more than words of a common language or fortuitous ideas (notions, concepts) in the minds of individuals or groups of individuals. The philoso­phers’ Ideas are not standards of judgment; they are “in reality” mere effects of whichever psychological or even physical forces happen to agitate the crowds in particular geographical places and historical periods. How these “philosophical sceptics” would be able to justify their talk or conceptions of “reality”, they never bothered to explain. Why should they have bothered? That which sways the crowd needs no further justification — and there is always a crowd somewhere that will be swayed.

From its very beginnings, Western philosophy sought to escape from the directionless, up-is-down, left-is-right Way of Opinion — that is to say, from the subjectivism and relativism implied in the nominalism or conceptualism of its apologists. The spectacle of men unable to distinguish between appearance and reality, too lazy to seek out the logos of things had filled Heraclitus with a deep sense of gloom and doom. As he famously put it:

The Logos holds always but humans always prove unable to understand it… For this reason it is necessary to follow what is common. But although the Logos is common, most people live as if they had their own private under­standing.

Two thousand years had to pass before one man, Martin Luther, got away with declaring that there is no common Logos, no alternative to one’s own private understanding. Aided and abetted by ambitious powerful and wealthy interests, Luther threw a monkey wrench into the delicate millennia-old process of elaborating man’s understanding of himself and his world. However unintentionally, he elevated the forces that agitate both man and Nature to the status of the one and only religious principle — the principle that explains and justifies everything that happens to everything that exists, none of which would happen or exist, if Almighty God did not will it so. Unfortunately, how could such a principle explain, let alone justify, anything, if — as Luther claimed — God’s will is beyond human comprehension, inaccessible to rational understanding?

The God-problem

Philosophical thinking is conscientious thinking, which is religious thinking. The English equivalent of the Latin word ‘religiosus’ is ‘conscientious’; of the Latin ‘religio’, it is ‘the study of that which brings, binds or holds all things together’. The traditional name for that which holds all things together is ‘God’. However, its meaning is ambiguous. On the one hand, the word ‘god’ (and its equivalents in other Indo-Germanic languages) means “that which shines”. It denotes the divine or shining things, e.g. beauty, light and enlight­enment, understanding, wisdom, reason and goodness, justice and freedom. Thus, in religions of Reason and Goodness (e.g. medieval Catholicism), God is either the sum total of all divine things or that which gives man access to them. On the other hand, in Semitic languages, the word commonly translated as ‘god’ means “that which overpowers”. It denotes force. In religions of Force and Power (of which Islam and at least the early forms of Protestantism are clear examples), God is either superior force or that which gives man access to it. Obviously, it makes a difference whether one asks (prays) for power or for understanding.

With its privatization and later nationalization of conscience, Protestantism cut short the millennia-old effort to understand God as the Logos, the principle of the intelligibility of the world. That effort had borne its first fruits in classical Greek philosophy. Let us take a quick look.

Plato and Aristotle

For Plato and Aristotle, only the eternally fixed, undeniably true things, the Ideas or Forms (the destination of the Way of Truth) were divine. As “astral divinities”, residing in the immutable heavens, they exercise no physical force whatsoever on earthly natural or human events but, like the shining sun, bring everything to light. Plato postulated a god, the Demiurge, as an intermediary between the divine realm of Ideas and the murky realm of material, physical or natural objects and events. Although he had some kind of access to the divine Ideas, the Demiurge was not himself a divine thing. He was a theoretical construct, needed to explain how pure, inert Forms or Ideas can affect objects and events in the sublunar realm of Nature. Plato supposed that the Demiurge was motivated by his love for the divine Ideas to impart this love to other living things (plants, animals and, pre-eminently, humans) to the various extents to which these are at all capable of responding in kind to that which loves them. Lifeless objects, which are incapable of receiving or giving love, are therefore outside the range of this god’s action. The Demiurge orders life (i.e. the natural world) in an otherwise dead universe. As such, he is the animating principle, the Soul of the World.[9] However, “virtue has no master, and as a man honours or despises her, so he will have more of her or less. The responsibility is on him that chooseth. There is none on God.”[10] Plato’s God, the Demiurge, was far from omnipotent. On the one hand, the uncontrollable forces of lifeless matter absolutely limited his “power of love”. On the other hand, he was unable to force men and women to love and to honour the divine Ideas. He could only appeal to their conscience, which Plato thought of as being a kind of memory (anamnesis), a more or less dim awareness of the logos that is common to all human beings and so presents them with the option of living conscientiously.

Aristotle, in contrast, had no use for an intermediary. For him, the divine logos itself is God — it is pure Act (i.e. without any potential for change, hence unable to move), unaffected by anything outside himself, forever satisfied with himself, totally indifferent to everything else and therefore with nothing to do but to contemplate his contemplating himself. As such, he is absolutely divorced from Nature and the world, and yet, he is also the ultimate cause of all movements: the Unmoved Mover. How could he, incapable of movement as he was, move everything? Aristotle’s answer: by being loved by everything. The love of the divine Ideas somehow inheres in all material objects, all of which, be they lifeless or living, are objectively, by their natural constitution, predisposed to seek to actualize their divine Form. This is the theological basis of Aristotle’s universal teleology, his theory of the final causes (ends or goals) that direct all movements. Moving all things by being loved by them, Aristotle’s God was, in that peculiar “metaphysical” sense, physically omnipotent.

For both Plato and Aristotle, love was the essential religious factor. It kept things together in good order, in line with the divine Ideas. However, they did not make it quite clear whether love itself was a divine thing, in addition to being a moving affection or force. In any case, Plato’s Demiurge was a loving god, and Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover was not.

Roman Stoicism

Stoicism, a post-classical Greek philosophy, taught that God is a material soul, a hegemonic spirit — in fact, a fine but extremely forceful species of matter that is diffused throughout the material universe. Its irresistible force keeps everything together in a single order or cosmos. It does not transcend but is immanent in the material world. There is nothing divine about it (in the Platonic or Aristotelian sense of the word ‘divine’), nothing beautiful, nothing that shines. Stoicism was a religion of force, indeed a religion of the one force that determines (“governs”) everything. Wisdom consists in knowing that the force is irresistible and in resigning oneself to that fact. Supreme wisdom consists in actually willing what the force does — which makes the supremely wise as powerful as God, because then everything happens according to their will as much as it happens to God’s will. The Stoic conception came to define God for the Romans, when they became an Empire and found that their old Capitoline gods were too much like the tribal gods of conquered peoples to support the claim that the Emperor was the godly ruler of the world. They needed something grander.

According to Seneca (who died in 65 AD), God is a magnitude greater than which cannot be thought.[11] It was a conception of God that was supposed to present him as omniscient and omnipotent. It had one big logical problem. The notion of a magnitude greater than which cannot be thought is inconsistent — as inconsistent as the idea of a number greater than which no number can be thought. Such a magnitude is unthinkable. Therefore, it cannot be real. Conse­quently, the Roman Stoic’s God can be thought of only as whatever it is that subjective opinion or local custom or convention esteems greater than any other thing that men happen to be thinking of. To a conscientiously thinking mind, a god of this kind can be nothing more than a socio-psychological phenomenon of the Way of Opinion, constrained by time and place and accidental habits of thought. In other words, he is at best a popular delusion — a far cry from Plato’s or Aristotle’s conscientiously undeniable true divine Ideas. Still, for a long time, Christian thinkers blithely accepted Seneca’s characterization of God. After all, for the first five centuries of the existence of their faith, Christians were, almost without exception, denizens of the Roman Empire. Moreover, they were mightily pleased when, after centuries of intermittent persecution, the Roman Emperors seemed to embrace Christianity first as a legitimate and then as the only religion of the Empire. Was it not the God of the Christians who had promised Constantine (272-337 AD) victory over his co-Emperor Maxentius in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge — a victory that made Constantine the sole ruler of the entire Empire? Besides, there were Biblical precedents, tales of God securing the ancient Israelites victory in fights with neighbouring tribes. Perhaps, then, a religion of force was not to be despised, even though Jesus Christ had refused Satan’s offer of “all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them” (Matthew 4:8).

Medieval Christianity

The problem with Seneca’s God-formula was solved in the eleventh century by a Christian monk, Anselm (1033-1109 AD), the prior of the monastery at Bec in Normandy.[12] He dropped Seneca’s reference to “magnitude”. Although he would continue to use the word ‘greater’, he specified that he meant “more excellent or better”.[13] Thus, Anselm emended Seneca’s formula to read “God is that better than which no other thing can be thought.”

Banning magnitudes such as size, length, weight, and not the least, force and physical power from the Christian understanding of God, Anselm removed the incoherence that was at the heart of Seneca’s conception of God. Instead Anselm made qualities of a peculiar kind the focus of his Idea of God, viz. qualities such as intelligence, reason, truth, goodness, beauty, wisdom, justice, love, person­hood, and freedom. Thus, he defined Christianity as a religion of Reason and Goodness rather than Force and Power. The Stoics were out. The door to the “Imperial Christianity” of Constantine, Theodosius and the Byzantine Empire was more firmly closed than it had ever been after the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451), when Pope Leo the Great had turned his back to Constantinople to concentrate on dealing with the barbarian invasions in Italy and to focus the Papacy’s interests on evangelizing the Germanic West. Explicit arguments for caesaro­papism would not be heard again in Latin Christendom until the fourteenth century (e.g. in the writings of Marsilius of Padua, 1270s–1340s, and John Wycliffe, 1320s–1384 [14]).

Saint Anselm’s rational theology

Anselm wrote down his meditations on God’s being, Monologion and Proslogion, for his fellow monks at Bec, who were thoroughly familiar with his thinking, because they had attended his lectures and had had many conversations with him about his insistence on seeking to understand God. He had no intention of producing a treatise for release to the general public, or even to have copies made from his original clay tablets. Consequently, much of the argument is presupposed rather than explicated. In reading those two works, it is necessary to keep Anselm’s native yet in many ways highly original Platonism firmly in mind. His Platonism was moreover largely of his own making, because only one or two translated texts and not many reliable second- or third-hand accounts of Plato were available to him in the library at Bec.

Platonic logic

What was the logic that led Anselm to his theological stance? With respect to any quality Q, we acknowledge that some things are more Q-ish than other things, and more importantly, that nothing can be thought more Q-ish than Q itself. For example, some things are redder or wiser than other things, but nothing can be redder than redness itself or wiser than wisdom itself. Redness itself is pure, undiluted, uncontaminated redness; it is nothing but redness. Similarly, wisdom itself is pure wisdom, nothing but wisdom. However, redness is an indifferent quality, whereas wis­dom is a positive quality. More redness is not necessarily better than less redness, but more wisdom is better than less wisdom.  We can think of redness itself as a standard of purity of reddish things, but not as a standard of goodness of things or as a standard of human excellence. In contrast, we think of wisdom itself as a standard not only of purity of wise things but also of goodness of things and of human excellence: the wiser a being, thought or action is, the better it is, ceteris paribus.[15]

None of the propositions posited in the last two paragraphs are truths of formal or symbolic logic — one can deny them without generating a formal contradiction of the form “some A is not an A” or “aa”. However, they are conscientiously (or argumenta­tively) undeniable, because in denying them one would imply that one was using words in such a way that others would not be able to interpret them as parts of a common natural language, in which words have roughly the same meanings for all speakers of the language. One would imply that there are no standards of mean­ingful speech, as if meaningful speech were not better than any meaningless utterance.

One may ask what sort of thing pure wisdom or wisdom itself is. It is obviously not a concrete, tangible, material or empirically observable object. Quite the contrary: it is the Platonic Idea or Form of wisdom. Thus, the Idea of wisdom is wisdom itself.[16] Wisdom itself is not merely a conceptual abstraction that is somehow derived from observing or imagining wise material objects (whatever that may mean). Rather, it is something the existence or reality of which is presupposed in our judging and arguing that some things are wiser than other things.

To understand the “realism” of the Platonic theory of Ideas and Anselm’s use of it, we should drop the notion that a thing is primarily or exclusively a material object. That notion stems from an empiricist or even materialist censorial prejudice, viz. that we should think about or discuss only empirical or material objects; even that we should refuse to think about or discuss anything else. Such censorship is of course an arbitrary restriction on our speech and thinking. We can and do think about and discuss many other things, including wisdom, goodness, justice and freedom — things which only the mind can perceive and only the conscientiously thinking mind can hope to perceive correctly.

In fact, the etymologically primary meaning of ‘thing’ is “something to think or talk about, something to discuss, resolve or decide”. As is the case with the Latin noun ‘res’ (thing) and the verb ‘reor’ (to calculate, account for, assess), the words ‘thing’ and ‘think’ are etymologically related. The verb ‘reor, ratus sum’ is related also to ‘ratio’ (account, calculation, reason, reasoning, principle…), which is hardly ever used to refer to one or other material or empirically observable object. Admittedly, empiricist or materialist prejudices may be appropriate when we are discussing magnitudes, because there is no sense in discussing magnitudes as things-in-themselves (e.g. “pure size itself” or “pure force itself”), but it does not follow that there is no sense in discussing wisdom itself or any other positive or indifferent quality (e.g. redness itself, justice itself, personhood itself or freedom itself). The best we can do with respect to magnitudes is agreeing on a unit of measure­ment for particular magnitudes. Then we can apply our knowledge of mathematics to measurements of magnitudes, treating the measurements as numbers (which are pure quantities, not magnitudes or qualities). However, a unit of measurement is not the same thing as a standard of purity, goodness or excellence. It is nonsensical to think of length or size as things in themselves; it is just as nonsensical to think of units or measurable quantities of qualities such as goodness, wisdom, justice, person­hood, freedom or intelligence[17].

We have to remember that, for Plato, the Ideas are the divine things, all of which enter into the Idea of the Good, i.e. the Idea of divinity itself. However, Anselm’s Idea of divinity was far more selective and discriminating than Plato’s. Not only did he exclude all concepts of magnitudes from the realm of Ideas and, by implication, from the Idea of the divine, he also excluded all logically indifferent qualities (e.g. redness, sweetness) and negative qualities (e.g. foolishness, stupidity, fallaciousness, falsity, injustice, sloppiness). Only the Ideas of positive qualities, which are thinkable as standards of goodness or excellence, qualify as divine things-in-themselves.

Beside the obvious Platonic examples (e.g. reason, intelligence, truth, justice), Anselm had presupposed personhood and commu­nity to be standards of excellence. They too are argumenta­tively undeni­able goods-in-themselves, presupposed in the Idea and the practice of conscientious speech itself. After all, arguing that one thing is better than another presupposes a community of persons (without which there can be no conscience to which one can conscientiously appeal in presenting and evaluating arguments). The fact that personhood and community are undeniable goods-in-themselves has far-reaching consequences. If personhood is a divine thing then the divine itself must be thought something that is more of a person than which nothing else can be thought. And, because nothing can be thought a person unless it be thought a part or member of a community of persons, the divine must be thought a community of persons better than which is unthinkable, a perfect community of persons, bound together by love and understanding.

Anselm was particularly interested in the question: Are the divine things, the standards of goodness or excellence, real or are they only imagined things? The answer to that question was of vital importance to him, a Christian monk.[18] He was convinced that a true, living faith required a modicum of understanding of divine things. Faith without understanding is bound to remain a dead or blind faith, a matter of mere habit or routine, not a faith in God to which one would conscientiously devote one’s entire life (which every Christian, but none more so a than a monk, was supposed to do). At the same time, he was convinced that understanding needs faith in the reality and the compatibility of objective standards of goodness and excellence. Without such faith, conscientious thinking would always be compromised, as one might then believe oneself free arbitrarily to make up or cherry-pick one’s own standards and conclude from one’s own or others’ arbitrariness that there is no objective or real difference between conscientious thinking and any other way of associating or concatenating thoughts. Then, no genuine under­standing could be expected and faith would never be more than blind faith.

If pure wisdom were merely a concept then it would exist, so to speak, only “in the mind” (as something imagined) or even only “in words” (as a flatus vocis, a sound used in conversation). In contrast, if we cannot conscien­tiously deny that wisdom is a good in itself then it must be thought a thing in itself. And, if it must be thought a thing in itself then it must be real (i.e. exist “in reality”, as well as “in the mind” or “in words”). After all, the conscientiously thinking mind cannot deny what becomes evident in conscientious thought, but it is not beholden to the evidence of the senses. Indeed, the quality of sensory evidence, its truth, relevance or pertinence is something only the conscientious mind can assess. It is not determined by the force or power of sensory experiences. The body, which registers the impact of all kinds of forces, is incapable of differentiating between true and false signals, a fortiori between real and imagined things. Only the mind can perceive the reality of things-in-themselves, but the mind cannot conscientiously deny mindfulness as a standard of goodness and excellence.

If the mutual incompatibility of objective standards of goodness and excellence (i.e. of the good and excellent things-in-themselves) is conscientiously inconceivable then we must conclude that they all mutually imply one another. Despite the fact that we speak of many divine things using many different words to name them, we must infer that, from a logical point of view, there is really only one good and excellent — in a word, divine — thing-in-itself. That one thing is divinity itself, which is Goodness itself (Plato) or Supreme Being or God (Anselm). Thus, Anselm could conclude that Supreme Being is wisdom itself just as it is each and every other positive quality considered as a thing-in-itself (truth itself, justice itself, humanity itself and so on). It follows that, if the reality of any of those things is undeniable then so is the reality of God. Also, if God really exists then so do wisdom itself, truth itself and the rest of the divine things, for these are but aspects of divinity — or, as some people rather misleading prefer to say, divine attributes. Conversely, if there is no reality to the Idea of God then there is no reality to the Idea of truth, justice, reason, wisdom, or any other thing that is good or excellent in itself.

The same reasoning holds for the Ideas of personhood and community. Hence, it is an implication of Anselm’s theology that the divine (Anselm’s Supreme Being or God) is personhood and community and therefore love and understanding. Indeed, it is only because personhood and community are standards of excellence that we can discover, by speaking and arguing conscientiously with each other, that God is reason, truth, justice, mercy and all the other things that are good-in-themselves.

With its inclusion of personhood and community as divine qualities, Anselm’s theology made allowance for the Christian Trinitarian Idea of God. If Divine or Supreme Being itself is both personhood itself and community itself then these logically imply one another: supreme personhood is supreme community, and vice versa. And, if the divine is thinkable only as perfect community of persons it must be thought a plurality of persons, none of which is thinkable without the others. How to get from this logical point to the Christian Trinity is, of course, another matter — but in his philosophical meditations, Anselm was concerned with understand­ing God, not defending traditional Christian or Church doctrines. In any case, we are made to understand that the name ‘God’ can be used to refer to Divine Being, which is not a person, as well as to several divine persons.

To sum up: Anselm’s emendations of Seneca’s God-concept and Plato’s Idea of the divine implied the proposition “Either God or nothing of value at all”. To deny God is to deny the full set of mutually compatible standards of goodness and excellence. Such a denial leaves only the option of denying all objective standards (nihilism) or the option of claiming that complying  with one standard of excellence justifies ignoring every other standard (as in “I am a just man; therefore I am entitled to lie, cheat, steal, and what not”). Both options are incompatible with the Idea of conscien­tious thought itself. They make conscientious thinking an exercise in futility.

Anselm’s “single argument”

In chapter 2 of his famous second meditation on God, Proslogion, Anselm proposed what he called his ‘single argument’ for the existence or reality of the divine, i.e. of Supreme Being or God. He intended it as a single substitute for what would otherwise be a long and probably open-ended list of arguments for the reality of each good or excellent thing in itself. Bearing in mind that he wrote Proslogion mainly for the benefit of people who had read Monologion, we can paraphrase the argument as follows:

« If you accept the common understanding of the word ‘God’ (i.e. as that greater than which is unthinkable) then, by implication, you also accept that ‘God’ stands for that better than which cannot be thought, because with respect to positive qualities, ‘greater’ means “better”. But if you take ‘God’s greatness’ to mean “God’s goodness” (as we Christians do) then you cannot without contradicting yourself deny the reality of what the word refers to. Indeed, unless it is impossible to think of a single good thing, that to which the word ‘God’ refers must be understood to be good (as it is thought at least as good as any other thing). Unlike “a number or magnitude greater than which cannot be thought”, the concept of a thing better than which is unthinkable is not contradictory. It is not necessarily devoid of reference. So, it can be thought. It is also conscientiously undeniable that it is better for a good thing to be real than to be merely imagined. Consequently, an imagined good thing cannot be thought conscien­tiously better than which nothing else is thinkable. It follows that, unless it is impossible to think of a single good thing, that better than which cannot be thought (whatever it may be and regardless of how it is named) can, indeed must be thought real (not imagined). And, if it must be thought real then it is real. Moreover, one cannot conscien­tiously deny that there is at least one good thing, viz. conscientious thought itself. Therefore, no one can conscien­tiously deny that God is real. Consequently, we must conclude that God really exists. Q.E.D. »

The validity and the soundness of the argument are obvious, if one keeps in mind that Anselm (like Plato) was thinking within the logic of speech, which presupposes that words have commonly understood meanings; that speakers intend what they say to be taken seriously; and that all things (including things-in-them­selves or Ideas) can be considered logically. Most pertinently, the logic of speech presupposes that the verification of a statement of the form “X exists” or “X does not exist” always involves conscientious thinking but does not always involve having empirical evidence — for example, when X stands for a solution of a mathematical problem (the existence of which may be proven rigorously, even if the solution itself is not known) or for “the greatest thinkable number” (the non-existence of which is beyond doubt). Even when empirical evidence is involved, it takes a conscientious mind to judge its reliability, for example by considering how and under what circumstances it was obtained or whether it can be re-produced.

Within the logic of speech, we can speak of being (i.e. being real) as a quality. Some things have more being (are more real) than other things; nothing can be thought to have more being (to be more real) than pure being or reality itself; and nothing can be thought to be less real than what lacks reality altogether. Moreover, for things that are good-in-themselves (Anselmic Ideas), being is a positive quality, as their being must be thought (and therefore is) better than their non-being. For other things (i.e. for non-divine things), this is not necessarily true. However, it is true to the extent that such things have positive qualities — for example, something that is both true and just is better, ceteris paribus, than something that is equally true but less just. The more positive qualities a non-divine thing has and the more it has of those qualities, the better it is. It follows that the better a thing is, the more real it is, and vice versa. Admittedly, bad, evil and erroneous things exist, but pure badness (badness itself), pure evil (evil itself) and pure error (error itself) no more exist than does pure non-redness. Neither does pure irreality exist. What would something be if it were nothing but unreal?

Obviously, unless one assumes that nothing is real, reality itself cannot be thought a merely imagined thing or standard (because nothing can be thought more real than reality itself). And, of course, one cannot conscientiously think that nothing is real. For example, how would one be able to think conscientiously that there are no real standards of logic? Reality itself cannot seriously be thought an imagined thing. Therefore, pure being or reality itself is real. As Anselm would have put it, Reality itself and Supreme Being are one and the same thing. Hence, because Supreme Being is God, nothing can be thought more real than God. To deny the reality of God is to deny reality altogether, to entrap oneself in imaginary things, illusions or delusions.

Objections to Anselm’s single argument are usually based on the mistaken assumption that he intended to prove that one can logically argue from the “essence” of a thing to its “existence”. Such objections miss the crucial point that Anselm was arguing neither about things in general nor about corporeal things in particular. The “essence” of a corporeal thing is that it has magnitudes, which are not things-in-themselves and have no being. As Anselm put, it, corporeal things are mixtures of being and non-being. To take a classroom example, from the assumption that being a rational animal is the essence of being human one cannot conclude that at least one human animal really exists, just as from the assumption that being an animal that is half woman and half fish is the essence of being a mermaid one cannot conclude that at least one mermaid really exists. However, nothing follows from this concerning things such as wisdom, justice or Supreme Being. Having being but no magnitude, these things are not mixtures of being and nothingness. They are divine in a sense in which even some spiritual things, such as angels and ghosts, cannot be.[19]

Christian rational theology

With his emendation of Seneca’s formula and Plato’s theory of the divine Ideas, Anselm launched Catholic rational theology. In the preface to his seminal Monologion, Anselm had committed himself to this methodological rule: “that nothing at all in the meditation be argued on Scriptural authority, but that the conclusion resulting from the distinct inquiries be tersely proven on grounds of rational necessity and truth’s clarity, in an unembellished style, with unsophisticated arguments and uncomplicated disputation.”[20] Thus, if we accept B.B. Wakefield as an authority on Protestantism then we must deem Anselm’s rational theology anathema to Protestants, because it postulates that the authority of reason and truth is independent of Scriptural authority, even where questions about God’s being are concerned.

Equally unacceptable to Protestants was another implication of Anselm’s theology: God has no magnitude, no force or physical power, certainly none that is so great that nothing can be thought more forceful or powerful. Therefore, there is no warrant for the opinion that God can move any object by force, wherever, whenever and however he wants to move it.[21] One might believe that he is almighty, but that belief is not supported by a rational understanding of the divine. Struggling with the traditional doctrine of creation out of nothing, Anselm concluded that it was unthinkable, unless one understood the word ‘nothing’ to mean “something”, specifically, some indistinct thing, undefined or even indefinable, something that is not any particular thing.[22] This “noth­ing” is like the nothing of which we speak when we descend into a dark cellar and answer the question about what is down there with a sincere “Nothing; it’s too dark to see anything.” When the light is switched on, the “nothing” in the cellar suddenly becomes a multitude of distinct, particular things “created out of nothing”. For Anselm, as for every Catholic Christian, God is Light and Light is good. Out of the primeval chaotic darkness, it “creates” an ordered universe, in which Light-sensitive humans can find their way.[23]

As for the Classical philosophers of Ancient Greece, so for the prior of Bec: God moves things by being loved by them. However, Anselm had no truck with Aristotle’s notion that all things, dead or alive, move because they love God.[24] It is not love that moves an iron pellet toward a magnet. Besides, love can be blind and blind love is an erratic force, as erratic as blind faith. Genuine love must be inspired if not by understanding then at least by the desire to understand.

Anselm needed something akin to Plato’s Demiurge: an inter­mediary between that which is better than which no other thing can be thought and beings that can love and understand — in short, an intermediary who loves God and desires to impart his love of God to human beings. Of course, for Anselm, as good a Catholic Christian as any, the identity of the authentic intermediary was not in doubt: Jesus Christ, a real flesh-and-blood person, the Son of God, who loves and is loved by his Father with a love inspired by full mutual understanding. Moreover, Jesus had a mission: to teach all human beings to love God and all the divine things, which as goods-in-themselves are logically inseparable from God. His Apostolate was taken up by the Church, whose magisterium was accordingly confined to divine things, good in themselves and standards of excellence in all aspects of humanity, in the first place of faith and morality. Questions of “natural science”, which predominantly concern magnitudes, were outside her remit. Clearly, Jesus Christ was the authentic intermediary. Through him, the Church was, so to speak, a certified intermediary. In fact, however, every person animated by love for the divine things should be appreciated for doing God’s work — even those who, like the pagan philosophers of pre-Christian times, had never known or heard of the Christ.

Anselm’s Idea of God’s omnipotence referred not to physical force but to moral strength. God’s will is omnipotent, because it is free from weaknesses and deficiencies. Hence, the primary moral imperative of rational theology was to cultivate one’s will, so that one would be able to resist temptation and live a saintly life. People ought to strive to become better, more humane persons; they ought to engage in (or, at least, to abide by the findings of) a rational, argumentatively defensible search for the reason and goodness that can be summarized in one word, ‘God’. They may honestly disagree on all contingent things, but they cannot conscientiously, “in good conscience”, disagree on the fact that, in all they do, say or think, they are subject to being judged by the same objective standards of excellence. They readily agree that some judges are better than others, but they must logically agree that nothing can be a better judge than an infallible judge — who cannot be thought a better judge than God himself.

Anselm’s rational theology provided the foundations for what would become the medieval doctrine of the Natural Moral Law. It critically implied that there is an apodictic conscience-defining law that guides the human search for goodness and excellence, not by prescribing rules of right conduct (in the fashion of a legal system) but by fostering right or virtuous attitudes. It established the principle that whereas there can be no right to do what is objectively wrong, there must be a right to do what is objectively right. Thus, it was not concerned so much with obeying or following rules as it was with emulating the examples of saintly people and ultimately of Jesus Christ. The Idea of a Natural Moral Law also implied that “laws of physics” can never be more than hypothetical generalizations of observed events. After all, the universe of things that are impervious to the distinction between right and wrong has no rationally detectable end. It makes no sense to praise or criticize the attitudes of such things, because the concept “attitude” simply does not apply to them.

Without belittling the contributions of the Greek Church Fathers or Saint Augustine, we should recognize Anselm as the true founder of the theology of Medieval Latin Christendom. He provided an understanding of the divine that was without precedent in all of history. He highlighted the radical differences between the qualitative and the quantitative aspects of the human condition and experience, between man’s humane potential and his raw human nature (which but for that potential would be just another species of animal nature, and like other things in nature, inextricably mired in webs of material, physical forces of various magnitudes). Faith in God, better than which cannot be thought, is the necessary condition for actualizing man’s humane potential.

Late-medieval natural theology

The Natural Moral Law held its ground until it was swept up in the notion of a general all-encompassing Natural Law of natural theology by the rediscovery of Aristotle in the thirteenth century and Thomas Aquinas’ impressive and influential attempts to use the Stagyrite’s metaphysics as a philosophical underpinning of the Christian faith. However, Aristotelian­ism implied that all things that move (parti­cles of dust no less than human beings) are moved by their inherent disposition to actualize their essential Form or Idea, their natural inclination to love God, the unmoved mover of everything. Thus, everything in the universe is teleologically ordered to move toward its final end. Philosophically, Aristoteli­an­ism obliterated the distinc­tion between qualities, quantities and magnitudes, between moral and physical things, and between man’s humanity and his physical nature. It did so because it pretended to be a unitary theory of everything. From its “metaphysical” perspective, all things, living or dead, moral or physical, behave exactly alike.

Incorporated into Christian doctrine, Aristotelianism sug­gested that every movement and every happen­ing in the universe has God as its ultimate first and final cause. Because it had no need for an active intermediary between God (the divine Ideas) and other things, it undermined the authority not only of the Church but also of Jesus Christ himself — love-infused Nature will run its divinely charted course anyway! At least in that metaphysical sense, Aristotelianism supported the notion that God is indeed almighty as well as all-good. The downside of that line of thinking was, of course, that it raised the so-called problem of natural evil: the occurrence of devastating illnesses and disasters such as floods, earthquakes or epidemics, which often dwarf the evil men can do and which cannot be plausibly ascribed to sinful human action. How can such evil exist, if God is both almighty and all-good?

Half-way through the fourteenth century the bubonic plague devastated Latin Christendom. Under the then still quite novel Aristotelian interpretation, the plague had to be understood as a providential act of God, not (as under the earlier rational theology) a fortuitous natural event that people had to face with Christian resolve and faith. The sudden death of tens of millions and the wholesale disruption of the precarious economic order had to be explained as an only apparent evil that really served some greater good, known only to God. Thus, natural theology saddled the Church with the impossible task of explaining the inexplicable: Why should people love a god whose plan involves seemingly indiscriminate killing and random redistribution of wealth?

That predicament would prove a fertile ground for the con­viction of Luther and other Protes­tants that human reason is totally incapable of participating in divine reason, discerning right from wrong, and discovering a Natural Moral Law to guide people through life. Protestantism took the metaphysics out of Aristotelianism and made God the efficient force that makes everything happen. It gladly accepted the implied irrelevance of the Church but saved the authority of Jesus with Biblical quotations. Men should love God’s Word, whether they understand his actions or not. But they can and must do what they want, because their wants are if not God-given then God-permitted and therefore legitimate forces, even when they make people do things contrary to God’s Word. Trying to cope with this inexplicable condition without returning to Catholicism, Protestant thought scattered in all directions.


Despite the Church’s initial reservations about wedding the faith to Aristotle’s philosophy, the rise of Aristotelianism was unstoppable. This was a consequence of a profound shift in the complexion of medieval Christianity. Even while Anselm was still alive, the secular branch of the Church (priests, bishops and popes) began to overshadow its religious branch (the monks in their monasteries), partly because of the efforts of the Papacy to wrest control over the investiture of bishops out of the hands of kings, dukes, and counts, and partly because the bishops (most of them members of powerful and wealthy noble families) were better placed than the secluded monks to participate in and profit from the revival of trade, which created new centres of commercial wealth in booming cities and ports. Moreover, with the transformation of some of the old Cathedral schools (where people prepared for the priesthood) into universities, the role of the monasteries in formal Christian education and intellectual life was much diminished. The monaster­ies continued to prepare novices for monastic life, while the universities catered to a wider public of people seeking a career as servants of local rulers, city governments, trading companies and banks. Secular (mainly legal and organizational) concerns and interests began to dominate the curriculum, and learned theories of how the world works were greater, more lucrative assets for the new classes of teachers and professors than meditations on God or saintliness. Aristotelianism profited enormously from this shift, because, at the time (and for a long time afterward), no other equally comprehensive body of knowledge was available.

On top of all that, in the aftermath of the first Crusades, new heresies had appeared in Latin Christendom. To combat them and to reinvigorate the faith, the Church needed “sandals on the ground”. These were supplied by the newly formed mendicant orders of Franciscan and Dominican friars. Unlike the monks of the established religious orders (e.g. the Cistercian orders[25]), the friars intended to go out into the world to spread the Word of God. They needed instructions on how to convince people, pagans and lukewarm Christians alike, without falling into error them­selves.

Thomas Aquinas, a Dominican friar, wrote his magisterial Summa contra Gentiles precisely for that instructional purpose, as a formal course book. He followed it up with an even more impressive elaboration, his Summa Theologiae, a comprehensive, systematic overview of the Christian faith, complete with answers to objections and questions that might be raised from various corners. However, the people who were to be convinced were interested far more in hearing about the advantages of being a Christian and a member of the Church than in the contemplation of Supreme Being or examples of saintly lives. They were likely to be impressed especially with arguments about God’s power. Aristotelianism allowed for the presentation of such arguments in a “metaphysical” way, without suggesting that God was an actual physical or material force. God was somehow behind or at the bottom of everything that exists or happens but not in an obvious, directly observable way. This position avoided the need for an open repudiation of the Anselmic Idea of God, although, logically speaking, it was not compatible with it. For a couple of centuries, the incompatibility was of little practical consequence. However, that changed when, in the late sixteenth and the early seventeenth century, the natural sciences began their unstoppable advance. They did not pose a threat to Anselm’s theology, but they certainly did clash with Aristotelianism, which in the meantime had become ensconced within the universities. Because, by then, so many ecclesiastics had invested so much intellectual capital in Aristotelian teachings, it became difficult for the Church to dissociate herself from the Aristotelian professors, who considered themselves her intellectual bodyguards and consistently opposed the new sciences on philosophical grounds. Fortu­nately, the Church never went so far in following them as to assert that her magisterium included physics.[26]


Under­neath Luther’s thundering about God’s arbitrariness and man’s depravity, the message was clear: “Do what you want, don’t hold back — whatever you do is God’s will. If you succeed, it’s God’s will; if you fail, that too is God’s will.” It was a stern proclamation of the futility of human reasoning about good and evil, right and wrong. Without reference to standards of goodness and rightness, the traditional ideas that there is no right to do wrong and that there must be a right to do right no longer made sense. In stead, one had to acknowledge that there could well be a right to do wrong and that there might not be a right to do right. It did not matter that this sounded like a recipe for moral anarchy, because its effects would be mitigated by the purely secular power-based mechanisms of the “positive law”, which would enforce the monarch’s legislated will, the historically accumulated property rights of the ruling classes, or most likely, a combination of both.

To some, Luther’s claim might seem a message of freedom, but it is not. It cannot be, for in Luther’s view, man is caught in an inexorable, universal, God-given determinism. Freedom of the will is an illusion,[27] because there is no such thing as the will, no distinction between willing and wanting. God is free, not because his will is free but because there is nothing that can stop him from doing what he likes or wants. After all, he is omnipotent. How God gets to like what he likes or to want what he wants is anybody’s guess. Maybe he has the ability to make himself want certain things and not want other things; maybe not. It does not really matter, because, whether or not he has that ability, his actions are entirely want-driven, just as every animal’s and every man’s actions are. However, men’s wants are “given” to them, either directly by God or indirectly by God-given Nature. Even when humans do what they want, they are not in control of what they do. They do what their wants make them do. In that respect, they are just like animals, indeed just like everything in the universe, for God’s almightiness does not pertain only to living, let alone human things.

Luther and other Protestants were driven to accept that, like Nature, humans are and do whatever almighty God wants them to be and do — and that can be anything. Possibly, God is indifferent to many alternatives in Nature or the world. Only when and where he is indifferent are Nature and man free to do what they want (hence, free to battle it out among themselves to see which one of them gets satisfaction). Men are free only where God does not put obstacles in their way; where he wants or permits them to do what their “given” wants make them do. They are free in the Hobbesian sense of the word: “Freedom is the absence of external impediments.”[28] Of course, for almighty God, there are no such impediments. He can do what he wants, succeed in doing it and get away with it. In contrast, animals and men lack the power fully to satisfy their wants, likes, urges or other “passions”. They lack the power to ensure success and to get away with everything they do.

When Nature, which (as the saying goes) abhors a vacuum, perceives a lacuna, it strives to fill it any which way it can — and that way is invariably the easiest way. It is the same with humans. When they perceive a lack of something (i.e. perceive that they want it), they set out to satisfy their wants in the easiest way they can think of. However, if that is the case, what is the sense of speaking of human freedom, or holding people responsible for what they do? After all, one cannot hold them responsible for having the wants that make them do what they do; much less can one hold their wants responsible.

As “God-given wants” became increasingly obscure, the concept of Nature-given wants rose to prominence. For many, God became indistin­guishable from Nature and eventually redun­dant and irrelevant. Reason was demoted to a bodily function that took as its inputs the impersonal forces that agitate the human body from the inside as well as the outside and produced a response that was supposed to ensure the greatest attainable satisfaction of the wants of the body. Physics (the study of Nature, i.e. of measurable magnitudes), which in earlier times had been a marginal concern, moved to the centre of man’s consciousness. Moreover, the connection between conscien­tious thinking and logic was lost when logic was reduced to a formal calculus, a sort of mathematics of uninterpreted tokens. This reduction signalled a return to the Stoic empiricist presupposi­tion that logic is only concerned with relations between particular facts (expressed in particular propositions, the truth or falsity of which can be readily and unambiguously established). Ironically, it worked well for mathematics, which rests on a huge supply of easily verifiable simple arithmetical facts about numbers (e.g. 1+1=2, 3³=27…), but not so well in other domains, where the truth status of particular propositions is often far more controversial than the truth status of general propositions about classes of things or about Ideas or things-in-themselves, which only the mind can perceive. Two psychiatrists may nod their way through the same treatise on insanity, but that does not mean that they agree on the answer to the question whether this or that particular person is insane.

Free will vs free choice

For Luther and other Protestants, God’s power is “evident”; his goodness is a matter of undecidable speculation. For them, the proper attitude is to accept that what God does is good, because he does it. His actions and their effects are good by definition, whether or not anybody can see or understand their goodness. Because he is almighty, everything that happens is “good” — it is wanted or at least allowed by God. Thus, the problems that arise from the contemplation of evil in a world governed by an almighty and all-good God must be solved by dropping goodness as an independent criterion of divinity. In this, Protestants went radically against the traditional Catholic solution, which was not obsessed with God’s physical powers or force but stressed his goodness.

For Catholics, conscientiously doing good is doing God’s work. The evidence of reason is that God must be all-good (otherwise there would be no reason for believing in him or for loving him). There may be genuine miracles (which can be ascertained only after a thorough, conscientious examination of the facts), but they are interpreted as manifestations not of God’s force but of the power of love. No actual physical event is unquestionably proof of God’s physical power. Even Biblical texts about physical events set up no more than a presumption of truth, which can be defeated in cogent argumentation, with appeals to what we have learned since the texts were written and included in the books of the Bible.[29]

With their focus on God’s almightiness, Protestants had to give up the conceptual distinction between willing and wanting. They could no longer understand the will in the traditional manner, viz. as the power of reason over the passions, as the particular virtue of personhood. On that traditional view, God’s will is necessarily free, because God cannot be thought to want (i.e. to lack) anything that his pure, perfect reason judges worth having. In contrast, men’s wills are not necessarily free, because men are want-driven natural creatures, whose wants may assert them­selves inde­pend­ently of their reason. Nevertheless, they know, if not by divine revelation then certainly from their own experience, that want-driven reasoning is as likely as not a corruption of right reason. Notwithstanding the in other respects great differences between pre-modern Christianity and the classical philosophy of Ancient Greece, both asserted that, for humans, freeing their will from corrupting factors or influences is their first moral imperative.

Medieval Christian theology had rejected the idea of free choice, understood in terms of “absence of impediments”. It recognized that every choice has opportunity costs; and every cost is an im­pediment. A costless (“free”) choice exists only if all the alternatives are of exactly equal value — that is to say, if they are all completely indifferent to the chooser. However, such indifference prevents choice. Buridan’s ass, standing in exactly the same relation to two equally appetizing bushels of hay, was the paradigmatic case.[30] The absence of differential “obstacles” did not make the animal free to choose; it rendered it unable to choose. Its indifference could be broken only by a change in the circum­stances that somehow made one alterna­tive seem more attractive or beneficial, or less repulsive or costly than other alternatives. As soon as that indifference was eliminated, the animal’s choice was determined by its wants. But… where was the freedom in a choice determined by a fortuitous change in external circumstances?

The traditional medieval conception of free choice had focussed not so much on the absence of impediments as on the will, the faculty that is not determined by current wants but is able to override their apparent dictates. Thus, “I will this” is not merely an emphatic way of saying “I want this”. It is rather a way of saying “I want this, because it is the right thing to want, but it is not my wanting it that makes it right”.  Indeed, one cannot even say that God’s wanting it makes it right, because God, being everything he ought to be, cannot be thought to want anything. Accordingly, man’s freedom rests in his commitment to the arduous task of keeping his will free, uncorrupted by the whimsical, tyrannical rule of his wants, and strong enough to overrule them. His choices can be want-satisfying and yet wrong, if his will falters (which it is wont to do, because like everything else that makes man human, his will falls far short of the original divine model or its incarnation in Jesus Christ). His choices are free only when he makes them conscien­tiously, believing them to be right and even then only to the extent that he is right in believing this.

Luther shunted all of that aside. In his view, there is free choice wherever one sees an opportunity to overcome external impedi­ments to doing what one wants. Considerations of right or wrong need not enter into making the choice; they would not be germane, anyway, because one’s reason is incapable of rightly discerning right from wrong, even if it is tested in argumentation with others. Without the distinction between willing and wanting, “free choice” becomes a ubiquitous phenomenon and a merely subjectively or convention­ally defined concept. Accordingly, there is no willing that is distinct from definitely wanting. Because, like every­thing else, one’s wants are “ultimately” determined by God, the expression ‘free will’ makes sense (to a Protestant) only if it is understood to refer to that which makes one do what one wants in defiance of an explicit Biblical command to do otherwise — even if one’s wants must be understood to be just as God-given as God’s Words. Men may appear (but are not really) free to obey or to disobey God’s Word as recorded in the Bible. However, for Luther and most other Protestants, the mere fact that God spoke meant that people should love God’s Word, whether or not they understand his actions or their effects. As far as humans are concerned, God is his Word, which is the only thing they can know about him, and the one thing they ought to love blindly, to cherish in blind faith. As for the rest, it is all in God’s hands. Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia.

Without the Bible, Luther and other Protestants would have no use for God, as he would be hidden (if he exists at all) behind the blind forces of Nature. Moral life would be reduced to something akin to the farcical verbal jostling between the Stoic slave (“The gods made me do it; it’s unjust of you to punish me!”) and his Stoic master (“And the gods made me punish you, so stop whining!”).

Freedom and personhood

Evidently, Luther’s conception of freedom, “Do what you want (but love your Bible)”, had nothing to do with the traditional Christian understanding of freedom. It was not, therefore, the “Do what you will”, which Rabelais’ Gargantua had laid down as the rule of the Abbey of Thélème for its members (all of them “free, well-born, well-schooled, keeping honest company”, who “by nature have an instinct and a pointer that always lead them to do virtuous acts and pull them back from vice — an instinct they call honour”).[31] Rabelais’ very Catholic ode to the freedom and the joys of the cultured spirited and conscientious mind was the opposite of his older German contempo­rary’s tormented soul-searching and its desperate conclusion that, for all you know, when it comes to your salvation, God is as likely as not to hold [what you take to be] your sins against you.

For Luther, man’s free will was that which causes men to disobey God’s Word (but not his will, which they are powerless to resist). This conception of free will could be fitted easily onto the old Judaeo-Roman reading of the Adam-and-Eve story, viz. as an edifying crime-and-punishment fable in which two juvenile delinquents “of their own free will” disobey the command of the Master of the Garden (“Do not eat the fruit of the Tree of knowledge of good and evil”), despite knowing that the punishment is death. That reading of the story not only seems blatantly unchristian in its depiction of the loving Father, whom Jesus affectionately called ‘Daddy’; it is also a manifest distortion of the Biblical text itself, which tells a truly universal story of growing up and becoming a mature person. It is a story that most of us vividly and usually with mixed feelings experience twice: once growing up and getting to the point where we know we ought to leave home and stand on our own feet; and once, raising our children, shielding them from false “friends”, preparing them for life outside our home and, finally, letting them go. As for the supposedly momentous command, “Do as you’re told or you will surely die”, it is common fare in every household with young children.[32] Admittedly, the idea of having knowledge of the distinction between good and evil is often a very dangerous thing indeed, especially when it nestles in an immature mind, not yet equipped with a solid conscience and a taste for conscientious thinking. But, even if this is granted, would it justify the conclusion that having a mature, conscientious mind ought to be avoided at all cost — that one ought to abstain from cultivating one’s potential for personhood and humanity and do only what one is told to do?

Crime and punishment? So interpreted, the story of Adam and Eve was perhaps a suitable fable for the early Christians in the Roman Empire, for whom disobeying or even displeasing the Emperor often enough meant actual death. Latin Christendom, however, came into being among Germanic tribal folk for whom a king was certainly to be respected and honoured but his commands counted for next to nothing, unless he was leading them into battle.

Out of deference to Saint Augustine, the last great theologian from Roman Imperial times, the Latin Church continued to uphold the crime-and-punishment reading of the story of Genesis. Augustine was arguably the single-most influential authority behind what became the doctrine of original sin[33], the acceptance of which he had secured after a prolonged and vindictive campaign against Pelagius, a British monk. However, despite the Church’s con­demnation of the latter’s theses, Medieval Latin Catholicism retained a decidedly Pelagian flavour.[34] It did so to such an extent that Protestants would not hesitate to charge the Church with the Pelagian heresy against the “authentic” Christianity of which Augustine had been the last exponent before the Reformation. As B.B. Warfield put it in his Calvin and Augustine, “it is Augustine who gave us the Reformation. For the Reformation, inwardly considered, was just the ultimate triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over Augustine’s doctrine of the Church.” Of course, once they were in I-am-less-Pelagian-than-thou mode, Protestants found traces of Pelagianism everywhere they looked, even in one another’s teachings.

The liberty of subjects

With its rejection of the Church and her role as the conscience of the medieval world, the Reformation de-legitimized the medieval idea of political rule, which had implied that the secular lords (from the emperor and the king down to lesser lords, dukes and counts) were essentially advisors and judges “under the law” and that they had no governing power over anything other than their own private households. Le roi règne mais ne gouverne pas. After the Reformation, political rulers (mostly monarchs, occasionally city governments and, at a later date, elected political officials) were assumed to have the power (the right) to make laws, to enforce the laws of their own making and not to enforce laws not of their own making (the laws of their predecessors, customary communal laws, even the laws of God that had formerly been safeguarded by the Church). They were also assumed to have the power (right) to govern the private and communal affairs of their subjects, as if the “political realm” constituted a single household.

The Latin word for “household” is ‘familia’. For the Romans, a man’s familia consisted mainly of his famuli (servants, slaves) and his property (land, cattle, house and money). Obviously, every household needs a governor to organize its activities of production and to distribute its income (money, consumption goods) among its members. The modern conception of politics consequently implied that the State, the political familia, be viewed as an economic unit — a so-called ‘political or national economy’. Consequently, the medieval, essentially non-economc relationship between a ruler and his subjects had to be re-construed as an essentially economic relationship between a master and his ser­vants. Thus, in modern (post-medieval) times, ‘political rule’ came to denote the “sovereign” legislative and governmental powers of the de facto rulers. The exercise of those powers was subject only to the demands of political prudence or expediency as understood by the rulers themselves, including their understanding of the gap between their nominally “absolute right” and their always constrained “effective power”.

The master-servant relationship implies that the servants have liberty only with respect to those things, which in regulating their actions, their master has permitted or at least not forbidden. Hobbes pointed out that the liberty of subjects in the ruler-subject relationshp is of exactly the same kind.[35] However, he mitigated the appreciation of this fact with his theory that the Sovereign (the effective master) could be presented fictionally as the legal agent of his servants, authorized by them to act in and on their behalf. Thus, the servants (“citizens”) were made to appear as the legal principals from whose higher authority the masters (“the rulers”) derive their powers of plenipo­tentiary agency. In various ways, Locke, Rousseau, Kant and Hegel used this dialectic of the factual and the legal aspects of the master-servant relationship to complete the theory of the modern State as a household in which the servants are masters and the masters servants — a household in which the servants have the liberty to do what they permit themselves to do. To enjoy that liberty, they only have to believe that they are not natural but legal, artificial persons, fictional creatures of a law of their own making. To be be free, citizens only have to identify with the State: “We, the People…”

As a result of this typically modern dialectic of fact and fiction, the “positive law” (the legal rules, made and imposed by the de facto masters but fictionally authorized de iure by their servants) became the only politically relevant common knowledge of rulers and subjects alike. Not surprisingly, lawyers replaced priests as the guardians of this new-fangled idea of a politically defined public conscience.

From Latin Christendom to Europe

In normal times, Luther would have recanted to avoid excommuni­cation or else been burned at the stake as an unrepentant heretic. However, the times were not normal. Beside the devastat­ing experiences of recurrent pestilence, political events had been undermining the authority of the Church and the appeal of Catholic Christianity for about two centuries. By the end of the fifteenth century, Latin Christen­dom and its Church were in full crisis mode.

The Hundred Years War (1337-1453) had started the transforma­tion of England and France from medieval kingdoms into prototypical, heavily militarized nation states. Incidentally, 1453 was also the year in which the Christian Empire of Byzantium fell to the Ottoman Turks. The event exposed Latin Christendom to direct threats of raids and invasions from a powerful non-Christian Empire. Refugees from Byzantium brought with them a remarkably homogeneous Christian culture that was still steeped in pre-medieval Roman values. It ranked its emperors, “vicars of God-the-Father” above the patriarchs, “vicars of Christ-the-Son”, on the understanding that the Father has authority over the Son, whereas the Son has no authority over the Father. It had not forgotten the lesson of Roman Antiquity, viz. that power is money and money is power. Consequently, the practical, secular concerns of the Empire, mainly military resilience and commercial wealth, trumped the loftier moral and saintly concerns of the Church without raising too many “problems of conscience”. Moreover, the refugees from Byzantium (many of them exceedingly rich by Western standards) possessed superior cultural and artistic tastes as well as military, sea-faring, administrative, commercial and accounting skills, which their hosts in the centres of political and commercial power of Latin Christendom were eager to adopt. With their wealth and knowledge, the Byzantine (“Greek”) refugees  kick-started the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery. They re-established the prestige of “absolute” political and administrative centralism (including caesaropapism) and the Imperial Roman Law. Not recognizing the authority of the Latin Church, they set up their own, private “house churches”, a novelty that may have inspired dissatisfied or frustrated “Latin” Christians to take their religious practices out of the established Church. Whether or not the Byzantines had a direct impact in generating the Protestant Reformation, they brought with them a set of intellectual, religious, political and commercial ideas and practices that contributed greatly to the destabilization of the medieval order of Latin Christendom,[36] especially in war-torn Italy (the Valois-Habsburg wars, 1494-1559).

Even before the start of the Hundred Years War, France had become a force strong enough to challenge and defy the authority of the Pope, which was then at its zenith. For much of the fourteenth century, from 1309 to 1376, the Papal See resided in Avignon, well within the sphere of influence of the Capetian kings in Paris. The move called into question the ability of the Church to maintain her relative independence from secular rulers, which had been her grand strategic ambition from the end of the eleventh century onward. Her independence guaranteed the possibility of an effective appeal to a higher authority, even against the mightiest secular lords. However, deference to papal authority was fading fast and centrifugal forces became rampant in Latin Christendom. From 1378 to 1417, two, eventually three “popes”, supported by various factions of cardinals and rulers, simultaneously claimed to be the true head of the Church. This so-called ‘Western Schism’ was the context of the agitation caused by Jan Hus in Bohemia. Hus, who had initially backed the claims of “pope” Alexander V, was condemned as an unrepentant heretic and burned at the stake after being tried at the Council of Constance (1414-1418), which declared Alexander V an “anti-pope”. Unlike Luther a century later, Hus had no powerful supporters that stayed with him when he refused to recant his theses.

The move to Avignon also derailed the flow of funds to Rome and the Papal State in central Italy, and it impoverished both. When the Papal See returned to Rome, in 1376, the popes’ priority was to find funds for rebuilding the largely derelict city and restoring the Papal State to its former place among the other Italian principalities, many of which were soon to experience the genesis of a spectacular and luxurious new culture, the Renaissance. Eventually, one unorthodox, controversial method of financing the building of a new Saint Peter’s Church in the opulent style of the Italian Renaissance, the so-called “sale of indulgences”, became a major item in the mythology of the Protestant Reformation because of Jan Hus’s and Martin Luther’s vehement opposition to it, and because of its vicious misrepresentation as “selling tickets to Heaven”. Regulating indulgences was an urgent matter for many reformers within and outside the ecclesiastical hierarchy (e.g. Erasmus of Rotterdam and other Christian humanists), but they did not consider it a reason for abolishing the Church. Neither did Luther himself. The indulgence controversy made him famous but what drove him to break with Rome was his rejection of the Church’s doctrines of Scriptural authority, salvation and grace, which were indeed radically at odds with his notions of God’s almightiness and man’s depravity.

Political power trumps religion

Already in the 1530s, the English King Henry VIII, used Parlia­ment to engineer a break with Rome and to establish the first national church in Western Christendom by confiscating the Roman Church’s possessions, destroying the monasteries and persecuting, imprisoning and killing priests, monks and nuns who remained loyal to the Pope. His religion was to be his subjects’ religion. In 1555, the Diet of Augsburg formalized a political settlement among the German Lutheran and Catholic princes that subordinated religion to secular rule: Cuius regio, eius religio — the ruler of the land determines its religion. Henceforth, the Church’s authority in matters of faith, morals and not the least in law and diplomacy was subject to the decisions of the high and mighty in each country. It was the formal end of Latin Christen­dom and the beginning of Europe. The God-centred human conscience dissolved into a multitude of national con­sciences (to be defined by the local rulers or ruling classes). Unintentionally but effectively, Protestantism made force and power the central themes of a new creed that sanctified the divided State-based order of modern Europe and found expression in various doctrines of political sovereignty (Jean Bodin, 1576; Hugo Grotius, 1625; and Thomas Hobbes, 1651). Where the kings were strong, such doctrines helped to establish Absolute Monarchy (the monarch being legibus solutus, “above the law”, and entitled to regulate public religious life according to his own discretion). Where the kings were weak, assemblies (parliaments) of the rich and powerful aspired to the same absolute, legislative power and to diminish or even disenfranchise the King’s Church. There began the movement for “freedom of religion” or legal toleration for the various dissident Protestant sects. It was soon followed by a movement for “freedom from religion”. These movements legitimized the enforcement of a hitherto unheard-of constitutional rule, “Believe what you will, but obey the powers that be (for, as far as you are concerned, they are the law, indeed the highest law)!” — or, as Kant famously rephrased it, “Argue as much as you like, and about what you like, but obey!”[37] Political power trumped every­thing.

Catholic rulers too jumped on the bandwagon. They realized as well as did the Church herself that she was totally dependent on their political and financial support. The Church had no option other than to accept one “Alliance of Throne and Altar” after another, for it was clear that any ruler would be able to confiscate ecclesiastical and monastic property, to persecute, even kill, priests and monks without provoking concerted diplomatic, let alone armed retaliation from other Christian princes.

The Council of Trent

Making fateful concessions to Protestantism and Statism, the Catholic Church grudgingly bowed to their forces at the Tridentine Council, which convened in Trent for eighteen years, from 1545 to 1563. Repudiating her medieval conciliar constitution — after Trent, no general council was called until the Vatican Councils of late 1860s and the early 1960s — she made the Pope into what many perceived to be just another foreign Prince, a rival and a threat to the local political establishment, a sort of Absolute Monarch of the Church, who commanded his own formal apparatus of government, the newly instituted Curia. A new religious order, the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) rose to prominence, even though its rule, which commanded unconditional obedience to the Pope, was contrary to the millennium-old tradition of the Roman Church, according to which the Pope, for all his eminence, was essentially a primus inter pares.

The legalistic ideas of obedience and rule- or command-following quickly displaced the medieval moral idea of exhibiting the right Christian attitude toward life as the focus of Catholic moral theology. No longer merely the final judge of human affairs, God would also be the Supreme Legislator.[38] This substitution suited the Protestants perfectly, because it seemed to sanctify the notion that God’s law is to be identified not with his being the sum total of all divine things but with his explicit Biblical commands. It also suited the champions of the State, because it sanctified the notion that the State’s newly acquired “sovereign” legislative power was a divine right, if not of the rulers then certainly of the people, who would normally delegate its exercise to the rulers. Besides, it could easily be twisted into an argument for caesaropapism: the State, not the Church, is the true vicar of God. However, from the point of view of medieval Christianity, substituting God-the-Legislator for God-the-Judge was a fatal com­promise.

To rebut charges of unfaithfulness to the Bible, the Church began to pay lip service to the Protestant principle of taking Biblical texts literally. Not much later, this principle permitted some to accuse Galileo of heresy. It was a charge the Tridentine Church could not ignore, even though she continued to follow Saint Augustine’s advice (theologically justified by Anselm of Bec’s distinction between magnitudes and qualities) that Biblical statements about physical nature must be interpreted and re-interpreted in the light of advances in knowledge.[39]

Of course, the Church had no ambition to become a sovereign political State, but she exposed herself to the risk of becoming just another modern Christian sect, swayed by the forces that agitate the Way of Opinion. In any case, she could no longer be the institution that kept the West under One God and dispensed with the need of One Secular Master. Thus, the European creed effectively became “Ni Dieu, ni Maître”: no common God and no common Master. It meant war or, at best, negotiation under the threat of war — in short, the modern Hobbesian West, always in search of a single political Sovereign Master, a “mortal God”, and always resisting any person, country or class that aspired to that position.

The rise of scienticism

As a rule, the kings and their mercantile allies did not mind the Protestant claim that, outside the Bible, there is no such thing as objective moral truth. The kings liked the notion that they, as the actual power holders, are the final judges of right and wrong in their parts of world, revealing their own truths as and when they saw fit in legislative acts. The merchants liked the idea that profit needed no external justification. And profit opportunities were opening up all over the world. The era of aggressive colonization took off when it became clear what a handful of soldiers equipped with fire-arms could accomplish against technologically backward peoples. The cultural Renaissance, the adulation of the high culture of Roman and Greek Antiquity, morphed into a political Renaissance of the Ancient Roman lust for military conquest and empire. Slavery and the slave trade, which had virtually disappeared in medieval times, again became pillars of economic life.

However, neither kings nor merchants liked the idea of lawless Nature, governed by God’s arbitrary will. They realized that the science of Nature and its technological applications promised an enormous increase of their power and wealth. Thus, they were happy to remain Catholic in believing that human reason is capable of detecting order in Nature, even as they distanced themselves from religion as the search for moral truth and from the Church that had been the institutional forum of that search. Subsidizing the science and technology of controlling the forces of Nature (which are magni­tudes, not qualities good-in-themselves[40]) became their “religious” priority as “patrons of the arts and sciences”.

Within a relatively short time, the idea took hold that the forces of Nature were lawful in themselves but political rule was necessary to impose order on an inherently lawless human world. Nature obeyed God unconditionally and unquestioningly — deism, with its clock-making God of the engineers, was just around the corner — but with his free will (understood in its Protestant sense), man was in perpetual revolt against God.

The motto of the so-called Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century had been formulated by Francis Bacon in his Novum Organon (1620): “Nature to be commanded must be obeyed.” By the middle of the eighteenth century, pundits were well on the way to applying it to man and his world: “Man to be commanded must be obeyed.” As God’s role in the physical universe was reduced to a supposed “moment of Creation”, and as his role in the world appeared to be little more than fomenting arcane discussions, quarrels, conflicts and wars, man was increasingly seen as just another natural, physical phenomenon — a scarce natural resource that those who have the knowledge and the means should be able to manipulate, if not to benefit mankind as a whole then certainly for their own profit.

State and Market

“Commanding Nature by obeying it” translated into using contrived experimental setups to channel Nature’s forces into doing things they would not do otherwise.  “Commanding men by obeying them” likewise translated into using contrived setups to incentivize people to do what they would not do otherwise. As B.F. Skinner put it, “Physics does not change the nature of the world it studies, and no science of behavior can change the essential nature of man, even though both sciences yield technologies with a vast power to manipulate their subject matters.”

With respect to politics, William Penn pointed out the obvious conclusion already in 1693: “Let the people think they govern and they will be governed.”[41] In the domain of commerce, the conclusion took longer to emerge, but emerge it did: “Let people think they can buy what they want and they will let you decide what they should buy.” Democracy and Market, incessant propaganda and relentless advertising, went hand in hand “to empower the individual” by giving him the illusion that he was a sovereign Citizen and a sovereign Consumer, entitled to direct the vast machineries of political government and industrial production.

Luther had justified being a slave of one’s passions, a condition that was soon called the essence of one’s “individual freedom”, regardless of how one came to have certain passions and not others. Then came the Age of Enlightenment, which launched the Age of Scientism. Let us leave aside the rhetorical flourishes of Kant’s famous 1784 paean to Enlightened Despotism, “What is Enlighten­ment?”, in which he merely extended the idea of freedom of politically anaesthetized religion to the idea of similarly anaesthetized free­dom of speech, cherished by the emerging class of self-defined intellectuals. To find the greatest discovery of the Age of Enlightenment, we have to turn instead to Servan de Gerbey’s insightful comment: “An imbecile despot can enslave people with chains of iron, but a true politician binds them more strongly with the chains of their own ideas… Their soft grey matter is the impregnable base of the most powerful Empires.”[42] The abbé Nicholas Baudeau expressed it more succinctly: “The State makes men exactly what it wishes them to be.”[43] The Age of Enlighten­ment rapidly turned into the Age of the Ideologue, eager to entrap people in the webs of their own prejudiced wishful thinking.

Of course, the freedom of the institutionally empowered “sovereign” individual came at a price: subjection to the tyranny of a variety of rapidly increasing bureaucracies and rapidly expanding markets (the labour market in particular). But that was okay, because these tyrannies were supposed impersonal forces that reflected the aggregated “free” (uncoerced) choices of the very same institutionally empowered individuals that had to put up with them. One could complain about them, but such com­plaints were nothing more than private grievances, irrelevant to the grand scheme of things. Modern “public” morality (also known as “positive law”) required the sovereign individual to know that he could not cause injustice to himself and that giving up his freedom without being physically compelled to surrender it was merely an exercise of his freedom — it could not be interpreted as a loss of freedom.

So we ended up with the motto of the powers-that-be in the modern and post-modern West: “Let the individual be free to do what he wants, but make sure you control what he wants.” In other words, make the individual a slave of carefully managed “fashion­able passions”; make him follow “popular delusions and the madness of crowds”. It should not be too difficult, because — as Heraclitus had put it at the dawn of Western civilization — the typical individual lives on the Way of Opinion and likes to believe popular folk-tales and to follow the crowd as his teacher. If he believes he is free to believe what he wants then he is ready to believe anything. Why bother him with a common Logos, a common conscience, a religion of Reason and Goodness, when all he craves is the force and the power that come from having the backing of a dominant majority of citizens or consumers, the true masters of the State and the Market?

Ghent, September 21, 2018

[1] I thank Prof. Dr. Hans Hoppe for his invitation to present my thoughts on the Reformation at the 13th annual meeting of the Property and Freedom Society in Bodrum, Turkey (September 2018); and the many participants who asked questions about and commented on my presentation. I revised the draft of my lecture to address thei questions and comments. (FvD)

[2] In this context, ‘reason’ connotes reasonableness rather than instrumental rationality, the pre-modern notion of prudential attempts to do good rather than the modern Machiavellian or Hobbesian idea of the prudent pursuit of self-interest.

[3] B.B. Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible (The Presbyte­rian and Reformed Publishing House, 1948) p.111

[4] H.L.Mencken, Minority Report (1956), p.309

[5] “Ik ben een God in ‘t diepst van mijn gedachten”, W. Kloos, Verzen (1894)

[6] Blaise Pascal, Pensées (1660), n° 298 (W.F. Trotter’s translation)

[7] “But since the devil’s bride, Reason, that pretty whore, comes in and thinks she’s wise, and what she says, what she thinks, is from the Holy Spirit, who can help us, then? Not judges, not doctors, no king or emperor, because [reason] is the Devil’s greatest whore.”

[8] “Modern philosophy” substitutes ‘formally consistent thinking’ for ‘conscientious thinking’: 1) That to which formal tautologies refer (whatever it may be) is real, and 2) that to which formal contradictions refer is not real. However, modern philosophy also holds that, even if formal tautologies refer to something, they certainly do not refer to anything (“any particular thing”); they refer to nothing (“no thing in particular”), hence are not informative. By itself, formally consistent thinking tells us nothing about anything. While this is true by the definition of the concept of formally consistent thinking, it is of course a formal fallacy to apply that conclusion to conscientious thinking. A computer can be programmed to emulate formally consistent thinking nearly as easily as it can be programmed to emulate formally inconsistent thinking. But, how do you program it to “run conscientiously”, to question the program on which it runs?

[9] Plato, Timaeus, 92c

[10] Plato, The Republic, X, 617c (A.D. Lindsay’s translation)

[11] Seneca, Quaestiones naturales (I, v, 13)

[12] In his meditations on God, Monologion and Proslogion (1075-1078)

[13] Anselm, Monologion, chapter 2: “[S]omething is supremely great inasmuch as whatever things are great are great through some one thing which is great through itself. I do not mean great in size, as is a material object; but that the greater something is, the better or more excellent it is — as in the case of wisdom”.

[14] Although these writings were condemned by the Church, their authors were not charged with heresy at the time. Wycliffe was declared a heretic only posthumously, when the preachings of his admirer, Jan Hus (c.1370-1415) caused severe troubles in Bohemia.

[15] We might be tempted to speak also of negative qualities, e.g. non-redness, foolishness, or erroneousness. However, what would we be thinking of if we thought of something that is nothing but non-red, non-wise, or non-right? Certainly, we cannot think conscientiously of non-redness, foolishness or erroneousness as standards of purity, goodness or excellence.

[16] This explains why Plato’s theory of Ideas is called ‘realistic’: Ideas (with a capital ‘I’) are things in their own right, unlike mere notions or ideas in the colloquial sense of the word.

[17] A lot of confusion about intelligence has been sown by the recent infatuation with IQ (“intelligence quotient”) and the suggestion that intelligence is a measurable magnitude. However, IQ tests do not really measure intelligence; they assign a value to the successful completion of a number of fairly simple analytical tasks. These tasks involve solving puzzles rather than solving genuine problems. By definition, puzzles have one and only one correct solution (or one fully enumerable set of correct solutions). If an IQ test did not consist of such puzzles, it would be impossible to rate a person’s answers as unambiguously correct or unambiguously incorrect. Genuine problems, in contrast to puzzles, may have several mutually incompatible solutions or no solution within the real-life context in which they arise, because that context depends, among other things, on the life histories, expectations, debts, commit­ments, and vulnerabilities of real persons. A high IQ score tells us little about a person’s ability to live life intelligently, to solve, manage, stay out of, or learn to live with problems. IQ test were not developed to measure intelligence but to provide an indication about the position into which an individual person would fit best in a complex organization (e.g. the army or a large corporation), given that different positions require different degrees of analytical skill. Attempts to make the test as “culture-independent” as possible led to a preference for puzzles that can be solved by a computer running AI programs. Thus, the preferred tests are geared to the requirements of corporations that would not hesitate to substitute high-IQ robots for natural, flesh-and-blood human persons.

[18] Anselm, Proslogion, Preface: “I wrote the following work… in the role of someone endeavouring to elevate his mind toward contemplating God and in the role of someone seeking to understand what he believes.”

[19] Spirits and ghosts are not so completely incorporeal that they can be thought free of magnitudes (e.g. size and force) — for example, it always make sense to ask where a particular angel is at any given moment and just how far the effects of his actions go.

[20] Apart from Monologion and Proslogion, Anselm wrote other philosophical works (mostly in the form of didactic dialogues between Teacher and Student) as well as prayer books and exercises in Christian apologetics. In the latter, he defended particular Christian dogmas by producing cogent reasons for believing them but without claiming that his arguments proved the undeniable truth of those dogmas.

[21] Anselm, Proslogion, chapter 7

[22] Monologion, chapter 8

[23] Cf. my translation of Reisel’s translation into Dutch (in M. Reisel, Genesis, Kruseman, The Hague, 1972) of the opening verses of the Hebrew Book of Genesis: “(1) In a beginning God had ordered (‘created’) the heavens and the earth. [How? Answer:] (2) The earth had been terrifyingly chaotic, [with] darkness above the surface of a body of water; but [then, on the first day of creation] the idea of God agitated the water from above. (3) And God uttered ‘Let there be light’, and there was light. (4) Then God judged the light to be good.” (The texts between square brackets are mine — FvD). This is an order-out-of-chaotic-darkness account, not an order-out-of-nothing-at-all account. There is no suggestion that God “created” the original terifyingly chaotic darkness out of nothing. The existence of physical sources of light in daytime and in nighttime (the sun, the moon and the stars) is not noted until the fourth day (14-16). Their light, which makes things visible, is evidently not the original light of verses 3 and 4. God is the original light, which he did not need to “create”. Nor did he have to wait until a particular moment to judge it good for himself. He judged it good on the first day of creation, i.e. when the first animate creatures that held out the promise of being capable of receiving God’s light appeared in the primeval body of water. He judged his light good for them. The point is that “God creates distinct  things by noting their differences and naming them, thereby making them stand out from the surrounding inchoate darkness” makes much more sense than “God makes material objects out of nothing at all”. Not the force to make such objects but the love of perception and understanding is the creative principle. It does not force things to conform to what God has in mind. It commits God (who is not only Light but also Love) to enlighten everything that is capable of receiving enlightenment. Of course, the ancient Hebrews (including the Israelites) never reached the levels of philosophical abstraction that became the hallmark of Greek and Hellenistic philosophy. They quite naturally settled for a physical interpretation of God’s presence or actions.

[24] Of course, Anselm knew virtually nothing about Aristotle, whose works were not translated into Latin until long after his death.

[25] The Cisternians were committed to the monastic Rule laid down by Saint Benedict (early sixth centenury AD), which stressed manual labour and self-suffiency in addition to prayer. They were the driving force of the industrial revolution of the Middle Ages, innovators in agriculture, hydraulic engineering, metallurgy and tool making.

[26] See below, note 29

[27] Martin Luther, On the Bondage of the Will (1525), a polemic against Erasmus.

[28] Hobbes, Leviathan (1651), Chapter XXI (“On the Liberty of Subjects”)

[29] St. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, translated and annotated by John Hammond Taylor, S.J., 2 vols. (New York: Newman Press, 1982), Volume 1, p.41: “[I]n matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision … we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture.” In other words, the Bible is a book of truth; nevertheless our reading of it may be false.

[30] This assumes that the animal had to chose between bushels {A} and {B}, not between {Either A or B} and {Go hungry}. Indifference between {A} and {B} does not imply indifference between {Having something to eat} and {Having nothing to eat}. Buridan’s ass is not like an iron pellet positioned at midpoint between to equally forceful magnets. Such a pellet is indifferent between {Moving toward this or that magnet} and {Not moving at all}.

[31] Rabelais, Gargantua, Pantagruel (published in five installments between 1532 and 1564), Chapter 57 (in modern complete editions). Of course, ‘honour’ was not a conspicuous item in Luther’s vocabulary.

[32] Sometime ago, sitting in an outdoor café with a play garden on one side and a rail road on the other, my daughter and I overheard a young mother sternly warning her six  year old son, “Don’t go look at the train or you will surely die!” My daughter burst out laughing; the mother’s warning was so over the top. Of course, I myself had given her similar warnings aplenty when she was a young child, ignoring virtually all of which she had survived without being consumed by guilt or doubting my love for her.

[33] Augustine was anxious to prove that not Christianity but sinful human nature was to blame for the decline of the Western Roman Empire. Interestingly, for the Byzantine Church, which did not have to face a declining Empire, ‘man’s original sin’ stood for weakness and imperfec­tion, with scarcely an attribution of moral guilt. Its successors, the Eastern Orthodox Churches, continue to have a far more benign view of “original sin” than Western Christianity.

[34]  Many modern Catholic introductions to Christianity do not even mention “original sin”. E.g. Joseph Ratzinger [Pope Benedict XVI, r. 2005-2013], Introduction to Christianity (1969, 2004); Bruno Forte, The Essence of Christianity (2003)

[35] Hobbes, Leviathan, Chapter XXI (“On the Liberty of Subjects”)

[36] See the many writings of Prof. Dr. Laurent Waelkens, e.g. his “Legal transplant of Greek caesaropapism in early modern times”, in J. Ballor, W. Decock, M. Germann and L. Waelkens (eds), Law and Religion, The Legal Teachings of The Protes­tant and Catholic Reformation, Göttingen, 2014, 213-230.

[37] Immanuel Kant, “Wass ist Aufklärung?”, 1784

[38] The Spanish Jesuit Francesco Suarez, Tractatus de legibus ac deo legislatore (1612)

[39] See note 29

[40] In Galileo’s philosophy of science (see his The Assayer, 1623) magnitudes were “the primary qualities of things” and only material objects and pure quantities (numbers) were of scientific interest. Thus, the logical distinction between magnitudes and qualities was nearly erased. According to Galileo, magnitudes are “objective qualities”; other qualities (be they positive, indifferent or negative) are merely subjective: they “reside only in the consciousness” of human observers. According to this scheme, only physics and mathematics provide a view of “reality”; psychology has to take care of everything outside the purview of the sciences of the movements and properties of material objects. One might take this as a strictly methodological self-limitation of the relevance of physics and its concept of reality, but an increasing number of intellectuals came to see it as an ontological axiom of “the structure of reality itself”. For them, only measurable magnitudes were “real”; everything else was “merely imagined”.

[41] William Penn, Some Fruits of Solitude, n° 337

[42] J. Servan de Gerbey, Discours sur l’administration de la justice criminelle (1767)

[43] Quoted in Tocqueville, L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution (1856), Part 3, Chapter 3