The Promise and Challenge of Proto-Modern Politics

O’Donovan, Joan Lockwood.  Bonds of Imperfection.

Question and Problem: What is the inner logic of liberal democracy? O’Donovan suggests that it stems from a specific anthropology (138). More, it is an ‘economic anthropology,’ but not economics in the sense of mere market forces.

Ideals such as representation or rule of law are not unique to liberal democracy, so they won’t be considered at the moment.  Rather, O’Donovan sees the following as key principles:

  1. The maximization of individual and collective freedom, and the equality of individuals in regard to that freedom (139-140).
  2. As such individuals will be self-governing to an extent, the polity that arises willbe contractarian and egalitarian.

These seem like good things.  Even the most rad trad LARPer is probably glad that he has some individual freedom and the relatively high standard of living that the market provided.  So what seems to be the problem, or at least the inner logic?  O’Donovan suggests is that our modern society, embodying those principles, lacks “a common moral universe in which objective spiritual goods (apart from the good of promise-keeping) mediate and determine the self-transcending of individual wills in their mutual relationships” (141).

An Alternative

The Expansion of Individual Freedom, Evangelical and Civil

  1. Evangelical Freedom
    1. Evangelical freedom is the individual’s free obedience to Christ commands (Ockham, Breviloquium 2.3-5).
    2. Wyclif: God’s sharing of himself with us. God gives himself to us in Christ and in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.  “God’s trinitarian self-giving is the archetypal cause of all divine and human communication of both spiritual and physical goods.  All the justified, says Wyclif, who ‘coexist’ in Christ’s love share (communicant) in lordship that is not held from one another, but directly from Christ (De civili domino 3.13). This lordship is above all else, their spiritual possession (possession in knowledge and love) of themselves, of another, and of the non-human creation in Christ” (90).
  2. Natural and Civil Freedom
    1. Subject rights in Marsilio of Padua: a human act that conforms to the objective sense of law. It is the power of an individual to perform a lawful action.
      1. This implies self-ownership. My moral power is my own property.
      2. Lordship over the non-human creation is not a property right.  It is the power (potestas) of rationally ruling (regendi) and managing (gubernandi) the non-human creation for the welfare of the community (O’Donovan 149).
    2. Throughout this discussion is the distinction between a right in something (per Wyclif, Ockham, and Marsilio) and a right to something (de Molina, Suarez).
      1. As a result society became more contractual since possession now meant “entitlement” (151-152).
      2. Jean Gerson: an individual right is a ‘proximate faculty or power’ conforming to the dictate of right reason or primary justice (150)
  3. The expansion of corporate freedom
    1. Civic Republicanism and Populism
      1. The corporation is a juridical and social reality.
      2. Ockham: political authority is acquired from the people but held from God (157).
    2. The Church’s Political Constitution as a Divine and Human corporation.
      1. The corporate identity of the medieval church was a clerical identiy–power flowed from Christ down through the priests.


The older Patristic tradition “distinguished civil and ecclesiastical rule according to the moral and spiritual ends of the two polities” (163).  Evangelical freedom means the free inquiry into the truth of Christ and free obedience to Christ.

What does this mean for today?  A few tentative conclusions and theses:

  1. No one wants to seriously get rid of the freedoms that have been provided for by the market economy.
  2. While market economy and liberal democracy don’t have to be the same, they usually entail one another.
  3. Markets aren’t evil.  The challenge is to really find a way to “share in spiritual goods” per Wyclif.  We need to work that one out.

About J. B. Aitken

Interests include patristics, the role of the soul in the human person, analytic theology, Reformed Scholasticism, Medievalism, Substance Metaphysics
This entry was posted in Economics, john wyclif, Scholasticism and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s