28 December 2020

What Was the Holy Roman Empire?

Thomist philosopher Dr Feser looks at the natural law and theological reasons that the Holy Roman Empire likely could not be dissolved and, indeed, must exist.

From Edward Feser

According to Aristotelian-Thomistic political philosophy, the state is a natural institution. It has as its natural end the provision of goods that are necessary for our well-being as rational social animals, but would not be otherwise available (such as defense against aggressors). According to traditional Catholic theology, the state also serves functions relevant to the realization of the supernatural end of salvation, such as protecting the Church.

However, while these things are true of the institution of the state in general, they do not entail the existence of any particular state. That is to say, while the natural law and our supernatural end require that there be states, they don’t require that there exists Germany, specifically, or the United States, or China. For the most part, the same thing is true of empires. Nothing in natural law or in our supernatural end requires that there be a British Empire, specifically, or a Mongol Empire.

The Holy Roman Empire is philosophically interesting because it did have a special status under natural law and in the supernatural order. Or at least, it did according to one view. There is nothing abnormal or contrary to the natural or supernatural order of things that the Mongol Empire or Yugoslavia no longer exist. But on the view I’m describing, there is something abnormal, and contrary to natural law and the supernatural order, that there is no longer a Holy Roman Empire. Indeed, on this view of things, given that the natural and supernatural orders require that there be such an empire, it is not quite correct to say that the Holy Roman Empire no longer exists. It is more accurate to say that it is dormant.

Dante’s peak

This all may sound strange, so let’s try to understand it. Start with a line of argument developed by Dante Alighieri (who was a philosopher and theologian as well as a poet) in Monarchia. The state, though taken by Aristotle to be the perfect or complete society, cannot in Dante’s view be the highest level of political order. For just as there are bound to be disputes between parties within a state, there are bound to be disputes between states. And there would be an imperfection in the social order if there were no way to resolve these disputes justly (as opposed to simply resolving them by force). So, there is a need for a higher-level political authority whose role is to settle these disputes – an emperor to which even the different kings are subject.

Now, if this higher-level authority is himself just one higher-level authority among others, then he and those others might also find themselves disputing with one another. And there would therefore be need for some yet higher-level authority to resolve those disputes. This regress can terminate only in a single highest-level authority – a world monarch or emperor standing at the peak of political authority, with jurisdiction over all kings.

Dante holds that, because such an emperor would have no equal, and thus no rival, he would be capable of ruling more disinterestedly and thus more justly. A common recognition of and subordination to his authority – and not merely the force of arms – would also provide mankind with the unity of wills that is the precondition of true peace.

Before continuing, it is worthwhile to pause to consider a potential objection. You might think such argumentation would justify globalist projects of the kind to which traditionalists are hostile – the United Nations, the Great Reset, and the like. But you would be wrong. Remember, reasoning of the kind Dante is engaged in is in the broad tradition of classical philosophy and natural law. A world empire of the kind he envisions would be one governed by, and governing in light of, that tradition. For guidance, it would look not to John Rawls, Bill Gates, and the like, but to the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas. And a world empire that governed contrary to that natural law tradition would be a world tyranny – a grotesque counterfeit of what thinkers like Dante envisioned.

The Roman way

Now, the fact that there are unjust states does not undermine the legitimacy of the institution of the state itself. Similarly, the possibility of an unjust world empire does not undermine the legitimacy of the notion of a world empire per se. Original sin has corrupted all social institutions, but we can see through it to determine what the uncorrupted versions would look like.

That brings us to the model in terms of which the tradition I’m describing conceptualized the idea of a world empire – the Roman Empire. Such a model might seem ironic, given that we’re talking about the Christian tradition, and the Roman Empire had persecuted the Church. Indeed, the New Testament devotes a whole book – the Apocalypse of St. John – to a characterization of that empire as a satanic force of oppression. Don’t forget, though, that the New Testament – in Romans 13 – also characterizes the very same empire as God’s servant, instituted to uphold justice. As with any other state, it wasn’t the empire itself that was bad. What was bad were the corrupt ends to which the empire had been put. And the conversion of the empire to Christianity could remedy this corruption. Not perfectly, of course (nothing human is perfect). But through the influence of the Church, grace could heal fallen nature, in the case of the empire as in the case of any other institution damaged by original sin.

That was the idea, anyway. Now, one reason the Roman Empire suggested itself as a model to medieval theorists of world empire is that it was an actually existing example of such a thing – or an approximation to one, anyway. A single emperor had jurisdiction over other kings. A common citizenship, legal code, and language united diverse countries and ethnicities. A common cult united the different religious traditions – albeit it was, before the conversion to Christianity, a false and idolatrous worship.

But it wasn’t just that the Roman Empire happened to be there as a concrete example. Scripture was taken to reveal it to have a special world-historical role. As James Bryce points out in his chapter on the theory of the Empire in his book The Holy Roman Empire, the grounds for this judgement were found in the book of Daniel. The fourth beast of Daniel’s famous vision, and the legs and feet of Nebuchadnezzar’s, were taken to represent the Roman Empire. And these images in Daniel are also intended to represent the last of a series of world-dominating empires that would exist before the coming of the Messiah. The implication, for the Christian theologian, is that any empire that would exist in the heart of Christendom before the time of Christ would in some sense be a revival of the Roman empire – either in a healthy, normative form (a Christian or Holy Roman Empire) or in a corrupted, persecuting form (an empire of Antichrist).

As early and medieval Christian thinkers saw things, Greek philosophy had prepared the way for the Gospel by discovering through natural reason the fundamental truths of natural theology and natural law. And in a parallel way, Roman governance had prepared the way for a sound social and political order. In both the realm of thought and the realm of practice, the pagans had made indispensable contributions that the Church could adopt and perfect.

Houses of the holy

It is often claimed that the Catholic Church abandoned integralism at Vatican II. And yet Pope St. John Paul II’s Catechism teaches that:

The duty of offering God genuine worship concerns man both individually and socially. This is “the traditional Catholic teaching on the moral duty of individuals and societies toward the true religion and the one Church of Christ.” By constantly evangelizing men, the Church works toward enabling them “to infuse the Christian spirit into the mentality and mores, laws and structures of the communities in which [they] live.” The social duty of Christians is to respect and awaken in each man the love of the true and the good. It requires them to make known the worship of the one true religion which subsists in the Catholic and apostolic Church… Thus, the Church shows forth the kingship of Christ over all creation and in particular over human societies. (2105, emphasis added)

Every institution is inspired, at least implicitly, by a vision of man and his destiny, from which it derives the point of reference for its judgment, its hierarchy of values, its line of conduct… Only the divinely revealed religion has clearly recognized man's origin and destiny in God, the Creator and Redeemer. The Church invites political authorities to measure their judgments and decisions against this inspired truth about God and man:

Societies not recognizing this vision or rejecting it in the name of their independence from God are brought to seek their criteria and goal in themselves or to borrow them from some ideology. Since they do not admit that one can defend an objective criterion of good and evil, they arrogate to themselves an explicit or implicit totalitarian power over man and his destiny, as history shows. (2244, emphasis added)
The clear implication of such passages is that the Catholic faith ought to inform the governance of a society, and that when it does not, totalitarian secular ideologies tend to fill the vacuum. Such teaching is not surprising given the doctrine of original sin. To suppose that a just society is possible in the absence of any guidance from the faith smacks of a kind of “social Pelagianism.”

But integralism per se is not our topic here. The point is rather to elucidate the theory of the Holy Roman Empire, and the Catholic doctrinal principles still reflected in the Catechism are those that informed the theory of the empire.

In general, grace does two things. First, it remedies the defects in the natural order that have resulted from original sin, at least partially restoring what would have existed had the Fall not occurred. Second, it directs nature to an even higher, supernatural end – the beatific vision. Now, in theory at least, the Christianization of the Roman system would accomplish such ends. First, it would remedy the tendency of fallen rulers to govern for the sake of their own glory, or for the sake of acquiring wealth, or for the sake of some other unworthy end. It would teach them to govern instead for the glory of God and the good of their subjects (that is to say, in obedience to the first and the second greatest of the commandments, respectively). Second, it would assist the Church in her supernatural mission of saving souls, by protecting her from enemies, both foreign (such as the relentless military assaults on Christendom arising from the Islamic world) and domestic (such as heretical movements like Albigensianism).

Needless to say, this didn’t always work out too well in practice. But that was the theory. The practice suffered in part because of a common theological problem – a failure to respect the difference between the spheres of nature and grace. An occupational hazard of theologians is either to collapse the supernatural into the natural or to absorb the natural up into the supernatural (thus “destroy[ing] the gratuity of the supernatural order,” as Pope Pius XII put it). Similarly, in politics there is always a danger that the state will meddle in the affairs of the Church, or that the Church will take over functions and judgements that rightly belong to the state.

The theory of the Empire held that, rightly understood, the Empire and the Church are like body and soul, both necessary for a complete order of things and cooperating with and assisting one another, but each nevertheless having its own distinctive role. This certainly did not entail a separation of Church and state, any more than the soul and body ought to be separated or kept hermetically sealed off from one another. But it did entail a distinction between Church and state, and between those matters that are primarily the concern of the former and those that are primarily the concern of the latter.

At a minimum, though, the Empire would intersect with the Church insofar as the Catholic faith was its official religion, and insofar as the emperors (most famously, those of the House of Habsburg) were always Catholic. For since the Church, like the individual human being, has a temporal aspect as well as a spiritual one, it needs protection from worldly threats. The soul needs the body, and the Church needs the Empire.

The emperor’s new clothes

Well, again, that was the theory, anyway. But in the wake of Napoleon’s triumphs, Francis II, last of the Holy Roman Emperors, renounced the throne and dissolved the Empire (though retaining the office of Emperor of Austria). This had the advantage of ensuring that the title of “Holy Roman Emperor” was not one that Napoleon could usurp. But as Friedrich Heer judges in his own book on the Empire, the dissolution of the Roman system was “an act for which [Francis] had no legal justification.”

Indeed, as I have said, the theory of the Empire implies that it cannot be dissolved, not exactly, because the natural law and supernatural order require that there be such an institution. The most that can happen is that the Empire becomes dormant, perhaps for a long period of time. Nor was this unprecedented. After all, after the Western Roman Empire collapsed in 476, more than three centuries passed before it was (according to the theory) restored by Charlemagne in 800. (Though of course, the Eastern Empire continued, and Justinian temporarily restored the Western empire in the 500s.) It has been just over two centuries since Francis’s abdication. Might some Charlemagne of the future pick up the crown a century or so from now? Stranger things have happened. (According to a medieval legend, a Last Roman Emperor will arise to repel the enemies of the faith before the coming of Antichrist.)

What can be said with certainty is that, where the satisfaction of a natural need is frustrated, it will tend to manifest in distorted forms. Hence, if the Empire is something required for human well-being, we would expect corrupt approximations to it to arise. And arguably that is indeed what we have seen.

In a recent article, I discussed Plato’s classification of five basic types of regime, one just and four increasingly unjust. The just regime is that of the Philosopher-Kings, oriented toward the Good and ruled by reason. The first and least bad of the unjust regimes is timocracy, oriented toward military glory and ruled by the spirited part of the soul (the part moved by considerations of honor and shame) rather than by reason. Next and worse, we have oligarchy, oriented toward the accumulation of wealth and ruled by the desiring part of the soul, though by desires of a bourgeois (and thus somewhat more disciplined) kind. Yet worse is democracy, which as Plato understands it is oriented toward the egalitarian satisfaction of desire – no desire being regarded as any better than the others – and is thus ruled by the lowest common denominator of the basest desires. Finally and worst, we have tyranny, an outgrowth of the anarchy into which democracies tend to collapse. It involves the most ruthless sort of egalitarian democratic soul imposing its will on the others.

Now, what immediately displaced the Holy Roman Empire was the empire of Napoleon, which can be seen as a timocratic empire, the point of which was to advance the glory of Napoleon himself qua conqueror. The British Empire, meanwhile, might be seen as having been essentially oligarchic (in Plato’s sense) insofar as its orientation was toward commerce. That is even more true of the Pax Americana that succeeded the British Empire, the United States being an empire in everything but name. And as American economic power has increasingly shifted away from an emphasis on manufacturing to the information economy and the dissemination of American popular culture, it has come to approximate something like a democratic empire, an empire of egalitarian desire.

But the dissolution of national loyalties has also begun to move this empire’s center of gravity outside the United States. Indeed, it seems that the heart of this evolving oligarchic-cum-democratic empire will ultimately not be found in Washington, New York, Silicon Valley, or perhaps any other specific location. It will be dispersed throughout the world, a vast network of governments, multinational corporations, and NGOs, whose leaders are all committed to the same basic program – liberation, equality, and an ever increasingly radical sexual revolution.

Plato indicates what this kind of system is likely to morph into, as does St. John. And while it might be characterized as a Roman empire of sorts, it is more like the pre-Christian version, and most definitely not holy.

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