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2 Civil Society and the Christian Commonwealth The collapse of Roman civilization, which Edward Gibbon at­ tributed to the triumph of barbarism and Christianity, weakened the classi­ cal understanding of civil society as a politically organized community. Its disintegration introduced a dualism into Western thought that made it im­ possible for hundreds of years to theorize politics as the sphere of human­ ity’s highest values. While the Eastern Empire endured with a centralized state backed by the Byzantine Church and centered in Constantinople, the Germanic conquerors made personal and tribal custom the basis of political life in the West. Given the economic and political decentralization of the Dark Ages, no consolidated political organs would develop in the West for some time. The region slowly reorganized itself as a structure of tribally based territorial kingdoms rather than as a reconstituted Universal Empire, which now existed only in memory. Christianity supplied the West with whatever social and ideological unity it had during the millennium following the fall of Rome. It did so by pro­ viding the basis for a common spiritual fellowship and by articulating a rel­ atively consistent theory of the state and civil society as a Christian Com­ monwealth. Religion had been subordinated to the requirements of the po­ litical order in Greece and Rome, but it assumed a stronger independent standing for much of the Middle Ages. Whatever legitimacy state structures had was provided by religion and theology wielded by an increasingly cen­ tralized Church. Even so, the period’s tendency to theorize politics in reli­ gious terms resulted in notions of a fused community that made it impossi­ ble to understand civil society apart from classical political categories. But the effort to articulate a unified theory of human affairs could not last forever . The end of medieval Europe’s attempt to organize its politics on a spir­ itual basis came when corrosive markets, stronger kings, opportunistic princes, and more assertive local bodies made it impossible for theology to 28 Civil Society and the Christian Commonwealth | 29 provide the overarching framework within which philosophy, science, poli­ tics, and other activities were conducted. By the end of the period, a more purely political conception of the state was beginning to emerge, accompa­ nied by an equally secular conception of civil society now organized in eco­ nomic terms. The transition from the theories of the classical world to those of the Middle Ages can be summarized as the passage from an ideal of self-suffi­ ciency to a recognition of dependence. Greek thinkers proposed that ethics and politics resulted from the rational action of enlightened men who aimed at a life of moral autonomy and public recognition. Virtue was not a revealed truth, and external demands did not set the standard for human belief or conduct. People were fully capable of organizing civil society in ac­ cordance with moral principles they developed for themselves. Aristotle’s sense that citizenship combined reasoned deliberation, prudent legislation, and voluntary obedience was the culmination of this point of view. Early Christianity had been relatively indifferent to matters of state, re­ garding them as passing concerns that would be quickly washed away. But as it became clear that Christians would have to wait for the coming of God’s Kingdom, ecclesiastical authorities were compelled to make their peace with the world. The lengthy process by which the Church came to terms with the Empire also saw it develop a justification of coercive political power and a set of guidelines for its use that would locate the Church at the center of civil society. The doctrine of Original Sin would lead many Church Fathers to conclude that the state was a God-given consequence of humanity’s fallen nature. Under the guidance of the Church, the state could play an important role in Universal History by correcting human error. If the Greeks concluded that politics is natural to human beings, the Church located it alongside war, slavery, and property as a purely conventional re­ sult of failure. The late Roman notion of the sacred monarchy, one of the last attempts to reconstruct the imperial order with the aid of notions derived from the pagan East, was definitively abandoned. But this did not signal a return to the humanism of the Greek polis and Roman Republic, which had recognized religion as one of several require­ ments of organized civil societies. Now, a large area of human life was placed outside the res publica, for the injunction to...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780814722831
Related ISBN
9780814722077
MARC Record
OCLC
45844125
Pages
288
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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