- The Watershed of Modern Politics: Law, Virtue, Kingship, and Consent (1300-1650)by Francis Oakley
This is the third volume of a trilogy entitled "The Emergence of Western Political Thought in the Latin Middle Ages." Oakley, who began publishing very nearly sixty years ago, has long been one of the most distinguished historians of ecclesiological and political thought in the long period, from Augustine to the English Civil War, covered by this series. This present book stands alongside Brian Tierney's Religion, Law, and the Growth of Constitutional Thought(1982) in demonstrating the growth of modern constitutionalism, and even democratic radicalism, out of the conciliarist theories of the Councils of Constance and Basel.
As a general account of political thought in this three-hundred-year period the book is notable for its hostility to the arguments of Hans Baron and John Pocock and to all those who have joined them in stressing republicanism as the source of modern liberty. Quentin Skinner (with whose methodology Oakley has expressed forceful disagreement) plays a puzzling role here. Volume 2 of his Foundations of Modern Political Thought(1978) is rightly praised for grasping the importance of conciliarism, and Skinner's reading of Machiavelli as a republican is generally followed; but no work by Skinner after 1988 is cited, which means that Oakley fails to come to grips with works such as Liberty Before Liberalism(1997), which offer an alternative to the Baron/Pocock account of the central importance of republican theorizing. This omission is surely deliberate, and it is refreshing to read a book which takes a long view of the historiography, discussing histories of conciliarism from John N. Figgis to Constantin Fasolt, or even, indeed, from Melchior Goldast von Haiminsfeld to George Garnett. The bibliography is long and judicious, though my own essay on the origins of Civil War radicalism (1990) might have been of use in helping Oakley tackle the puzzling transition from the constitutionalism of a George Buchanan to the radical individualism of the Levellers.
The book has two main themes. The first is relatively conventional (thanks in large part to Oakley's own previous work): modern constitutionalism is an outgrowth of conciliarism. The second emerges clearly (for this reader at least) only in the last few pages, and I found it puzzling and challenging. No reader familiar with Oakley's work will be surprised that he is a conciliarist; but it is crucial to this book that he is also (it seems) an Augustinian—hence his remarkably sympathetic account [End Page 559]of Martin Luther. Oakley's argument is that the creation of sacral kingship in the early Middle Ages and the development of a papacy claiming both sacramental and jurisdictional authority were contrary to the fundamental principle, theorized in Augustine's account of the two cities, that Christ's kingdom is not of this world. Christianity thus, when properly understood, became a force for secularization, and we owe not only modern constitutionalism but also the full separation of Church and State to the working out of the conciliarist tradition. It is thus Oakley's contention that secularization (as he understands the term) is not contrary to, but inseparable from, sound ecclesiology. He repeatedly quotes Thomas Hobbes's claim that the new wine of Christianity had been poured into the empty bottles of Gentilism: Conciliarism, the Reformation, and the Puritan sects slowly wrenched apart the religious from the secular, decanting Christianity from its worldly container. This is a Catholic history which is more sympathetic to Hobbes than to Robert Bellarmine.
Oakley is thus that most interesting of historians: one whose spiritual and intellectual commitments shape their understanding of the past, but do so in a way which is idiosyncratic, original, and thought-provoking. This is a fine book.