The View From 1776

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Thursday, May 20, 2004

The Decline of Western Civilization: Explanatory Notes - Part Two

This is Part Two of the summarized narrative to supplement the list of dates and events in the time-line posted below on May 15, 2004.? The time-line is also accessible via the sidebar to the right of your screen.

To understand the views that led American colonists in 1776 to fight for independence and to write the Constitution in 1787 you must have some familiarity with the historical and philosophical background of the Western world.


END OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, BEGINNING OF THE MIDDLE AGES ? In 324 AD, Roman Emperor Constantine adopts Christianity and founds the city of Constantinople (later known as Byzantium, today as Istanbul, the capital of Turkey).  Constantinople becomes the capital of the Eastern portion of the Empire.  From the beginning, Constantine and other Eastern Roman Emperors become involved in establishing religious, as well as political, doctrine.  Constantine calls the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD to condemn the Arian heresy.

In 330 AD, Constantine makes Constantinople the capital of the entire Empire.  In 395 AD the Empire is split permanently into Eastern and Western divisions, with the City of Rome remaining the capital of the Western Empire.

The City of Rome, which had dominated the Italian peninsula and the Mediterranean for more than a thousand years, seemed to be The Eternal City.  But the Western Roman Empire collapses in the 5th century AD.  The Eastern Empire based in Constantinople survives another thousand years, until it is overrun by Islamic hordes in 1453.  The Roman Catholic Church, which is already running schools, hospitals, and poor relief for the Western Empire, carries on, preserving libraries, language, Roman law, and other aspects of Roman civilization.  St. Augustine’s “City of God” sets forth Christianity’s role in preserving civilization as a matter of spirituality, which is not dependent upon the survival of the Roman Empire.

Almost from the beginning of the split of the Empire into Eastern and Western parts, the Eastern Emperors try to assert military and doctrinal authority over the Bishop of Rome.  This is met with stout resistance in a struggle that lasts for centuries.  To defend their doctrinal positions, the bishops of Rome, the Popes, proclaim that the Christianized Germanic tribal rulers in northern and western Europe have a duty to defend the Pope and the Catholic Church against the Eastern Emperor.  The Holy Roman Empire arises on Christmas day 800 AD when Pope Leo III crowns Charlemagne Emperor of the West and the Roman Catholic Church’s official defender against the Eastern Empire.

When the Western Roman Empire collapses in 476 AD, it seems to most people that civilization has ended.  To preserve Roman civilization, Germanic tribes north of Italy petition the Pope to send missionaries to convert their peoples to Christianity.  They want to preserve the benefits of the Roman Empire, the free flow of trade on good roads protected by garrisons of the Legion, the building skills that had brought comfortable cities with running water, law courts in which impartial justice, under written law, was dispensed, etc. 

Christianity spreads slowly across Europe, imparting the Christian and Roman concepts of law, justice, and morality.  Christianity becomes the sole unifying force throughout Europe, creating what we now call Western civilization.

Most of European law derives from the Roman Codex, which was incorporated into the Catholic canon law.  Popes establish the doctrine from St. Matthew that St. Peter (hence his successors as Pope) is the earthly representative of God and Jesus, with the keys to heaven and the authority on earth to speak for God.  Early Popes claim exclusive right to pass on the legitimacy of all religious doctrine and political rule.

Centuries of struggle follow in the West, not about religious doctrine, but about subordination of the political powers of rulers to the Pope.  Local rulers demand the right to appoint bishops who will support their rule.  The famous “Murder in the Cathedral” of Thomas a Becket at Canterbury Cathedral by knights of Henry II (who incidentally started codification of English common law) is over this issue.  Becket had been Henry’s chief political lieutenant as Chancellor of the Exchequer.  Becket was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury at Henry’s urging.  But Becket then “got religion” and determined to support Roman church directives against Henry’s political wishes.  In the 16th century, Henry VIII resolves the issue, once and for all, breaking with Rome and establishing the Church of England with himself as head of the church (which is what is meant by the First Amendment’s “establishment of religion”).

CONCEPT OF NATURAL LAW - In the 13th century a compromise is effected after Aristotle’s works become known in Western Europe.  Aristotle believed strongly in morality, connected with religious piety, but saw political rule as, by nature, separate from theological matters of religious faith.  St. Thomas Aquinas writes his celebrated “Summa Theologica,” which incorporates Aristotle’s “Politics” and “Ethics” into Christian doctrine.  In this interpretation, the Pope and the church have exclusive jurisdiction over making the good person, and monarchs have jurisdiction over making the good citizen. 

Both religious and temporal rule, however, are unified as part of the natural law, which is God-made.  This was the meaning of separation of church and state, as late as 1787 when the Constitution was written, along with John Locke’s view of toleration as the right of individuals to believe and to profess their consciences in religious matters.  This concept of natural law is what Jefferson references in the Declaration of Independence (”...the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God…”).

English knights, beginning with Magna Carta in 1215, deny the king’s right to confiscate personal property and to levy taxes and fines without the consent of Parliament.  Of Magna Carta’s 63 articles, 47 deal with property rights, two with the rights of bishops, and the remainder with legal safeguards, such as habeas corpus, trial by jury, etc., to protect property-holders imprisoned by the king.  Thus ALL individual rights asserted in our Constitution’s Bill of Rights originate in the struggle for protection of property rights. 

English, hence American, political liberties all derive from the continual tug-of-war between the English aristocracy and the king, with Parliament ultimately emerging the victor, because the knights and the London merchants controlled the purse strings.  In contrast, under the socialism imposed here by the 1930s New Deal, most taxing authority is removed from cities and states and centralized in Washington, DC.  People no longer have the leverage of withholding their property to assert individual political liberties.  We are reduced to Social Security numbers grouped into social, economic, and ethnic classes. 

In France, matters were quite different.  The French kings gradually asserted total dominance over the various dukedoms of France, collectivizing all power in Paris by the time of Louis XIV in the late 1600s.  Hereditary aristocrats left their provincial domains and lived full time in Paris, twittering about in the foppery of court life and intrigue.  By the time of Louis XIV, the Bourbon kings had converted the landed aristocracy into harmless lap-dogs, most of whom never visited their domains and knew nothing about the hardships besetting the peasants whom they were obliged by feudal tradition to protect against the king.  To consolidate control over the aristocracy and the Catholic Church, the Bourbons exempt them from most taxes, offsetting the revenue loss with higher taxes on the peasants.  Alexis de Tocqueville’s description of the total and minute control of all local activity by the Council of Intendants in Paris sounds very much like Stalin’s rule in the USSR.  Thus, even before the Revolution, France was conditioned to accept the despotic, collectivized rule of socialism.

As with Washington, DC, today, all the tax money and administrative power are sucked from the hinterlands into Paris.  Everybody floods into Paris, which becomes the largest city in Europe, the Los Angeles of its day.  With this come thousands of poorly educated, unemployable people who become the revolutionary street mobs of 1789.

Growing corruption in the Roman Catholic Church leads Martin Luther in 1517 to post his questions on the Wittenberg church door, starting the Reformation.  A century of bloody warfare ensues and modern national states come into existence as political rulers asserted the right to determine the religion of their subjects.  Northern Europe became Protestant. England was out of that loop, but Henry VIII’s marriage problems led him also to break away from Rome in the mid-16th century.  Destructive warfare over religion becames a backdrop for French intellectuals’ assertion that the Catholic Church is evil and that religion in general is destructive ignorance.  This view is much in evidence in Voltaire’s “Candide.”

Then, of vital importance in Western history, the 17th century becomes the greatest period in history of advances in basic scientific knowledge and applied technology in transportation and manufacturing.  Galileo conceives the idea that all physical phenomena can be described in mathematical equations and derives most of the basic mathematical tools of physics.  Descartes creates analytic geometry.  And, towering above all, Issac Newton discovers the mathematics of optics, the laws of gravity and motion, and creates the mathematics to describe and predict planetary movements with precise accuracy.  In passing, he also creates the math of calculus. 

The world suddenly appears to be a giant machine, like a fine watch, that God created, then left to run on its own.  In the exhilaration of understanding, intellectuals begin to believe that God is no longer necessary.  They presume that they know how to run the machine and can do a better job of it than God.  This sets the stage for the French Revolutionary Philosophers and excretion of the vile religion of socialism.