For you are all children of God in the Spirit.Based on Galations 3:28, Stephen J. Patterson, The Forgotten Creed
There is no Jew or Greek;
There is no slave or free;
There is no male and female.
For you are all one in the Spirit.
When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.John Ball, 1381 sermon at Blackheath, after his release from prison during the Peasants’ Revolt
Who rightly claims the beating heart of moral imagination, of radical vision? Who feels the throbbing pulse of it in their veins, the flow of vitality in the body politic? Who bleeds when the cut goes deep, who cries out in pain, and who hears it? Who knows this wounding, what it means, what is to be gained? Who holds to this sacrifice and accepts its cost?
Within the broad liberalism of the Enlightenment, there was the reactionary strain of proto-conservative ‘classical liberalism’, as given voice by the Englishman John Locke (1632-1704) who gets more credit than he deserves. This early on was preempted by pre-Enlightenment religious dissenters and countered by radical Enlightenment thinkers, from Roger Williams (1603-1683) in the American colonies to Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) in Netherlands. We should acknowledge that Williams advocated Lockean-like land rights before Locke and did so with stronger moral force and egalitarian vision. And we should look to Spinoza, godfather of the radical Enlightenment, as a probable influence on Locke who lived in the same city when Spinoza was published, whereas Locke’s own writings only came later.
The more well known and respectable figures of the Enlightenment were being carried by the swift currents that surrounded them and preceded them, going back many centuries. The British Enlightenment didn’t come out of nowhere nor did the radical tradition of revolutionary zeal. Some consider the 17th century English Civil War, or else 14th century English Peasants’ Revolt, to be the first modern revolution based on class conflict (in the same period of disruption, there is also the 16th century German Peasants’ War led by Thomas Müntzer; see The War of the Poor by Eric Vuillard). In this largely religious milieu, there arose thought that was proto-liberal, proto-progressive, proto-democratic, proto-libertarian, proto-socialist, and proto-anarchist. But if nothing else, it was often radically populist and egalitarian.
Before the Protestant Reformation, there was the extreme hereticism of another Englishman, John Wycliffe (1320s-1384), who declared all were equal before God, everyone could know God for themselves, and Scripture was accessable to all. He also thought the clergy should take a vow of poverty or maybe be entirely abolished, and he went further in his radical belief that slavery is a sin. The entirety of feudalism was up for doubt and denial. Priests, lords, and kings had no rightful claim over the people and so freedom of the people could be reclaimed. What was to be rendered unto Caesar was not much at all. Such egalitarian righteousness would inspire the Peasants’ Revolt, and it lit a radical fire within the English imagination that never again was quenched.
Following the spirit of that age, Englishman John Ball (1338-1381) as one of Wycliffe’s disciples preached a warning, “Things cannot go well in England, nor ever will, until all goods are held in common, and until there will be neither serfs not gentlemen, and we shall be equal.” This was a demand for equality, on earth as it was in heaven, in the living present as it was at the time of Creation. “At the beginning we were all created equal,” Ball stated with the confident certainty of faith. “If God willed that there should be serfs, he would have said so at the beginning of the world. We are formed in Christ’s likeness, and they treat us like animals.” These words rang true among the commoners for it could not be denied, reading Scripture for themselves, what was found in the Word of God.
The uprising that resulted, although brief, was at times violent in seeking justice and it sent the ruling order into disarray — presaging what was to come. All of that was a more threatening challenge to the legitimacy of hierarchical authority, religious and otherwise, than either Martin Luther (1483-1546) or John Calvin (1509-1564) in the following centuries. These earlier voices of scathing critique, native to England, might be why the Protestant Reformation didn’t have the same kind of impact there as it did in continental Europe, for religious dissent wended its own path on the British isles. The religious fervor, often expressed as economic populism and politcal diatribe, kept eruptng again and again across the centuries. It was the seed out of which the English Enlightenment bloomed and it bore the fruit of revolt and revolution.
There long had been something in the British character that bristled against a ruling elite, maybe the cultural memory of British paganism among commoners in southern England, the Anglo-Saxon gut-level sense of freedom and communal identity in East Anglia, and the Scandinavian stoic but fiercely held independence found across the Midlands, not to mention the longstanding influence of cultural autonomy and at times political defiance from the Welsh, Scots-Irish, Highland Scots, and Irish. In defense against various ruling elites, from Romans to Normans and onward, a tradition of populist resistance and cultural pride had taken hold among regional populations, bulwarks against foreign incursions and centralized control. Attempts to enforce imperial or national unity and identity, loyalty and subservience was a constant struggle and never fully successful.
That particularly fed into the English Civil War (or rather wars) with the rebellious Puritans, pre-pacifist Quakers, the anti-authoritarian Levellers, and the primitive communist Diggers (among many others) who, in addition, took inspiration from the English tradition of the Commons and the rights of the commoners, a precursor to the American Revolutionaries’ invocation of the rights of Englishmen. Indeed, following coup d’etat and regicide (a fine example for the French revolutionaries to follow), many of the religious dissenters escaped to the colonies where they left a permanent imprint upon American culture and the American mind, such as the popular practice of the jeremiad (Sacvan Bercovitch’s The American Jeremiad & David Howard-Pitney’s African American Jeremiad).
This incited the religious protest of those like Roger Williams, upon finding in the colonies yet more authoritarian rule and churchly dogmatism. But it wasn’t only the religious dissenters who left England for the New World. Many Royalists on the other side of the English Civil War headed to Virginia and, in the case of Thomas Morton (1579–1647) with Merry Mount, caused trouble further north in New England. The Puritans, for different reasons than their treatment of Williams and Anne Hutchinson (1591-1643) along with the troublesome Quakers, hated what they perceived as paganism in the uncouth behavior of Morton, a man from Merrie Old England in the Devon countryside with its paternalistic populism and rural folk tradition, along with the libertine influence of the London Inns of Court, but also a place of organizing for the dissenting Lollards following John Wycliffe.
There were many distinct varieties of English hereticism and rabblerousing, all of which clashed as part of a creative flux of free-wheeling public debate and often scandalous rebellion, giving fruit to social reform and political idealism. It’s true that John Locke was part of this mix as well. Though not necessarly an advocate of slavery, neither was he a strong critic and opponent. His patron put him in the position of writing the constitution of the Carolina Colony that upheld slavery. In that founding document of violent oligarchy, based on his belief that such social compacts were immutable and eternally binding, he wrote that “every part thereof, shall be and remains the sacred and unalterable form and rule of government, for Carolina forever.”
The oppressed slaves, indentured servants, destitute laborers, and evicted natives were seen as trapped in a permanent underclass, a caste of untouchables for impertuity, no generation henceforth having any moral claim for freedom or justice. Dissent was denied any validity and so tacit assent was assumed as an article of faith of the elite-sanctioned moral order. It was a hermetically-sealed philosophical dogmatism and ideological realism. Public debate was declared ended before it began. This was a constitutional spell as binding word magic.
“And to this I say,” declareth John Locke, arbiter of truth and reality, “that every man, that hath any possessions, or enjoyment, of any part of the dominions of any government, cloth thereby give his tacit consent, and is as far forth obliged to obedience to the laws of that government, during such enjoyment, as any one under it; whether this his possession be of land, to him and his heirs for ever, or a lodging only for a week; or whether it be barely travelling freely on the highway; and in effect, it reaches as far as the very being of any one within the territories of that government.”
This was not an auspicious beginning for this particular American experiment. Yet Lockean ideology is held up as an ideal and standard of political thought in the modern Anglo-American mind of the propertied self and privatized capitalism. Among many, he has been deemed and esteemed as a founding father of respectable thinking. Lockean rights impinges an absolute claim on who is welcomed into the circle of privilege and who is excluded by decree. Ths is a non-negotiable conviction and certitude, a newfound set of Holy Commandments brought down from the mountain top of the rational intellect by the enlightened aristocrat as divine prophet.
That was one element, sometimes referred to as ‘liberalism’, that was woven into American political thought and quite influential, unfortunately. Although never having traveled to, much less glimpsed, the New World, Locke boldly envisioned it as a place akin to Eden, as had many other Europeans — he wrote that, “In the beginning, all the world was America.” That meant it needed to be tamed and civilized with the Whiggish vision of patriarchal progress and imperialistic expansionism, white man’s burden and manifest destiny that was to bring forth moral order to the world through not only slavery but also genocide, conquest, and assimilation. This was the orignal liberal elitism, in all its paternalistic glory, that one hears so much about.
That authoritarian impulse remains strong within the ruling order and has informed the longstanding reactionary fear of populist uprising and democratic demand. With the imperialistic pseudo-Federalism of Alexander Hamilton and George Washington, the rot of authoritarianism had tainted the seed of freedom’s promise from the moment it was planted in the fertile soil of shared hope. Counter-revolution gained power within the American Revolution, which has ever since caused a conflation of anti-democratic rule with pseudo-democratic forms and rhetoric. This is how we’ve come to the point of a banana republic being called a democracy and used as proof of the failure of democracy by those who have done everything in their power to prevent and frustrate democratic aspiration at every turn.
In our collective miseducation and historical amnesia, many Americans can’t distinguish between democratic self-governance and anti-democratic oppression — causing moral injury, a schizoid wounding of the body politic resulting in spiritual malaise and psychosis. Even when diagnosis of what afflicts us rightly points to this unhealed trauma, the scapegoating of the democratic impulse becomes a sad charade that causes impotent despair and palsied cynicism. Amidst the throes of propagandistic infection, these fevered nightmares mock us in our still juvenile aspirations. We are meant to be shamed in our crippled and fumbling steps, to be trampled down by our own heavy hearts. We are judged guilty in the sin of our perceived weakness and failure. We are deemed as unworthy and stunted children who are a danger to ourselves and to society.
To assent to such a damning accusation is to accept defeat, but this demiurgic rule of lies fades before the revelation of ananmesis, a gnostic unforgetting. From religious dissent to radical rebellion, the burning ember of revolution within the Anglo-American soul never dies out, no matter how it gets mislabeled, misunderstood, and misdirected. The ancient outrage of the commoners, of the dirty masses and landless peasants, will continue to rise up like bile at the back of our throats, sometimes causing blind rage but at other times bursting forth with the clear sight of radical imagination and inspiration, commanding us to stand up in our full stature and stride confidently forward on a path that is set before us by an ancestral instinct, an awakening knowledge of the world before us.
We’ve been here before. It is familiar to us, the primal terrain of moral imagination, the living God whose indwelling authority speaks to us, we the living generation who carry forth a living vision, the ember setting tinder to flame to light our way. This is our inheritance, our birthright, the burden we carry and the hope that lifts us up. In the words that inspired revolution, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” Every moment we awaken to is pregnant with promise, something ready to be born in spirit and baptized in fire. The revelatory and revolutionary truth of the demos is all around us, for those with eyes to see. The liberation of the soul, the refutation of enslavement, the casting away of shackles — in this, we are already a free people, if only we would claim it, take hold of it and wrestle the dream down to the ground of our shared reality, in our common purpose, through our collective action.
No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.Matthew 6:24
Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.Matthew 10:34
Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.Matthew 19:21
And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.Matthew 19:24
And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves,Matthew 21:12
* * *
The above is a very loose and indirect response to what is found below — basically, modern democracy as an expression of the ancient demos, We the People, is not so easily dismissed:
Will Democracy’s Myths Doom Liberty?
by James Bovard
Americans are encouraged to believe that their vote on Election Day somehow miraculously guarantees that the subsequent ten thousand actions by the president, Congress, and federal agencies embody “the will of the people.” In reality, the more edicts a president issues, the less likely that his decrees will have any connection to popular preferences. It is even more doubtful that all the provisions of hefty legislative packages reflect majority support, considering the wheeling, dealing, and conniving prior to final passage. Or maybe the Holy Ghost of Democracy hovers over Capitol Hill to assure that average Americans truly want every provision on every page of bills that most representatives and senators do not even bother reading?
A bastard cousin of the “will of the people” flimflam is the notion that citizens and government are one and the same. President Franklin Roosevelt, after five years of expanding federal power as rapidly as possible, declared in 1938, “Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us.” President Johnson declared in 1964: “Government is not an enemy of the people. Government is the people themselves,” though it wasn’t “the people” whose lies sent tens of thousands of American conscripts to pointless deaths in Vietnam. President Bill Clinton declared in 1996, “The Government is just the people, acting together—just the people acting together.” But it wasn’t “the people acting together” that bombed Serbia, invaded Haiti, blockaded Iraq, or sent the tanks in at Waco.
President Barack Obama hit the theme at a 2015 Democratic fundraiser: “Our system only works when we realize that government is not some alien thing; government is not some conspiracy or plot; it’s not something to oppress you. Government is us in a democracy.” But it was not private citizens who, during Obama’s reign, issued more than half a million pages of proposed and final new regulations and notices in the Federal Register; made more than 10 million administrative rulings; tacitly took control of more than 500 million acres by designating them “national monuments”; and bombed seven foreign nations. The “government is the people” doctrine makes sense only if we assume citizens are masochists who secretly wish to have their lives blighted.
Presidents perennially echo the Declaration of Independence’s appeal to “the consent of the governed.” But political consent is gauged very differently than consent in other areas of life. The primary proof that Americans are not oppressed is that citizens cast more votes for one of the candidates who finagled his name onto the ballot. A politician can say or do almost anything to snare votes; after Election Day, citizens can do almost nothing to restrain winning politicians.
A 2017 survey by Rasmussen Reports found that only 23 percent of Americans believe that the federal government has “the consent of the governed.” Political consent is defined these days as rape was defined a generation or two ago: people consent to anything which they do not forcibly resist. Voters cannot complain about getting screwed after being enticed into a voting booth. Anyone who does not attempt to burn down city hall presumably consented to everything the mayor did. Anyone who does not jump the White House fence and try to storm into the Oval Office consents to all executive orders. Anyone who doesn’t firebomb the nearest federal office building consents to the latest edicts in the Federal Register. And if people do attack government facilities, then they are terrorists who can be justifiably killed or imprisoned forever.
In the short term, the most dangerous democratic delusion is that conducting an election makes government trustworthy again. Only 20 percent of Americans trust the government to “do the right thing” most of the time, according to a survey last month by the Pew Research Center. Americans are being encouraged to believe that merely changing the name of the occupant of the White House should restore faith in government.
20 thoughts on “Ancient Outrage of the Commoners”
That could be good reading. The commons has long been on my mind. It is a meaningful frame that needs to be reimagined for a world where the tragedy of the privatized has so absolutely come to rule, not only the physical world but the ideological imagination. But we need to ground the commons in making ‘sense’ of it and grasping what it means in practice.
Already on it.
Following the bouncing links from Bollier’s web site, one will find The Great Awakening: New Modes of Life amidst Capitalist Ruins available as a free PDF from Punctum Books.
I was reading a lot of stuff like that at one point. I have some similar books to it. It is nice that such things are getting wider attention and debate. And the Commons potentially could unify the public perception of the public good as public identity, a greater sense that transcends false and unecessary divsions.
The Commons seems like a good counterpoint to identity politics of gender, class, race, and ethno-nationalism. Maybe that would be a better frame to understand the intersectionality of identity, particularly in relation to ever more expansive and inclusionary identities that would help us reimagne our place in the world.
This brings us back to what it might mean to simultaneously be the resident of a specific place, part of a specific demographic group, born into or immigrated to a particular country, and a citizen of the world — not to mention simply being human and an earthling. If all of the world is the Commons, then we are all commoners.
I mean this is nice but it’s a little off-topic.
If you don’t mind, I would appreciate clarification. What do you perceive as the topiic? And what do you think is off-topic from that topic? The main topic I had in mind was simply democracy. I tried to keep the emphasis on that as a guidepost within the frame of Anglo-American thought.
But I was more broadly reading some of the revolutionary era writings on the debate between Federalists and Anti-Federalists. Specifically, it had to do with living generations, consent of the governed, and the dead hand of law, power, and authority. A focus of my readings was on property, land, and taxation, although it had less direct relevance to my thoughts here.
This post was a simple thought in a way. I was basically just responding to the article at the end, even as I took it as a jumping off point with my mind jumping back to the Peasants’ War I was reading about in the book mentioned. I don’t know if any of that is a ‘topic’ exactly. It’s just what was on my mind and so I threw it together like a stew from the ingredients I had at hand.
I don’t know if what resulted is coherent or whatever to others. I’m even less certain about what it might mean to be on-topic or off-topic. In my mind, it all makes sense and relates, but my mind can follow odd paths that is harder for some to follow. I’ll read this post again in the morning. For now, I’m tired and it’s long past my bedtime.
You left me hangng, left me in suspense and anticipation. Your comment felt cryptic but I took no offense. Instead, it intrigued me. I genuinely was curious about what you meant. And without you telling me, it will continue to nag at my thoughts, as that is what my brooding mind is prone to do.
Could you at least throw me a hint? I’ve looked back at this post and it remains unclear what exactly might have been off-topic or perceived as such. Also, I take at face value your description of it as ‘nice’, but even that is without explanation in relation to your thinking it off-topic.
I’m always seeking to improve my ability to communicate. So, if I failed in this regard or if my writing could be improved in some other way to be made more on-topic, please let me know. Your statement of it being nice but with qualification seems to imply it could be nicer. Constructive criticism is always welcome.
Your points come across clearly, even if the historical context is poorly understood by me due to my shallow knowledge of history.
I wonder if there is any way we can delegate the task of statesmanship to people who will genuinely act on the peoples behalf, even if some system is devised where the most virtuous rise up, our children’s children will surly find a way to eventually con the system, so we will end again with the loser-winner/ ruler-ruled divide, I don’t know how you can manage complex societies any other way.
I also wonder how attached people are to their material possessions that only complex societies can provide, such as electricity and fuel without which nothing would work, that was not a variable for revolutions of the past.
“The customer is always right” culture has made us aversive to any minor inconvenience, which I believe is also associated with the rise of “first world problems”.
I’m glad my points came across clearly. This was a rather unplanned post with no coherent message articulated beforehand. It organically emerged from a mix of thoughts and readings. That is why I’m glad when others show up to comment. The dialogue is important to me, sometimes more than the post itself.
Maybe more like you than not, I can’t claim thorough knowledge of such historical topics, even if my familiarity is above average. If nothing else, I have some sense of the developing context of past times, however vague I might be on most of the details. While writing a post like this, I’m forced to constantly reference books and do web searches. It is really just my mind spinning out thoughts as I was in the middle of writing other posts. I have a hard time staying focused.
As always is the case, I see history as a reflection of the present. These old conflicts and debates live on, not yet having come close to resolution, much less full fruition of moral aspiration. The language of the old texts gets into my brain, as I’m sure you can tell from the writing style above. It puts me in a particular mood. Such writings are my way of contemplating the state of affairs in thinking out loud. By the time I publish a piece like this, my hope is that something meaningful ends up getting expressed, but there is never a guarantee that it will be conveyed well or understood.
To respond to your own musings, I probably can offer no good answer. From those early radical dissenters to now, about 7 centuries has passed. One might be generous enough to admit we’ve made some progress in that time, but it is quite amazing how the basic complaints and critiques remain starkly relevant. We are still ruled by oppressive hierarchy and unjust authority. The main thing that has changed is that we have somewhat better language to frame public debate. Those early voices struggled to give shape to what they intuited.
Yet, the simplicity of those earlier societies brought forth a simplicity of words. There is a raw honesty, directness, and sincerity. For all the immense amount of knowledge we have access to, not to mention the vast array of technological wonders, including our ability to communicate so easily as we are doing here, there is something appealing to the clarity of mind from centuries past when righteous truth could more easily be stated without the quibbling tendencies of the self-doubting modern mind.
We moderns lack the confidence and conviction of faith to drive our queries with passionate concern. The act of reading Scripture for ourselves, for example, impresses us less now than it did for those who risked their lives to do so. That is what I was trying to resurrect in this exploration of the radical mind when it was still young and fresh within Anglo-American culture. There is a potency to their excitement in coming to new ideas and tossing them against the walls of authority like molotov cocktails.
To the most radical religious dissenters, they didn’t bother to ask how to gain equality. To them, equality was already divine reality with the force of absolute truth. They simply had to speak it and give it voice, to bring into the world where it could manifest. That was the battleground of moral imagination to be taken as territory by the victor, to be made into a commons of the public mind. But of course, that didn’t always work out so well for them, as the moments of uprising were brief and typically with meager long-term results that can be clearly identified.
Still, their examples are inspiring. I’m not sure what practical guidance they can offer us, though. I sense something has come out of this long struggle of radicalism and revolution, specifically within the collective psyche. But it might not be the kind of thing from which we can take simple, straightforward lessons upon which to design systems of reform. These ancient longings and demands aren’t rational. That is what makes them so compelling, in how they subvert the rationalizations of domination, but it also makes them tricksy in our trying to grasp what they represent.
We stand in the flow of ancient currents within our shared humanity. The tug can be felt and we know how, in certain historical periods of change, entire societies got swept up in the movement of tides and undertows. But the substance of those dynamic forces is like water that slips through our fingers. We probably can’t easily apply the study of these treacherous and tumultuous flows. Either we are carried by them or we try to hold our ground against their pull. Yet over time, our civilization has been shaped and reshaped when there were those who became possessed by a greater sense of what was possible.
So, I doubt it has much to do with delegating statesmen or whatever. No one delegated John Wycliffe or Thomas Paine. They spoke out because there was something that spoke through them, something that needed to be invoked and given voice. It was a compulsion they gave into, but they could not have known what it meant or where it might lead. Yet the world we’ve inherited was created by such imperfect vessels of righteous radicalism who acted without knowing the outcome in advance.
Yet, on the other hand, I so often turn to the revolutionary generation, as they weren’t afraid of devising systems as both thought experiment and applied practice. They had the courage of their convictions, even if much of what they attempted didn’t always stand the test of time. It’s more their way of thinking, their attitude that seems most important, not necessarily any given ideas they had. Even when some of their best ideas got put into practice, we know from history how easily they could got co-opted by reactionary counter-revolution.
It’s hard to know if we’ve made overall progress and, if so, toward what ideological vision of the moral imagination. How is the moral arc of progress measured besides by way of materialistic standards of technological improvements and societal developments? I can’t say I’m opposed to our material gains with the comfort, pleasure, and security they sometimes offer. But I always come back to the question that our society has become less sustainable and stable than ever before, maybe closer to total collapse or new forms of misery.
Indeed, it is during times of societal crisis and moral panic that the moral imagination comes alive again in a way that can’t be ignored or denied. The religious dissenters during the era of the Peasants’ Revolt were riled up, as was all the world around them, because the foundations of civilization had been shaken by Black Death. So, many died that the powerful couldn’t afford to be too oppressive, as the demand for labor was a premium. This is maybe what brought a class consciousness to their moral populism. The ending of feudalism was a similar event in provoking the colonial era thinkers and revolutionaries.
Now we are in a new era of tumult that could promise transformation. As before, it might not be a question of choosing for one thing to end in order for something else to take its place. Rather, the ending of the old inevitably precedes the emergence of what might replace it. We will help create a new order in what will likely be in haphazard fashion with unpredictable outcomes and unintended effects. There might not be any wise farseeing leaders to guide us smoothly into the future, but I’m sure some rabblerousers will spring up to rile the masses with damning speeches and moving words. That will help set events into motion and send us on our way.
There are arguments about practicalities and what is realistic. But putting that aside, there are the ideals and values themselves. The main point I was making in this post is that the most radical liberal and leftist views are not fundamentally based on Enlightenment rationality. First and foremost, they are religious principles and quite ancient, by which I mean even older than those religious dissenters in the Middle Ages.
As Stephen J. Patterson argues, the original creed of Christianity, quoted at the very top, was oldest remnant of the radicalism that inspired the first Christians. It goes even further back than that. Really, we’re talking about all of the crazy new idealism, specifically egalitarianism and universalism, that arose in the Axial Age and was heard in the religions that emerged during that time, such as Buddhism. These Axial Age prophets were offering an understanding of human nature.
That really is key. To believe in the fundamental and equal value of all humans is entirely non-rational. It can’t be proven and can be easily taken as contradicted by the endless cynicism and cruelty across history. Yet if humanity ever fully gave up on that hope for moral goodness, the world would be a far worse place. There is something true in it, despite our trouble in understanding it and living by it. Sure, we go on creating divsions and identities, but it’s not hard to discern how false and superficial are those fictions we tell ourselves.
The above religious dissenters, as with certain later Enlightenment thinkers and revolutionaries, weren’t merely spouting their own brand of religious dogma where egalitarianism replaces authortiarianism. No, what they spoke of simply was true, if not a rational truth. The power structures of church, aristocracy, monarchy, etc are artificial social constructions. That is simply a fact. But the challenge is what do we do with that knowledge? These rabblerouses held that these weren’t only insights but guiding visions that could be enacted in the real world.
This post is part of a line of thought that goes back many years in this blog. I’m not sure when my mind got caught in this groove, but my thoughts return to it on a regular basis. My dual focus on the ancient world and the rise of early modernity has made certain observations potently clear. The shift from the bicameral to the axial, and then from the feudal to all that has followed, demonstrates we are more than we’ve come to believe. We’ve misunderstood a fundamental truth and forgot that the profound sense of this truth once was a common understanding.
Many in the past took it as an obvious and absolute verity that the collective and communal identity of the living generation is organically real in the world, whereas the systems and institutions created are social constructions that we invent, stories we tell. But over time, we’ve come to the opposite conclusion in late modernity, ignoring postmodernity for our purposes here. Nation-states, government bureaucracies, political borders, legal systems, corporate persons, capitalist markets, etc are taken as more real than the public, We the People, more real than the Commons of the commoners, more real than society.
Going by the earlier insight about what it means to be a People, there is no delegating tasks to statesmen separate from those People. In a genuine republic as demos, civic virtue as moral result and causal agency makes statesmen of the entire citizenry. The state is indistinguishable from the people who form it, imagine it into existence, and morally enact it. The ancient common identity finally took form as demos beginning with Athens, but the basic sense of communal reality had long been part of human experience. Still, making that communal reality explicit emphasized this truth as being centrally important.
James Wilson was one of the key founding fathers. He helped draft the Constitution and was a signatory of it, along with being a signatory of the Declaration of Independence. Also, he was elected to Congress twice and was among the first Supreme Court Judges. In one case, he elucidated on what democratic republicanism meant for the early United States and its people:
“When Homer, one of the most correct, as well as the oldest of human authorities, enumerates the other nations of Greece, whose forces acted at the siege of Troy, he arranges them under the names of their different Kings or Princes: But when he comes to the Athenians, he distinguishes them by the peculiar appellation of the people of Athens. The well known address used by Demosthenes, when he harrangued and animated his assembled countrymen, was “O Men of Athens.” With the strictest propriety, therefore, classical and political, our national scene opens with the most magnificent object, which the nation could present. “The people of the United States are the first personages introduced. Who were those people? They were the citizens of thirteen States, each of which had a separate Constitution and Government, and all of which were connected together by articles of confederation.”
I spent this morning and early afternoon heavily revising the above post. As always, a tangle of thoughts slowly unraveled in mind. And in pulling on various threads, the unwinding of knots clarified some ideas and observations.
Besides that, I was reading some more of Eric Vuillard’s The War of the Poor. It’s a small book but showing a less known history of early religious dissent and emergent class war. Good stuff!
I also have a copy of The Anti-Federalist Papers. I’ve read some of them before, although never systematically. I’ll maybe dip some into that book as my relaxing afternoon continues.