Commonwealth, Conversion and Consensus: An Examination of the Medieval Icelandic Free State and Political Liberalism
By Roderick Kennedy
Honours Theses, University of Sydney, 2011
Introduction: John Rawls’ Political Liberalism opens with a question: “how is it possible for there to exist over time a just and stable society of free and equal citizens, who remain profoundly divided by reasonable religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines?” Rawls regards this question as the heart of modern political philosophy within the democratic tradition, and his own work can be understood as an attempt to answer it successfully. It is also the heart of this joint honours thesis, and I shall refer to it as the fundamental question. My aim is to evaluate the answer that Rawls provides to this question in his Political Liberalism. To do so, I turn, rather unusually, to the medieval Icelandic Free State (‘the Commonwealth’ as I shall call it hereafter) as an example to enrich my critical response to Rawlsian thought. Of course, the use of such an unusual example requires a good deal of explanation, which is compounded by the fact that I attempt to offer a new understanding of the Commonwealth along the way. As such, this thesis is located at the intersection of two distinct disciplines: Old Norse studies and contemporary political philosophy.
In the Old Norse portion with which the thesis commences, I attempt to show that in the Commonwealth there existed what I label a public and political notion of justice. This idea, which I sketch in greater detail shortly, is inspired by Rawls’ writings, in which he appeals to ideas “implicit in the public culture of democratic society.” The notion of justice can be understood as an implicit part of the public culture of the Commonwealth. Focusing primarily upon the Commonwealth’s conversion to Christianity in 1000AD, I discuss the ways in which I perceive traditional accounts to be deficient, before introducing the notion of justice more fully. I suggest that the notion of justice consisted of five understandings, widely shared by the Commonwealth’s citizens (landsmenn), about their status as members of a society, the nature of that society, how social interactions should take place and so on. As I outline these shared understandings, I provide evidence to support my view that they were a prominent cultural feature of the Commonwealth. Lastly, I sketch the way in which the notion of justice can provide a deeper explanation of how the conversion occurred. My overall contention is that the conversion was able to occur not because of prudential, ritualistic or other reasons, but because the public acceptance of the shared understandings in the notion of justice proved more motivationally forceful than any contrary desires.
I move in the second portion of the thesis towards solidifying the links between the two disciplines. From a philosophical perspective, the intended culmination of this portion of the thesis will be the conclusion that the characteristics of the Commonwealth render it, at the very least, not irrelevant to Rawls’ thinking. It can plausibly be characterised, I argue, as a society divided by reasonable religious doctrines which possessed a shared fund of implicit cultural ideas which helped to regulate political life. It can therefore be understood as pertinent for the sake of philosophical discussion by virtue of its sufficient similarity to the sort of society about which Rawls theorises. No further explanation given now will make sense, but the aim of the second portion is to show that, insofar as there are differences between the Commonwealth and a modern democracy, they are not so grave or of such a type as to make the example inherently useless.