Rule by Natural Reason: Late Medieval and early Renaissance conceptions of political corruption

 Late Medieval and early Renaissance conceptions of political corruptionRule by Natural Reason: Late Medieval and early Renaissance conceptions of political corruption

By Manuhuia Barcham

Corruption: Expanding the focus, edited by Manuhuia Barcham, Barry Hindess and Peter Larmour (Australian National University, 2012)

Introduction: This paper argues that, from about the eleventh century CE, a new and distinctive model of corruption accompanied the rediscovery and increased availability of a number of classical texts and ideals, particularly those of Cicero and the Roman Jurists. This new model of corruption accompanied a renewed emphasis on classical ideals in theorising the political, and a subsequent change in the way in which political life was conceived in Europe. Combining the medieval Christian focus on the importance of moral values with the classical emphasis on the value of reason, this tradition merged political and moral reason such that they became conceptually identical and indistinguishable from one another. The polity was thus seen as a Christian community living under laws agreed on through reason, ruled on behalf of the common good by a ruler who was bound and constrained by these same laws. In this new conceptual model, corruption was perceived largely in terms of the adverse consequences of action occurring without regard to natural reason, in contrast with the previous Augustinian approach that had viewed our entire earthly life as corrupt and without possibility of redemption.

Following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century, an Augustinian approach to the concept of the political as order provided the most influential framework within which political life was discussed and studied in Christian Europe. Augustine’s work presented a political theory that placed earthly political institutions within the context of Christian theology. Probably his most radical departure from the classical tradition consisted in rethinking the role of politics and political institutions in human affairs. Augustine viewed earthly life in the wake of the Fall as inherently corrupt. He differed from earlier classical conceptions in viewing politics and political life as necessary evils requisite to achieve a semblance of order in earthly life. In Augustine’s work, the idea of the ‘good’ life achievable on earth—so important to classical conceptions of the political or its corruption—was dropped from the vocabulary of European political discourse. For Augustine, politics was concerned merely with preserving external peace and order—not with shaping the moral character of the citizens. At best, all laws could do was secure civic order. It is this Augustinian background that provided the framework for much political thought in medieval Europe.

Click here to read this article from Australian National University

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