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Medieval ideas of Utopia

By Andrew Latham

If medieval people could design their own utopian political and economic system, what would it look like?

As I do every year in my undergraduate course Medieval Political Thought, last Fall Term, I assigned the following topic for the final paper:

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“As we have seen, medieval political thinkers (theologians, scholars, jurists, publicists, etc.) developed a rich repertory of ideas regarding the proper ordering of the political-economic world. Drawing on these ideas – and only these ideas, nothing modern or contemporary – your task is to design a utopian political and economic system. You should explicitly address the following issues:

  1. The nature of the “good life”;
  2. The “common good” and its relationship to political life;
  3. The locus, nature and limits of political authority;
  4. Basic legal arrangements;
  5. Church-state relations;
  6. The use of armed force;
  7. Basic economic arrangements (including property, markets, money, etc)

You must justify your vision with reference to specific political thinkers (classical philosophers, the Church Fathers, medieval jurists, etc.), writing as if you were a medieval thinker drawing on the intellectual raw materials available to you to paint a picture of a perfect world. You may frame it as a “mirror of princes” piece.”

Typically, students have twenty pages or so in which to develop their vision. This year, COVID-induced changes to the academic calendar meant that they had less than half of that. Nevertheless, many were so good that they deserved a wider audience than just me.

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So, here are two of the better submissions during this annus horribilis.

Enjoy!

On Kingship: A Letter to David II, King of Scotland, 1358

By King Tobias of Zekos

Your majesty, I would first of all wish to congratulate you on your victory over your English foes. We in Zekos only recently learned of the Treaty of Berwick, being ourselves an archipelago far north of the German Ocean, so you have my sincere apologies that this letter is a belated one. Your father, his majesty Robert the Bruce and I were great friends when we were lads, so I am hoping you have heard about the Kingdom I have constructed here in Zekos. If you have then I am sure you know it is the single most prosperous and stable of all the Kingdoms on God’s Earth.

In fact, we are so certain of our superiority that our country’s motto is He who comes here, here he shall stay, for nary a man hath visited who has not believed it to be the happiest place he has ever seen. In light of your restoration to your rightful throne, I thought it fitting to offer to you the wisdom I have compiled over the years, that which I built my Kingdom upon and that which I have come to understand through my rule, so that you may secure a similar peace and prosperity for beautiful Scotland for many generations to come. I have gained much knowledge from a few notable scholars of our age, which I relied upon in constituting my great kingdom. It is my great hope that these ideas, and my own employment of them in the making of my country, will be of as much aid to you as they were to me many years ago.

I find it natural when in discourse about kingship to begin with the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, God Himself. For it is through God’s own will that you and I are rulers over all things temporal on His great Earth. Despite his conflict with the Pope and subsequent excommunication, I do believe in time we will recognize the greatness of the late William of Ockham, who I was saddened to learn God hath taken from us eleven years ago. But shortly before his passing, William wrote a Short Discourse that rather heavily influenced my political philosophy. On the particular topic of temporal authority, he wrote thusly: “God gave the power of establishing rulers with temporal jurisdiction, because temporal jurisdiction is among the number of those things which are necessary and useful for living well and politically.”

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In my learned judgement, this is a very wise statement, and the foundation of my belief that we as Kings are as such through divine right, it is His will that we shall rule, and so we need not answer to anyone excepting Him. On this point, Dante Alighieri also believed in a temporal authority, saying “everything in the political sphere comes under human control”. Thus I believe it natural that a King should rule over all temporal matters, with God as his overseer, leaving the Pope to reign over all spiritual matters, without muddying his hands in the waters of politics.

Now there are some, even when I was founding my Kingdom, suggesting that it should be ruled as an oligarchy or some other multi-party rule, which I found then as I do now to be absolute nonsense. On this point I look toward Thomas Aquinas for guidance. As he so wisely put it,

…it is evident that several persons could by no means preserve the stability of the community if they totally disagreed. For union is necessary among them if they are to rule at all: several men, for instance, could not pull a ship in one direction unless joined together in some fashion. Now several are said to be united according as they come closer to being one. So one man rules better than several who come near being one.

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Just so. While I do not purport to have a monopoly on wisdom by any means, for only God knows all, I do believe that certitude is superior to correctness. It is most often better to make a decision and be sure of it than to wander between options without committing, for the decision itself is less important than the fact that it has been made. For this reason, I am the sole decision maker in Zekos; all matters of importance flow through my throne. In times of doubt, I look toward God, my friends and the people of importance in my country, and my family to guide me, but it is always me that determines the outcome of the matter. Because of this, my people know that they are safe and free to worry only about life’s trivialities, because all burdens of significance are placed solely on my capable shoulders. I guide my people with a steady and true hand, and they love me for it.

Dante too agrees on this, “if we consider an individual kingdom – and the purpose of a kingdom is the same as that of a city, but with greater confidence that peace can be maintained – there must be one king who rules and governs; otherwise not only do those who live in the kingdom not achieve that purpose, but the kingdom itself falls to ruin, in accordance with those words of the infallible Truth: ‘Every kingdom divided against itself shall be laid waste’.” But alas, you know far too well the trauma caused by a kingdom divided, and what a shame it is. In Zekos, we are united in our loyalty to our country, and so all my subjects accept me as their true ruler and beloved King. Indeed, this is much the source of our prosperity, and I daresay much the detriment of the Scottish people thus far. But I write to you, your majesty, hopeful that the Treaty and your returned kingship can bring Scotland the peace she deserves under your proud and capable wing.

Now, I have found in my time as King a need to deal with the other, those among my people who are different and are either unable or unwilling to assimilate into the broader society. While this may seem uncommon, I have found it best to treat them as if they are my people as well, and indeed it sometimes results in them becoming quite that. Now Aquinas tells us that the goal of a ruler “should be directed towards securing the welfare of that which he undertakes to rule.” This I take to mean securing the welfare not just of those with whom I am familiar, but indeed anyone who falls under the dominion of the Kingdom of Zekos.

Furthermore, William of Ockham teaches us that everyone is a child of God, even if they do not worship Him, and they are therefore entitled accordingly. “Therefore, since there is nothing in the scriptures about God depriving unbelievers of this double power which he gave to their first parents for themselves and their descendants, it follows that unbelievers, even if they remain in their unbelief, are, unless they have been judicially deprived of their legitimate power, rightly able to make use of this double power even outside of cases of necessity.” Because I am ruler of the temporal, it is my job to rule over all my people fairly and justly, treating them as equal under me. I consider it the work of the Church, and therefore out of my jurisdiction, to sort believer and unbeliever, native and foreign. Let God judge them for their worship of Him; I will judge them only for their lawfulness and their devotion to my Kingdom. If this seems radical, I assure you it is only radical humility, and my obedience of God’s will as it has been interpreted to me. If God had wished me to judge my people for their worship of him, he would have made me his spiritual ruler, but here I am, King of Zekos, ruler of the temporal dominion.

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It is this humility and deference to God that makes my rule so effective. I recognize that without my people I am not a King, and therefore I treat them with respect as if they were my King and I their subject. Engraved on the right arm of my gilded throne are the words of John of Salisbury, who spake saying “Between a tyrant and a prince there is this single or chief difference, that the latter obeys the law and rules the people by its dictates, accounting himself as but their servant.” Just as I am but a servant to my God, so too am I a servant to his children, my people. It is with this attitude that I approach my kingship, offering them my protection rather than my violence. For a wolf does not rule over a flock of sheep, a shepherd does, and he does it not with sword but with staff. It is my job to herd my sheep, to protect them and guide them, to right them when they err, but not to oppress them or senselessly terrorize them. If you wish to unite your people, David your majesty, love them. Love them and they will love you, wrong them and they will rebel against you, and your country will fall into disarray.

Of course as King, there will come times when it is necessary to crack the whip. You must be firm, for it must be known that your Kingdom will not tolerate lawlessness. There may be those that wish to undermine you for their own gain, let it be known that this is unacceptable, that an act against the throne is an act against all of Scotland, for unity must be always the primary motive. For this reason, you may punish those that step out of the lines of the law, setting out to tread their own vile path. Once again, I turn to William of Ockham for justification. He refers to the revocable right of property as a means to punish those that would wreak havoc on your kingdom, saying “For this reason also, some, whether believers or unbelievers, can be deprived of this power for a fault or for some other reason.”

There were once two men, neighbors that came to me with a dispute. One of the men had ventured into his neighbor’s pasture and stolen his neighbor’s cow. He slaughtered the cow and brought the cow to his wife, who prepared the meat and made them a feast. Obviously, this is a violation of natural law, and therefore required a punishment. I decided that the thief must repay the man with two cows, one for the cow he had stolen, and one for the violence he had perpetrated against his neighbor, because he had wrongfully taken and stolen his cow. I tell you this not just to demonstrate the importance of fair punishment, but also to demonstrate the need for clear laws regarding property.

William of Ockham explains this too, stating “After the Fall, however, greed and the desire to possess and use temporal things wrongly seethed up in men. And in order to restrain the immoderate appetite of the depraved for having temporal goods and to rectify their negligence in the due management and procurement of temporal things (for evil men collectively neglect common things), it was useful and expedient that temporal things should be made private property, and should not be held in common.” As you see, since the Fall it is necessary to delineate property between men, so that such wrongs like the cow dispute can be easily righted by a wise King.

It is these principles of property, servitude, otherness, inclusion, unity, and independence upon which my happy kingdom rests. I have learned much from these scholars which I have mentioned, and it is my hope that you too may learn from what I have shared with you here. Ruling a Kingdom is never easy, but I believe that the wisdom of our forebears can ease that lonesome burden. You have the makings of a great Kingdom, David, and we in Zekos look forward to a long and prosperous relationship between our two thrones. Congratulations again on your Kingship, and may God’s light shine on Scotland and her mighty King.

King Tobias of Zekos
Anno Domini 1358

A Utopian England: Advice to the Future King Edward II

By Sir Albert

I write today, in this Year of Our Lord 1301, that I should carefully expound, according to the authority of Holy Writ and the teachings of the philosophers as well as the practice of worthy princes, the things which pertain to the office of a king and a king of England.

Chapter 1. The “Good Life”

I recommend that Your Grace consult the works of the great scholar Thomas Aquinas when imagining the nature of a fulfilling, prosperous life for the English. It is known from Our Lord and Savior that to have a Good Life, man must conduct himself and his family according to God’s holy commandments. However, a more specific outline is necessary as men, by nature, require guidance in directing their efforts. It is said best by the Angelic Doctor [Thomas Aquinas]:

man has an end to which his whole life and all his actions are ordered; for man is an intelligent agent, and it is clearly the part of an intelligent agent to act in view of an end. Men also adopt different methods in proceeding towards their proposed end, as the diversity of men’s pursuits and actions clearly indicates. Consequently man needs some directive principle to guide him towards his end.

Men need guidance from a leader more natured in virtuous endeavors and in closer contact with God. In turn, those leaders must source their knowledge from great thinkers. This is why I suggest turning to the writings of the Angelic Doctor in defining a uniform method for men to adopt in their pursuit for their end.

From Aquinas, we acknowledge and accept that men live better when there is a multitude. He has written: “It is therefore necessary for man to live in a multitude so that each one may assist his fellows, and different men may be occupied in seeking, by their reason, to make different discoveries—one, for example, in medicine, one in this and another in that.” When there are a multitude of men, there are a multitude of interests. For man to persist within a multitude, it is necessary that there be a leader who mediates between all men and mitigates all conflict which arises within. This is where Your Grace’s leadership and divine authority protects and preserves the Common Good.

Chapter 2. The Common Good

In pursuit of the Good Life, it is possible that man may stray from the collective good. The great thinkers Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas agree that men need direction from an authority to guide their pursuits and constraints so that they may not hinder their community’s prosperity in the process. As The Angelic Doctor put it so eloquently, “the good of the community is greater and godlier than that of one person.” Thus, it should be expected from each individual within the realm of England to put their community ahead of their own. Naturally, it is not enough to have expectations of men, but to also enforce those expectations. That is why God has placed His divine authority within you to guide men when the collective good is no longer within their view.

Chapter 3. Political Authority

Just like God bestowed a part of His authority within Our Lord and Savior who in turn entrusted an amount of His authority within Peter, I recommend that your authority be distributed similarly. Ultimate political authority will rest in Your Grace’s office. Just Christ chose his apostles, I suggest you choose a council of advisors who are of your utmost trust. Members that you respect, nay, admire would be best suited for this position. This chosen council will accompany you on a daily basis in all Kingly duties. Think of them as your personal consultants. They will be held accountable by divine authority to have the realm’s best interests at the heart of all advice. The authority of the crown-in-council is bounded by the obligation of all just rulers to preserve and promote the Common Good of the realm.

You and your advisors will need a third body to relay and enforce your authority across the realm. Their duties will include detaining those who disobey Your Grace’s lawful commands as such disobedience is in direct violation of the Common Good. They will also include defending the realm from outside forces that threaten the Common Good. They will lastly include gathering the views of Your Grace’s subject, for knowledge of such views will help determine and defend the Common Good. This third body will need to be much larger than the council and will need to expand accordingly to the ever-fluctuating borders of the realm. This third body will be made up of repreentative of the various estates or orders of the realm. The day before the King’s birthday will be designated for these representatives to travel to a house of parlement to state their case. They will either be appointed into the third body, the Defenders of the Realm, or told by Your Grace to return to their communities. I recommend that political authority be divided as so, in order to ensure the peace and prosperity of the realm well into the coming years.

Chapter 4. Law

The legal code will be written by Your Grace, your council, and God in conjunction. As threats to the Common Good arise, laws should be made accordingly. Your Grace and the council will consult Christian scripture and the Lords Spiritual to ensure the representation of God in the creation of laws. Once these laws have been ratified, the Defenders of the Realm will enforce them. These laws will be announced weekly by a member of the Defenders during each community’s sermons. Those who disobey these laws will be detained by the Defenders. On their first offense, they will be returned to their community after confessing their sins. On their second offense of the same nature, they will be stripped of all their property. On their third offense of the same nature, they will be put to death. For every law enacted, members of the realm will have two opportunities of disobedience before being put to death. These deaths are justified as, in Sir Thomas Aquinas’s words, “the good of the community is greater and godlier than that of one person.” I suggest that the Law of England be merciful until those who refuse to place the Common Good ahead of their individuality expose themselves.

Chapter 5. Relations between the Temporal and Spiritual Powers

In the above suggestions, I have recommended that the Church play an advisory role to the realm. Your Grace has been granted divine authority by none other than God himself. And you have chosen your council and the Defenders of the Realm using his divine authority. As William of Ockham said:

Therefore the power of making temporal things the property of a person or of persons or of a group was given by God to the human race. And for a similar reason, without any human ministry or cooperation, God gave the power of establishing rulers with temporal jurisdiction, because temporal jurisdiction is among the number of those things which are necessary and useful for living well and politically, as Solomon witnesses, when he says in Prov. 11. Where there is no governor, the people shall fall.

God recognizes that ruling men is an act that no other, but men shall occupy. Men know men the best and can recognize the manners in which are most likely to secure order and prosperity. The ultimate goal of the individual man is to live the Good Life. The ultimate goal of the royal office other ruling bodies is to preserve the Common Good. The Church is most versed in what the Good Life and the Common Good constitute. Your Grace and your officers of state are most versed in how to rule men, so that both of these ends can be achieved. Therefore, the Church is needed by the State in order to preserve God’s word within the Good Life and Common Good. This is how the Church will serve the realm of England. I suggest that the Church meet with Your Grace, the Council, and the Defenders of the Realm regularly to preach the word of God. These services will instill the word of God within the temporal body. With the word of God confidently stored within the temporal body, all authoritative actions will be divinely approved.

Chapter 6. Just Wars

I suggest that Just Wars only be waged according to the words of Saint Augustine. As he sagely advised :

They who have waged war in obedience to the divine command, or in conformity with His laws, have represented in their persons the public justice or the wisdom of government, and in this capacity have put to death wicked men; such persons have by no means violated the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.”

I recommend that wars only be waged out of sake for the Common Good – and especially in defense of the realm. It is God’s command that the temporal body preserves the Common Good. Therefore, any threats to the Common Good is a threat to God’s word. Those who wage war are pardoned from any sin committed on behalf of God and his divine command.

Chapter 7. Economy

I suggest that all economic exchange be guided by the Angelic Doctor’s theory of the Just Price. Within the realm, no seller shall sell a good for a higher price than the cost of production. In his words, as the Angelic Doctor says:

If someone would be greatly helped by something belonging to someone else, and the seller not similarly harmed by losing it, the seller must not sell for a higher price: because the usefulness that goes to the buyer comes not from the seller, but from the buyer’s needy condition: no one ought to sell something that doesn’t belong to him.

It is just that vendors ply their trade in the service of the Common Good. If one’s neighbor is hungry, or in need, it is in the interest of the Common Good that they receive what is necessary to survive. Christian scripture says “Thou shalt not steal.” It is within the interest of the community, and consistent with the will of God holy writ, that no person should have to decide between committing a sin or suffering death. Scripture also says: “Thou shalt not covet.” A person’s excessive accumulation of wealth serves no purpose other than as a product of greed and jealousy. Since it is in one’s own interest to support their neighbors in times of need in order to obtain the Good Life, it is natural that man should not sell a good at a price higher than is absolutely necessary. However, in the case of man’s straying from the path of the Good Life, it is the State’s responsibility to preserve the Common Good. In either of the two courses of action, man shall not require more compensation than necessary for a good or service provided.

You are, Edward, by the grace of God, heir apparent to this realm. With the right demeanour and decisions, and with the support of God and his angels, you will most assuredly set this blessed plot we call England on the path to earthly peace and prosperity. I pray you will always keep my counsel in mind, just as I will always keep you in my prayers.

Your faithful tutor,
Sir Albert

Dr. Andrew Latham is a professor of political science at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He is the author, most recently, of a monograph entitled Medieval Sovereignty, to be published in 2020 by ARC Humanities Press. You can visit Andrew’s website at www.aalatham.com or follow Andrew on Twitter @aalatham

Click here to read more from Andrew Latham

Top Image: 14th-century scene, showing God, holding a book, and touching a globe with three divisions, a city, a tree, and water. British Library MS Yates Thompson 13   f. 17v

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