Concurrent Centrality

Arthur Georg von Ramberg - The Court of Emperor Frederick II in Palermo, 1865.

I was recently posed with the question that if the Centre/Sovereign has primary authority over the scene within which social life is undertaken, and that the Centre is always held regardless of how ephemerally it might be, and that for this reason, the Centre is in many regards immutable to the social order, what about the authority of the father over his children, of the teacher over her students, of subsidiaries broadly speaking? 

Or of moral agents under the dominant authority in general? 

Do they have any real autonomy which allows them real authority as it pertains to the disciplines they reside over? 

I think a useful analogy from Thomism can be used in explaining the answer to this question and that a proper exploration of Aquinas’s natural-theology-grounded politics would be of much value. Take the distinction between principal/primary and instrumental/secondary causality in the concurrentist scheme. I will not be going into detailed justifications for concurrentism as a resolution to the free will vs. determinism debate because – I am primarily using it here to illustrate how the logic behind this argument works. Edward Feser’s excellent discussions of it here, here and here for you to explore. 

For St. Thomas Aquinas, God is the primary cause for the existence of things and imbues within some things the possibility for self-causing; humans being primary among such things with this quality. God, having set limitations upon, and given existence to agent A, has not robbed A of his own ability to act within the confines of said existence; A still retains instrumental causality.  If you will excuse my use of an analogy within an analogy for a moment;  if you draw a triangle with a red pen, both you as primary cause and the pen as secondary cause are simultaneous causes of the effect. You are the cause of there being any triangle there at all, the pen being the reason the triangle is red. God is the cause of there being a reality within which moral agents can engage in metapolitical discussion through analogy-ception yet we are the instrumental reason why metapolitical discussion through analogy-ception is taking place.

The political order is a microcosm of this cosmological distinction. When talking of the function of governance, St. Thomas writes;

The aim of any ruler should be directed towards securing the welfare of that which he undertakes to rule. The duty of the pilot, for instance, is to preserve his ship amidst the perils of the sea. and to bring it unharmed to the port of safety. Now the welfare and safety of a multitude formed into a society lies in the preservation of its unity, which is called peace. If this is removed, the benefit of social life is lost and, moreover, the multitude in its disagreement becomes a burden to itself. The chief concern of the ruler of a multitude, therefore, is to procure the unity of peace. It is not even legitimate for him to deliberate whether he shall establish peace in the multitude subject to him, just as a physician does not deliberate whether he shall heal the sick man encharged to him, for no one should deliberate about an end which he is obliged to seek, but only about the means to attain that end.1

Note that the ruler’s obligation to carry out the duties of a ruler are not imposed upon him, but are a quality of him occupying such a role in the first place, however he comes to inhabit the Centre. The unity of peace, social cohesion, the absence of political factionalism/conflict – imperium in imperio – is crucial for his ability to rule. Hence why it is not even legitimate for us to speak of him as to whether or not he will seek to establish peace in the multitude subject to him. Even if he were to support a proxy against a given opposing political faction, he only does so in order to remove said political faction from being an impediment to his rule, that is, to procure peace and social cohesion.

Ontological absolutism finds a comfortable home in the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition. The action of a client, the periphery in the case of High + Low vs. The Middle and/or otherwise the subsidiary, is only explainable with relation to the agent that actualises their political significance; The Centre and the ends to which said agent actualises them; centralisation for political security. Why this end and not another? A simple Aristotelian explanation. Assuming insecurity, the political agent in question who holds the centre naturally will attempt to centralise, that is, to secure its hold over the Centre. Insecure power is by its nature in a position of direct competition and conflict. Due to this condition, to do good to itself – that is to act as a power, not qualified further as “insecure” – said power centre must circumnavigate said competitors or raise some force against them in order to create the conditions to rule directly. With the ability to rule directly, their access to their principle good is restored. Without it, the prerequisite good of political cohesion must be established. Insofar as he cannot rule directly, that is, insofar as he is insecure, the ruler must centralise to establish said cohesion. Continuing the quotation from Aquinas;

Wherefore the Apostle, having commended the unity of the faithful people, says: “Be ye careful to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.” Thus, the more efficacious a government is in keeping the unity of peace, the more useful it will be. For we call that more useful which leads more directly to the end. Now it is manifest that what is itself one can more efficaciously bring about unity than several—just as the most efficacious cause of heat is that which is by its nature hot. Therefore the rule of one man is more useful than the rule of many.

The Centre is what principally holds together a given social scene, within which it sets boundaries and upholds the social rules of interaction within which political/social/economic life is undertaken. It does discipline the moral agents within its scope but the sheer existence of the Centre does not rob them of their instrumental agency. To argue that it does would be to argue for a degree of omnipotent determinism that could not be the case for much of human history prior to the rapid centralisation of power proceeding the industrial and liberal revolutions, and that does not exist now, as of yet. For an example, your choice to work within this or that profession, while such a selection might be narrowed due to the nature of the social order, contingent on the Centre, yet your choice of this or that profession is still your decision. Likewise, this goes for the company that potentially hires you.

This also helps address another notion in simultaneity, that of the ethics of governance from an ontologically absolute position. To answer this, we need to get at the heart of the essential role governance plays, of which St. Thomas has already outlined quite nicely for us. The function of the king, the Sovereign, the Centre is to maintain the unity of the political order – its absence of faction/imperium in imperio allows for the unity of peace. Insofar as the Centre cultivates this peace, moral agents can flourish in their various social roles, including the Sovereign himself.

As it is interior peace and social cooperation which allows the ruler to conduct his various political projects, to upset this is to throw a wrench in his own works. It is very much in the ruler’s interests to pursue the interior goods to this practice; social cooperation, and human flourishing, human perfection and so forth, whether the given agent holding the centre is consciously aware of such a reality or otherwise. 

Nonetheless, much like a muscle, the habitual exercising of the various virtues that constitute what is in the king’s nature to rule further actualises the ruler as kingly. It is through hexis that virtues are developed. As, to be courageous, one must develop and exercise the capacity to do courageous acts, the king in learning how to command well and coordinate political life well comes to embody the virtues constitutive of kingship better. To engage in some act that is not conducive to his role doesn’t in any way rob the ruler of his virtues, they still do persist as real potentials by virtue of being in the political position that is most conducive to those abilities and their exertions and as a real nature by virtue of holding the Centre. 

So, subsidiaries and moral agents within a given political scene do retain agency, perhaps not the agency to collectively overturn the Centre qua vox populi seeing as such voice is a construction of authority, and that historically speaking “the people” or what have you require some fundamental authority to actualise said “collective will” into force of political significance, such act subordinates the very notion of popular will to the final cause of said patronage by the efficient political cause – that of the aforementioned sovereign authority. Yet moral agents still retain autonomy within the space allocated by said authority to act. Power, after all, is not merely the exercise of force, but the ability to lead and hold shared attention. To hold to ontological absolutism is not thus to hold to the position that all is disciplinarily executed by the will of the Centre within a political scene, but the production of dominant representations and the maintenance of some unified understanding by some fundamental agent.

Much as God is necessary for there to be any existing thing and is the prime mover of all that exists, the centre is necessary for there to be any political entity and is the prime mover of all under its domain. There is by necessity a pronomian relationship between God and creation, centre and political order.

Revising the Platonic logic that the techne of rule, as analogous to medicine, must be practised for the prosperity of another upon whom the practice is exercised – medicine is for the benefit of the patient, not the doctor – yields now an interesting result. For it is not just that the secure sovereign would indeed exercise his virtues of authority with his subjects as the ends but also that the flourishing of his subjects is in his interests. They are both means and ends. We now have a relationship with a degree of circularity, a feedback loop. That a healthy population that is not engaged in social diatribes is more useful for the secure ruler than a dispossessed and diseased population goes without saying. A military that cannot fight and construct shared projects is no military at all.

In further exploration the ontologically absolute character of St. Thomas’s political thinking; the possession of property, and the existence of inequalities of one sort or another, and thus authority, Aquinas sees as natural to man even in the prelapsarian state of innocence. He effectively severs much of the connection between political authority and the economy of salvation, evident in his willingness to recognise the legitimacy of non-christian states, notably pagan ones even when they exercise political authority over members of the faithful. Such was also the position of Pope Innocent IV2. How he came to this conclusion, as Francis Oakley argues in his work Mortgage of the Past, was in reasoning that if it was only as a result of the Fall that servile subjection had come into being, that this was not the case with civil subjection to political authority. Political authority by its nature is established upon, and cares for homonioa; the common good of unity. 

Dominion is grounded in human law whereas the distinction between those who are faithful and those who are not, is from divine law. Divine law being a law of grace, does not abolish human law which is founded upon natural reason; note here the concurrentism. As the broader theological and philosophical Thomistic framework goes, politics finds its foundations in natural theology rather than the revealed theology of Redemption allowing for a Christian Neoplatonic system to have Aristotle’s teleological political naturalism subsumed within it. 

That Aquinas’s treatise on kingship began with the affirmation of man’s social and political nature, as should be expected of his Aristotelianism, and that he is firm in the view that political order exists not simply to ensure material well-being but rather to make possible the life of virtue is instrumental to the integration of Christian and Aristotelian morality into his natural political theology.  He is insistent that men live in their given social order for the very purpose of living well together, a thing which the individual living alone could not attain; but of which we might add is would be an absurdity to try and affirm because nowhere does or has man lives radically distinct from any authority or social order. But insofar as he is apart from social life, he is despondent and pathetic. The good life is the virtuous life; the virtuous life is the end for which men gather together. 

To quote directly from Oakley; 

Understandably, in discussing the directive principle needed to govern the political community as an end-ordered-entity, he should depart from Aristotle and straightforwardly affirm monarchy to be his ideal and the government of a king to be the best.  In support of that position, and affirming that “in all things nature does what is best,” he points out that “every natural government is government by one.” Such is the case in every species of government, from that of the “king bee” over the bees to that of the one God over the universe as a whole. 

Here one can detect once echoes and harmonics of that Hellenistic philosophy of kingship which, having been mediated by Philo Judaeus, and Eusebius, had come to be domesticated in the political thinking of Christian antiquity and medieval Byzantium. Man, Aquinas points out, is microcosm paralleling the macrocosm both in the political and the cosmological. What the soul is to the body, the king, a “shepherd to his people”, is to the kingdom, and God is to the world. The position of king, then, is clearly an elevated one. Behind his authority stands the law, both natural and divine. As St. Paul insists (Rom.13), those who resist such authority “bring upon themselves damnation.”3 

[Notes]

[1] Aquinas, Thomas, Gerald B. Phelan, Joseph Kenny, and Ignatius Theodore Eschmann. De Regno: Ad Regem Cypri. Bismarck, ND: Divine Providence Press, 2014. Ch.III:XVII, 12-14. 

[2] Oakley, F. The Mortgage Of The Past. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012, Chapter 7.

[3] ibid., 113.

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