The Nature of Medieval Political Thought. During the greater part of the medieval period, political life was influenced but little by conscious purpose or by deliberately formulated theory. Certain ideas, surviving from the Roman tradition, or resulting from the teachings of Christianity, or growing out of the relations of feudalism were generally held, but they exerted little practical influence upon political institutions.
From the decline of the Greek city-state to the rise of modern national states, except for the influence of Roman jurisprudence, philosophy was essentially non-political. Ideals of cosmopolitanism or of a life of religious mysticism sufficed for the individual, apart from a determinate human society.
The individualized state, with its strenuous life of war and politics, disappeared. The ideal of world unity and of a single imperial authority was far removed from the actual facts of decentralization and anarchy in the western world. This discrepancy between theory and institutions in the Middle Ages is to be explained by the general nature and method of medieval thought.
Thought in the Middle Ages was unhistorical, unscientific, and uncritical. It reasoned by deduction from general dogmas based upon belief, rather than by induction from observation, investigation, and experiment. Learning was controlled by the clergy, especially by the monastic element, and speculation centered about questions of theology.
The whole body of faith, developed and handed down by the organized church, was the basis of all knowledge; and this material was turned over and over by the narrow intellectual processes of scholasticism or accepted without rational demonstration by the contemplative introspection of mysticism. Thought was enchained by a rigid orthodoxy, and dissenting ideas were considered heresies to be ruthlessly hunted down.
The relation of ecclesiastical to secular power was the issue in medieval political thought. At different periods the controversy centered around concrete, and sometimes local, phases of the question; but the general tendency from the ninth to the thirteenth century was toward the development of a well-rounded theory of ecclesiastical and papal supremacy in world politics. In building up this doctrine, most of the ancient Greek and Roman writers were discarded as profane and, except for a slight uncritical appeal to history, the source of all knowledge was found by the monkish writers in the Bible and the works of the Church Fathers, especially St. Augustine and Gregory the Great.
As the conflict between church and state grew more intense, increasing use was made of the Old Testament, whose aggressive, theocratic point of view was more useful for church purposes than the submissive tone and indifferent political attitude of the New Testament. It was assumed that the history of Israel foreshadowed the life of the church, and the medieval theory of politics was decisively influenced by the Old Testament picture of the Israelitish state.
The idea that law was the direct will of God, the important governmental authority of the priesthood, and the theocratic traditions that limited the powers of the king were all used by church writers to support their claims. And since the Old Testament ascribed greatest success to those kings who were most subservient to the prophets, the church writers argued that the subordination of secular to spiritual authority represented the divine plan of government.
Medieval political theory was based upon certain ideas on which all parties were agreed. The ghost of ancient Rome haunted men’s minds, and the ideal of unity was firmly established. It was generally believed that there should be in Europe one state and one church, that authority in each should be concentrated in a single head, that church and state should be fused into a single system, and that the ultimate source of all authority was divine.
Men lived in a universal society, which was at once a continuation of the Roman Empire and an incarnation of Christ in a visible church. The universal political empire of Rome had been established under God’s will in order that within it might be formed the universal church.
Although church and state formed one society, nevertheless that society had two governments. The existence of two systems, and the strong contrast drawn by Christian writers between things of the world and things of the spirit, led to the famous doctrine of the two swords, providing for a twofold, harmonious division of authority between pope and emperor. This principle was stated at the close of the fifth century in a letter written by Pope Gelasius I to the emperor.
The true and perfect king and priest was Christ himself…. But Christ, knowing the weakness of human nature, and careful for the welfare of His people, separated the two offices, giving to each its peculiar functions and duties. Thus the Christian emperor needs the ecclesiastic for the attainment of eternal life, and the ecclesiastic depends upon the government of the emperor in temporal things.
This text was quoted frequently by the Church Fathers, and was supported by the symbolism of the two swords one of the spirit, the other of the flesh from which the doctrine drew its name.
At first, this perfect harmony between secular and spiritual authority in a unified church-state was conceived to be the divinely ordained system for ruling the earth. Each power was to rule in its own sphere, and neither was to interfere in the affairs of the other. But unhappily, this theory of dual authority was unworkable in practice.
It proved impossible to separate secular from spiritual matters under the conditions of medieval life. Each authority charged that the other encroached upon its own domain, and each tried to build up a system of doctrine that would justify the extension of its own powers. Each could appeal to historical facts and biblical passages to support the widest claims and to justify the submission of its rival.