Our Hope: The One with Shoulders Big Enough To Hold Us

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this
(Isaiah 9:6-7).

The Project of these Blogs

This year I began a project that was planned some years ago when I decided that, when I retired from full-time ministry, I would begin a project to write my reflections on what is called, “Political Theology.” The book, if it is ever written, will be a pastor’s look at how Christians can best serve the secular state in which we live and a defense of religious liberty. The idea began long before Donald Trump was elected President (and especially before this difficult election year), but the Trump Presidency and this difficult past year seems to me to validate the underlying notion of the project: We must develop a politics founded on government by wisdom and the nurturing of a deep, communal relational reality. We must step away from the “Politics as War for Power” that dominates our political life in America. In order for our freedoms to survive, we must rebuild our national culture, of which politics is only a part.

If you have been following the blog, you know that, in 2020, there were a series of posts about the issues of our day, and then a look at political philosophy from its Greco-Roman beginnings, through the Renaissance, to the dawn of the Modern Age. In 2021, I hope to move from Hobbes and the dawn of the Modern Era, through the Modern Era, to the emerging Post-Modern Era now emerging. If this pace can be met, by the dawn of 2022, this series of blogs will be nearly complete.

The Hidden Wisdom of Christmas

Christ and the earliest Christians explained the meaning of the incarnation from the texts of the Old Testament, and especially from Isaiah. It was from Isaiah that Jesus and the Apostles taught:

Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself (Luke 24:26-27, see also Luke 18:31-34; 22:37; 24:44-47; Acts 28: 23-28; I Peter 1:10-11).

The expectation of the Jews was for a Messiah that would give them a victory over their oppressors within their national history— Messiah who would be a great conqueror, hero and king. Instead, they received a crucified Messiah who ruled in weakness and powerlessness upon a cross, defeating the enemies of evil, division, and death in a way that no one could have imagined. This was the “foolishness of the Cross” of which Paul spoke to the Corinthians:

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men (I Corinthians 1:18-25).

Just as the earliest Christians and Jews had difficulty understanding how the Creator God of Wisdom and Might could rule from a Cross, so contemporary Christians have the same problem. We find the tactics of self-giving love hard to understand.

The Moral Energy of Christmas

One great need in contemporary American politics is for those on the left and right to recognize that there can be no perfect society inside of human history. We are finite, imperfect creatures incapable of accomplishing such a task even if it were possible, which it is not because of the nature of human growth and understanding. Furthermore, we are filled with endless hopes and dreams and are never satisfied with any accomplishment, however grand. All we can do is respond to the needs and issues of our own day and try to make things better within the limits of our place in history, avoiding the madness and violence that comes with every attempt to impose a perfect order of things upon others within history.

We can and should long for a “Wonderful Counselor” and “Prince of Peace,” whose shoulders are strong enough to bear the brokenness of the world and the hopes and dreams of a finite and flawed human race, but we should not delude ourselves that such a person can appear within the history of any secular, human society. He came once, and it was not to produce a secular paradise. It was to bear the brokenness of his and every human society.

His next appearance will, instead, mark the end of history as we know it. His coming will not mean a perfect socialist or capitalist world, for whatever world exists at that final moment in time will pass away in the face of the “New Heaven and New Earth” of which Isaiah and Revelation speak. The world we inhabit with all its beauty, glory, uncertainty and violence must pass away when the one who can meet our deepest desires, the Desire of Nations, finally arrives.

Conclusion: The Need for a Politics of Humility

Although a great deal of 2020 was spent in looking at great thinkers of history, it began with a look at a few of my favorite thinkers and their meaning for political thought. The most important of these insights is that the Christian passion for the coming of a New Heaven and New Earth, for the coming of a Righteous King and an end to the wars, poverty, oppression, and the like represented the deepest moral passions of the human race, when cut off from faith that endures and transforms the pain and brokenness of human history with hope and love, results in a moral passion cut off from the roots of morality itself, a passion capable of great evil, as we have seen repeatedly in the 20th Century.

What can be achieved within history is what I would call a humble politics of wisdom and love, of nurturing slow organic change; of eliminating evils gently, even when working with diligence and speed; of patiently working to end poverty and war and all the other scourges of the human race with a wise understanding that we will ultimately fail, because the creation of a perfect world is a task too great for our limited human moral and spiritual abilities. “The poor will always be with us” and “Only the dead will never now war again.” This is the tragedy of history.

I hope by the end of next year we will all recognize that the Romantic hope of a perfect world within history that gave us the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Communist Chinese Revolution and numerous bad policy decisions in the Western Democracies was based upon a harmful delusion concerning the possibilities and potentials of secular politics. What is needed is not a continuation of the Nietzschean, Marxist, or Laisse Faire Capitalist ideal, but something new and different. When we finally end the period of decadent, Hyper-Modernity we are in, there is hope for a more human future.

Jesus and the Apostles urged us to not look at the worldly wise or the worldly powerful for our salvation. Instead, as we celebrate this week, they suggested that we look at a baby born in a manger and at a broken body nailed to a cross. We do not want to think that our true hope lies in a poor helpless baby in a manger or a dying man, but paradoxically, this is our best and only hope.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!


Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

Niccolo Machiavelli: The Pragmatic Turn

Niccolo Machiavelli was born in Florence, Italy in May 1469 and died in June 1527, also in Florence. Machiavelli is the most important Renaissance political philosopher with great influence on contemporary politics. Machiavelli was a lawyer, a diplomat, statesman, and secretary of the Republic of Florence. His most famous work, The Prince, is still a textbook of political pragmatism. [1]

Machiavelli is a good thinker to follow Sir Thomas More. Like More, Machiavelli was not a professional scholar, but a person of practical affairs with an inclination to reflect upon the meaning and purpose, the strategies and tactics, the ultimate principles of his life’s work. Like Cicero, when out of favor, he wrote books, some of which can be seen as a partial defense of his ideas. If More represents the continuity of the Renaissance with the thought and values of the Ancient and Medieval worlds, Machiavelli represents a pragmatic break with previous thought, though how serious a break is a matter of debate. [2] After Machiavelli, political thought begins its journey into the modern world.

The Context of the Prince

Italy at the end of the 15th and beginning of the 16th centuries (the boundaries of Machiavelli’s life) was unstable. In fact, what we know as “Italy” did not exist as a unified political entity. Its territory was divided into a series of principalities that were constantly at war with one another and constantly in danger of domination by the great powers of the day. The fact that Rome was the center of the Roman Catholic Church, and the geographic area we know as Italy was in the center of Europe, made control of the area attractive to foreign powers, especially France, Germany and Spain. Machiavelli’s home, Florence, was inevitably caught up in the intrigues and conflict both of the princes of Italy and the kings of Spain and France. In 1494, Pietro Medici made a series of diplomatic and political mistakes, which ended the rule of the Medici and brought into existence the Florentine Republic. In the end, the Florentine Republic backed France, and the result was a disaster in which Florence was aligned alone against all the other principalities of Italy.

The end of the Medici dynasty left Florence without an established constitution and form of government, open to any kind of intrigue. There were those who wished the return of the Medici.  there were those who desired an oligarchy of the best families. Into this cauldron of intrigue, the priest Savonarola took power for a time and pitted the poor against the rich in a time of religious rule. He was eventually deposed and executed as a heretic.

Into the political vacuum thus created came Piero Soderini and his chief secretary, Niccolo Machiavelli. In his new position, Machiavelli was the chief diplomat of Florence and had influence over its military policy. He was a practitioner of what we today would call “real politic,” or the concentration of political life on the acquisition and use of power.

The Roman Catholic Church, which might have made the situation better, unfortunately made the situation worse under a series of popes. [3] In particular, Pope Alexander VI conspired with the French for aid for his son, the ruthless and immoral Cesare Borgia.  Alexander hoped his son could carve out a central Italian principality.  Unfortunately, Cesare made enemies easily and died young, leaving this dream empty.  Alexander’s successor Julius II was just as worldly and conniving as Alexander had been, often taking the field himself against his enemies as he attempted to create his own papal empire.

It was Julius who finally ended the Florentine Republic.  With Florence allied with the French, Julius conspired for his Spanish allies take the city and hand it back to a Medici, a cardinal who soon after became Pope Leo X, and thus ruled both Rome and Florence. This event ended Machiavelli’s political career. He retired in disgrace and fear of imprisonment.

I have taken the time to set out this history so that readers can understand that Machiavelli’s approach to politics was profoundly impacted by the unstable times in which he lived, the mendicity of the Catholic Popes of the day, and the machinations of European politics generally and that of Italy in particular. [4]

The Prince

In 1512, the Medici family regained their power and position in Florence. Machiavelli was dismissed and faced exile from public life. Whether to ingratiate himself with the Medici’s and thereby regain his political standing or from a desire to make amends for the past, Machiavelli The Prince, dedicating it to “the Magnificent Lorenzo de Piero of Medici.” The book a handbook for politicians on the use of ruthless, self-serving cunning, inspiring the term “Machiavellian” and establishing Machiavelli as the “father of modern political theory.”

Unlike other such handbooks for princes of the period, such as Erasmus’ The Education of a Christian Prince,” Machiavelli does not use his treatise to urge Medici to become a model Christian prince, but instead urges dramatic and effective action to eliminate the chaos of the Italian peninsula. In other words, Machiavelli’s expressed motivation is to remedy the difficult situation in the Italy of his day through the efforts of a strong ruler.

This is important in understanding exactly what Machiavelli is about in the book. As mentioned earlier, Machiavelli’s views were formed by his experience as diplomat with both influence over, and some responsibility for, military policy. Most of the writers we have considered thus far focused to at least some degree on the communal aspects of government and the responsibly of political leaders to seek the common good and provide a just society. In Machiavelli, establishment of a sound polity able to achieve the good of a unified and stable Italy is the goal, and Machiavelli assumes this goal to be in the best interests of the people. A good bit of the bitterness of the advice given in the book can be attributed to the political situation of Florence and the other provinces of Italy as Machiavelli perceives it to be in The Prince. [5]

Fortune and Ability in The Prince

There are two concepts that are central to understanding The Prince: Fortune (Luck or Chance) and Virtue (Ability). Leaders come to power in a variety of ways: through their own merit or as a result of the merit of others, through inheritance from their forbearers or through their own abilities and success, yet all of this inevitably involves Fortune.  Political leaders, whatever their ability, arrive in power and remain in power in the face of a chaotic reality, good fortune and bad fortune, which Machiavelli terms “Fortuna.” I want to call this aspect of reality, “Chance.” The opportunity to lead is given to some and denied to others. Once in power, most leaders will experience both undeserved success (or at least success greater than their expectation) and opposition, difficulties, failure, and challenge. These circumstances provide the test of the abilities and character of every leader, political and otherwise.

In the end, however, no leader remains in power without the ability to secure his or her hold on power. This capacity and ability to rule is what Machiavelli terms “Virtue.” Machiavelli’s “Virtue” is what the Greeks termed “Dunamis” or the power to achieve a political end. I will refer to this capacity as “Ability.” The virtues of a Machiavellian leader are those that enable him or her to acquire and retain the power to rule the state.

In this regard, the categories of Machiavelli, Fortune and Virtue bear some resemblance to the categories of chance and order that have been referred to in prior blogs. The world is filled with both principles of order and of chaos, and leaders must use the tools they are given to bring order out of chaos. What is missing in Machiavelli is the third category, what I have called Political Love, and what one in the Augustinian tradition might call the love of Justice and the Common Good. If I am correct in my own reading of Machiavelli, this is related not so much to his underlying beliefs about reality but to the situation in Italy to which he is responding. Justice, order, and love all led Machiavelli to the belief that drastic action was needed, action that would require unusual action.

A Hobbesian View of Human Nature

In order to begin to see Machiavelli from a Christian perspective, one must begin with his view of human nature. Christians view human beings as made in the image of God, of inherent nobility, but flawed by what Christians call, “The Fall’” that is our inherent tendency towards sin, violence, greed, selfishness and other character flaws. In Machiavelli, the nobility of the human race is submerged (as we shall see when we discuss Hobbes) and is replaced by an almost entirely negative view of human character. Thus he says,

For of men it may generally be affirmed that they are ungrateful, fickle, false avoiders of danger, greedy for gain; devoted to while you work for their good, and ready while danger is distant to shed their blood, and sacrifice their property, their lives and their children for you, but in the hour of need they turn against you. [6]

The prince must govern with an eye both to the glory and the infamy of human nature.

The Nihilistic Maxims

I have already said enough to alert a reader that the traditional interpretation of Machiavelli may need reinterpretation in light both of his other writings and the historical context in which he lived. Nevertheless, it is his advice to a Prince that has ensured his place in history. Many politicians and political thinkers have read The Prince. It is said that Adolf Hitler kept a copy at his bedside. Religious leaders have sometimes condemned his thinking. Therefore, it is important to give this aspect of his thinking some consideration.

The first aspect is what I will call the moral limitations upon leaders. Every leader knows that solving institutional problems can and does often require compromise, some of which compromises are moral in character. For Machiavelli, the situation facing Italy was of such a nature, that success in the endeavor of unifying its polity was a supreme value justifying deceit and dissembling in a leader. Those who are familiar with the art of diplomacy know that deceit concerning the objectives of a state, such as the Japanese deceit before attacking Pearl Harbor, is a part of the “Great Game” that nations play. As the example just given illustrates, deceit can backfire, as it did upon the Japanese during World War II. Nevertheless, it is not possible to rule wisely if one’s opponents know of every move in advance and can easily predict what response will be made to a strategy. Political leaders must often use stratagems.

Perhaps more disturbing from a moral perspective is the advice of Machiavelli to a new prince to completely destroy the family of the one he is replacing. [7] This tactic, used to kill millions by various totalitarian regimes, is justified by the danger of the family (or group of leaders) being deposed to create difficulties or even overthrow the new prince. This maxim is only one among many in which Machiavelli seems to justify lying, deceit, subterfuge, violence, and even criminal behavior. There is no getting around this aspect of his thought, though it helps to see his thought in a broader context of the good he seeks for Italy and the character of the powers he faced.

A few of his more famous nihilistic maxims are as follows:

  1. A prince never lacks legitimate reasons to break his promise
  2. A wise ruler ought never to keep faith when by doing so it would be against his interests.
  3. If an injury has to be done to a man it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared.
  4. Hatred is gained as much by good works as by evil.
  5. It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.
  6. A prince also wins prestige for being a true friend or a true enemy.[8]

One can see from these maxims why the name “Machiavelli” is associated with amoral power-seeking.

The Pragmatic Maxims

Often forgotten in both scholarship and in popular writing are the many maxims and advice in The Prince that are simply common sense and also moral in their content. I do not have time to set out all of them in this blog, but here are just a few:

  1. A wise leader is careful not to prematurely change laws or impact the freedom, property or rights of the people. [9]
  2. The importance of presence: A wise leader is seen and loved by his or her people. [10]
  3. Time and fortune govern the actions and fortunes of leaders and territories. [11]
  4. The wise leader should study history and emulate successful leaders of the past. [12]
  5. Fortune may bring a leader to power, but it is time, ability and merit that brings success in maintaining and using power. [13]
  6. A wise leader should cultivate “Fortunate Astuteness” that is an understanding of the accidents of history and wisdom in guiding the state. [14]
  7. It is dangerous for a leader to rely upon other powers, mercenaries or paid soldiers from another state. [15]
  8. The mainstay of all states are good laws and sufficient defensive power to secure its safety. [16]
  9. A wise leader is never idle, being always vigilant in the care of the state. [17]

In these and other of his maxims, there is nothing amoral, only the common sense of the ages.

Christian Faith and Church in Machiavelli

As previously mentioned, the Roman Catholic Church, which might have been an influence for good in Italy of Machiavelli’s day was not. Instead, it was a part of the problem. During the Middle Ages. the church became both rich and deeply involved in the rule of Europe. In addition, various popes attempted to carve out for themselves or their family a secular kingdom in Italy. Thus, instead of being an influence for wisdom and love among the warring powers, the church became one of the warring powers. In so doing, it gave up any semblance of moral authority.

This historic circumstance has a message for religious institutions of our own day: Whenever we curry favor with those in power or seek to have secular power or maintain our positions by means of alliances with secular powers, we open the door to a kind of corruption that can injure our witness and message for a long time. The distaste of the Renaissance and Enlightenment leaders for the corruption of the medieval church is with us today, 500 years after the offenses complained of began to be eliminated.


Machiavelli is a writer well worth reading for both practical and historical reasons. He is of continuing importance to contemporary politics, which is drunk with a concentration on power to the exclusion of morals. A close reading, including a reading of his other works besides The Prince, is a corrective to the amoral purely pragmatic reading which is most commonly given the work. The good and bad uses to which The Prince has been put is both an encouragement and a warning: we cannot go back to a time before the Modern Era and its preoccupations with power and control. We can only transcend it.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See, Niccolo Machiavelli in the Britannica Online at https://www.britannica.com/topic/republic-government (Downloaded December 9, 2020. Quotations are from The Prince are from Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince tr, N.H. Thomas (New York, NY: Dover Thrift Edition, 1992).

[2] Though The Prince is his most famous book, he also wrote Discourses on Livy (1551) in which the classical elements of his thought are more prominent. As will become clear, my own reading of Machiavelli is more balanced than many. In particular, I do not think that Machiavelli eliminated the moral element in political leadership.

[3] In this part of the blog, I am reliant upon Steve Muhlburger “Italy in the Time of Machiavelli” (Nipsing University, History 2155—Early Modern Europe) https://uts.nipissingu.ca/muhlberger/2155/MACH.HTM (Downloaded December 9, 2020). I have also relied upon Niccolo Machiavelli Biography (1469–1527) at www.biography.com (Downloaded December 13, 2020).

[4] In some ways, the rise of the American empire and the tendency of American political leaders to employ military force to achieve objectives is a similar result of the unstable and dangerous years of the 20th century, with two world wars, three very dangerous dictatorships (Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and Chinese Communism), and the emergence of nuclear weapons. America has increasingly become narrowly and simplistically “Machiavellian” in its foreign, domestic and military policies.

[5] Thus, I do not believe that Machiavelli supports the amoral search for and acquisition of power as many if not most of his interpreters and practitioners believe. Instead, the moral elements of power are submerged in the book because of the need that Machiavelli perceives for a strong ruler to unify Italy and end its endless conflicts and wars.

[6] The Prince, 43. See also, Andrew Curry, “Political Morality: Machiavelli Encouraged a Flexible Approach Five Centuries Ag, at https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/1999/01/13/political-morality-machiavelli-encouraged-a-flexible-approach-five-centuries-ago/9c023e26-a838-4095-a7d4-a6dbfcecf76f/ (Washington Post, January 13, 1999) (Downloaded December 15, 2020). This is an excellent article on Machiavelli’s thought.

[7] The Prince, 3.

[8] I took much of this from a school list because it illustrates what young people are taught about Machiavelli in a simplistic way in our schools. Machiavellian Maxims. I edited the maxims because some of them were not so much Machiavellian as revolutionary maxims, showing the way in which complex matters are presented to young people. http://washington.sharpschool.com/UserFiles/Servers/Server_871002/File/hoxiebe/2011-2012/Machiavellian%20Maxims.pdf (downloaded December 16, 2020).

[9] The Prince, 3, 11

[10] The Prince, 4, 11

[11] The Prince, 6

[12] The Prince, 12

[13] The Prince, 13, 15, 39

[14] The Prince, 24. This particular phrase is used in describing the leader who comes to power neither by heredity nor fortune alone, but by service to the state and the favor of the people. In a constitutional system such as ours, this is the kind of leader we should seek.

[15] The Prince, 17

[16] The Prince, 31

[17] The Prince, 39.

Sir. Thomas More: A Man for All Seasons

When I was in High School a Robert Bolt play, “A Man for All Seasons” was made into a movie. [1] At the time, I was a High School debater and sometimes helped with the drama team competition. The play was one of my favorites, and the character of Sir Thomas More was important in my intellectual development. In my first semester of college, I took an English course entitled, “Utopias and Anti-Utopias,” and More’s book, “Utopia” was on the reading list. [2] This experience only accelerated my admiration for the man and his legacy.

I am including More in this series of blogs for a number of reasons. First, he is both a Renaissance and Reformation writer. Second, he was close friends with Erasmus, who has already been the subject of a blog. Third, because of his character and the fact that he, like Marcus Aurelius, was a practical man of action as well as philosophically minded, he represents a way of reflecting on some of the more abstract thinkers. Fourth, he is a counterpoint to Machiavelli, who will be reviewed next week. Finally, because of his martyrdom by Henry VIII due his refusal to recognize the validity of Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, he is widely recognized as a martyr for religious freedom and in opposition to the nascent immorality of the secular state.

Brief Biography

Thomas More was born on February 7, 1478, the son of a successful lawyer. [3] He studied at Oxford and qualified as a lawyer. In 1517, More entered the king’s service and became an influential confidant and advisor to Henry VIII. From 1510 until 1518, he was an Under Sherriff of London. He was knighted in 1521. In 1523, he was elected Speaker of the House of Commons, and in 1529 was made Lord Chancellor of England.

Despite a busy professional and legal career, More was a lay-scholar. He became friends with Erasmus and was a figure of importance in the English Renaissance. He wrote a history of Richard III, and in 1516 published his most famous work, “Utopia”. More also published a series of polemics against Martin Luther and the German reformation, while backing the more moderate reformation stance of his king and his friend, Erasmus.

More was opposed to the plan of Henry VII to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn. In 1534, Henry declared himself Head of the Church in England, which allowed him to end his marriage to Catherine and marry Anne Boleyn. Unable to compromise further, More resigned his office. More was subsequently arrested after refusing to swear Act of Succession and Oath of Supremacy, which acknowledged Henry’s position as head of the English Church and recognized the annulment of Henry’s marriage and the legitimacy of Mary, his daughter by Anne Boleyn. Because of his refusal, More was tried for treason at Westminster, and on July 6, 1535 was executed at the age of 57. He was made a saint by the Roman Catholic Church in 1935.

At his trial, More made a speech that is widely regarded as one of the greatest of human history related to the relationship of church and state. It reads in part:

Forasmuch, my lord, as this indictment is grounded upon an act of Parliament directly repugnant to the laws of God and his holy church, the supreme government of which, or of any part thereof, may no temporal prince presume by any law to take upon him, as rightfully belonging to the See of Rome, a spiritual preeminence by the mouth of our Savior himself, personally present upon the earth, to Saint Peter and his successors, bishops of the same see, by special prerogative granted; it is therefore in law amongst Christian men, insufficient to charge any Christian man…. More have I not to say, my lords, but that like as the blessed apostle Saint Paul, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles, was present and consented to the death of Saint Stephen, and kept their clothes that stoned him to death, and yet be they now twain holy saints in heaven, and shall continue there friends forever: so I verily trust and shall therefore right heartily pray, that though your lordships have now in earth been judges to my condemnation, we may yet hereafter in heaven merrily all meet together to our everlasting salvation. [4]

This defense illustrates More’s character, and especially his refusal to place temporal law above the laws of God and his refusal to acknowledge the power of the king to ignore the spiritual authority of the church. While his position may seem anachronistic to the modern mind, it represents an early expression of the importance of religious freedom and limitations on the secular power of the prince. His willingness to die as a martyr was based upon his firm belief in eternal life and the reward in heaven of the saints.

More and Utopia

More’s most famous writings is Utopia, which literally means “Nowhere.” The book was written in 1516 and remains of interest to readers even today. As with many such works, it is not easy to discern More’s precise relationship to the work. The work clearly suggests Plato’s Republic. Remembering that one characteristic of Renaissance figures is to rediscover and reembrace Greco Roman civilization, it is not surprising that More chose Plato and his Republic as a way of making social commentary upon his own day and time. In the Renaissance, one sees the emergence of a willingness to critique and suggest changes, even radical changes, in society and social institutions, and one sees this as a part of More’s project. More alludes to Plato in thinking about possible changes in his own society.

On the other hand, More as a protagonist in the Utopia, often expresses doubt upon the wisdom and practicability of some of the utopian suggestions made in the dialogue. In other words, it is not clear exactly what More’s position is concerning many of the comments made by his protagonist on the benefits of the way of life recommended. In fact, it is fairly clear that More is dubious about many of the suggestions taken from the Republic.

One example is More’s response in Utopia Book 1 to Plato’s idea of abolishing private property:

“I believe just the opposite,” I said “For men cannot live in harmony where everything is held in common. How can there be an abundance of everything when there is no incentive to work? [5]

In my view, what we see in Utopia is two sides of More’s character: One the one hand, he is a scholar, romantic, and Renaissance figure, willing to consider alternatives to the current social order. On the other hand, he is a lawyer and a man of practical experience, unwilling to embrace the elimination of private property and other suggestions that have not proved workable in human experience. In the end, however, it is the pragmatic orientation of a person of affairs with vast institutional experience that prevails in his thinking.

More and the Reformation

More, like Erasmus, was a devout Catholic, sympathetic with the reformist desire of the Protestant Reformation, but not willing to either leave the Catholic Church nor to abandon its beliefs and practices. He was willing to dispute with Luther and to address weaknesses in his position on Scripture, on the Sacraments, and other areas in which the Reformation was taking positions at odds with the church. On the other hand, his intent was to purify the existing church, not to split the church of his day.

It is this aspect of More’s thought that is most interesting because it is here that he eventually took a stand that cost him his life. It is to be remembered that Henry VIII himself wrote a defense of the Catholic faith and was during More’s lifetime made “Defender of the Faith” by the Pope. More, in fact, read and commented upon Henry’s project as a lawyer, even recommending he tone down passages where he might (and in fact did) eventually end up in opposition to the Pope and to the implications of his own argument. More’s disputations against Luther were not at all at odds with the desires or proclivities of Henry. More, like Erasmus, and Henry were loyal Catholics and held to the historic doctrines and morals of the church. [6]

More’s Arrest, Martyrdom and Death

To modern Americans, where “no fault divorce” is the norm and previously divorced leaders are often elected, the events that resulted in More’s death are hard to understand. It is easy for us to minimize More’s predicament and to make Henry VIII into a complete villain. To understand the reasons for the eventual martyrdom of Thomas More, one needs to give a sympathetic ear to Henry’s predicament. Henry Tudor was not the first son of Henry VII of England. His elder brother was to be king. Catherine of Aragon had first been engaged to Henry’s brother and only became Henry’s wife after his brother’s untimely death. She was older than Henry, and for whatever reason had multiple miscarriages and a son who died shortly after his birth. Thus. she was unable to provide a male heir. [7]

In Henry’s day and time, there were no elections, and if a king died without a male heir there was likely to be conflict until a new clamant to the throne emerged victorious. The Tudor dynasty emerged after just such a period of English history. There was every reason to believe that if Henry failed to provide a male heir, there would be conflict upon his death, a conflict he desired to avoid at all costs.

As a result, Henry was determined to have an heir to his throne. When it became obvious that Catherine was unable to provide such and heir, Henry sought an alternative, which he found in his mistress Anne Boleyn. In order to have an heir by Anne, however, Henry needed to divorce Catherine and marry Anne, having her children declared to be legitimate, which would allow their child to succeed Henry. [8]

Unfortunately, there were obstacles to his plan, not the least of which is that Catherine’s relative, Charles V, was the king of Spain, and the Pope was unwilling to grant Henry’s petition to annul their marriage. [9] In response, Henry declared himself to be the head of the English Church (hence Anglicanism was born) and passed a law through parliament declaring that the child of his marriage to Anne Boleyn, the future Elizabeth I of England, was his legitimate heir. [10]More, as a devout Catholic refused to publicly support Henry.

It is also hard for a contemporary American to fully understand and appreciate the subtlety with which More attempted to avoid martyrdom as a result of his unwillingness to recognize the validity of Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn and the resulting legislation. Fundamentally, his tactic was to remain silent, refusing to give his reasons for resigning is position and refusing to swear a required oath regarding the matters at hand. While refusing to swear and support Henry’s marriage and status has head of the British church, he continually expressed his loyalty to Henry as king. It is difficult in a short blog to express the complexity and subtlety with which he attempted to walk a fine line that would allow Henry to avoid putting him to death for treason. His correspondence and statements reflect a subtle lawyer’s mind attempting to both save his own life, avoid making an oath against his conscience, and continue his loyalty and friendship with the king. In the end, his prominence made it impossible for Henry not to act against him, and he was made a martyr in the cause of religious freedom.


I end this blog with a quote from “A Man for All Seasons” that summarizes the reason why More was made a saint and is a martyr for religious freedom in the political arena:

Since the court has determined to condemn me – God knoweth how – I will now discharge my mind concerning the indictment and the King’s title. The indictment is grounded in an act of Parliament, which is directly repugnant to the law of God and His Holy Church, the supreme government of which no temporal person may, by any law, presume to take upon him. This was granted by the mouth of our Savior, Christ Himself, to St. Peter and the bishops of Rome whilst He lived and was personally present here on earth. It is, therefore, insufficient in law to charge any Christian to obey it. And more than this, the immunity of the Church is promised both in Magna Carta and in the King’s own coronation oath. [11]

More attempted to remain loyal to his faith, to uphold the laws of England from Magna Carta to his own day, and to remain loyal to his king. He succeeded, but it cost him his life. There are some men who cannot be fully understood, only admired. Sir Thomas More is one.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Zinnemann, Fred. A Man for All Seasons (Columbia Pictures, 1966).

[2] Thomas More, “Utopia” in The Essential Thomas More ed. James J. Greene and John Dolan (New York, NY: Mentor Books, 1967). All quotations in this blog are from this volume of More’s work.

[3] The biographical information herein can be found on the internet in a number of sources, including “Sir Thomas More” in The Ancient History Encyclopedia at https://www.ancient.eu/Sir_Thomas_More/ (downloaded December 3, 2020).

[4] Safire, William, ed. Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History Rev. Ed. (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1997), 328-330, found at http://www.luminarium.org/renlit/moredefense.htm (downloaded December 3, 2020).

[5] The Essential Thomas More, 51.

[6] Henry himself remained a devout, if not very moral, Roman believer for his entire life. His quarrel with the Pope, unlike Luther, was not about the content of doctrine, but about the relative powers of the church and monarchy.

[7] Henry and Catherine of Aragon had one child, Mary, who became Queen for a short time. Her Catholicism made her a poor choice and she was eventually deposed.

[8] Eventually, their child Elizabeth, would be become Queen of England.

[9] Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon were Roman Catholic, and the Church forbade divorce. The Pope at the time, Pope Clement, denied Henry’s request for an annulment for several reasons, one being that Catherine’s nephew, Catherine was the daughter of devout Catholics, Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile. Catherine’s nephew was the current Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (also the current King of Spain). At one point, Charles had laid siege to Rome and essentially held Clement prisoner. Henry’s claim that his marriage to Catherine was contrary to God’s will and law because he had been married briefly to his dead brother was seen as fatuous. In any case, perhaps primarily for political reasons, Clement could not or would not grant Henry’s request.

[10] I have neither the time nor the desire to fully set out Henry’s marriages and potential heirs. Eventually, Anne Boleyn was beheaded for infidelity, but she also could not provide Henry with a male heir. Henry eventually married another mistress, Jane Seymour who give him an heir in Edward VI, (born October 12, 1537, London, England died July 6, 1553, London), king 1547 to 1553. He was succeeded first by Edward, then by Mary and finally by Elizabeth. Thus, Catherine’s child became second in line to the throne and Elizabeth third.

[11] A Man for All Seasons, Sentencing Scene. I recommend that all my readers rent this film and watch it.

The Reality of Justice

In writing these blogs, I have tried to alternate those blogs which I regard as abstract and difficult to understand with blogs that are easier for folks to grasp. The difficult blogs are normally blogs on scholars or issues that are complicated and abstract, but which are important for people to try to grasp in order to understand the way forward out of the incipient nihilism of our political culture. This week, I am going to visit and, in some sense, revisit the issue of the reality of universals, specifically Justice.

To some degree, we all believe in the reality of justice. As parents, Kathy and I have raised four children. In each case, there has come a day when each child has said to us, “That is not fair.” It could be about one child getting an extra helping of food at dinner or about a gift given to one child that was larger or more expensive than what was given to another.  It could be about a family decision made by the parents. In each case, the child did not think “I don’t like what my parents have done.” They were saying, “What my parents said or did is not just.” That is to say it was not equitable and fair to the child or children impacted. We are all just like this.

When we say something like a governmental decision is not fair or just, we are not just stating our opinion, we are making a claim about the nature of reality (or at least we think we are). How are we to understand what it means to claim that something is unjust? That is the subject of this blog.

Realism and Nominalism

Let us begin with the notion of universals. There are some words that we apply not to individual material things but to categories of things or to things which are not material. For example, there is no material reality called, “Goodness” or “Truth” or “Beauty.”  There are a lot of such universal ideas, one of which is the notion of Justice. In the history of philosophy there are two basic ways of treating universals: as mere names we give to experiences (nominalism) or as realities that exist independently of our perception of them (realism). There are various schools of thought as to each of these notions, but in the end either universals are real or they are just names.

If we take universals to be mere names, then their reference has to be dealt with reductively in some way. For example, “beautiful” does not mean “You are beautiful and no one can argue with that fact.” It means something like, “I consider you beautiful.”  In the case of morals, “Chastity is a moral good” becomes something like, “I prefer chastity” but it does not refer to a real moral good applicable to all people. In the case of justice, it becomes something like “I approve of this decision because it benefits me or my group.” There is not, however, any ground “in the being of the universe” for opinions about Goodness, Truth, Beauty, and Justice.

Justice and Political Life

These blogs are about political life. If you recall, the ancients believed that the purpose of government was the creation of a just social order. You might remember Augustine’s statement that without justice a government was simply a band of robbers. Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, and most of the tradition of which Christianity is a part thought that justice was something real, that is something that exists independently of what I or anyone else thinks is just. They also felt that government was not simply a matter of getting and using power according to the personal preferences of the ruler or a particular political party. They felt that justice was real and that rulers could be fairly examined from the universal perspective of justice.

Plato, whose thought forms the basis for this blog, thought of Justice as a real thing. He was not, however, unaware that it was not “real” in the sense of being something material or a material force acting upon material things. Instead, for Plato Justice was a form of an invisible reality that existed independently of whatever you or I or anyone else thought was just. Justice was a “form” or a noetic (ideational) reality. This is exactly what Augustine or Aquinas would have thought, with the difference that they would have seen justice as one of those invisible realities that God has created.

What does it mean to be Real?

Plato, in one of his most famous and important passages says the following:

I suggest that everything which possesses any power of any kind, either to produce a change in anything of any nature or to be affected even in the least degree by the slightest cause, though it be only on one occasion, has real existence. For I set up as a definition which defines being, that it is nothing else but power. [1]

In order to understand exactly what Plato is saying, one needs to understand the Greek word translated “power” in English. The word Dunamis” in Greek does mean “power,” but it also means “force,” “strength,” “ability,” or capacity. “Power” can refer to material power, moral power, intellectual, or spiritual power, as it does when referring to the Holy Spirit in the New Testament.

We think of power as a material force. This is not at all what Plato or those who followed him would have thought. When Plato says that anything that has power has real being, he is including moral, spiritual, intellectual as well as material, physical power. He is also including ability and capacity as powers which confer reality. Thus, a concept, such as “justice,” that has the ability to shape human activity has a real noetic, intellectual reality. Its content includes but is not limited to the idea of material force as power.

The second thing to notice about this definition is that it does not restrict itself to active power to produce change in another. Things which have the capacity to be changed are also real. Thus, justice is real both because it can change behavior but also because it has the ability to be changed by the thoughts and behavior of human beings. This is another way of saying that justice is a matter of relations. [2] It is a relational concept. Its meaning can and does emerge in the context of human life and human decision-making.

This is where I would like to go back to a point made in prior blogs when discussing the work of the philosophers C. S. Peirce and Josiah Royce. Beginning with Peirce, philosophers began to understand how signs and therefore human thought works in a deeper and more important way. Every claim about reality involves a sign, a signified thing, and an interpreter. If I say, “There is my daughter’s dog” I am using the word “dog” to signify a reality different than the word itself, which is my daughter’s dog. In addition, I am interpreting my complex perception that the object before me is a golden doodle owned by my daughter. Therefore, every communication has a sign, a thing signified and an interpreter.

When I say, “Murder is unjust” I am interpreting with the word “unjust” a complex set of circumstances before me an am claiming that the situation I am describing is not compatible with justice. In the same way, any claim that something is just involves a set of circumstances outside the interpreter, the words that embody the interpretation, and the interpretation of the interpreter. In addition, there is always and must always be a chance that others will look at the same situation and say, “No, this was not murder; it was justifiable homicide.”

More importantly, claims like “This was murder” occur in a particular society with a particular legal system which evolves over time. Over may years of decisions, interpreters have sensed that there are different kinds and degrees of murder. There are some murders that are justified and others that are not. There are defenses to claims of murder. In other words, our justice system is a long, multi-generational conversation about what constitutes justice. Every time a new circumstance arises, every new pattern of facts enriches and grows our notion of justice. This is not true only for our example of murder but for all the myriad kinds of situations in which the phrases “This is just” or “This is unjust” might apply.

The Eternal Conversation

Where a society has ceased to believe in the reality of Justice and in the eternal search to uncover its content and meaning, there are bound to be attempts to impose by power and deceit the conclusions of a particular group or elite. It is only when we recognize that the search for “a just society” involves a conversation concerning emerging situations to which no final answer can be found, but only gradually unfolded during the course of human history, that the wisdom and patience that sustains freedom can be maintained. We see every evidence in our society that the loss of faith in the reality of universals is impacting the honesty and stability of our political and social institutions.

Conclusion for the Week

The status of universals is important. C. S. Peirce thought that the lack of belief in the reality of universals was one of the defining weaknesses of modern thought that undermined, among other things, the search for scientific truth. Science depends upon the critical analysis of a reality that it seeks to understand that exists outside of the mind and emotions of the scientist. In the same way, the search for God, for Truth, for Beauty, for Goodness, and for justice requires that we believe that in some way we are looking for a reality that exists beyond ourselves and the manipulative potential of the human mind. [3]

I am going to be returning to the issue of the reality of universal values before this series is over because I, with Peirce and others, believe that it is of fundamental importance for the modern world and modern societies to recover a belief in their reality. To quote Michael Polanyi:

Those who declare that these ideals have no real substance and that only the interests and power of particular groups are real, inevitably attach their aspirations for equity and brotherhood to the struggle of a particular party for power. Their ultimate reliance and all their love and devotion are attached to this residue of reality, the power of the chosen party. … But if the citizens are dedicated to certain transcendent obligations and particularly to such general ideals as truth, justice, charity, and those are embodied in the tradition of the community to which allegiance is maintained, a great many issues between citizens, and all to some extent, can be left—and are necessarily left—for the individual conscience to decide. The moment, however, a community seeks to be dedicated through its members to transcendent ideals, it can continue to exist undisrupted only be submission to a single centre of unlimited secular power. [4]

As mentioned above, I will return to this theme in the course of these blogs, for it is an important theme for the development and restoration of our democracy. For the time being it is enough to understand that there are real world consequences to our societal loss of faith in the reality of unseen values. As I said in another context: “If there is no such thing as truth and justice, if we are not constrained in our political behavior by a transcendent obligation to seek truth and justice in our political lives with tolerance for other views, then the state can and must dictate these matters. A society which has lost its belief in transcendent ideals has turned onto a road leading to tyranny. If, however, a society believes in the reality of transcendent moral and ethical ideals such as truth, justice, tolerance, and charity, and serves these ideals, the foundation of a free society can be maintained even in the face of conflict and uncertainty.” [5]

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Plato, The Sophist 247e.

[2] This particular notion was suggested to me by, among other persons, Daniel A. Dombrowske, A Platonic Philosophy of Religion: A Process Perspective (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2005).

[3] Charles S. Peirce, The Essential Writings Edward C. Moore, ed. (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1972). For Peirce, the real is that which exists independently of our ideas of it, that is independently of our perceptions, theories, or capacities. Id, at 57. These are noetic realities that exist not in material form but in the human mind. Such general ideas are not infinitely manipulatable but subject to the rules of logic and thought appropriate to the subject matter. Id, at 60.

[4] Michael Polanyi, Science Faith and Society (Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 1946), 78-79.

[5] G. Christopher Scruggs, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers (Eugene OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014), 160.The term “reality” is used here as referring to intellectual and moral ideals which act as a goal and as an active component of decision-making. These intellectual and moral ideals, such as “Truth” and Justice,” exist independently of our subjective choice and are progressively revealed as we participate in the disciplined attempt to uncover them as part of a community of inquiry and practice.