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Philosopher kings

Thursday, 12 April 2018 at 20:09

Erasmus on Dr John Dunn. Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam

The cultural environment nurtured under Henry VII enabled the circle of scholars associated with Erasmus of Rotterdam to flourish. Erasmus, Thomas More and John Colet looked to education as an Eleusian way to freedom, tantamount to a transfiguration, recalling Dante’s declaration that the truly free individual possesses crown and mitre over himself, i.e. the power of mind over which no secular or clerical authority can rule. These Renaissance thinkers saw the possibility of transforming citizens into the equivalent of Plato’s ‘philosopher kings’. This idea was expressed by Erasmus two years after his arrival in England in 1499,when his Handbook of the Militant Christian was published. Like Dante and others in the conspiracy of intelligence, Erasmus argued for the rejection of Aristotelian sense certainty, ‘the poison of representation’ described by Dante in Canto IV of Paradise, turning instead to Plato for inspiration.

In man, reason discharges the office of king... Consider the dregs of the lower classes to be those affections or passions that dissent as much aspossible from the decrees of reason and that are least humble. These are lust, lechery, envy, and similar diseases of the mind, which we ought to resist as overseers restrain dirty, vile slaves so as to ensure that they perform the tasks assigned them by the master, or, at least, so as to prevent them from doing harm. The divinely inspired Plato wroteof all these things in his Timaeus. (Erasmus, Handbook of the Militant Christian.)

© John Dunn.

Financial chicanery

Wednesday, 11 April 2018 at 21:41

Jakob Fugger on Dr John Dunn. ‘The Catholic Church went out of business when its hierarchy ceased to believe its own dogma. Leo X didn’t take Luther’s thought as a serious matter. He didn’t expect others to do so.’ So wrote Ezra Pound on the Reformation. If the misuse of money was seen by the medieval church as the major threat to the social unity of Christendom, imagine the despair of the faithful when the Pope himself resorted to financial chicanery to finance the renovation of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

The banker known as Jakob Fugger the Rich (pictured) was chosen by Pope Leo X to manage the money-raising campaign. Johanne Tetzel, a Dominican friar and preacher, began the sale of indulgences across the German lands. In particular, Albert, the Archbishop of Maintz, agreed to allow the sale of the indulgences in his territory in exchange for a cut of the proceeds. He did so in order to pay off the debts he had incurred in paying for his high church rank.

Despairing of the money corruption and usury-driven indulgences, Martin Luther famously nailed his ninety five theses to the door of Wittenberg cathedral in 1517. Within two weeks, copies of the Theses had spread throughout Germany; within two months throughout Europe.

© John Dunn.


Tuesday, 10 April 2018 at 21:35

Richard II on Dr John Dunn. The confrontation between kings with absolutist designs and nobles protecting their feudalprivileges was central to Shakespeare’s history plays about the Plantagenet dynasty. Plantagenets, John Dunn and others. King John was portrayed as attempting to justify his attempts to assert his own power and arbitrary and violent actions, with speeches about how his legitimacy as king was derived directly from God (which opposed the Guelphic assertion that the Pope must intervene). Shakespeare presented Richard II (left) challenging feudal precedents, seizing lands to finance wars and justifying his action by claiming the divine right of kings. Rejecting these violations of the Diocletian Order, Bolingbroke led the revolt against Richard, illegitimately crowning himself as Henry IV.

The consequent lack of legitimacy runs like a curse through Shakespeare’s histories of Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI and Richard III and, throughout them all, kings remain at odds with squabbling factions of the nobility. Whilst regent, Richard seized power and crowned himself Richard III. By the end of Act IV of Shakespeare’s play, everyone else, including Richard's own mother the Duchess, has turned against Richard,who even refers to himself as ‘the formal Vice, Iniquity’. The future Henry VII, as the Earl of Richmond, enters into the play in Act V to overthrow Richard and save the state from his tyranny, effectively being the instantaneous new protagonist. Henry is a clear contrast to Richard's evil character, which makes the audience see him as such.

© John Dunn.

In the pores

Monday, 9 April 2018 at 20:47

Usurers on Dr John Dunn. William Langland wrote, ‘He called that house Unity - which is Holy Church in English’. Yet no one was more aware than Langland of the crumbling Christian edifice. The whole of Piers the Ploughmanis an impassioned plea for social and religious reform, so much so thathe has sometimes been regarded as a harbinger of the Protestant Reformation. But his emphasis was always on a forlorn call to unity: ‘Call we to all the Commons that they come into Unity and there stand and do battle against Belial’s children.’

Until Langland’s time,markets had played a subordinate, local role, hemmed in by the limited economic boundaries of the feudal world. Human beings, land and money were not subject to the laws of the market. Non-economic norms set by the political and religious hierarchies regulated human labour and the ownership of land, neither of which were commercially transferable. ‘Belial’s children’ however, would not be held at bay. Though trafficking in money was notionally blocked by the religious prohibitionof usury, it continued to be carried out in increasing volumes by thoseexcluded from feudal society, forced to live on its margins or in its pores. The money germ would not be dislodged and eventually it would eataway Christendom.

© John Dunn.


Saturday, 7 April 2018 at 21:21

Langland Dreamer on Dr John Dunn. 'Langland's Dreamer': from an illuminated initial in a Piers Plowman manuscript held at Corpus Christi College, Oxford.

It all began with money, with the forces of usury circumventing, and later breaking, the religious prohibition of interest-taking. Langland, John Dunn, interpretation.Then came commercial transactions in land, which struck a mortal blow against feudalism. Finally it was the turn of human labour, with man himself turned into a commodity by the slave trade and with the establishment of the wages system. The labour force, transformed into a commodity, became subject, like all others, to the laws of the market.

The common acceptance of the need to combat the relent-less encroachments of usury upon the social organism, as demonstrated especially in the excommunicative strictures of the Council of Lyons (1274), marked the epitome of the medieval synthesis, a time when Europe was as close to being unified as it would ever be. And it was the papal role in calling the Council and others like it that demonstrated the role of the Christian Church in holding together a diverse, scattered, heterogeneous collection of people in a common citizenship, as a spiritual confraternity. The Church became responsible for education, art, literature, the care of the poor and the comfort of the dying. Immediately after the Council of Lyons, however, Christian unity was irredeemably shattered by political rivalries in which the Papacy itselfwas often a participant.

William Langland’s poem Piers the Ploughman (written circa 1360–87) is the perfect expression of this decline with its sense of ruin, yet hope for rebirth should the right choices be made. The anguished protests of the poem ring out against the defeat of true Christianity by the spirit of hardened selfishness.

© John Dunn.

Wholly conscious

Friday, 6 April 2018 at 20:59

Louis XI on Dr John Dunn. Louis XI

The success of Louis XI in making the ideas of Dante, Nicholas of Cusa and Plethon a reality can be measured by the fact that, when he was crowned,France had fourteen feudal duchies and ninety four major cities, which he unified on the basis of common development opportunities as a modern nation state. His reforms in tax policy, universal coinage, and administrative and judicial reorganisation made this absolutist monarch the scourge of the feudal lords and took a significant proportion of Europe out of the Guelphic sphere of influence.

By the time of his death, Louis XI had destroyed all opposition from the nobility and set the standards for other absolutist monarchs to build upon - especially the archetypal Renaissance king, Francis I of France. Louis had demonstrated to the world what a ‘philosopher king’ could accomplishin a few years.

By consolidating power, Louis created the potential to smash Guelphic ultra-feudalism, a feat that was almost completed with the 1509 League of Cambrai assault on Venice. That he was wholly conscious of the forces of fragmentation and individual gain, against which he had led an uprising in the cause of the common good, isdemonstrated in his treatise, "Lessons for my Son", The Rosebush of Wars.

© John Dunn.


Thursday, 5 April 2018 at 20:50

March of humanity on Dr John Dunn. Medieval illuminated manuscript showing Peter the Hermit's People's Crusade of 1096

Wecome back to the point that there was no division between the inner and personal life of religion, and the practical interests of the external order. Each individual in the western world, for example, was part of anorder of faith that stretched from the parish church and manor, to kingship, the Holy Roman Empire and Christendom. The First Crusade, notable for not being merely a military operation, included vast numbers of ordinary men and women within a tide of humanity, known as the People’s Crusade, that swept across Europe towards the Holy Land, probably representing the high water mark of medieval social cohesion from emperor to vassal. Such a coalition of souls could never have been imposed by the political or economic despotism of a centralised power. It grew from an acceptance that to comply perfectly with one’s own specific function there was a need for an identical participation in the spirituality of the whole, conceived as a living organism. This kind of social order, with the sovereign at the centre, was the form within which the subjects demonstrated their faithfulness to God through faithfulness to their ruler. This faithfulness was a cornerstone of traditional society, in addition to work as rite and an elite that embodied transcendence. This was the force which as a magnet held together the social structure, establishing an implicit pull and gravitation between the individual and the centre, between the individual and the whole. It was a force acknowledged by Dante:

The essence of this blessed life consists
in keeping to the boundaries of God’s will,
Through which our wills become one single will.

© John Dunn.

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