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A social organism founded on the principle of unity in multiplicity

Saturday, 4 Jan 2014

Three estates on Staff and Scrip, Dr John Dunn First posted on Thursday, 7 February 2013 at 16:56

German illustration of the three estates of medieval society

Luther’s rhetoric of antithesis contrasted the destructive force, which he clearly associated with usury and a reversion to the Law with, as he saw it, the sacred, fecund, clear, ordered unity of the mystery, based on a theology of the cross. He associated the first of these antithetical states with the disordered and fragmented nature of fallen man. Whilst in the latter, he valued the hierarchical harmony of original justice - the Truth no less.

In the modern world, we have come to think about sin in a subjective way and have completely lost sight of the objectivity with which it was once understood. The medieval mind felt itself sufficiently in touch with objective truth to know that sin was a disruption of the objective nature of things. It was a blindness to the truth.

This cast of mind defined original justice as order and original sin as disorder, or a rebellion against the cosmic hierarchy. It was vertical in orientation and in accord with the famous (or notorious) Papal Bull of 1302: ‘The way of religion is to lead the things which are lower to the things which are higher, through the things which are intermediate...’* Social institutions assumed a sacramental character as the outward and imperfect expression of a supreme spiritual reality, in which the forces of destruction and disorder were held at bay. Society itself was conceived as a single organism, a people of God, which lived out St Paul’s metaphor of the church as the body of Christ.

The social organism was founded on the principle of unity in multiplicity. Each thing was considered to bein a relationship with something else in conformity with their respective natures, and thus in conformity with the right to fulfil those natures.

Hierarchy in the social organism was accepted as an extension of the cosmic harmony, without which a reversion the fallen state of man would ensue. Without hierarchy there would be disorder; the realisation of a particular nature would clash with all other natures seeking fulfilment.

This contrasts with modern thought, in which an individual right is always absolute and therefore excludes all others. Any attempt to give all rights equal validity fails, because equality destroys rights, i.e. the right of a nature to be what it is. Equality is eventually reached on a commodity basis, on the purely quantitative plane of numerical unities (1 = 1), which is only possible through the destruction of all the qualitative differences that make up these diverse natures. Equality destroys diversity and a right ends up being the right to nothing.

In the medieval social organism, it was accepted that hierarchy was needed to preserve this right, which must renounce its absoluteness and consent to its own relativity. One right would have more of a right to something than another; but this renunciation was not felt as resignation and compromise, it was based on something other than constraint. There was no police enforcement of the law in medieval society. The hierarchical subordination of individuals in the social organism was regulated by their degree of proximity to the Principle. This required the submission of the creature to the Creator, the relative to the Absolute. By this act of submission, all natures had access to a formal and qualitative equality, not horizontally amongst themselves, but vertically with regard to God.

A refusal to submit would be tantamount to repeating the Fall, the act of revolt that had repercussions all along the hierarchical axis. The natures forming this axis were not destroyed by that act of original sin, but they could no longer fulfil themselves according to their truth: they were the stones of a toppled building scattered on the ground. By Adam’s sin‘original justice was taken away, whereby not only were the lower powers of the soul held together under the control of reason, without any disorder whatsoever, but the whole body was held together in subjection to the soul, without any defect.’ (St Thomas)

* The Papal Bull: Unam Sanctum of Boniface VIII, quoted in R. H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, Pelican, p.34.

John Dunn.

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