This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

Legalism and social decay

 “Dying societies hoard laws like dying people medicines.”

~ Nicolas Gomez-Davila[1]

“Once we suffered from our vices; today we suffer from our laws.”

~ Tacitus[2]

The great aphorist continues: “There are two symmetrical forms of barbarism: that of the nations who have nothing but customs and that of the nations who respect nothing but laws.”[3]

Here Davila argues for a cycle of ascent and descent as civilizations approach justice and then descend away from it. For if we examine the most primitive societies, we find that they are ruled mostly by customs. These customs may be good or bad, and to say that a society is ruled mostly by customs is not necessarily to imply that it is unjust. But the point is that these customs are followed as customs, and that for the most part the communities that live according to their dictates do not have a specific, objective, or transcendent standard of justice by which their lives and institutions are measured. They’re system is, in this sense, rigid and relatively mindless. It has no room to change or develop according to the vicissitudes of history.

As a people begin to rise from this arrangement, leaders in both worldly and transcendent affairs begin to raise the standard and begin to form a higher notion of justice than pure custom. Again, the customs may be good, but as the culture develops and the intellectual life flourishes, a philosophy emerges that tells these people why the customs are just, and enables them to understand those cases where custom may have become unjust. They have moved “beyond custom” and approached objective law. As an example of a civilization which had reached such an apex, we can look at the Middle Ages, where men of Aquinas’ quality were developing the most nuanced understanding of justice the world had yet seen. Again, we stress that this did not replace custom, for custom was in many cases a just and stable reality; but they were able to transfigure custom and place it, when it was good, in an overall and objective system of justice, traceable all the way through nature and to eternal principles. In short, they took what was mindless and connected it to the mind of God himself.

Now let us move forward. Over the next half-century we see a severing of this connection between law and the eternal. We see law, or “sovereignty,” divorced from the eternal and connected to the popular—to the general will, without any direct reference to the transcendent. The curve, after reaching its apex and the height of its coherence, begins to descend. Immediately law loses the stabilization that objectivity had provided, and begins to multiply. It rises in complexity and, in addition, becomes the sole standard for life. When law was an aspect of the divine, it was possible for it to be reinforced by the various other forces in man’s life, such as his personal conscience and his religious sentiments. However, now that law was answerable only to itself it becomes the sole rule of what a man ought to do. This causes law to be multiplied further because those actions which were once governed by the unwritten laws of religion were nullified and then openly transgressed. Legalism ensues, and whatever moral imperative is left out of the written laws is publicly permissible. And so the society that had once risen to the intellectual heights of Thomism descends into the legalistic superficiality of perpetual lawsuits over spilt coffee and wedding cakes.

Soon the old basis of law is forgotten altogether, and the multitude of laws become once again mindless, and the cycle completes itself—from barbarism to barbarism—entering back into custom. Hence Chesterton’s saying that “Over-civilization and barbarism are within an inch of each other.”[4] This new custom, however, because it is inorganic, cannot pretend, like the customs of old, to be even a precursor to justice.

[1] Davila, 2013 edition, p. 185.

[2] Annals, iii. 25.

[3] 107

[4] Illustrated London News, Sept. 11, 1909.

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