This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

This Dark Age is now available in paperback on Amazon. The print version is MUCH cleaner than this online version, which is largely unedited and has fallen by the wayside as the project has grown. If you’ve appreciated my writing, please consider leaving a review on the relevant paperback volumes. The print edition also includes new sections (Military History, War Psychology, Dogmatic Theology).

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On obedience and revolution

We are sometimes led to believe that the philosophers and theologians of old demanded an unconditional submission to social authorities. We also imagine that this was motivated by the naïve assumption that social authorities were divinely instituted and therefore unconditionally legitimate. In truth, however, men like Aquinas always acknowledged the existence of legitimate causes for the removal of unjust rulers. The difference between the traditional thinking and the modern has more to do with the circumstances that each accepts as “unjust.”

For example, while moderns tend to view revolution as legitimate virtually any time the governed become dissatisfied with their government. So long as it can be clearly demonstrated that the people are unhappy—a majority vote, for example—a leader can be removed. All that is required is proof that it was the will of the people. The justification for removal of leaders in democratic regimes, then, boils down to a question, not of some objective standard of justice, but of public opinion plain and simple.

It is on this point that the thinkers of the Middle Ages beg to differ. For them, because governmental authority was instituted, not personally but universally and by God, its operation had to be judged by a standard of justice that was objective, like God. If a ruler was to be removed, he had to be removed by proving that he was governing unjustly. If he was carrying out his functions well, it would not matter if 99% of the population wanted him removed, it would be unjust to do so.

To simplify the problem, we can make the distinction between the ruler himself, as an individual, and the office that he is holding. Respect is due to a ruler because he is holding an office. Thus, the respect he is given is less due to him personally as it is due to the divinely ordained authority, which is to say, to God as represented by him. Even if he behaves ignobly, he holds a noble office. So when is it appropriate to remove an ignoble noble? Taking into account this separation between the man (who may be good or evil) and the office (which, being divinely instituted, is in itself good), we can say with the theorists of the Middle Ages that it is legitimate to remove even a good man who is a bad ruler, but it is not legitimate to remove a bad man who is a good ruler.

Such is the meaning of Christ’s words to the apostles: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.”[1] Thus, when it comes to bad men who are good leaders, we are told to do what they say but not what they do. The most obvious implication here is that, although Christ bluntly acknowledged hypocrisy, he also commanded obedience.

[1] Mt, 23:2-3.

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