Distributism


stitching_the_standard_leightonI was re-reading the De Regno the other day and pondering an odd remark St Thomas makes when describing the various social forms that develop in the course of man’s search for the perfect community (that society which possesses within itself all the necessary means for the attainment of its end). St Thomas deals, as one might expect, with the family, the city, the province (what we might call the ‘country’) and ultimately with Christendom or the Church. However, between the family and the city, in the space moderns would likely call ‘civil society’, he places the vicus.

Now since man must live in a group, because he is not sufficient unto himself to procure the necessities of life were he to remain solitary, it follows that a society will be the more perfect the more it is sufficient unto itself to procure the necessities of life. There is, to some extent, sufficiency for life in one family of one household, namely, insofar as pertains to the natural acts of nourishment and the begetting of offspring and other things of this kind. Self-sufficiency exists, furthermore, in one street with regard to those things which belong to the trade of one guild. In a city, which is the perfect community, it exists with regard to all the necessities of life. Still more self-sufficiency is found in a province because of the need of fighting together and of mutual help against enemies. Hence the man ruling a perfect community, i.e. a city or a province, is antonomastically called the king. The ruler of a household is called father, not king, although he bears a certain resemblance to the king, for which reason kings are sometimes called the fathers of their peoples.

Vicus is here translated ‘street’ as is reasonable given the context although ‘quarter’ might give the sense a little better. He clearly means the district of a city where the members of one guild ply their trade. How could such an area be supposed to have any kind of self sufficiency? One can hardly live off shoes or ironmongery. I think St Thomas must suppose that one guild represents the group responsible for providing one particular element necessary for the temporal live of the city and being thus indispensable is always in a position to trade for the rest. One could, with relative ease, divide up human life into the relevant sectors:

Area of Temporal Life Example of Traditional Guild
Information Scriveners
Energy Chandlers
Water Plumbers
Food Mercers
Furniture Carpenters
Clothing Taylors
Tools Smiths
Buildings Masons
Transportation Farriers
Weapons Fletchers
Learning University (Faculty of Arts)
Health University (Faculty of Medicine)
Organisation University (Faculty of Law)
Salvation University (Faculty of Divinity)

This would seem (with one obvious exception) to divide human life into the necessary areas in all societies in the wayfaring state. Of course, the mediaeval guilds were more diversified than the examples I give in the second column because they were diversified by the natures of their crafts as well as by their ends. However, by St Thomas’s logic, the vicus would be diversified only by the end (for this is what gives it its quasi self-sufficiency). I would suggest that in a society conformed to the tenets of Thomistic social doctrine society ought to be organised in this way. Indeed in England (the Regnum Thomisticum) and then Britain until the nineteenth century it was so organised. The Corporations of each Borough and City (the Masters of all the Guilds) ran the Towns and elected their representatives to Parliaments and the Masters of Oxford, Cambridge and the Scottish Universities governed those Universities and elected their Members of Parliament. The University seats and business vote remained features of British public law up to the nineteen sixties. Earlier still the guilds (at least) provided the non-charitable welfare and insurance functions now usurped by the state and financial institutions. The charitable welfare functions were, of course, provided by the hierarchy and the monastic orders.

What is the obvious exception? It is the manor. In fact, another meaning of the word vicus is village, manor, hamlet or suburban settlement. The knight or lord of the manor is to the urban vicus what the master is in a guild or university. Just as membership of the  University is divided into scholar, bachelor and master and membership of the Guild into apprentice, journeyman and master so membership of the order of chivalry is divided into page, squire and knight. The knight emerged in the chaos which followed the collapse of the Carolingian Empire in the ninth century. The knight was a local hard-man who controlled an autarchic minimum of agricultural territory farmed by others for whom he provided security and lower governmental functions. His control of this territory was legitimised by military service offered to the ruler of a larger area responsible for higher governmental functions. The guilds and universities found themselves in a similar relationship with the King or Emperor. As Chivalry emerged in the socio-economic-military sense so Chivalry as a code of behaviour and spirituality emerged as the Gospel, the Monastic Orders and the Hierarchy interacted with and elevated this natural phenomenon. Knighthood as such was quite independent of the aristocratic system and was meritocratic. One could even be fined (distraint of knighthood) for failing to be knighted when in possession of the relevant feudal territory. To this day the feudal system in Britain is quite independent of the honours system. Although almost immediately the aristocracy tried to assimilate knighthood reducing it to the lower rung on the table of honours they never truly succeeded. Emperors, Kings and Princes have always fallen over themselves to draw attention to their status as knights rarely do they allude to the fact that they happen to also be a count or a baron.

This other form of vicus also found expression in the Regnum Thomisticum. The Writ of summons to the Model Parliament of 1295 expressly requires that “without delay you cause two knights, of the more discreet and more capable of labour, to be elected from the aforesaid county… and that you have them come to us on the day and at the place aforesaid ; so that the said knights shall then and there have full and sufficient authority on behalf of themselves and the community of the county aforesaid.” In a way therefore the vicus is the basic unit of society in Thomas’s vision, and in fact in Mediaeval England, for the next highest unit is already (in some degree) perfect. The vicus that is the manor or guild (or university) provides something indispensable to society as a whole and thus cannot be eradicated without eradicating the perfection of that society. Its disappearance from the constitutional landscape is a sign that slavery has crept again from out its unquiet grave and slithered its rotting fingers once more around the neck of western man.

 

The Servile State, properly understood, is not something that may come if somebody does something. It is something that is only too likely to come if nobody does anything. It is almost a negative thing, in the sense of being an unconscious drift of modern society. . . . The unconscious combination of our general desire to provide work and food for the poor, with our increasing impatience with strikes and labour quarrels, may lead to a compromise by which the working classes will be fed even when they are not working on condition that they are always ready to work. And if that compromise is enforced by law, it will be slavery, though it will not be called slavery. It will be the old pagan condition in which men are forced to serve certain masters and masters are expected to support certain men. . . . I am treating slavery as a bad thing; but I am not necessarily treating it as a brutal or abominably cruel thing. The temptation to it is human, and the use of it can often be humane. I know of only one real objection to slavery; and that is that it is not freedom (from ‘The Illustrated London News’, 1st September, 1923).

Napoleon Bonaparte is the great tragedy of Arthurian Republicanism. The French Revolution overthrew the useless Teutonic parasite that was the Second Estate of the Ancien Regime. Alas for Henry IV! If the heretic king of Navarre had not decided to accept the Mass in exchange for Paris, if Philip II had not insisted that his daughter – the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia – marry a Habsburg, the French Republic might have been founded in 1589 on the basis of the Holy Catholic Faith instead of the pestilential errors of the ‘Enlightenment’. And yet, a wonderful opportunity presented itself when the Corsican general sought to make peace with Pius VII and to restore the meritocratic monarchy swept away by the Sicambrians, Welches and other savages from the woods and swamps of ancient Germany. The foul Talleyrand persuaded the First Consul to recognise Catholicism not as the one true religion but merely as that of the Consul himself and that of the greater number of the French people. A still more wonderful opportunity presented itself when Bonaparte sought the purple and the blessing of the Pope to do so. Napoleon then committed two further terrible errors: he took the title ‘French’ and not ‘Roman’ Emperor and he made his office hereditary. Thus, he tied his laurels to a mere nation and fell back into the blood superstition of the barbarians.

As Beethoven declared “He, too, then, is nothing better than an ordinary man! Now he will trample on all human rights only to humour his ambition; he will place himself above all others,–become a tyrant!” If only Napoleon had restrained himself then the Church might have been forever liberated from the dead weight of the deposed ‘aristocracy’ endlessly demanding that the Lay faithful waste their energies labouring to restore the Ancien Regime instead of the Kingship of Christ, the privileges of the descendants of Alaric and Attila instead of those of Holy Mother Church. If only Napoleon had remained faithful to the Republic then Leo XIII might not have had to expend himself trying to get the obstinate French royalists to rally to it. As Belloc saw “When you have reconciled these two things – I mean the high Stoicism of the Republic and the humility of the Church (for they can co-exist) – then you will have the perfect state.” Of course, St Hippolytus foresaw that the Antichrist would restore the Roman Empire to the government it enjoyed at the time of Augustus, so if Napoleon had done all these things he would no doubt have proved to be the Antichrist in person and not merely a warm-up act. But this does not mean that these priceless acts would not have been in themselves the right things to do. As Pius VII taught as bishop of Imola,

“Strive to attain to the full height of virtue and you will be true democrats. Fulfill faithfully the precepts of the Gospel and you will be the joy of the Republic.”

It does not seem as if God was very keen to give the Israelites a king. The first man to call himself a king in scripture was Nimrod. God told the Israelites He was their king. When they insisted, He told Samuel they were rejecting God Himself and not just His prophet. Of course, in the end, He would assume human nature through the line of David and so cut the Gordian knot tied out of His complaint to Samuel and His promise to David. Jesus Christ, son of David and King of Israel is alive and reigning with the Father and the Holy Spirit, One God forever and ever. Christians have no need for any other King. In fact, as if to confirm this line of reasoning, God chose the Roman Commonwealth as the vehicle by which He translated the covenant to the gentiles, the polity of a people with a very special loathing for the name of ‘King’ whose monarchical ruler, for all his vast power, did not dare to adopt the title.

One thing, however, troubled me about this analysis. Albeit the so-called ‘Divine Right of Kings’ is a particularly Protestant superstition, still there is a slightly Protestant ring to the argument given above. It is too similar to the argument against Christian priests: that Christ is the one true priest offering the all-sufficient sacrifice. Yet, it seems as if there is room for a Christian kingship just as there is room for a Christian priesthood without validating the Ancien Regime. Although we acknowledge that the Bishop possesses the fullness of the ministerial priesthood of the new covenant, it is not the Bishop but the Presbyter whom we habitually mean by the term Sacerdos. Christ is Prophet, Priest and King and the Christian is called to be Alter Christus. It would seem as if the religious, clergy and laity exemplify each of those charisms. On that basis it is the monk, the presbyter and the father who are, in the new dispensation, most properly, after Jesus, referred to as prophet, priest and king. Only secondarily do we apply these titles to the theologian, the prelate and the politician. As Leo XIII taught,

“The rights here spoken of, belonging to each individual man, are seen in much stronger light when considered in relation to man’s social and domestic obligations. In choosing a state of life, it is indisputable that all are at full liberty to follow the counsel of Jesus Christ as to observing virginity, or to bind themselves by the marriage tie. No human law can abolish the natural and original right of marriage, nor in any way limit the chief and principal purpose of marriage ordained by God’s authority from the beginning: ‘Increase and multiply.’ Hence we have the family, the ‘society’ of a man’s house – a society very small, one must admit, but none the less a true society, and one older than any State. Consequently, it has rights and duties peculiar to itself which are quite independent of the State.”

– Rerum Novarum §12

ByzantineWeddingCrowns

There is a wall of which the stones
Are lies and bribes and dead men’s bones.
And wrongfully this evil wall
Denies what all men made for all,
And shamelessly this wall surrounds
Our homesteads and our native grounds.

But I will gather and I will ride,
And I will summon a countryside,
And many a man shall hear my halloa
Who never had thought the horn to follow;
And many a man shall ride with me
Who never had thought on earth to see
High Justice in her armoury.

When we find them where they stand,
A mile of men on either hand,
I mean to charge from right away
And force the flanks of their array,
And press them inward from the plains,
And drive them clamouring down the lanes,
And gallop and harry and have them down,
And carry the gates and hold the town.
Then shall I rest me from my ride
With my great anger satisfied.

Only, before I eat and drink,
When I have killed them all, I think
That I will batter their carven names,
And slit the pictures in their frames,
And burn for scent their cedar door,
And melt the gold their women wore,
And hack their horses at the knees,
And hew to death their timber trees,
And plough their gardens deep and through—
And all these things I mean to do
For fear perhaps my little son
Should break his hands, as I have done.

– Hilaire Belloc

http://www.ted.com/talks/marcin_jakubowski.html

Personally I’d add some Virgil and some St Thomas Aquinas to a ‘civilisation starter kit’, but this man is certainly on the right lines…

Here’s the article.

 (Spectator)

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