Monday, March 24, 2008

Tertullian's Insanity

That Tertullian... what a nut.

From an article on Fr. Sirico's Acton Institute site: http://www.acton.org/publications/randl/rl_article_66.php

"Some radical apologists developed a “conquest theory” of the state in an effort to delegitimize the Roman Empire. Tertullian argued that “all secular power and dignities are not merely alien from, but hostile to, God.” Secular governments “owe their existences to the sword.” All institutions of the Roman government, even its charities, are based on brute force. This is contrary to the way of Christians, among whom “everything is voluntary.”

I think, however, that the author of that article is way out of line in suggesting that Tertullian came up with these conclusions not because his logic and reason led him to these conclusions, but rather, that he came up with this theory in order "to delegitimize the Roman Empire." Tertullian didn't try to delegitimize the notion of coercively-funded government. He tried to point out that coercively-funded governments are incompatible with the teachings of Christ, and for this reason, they are already illegitimate. I just came across these statements by Tertullian yesterday. I think that I'm in decent company.

-Geoff

11 comments:

Andy Bodoh said...

Geoff-
Have you found that actual citations to these quotations, or are you simply relying on them secondhand from an article by an atheist with whom you disagree? Don't you think you should check the context before you say Tertullian was a libertarian?

For instance, the comment that "everything is voluntary" may come from Tertullian's Apology, chapter 39. (See http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0301.htm). In that case, Tertullian was defending the Christian against charges that they engage in incest, infanticide, cause natural floods and earthquakes, worship an ass's head, etc. In Chapter 39, he begins to explain what really happens in the meetings of the Christian community. He mentions that they support their charitable works through the voluntary contributions of the faithful: "On the monthly day, if he likes, each puts in a small donation; but only if it be his pleasure, and only if he be able: for there is no compulsion; all is voluntary."

Tertullian does not hold this up as the model for a civil community. He presents is as a description of the religious practices of the Christian community. As such, it is true only in a limited way that "the way of the Christians" was contrary to the "institutions of the Roman government", because Tertullian was not saying that the Roman government should be like the Christians. He was merely saying that "this is what we do" and "we do not do what you claim we do".

However, if still wish to adopt Tertullian's description of a Christian community as your model for a civil society, I am afraid you would be better liked in Russia, circa 1917. Tertullian says "everything is voluntary", but he also goes on to say "All things are common among us but our wives."

Once again, it is not enough to find language to support your position. You need to find an anthropology that supports it.

healthily sanguine said...

Tertullian didn't try to delegitimize the notion of coercively-funded government. He tried to point out that coercively-funded governments are incompatible with the teachings of Christ, and for this reason, they are already illegitimate.

That's a huge leap, I think, even from what the article you linked to would assert on the basis of a few quotations. Tertullian and his counterparts were not so much speaking of "coercive government" in general as of the Roman Empire of their day in particular. That is the point of reference for them and, like Andy mentions, context is everything. Was the Roman Empire bad back then? Heck yes! That doesn't mean, however, that all governments are equally to be condemned. In fact, in the article Smith goes on to say that after the Edict of Milan issued by Constantine, Christan leaders had much less negative rhetoric against the Empire.

Geoff said...

Yes, the author of the article is an atheist. Therefore, there is no truth in what he says.

Try taking "The fact that Christ rejected an earthly kingdom should be enough to convince you that all secular powers and dignities are not merely alien from, but hostile to God" out of context. Yes, Christ rejected marriage for himself, as well. But consider the proposed purposes of the two institutions.

But I don't think I'm in any risk of taking Tertullian's words out of context. Elsewhere, he writes, "I owe no obligation to forum, campus or senate. I stay awake for no public function, I make no effort to monopolize the platform, I pay no heed to any administrative duty, I shun the voter's booth, the juryman's bench...I serve neither as magistrate nor soldier, I have withdrawn from the life of secular society." (Pal. 5)

He says "for there is no compulsion; all is voluntary" as if compulsion is an ugly, detestable thing thing. Not surprising. He was a reasonable man.

Yes, Tertullian was talking about the Christian community. He also holds it up as the ideal. He wasn't talking about a hippie commune. He was talking about men and women voluntarily sharing what they had. Without violence: so forget your 1917 reference.

Show me where the "custom" of one individual taking other individuals' money at swordpoint, for whatever purpose, began, and I'll show you the beginning of the "custom" of armed robbery. Show me a group of organized people doing it, and I'll show you a band of robbers.

The anthropology that supports my view is human anthropology: the initiation of violence is abhorrent. Period. The only proper use of violence is to neutralize an imminent, dire threat to life, limb and, in grave cases, property. Forming a coercively-funded government is usually the superhighway that leads to massive violations of these rights.

Andy Bodoh said...

Yes, the author of the article is an atheist. Therefore, there is no truth in what he says.

I never said that. You know I do not believe it. My only point is that you are arguing that the author of this article is misreading Tertullian, then you are grabbing three phrases that the author quotes from Tertullian without citation to support your position . The fact that you depend on an atheist's reading of a Church father to support your contention that Tertullian was a Christian libertarian further reduces the academic quality of your opinion.

Try taking "The fact that Christ rejected an earthly kingdom should be enough to convince you that all secular powers and dignities are not merely alien from, but hostile to God" out of context.

Where does this quote come from? Why should I trust it as authoritative?

But I don't think I'm in any risk of taking Tertullian's words out of context.

How do you know? Do you even know where these quotes come from? Do you know that this is an accurate translation? Do you know that Tertullian has even said this?

Elsewhere, he writes, "I owe no obligation to forum, campus or senate. I stay awake for no public function, I make no effort to monopolize the platform, I pay no heed to any administrative duty, I shun the voter's booth, the juryman's bench...I serve neither as magistrate nor soldier, I have withdrawn from the life of secular society." (Pal. 5)

Geoff, you amaze me. Did you read the chapter? Wow! This book is Tertullian's witty defense for wearing a pallium. The title of the chapter you quote is: "Chapter 5. Virtues of the Mantle. It Pleads in Its Own Defence". And Geoff, the passages you quote are the words of the mantle pleading its own defense. I thought it was bad you were using an atheist for support. Now you are using the words of a mantle. (See http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0401.htm)

He says "for there is no compulsion; all is voluntary" as if compulsion is an ugly, detestable thing thing.

No he doesn't. Read the text.
"Though we have our treasure-chest, it is not made up of purchase-money, as of a religion that has its price. On the monthly day, if he likes, each puts in a small donation; but only if it be his pleasure, and only if he be able: for there is no compulsion; all is voluntary. These gifts are, as it were, piety's deposit fund."
(http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0301.htm)

Yes, Tertullian was talking about the Christian community. He also holds it up as the ideal.

Not in this section. He is simply describing the practices in a favorable way in response the the charges against the Christians. Either way, there is nothing in the text in which he suggests that the civil society should be based on this model.

Show me where the "custom" of one individual taking other individuals' money at swordpoint, for whatever purpose, began, and I'll show you the beginning of the "custom" of armed robbery. Show me a group of organized people doing it, and I'll show you a band of robbers.

I understand your position here, but I don't think you understand my position. However, it is irrelevant here, as all that I am arguing is that the cited passages of Tertullian do not support libertarianism or anarchy.

The anthropology that supports my view is human anthropology: the initiation of violence is abhorrent. Period. The only proper use of violence is to neutralize an imminent, dire threat to life, limb and, in grave cases, property.

This is not an anthropology. This is at best a anthropologic principle.

Andy Bodoh said...

Perhaps I should amend the last line of my last comment.

Geoff's comment that "the initiation of violence is abhorrent" and "the only proper use of violence is to neutralize an imminent, dire threat to life, limb and, in grave cases, property" are unsupported anthropoologic conclusions and not an undisputable premises. Geoff accomplishes nothing by this claim.

healthily sanguine said...

"The fact that Christ rejected an earthly kingdom should be enough to convince you that all secular powers and dignities are not merely alien from, but hostile to God"

Even if we assume this is a good citation (I think Andy is making great points about intellectual honesty in using sources here), there are manifold different interpretations for this quote alone. For instance, maybe Tertullian was looking at it from a spiritual perspective, in which involvement in affairs of government would distract you from the higher goal of spiritual perfection--that is one interpretation of "hostile to God." Also, what of the word "secular"? Can there be such a thing as a Christian state for which this criticism would not apply? Again, I think this makes the most sense when seen as a direct attack on the Roman Empire of Tertullian's time. However, my opinion carries little weight because like you, I have no clue of the context of this short sentence.

In the end, of course you are free to think what you want about government or whatever, but it is not at all proper to twist the sayings of Church fathers (or of anyone) to support your beliefs. That's just bad scholarship.

Geoff said...

If there is any intellectual dishonesty, it is on the part of the authors whom I quoted verbatim, who took Tertullian's words out of context.

If there is any stupidity, it is mine, for not taking the time to research the original text.

Tertullian's words, even taken out of context, are still dead-on.

When did the "custom" start? The custom of taking other people's property at swordpoint? What individual started this "custom?" How did it happen?(That is how they get started: through people.) Do you deny that the only justifiable use of violence is to protect oneself against imminent and direct attacks on one's life, liberty or property?

healthily sanguine said...

I do deny it, for I do not see human life as being radically individualistic. There is such a thing as the community and the common good, and violence used in defense of that good is also legitimate.

Andy Bodoh said...

I found the citation for Geoff's quote. It comes from Tertullian's "On Idolatry", Chatper 18--"On Dress as Connected with Idolatry." (http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0302.htm).

The chapter and the book does condemn several aspects of governmental service, but it is not because they are rooted in coercive taxation. Tertullian is very clear that he is condeming these things because he believed that they were touched with idolatry.

Now, it is important to note at this point that Tertulian was not orthodox. He was a strong adherant to the Montanist heresy which believed in private revelations the strength of Scripture. Likewise he was especially hard on sins like idolatry, blasphemy, homicide, adultery, fornication, false witness, and fraud, which he considered irremissible. (See http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0302.htm).

In other words, yes, Tertullian did condemn most participation in government. However, he condemned it as idoltary, not as coercive deprivation of property, and his conception of idoltary was extreme and heretical.

I would not consider this good company, Geoff, even if he agrees with him.

Geoff said...

Have I ever said that people should live "radically individual" lives, cut off from other people? You keep repeating this phrase. I have never espoused such a viewpoint. I have never espoused anything but people working together for the common good, and rejecting violence as a means to the end of the common good. Coercion is contradictory to the common good.

No. All I have argued is voluntary interaction, and voluntary funding of goods and services. Nothing prevents an anarchic society from having police that do nothing but protect the lives, liberty and property of individuals. Nothing prevents an anarchic society from being civil, from having laws that protect lives, liberty and property.

There are means, believe it or not, besides force of violence, that would enable such services to exist in society.

Anarchists are not black-clad, sulky goth teenager punks throwing molotov cocktails at WTO conferences. They're just people who believe that they have no right to force other people to surrender their own property at the point of a bayonet. You want my property? Come and take it by violence yourself. Don't be a coward and vote for someone else to do it by proxy.

No. I do not espouse a "radically individualistic" mindset. I merely think that you, the consumer, should pay for the services that you yourself use. Why not have the government take over the medical or auto insurance business? Why not force people sign up for these things at gunpoint, rather than be responsible for their actions and the damage they inflict if they do not have them? After all, it would benefit the community, would it not? Or am I just being radically individualistic to think that I have no obligation in justice to pay for the services enjoyed by other people? I may have an obligation in charity. Is that your plan? Have government be an instrument of coercing "charity?"

You have no right to take my property or money by violence. Either by yourself (good luck) or by voting for someone else to do it by proxy.

You have no right to coerce anything from me. But I will be the FIRST in lıne to help out my neıghbor if he is in need. I wıll be the FIRST to donate to charities. I will be the FIRST to lay down my life for my neighbors. Go ahead. Continue to call my thought "radically individualistic," if you like.

Andy Bodoh said...

I am sure that Sylvia did not mean "radical individualism" in a economic sense, but more likely in a sociollogical sense. In other words, we all recognize that we interact with others, but what is in dispute is the meaning and significance of those interactions.

You have said before that you believe that society is a collection of individuals, and that is all. You have said that the common good is a sum of individual goods. That is one sociollogical view. Its focus on individuals is why some call it "radical individualism".

I frankly disagree with that view. It seems to me that you can't talk about an individual's property and liberty until you talk about society. "Property" and "liberty" (whatever that means) make no sense until you have human interaction, yet your view seems to consider property and liberty more essential to the human condition than society.

You have agreed with me that property is not an absolute right. We have never been able to agree on a definition of "liberty." However, society in fact is a network of interpersonal human relationships, not a mere collection of individuals. That network of relationships gives rise to particular notions of truth, reality, goodness, etc., and gives rise particular practices in response to these notions, the particular circumstances of the society, and the the human condition in general. These notions and practices in fact shape the way people conduct themselves and the way society is structured. Speaking generally then, these common notions and common practices are called custom.

This process of human interaction giving rise to custom is natural and good. It is in accord with human nature. The fact that custom ALWAYS lies at the heart of positive law (with one small exception), indicates that law is fundamentally related to custom--that we have to look back to custom to understand law.

Custom is implicitly directed towards actually having a good and just society in practice. Granted, all societies fall short of that mark because of human error. However, the fact that something is or nearly is universally accepted as a matter of custom over a long period of time as morally legitimate is strong evidence that the the thing is not wholly evil.

Now, you ask me where the custom of taxation stems from. I don't know. But can you deny that there is a longstanding and all but universal custom of taxation? Because there is, I take that as highly persuasive evidence that taxation is not wholly evil.

However, returning to the point which you admitted earlier-- namely, that property is not an absolute right--I can also see a clear argument for why taxation is perfectly legitimate.

Custom shapes society, and man is normally dependant on society. As such, nearly every man lives or benefits from a custom-shaped society. Custom is the one thing that preserves a society through generations, and custom is affected by conduct within a society. Therefore, it seems a requirement of reason that we ought to respect the custom of the society that we depend on. What this means in practice is that we ought to follow all customary obligations which are not contrary to human nature (broadly understood), that we must recognize the good of the customs (both customary notions and customary practices), and that we work to bring that custom more in line with human nature.

The fact that the society customarily agrees that the government can deprive persons of money through the force of law must be respected. We must recognize that this is an effort to construct a good and just society. If it is not contrary to human nature (broadly understood), then we must obey. If there is a way we can bring it more in line with human nature, than you should.

Now, you argue that taxation is immoral. You seem to have three arguments (besides the apparent stockpile of bayonets at the IRS office): first, the taxation laws are enforced through criminal sanctions; second, that you did not consent to the taxation; third that taxation is not necessary.

Initially, I might point out that actual consent to a society's law is not essential to its binding nature (as indicated above), that the use of taxation is generally seen as a reasonable way of achieve a good and just society, as are that the criminal sanctions attached to taxation. In other words, you bear the burden of proof to show that taxation is immoral.

Is taxation immoral as a deprivation of property with criminal sanctions attached to it? I do not see why. You argue tat violence is abhorrent and that one may only use violence to protect life, liberty and property. I see no foundation for this principle (in part because liberty is so poorly defined).

Second, is taxation immoral because you do not consent to it? Well, even though you do not consent to the law, you benefit from society. This is generally sufficient for law, so why isn't it sufficient in this case? Only because there is either force involved, or because it taxation is unnecessary. As such this collapses into the other two arguments.

Is taxation immoral because it is unnecessary? Well, you may be right that taxation is unnecessary, but then again, a lot of customary practices are unneccessary. Unnecessary does not make them immoral. The fact that taxation is customary makes it part of the social identity, which means that the society generally has the freedom to protect it through law. As such, I don't see that taxation is immoral because it is unnecessary.

Does taxation violate human nature? I don't see that it does. Once again, this collapses into one of the arguments above.

In other words, I see no basis for you to argue that coercive taxation is universally morally objectionable.