Rise of the Modern State

Luther and His Progeny: 500 Years of Protestantism and Its Consequences for Church, State, and Society, edited by John C. Rao.

I must begin this post as I do each post in the series of examining this book: I am not interested in the theological debate.  I am interested in what happens to peace, governance, and growth of government when common culture is lost.

So let’s begin.

Christendom died to allow Europe to be born…

–        Francisco Elias de Tejada, cited by Miguel Ayuso

According to Tejada, the system was brought down by five successive ruptures:

Time to buy old US gold coins

–        The religious rupture of Lutheran Protestantism

–        The ethical rupture with Machiavelli

–        The political rupture at the hands of Bodin

–        The juridical rupture through Grotius and Hobbes

–        The definitive rupture with the Treaties of Westphalia

He summarizes:

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From 1517 through 1648 Europe was born and grew, and to the degree that Europe was born and grew, Christianity died.

For the purpose of this post, if it helps: don’t think of “Christianity” in the…Christian sense; think of it in the common culture and tradition sense.

I offer a brief summary of these various characters:

Niccolò Machiavelli, best known for The Prince, is not the easiest political philosopher to understand.  Given the context of Rao’s book, it is safe to take the negative view:

Machiavelli described immoral behavior, such as dishonesty and killing innocents, as being normal and effective in politics. He even seemed to endorse it in some situations. The book itself gained notoriety when some readers claimed that the author was teaching evil, and providing “evil recommendations to tyrants to help them maintain their power”.

Jean Bodin was a sixteenth-century French jurist and political philosopher:

He is best known for his theory of sovereignty…

Bodin lived during the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation and wrote against the background of religious conflict in France. He remained a nominal Catholic throughout his life but was critical of papal authority over governments, favouring the strong central control of a national monarchy as an antidote to factional strife.

The fracturing of Christian (again, common culture and tradition, if you prefer) Europe inherently required a new ruler, one who would provide strong central control as opposed to the decentralized structure that came before.

Hugo Grotius was a Dutch jurist:

Grotius laid the foundations for international law, based on natural law.

It is thought that Hugo Grotius was not the first to formulate the international society doctrine, but he was one of the first to define expressly the idea of one society of states, governed not by force or warfare but by actual laws and mutual agreement to enforce those laws.

Laws to be created by man, not by custom.

Thomas Hobbes was an English philosopher, considered to be one of the founders of modern political philosophy.

Hobbes is best known for his 1651 book Leviathan, which established the social contract theory that has served as the foundation for most later Western political philosophy.

The Treaties of Westphalia:

The Peace of Westphalia was a series of peace treaties signed between May and October 1648 in the Westphalian cities of Osnabrück and Münster, effectively ending the European wars of religion.

The Peace of Westphalia established the precedent of peaces established by diplomatic congress, and a new system of political order in central Europe, later called Westphalian sovereignty, based upon the concept of co-existing sovereign states.

States were now sovereign.

Ayuso would later also add the Peace of Augsburg (1555):

It officially ended the religious struggle between the two groups and made the legal division of Christendom permanent within the Holy Roman Empire, allowing rulers to choose either Lutheranism or Roman Catholicism as the official confession of their state. Calvinism was not allowed until the Peace of Westphalia.

Let’s say you were one of the rulers of the time: if you choose the Roman Church, you were bound to shared sovereignty and customary law; if you choose Lutheranism, you were free from all of that – a true sovereign.

Now for the kind-hearted rulers in the audience, maybe your choice wouldn’t make much difference to those under your rule; you’re a good guy, you will treat the people fairly with or without Rome or your ancestors looking over your shoulder.  But if you have tendencies toward being a despot, freedom from Rome would sound pretty good.  After all, the worst can’t get on top if they have to share the top (or worse, have to deal with the Ultimate Sovereign at the top).

Returning to Ayuso, and the time before these five ruptures:

[The king’s] oath to the laws of the land and to justice was not simply a contract between the king himself and his subjects.  On the contrary, it was a contract into which figured God and His grace.

The king did not make law; his duty was to enforce law.  Law came from custom – old and good custom.

Replacing this was Europe – a Europe of sovereign states, codified in Westphalia.  The state gained life, eternal life – it was now timeless…

…having a form of a person distinct from citizens; as being an artificial entity that was the fruit of a social contract, a product of human genius, and gifted with sovereignty.

This statist logic, lawmaking based on human reason, could come to only one end:

Hence it arrives at the radical conclusion that there can be no other form of human or extra-human order, whether natural or created, that is not that of the state itself.

Something or someone will make the laws; something or someone will be sovereign.  Timeless custom or the timeless state; there is no third option – even contract law cannot capture every eventuality in the way that custom can (reasonably voluntarily and known before the fact) or the state can (by force, and after the fact if necessary).

One might ask: “what difference does it make to me who makes the laws?  I am stuck under the laws either way.”  I will ask in response: does old and good custom dictate the hundreds of thousands of laws and regulations man burdens under today, or does old and good custom dictate something approaching the non-aggression principle?

I think to ask the question is to answer it.  Therefore, under man-made law, compulsion becomes the mechanism by which we are made to obey.


Man as sovereign brought us liberalism – which only offers a negative liberty, a liberty with no criteria.  Keep in mind, no criteria for you means no criteria for your neighbor.  We see the fruits of this daily, but this isn’t the worst of it.  No criteria for you and your neighbor means no criteria for government – now the state, a timeless being, separate from the population and fully sovereign.

Who decides what laws the state can pass, how those laws will be enforced, the punishment for violations, and what determination will be made on appeal?

The answer today is simple: the state, not bound to any criteria, not bound to customary law.


I know that there are some who cringe every time that I have a negative word to write about liberalism.  But what if it’s true?  What if man had more liberty under the custom and tradition of the Middle Ages?

Anyway, even if this isn’t the case, we see much in today’s world that can be traced directly to the building blocks of liberalism.  It might be worth trying to understand what went wrong and why.

Reprinted with permission from Bionic Mosquito.