The Humanist Critique of Metaphysics and the Foundation of the Political Order

Article excerpt

IN EXAMINING ENGLAND'S BREAK with Papal Rome, G.R. Elton argued that in addition to creating the national state, the Tudor revolution "demonstrated that in law and on earth there is nothing that an act of parliament cannot do." Elton described how radically new this concept was--and how incompatible it was with contemporary thought. "It took centuries of talk about the law divine and the law natural, with which the law made by man was supposed to be consonant, before men would admit in all its starkness [this] simple theory" (167-68). Elton had identified the tension that existed between, on the one hand, the modern notion of the state already implicit in sixteenth-century political practices and, on the other hand, pre-modern concepts of the political order that continued to prevail in consciousness and culture.

This article examines a similar ambivalence that characterized the way humanist thought addressed questions about the political order. Humanism rejected the metaphysics and theology that had informed the pre-modern understanding of human reality. This implied a rejection of a metaphysical or theological foundations of the political order. Humanist political discourse did not view politics as reflecting a natural or divine order of things. It presupposed, rather, that politics was a human creation. Such views, as Elton noted, contradicted entrenched beliefs. As a result a tension developed between humanist discourse and the religious and moral convictions of the humanists themselves.

Because most humanists did not draw the radical conclusions that were immanent to their discourse, this tension usually remained latent. However, it surfaced in some of the more significant works written by humanists. Two of these will be the subject of discussion here. Lorenzo Valla's On the True and the False Good and Thomas More's Utopia each advanced the humanist critique of the metaphysical underpinnings of traditional ethics and political thought, and each acknowledged the radical implications of this critique. As a consequence, these two works confronted questions concerning the foundation, or rather the lack of foundation, of the political order.

Valla (1407-57) develops a humanist critique of moral philosophy, which he replaced with a naturalist ethics of pleasure. He also explicated what radical implications his position held for social life. Ultimately, however, he attempted to rehabilitate traditional values by anchoring them in faith, a Christian faith divorced from reason. More's rejection of the existing social and political order, as well as his Utopian alternative, rests on humanist assumptions and critical insights similar to Valla's. Indeed, Utopia's most ambitious attempt to justify the Utopian order of things is grounded in an ethics of pleasure (seemingly) identical to that elaborated in On the True and False Good. In contrast to Valla, however, More (1478-1535) did not turn to religion in reinventing a foundation for the political order. He attempted, and failed, to create a theoretical basis for the Utopian order within humanist political discourse. In recognizing this failure and Utopia's attempt to hide it, this essay reads More's text as testimony to the humanists' inability to face the implications of their discourse. Utopia thus becomes a symptom of the inherent tension between the modernity of humanist discourse and the pre-modern culture and mentality to which the humanists still belonged.

More importantly, Valla's and More's unsuccessful attempts to grapple with the problem of the foundation of politics is a reflection of the discontents of modernity itself: our reluctance to admit that there is no ultimate grounding of (or perhaps for, but certainly not in] the political order.

Humanist political discourse

A growing number of studies of Renaissance humanism reveal a cultural movement of great heterogeneity. …