Review: Andrew Willard Jones’s “Before Church and State”

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There are histories of facts and histories of thoughts; of causes and of motives; of social structures and of mindsets. In Before Church and State, Andrew Willard Jones has written a history of the latter type: In discussing 13th-century France, his aim is not to defend an account of the causes of events or to discuss new archeological or archival findings. He sets out rather to capture the political thought of the kingdom of St. Louis, to explain to us not what the men of that time did, but how they understood their actions and motivations. If Jones is right about their political thought, this task is an audacious one: For his central thesis is that the political thought of 13th-century France was so different from that of us moderns that we find it almost impossible to imagine. It is not, for him, that the medievals came to different conclusions about the roles of church and of state, about the nature of justice or of the law, but that their concepts of these things were fundamentally not the same as ours. For Jones, St. Louis’s kingdom shows us that we take many political ideas for granted and forces us to consider an alternative way of thinking. Citing liturgy, litigation, and letters of the time, and focusing on the relation between King Louis and his subject Gui Foucois (the future pope Clement IV), Jones illustrates for us some areas in which the political ideologies of St. Louis’s age and ours begin from fundamentally different principles.

This distinction of medieval and modern thought is embedded in the book’s title. Jones wants to show that in 13th-century France, the separation of “church” and “state” was simply unthinkable, since the religious and secular did not describe separate social spheres, but two sides of a single reality: the “Christian kingdom,” an integral order in which it was equally proper to the king to prosecute heretics and to the bishops to excommunicate rebels. Both secular and lay authorities owned property, made and enforced laws, and cooperated in each other’s courts and campaigns. Jones does not pretend that there was never conflict between ecclesiastical and secular powers; his book is not a fantasy of an “Age of Faith” or of some other medievalist utopia, but of a polity that could understand even its faults and dissensions in terms of an integral ideal according to which the spiritual and temporal powers operated as one.

Here the liberal mind will immediately raise a question: Granted that spiritual and temporal power were coordinated, which was in charge? Which “called the shots”? And to answer this question—or rather to reject it—Jones argues that the premises of medieval political thought prevented it from ever arising. His argument is that we moderns cannot understand the actors of that time or their actions unless we challenge two of our central political concepts: the opposition of peace and the “state of nature” and the discussion of politics in terms of “sovereignty.”

Against the Aristotelian view of politics as natural, the liberal has always regarded political order as a kind of human artifice, imposed by explicit human acts and procedures on a recalcitrant “state of nature,” which at least since Hobbes has been imagined as very like a state of war. For the modern liberal, it is social order—not the breaches thereof—that requires explanation, as if a primordial anarchy were always ready to resurface from beneath the veneer of civilization. But in the Christian kingdom of St. Louis, peace and justice were seen not as the results of law, but as the natural condition of a flourishing society. As Jones writes, “justice was above the law and was the foundation of the law rather than something defined by the law.” This is not to say that St. Louis was some sort of anarchist—there was a legitimate role for laws and legal judgments to address breaches of the peace—but the role of the law was to defend and repair a social order that preexisted any law.

The divide between this political ontology, in which peace was primary, and our own, with its fear of primordial violence, has great implications for how we think about social order. Jones summarizes it: “Modernity has posited universal conflict and so has universal, human rights, whereas the Middle Ages of St. Louis posited conflict as an exception and so had limited, disconnected, and particular rights.” We moderns believe that social peace rests on the rights granted equally and indifferently to all, by which we might keep in check each other’s private interests and arrive (accidentally, as it were, as the result of a kind of averaging) at a peaceful order. But in the Christian kingdom of St. Louis, justice was not imagined as a truce to be reached by equals engaged agonistically, but as the natural order of all, and so the function of rights was not to establish an equal playing field, but to protect the unique roles specific groups and persons had to play in preserving an order that was the common good of all.

We moderns may object that this is unrealistic, that it is an invitation to domination and exploitation, that a theory of social justice that rejects modern liberal individualism and its associated rights-discourse is simply wishful thinking. But Jones would accuse us of a failure of imagination: “We have to allow for the possibility that two people can have a relationship that is not predicated ultimately on competition for power, one over the other—in effect, we have to allow for the possibility of a non-dissembling peace.” And if we want to believe, with the Church and with Aristotle, that political order is a good in itself and not simply an expedient means for individual flourishing, we may have to find some way to believe in this “non-dissembling peace.”

Just as St. Louis’s Christian kingdom requires us to rethink our notion of rights, it also challenges the idea of sovereignty. Sovereignty, in some form or another, is the key question in modern politics. This is, for Jones, why liberals struggle to understand the medieval relations of church and state, since, as Jones illustrates, the historical evidence does not clearly indicate that either king or pope was sovereign in any contemporary sense. Jones’s contention is that this is no paradox: that for an age that imagined politics in terms of its final cause—the common good—there was no need to define political order in terms of this or that efficient cause or procedure. That is, we moderns think of the common good as an “outcome,” not as a principle of politics, and erect our political theories accordingly. We do not begin from the question of what the common good is but with questions about the formal rules by which political decisions, whether or not they serve the common good, are to be made; even when we believe a liberal process leads to the best outcomes, we justify and authorize the discrete actions of the liberal state not by appealing to these outcomes but to the procedural rules by which they are enacted.

Unlike the subjects of St. Louis, for whom all rights were subordinated to the unitary common good of the whole society, we assume that rights are integral in their possessors, who insofar as they have a right, are equally free to exercise it for antisocial as for politically responsible purposes. For St. Louis and his kingdom, rights were invented as solutions to conflicts; for the liberal, rights are primary and fundamental, and the whole problem of politics is to address conflicts between rights. The question for the liberal is how these conflicts might be prevented from resulting in social chaos, and the idea of the sovereign is a solution to this. Whether one makes individual rights-bearers sovereign, as do the libertarians, or imagines with Hobbes that a single power in society might be erected as sovereign over all others, the solution is a procedural one: The question is not of what should be decided, but of who should decide it and by what formal rule.

And so we often find ourselves in a situation that would have baffled the jurists of St. Louis’s Christian kingdom, obliged to endorse actions and decisions we know harm the common good simply because such actions and decisions are in compliance with the formal rules liberalism proposes. The substantive question of the common good is dissolved in questions of precedent, of standing, and of procedural correctness.

One finds such thinking no less among conservatives than among the Left; it is a distinctive of modern political thought that links Antonin Scalia with John Rawls. But by the example of his medieval Frenchmen, Jones invites us to consider that our liberal approach to this question is only one possible way to think about politics, and he challenges us to imagine what it might be like to begin our political theorizing from a different point.

The book is not without its flaws and limits. Jones’s role in this book has been to describe an historical view; he has provided us with an essay in intellectual history that calls out for a parallel effort in political philosophy, so that we might not only be able to describe but perhaps to recover some of what the subjects of the Christian kingdom took for granted. And it must be said that Jones’s own gestures in this direction leave much to be desired.

In the fourteenth chapter of the book, Jones intends to show that the patterns of thought and motivation he has described are also captured in the political thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. In a way, this analysis is needed to confirm the historical account Jones has given: It is reasonable to ask whether his schematization of St. Louis’s polity can be traced in the political thought of the time. But while this is a necessary exercise, Jones’s effort here is likely to leave Thomists disappointed. Certainly the Thomist reader will have noticed similarities between the conceptual frameworks Jones illustrates and the anti-liberal or pre-liberal thought of the Common Doctor. But Jones (who does not claim to be a scholar of Thomas) confuses this argument by wading blithely into some of the questions most fiercely contested among Thomists, regarding the relationship between the order of nature and grace and the connection between politics and the supernatural end of the Christian community; his account is likely to annoy most Thomists and enrage some. But even if Jones’s proposed explanation of the link between 13th-century practice and philosophy can be challenged, the historical case studies he has assembled will be a valuable resource to any subsequent Thomist who attempts such a reconciliation.

The reader of Before Church and State, even when he has been convinced that the kingdom of St. Louis presents an alternative mode of political thought, is still confronted with the question: Is that mode a better one? Aside from a few provocative obiter dicta, Jones does not attempt to answer this. The aim of Jones’s copious citations and close analyses of specific events is only to show us that a world existed in which this alternative theoretical vision was a plausible account of political reality—a world where to imagine the integral unity of church and state in the Christian kingdom was not ridiculous. The critical reader can and should ask further questions about how enduring, how large, how peaceful this Christian kingdom really was (and at times Jones almost lets the reader forget that Frederick II was developing his own ideas of church and state even as Louis reigned or that the Western Schism was to follow shortly after this period of harmony) and one might also ask whether such a vision has any relevance to our own world, so materially and socially changed from that of St. Louis.

But to ask such questions is already to have understood the different manner of thinking about politics that Jones proposes, and he has done us a service in expanding our political imaginations. To the historians of the Middle Ages, his work is a valuable exercise in intellectual history; to students of the Christian tradition attempting to recover something of the wisdom of the past, it may be an inspiration.

[This article appears in Fare Forward Issue 8 (Dec. 2017), order here.]

Kevin Gallagher

Kevin Gallagher lives and works in New York. He tweets at @kev_jg.