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34.11.3 The Intellectual Undertow

We have given as much attention as we have done to the writings of Machiavelli and to the personality of Charles V because they throw a flood of light upon the antagonisms of the next period in our history. This present chapter has told the story of a vast expansion of human horizons and of a great increase and distribution of knowledge, we have seen the conscience of common men awakening and intimations of a new and profounder social justice spreading throughout the general body of the Western civilization. But this process of light and thought was leaving courts and the political life of the world untouched. There is little in Machiavelli that might not have been written by some clever secretary in the court of Chosroes I or Shi Hwang-ti or even of Sargon I or Pepi. While the world in everything else was moving forward, in political ideas, in ideas about the relationship of state to state and of sovereign to citizen, it was standing still. Nay, it was falling back. For the great idea of the Catholic Church as the world city of God had been destroyed in men’s minds by the church itself, and the dream of a world imperialism had in the person of Charles V, been carried in effigy through Europe to limbo. Politically the world seemed falling back towards personal monarchy of the Assyrian or Macedonian pattern.

It is not that the newly awakened intellectual energies of western European men were too absorbed in theological restatement, in scientific investigations, in exploration and mercantile development, to give a thought to the claims and responsibilities of rulers. Not only were common men drawing ideas of a theocratic or republican or communistic character from the now accessible Bible, but the renewed study of the Greek classics was bringing the creative and fertilizing spirit of Plato to bear upon the Western mind. In England Sir Thomas More produced a quaint imitation of Plato’s Republic in his Utopia, setting out a sort of autocratic communism. In Naples, a century later, a certain friar Campanella was equally bold in his City of the Sun. But such discussions were having no immediate effect upon political arrangements. Compared with the massiveness of the task, these books do indeed seem poetical and scholarly and flimsy. (Yet later on the Utopia was to bear fruit in the English Poor Laws.) The intellectual and moral development of the Western mind and this drift towards Machiavellian monarchy in Europe were for a time going on concurrently in the same world, but they were going on almost independently. The statesmen still schemed and maneuvered as if nothing grew but the power of wary and fortunate kings. It was only in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that these two streams of tendency, the stream of general ideas and the drift of traditional and egoistic monarchical diplomacy interfered and came into conflict.

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