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Thursday, May 04, 2006

Plato and Bucer, Religion and Sex

As I mentioned in my previous post, Chapter 1 of Political Theologies explores the intellectual history behind the idea that states should regulate the private lives, and specifically the private sexual lives, of their citizens. In this post, I want to pick up on one of Hieronimo's key observations about Shuger's book--namely its tendency to put texts together "as if they were 'speaking' to each other, when in fact the rhetorical purposes, situations, speakers, and audiences relating to these texts varied widely"--and explore in greater detail the connections among some of the texts discussed in this first chapter. (I'll also have a little bit to say about some of the book's assumptions about what's utterly foreign to modern readers.)

I found the arguments in Chapter 1 to be both intriguing and hard to pin down. Shuger begins her analysis by pointing out that "from the earliest years of Elizabeth's reign those who argued for making adultery a felony were almost all Puritans" (10), adding that "this emphasis marks English Puritanism from the beginning" (11). The most important text for her is Martin Bucer's De regno Christi, written in 1550 as a New Year's gift for Edward VI, which, she says, "articulates the visionary telos that motivates and justifies the Protestant Left's demand for 'strict statutes and most biting laws'" regulating sex and private morality (11).

At this point I would have expected her to detail the history of sexual regulation in medieval and early modern Christianity, but instead she writes, "As even a cursory glance through the footnotes of De regno makes evident, the specific proposals that make up its second half are heavily indebted to Plato: sometimes to the Republic and Statesman but principally the Laws" (11). This is a surprising claim. Puritanism's most visionary conception of what Christ's Kingdom should look like on earth is "heavily indebted to" Plato. To Plato? Really? It's turns like this that can make reading Political Theologies such a pleasure. She consistently brings together texts that aren't normally discussed in relation to each other, and her resulting insights, even if they don't convince in every point, still force me to look at the Renaissance in somewhat different terms than I did before.

As the chapter continues, Shuger places Plato and Aristotle on opposite sides of a debate concerning the law and private morality. Plato urged "the regulation of pleasure, and therefore of sexuality," which in his theory of government "lies at the heart of the laws' concern" (12). Why? Because "moral existence requires, above all else, turning from the pursuit of one's own happiness in order to pursue the common good" (15). And because "individuals constitute parts of the whole" society, "even the minutiae of their lives matter," both to the gods and to the state (15). As the Athenian Stranger suggests in Plato's text, it is important for the state to teach men to resist "desires also and pleasure, with their dangerous enticements and flatteries, which melt men's hearts like wax--even the most reverenced in their own conceit" (12). Men like Angelo in Measure for Measure, for instance. To summarize: people should pursue not the individual good but the collective good; they therefore need to turn away from pursuing their own happiness and devote themselves to pursuing the good of the greater society. And in order to ensure that people are doing this, the state needs to regulate the tiniest details of people's lives and make sure they are in fact taking actions that contribute to the greater good.

On the other side of this debate is Aristotle, "the source of all subsequent republican/constitutionalist thought," the theoretical grand-daddy of "Livy, Polybius, Aquinas, Hooker, the Federalist Papers," whose Politics "dismisses-soul hierarchies and sacral rulers out of hand; analyzes the state in wholly secular terms; focuses on constitutional form rather than legal substance ... on power rather than goodness; seems largely untroubled by individualism, diversity, and pleasure; displays almost no interest in regulating sexual conduct... The Politics deals with issues of class, economics, revolution, representation, social justice, and constitutional structure; unlike the Laws, that is, it treats what we think of as politics" (18). In other words, we're all Aristotelians now, but in the sixteenth century, the Puritans were more the descendents of Plato. Not being as well versed in classical political theory as I perhaps should be, I really like this argument and imagine it will continue to shape how I think about these issues in the future.

But there's still the nagging issue of influence. In attempting to get at the ideas behind Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, Shuger traces an intellectual history that begins with Plato, travels to Bucer, and then reaches Shakespeare. That's a difficult job, but also an exciting possibility. She does insert between Plato and Bucer both Cicero's De legibus and Josephus's Against Apion, but--and here's the key point--she notes that Bucer is primarily concerned to reinstate Mosaic law. And it's this issue that raises a series of questions that I wish the chapter had addressed more explicitly.

For example, how are we meant to understand the respective influence of Plato vs. Moses in Bucer's book? Do they represent two separate traditions that hit upon a common idea, or did Plato's writings inform the Old Testament? Probably not (right?), but Political Theologies never theorizes the respective influence of Plato and the Old Testament on Bucer. Mosaic law was clearly a bigger influence on Puritanism, so in what way did Plato contribute to both Bucer's thinking and the thinking of other Puritans? Unfortunately, Political Theologies never makes this clear.

When we turn to the endnotes, things become even more tangled. Shuger writes that "Bucer explicitly cites the Laws several times in De regno, but the footnotes, which disclose a far more extensive indebtedness, are the work of his modern editors" (144n). While this note does establish that Bucer was clearly using Plato's Laws--he cites it "several times"--it also raises its own series of questions. If Bucer was using Plato so extensively, then why didn't he cite him more often? If modern editors have indeed shown how indebted Bucer's ideas were to Plato, then hasn't their work also shown how infrequently Bucer cited Plato? Was Bucer perhaps citing Plato for different reasons and for a different audience than he was when he discussed Mosaic law? Without a fuller discussion of Bucer's citation practices, it's hard to tell how and when Bucer was in fact using Plato.

And the influence of Bucer's De regno? Though written in 1550, it wasn't printed until 1557, and then in Basle, not England. According to Shuger, moreover, De regno "had little direct influence on Puritanism." Instead, "Bucer's social vision enters England indirectly via Calvin, whose own thought 'was profoundly shaped by what he learned and took over from Bucer, particularly during the years (1538-41) when they were associated in common work in Strassburg'" (144n, quoting Wilhelm Pauck). Furthermore, Shuger allows that she "doubt[s] the Laws was ever a well-known text" (11).

So we're left with a little-known classical work (by Plato) that was cited several times by a Puritan work (by Bucer) that had little direct influence on Puritanism. Which leaves one wondering about the intellectual history offered here. Why does Political Theologies not focus more on the influence of the Old Testament and of Calvin on Measure for Measure, two sources that seem to have had a more direct impact on thinking in the sixteenth century? To what degree did Plato actually inform the Puritan drive for a theocratic state? Did Plato simply lay out a theory that was analogous to one set forth in the Old Testament? Or did Plato actually influence sixteenth-century conceptions of Mosaic law?

I guess all these questions might be boiled down to this: How ultimately was Bucer using Plato? And did Plato's ideas actually influence English Puritanism? These are genuine questions, ones I don't have the answer to and didn't even know enough to ask before I read this book. And Political Theologies never answers these questions as directly as I wish it did. The intellectual history it lays out could be entirely correct, and it is definitely thought-provoking, but it still has a few too many gaps and unanswered questions to be entirely convincing.

In fact, the chapter's final section (titled "Excursus") seems to undo some of the work in earlier parts of the chapter. It states "that sexual regulation was not an exclusively Puritan-Platonic concern": "In particular, the view that public virtue depends on private morality, a view both Plato and Bucer uphold, is not specific to the Laws tradition, but is a widespread and longstanding commonplace" (36). It was "a topos in Roman literature from the late republican period on" and would remain influential into the nineteenth century. And as anyone who lived through the Clinton-Lewinsky years knows, it remains a commonplace today.

When I read this, I have to admit I was even more unsure about the intellectual history of public virtue and private morality. I now know more about Plato and his non-Aristotelian followers--which, as I wrote above, is not something I knew much about before--but I still don't know if they were following Plato (i.e., were influenced by his Laws) or if they just happened to hit upon the same idea he initially did (i.e., they came after Plato but were not influenced by his theories).

The Clinton-Lewinsky connection leads me to another curious feature of Political Theologies: those moments when the book assumes that some idea or concept is particularly foreign to modern society or hard for modern readers to understand. One such example occurs when Shuger is discussing the links between public virtue and private morality outlined in Bucer's Kingdom of Christ. These links, she suggests, "now seem odd to the point of unintelligibility" (18). Or, to choose another example, she later writes: “What makes sacral kingship so alien to modern political thought is not its ideality per se but that the ideal is not, like gender equality, a state of affairs; nor, like republicanism, a constitutional form; nor, like the pursuit of happiness, a legally protected right; but rather a person—the godly and godlike ruler. This is a deeply un-American notion” (61).

Is sacral kingship so alien? I'm not so sure, and I wonder if moments like these are the product of the book’s having been written before the Bush presidency. And before 9/11. Because even if it were true in 1999 that the concept of "the godly and godlike ruler” was an alien, un-American idea, I'm not sure that is any longer the case. Likewise, the connection between public virtue and private morality is hardly "unintelligible" today; it has been a bedrock of U.S. political campaigns since, well, the eighteenth-century. And it continues to be one: remember that big liar Al Gore? The one who "lied" about Love Story? And about doggy pills? And who had the gall to work for a serial philanderer? (The Daily Howler is the place to go for past and real-time coverage of this campaign tactic.) We see Plato's and Bucer's ideas all around us today, and not surprisingly, such ideas are often tied, as they are in Measure for Measure, to the regulation of (female) sexuality.

For example, as these April 2006 posts from Digby amply demonstrate, the desire to regulate the sexuality of women, to control the sexual purity of daughters, and to prevent the formation of teen sex cults is very much alive today. As in the sixteenth century, these campaigns seem more indebted to the Old Testament prophet Moses than to the pederast Plato; Greek love wasn’t a big part of the early modern Puritan agenda nor is it of the modern evangelical agenda. (By the bye, if you haven't read Digby's coverage of Purity Balls, do so right now; so creeeeeeepy.)

Such moments paradoxically serve to increase the purchase of Shuger's arguments. With the rise of, or at least our greater awareness of, religious fundamentalism, the ideas traced in Political Theologies are more relevant today than they may have been in 1999 (when Shuger was apparently finishing the book). But I'm still not sure how much these political theologies have to do with Plato.

  • At 5/04/2006 02:21:00 PM, Blogger La Lecturess wrote…

    Still haven't finished, still madly busy, but I wanted to chime in and say that I, too, was irritated by Shuger's insistence that certain ideas are nearly impossible for a modern audience to understand. (Or maybe *you* weren't irritated by it, Simplicius, but I certainly was!)

    The one occasion that particularly bugged me was when Shuger was discussing (in Ch. 1) the Early Modern emphasis on the collective good, which values the community rather than the individual. She writes, "the political ideals here are so alien as to be nearly incomprehensible" (p. 15). Really? Incomprehensible? Even to an undergraduate, I don't think this is at all an incomprehensible concept; we think in similar ways about sports teams, musical groups (which is the very good analogy that Shuger herself provides, although it leads her to that very very bad sentence, "The second violinist does not have a right to follow his own drummer"), the military, and even the family.

    Most of what irritated me about this tic on Shuger's part was that I felt she was overselling her own argument. But another part of it is that it seemed so unnecessary to emphasize the gulf between the present and the past. Isn't it clear enough? To the presumedly scholarly audience that she's addressing? It's also curious, is it not, that she says at one moment that the attitudes of the past were so freaky and hard to understand. . . and at the next she draws parallels to contemporary political events.

    Me, I could do without either move. In the classroom or in a conference paper, comparisons to contemporary events are welcome, enjoyable, and often illuminating. But in a book they tend to date very quickly and unattractively. (And, after all, why *need* we assert the value of the past in terms of the present--whether by analogy or by contrast?)

    Okay--that's enough of a rant from me for now, especially as I'm actually quite enjoying the book. I hope to have more of substance to say soon.


  • At 5/05/2006 09:57:00 AM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    I agree entirely, LL, especially with your point about her scholarly audience. She's letting us know what were commonplace beliefs in early modern England, and therefore none is--or should be--particularly earth-shattering to a group of scholars. And yet the book repeatedly makes that claim. Definitely an odd tic (and I think "tic" is exactly the right word for it).


  • At 5/10/2006 03:03:00 PM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    Re: Plato and Mosaic law. This is the territory of the prisca theologia, right? The idea of a primitive theology, derived actually from Egypt, which informs certain early forms of mystical thought (including, supposedly, the various mystery cults in Greece), and was thought to approximate (in a certain way) the truths of Christianity. We're talking chiefly about Hermeticism here, about Hermes Trismegistus, but this was linked to Plato and also to Moses: the prisca theologia came to Moses himself (supposedly) by way of Egyptian learning: somewhere in Acts -- I can't remember the place -- we're told that Moses had mastered all Egyptian learning, a passage that I think draws on the scene in Exodus where Moses engages in that battle of sorcery with the Egyptian wizards. So that one could claim -- as I think some humanists did -- that in some ways, Plato and Moses were drawing from the same source -- though Moses then of course also has direct access to God, to the corrected script of true theology, rather than the natural approximations of the first theology. I may be garbling this, but I think that's how it goes.

    There's been a book about this kind of stuff recently, focusing more on the Enlightenment, but making some reference to work on the Renaissance as well -- Frances Yates, for example.

    I have no idea whether Shuger has thought this through, of course, and the prisca theologia is *not* puritan territory: absolutely the opposite, I would say. This is why it's surprising that Bucer would cite Plato: it seems to signal that he's doing a kind of comparative theology of a very non-puritan sort.

    I guess in part the advantage for Shuger in this is to trace political theology to both Greek and Jewish tradition, thereby making that secularist Aristotle look more and more marginal?


  • At 5/10/2006 03:46:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Your erudition continues to impress, Inkhorn. And your comment makes clear how important it is for us to know when and how Bucer is citing Plato, not just that he is.

    Doing a little half-ass research (i.e., trolling through EEBO), I've found that Milton, in his The Ivdgement of Martin Bucer concerning divorce written to Edward the sixt (Wing B5270), excerpts one passage from Bucer's Christ's Kingdom that mentions Plato.

    As you can see, it's not exactly a ringing endorsement of any of the ancient philosophers:

    "Since wee have need of civil laws and the power of punishing, it will be wisest not to contemn those giv'n by Moses; but seriously rather to consider what the meaning of God was in them, what he cheifly requir'd, and how much it might be to the good of every Nation, if they would borrow thence thir manner of governing the Common-wealth; yet freely all things and with the Spirit of Christ. For what Solon, or Plato, or Aristotle, what Lawyers or Caesars could make better laws then God? And it is no light argument, that many Magistrates at this day doe not anough acknowledge the kingdom of Christ, though they would seem most Christian, in that they govern thir States by laws so divers from those of Moses."

    This passage, writes Milton, comes from Bucer's "Comment upon Matthew, Chap. 5. 19." in The second Book entitl'd Of the kingdom of Christ writt'n by Martin Bucer to Edward the 6th K. of England. It specifically distinguishes Moses from the Greeks, even as it makes clear that Bucer has at least read the ancient philosophers.

    The 1557 edition of De regno isn't available on EEBO, just as it probably wouldn't have been available in many bookshops in England. So we're again left, as I wrote above, with "a little-known classical work (by Plato) that was cited several times by a Puritan work (by Bucer) that had little direct influence on Puritanism."

    But now I'm curious about the impact and influence of the prisca theologia in sixteenth and seventeenth century England. (Yet another hobby horse I can ride years from now when, and if, I finally have tenure.)


  • At 5/10/2006 04:13:00 PM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    That's interesting, Simplicius. I wonder whether that doesn't mean that Bucer is in fact combating prisca theologia and separating Moses from Plato et al -- even if Bucer is also, as Shuger seems to suggest, unacknowledgedly leaning on Plato. I did raise an eyebrow (a figurative eyebrow) at the very brief way in which Mosaic law appeared in Shuger's text. That strikes me as a problem.

    Later on, this issue appears again in a brief reference to an exchange between Whitgift and Cartwright. Whitgift emphasizes "the lenity of the Gospel," in Shuger's words (if I'm reading my notes right -- I already returned the book to ILL); Cartwright fires back: "to say that God was then [ie under Mosaic law] a severe punisher of sin, and that now He is not at so great hatred with it, but that He will have it genlier and softlier dealt with, is even all one in effect with that which supposeth two Gods" (qtd. 122). Shuger says that C is accusing W of "borderline Manicheanism" -- but that's not quite right: Manicheanism explains the origins of evil by imagining that there are two antithetical principles operative in the world, divine and demonic, which are at war with each other but are also symmetrical. I read C's accusation as in fact of secret *Gnosticism*: that is, the claim that the God of Hebrew scripture is in fact a different God from the father of Jesus Christ: that the creator of the world is an evil or careless God (why else would the world have so many mosquitos? -- to paraphrase somebody, I can't remember who), and that the redeemer God, Jesus's father, is a different God, who will save us from this miscreated earth. C is saying that W's distinction between the gospel and the Mosaic law amounts to bifurcating God altogether. Now -- here's the relevant part, for us -- the Gnostics went so far as to argue that the Hebrew scripture, therefore, isn't relevant to Christians at all: they wanted the "Old Testament" out of the Christian Bible altogether. That, at least, is as I understand this, and I'm probably generalizing excessively; I'm basing this on things I've read about Macion -- whose own versions of the gospels we don't have, but which people try to reconstruct based on various refutations. C and the puritans, then, want at some level to keep faith with Mosaic law -- and for this are accused by more centrist Protestants of Judaizing. (That rhetoric comes up a lot in interpretations of *Merchant of Venice*).


  • At 5/10/2006 04:15:00 PM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    I remembered what I'm basing this on -- some pages on gnosticism in Jacob Taubes's lectures, "The Political Theology of Paul." Back to political theology again.


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