Lecture Two: Early Modern Critics of Tyranny and Oppression

Last night Professor Stout delivered the second of his Gifford Lectures. The video of Stout’s lecture is embedded below for those who were unable to attend in person, or for those who’d like to listen to it again. An audio only version can also be found at the end of this post. In order to further facilitate discussion my colleague Cameron Clausing will be adding his initial reflections on Professor Stout’s second  lecture. Cam is currently a postgraduate student at New College, University of Edinburgh. We’d like to reiterate that we warmly welcome anyone wishing to engage with Stout’s lectures to contribute their comments and questions below.

Professor Stout opens his second lecture by defining tyranny and oppression as they relate to the global spread of religion-talk (as it relates to the Latin term religio) and its ties to imperialism. A tyrant is someone who “exercises power over someone for reasons contrary to the common good.” Oppression occurs when tyrants “unjustly press a person or a group into servitude.” According to Stout, servitude is synonymous with being “subjected to domination” where this is understood as being “at the mercy of another’s will, as a slave is vulnerable to a master’s arbitrary power.” Just as superstition is false religion (and not merely a bad form of religion) a tyrant is a false king not merely a bad one. Like superstition and true religion tyrants (morally vicious) and kings (morally virtuous) are incompatible by definition.

Stout then moved on to talk at length about the early modern Dominican Bartolomé de Las Casas (referencing a few others along the way). He focused on Las Casas’ mediating role between the conquistadors and the Indian population amidst the many horrendous events that transpired, which were in part justified by the conquistadors through misunderstood appeals to religion as it was tied up with royal authority. The conquistadors were oppressive and they tyrannically forced the Indian population into servitude. This was incompatible with true religion, despite their delusions of being exemplars of it.

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The distinction between “gentle persuasion and living examples,” on the one hand, were then contrasted with tyrannical exercises of power, on the other.  Gentle persuasion through living exemplars of true religion is the only fitting means of propagation, since true religion is inherently a moral virtue embedded in just relations. According to this Thomist way of thinking Stout stated that “Spreading the Gospel of the true religion is an act of true religion—an expression of virtuous devotion to God. Motives other than a purified desire to win the free assent of potential converts corrupt the underlying virtue itself.”  In other words, we might say that true religion is a holistic and wholly self-involving way of being that cannot be compartmentalized or objectified. It is not a thing that exists apart from virtuous embodiment that could be traded and presented to others in a disengaged or uninvolved way, and it certainly cannot be presented to others through tyrannical and oppressive means. It simply does not exist in that way. In this lecture, Stout went on to further articulate Las Casas’ distinction between persuasion and force as they variously relate to Christians and potential converts, where force is never an acceptable means to elicit conversion, despite the fact that, for Las Casas, coercion can justly be used “to establish and maintain a just society, not least by holding Christians, including converts, to their freely undertaken promises.” Free persuasion in virtuous relation is the only fitting way to attempt to spread religion, according to Las Casas.

Given this, Stout then went on to talk about “sublime examples of atrocity” by discussing Las Casas’ most famous work, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies (1552) addressed to King Charles V of Castile, who was also the Holy Roman Emperor at the time. He more than anyone could put a stop to the tyranny and oppression taking place and he, if he was indeed a true King rather than a mere tyrant, needed to be persuaded to act benevolently by being made aware of the grim details of the situation; in an expedient and impactful way. According to Las Casas, by closely conflating the horrendous evils of conquest with the religious act of preaching the Gospel irreligion, rather than true religion, was being spread.

The result was that the Indians were largely deprived of an opportunity to encounter true religion and the true Gospel, even if the semantic proclamation of the Gospel took place, since true religion is necessarily embodied in just relations. Stout then moved on to talk of Las Casas’ view of Indian worship. He noted that Las Casas took Indian worship to be superstitious and idolatrous, but insofar as this was a result of not having encountered the Gospel in true religion they were not to be blamed, even though this ignorance is seen to be a genuine deficiency worth attempting to remedy. As Stout went on to say, “What requires correction in the Indian idolater who has not heard the Gospel is primarily ignorance of the Gospel. What requires correction in the Indian idolater who has recoiled from so-called Christians because of their tyrannical behavior is a misimpression of the Gospel caused by the irreligion of baptized Christians.” Las Casas, according to Stout, promoted a charitable interpretation of Indian worship and in doing so lobbied for their wellbeing.

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At this point in his lecture Stout spent a good portion of time talking about the virtue of liberty as it relates to servitude and arbitrary power. He went on to discuss both monarchist accounts of liberty (freedom in servitude to a virtuous prince) and republican accounts of liberty (security from servitude, which is “a condition of vulnerability to arbitrary power”). In accordance with the latter understanding of liberty Stout importantly noted, “You can lack liberty—in the sense of being excessively vulnerable to someone else’s arbitrary power—even if the person or group holding power over you wishes you well and takes your wellbeing into account when deciding your fate.”

He began to end his lecture by tying this discussion in with “paternalist ideologies of domination” and near the end eloquently stated “Vice wears virtue’s mask to the conquistador’s ball, and bends its knee in the oppressor’s court. Religion must renounce oppression as well as tyranny if it is to be the virtue it purports to be. Only when it sets a good example is that virtue manifest in the world.”

After listening to the lecture I had the following question: How does proper freedom relate to a recognition of proper dependence? This lecture highlighted the incompatibility of liberty with servitude to arbitrary power. I’m looking forward to seeing how Professor Stout further develops and differentiates this vicious relationship from liberty’s virtuous relationship to piety, understood as a proper acknowledgment of one’s various asymmetrical relations of dependence.

This lecture opens up many avenues of questioning and conversations worth having. Cameron Clausing will share his initial reflections to get the conversation started.


4 thoughts on “Lecture Two: Early Modern Critics of Tyranny and Oppression

  1. At the outset, Professor Stout must be thanked for the lecture that he delivered. The depth and breadth of the study was illuminating. The navigation through the life of Las Casas primarily and secondarily Savonarola with the sermon of Montesinos in the background opened the door for what could be a very fruitful conversation. Professor Stout made one comment that deserves more exploration, but cannot be dealt with here. That is, the role of councils in the Dominican order (to which La Casas, Montesinos, and Savonarola all belonged). The interplay between counciliarism in the Dominican order and the larger conciliar movement in the Roman Catholic Church during this period in history could be a rewarding path to explore further in this larger discussion. However, this response will focus on two questions that come to the forefront.

    Stout argues, through the stories of Las Casas and Savonarola, that coercion is an illegitimate means of Gospel proclamation and promulgation. Las Casas, following the Augustinian tradition, did see a role for coercion after baptism. Coercion can be used for those who are recalcitrant in their sin, refusing to take up the duties that they freely committed to at the time of conversion. Regarding the spread of the Gospel, coercion is not an option. Instead, Las Casas argued that the potential converts came to faith by way of persuasion: preaching the Gospel both in words and in living as an exemplar.

    My first question follows from this. Las Casas, and Savonarola before him, came from the Dominican order. Following in the footsteps of Thomas Aquinas, they held that humanity had fallen into a state of total corruption, yet one could still appeal to the rational faculties of a person, which are not totally corrupt. This leads to the question of what a more robust account of sin would do to this argument. That is to say, what would it look like to substitute a Thomistic account of the Fall for an Augustinian account? In the case of the latter, humanity is totally corrupt. Not even the rational faculties remain untainted by sin. Perhaps an Augustinian approach to sin changes nothing in the argument in the way of Gospel proclamation. However, it may prove fascinating to explore what a more robust doctrine of sin would do to Las Casas’ argument, with regard to methods and means available in proselytizing.

    The place of sin in this narrative leads directly to my second question. Granting Las Casas’ point that coercion is not appropriate in the proclamation of the Gospel, when is coercion a viable option for a government? Still nagging is the interplay between the church and the state. The church had granted the lands and the people in the New World to the state. This is a point that, for better or worse, Las Casas never challenges. If the Spaniards understood these lands in the New World to be theirs by right, is it then appropriate for them to put down rebellions and subdue the people to their rule? That is to say, can the state use coercion when they believe the work that they are doing is for the ‘common good’? If the state has the right to use coercion at what point does it move from coercion for the ‘common good’ to oppression, and who is the arbiter of this?

    Tying this question back to a robust understanding of sin, could it be that all governments to some extent cross this line from coercion to oppression? One can give an example from literature. In the Lord of Rings, Frodo offers Gandalf the ring of power. It would make him all powerful and he could destroy Sauron, the representation of evil in the world. However, Gandalf, who in his nature is good, though tempted, refuses this gift knowing that it will ultimately corrupt him, and that he would be no better than the one he destroys. Perhaps the human condition is such that when people are given the ability to use coercion they will eventually abuse that power.

    A much-told story (the veracity of which is in question) about G.K. Chesterton is insightful to this end. A newspaper in London was gathering responses from famous intellectuals of the time. They asked them to answer the simple question: What is wrong with the world? Many sent in long essays dealing with a plethora of woes. When Chesterton responded it was this: ‘Dear Sirs, I am. Yours, G.K. Chesterton’. Perhaps the problem with giving coercive power to people is that they will inevitably abuse it and become oppressive.

    I believe that Professor Stout would respond by telling us that this is the point where the religious person must step in and be a prophetic voice against the power structures. Religion has always played this role. Las Casas did this with Charles V. Savonarola did it with the Vatican authorities. Montesinos did it with the conquistadors in Espanola. In a democracy, religion can and should serve as a check on the State who holds coercive power.

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  2. In the Q&A after my second lecture, and again near the end of his concise summary of my lecture for this blog, Andrew Johnson wondered how political freedom is related to a recognition of proper dependence. This question is a central theme of my entire series, and it brings into focus why religion has long been a bone of contention between competing political traditions.

    A classical version of the question can be framed as follows. Justice is a cardinal virtue concerned with giving each participant in a social relationship his or her due. In relationships among equals, justice requires symmetrical reciprocity. But not all relationships are like that. Some relationships are marked by irreversible patterns of dependence. My parents, my people, exemplary notables (e.g. heroic founders, leaders, and saints), and God (or the gods) are sources of my existence and progress through life. My existence and progress through life depend on these sources and always will. I cannot reciprocate by returning these gifts in kind. What then does justice require of me in responding to these gifts? First, that I acknowledge the sort of dependence involved, rather than pretending to be the self-sufficient author of my own existence and development. Second, that I express fitting gratitude for the gifts conferred on me in these relationships. And third, that I honor the sources of my existence and wellbeing in a manner appropriate to their excellences. Assuming that God is both my creator and supremely excellent in all relevant respects, God deserves to be honored as the Highest One, as the One greater than which nothing can be conceived. Filial piety, patriotic piety, piety for deserving notables, and religious piety (or religion) are often said to be basic forms that properly acknowledged dependence can take.

    Many defenders of absolute monarchy have filled in this framework by claiming that living monarchs are notables on whom a people depends for its continued existence, security, wellbeing, and progress. Monarchs are here understood as chosen by God and as answerable only to God. A monarch is to a people as a father is to a child. In one pagan version of this picture, a monarch such as Augustus is conceived as a deity, that is, as a being worthy of worship. In a Christian version of the same picture, a monarch, though not to be worshiped as divine, should be venerated and obeyed as someone chosen for the role of sovereign political authority by God. The subject’s relation of dependency on the monarch’s will is ideally a matter of pious submission of a lesser person to one who occupies a higher position in a divine ordained hierarchy of Being. The justification for treating the monarch in this way is God’s will (as the absolute monarchist understands it).

    Classical and early modern republicans resisted one or more aspects of the resulting framework, while retaining its approbation of filial, patriotic, and religious piety. Republicans were especially concerned to reject the idea that subjects are dependent on the primary holder of executive political power in the way children are dependent on their fathers. Republicans conceive of the relation between people and chief executive as one of mutual interdependence. Executives depend for their political authority on the people’s consent to be governed. Citizens are members of the people who have equal status under law and a share of responsibility for political policies and arrangements.

    Religion is still valued by these republicans, first because God deserves proper acknowledgment and honor, second because religious practices of the right sort are needed for cultivating a citizenry capable of exercising political responsibility. But the piety owed to God must not, for a republican such as Machiavelli or Milton, be confused with what we owe to the political leaders currently wielding power over us. We must rely on ourselves, as individuals capable of exercising judgment independently of the executive, when consenting to executive authority, when exercising vigilance over the exercise of executive power, and when deciding when it might be necessary to oppose or resist current office holders. The virtue of carrying out these important functions properly is what Cicero, Milton, and Emerson call self-trust or self-reliance. These writers all assert the compatibility of filial, patriotic, and religious piety as virtues of acknowledged dependence with self-reliance as a virtue exercised in relationships of mutual interdependence. The self-reliance needed in a citizen is to be contrasted with a servile relation to holders of great power but also with a servile relation to the opinions of other citizens or “ordinary” people.

    One of my goals in Lecture Three will be to spell out the contrast between absolute monarchist and republican views of freedom. In Lecture Four, I shall be looking at the opponents of chattel slavery who turned republican thinking in an egalitarian direction. Lecture Five will be concerned with the difference between Emerson’s religious, democratic conception of self-reliance and Nietzsche’s anti-religious, anti-democratic conception.

    Cameron Clausing’s posting raises the important issue of sin. I will touch on this to some extent in Lecture Three when discussing the related issue of faith. Some modern Augustinians — inspired by a somewhat hyperbolic emphasis on Augustine’s account of sin (at the expense his extensive theological use of reason, his pastoral attention to moral formation and fraternal correction, his use of his office as bishop to hold governmental officials accountable, and his doctrine of the goodness of God’s creation) — have defended absolute monarchy as the only sort of political regime capable of restraining sin. The more these defenses stress the total depravity of human reason, the more they court self-referential inconsistency.

    When the doctrine of total depravity is offered as a REASON in support of a political preference for absolute monarchy, the argument obviously relies on human reason, the very faculty being said to be TOTALLY depraved.

    The republican response is to argue that because persons holding executive power are themselves demonstrably prone to sinful corruption, there need to be (a) structural constraints on the exercise of such power and (b) concerted attempts to inculcate virtue in all office holders, including executives, legislators, judges, AND ordinary citizens. There is more than one way of taking sin seriously. Giving most of the power to one unconstrained person is not a good way.

    Thomas and such Protestants as Althusius and Milton grant that human reason is LIABLE to corruption by sin. This notion implies that we should be on the look-out for possible signs of corruption — in particular, for signs that avarice, a lust for domination, or pride has distorted someone’s thinking. It is another thing to say that reason is depraved in the sense of being useless. This last assertion is either self-consuming or arbitrary, depending on how it is developed.

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  3. In Professor Stout’s reply to Andrew Johnson’s question “How does proper freedom relate to recognition of proper dependence” he quotes the concepts of “justice”,and “equality”. I believe true justice belongs to God alone and that we can only be truly free in obedience to him as our conscience tells us. True equality is an illusion as we have all different natural abilities as well as differing social, economic and educational backgrounds. He uses the example of a child’s responsibility to their parents as an analogy for monarchical paternalism but as he says in his lecture if the monarch turns out to be a tyrant he can be deposed. So ultimately we have no responsibility to our parents if badly treated (i.e. if not for our own good). Following that we have no responsibility to obey any political or religious authority if their decisions are not for the common good. This is true freedom.

    Once again an excellent lecture and it gave me an insight into Spanish/American political history and the struggles of its religious proponents in their moral struggles in trying to alleviate suffering. I would like to finish with the truism “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely”.


  4. Thank you Dr. Stout for these very insightful and stimulating lectures. Lecture two highlights some issues of “fantastic hegemonic imagination,” to reference Dr. Emilie Townes’ existential recollection of the Middle Passage, slavery, Jim Crow and Lynching. In my view, three major developments characterize the era of Bartolomé de las Casas which I think best describe what is unsettling about his protection of the Indians.

    First, Colonization-the reach of Western imperialism into the non-Western world to assume political, military, and economic ownership of lands, peoples and fortunes. Colonialism was nationalistic, patriotic and a collective push through militarization at the expense of the death, pillage and control of non-Westerners. Second, Civilization-at the heart of European colonization of non-Western nations beginning in the 15th century was the spread of a form of cultural and racial supremacy, ideologies, education, fashion, music, world view, lifestyle, and philosophy to the indigenous and inferior races. It was also an epoch of unconscionable murders, servitude, and abject destruction of lives with unremorseful ease graphically described by las Casas himself. The third development is Christianization. It was often preceded by colonization and civilization. Like the twin process of Arabization and Islamization of non-Arab countries especially evident in Sudan beginning in the 13th century, Christianity and its Christianizing process was immediately aligned with the powers and ethos of colonization and civilization.

    Colonization, civilization and Christianization were overlapping events informing and enforcing one another with colonization especially providing political and social security for the Christianising process. While the lost, pagans and infidels had to be Christianized, the process began by force not by coercion through colonization and civilization. Thus, it is difficult to isolate las Casas and his Christianising agenda from the process of political and social takeover of Indian culture, lands, wealth and bodies.

    Las Cases was aware of this conundrum as an appointee of the king and religious powers. While his special interest may have been to protect the Indians, his ultimate allegiance was to the king of Spain. Las Casas, it can be argued was a part of the tyrannical agenda of the political power and thus, a distant Conquistador. At the heart of las Casas’ synthetic participation in the processes of colonization, civilization and Christianization were the following dominations: political, military, cultural, religious, racial, and wealth accumulation. To return to Townes’ fantastic hegemonic imagination, at the root of these three overlapping developments were the cultural production of control, conquest and containment.

    To conclude, it seems the religion of humanity is always superstitious and false, never becoming the religion of the angels but constantly falling short of Aquinas’ “beatific vision.” Dr. Stout, will religion ever extricate itself from the properties of the human condition to become virtuous if it has to exist and become the “common good” through human vessels?

    Thank you.

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