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Western civilization celebrates 2,768th birthday

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Western civilization celebrates 2,768th birthday


Pope Francis, who possesses moral authority, but who possesses no political power, symbolizes the key distinction in Western civilization between power and authority, writes C.S. Morrissey. (Photo: Filippo Monteforte/Getty Images)Pope Francis, who possesses moral authority, but who possesses no political power, symbolizes the key distinction in Western civilization between power and authority, writes C.S. Morrissey. (Photo: Filippo Monteforte/Getty Images)

Rome wasn’t built in a day. But it was founded in a day, on the day when Romulus murdered his brother Remus.

Tradition dates the event to April 21, 753 B.C., and it’s a date worth celebrating, because, 2,768 years ago, it was the birth of Western civilization.

Perhaps Western civilization’s best symbol is the Pope, who resides in Vatican City, a special territory, separated and distinguished from Rome.

Why should we celebrate the founding of Rome, and how is the Pope involved?

The celebration is not over the act of violence among warring brothers. That story, of two twins locked in mortal combat, is a common mythological motif recurring in ancient tales around the globe.

The myth vividly symbolizes how war dominates and obliterates all human relations, even the closest relationships, whenever political society fails to institute a way to keep the peace.

The celebration of Rome’s founding commemorates how Romulus had learned from his painful experience of fratricidal warfare. Rather than create a tyranny, in which power and authority resides in a single victor, Romulus instead instituted a separation into Western civilization between power and authority.

Today this distinction is most vividly visible in the person of Pope Francis, who possesses moral authority, but who possesses no political power.

The Roman Catholic political philosopher, Frederick D. Wilhelmsen (1923-1996), in his book Christianity and Political Philosophy, notes that because evil and stupid people perpetually wield power, a separate and divinely-inspired authority is needed to put a brake on their tyranny.

“Plato’s complaint that the wise and the good are without Power and that Power is more often the perquisite of the evil or the stupid … [is] theoretically solved by the Christian identification of Power and Authority in God,” writes Wilhelmsen

Wilhelmsen sums up the great achievement of Western civilization attained in the medieval outlook on politics: “Medieval man saw clearly, as did the Roman jurists, that all authority is moral! A breakdown of Authority is always a breakdown in the moral order. A papal interdict, for instance, worked just as long as men respected Rome’s Authority.”

To avoid tyranny, Western civilization learned the difference between power and authority: “In a word, Authority can do nothing other than speak. The execution of its commands depends upon a Power humble enough to listen,” writes Wilhelmsen, and “medieval man neither respected nor obeyed any authority that could not trace its origins to, and legitimize them in, the Authority of God.”

According to Wilhelmsen, the meaning of the “alarming collapse of Christianity today in a society bent upon secularizing itself” is found in this departure from Western civilization’s most fundamental achievement. The departure “has left the West without an effective representative of the Authority of God and of the Moral Law,” which, as Plato knew, can only lead to “tyranny and chaos.”

As a Thomist philosopher, Wilhelmsen defends the subsidiarity of authority as the best brake on power. “The medieval checking of political power by authority—more exactly, by a host of authorities—resident within the very tissue of the community, is crucially pertinent to any theory of power,” he writes.

Authorities become checks on power by appealing to natural law. Natural law theory, as articulated by St. Thomas Aquinas, recognizes the natural limits of human power.

“Given that law must legislate in broad and very often properly universal terms; given that law as understood within the human mind can never totally reach the concrete complexities of existence, it follows that the law as theory can never identify itself completely with reality,” observes Wilhelmsen.

“Law as known and formulated must remain a mere map of reality and is never a perfect one with the road it charts,” he writes. “The prudent man, according to Aristotle, knows how to read the map.”

This type of practical wisdom marks the development of Western civilization, especially “in the early flowering of Roman Law under the Republic. Authority belonged to the Law but only to the Law as interpreted and rendered concrete in cases by the judges.”

Thus, the West attained a hard-won political wisdom: “The break-up of the Roman Empire in the West gave birth to a new civilization which was highly decentralized in government,” writes Wilhelmsen.

A multi-layered cultural resistance to the abuse of power slowly evolved: “Authority in medieval Christendom was broadened beyond the authority proper to the judges until it was diffused throughout a whole host of institutions that marked the medieval world and made it the unique political thing that it was. Authority was as pluralistic as life itself.”

The most common story of the founding of Rome has Romulus slaying Remus when Remus mocked the foundation that Romulus was building for Rome’s safety and defense, as the Roman historian Livy reports.

In light of Wilhelmsen’s appraisal of Western civilization, we can see what that story symbolizes. The walls symbolize the foundational distinction between power and authority, since Romulus did not go on to set himself up as a tyrant, but rather instituted the senate.

Unlike Aquinas, Machiavelli argued that evil deeds could be used to achieve good purposes. Thus, Machiavelli approves Romulus’ act of murder, as well as his political institutions.

But natural law never permits those with power to do evil to attain good, says Aquinas.

Thus, a Thomist celebrates only the founding of the institutions of Western civilization that subsequently serve to decentralize authority. By limiting power, they put a brake on tyranny and its evil acts.

C.S. Morrissey is an associate professor of philosophy at Catholic Pacific College.


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