A Preface to Walter Ullmann, Follow-Up to Part 2(e) of 2 (Oakley, Again)

The first half of our treatment on Ullmann can be found here, and the prelude to this two-part series can be found here (and the forerunner to the prelude [!] is here); in the six-now-seven (a through e; part 2a here, part 2b here, part 2c here, part 2d here, and part 2e1 here) parts of this second post, we’ll cover the way that his students, admirers and critics have presented the outline of his thought, and the faults they have found with it. 

Later Oakley

In the previous post, I gave an abbreviation-summary of Oakley’s 1973 article that almost single-handedly began the dismantling of Ullmann’s reputation. There I offered a summary of Oakley’s take on Ullmann’s main plot: the ascending-naturalist-populist theme vs. the hierocratic-theocratic-descending theme of political legitimacy; the former being natural and secular and pagan and the latter being a Christian invention that interrupted this natural state of affairs — until it could re-emerge. Some of the other themes included how this main plot affected Ullmann’s treatment of certain figures in medieval law (e.g., Henry of Bracton), how it affected Ullmann’s presentation of the role of specifically English feudalism as preparing the groundwork for the re-emergence of the ascending theme (after its long interruption by the theocratic norm), and the key role of the recovery of the full corpus of Aristotle’s works –particularly his Politics— in providing the legitimacy for this naturalist and ascending theme of popular sovereignty. Oakley took issue with Ullmann’s reading of Aristotle, and with the idea of “nature” that he saw Ullmann trying to get out of Aristotle.

Oakley does reiterate so much of this, nearly 40 years later, in sections of his 2010 Empty Bottles of Gentilism:

Fidelity and Consent — In a celebrated but now unduly neglected attempt to pattern out and reduce to order the teeming complexities of medieval political thinking and to identify the great engine driving the changes that had come by the fifteenth century to transform it, the Cambridge historian Walter Ullmann developed and elaborated in the mid-twentieth century a lucid but highly schematic approach to the subject. Originally trained himself as a lawyer rather than an historian, preoccupied with what gave legitimating force to law, and thinking almost exclusively in terms rather of the source than of the end or purpose of lawmaking and political authority [endnote here: “It is significant that when Ullmann first elaborated the scheme he was concerned specifically with legal thinking rather than political — see [Ullmann’s] “Law and the Medieval Historian”], he intuited the drama of medieval political thinking as residing in its domination by two competing “conceptions of government and law,” conceptions that, being “diametrically opposed” to one another, were mutually exclusive. These he referred to as the “ascending” and “descending” themes or theses. According to the former of these, which he designated also as the “populist” conception and viewed as nothing other than the “natural” way of thinking [181] about matters political, “governmental authority and law-making competence” are attributed to the people or community and ascend to the top of the political structure “from the broad base in the shape of a pyramid.” With this theme, at least in the fullness of its development, Ullmann associated consent, representation, and the notion of the individual within society a status characterized by autonomy and independence, endowed, therefore, with a battery of “inalienable rights” proof even against the encroachment of the powers that be. According to the latter, “descending,” thesis, on the other hand, all power is located ultimately in God, who, by means of an earthly viceregent himself endowed with a plenitude of power, distributes it downward via a hierarchy of officials “again in the shape of a pyramid.” In the context of this theme, “as a result of the overpowering influence of Christianity” in early medieval Europe, faith is substituted for consent, the “extra-human” for the “earth-bound and human,” the notion of office delivered from above replaces that of representation, and instead of the autonomous rights-bearing individual, we encounter the faithful Christian, recipient of the favors of an absolutist government, subject rather than citizen.

The attempt Ullmann made to carve out this commanding approach was a noble one. At its service he placed a formidable wealth of learning garnered from a lifetime’s acquaintance with the pertinent texts, especially those of a legal nature. But less than fifty years later, it seems now generally to be conceded that the pertinent historical data, in all their rich complexity, cannot be made in convincing fashion to respond to the rigidities of the schema he proposed — or at least cannot be made to do so without recourse to an unacceptable measure of textual coercion. One of the rocks on which his attempt foundered (it is the rock most pertinent to our concern now with fidelity and consent) was the way in which he deployed the distinction between the natural and supernatural. That distinction, which presupposes a commitment to the exclusivity of the biblical understanding of the divine, made its appearance only in the fourth century C.E. [see de Lubac, 1946] And yet Ullmann uses it to help characterize the political thinking of Aristotle, even though the latter’s understanding of the “natural” was one that can itself be said to have comprehended in some degree that which under the influence of the Christian tradition we ourselves have become accustomed to classifying as “the supernatural.” Similarly, and more [182] directly pertinent to the point at hand, even though the Germanic peoples of the pre-Christian era knew no sharp distinction between the natural and supernatural and intuited the world of nature itself as pulsating to the rhythm of the divine [see here, pp.50-52, 66-68], Ullmann did not hesitate to characterize the role of the ancient Germanic folk assembly in the choice and making of kings as an expression of the ascending “natural” theme — and that in contrast to the later Carolingian notion of kingship “by the grace of God,” which he depicts as lying at the very heart of the supernaturally grounded, Christian descending thesis. So that, over against the “theocratic” kingship of the Carolingian era and its aftermath (divine appointees ruling by “the gift of God,” by virtue of “divine intervention’ and “the transmission of divine grace”) he sets those earlier Germanic rulers whom he characterizes as the products of merely “natural-biological forces,” their kingship resting only on foundations “of a physical and purely human kind” — heredity, that is, and consent. [Ullmann, 1969]

The fact that he should be betrayed into so doing reflects the shaping impact of a further (if implicit) assumption that the conceptual relation between forms of kingship rooted in the divine and those shaped by heredity, rooted in election, and limited in some way by popular will had necessarily to be one of opposition or contradiction. So that because medieval Scandinavian kings and their ancient Germanic forebears were often “elected,” or because there were limitations of one sort or another on their power, it followed that they were not to be regarded as truly sacral kings. But that assumption and that implication we have already seen to be questionable. The pagan Germanic and Scandinavian kingship, in effect, was by no means as unqualifiedly “populist” (in Ullmann’s sense of that word) as he would have us believe. And that being so, it is hard not to entertain severe misgivings about the allegedly “theocratic” purity of the medieval Christian monarchy that he contrasts with it as a manifestation of the descending rather than the ascending theme.

Ullmann, of course, was far from being alone in suggesting that the Christian emphasis on the derivation of the king’s power from God, symbolized so effectively in the royal anointing and the adoption of the title rex dei gratia, involved also the suggestion of a certain independence in the king’s relationship with his people. Fritz Kern said as much earlier and in a statement of classic balance. [Kingship and Law in the Middle Ages] But Kern was also at pains to emphasize the interdependence during the greater part of the Middle Ages of the di[183]vine and popular sanctions that the monarchy enjoyed, insisting that the royal dependence on God “was broadly enough conceived to allow the monarch to be dependent also upon the will of the community in so far as monarchy itself was based upon a popular as well as a divine mandate.” [Kern, 10] If this formulation sits ill with the categorical exclusiveness of the ascending-descending schema, it accords better with the complexities of the actual medieval situation. Certainly, to return now to a focus on the Carolingian era, it carries greater conviction than does Ullmann’s characteristic dismissal of the title that Louis the Stammerer adopted in 877 –“King by the grace of God and through election by the people”– as a futile attempt “to reconcile […] two irreconcilables.” [Ullmann 1969, 96-97] [Oakley, Empty Bottles of Gentilism, 180-183]

It is a bit amusing to see Oakley claim that Ullmann is “unduly neglected” when, by all accounts, his 1973 article “Celestial Hierarchies Revisited” was perhaps the marker of when Ullmann’s reputation began to tank. Here, Ullmann contracts so many of his main theses into small space.

He does also address his concerns, brought up at the end of “Celestial Hierarchies Revisited”, of an anachronistic sense of nature being projected onto Aristotle and others. Here, the role of Cicero and the medieval reading of Ciceronian ideas of nature are treated at length, and in ways that contrast with the portrait that Oakley paints of Ullmann’s understanding of the late medieval view of nature:

[79] What that Ciceronian “naturalism” meant […] calls for further specification.

In relation to the Timaeus [see translations here and here, and the medieval Latin translation here], twelfth-century references to “nature” employed the word to denote the entire ordered complex of phenomena existing in the physical world wherein the operations of secondary causes can be discerned. In relation to such works of Cicero, however, “nature” is used to denote that which is not accidental but intrinsic or proper to a particular being — in effect, its essence. The particular being in question is, of course, man, and in relation to man and to the origins of political society Cicero had been at pains to insist that what distinguished the nature of man from that of animals in general was his possession of the crucial faculties of reason and speech. These alone account for the fact that people were somehow able to make the difficult transition from a brutish and scattered mode of existence into organized political societies possessed of the amenities which civic life along makes possible. About that transition there was nothing that was necessary. Cicero speculated, indeed, that it must have called for the persuasive prompting of some great, wise, and eloquent leader who had developed a plan to effect it. In that respect, political society was to be seen as conventional rather than natural in its origins. But to the extent to which it presupposed the natural sociability of man grounded in the natural faculties of reason and speech, to that extent it was also in an important sense natural. Cary Nederman has argued forcefully that the main impact of Ciceronian ideas for medieval thinkers was that of having opened up for them a sort of via media between two extremes: on the one hand, the traditional Augustinian and conventional[80]ist understanding of political society, not as something natural to humankind but as a consequence of the Fall, a divinely instituted punishment and remedy for sin; on the other, the latter, Aristotelian-inspired view that it was fundamentally natural to man in the sense that only as a member of a polis could man become truly human and have the opportunity to realize his full moral potential. That via media, “taking its substance from the writings of Cicero” but taking account also of the enduring impact of the Fall, “held that while men always retained their natural inclination to congregate –even after the Fall– the recognition of its nature and its implications for their lives needed to be awakened in and drawn out of them by means of reason and persuasion.” And from the late eleventh century onward, that Ciceronian account of “the natural origins of society… [was to enjoy] wide currency throughout the Middle Ages,” even among some of those who wrote later on from a predominantly Aristotelian perspective.

Nederman’s argument is a persuasive one. In echoing it, however, one would to well to keep in mind two related points. First, that Cicero’s formulations often lack precision, with the result that one cannot always affirm with confidence the exact import of the claims he is making. Second, that when it comes to matters political, and given the multiplicity of meanings attaching to the word “nature,’ we should be careful not to be too casual in deploying the term “naturalism.” [endnote 66, p. 241: “In this connection, Walter Ullmann’s somewhat promiscuous deployment of the expression “Aristotelian naturalism’ stands as a warning about the sort of conceptual confusion likely to be generated thereby.”] [Oakley, The Mortgage of the Past, 79-80, 241]

Reiterating his positions taken on consent:

Whatever the force of the “elective” process so often associated with the older Germanic kings –in Scandinavia, in west and south Europe, in England– and surviving for centuries in the form of the “people’s recognition” embedded in the coronation rituals of so many medieval kingdoms, it certainly did not involve anything even roughly approximating to legitimation by consent. [fn. 20 on p.262: This interpretation of the Germanic medieval roots of the modern principle of legitimation by consent gained real traction among the Levellers, and moved forward through history, producing modern reiterations, “E.g., in Walter Ullmann’s several discussions of what he called the “ascending” or “populist” thesis of government and law.”][Oakley, The Mortgage of the Past, 144, 262]

Affirming historical distance, and that the classical period was not simply familiarly secular, but was fundamentally alien, Oakley revisits Ullmann’s contribution to the idea that Christianity was merely an interruption:

despite a century and more of cumulative endeavor in the fields of cultural anthropology and comparative religion, we continue to hear about “the essentially secular unity of life in the classical age” and about the Hellenistic propensity for introducing the supernatural into politics. We are still reminded that Christianity made “purely political thought im[x]possible,” that “the peculiar problem of Church and State,” which Christianity introduced, involved “the greatest perturbation which has ever drawn men’s thoughts about the state out of their properly political orbit,” that “Medieval Europe offers for the first time in history the paradoxical spectacle of a society trying to organize itself politically on the basis of a spiritual framework,” and that it was only with the collapse of the medieval ideal of a Christian commonwealth” [the quotes only close in Oakley, also, with no opening] that there occurred “a return to a more purely political conception of the State.” [these quotes are, in order, from Sabine, Dvornik, Morris, McIlwain, Morrall] Such was the perspective embedded also in Walter Ullmann’s many learned contributions to our understanding of medieval political thinking. [1961 Principles of Government, 1965 A History of Political Thought: The Middle Ages, 1966a The Individual and Society, 1969 The Carolingian Renaissance] Implicit in this view is the assumption that despite all surface differences there is a fundamental continuity between modern political thought and that of the classical world, both periods being committed, presumably, to the “natural” and “secular” modes of analysis proper to “purely political thought.” [Oakley, Empty Bottles of Gentilism, ix-x]

Finally, on a note we’ll strike again in the final entry in this series regarding Cary Nederman, Oakley does turn to one feature of Ullmann’s that he can address with praise: the continuity between the late medieval and early modern periods with regard to political theory, particularly theories of consent:

[139] Arguments about the medieval contribution to consent theory have a long and not, let it be acknowledged, particularly distinguished history. A cen[140]tury ago, indeed, at least in North America, they were predominantly confessional in nature and were largely inspired by Catholic reactions to traditional Protestant stereotyping. […] As time went on, however, and as interconfessional disagreements came gradually to be pushed to the margins of historiographic respectability, a stimulus for such arguments continued to come from a different source, namely, the distortions sponsored in scholarship and graduate education alike by the traditional (if problematic) periodization of European history into ancient, medieval, and modern. And the issue of the medieval contribution came to be pursued, accordingly, by scholars who, if they may well have had one or other axe to grind, do not appear to have been grinding them with specifically Protestant or Catholic targets in mind. […] [Oakley names several scholars who] were at pains to stress the importance of the legacy which the medieval theorists of “popular sovereignty, contract and consent” had passed down, across the age of Reformation and religious war, to the constitutionalists and consent theorists of the early modern era. It was left for Walter Ullmann, that doughty defender of the relevance of medieval studies and in the past half century perhaps the most distinguished historian of medieval political thought, to reaffirm that stress, to put that point with his characteristic force, and, speaking at Baltimore, to relate it to the American revolutionary experience. “There is to my mind,” he said, “a direct lineage from Locke back to the feudal compact and consent in the Middle Ages, and forward to the Declaration of Independence. … The government for which Locke supplied the theory was in its essentials the heir of a government originally based on feudal law, principles and practice and the feudal contract.” [Francis Oakley, The Mortgage of the Past: Reshaping the Ancient Political Inheritance (1050-1300) (New Haven, CT: Yale, 2012), 140, citing Ullmann, Individual and Society, 150-151; cf. 96-97]

That ends Oakley for us. The two volumes of his that are here cited are part of a trilogy: Empty Bottles of Gentilism, The Mortgage of the Past, and The Watershed of Modern Politics. Take a look at them alongside Ullmann — but take Oakley’s critique seriously as you read Ullmann.


Header image taken from a photo of Ullmann found in one of the collections of his works; not locatable online, and no attributions possible. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!

One thought on “A Preface to Walter Ullmann, Follow-Up to Part 2(e) of 2 (Oakley, Again)

  1. Pingback: A Preface to Walter Ullmann, Part 2(f) of 2 (Nederman) | Into the Clarities

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