Magna Carta: The Nadir of Politics

Pitirim Sorokin
Pitirim Sorokin
The sociologist Pitirim Sorokin (1889-1968) achieved well-deserved acclaim for his grand overview of world history and culture in his four-volume work Social and Cultural Dynamics.  It is Prof Sorokin’s argument there and in other similar works that each culture will normally pass through three main stages in its lifetime:  ideational, idealistic, and sensate.  Regarding Western European culture and the three stages, he writes,
Take, for instance, Western medieval culture.  Its major principle or value was God, the true-reality value.  All the important sectors of medieval culture articulated this fundamental principle-value as formulated in the Christian Credo.  . . .  Its dominant mores, ways of life and mentality stressed the union with God as the only supreme end, and a negative or indifferent attitude toward this sensory world, with all its wealth, pleasures and values.  The sensory world was considered a mere temporary ‘city of man’ in which a Christian was but a pilgrim aspiring to reach the eternal City of God and seeking to render himself worthy to enter it.
In brief, the integrated part of medieval culture was not a conglomeration of various cultural objects, phenomena and values, but a unified system – a whole whose parts articulated the same supreme principle of true reality and value:  an infinite, supersensory and super-rational God, omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient, absolutely just, good and beautiful, creator of the world and of man.  Such a unified system of culture, based upon the principle of a supersensory and super-rational God as the only true reality and value, may be called ideational [this stage corresponds to the West’s life within the Orthodox Church--W.G.].  . . .  The decline of medieval culture consisted precisely in the disintegration of this ideational system of culture.  It began at the end of the twelfth century [i.e., shortly after the Great Schism of the West from the Orthodox Church in 1054--W.G.], when there emerged the germ of a new – and profoundly different – major principle, namely, that the true reality and value is sensory.  Only what we see, hear, smell, touch and otherwise perceive through our sense organs is real and has value.  Beyond such a sensory reality, either there is nothing, or, if there is something, we cannot sense it; therefore it is equivalent to the non-real and the non-existent.  As such it may be neglected.  Such was this new principle – one entirely different from the major principle of the ideational system of culture.
This slowly rising new principle met with the declining principle of ideational culture, and their blending into one organic whole produced an essentially new form of culture in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.  Its major premise was that the true reality is partly supersensory and partly sensory – that it embraces the supersensory and super-rational aspect, plus the rational aspect and, finally, the sensory aspect, all blended into one unity, that of the infinite manifold, God [i.e., Roman Catholic pantheism--W.G.].  The cultural system embodying this premise may be called idealistic.  The culture of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in Europe, like the Greek culture of the fifth and fourth centuries BC, was predominantly idealistic, based upon this synthesizing major premise.
The process, however, did not stop at this point.  The ideational culture of the Middle Ages continued to decline, whereas the culture based upon the premise that true reality and value are sensory continued to gather momentum during the subsequent centuries.  Beginning roughly with the sixteenth century [the Protestant Reformation--W.G.], the new principle became dominant, and with it the new form of culture that was based upon it.  In this way the modern form of our culture emerged – the sensory, empirical, secular, and ‘this-worldly’ culture.  It may be called sensate.  It is based upon, and is integrated around, this new principle-value:  the true reality and value is sensory.  . . .  the major principle of our modern sensate culture is predominantly ‘this-worldly’, secular, and utilitarian.
--Sorokin, The Crisis of Our Age, Chatham, New York, Oneworld, 1992 [1941], pgs. 17-9.
As those three stages touch upon political ideas like law and liberty, Prof Sorokin writes,
In spite of the infinite variety of the patterns of social relationships of man to man, or of group to group, they all fall into three main classes:  familistic relationships, permeated by mutual love, devotion and sacrifice; free contractual agreements of the parties for their mutual advantage, devoid either of love or of hatred, but profitable to both; and compulsory relationships imposed by one party upon the others, contrary to their wishes and interests.
 . . . 
The relative proportion of these fibres change in course of time, even in the fabric of the same society.  For instance, the texture of European medieval society from the eighth to the twelfth century was mainly familistic (the all-embracing medieval fidelitas in the relations of men and groups); in lesser degree compulsory (in the relations of the free and unfree classes); and only slightly contractual.  The total network of social relationships in this society changed notably between the thirteenth and the sixteenth century in the direction of contractual relationships.  Between the sixteenth and the eighteenth century the relative proportion of compulsory relations greatly increased.  The nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century constituted the golden age of contractual society.  If we were to characterize modern Western society in a single word, one such word would unquestionably be contractualism.  It denotes the most essential characteristic of the Euro-American society of these centuries.  During this period Western society attempted to build a comfortable sensate society based upon covenant, contract or agreement for the mutual advantage of the members of society, of the citizens and their government, of employers and their employees, and of the members of other special groups of free men.
--Crisis, pgs 138 & 140.
 . . .  A person can therefore become free in two different ways:  either by decreasing his wishes to make them equal to or smaller than the means of their satisfaction, or by expanding his wishes and increasing proportionally the means of their satisfaction.  The first is the way of ideational liberty, consisting in a reduction of one’s wishes, especially sensory ones.  The second is the way of sensate liberty, consisting in an ever-increasing expansion of one’s wishes for sensory values, accompanied by an equal or greater expansion of the means of satisfying them.  The extreme case of ideational liberty is ascetic liberty.  Its formulae are well known.  ‘Freedom is not gained by satisfying, but by restraining, our desires’.  . . .  And so on.
Ideational liberty is inner liberty, rooted in the restraint and control of our desires, wishes and lusts.  It is the liberty of Job with his imperturbable, ‘The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’  Such a liberty does not multiply sensory wishes; it does not lead to an incessant struggle for an ever-increasing expansion of the means of their satisfaction – wealth, power, fame and what not.  It is little interested in political and civil rights, in the external guarantees of such rights, such as constitutions and political declarations.  Its ‘kingdom is not of this world’.  On the other hand, it is inalienable – unconquerable by anybody or anything external.
Sensate liberty is the opposite of ideational liberty.  It strives to expand endlessly both wishes and the means of their satisfaction.  The more one has the more one wants.  There is no limit to the expansion of sensory desires, and, according to the modified Weber-Fechner law, the discrepancy between what one has and what one wants increases progressively in a vicious circle.  Such a liberty leads to an incessant struggle of men and groups for as large a share of sensate values – wealth, love, pleasure, comfort, sensory safety, security – one can get.  Since one can get them mainly at the cost of somebody else, their quest accentuates and intensifies the struggle of individuals and groups.  Sensate liberty is thus mainly external.  It is vitally interested in the external reconstruction of social, economic, and political conditions in guarantees of freedom of speech, of the press and of thought, and of other ‘inalienable rights of man’.  For this reason it leads to political and economic struggle:  each group or person wants to gain as many rights as possible, either by snatching them from others or by sensibly entering into a contractual compromise guaranteeing a minimum number to all the contracting parties.
With the rise of ideational culture, ideational liberty becomes the principal form of liberty, as, for instance, in the early and medieval Christian culture.  With the advent of Christian ideational culture, ideational liberty replaced the sensate liberty of the last centuries of Graeco-Roman culture.  Upon the re-emergence of sensate culture at the end of the twelfth century, sensate liberty also re-emerged in the form of the Magna Carta of 1215, and in the struggle of the cities for their freedom in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.  As it continued to grow, ideational liberty continued to decline.  Reinforced by the Declaration of the Rights of Man at the end of the eighteenth century, and by subsequent laws expanding the scope of personal liberties, sensate liberty finally became supreme in the nineteenth century.  . . .  All these liberties – inalienable rights, equality, individualism, free association – were the fruits and manifestations of the sensate culture of Western society in the nineteenth century, with contractual relations as the dominant social relationships.
--Crisis, pgs. 143-5.
Now, to the mind of the typical ‘patriotic American’, the historical narrative of freedom is just the reverse of what Prof Sorokin has presented.  To him, what came before Magna Carta and its offspring is ill-formed or incomplete; what comes after, particularly in the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution and Bill of Rights, all drawn up in Philadelphia, is the summit of mankind’s political development upon which there can be no improvements made.  For an illustration of this, the reader may look through this essay by Mr William Federer, an Evangelical Protestant historian in the States:
As Prof Sorokin has very ably explained the fallacies of such a view and shown that Magna Carta ushers in the lowest, sensate, un-Christian era of Western politics, we will turn instead to a question that will inevitably be asked by modern Western man in response:  If constitutional republics/representative democracies are not the best forms of government, as we have been told all our lives, what is?
The best form is what the Orthodox Emperor, St Justinian the Great (+565), laid out in the Preface to his Sixth Novella:  the symphony between bishop and king, between Church and State, the two God-ordained authorities co-operating for the salvation of the people of their country, striving to pull all of them to Heaven:
The priesthood and the Empire are the two greatest gifts which God, in His infinite clemency, has bestowed upon mortals; the former has reference to Divine matters, the latter presides over and directs human affairs, and both, proceeding from the same principle, adorn the life of mankind; hence nothing should be such a source of care to the emperors as the honor of the priests who constantly pray to God for their salvation. For if the priesthood is, everywhere free from blame, and the Empire full of confidence in God is administered equitably and judiciously, general good will result, and whatever is beneficial will be bestowed upon the human race.  . . . 
The problem in the post-Orthodox West is that this symphony was not maintained, initiating a destructive dialectic that is still working itself out.  It began when the Bishop of Rome claimed all spiritual and temporal authority for himself.  The kings responded in like manner, claiming all authority for themselves.  Then the peoples of the Western European countries, suffering the consequences of such a demonic competition, began clamoring for their own ‘rights’, began looking for ways to enhance their own powers, at the expense of the absolute rulers.  Hence the creation of Magna Carta and its kindred, and the rise of cold, icy, loveless contractualism.  But the dialectic continues its destructive course, even though the absolute rulers have long since been laid low in the dust by centuries of the revolutionary struggle of ‘the people’:  the competition is now between various political parties and factions and identity and interest groups within the republics/democracies.  And most assuredly it will not stop until there is a return to the Orthodox Church by the West, where all dialectical operations cease in the mystical harmony that comes from union with the God-man Jesus Christ, Who has united all things in Heaven and on earth, without confusion but without division, in His crucified, resurrected, ascended, and glorified Body.
St Nikolai Velimirovich of Serbia (+1956), describes the dialectical problem of the West this way:
Serbian history never knew of any struggle between Church and state. There were no such struggles, but bloody wars have filled the history of Western nations. How does one explain the difference between the two cases? The one is explained by theodulia [service to God--W.G.], the other by theocracy. 
Let us take two tame oxen as an example, how they are both harnessed to the same yoke, pull the same cart, and serve the same master. This is theodulia. Then let us take two oxen who are so enraged with each other that one moment the ox on the left pulls himself out from the yoke and gores the other one, goading him on to pull the cart alone, while the next moment the ox on the right does the same to his companion on the left. 
This is theocracy: the war of the Church against the state and the war of the state against the Church; the war of the pope against kings and the war of kings against the pope. Neither ox wished to be yoked and serve the Master; each of them wanted to play the role of the Master and drive his companion under the yoke. Thus the Master's cart has remained stationary and his field uncultivated and eventually has become completely overgrown with weeds. This is what happened in the West. 
--Serbian People As a Servant of God, ch. 29,
Modern Western man will mock this as the simplistic babblings of a backwoods rustic.  But we will take the inspired simplicity of a holy man like St Nikolai over the soaring, hell-tinged philosophical speculations of the ‘demigods’ of Philadelphia every time we are given that choice.  And if the West understood what was best for her, so would she.