The problem for the ancient Greeks and Romans, indeed for any people interested in maintaining a measure of freedom, is how to bring government under control. Which is another way of saying that a fundamental problem lay with how to bring organized, legitimized power and its attendant use of force under control. Assuming you are going to have a government, then there really are only two ways: either by the diffusion of power, or by the appeal to an authority that transcends all government. Early successes at freedom involved the first method by and large. Lasting successes involve both methods, particularly the second. To illustrate, the American constitution envisions federalism and a separation of powers at the national level, i.e., vertical and horizontal checks and balances, in order to diffuse power and keep it from becoming concentrated at any one level or in any single branch. On the other hand, it is doubtful that these checks and balances alone will maintain the rights and freedoms of American citizens, except that, as a matter of almost universal conviction amongst the people, certain unalienable rights are deemed as having been given to us by our Creator—rights which may not be violated by other men, not even rulers. It is the Stoics who started to think in these terms and bridged the gap between the ancient and later Christian states. They made known that there is a will superior to the collective will of man or to any ruler’s. Their test of good government was its conformity to principles that can be traced to a higher legislator.
The great question was to discover not what governments prescribe, but what they ought to prescribe. Before God, there is neither Greek nor barbarian, neither rich nor poor; and the slave is as good as his master, for by birth all men are free; they are citizens of that universal commonwealth which embraces all the world, brethren of one family, and children of God. The true guide of our conduct is no outward authority, but the voice of God. What the teaching of that divine voice is, these philosophers went on to expound: to give men their due and more, to be generous and beneficent; to devote ourselves to the good of others, seeking our reward in self-denial; to treat others as we would wish to be treated by them. We should be at war with evil, but at peace with men. True Freedom, say the most eloquent of the Stoics, consists in obeying God. Such is the political wisdom of the ancients, touching the foundations of Liberty, as we find it in its high development, in Cicero, and Seneca, and Philo, a Jew of Alexandria. Their writings impress upon us the greatness of the work of preparation for the Gospel, which had been accomplished among men on the eve of the mission of the Apostles. St. Augustine, after quoting Seneca, exclaims: “What more could a Christian say than this pagan has said?” The best of the later classics speak almost the language of Christianity, and they border on its spirit. Nevertheless, the liberties of the ancient nations were literally crushed beneath a hopeless and inevitable despotism, until a new power came forth from Galilee and its effect was gradually felt.
The early Christians avoided contact with the state, abstained from the responsibilities of office, and were even reluctant to serve in the army. Cherishing their citizenship of a Kingdom not of this world, they despaired of an empire that seemed too powerful and cruel to be resisted and too corrupt to be converted, whose institutions—the work and pride of untold centuries of paganism, drew their sanctions from gods whom Christians accounted as devils or mere idols. No man dreamed of the boundless future of spiritual and social influence that awaited their Religion among the race of destroyers, who would bring the empire of Augustine and of Constantine to humiliation and ruin. For early Christians, the duties of government were less in their thoughts than private virtues and the duties of subjects; and it was a long time before they became aware of the burden of power in their faith. Indeed, until the influence of Christianity was finally felt, there had been no limited government. All that Socrates could do by way of protest against the tyranny of Democracy was to die for his convictions. The Stoics could only advise a wise man to hold aloof from politics, keeping the unwritten law in his heart. But when Christ said: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,” those words, spoken on His last visit to the Temple, three days before His death, gave to the civil power, under the protection of conscience, a sacredness it had never enjoyed, and bounds it had never acknowledged; and they were the repudiation of absolutism and the inauguration of Freedom.
Wesley Allen Riddle is a retired military officer with degrees and honors from West Point and Oxford. Widely published in the academic and opinion press, he ran for U.S. Congress (TX-District 31) in the 2004 Republican Primary. This piece largely abridged and condensed from an address by Lord Acton to the Bridgnorth Institute in England on 26 Feb 1877. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.