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Published on November 10th, 2014 | by Ross Arthur Griffith
Image © http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/obf_images/61/c2/52df4cbee5a818215c29da0285b5.jpg Gallery: http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/L0008394.html. Library reference: Slide number 7482 Photo number: L0008394

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Martin Luther

The State/Society Delusion

In the waining years of the Roman Empire, St. Augustine of Hippo – attempting to reconcile the teachings of Jesus with the military and economic needs of empire – made heavy use of the Biblical phrase “render unto to Caesar what is Caesar’s”. He was making a distinction between a spiritual sphere of life and a temporal/physical one  (the City of God and the City of Man), thus easing the consciences of Christians in the imperial service by separating spiritual needs from the physical.

This idea is an old one in Western philosophy. Call it “essence” versus “existence” or compare Plato’s arid universe of Forms which all existing things are copies off ( the famous example being that every horse is an imperfect copy of the Ideal Horse Form). During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther greatly reinforced this idea; he and the other great Puritan visionaries are the grandfathers of our more modern regurgitation of the spiritual/physical spheres. As the Catholic church became more and more a temporal power, weakening the abstract borderers between the spiritual/physical, Luther rose up in large part to combat this transgression against spirituality.

Luther’s revolutionary preachings triggered a Christian/Utopian peasant’s revolt in Germany, who thought Luther’s teaching heralded a release from feudal realities. Known as the Peasants War (1524-1526), Luther sided with the German barons who where his main supporters, writing Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants to justify the baron’s prompt military crackdown. To summarise, Luther said that because there was a sharp divide between an individual’s soul/spiritual situation and an individual’s body/physical situation, it was okay to be a slave (or whatever your place was in the social hierarchy) as long as you where square with God.

It is a powerful justification of hierarchy/elite authority, and anyone who believes in a soul or an afterlife is painfully vulnerable to this argument. Because of the chance of future bliss after death, misery and exploitation in life is okay, and any resistance or revolt against authority is unjustifiable. This line of reasoning is made possible only by the strict separation between the spiritual and physical. I think most of us today realise that the “spiritual” (better understood as the psychological/emotional and if you are feeling continental, perhaps existential) is explicitly and directly linked to the “physical” and vice versa. If you are physically miserable, then this has massive effect on your state of mind. To have faith in an afterlife is just a bit naive. It obviously works directly to the benefit of the top echelons of society, regardless of any theological plausibilities.

As European society gradually became more secular, this line of reasoning was rephrased and redeployed to reinforce increasingly centralized secular authority (think Machiavelli and Cardinal Richelieu). It took several forms. Known today variously  as the separation of church and state or in more traditional Montesquieu-esque constitutional theory as the distinction between the “State” and “Society”, it boils down to a similar dichotomy.

During the early, formative years of the Enlightenment, there was a sense that society – discussion at new-fangled coffee houses, the Republic of Letters, etc – stood in contrast to the existing government (be it monarchy or whatever). It was important that this separation be maintained; the government must not coerce public opinion, nor hinder economic processes. A large motivating factor behind this movement is that economic enterprises, as well as a free speech need predictability from governments. There needs to be rules, rules that make no distinction between various individuals. This is what the rule of law means.

In classical constitutional/republican theory (think of the US constitution, which reflects Renaissance political theory to a surprising extent), the legislature reflects the will of the people via the curious and faulty procedure known as “representation”. Every law must pass though this legislature. Thus social change – in the fullest sense of the term –  becomes a governmental policy, and theoretically must take the form of a law.

This explains the importance of the gay marriage debate.  A larger social issue, which is essentially “What is homosexuality, and what do we think about it? And further, should it be okay to treat such individuals as second class citizens?” Becomes, thanks to the state/society structure a debate over the legality of gay marriage, which represents government recognition of a larger, massively complex social dimension.

The idea of the separation of church and state implies that the government is totally neutral in terms of values, belief, faith, morality, etc. Starting out as the notion that government should tolerate the various beliefs within the nation-state, modern governments must attempt a strict religious and social neutrality.

Of course, it is far more complicated than that. Obviously, there is a difference between positive coercion (i.e., “this is a Christian government and a Christian nation, and if you want to live here you must be a Christian as well”) and a sort of null political correctness that most governments aim for. Of course, this very attempt at a non-stance is a stance. Several American Protestants, in conversion with me, have expressed that they feel that the US government is anti-Christian. You may chuckle if you like: the nation that has “In God We Trust” on its currency and does not tax churches nor church property, nor has ever had a proper atheist president, as anti-Chrisitan is a bit daft.

But this illustrates how the attempt of the US government to be essentially agnostic feels to true believers that it is in fact anti-Christian. Government, like Science, tries to be fully neutral (in the full philosophical sense) yet, obviously must fail at this. By not taking a side, it has taken a side. This really should not surprise us.

The idea that that the State and Society are separate spheres is a functioning disfunction. It reminds me of an ill-fitting set of clothing; it is far too small and looks simply awful, but – none the less –  you are clothed and can go about your business in public. The reality is that society in the largest sense of the term is incredibly complex, and easily encompasses the individuals in government. The Prime Minister, or the US President may be among the most powerful individuals in the world (indeed, they are on paper), but the reality is that they are very much mired and expressions of society-at-large. The most remarkable and extra-ordinary individuals are inescapably products of their specific socio-historical context.

Our increasingly complex, increasingly global and digital society of course requires a fair bit of administration. Yet the classical formulation of the nation state is not quite up to the task. We must recognise that there are far too many things happening, far too many variables and philosophical perspectives for the sort of constitutional program which theoretically manages to encompass the entire society to actually work.

The primary academic figure who espouses this conception is Michel Foucault (I suggest Discipline and Punish and The History of Madness). His histories comfortably illustrate the complexity of societies (they don’t have to be digital or globalising). Foucault uses the terms power/knowledge and biopower – a sort of interlocking web of expectations, ability to coerce and influence people, combined with ordinary human physical needs – too describe the basic functioning of our society. Far from being pyramid-esque (say, with the US president on top), society represents a web of activating power relationships. Thus the proper way to look at the the US president is as an individual who is enmeshed in layers of overlapping expectations, personal relationships, and biased personal idiosyncrasies. Thus a US president comes to office weighed down with historical president, and numerous financial and political backers he must please, as well as foreign interests. This is just a simple example.

It would be far more accurate to say that the State is a product of larger society; its ideas, environment, problems and tactics. Perhaps a crude way of pointing out the State/Society delusion would be to take a Rousseau-esque turn and say that the current political theory leads to a tyranny of the majority. but this again would be inaccurate. It would be closer to say that it leads to a tyranny of the lowest common denominator.

Western society has a fondness to reduce things to a binary. This habit has strengths, but ultimately, it has deep weaknesses as well because as much as it might allow our society to tack problems in a technical sense, it fails to properly reflect the true complexity of reality, which more closely resembles a ball of rubber bands or an organic sliding scale (in every possible dimension, if that makes any sense at all).

When politicians talk about gay marriage, or the legalisation of marijuana, remember: that is not really what they are talking about. The big picture is that marijuana is a stand in for much larger social problems, such as addiction, neurotic behaviour, poverty.

This realisation should help us move forward past Martin Luther.

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About the Author

Originally from Olympia, Washington State, I am currently an intellectual history MA student at the University of Sussex. What interests me is 'big picture' questions: the area where psychology, economics, history, and politics deeply interact.



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