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International Relations and the 'Modern' Middle Ages: Rival Theological Theorisations of International Order

Pabst, Adrian (2016) International Relations and the 'Modern' Middle Ages: Rival Theological Theorisations of International Order. In: Bain, William, ed. Medieval Foundations of International Relations. Routledge, Abingdon, Oxfordshire. ISBN 978-1-138-79579-2. E-ISBN 978-1-315-75821-3. (KAR id:37669)


The thesis that the secular system of modern international relations has medieval, religious roots is not new. Various accounts have documented how the Protestant Reformation and its late medieval antecedents represented a ‘revolution in ideas’ that broke away from the hierarchical arrangement of fragmented feudal polities, which was apparently characteristic of the Middle Ages, to the egalitarian society of sovereign states, which is seemingly synonymous with modernity. Linked to this is the standard story in International Relations that views the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Discovery of the New World as a radical rupture, which replaced the ‘Dark Ages’ with a new era of enlightenment progress. Such a supercessionist structuring of historical narrative reinforces the secularist bias that has dominated the discipline since the late 1950s and 1960s. As a result of the secularisation of international relations, the role of religion in international affairs has not so much been neglected and overlooked, as misrepresented and under-theorised.

Most contemporary international relations scholarship lacks an account of both the historical influence and the contemporary relevance of rival theological approaches in relation to the modern international order. Recent scholarship in political thought and in the history of ideas has highlighted some of the profound continuities between the medieval and the modern period. Building on these and other accounts, this essay explores the role of theological concepts in the genesis of modern international relations. The focus is on the contrast between the Franciscan legacy and the Dominican heritage. My argument is that the modern states system and transnational markets rest on late medieval ideas, notably Franciscan conceptions of inalienable individual rights, centrally vested sovereign power, and a natural state of anarchy that requires an artificial social contract. Against secular hegemony, which, paradoxically, can be traced to late medieval Franciscan theology, I contend that the Dominican tradition offers conceptual resources to chart an alternative modernity.

To suggest that we live in the (late) modern age assumes a particular meaning to modernity. But the modern project was never monolithic in the West, or elsewhere. On the contrary, from a global historical perspective, there was no single modernity but rather multiple and even rival modernities that were variously more secular or more religious. Moreover, ‘we have never been modern’, as the French philosopher Bruno Latour has argued. For modernity rests on an irresolvable aporia between the notion of human artifice (the social contract) and unalterable nature (the violent ‘state of nature’). Crucially, there are no absolute breaks in history that inaugurate new eras which supersede preceding traditions and ideas, including the notion that Westphalia ushered in modern international affairs. If this is so, then perhaps it is also true that (late or post-)modernity is best described as the ‘modern’ Middle Ages — the intensification and extension of certain late medieval ideas rather than a wholly new phase of history. In turn, this helps explain why the shape of contemporary international relations really is neo-medieval but in ways that have not been conceptualised by theorists of international relations.

The first section examines the historicist narrative of International Relations and traces it back to both Protestant and Catholic theology. The second section shows how the modern notion of secular imperium as an autonomous, neutral space on which the idea of the sovereign state rests, was invented and instituted by late medieval Franciscan theology, in particular the work of John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham. The third section argues that the conception of subjective, individual rights guaranteed by the sovereign state, independently of the Church, is similarly rooted in the nominalist theology of the Franciscans. This conception of rights can be contrasted with the notion of objective right (ius), and thus reciprocal rights and associative links between national states as contemplated by the (metaphysical) realist theology of Dominicans such as Thomas Aquinas. The fourth section focuses on the Franciscan invention of modern markets, based on sundering the immanent order of nature from the transcendent order of the supernatural Good in God, and on separating gift from contract. The conclusion suggests that the conceptual resources of the Dominican tradition can transform Franciscan modernity in the direction of a neomedieval international order wherein human beings are seen as naturally ‘social animals’ (not self-proprietors of subjective rights) and both states and markets help to promote the pursuit of the common good.

Item Type: Book section
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion
J Political Science > JC Political theory
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Human and Social Sciences > School of Politics and International Relations
Depositing User: Adrian Pabst
Date Deposited: 19 Dec 2013 12:49 UTC
Last Modified: 09 Dec 2022 11:53 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

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