At the end of this term, which included Plato and Aristotle, I had my students read John Calvin. This was for a few reasons, one of which is that the division of terms at my present university usually means that the first ends with Machiavelli and the second begins with Hobbes, between which were a few events of significance in European and world history that would otherwise be neglected: the Reformation, the Peace of Augsburg, the Thirty Years War, etc. I also am of the opinion that Calvin is the interpretive key for the next term: Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau are all working in a world defined by, and reacting to, the concept of government espoused by Calvin.

Calvin does have a bad reputation, though, so I wasn't certain how the class would respond to it. Someone brought up the following passage, in particular:

This feeling of reverence, and even of piety, we owe to the utmost to all our rulers, be their characters what they may. This I repeat the oftener, that we may learn not to consider the individuals themselves, but hold it to be enough that by the will of the Lord they sustain a character on which he has impressed and engraven inviolable majesty. But rulers, you will say, owe mutual duties to those under them. This I have already confessed. But if from this you conclude that obedience is to be returned to none but just governors, you reason absurdly. Husbands are bound by mutual duties to their wives, and parents to their children. Should husbands and parents neglect their duty; should the latter be harsh and severe to the children whom they are enjoined not to provoke to anger, and by their severity harass them beyond measure; should the former treat with the greatest contumely the wives whom they are enjoined to love and to spare as the weaker vessels; would children be less bound in duty to their parents, and wives to their husbands? They are made subject to the froward and undutiful. Nay, since the duty of all is not to look behind them, that is, not to inquire into the duties of one another, but to submit each to his own duty, this ought especially to be exemplified in the case of those who are placed under the power of others.

To my surprise, the students found this to be reasonable: assuming away the worst possibilities of violence, it is generally true that duties don't (and cannot) depend on others first exercising their duties toward you. I think that's correct, but I was (erroneously, it seems) under the impression that it takes a greater amount of life experience to get to that point.

As I've thought about this passage more, though, there's something else that jumps out at me: it requires imaginative identification by Calvin and his reader with the role and station of women, and requires normalizing the complaints of the wife in this circumstance. It displays, in its way, a significantly more progressive attitude toward women than the other major figures of the term (who are, it must be said, a sorry lot, on the woman question). Normalizing the complaint of the wife: the role of the unhappy citizen is equated to the role of the unhappy wife. Calvin doesn't excuse or accept the bad behavior of the ruler; he considers the ruler to have a duty to act well, and thus the subject to have a right to expect that behavior; the citizen has been wronged in this process and the ruler stands under the judgment of God for having done so. It's merely that this wrong does not release the subject from their own obligations, so far as they go. Which means, for the analogy to work, that Calvin and his reader must think all the same things of the wife in this situation: if her husband fails to meet his husbandly duties she has been identifiably wronged, and he stands under the judgment of God for his failure. Moreover, the primarily male readership must admit the force of the wifely complaint in order for their own to have any merit. It's not feminism by any stretch, but it is a recognition that women are subjects in the social life of the polity and not merely objects to be acted upon (because men as citizens are subjects and not simply objects). Considering the last thing my students read before this was Machiavelli's suggestion that fortune is a promiscuous woman who must be beaten to give you what you want, Calvin is surprisingly enlightened.


FLG said...

I think Luther is more important because in his desire to avoid and replace the hierarchical structure of the Church, he lays the groundwork of enthroning the family as the fundamental unit of society and to a large extent Earthly authority, which is in turn reflected in Calvin.

Nicholas said...

I tend to think of Luther's importance being overblown, especially on political questions, because the upshot of Lutheran Theories of Polity is just not significantly different from Catholic theories of the same: primarily monarchies and strict hierarchies, just no Pope. "Lutheran resistance theory" is just as much of an oxymoron as "Catholic resistance theory" (though there are a few examples of the former), and it's the trend toward resistance theory, with the accompanying focus on rights-duties and legitimacy as the central issues for any kind of authority, that are distinctively Reformed (not least because they show up in Reformed ecclesiology). Calvin is not a great exemplar of this, certainly not compared to Beza or Althusius, but the students were able to recognize that he's not asking the same basic question as Aquinas or Machiavelli.