Friday, January 16, 2015

Spanish Scholastics and Modern Political Liberty

Scholasticism, and the thought of the Middle Ages generally, manifests itself under close examination as seminal. Medieval thinkers laid a foundation for observational, empirical, natural sciences by asserting that mathematical laws apply consistently across the physical universe; the medieval axiom that the world can be rationally understood encouraged scientific research.

Thomas Bradwardine has become, perhaps, one of the more famous examples of the way in which medieval thought formed a basis for modern thought. He articulated, in the early 1300s, mathematical formulations of the mean speed theorem, as well as proofs for it. Together with his colleagues, the “Oxford Calculators” of Merton College, Bradwardine opened the door to the use of exponential calculations in physics.

But not only did the Middle Ages make modern mathematics and physics possible, it also was foundational for the social sciences.

Thomist concepts, crystalized by scholastics in the High Middle Ages, allowed later thinkers, like Juan de Mariana, to precisely formulate questions about economics and political science, and to articulate answers to those questions.

“The prehistory,” writes Historian Jesús Huerta de Soto,

of economics can be found in the works of the Spanish scholastics written in what is known as the "Spanish Golden Century," which ran from the mid-sixteenth century through the seventeenth century.

The work of these post-medieval thinkers, ushering in the era, not only of modern political science and economics, but also of Lockean notions of liberty, was made possible by the Aristotelian and Thomist conceptual framework of previous centuries. “Who were these Spanish intellectual forerunners,” asks Jesús Huerta de Soto,

of economics? Most of them were scholastics teaching morals and theology at the University of Salamanca, in the medieval Spanish city located 150 miles northwest of Madrid, close to the border of Spain with Portugal.

Juan de Mariana studied and lectured on the texts of Thomas Aquinas, and authored detailed history books. He thus combined both an abstract conceptual framework with the concrete and specific content which would inhabit that framework.

These scholastics, mainly Dominicans and Jesuits, articulated the subjectivist, dynamic, and libertarian tradition on which, two-hundred-and-fifty years later, Carl Menger and his followers would place so much importance. Perhaps the most libertarian of all the scholastics, particularly in his later works, was the Jesuit Father Juan de Mariana.

Nearly a century before John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, Juan de Mariana articulated concepts which are now widely viewed as Lockean. Even as Bradwardine may deserve credit for discoveries assigned to Galileo, so Juan de Mariana may deserve credit for notions of political liberty assigned to Locke.