Tuesday, July 2, 2019

The Counter Enlightenment: Secular Law, Common Culture and Personal Liberty (6)

Since the time of Alexander the Great, rulers have struggled to deal with the distinct authorities that are guiding the actions of man: Secular and Sacred Authority. Alexander and the Romans after him solved the matter by uniting both authorities in the person of the Emperor. In the modern philosophy of Liberty the law or a democratic majority can't be allowed to trespass on the realm of individual Morality.

The concept of a Right pertains only to action—specifically, to freedom of action. It means freedom from physical compulsion, coercion or interference by other men. Thus, for every individual, a right is the moral sanction of a positive—of his freedom to act on his own judgment, for his own goals, by his own voluntary, uncoerced choice. (Ayn Rand Lexicon)

Secular versus sacred authority: introduction

Historically the distinction between Secular Authority and Sacred Authority largely followed the separation of Church and State, but the distinct 'authorities' that guide our actions are much more than that. It is very important to know the history that led to this separation, so that we can determine which aspects are controlled by Secular law (and by extension, by democratic principles), what part of our lives is ruled by culture and tradition (here referred to as 'Ethos') and what part is exclusively our private consideration (here referred to as Morality).

The question is, what is the proper field for the law, which part may be ruled by society and what is our personal domain? The secular must be practical and universal (for example the traffic code); Ethos pertains to culture, traditions, and national identity; Morality is personal choice based on voluntary values. In psychological terms, the Secular and the Ethos are external loci of control, while morality is the inner locus of control. 

Continuity and culture

Classical Greek thinkers, like Thucydides, Plato and Aristotle were the first to ponder how to constitute a State. They distinguished two separate domains that control the actions of citizens: the Sacred Authority and the Secular Authority. The two are quite distinct.

Secular Authority is expressed in structures, institutions, processes, rules and laws and governance. Sacred Authority is self control exerted through traditions, civic virtues based on common religious and ethnic practices. Personal morality was understood as the domain of Sacred Authority. But we must understand that for the inner locus of control a process of individualization is required that only developed fully under the influence of Christianity, based on its personal relationship with God and its idea of individual salvation. 

The whole body of knowledge, practices and heritage is passed on to  next generations to ensure continuation into the future. In the course of time a community, a town, a nation, a culture or an entire civilization develops. Such a society thrives when it is based on Secular as well as Sacred Authority. The two mutually support each other.

In a society in decline either of the authorities has lost its capacity to control the behavior of society. The two domains can be separate or integrated. But to be effective society must be supported by both. In some systems both authorities were united in a God-King, but in others they were separated—but still mutually supportive.

Out of the collapse of the feudal order of the Middle Ages rose the idea of equal, sovereign states (Wiki Peace of Westphalia). In order to defend the monarchy against the authority of the Universal Roman Church John of Paris (1235-1306) developed the concept of the sovereign State. He distinguished the Secular Authority of the State from the Sacred Authority of the Church; he determined that coersive and punitive authority should belong to the State, while the Church ought to determine the standards of morality and ethics. 


The Revolutions of the Enlightenment between 1640 and 1848 were an attack on the Sacred Sovereignty of the Monarchy. In the United States sovereignty transferred to the individual citizen, while in France sovereignty rested on the People collectively. This paradigm shift required the invention of some abstraction to signify The People. A number of concepts were developed, of which Rousseau's 'social contract' and 'the Will of the People' survive to this day. 

The practical realization of the Secular Authority was solved easily enough by the creation of the nation state, but the concept of the Sacred Authority was much more complex. In most cases a State Church was instituted.

The German philosopher Hegel (1770-1831) (Wiki) proposed a non religious solution: Ethos and Morality were be to be determined primarily by the customs and traditions of those with a common identity. According to Hegel a Nation integrated within the State would be the best way to create progress. This concentrated the power of Sacred and Secular Authority and invested the State with totalitarian power over the individual as well as over society as a whole. The end result was a virulent form of animistic Nationalism, an intolerant, ethnocentric Nation State invested with absolute, almost divine powers. (Source)

This indicates the danger a free society is in when the Secular Authority trespasses on the province of the Sacred Authority: in a free country personal Morality must always be the final Authority as a guide to action. When common Ethos and personal Morality are subjugated to State coercion, the Moral stops being the Moral. Morality is voluntary by definition!

The Founding Fathers of the United States had another solution, which provided for the separation of Church and State in such a way that power would not be concentrated in a single institution. This also allowed Governmental structures and processes to be subject to the Moral and Ethical constraints of Sacred Authority, yet not to be controlled by any Church or the State to control any Church. Also this allowed both Secular Authority and Sacred Authority to influence the behavior of citizens, government remained efficient, united, and successful while individual Morality remained supreme.


With the decline of Christianity and without a clear concept of civic virtue, European countries continued to integrate both authorities in semi totalitarian States in the name of equality. Many intellectuals accepted the ideas of Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche; the concept of the separation of Church and State was put on its head. Intellectuals and elites declared the death of God, while they themselves annexed Sacred Authority to their domain of operation.

In liberal democracy belief and conviction became a matter of personal choice, but not always by definition under the philosophy of Liberty, the integrated system of the three authorities. Yet this is a prime requirement, because only then individual Liberty can be assured. As a result of secularism encroaching further and further on the domains of the individual and of society, the freedom of thought and conscience are now in serious danger.

Many believe that the separation of Church and State requires that all aspects of religion are removed from the public domain. This is a French concept called laïcité that requires a strong, centralized Government that is contrary to the philosophy of Liberty. Moreover, cleansing the public space from all religious symbolism is not even required for the separation of Church and State. 

In the progressive, liberal democratic State Secular Authority (i.e. the law) has become the dominating authority while politicians, political parties and the ruling classes seek to bring the common Ethos and personal Morality also under its control, either by the social pressure tool of political correctness or by straight up legislation. They purposely conflated and equivocated Secular law and the philosophy of Liberty. This in essence is the main fallacy of progressivism (if a mistake on purpose can be called that).

The present cultural decay and decline is caused primarily by the domination of Secular law justified by democratic majority rule; by the weakening of the common Ethos by postmodernism, relativism and multiculturalism; plus the failure of the three authorities to mutually support each other. 


Is there a solution to the current problem? Yes, there is. But only if we can raise awareness of the existence of three distinct authorities and if they can be made to support each other; and provided personal judgement can have the final say on all matters of personal choice. Which means that Secular law must become secondary, not primary when it comes to matters pertaining to morality.

Since the process of individualization has been completed for most people in the developed world, the Church is no longer the final Moral Authority. The State on the other hand, must be discouraged from encroaching on issues beyond their proper domain. Every coup by Secular law against personal Liberty represents a further step towards tyranny.

This problem is bigger than just the law. Other weapons are used against society and the individual. Think about positive discrimination, political correctness, subjective group 'rights' based on irrelevant physical characteristics (gays, women's, children's, animal 'rights'), the rule of emotions over reason, and above all accommodating ideologies that are hostile to the philosophy of Liberty.

The decay and decline can only be stopped if Ethical matters are decided where they belong -- with the citizens and with the individual -- and when politicians and the ruling class limit themselves to practical issues. The distinction between the three authorities is so easy to make, that a code could be devised without too many difficulties.

Dedicated to Sam Holliday who first raised this all important issue in his essay, "Secular and Sacred Authority: Why We Need It". (Source)

Tags:  Philosophy, Legal, Religion

In this series

Part 1: Introduction