Walzer, Revolution of the Saints

Revolution of the Saints (By Michael Walzer)
Posted by Ron
Revolution of the Saints

By Michael Walzer

(Reviewed by Ron Sanders)

In The Revolution of the Saints, Michael Walzer traces the arc of cultural upheaval in England during the 16th and 17th centuries that led to the democratic revolution. He primarily focuses on the role of Calvinist theology in forming the ideology and shaping the character of the Puritan saint and consequently the role the Puritans played in the English revolution.

He argues that Calvinism’s appeal (the dominant theological perspective of the Puritans) was that it confirmed and explained in theological terms, “perceptions men already had of the dangers of the world and the self “(RS, 308) and that it presented a remedy to the anxiety created by the shifting tide of culture through the rigid discipline of “sainthood.” (RS, 308) The important theological themes that characterized Calvin’s ideology were, (1) “the permanent, inescapable estrangement of man from God (RS, 27),” (2) “a cure for anxiety not in reconciliation but in obedience (RS, 28),” (3) a “holy commonwealth” (RS, 28) and (4) the necessity of “wholehearted participation” on the part of his followers (RS, 28,29).

The state (holy commonwealth), for Calvin, had dual roles. Its negative role was to repress sin in individuals. Walzer states that, “Calvin accepted politics in any form it took, so long as it fulfilled its general purpose and established an order of repression (RS, 42).” On the other hand, the positive role of the state was to “assert the claims of God” on the individual (RS, 46). Calvin’s view of human depravity drove his political ideology and his understanding of the dual role of the state planted the seeds of radical, revolutionary politics.

Walzer maintains that Calvin’s theological and political philosophy arrived on the scene at the same time that the feudal system was being called into question. Before the radical revolution, politics in Europe and England relied on the understanding of a “chain of being”—that each person had their rightful place in society and that this place was to be accepted and not challenged. Inherited from the Greeks and enforced by speculative theology, this system used the metaphors of nature and family and speculation on angelic hierarchy to justify a “natural order” of political and cultural status. This, in turn, caused passivity in political activity and a reliance on family heritage to achieve one’s station in life (RS, 151-166). The underlying theological emphasis of Calvin put this system into question.

Instead of one’s place within the hierarchy of the nuclear and extended family, inclusion in the family of God became the emphasis. Thus, voluntary societies were formed around the disciplinary practices of the church. Similarly, the importance of the family was pushed even further to the margins with Calvin’s understanding of vocation. Being God’s instruments in the world meant that roles and work associated with familial heritage were replaced with one’s calling to the service of God in society (RS, 166-168). Further, because of the importance and emphasis on the nature of sin in Calvin’s theology, self-discipline became a critical practice of the voluntary societies. God’s will required the cooperation of people and therefore discipline and mutual accountability were essential to the work of God (RS, 167). Finally, the importance of individual and group conscience played a vital role in radical politics. The importance of conscience stemmed from the Puritan view of the holy commonwealth—a state that represented God’s laws. The state’s legitimacy was becoming measured by interpretations of how well it measured up to God’s standards rather than something to be passively submitted to. These three factors, voluntary societies, individual conscience and self-discipline were the bedrock on which radical politics were formed. Each of them stemmed from distinct theological emphases of Puritan theology, especially the strong doctrine of personal sin.

The Puritans also made use of both just war theory and crusade dogma to justify revolutionary change in the political system—through violence if necessary. The Puritans found in the cosmic battle between God and Satan a metaphor for the battle for a holy commonwealth. They also found in the character of God a warrior, who calls his people to be warriors as well (RS, 284). Walzer says that,

“…the military rhetoric that set saints against worldlings, the interest of the preachers in order and drill, the erosion of traditional notions about the just (limited) war—all these made actual warfare more likely than it would otherwise have been. And they helped too in pushing the war, when it came, beyond resistance to revolution (RS, 290).”

Walzer concludes then, that the effect of Puritanism was to make “revolution available to the minds of seventeenth-century Englishmen as it never had been before.” (RS, 290) However, he observes that while the Puritan project paved the way for the democratic revolution, it did not have the staying power to organize the politics of a new society. Instead, the liberal democratic tradition, under the influence of Locke and a less pessimistic view of human nature became the framework for the burgeoning democracy.

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