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Prelapsarian Politics and Postlapsarian Polemics

May 10th, 2023 | 5 min read

By Collin Slowey

Five years since the publication of Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed sparked a dialectical war among religious conservatives over their Lockean heritage, the cannons haven’t stopped firing. To the contrary, the war is expanding to new theaters.

One benefit of the conflict is that it has pushed conservatives to refine their understanding of government’s role. In a recent article, Brad Littlejohn characterizes the debate as a disagreement between those who, like Locke and Jefferson, see government as a neutral umpire created to protect God-given rights and those who, following Peter and Paul, see it as an institution “sent to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.”

Who has it right? Should religious conservatives in the 21st century consider neutrality and the protection of negative rights their guiding political principle, or should they reserve that honor for the punishment of vice and the reward of virtue? That is an interesting question, but it obscures an even deeper one that only comes into view when we consider the role of government before the Fall.

Reflecting on the prelapsarian world is the Christian version of imagining the state of nature. The latter is of dubious value, because, as various thinkers have pointed out, it’s an exercise in fantasy, more likely to confirm biases than uncover truth. There never was a pre-political, pre-social “state of nature” for historical human beings. But, however literally one interprets Genesis, orthodox Christians know there are real truths to be learned from Paradise. How people would have behaved had Adam and Eve never disobeyed God can reveal truths about the ends of all human action, including politics.

So what would prelapsarian politics have looked like? Perhaps it would not have existed at all. This is a view held implicitly by Christians who believe government is a “necessary evil” inflicted on humanity by sin. It was arguably Augustine’s view, too. In Book XIX, Chapter 15 of the City of God, Augustine cites Genesis 1:26 to support his claim that God “did not intend that His rational creature, who was made in His image, should have dominion over anything but the irrational creation,––not man over man, but man over the beasts.”

But this is not the only Christian perspective. Thomas Aquinas agreed with Augustine that coercive rule is an effect of the Fall but disputed that coercion is the essence of government. In his commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, he defines right government as an institution created to do three things: guide society in “things to be done and known,” provide important services (e.g., defense) that the people cannot supply on their own, and correct morals (i.e. punish evil and praise good).

Aquinas argues that only the first task would be necessary in Paradise. Adam and Eve lacked neither material resources nor moral goodness, so a government directed to provide either to a prelapsarian society would be redundant. However, even without sin, people require guidance. After all, humans are not angels; they are not naturally omniscient.

This is where Aquinas’s logic excels Augustine’s, at least with regard to the interpretation set forth above. As James R. Rogers notes in First Things, humans are temporal, physical beings that are by nature subject to differences in perception and understanding. To act together as one and avoid mistakes, they must subject themselves to what game theory calls a “focal arbiter.” Rogers describes this role as that of a logistical overseer, entrusted with information by people unable to effectively communicate on their own, with the purpose of preventing inefficiency and furthering the common good. Is this the unnatural “dominion” that Augustine so heartily lamented? No, but it appears to be political authority nonetheless.

The need for a focal arbiter would appear to increase as a community grows in size and interpersonal communication becomes more difficult. Presumably, prelapsarian cities would face many of the same questions postlapsarian cities do, like what side of the road to drive on and where to build the town square. At a large scale, the bodies assigned to provide the answers would look decidedly like governments. They would not perform many of the functions we associate with the state today, it is true. But that would be a sign of their innocence rather than their inadequacy.

This thought experiment reveals the limitations of both liberal and post-liberal religious conservatives as characterized by Littlejohn. The essence of government cannot be the protection of rights if there could be a political community with no endangered rights, yet that is exactly the nature of our hypothetical Paradise. Nor can government be reduced to the punishment of evil and the praise of good, even if those are two of its most important tasks today, because they would fulfill no function in a prelapsarian culture. Instead, we are left with the conclusion that government’s most fundamental purpose is to guide society in “things to be done and known,”

Several questions remain. By what process, for one, would a prelapsarian focal arbiter be legitimately installed? By what power would he make public decisions? And would “things to be done and known” be limited to purely practical considerations, like what side of the road to drive on? Or would they extend beyond that, to projects not merely justified by necessity?

Aquinas answers the first question in Question 96, Article 3 of the first part of the Summa Theologiae. He speculates that even without sin, organic variation would cause some people to have more wisdom than others (though none would be less wise than they ought to be). He then concludes that the wisest human beings would be naturally justified in assuming political authority. Presumably, because their companions would be completely rational—Aquinas lists “perfect obedience of the inferior powers to reason” among the qualities of Edenic innocence—they would recognize and submit to that authority automatically.

The answer to the second question follows logically from Aquinas’s answer to the first. If it is wisdom that justifies rule, then it is wisdom, the virtue that allows human beings to determine the best way to act and discern the will of God, that would empower a prelapsarian ruler to arbitrate effectively among “things to be done and known.”

Finally, Genesis itself offers probable answers to the last two questions. In the first Creation account, God commands Adam and Eve to “fill the earth and subdue it.” In the second account, God commands Adam to “till” and “keep” the Garden of Eden. These words do not connote bare survival. Rather, they seem to imply the proactive cultivation or transformation of the world into something that gives greater glory to God. We can therefore imagine that a prelapsarian government would be interested in more than just protecting its citizens from misunderstandings and mistakes. In all likelihood, it would also coordinate people to build grand monuments, plant beautiful gardens, or perform in song and dance, all as free tributes to the Lord.

Readers may be more or less convinced by these interpretations of Aquinas and the Bible. Moreover, what they contribute to our understanding of politics in the here and now is perhaps of limited value, given how difficult it is to distinguish between government’s necessary and provisional duties in the particulars of a fallen world. But even if the exact characteristics of focal arbitration are left unsettled, the recognition that government’s most fundamental purpose is logistical oversight is revealing.

It does not mean that protecting citizens’ rights or punishing evil and praising good are unimportant tasks. Still less does it constitute a prescriptive agenda for political action. Nevertheless, it clarifies the ideal end to which that action should be directed. And in doing so, it may point to a third way for those caught between conservatism’s warring camps.

Collin Slowey

Collin Slowey is an independent writer on politics, culture, and religion whose work has been featured in The American Conservative, The Dallas Morning News, and Public Discourse, among other outlets.