Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Not Three Hierarchies, but Four Estates

In the post just below, I hinted at the long Indo-European and European feudal antecedents of the social model of Three Estates or Three Hierarchies, beloved of Lutheran thinkers up to the nineteenth century. By contrast, this model of three functions cannot be easily traced in the records of ancient Hebrew civilization, at least in that form; warriors and farmers in the Israelite commonwealth are the same people.

This is not to say, however, that the Old Testament teaches anything like Whiggism (i.e. what is usually called "conservatism" or "classic liberalism") or Social Democracy (i.e. what Americans call "liberalism"). Perhaps the most illuminating attempt to in some way relate the social structure in the ancient Israelite confederation and kingdom to the social order found within historic times in Europe was given by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his 1829 work, On the Constitution of the Church and State According to the Idea of Each. In this last swan song of England's old Tory order before it was reformed out of existence in 1832, he divides the estates of the well-ordered society (both pre-Reform England and ancient Israel) into a series of estates each dependent on property of a particular type.

Coleridge did not indeed think that this system of estates was in any way exclusive to ancient Israel or was divinely revealed for the first time to Moses. Writing of the Levitical priesthood and lands, he denies that this was in any way a novelty with the Hebrew constitution and therefore that, as a social institution, it was in any way made obsolete by the Christian religion. Its purpose as a foreshadowing of Christ's priesthood was indeed fulfilled, but not its role as a social institution, analogues of which, he contended, existed among all peoples.

. . . not the principle itself [of such a body of men dedicated to instruction and supported out of public lands], but the superior wisdom with which the principle was carried into effect, the greater perfection of the machinery, forms the true distinction, the peculiar worth, of the Hebrew constitution. The principle itself was common to Goth and Celt . . . [that is] common to all primitive races, that in taking possession of a new country, and in the division of the land into hereditable estates among the individual warriors or heads of families, a reserve should be made for the nation itself (p. 168 of Coleridge's Writings on Politics and Society).

Similarly, Coleridge thus speaks of the Church of England or National Clergy as a dual body. In one sense it is simply that part of the English nation set apart for the cultivation of knowledge, both worldly and divine, and its dispersal among the people. In another, separate, sense, it is a part of the Christian church as a whole. As he says,

in relation to the National Church, Christianity, or the Church of Christ, is a blessed accident, a providential boon, a grace of God . . . As the olive tree is said in its growth to fertilize the surrounding soil; to invigorate the roots of the vines in its immediate neighborhood, and to improve the strength and flavor of the wines -- such is the relation of the Christian and the National Church. But as the olive is not the same plant with the vine, or with the elm or poplar (i.e. the State) with which the vine is wedded . . . even so is Christianity, and a fortiori any particular scheme of Theology . . . no essential part of the Being of the National Church (p. 181).

These two concepts of the Church must, he argues, be kept separate, and it is only in the first, not specifically Christian sense, that the National Church is an analogue of the Levitical priesthood.

Here I will briefly summarize how Coleridge saw the structure of society in estates:

First there is the division of the Propriety and the Nationalty: the first comprising all the property divided among particular families, and the second comprising all property held in common by the nation as a whole and devoted to the support of the National Church and the relief of the poor.

Within the Propriety there is a division into the Landed Interest and Personal Interest. The former represents all those families who are invested in land-holding and bound to immovable property, while the later represents all those who make a living by moveable possessions, skills, acquired knowledge, and commerce. In particular he divides the persons comprised in the Personal Interest into the mercantile, the manufacturing, the retail traders, and the professional classes. The Landed Interest is divided into the major barons and the franklins or minor landholders.

Within the society as a whole, it is the Landed Interest which represents the principle of Permanence while the Personal Interest represents the opposite principle of Progression. As exemplifying the principle of Permanence, the assignment of land to the families invested in the Landed Interest is thus legitimately bound by primogeniture, entail, and other limitations on free alienation.

A striking element of the constitution of Israel, he notes, is that the Personal Interest was comprised essentially of foreigners. All land in Israel was distributed to true Israelite families and was in principle not to be alienated from the original family, while the cities, where all property, real or not, could be freely bought and sold, were inhabited mostly by the not truly Israelite "mixed multitude" that followed the Israelites from Egypt into the Promised Land, or surviving Canaanites, or else immigrants from Phoenicia, Philistia, and further off countries. As Coleridge notes,

with the Celtic, Gothic, and Scandinavian, equally as with the Hebrew tribes, Property by absolute right existed only in the tolerated alien . . . "The land is not yours, saith the Lord, the land is mine. To you I lent it." The voice of trumpets is not, indeed, heard in this country. But no less intelligibly is it declared by the spirit and history of our laws, that the possession of a property, not connected with especial duties, a property not fiduciary or official, but arbitrary and unconditional, was in the light of our forefathers the brand of a Jew and an alien; not the distinction, not the right, or honour, of an English baron or gentleman (pp. 171-72).

Yet the comparison itself shows, that such absolute propriety became, as the Personal Interest, a legitimate part of the constitution, with the specific purpose of being more open to innovation than the rural Landed Interest.

In view of the oft-asserted "egalitarianism" of the Israelite tribes, it is worth noting that the Law of Moses gave the eldest son a double portion, twice that of the other sons. (Colonial Massachusetts enacted the same law, but it was overthrown during the egalitarian reaction that followed the American Revolution.) Add to that the fact that the redemption of clan land fallen vacant would naturally fall to the wealthier representatives of the clan, and the reality of a distinction in Israel as well of two orders of Landed Interest, the few senior lines and the mass of junior lines becomes apparent.

In conclusion a kind of table of estates within the Hebrew-English polity can be made, putting Coleridge's term first and then the English and Hebrew equivalents:

National Church and Nationalty
Church of England and church lands
Levitical Priesthood and Levitical cities

Landed Interest: Major Barons, Minor Barons or Franklins
English Gentlemen and Barons: Peers,
Full-blooded Israelite Tribesmen: Senior Israelite Lines, Junior Israelite Lines

Personal Interest
Merchants, manufacturers, retailers, and professionals
City-dwelling non-Israelites

Coleridge does not discuss the peasantry as such, but again, the Biblical documentation makes it clear that much of the land, especially in the lowlands, was actually worked by non-Israelites, whether Canaanites put to tribute, aliens, or the "mixed multitude" servant class imported in Canaan with the Israelites.

Does this model have any applicability in the modern world? It might seem not. The Nationalty has been sold off, the limits on transfer of wealth abolished, and distinctions of birth rejected. Even land in most modern societies is now assimilated to the Personal Interest and rarely stays in one family for more than a few generations.

Yet curious similarities can be found: the setting aside of land for land-grant colleges in the settlement of the Midwest under the Northwest Ordinance, the much-remarked on contrast between the conservative, rural, mostly old-stock, population in the "Red States" who represent permanence as a principle, and the urban, mostly immigrant stock, population in the "Blue States" who represent progression as a principle. Coleridge might suggest that both are necessary for a balanced social life that combines stability with adaptability, but that the trend of the age, against which precaution should be taken, is for the latter principle of progress to subvert the former of permanence.

For these reasons, Coleridge's old schema is still worth another look, especially by those seek to apply the Old Testament to social issues and problems of today.

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