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By W. M. Spellman

This short narrative survey of political concept over the last millennia explores key principles that experience formed Western political traditions.

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Classical Greek culture provided the foundation for thinking about human relations in terms of overarching law. If the phenomena of physical nature adhered to general principles, it seemed logical to assume that analogous principles obtained in the social sphere. Epicureans lodged a powerful dissent to this position on the grounds that the underlying essence of things could not be perceived, but in general the direction in Greek thought moved toward ubiquitous, if dimly perceived, laws governing all of creation.

It seems far more likely that the authoritarian tendencies within Roman and Christian thought informed the construction of Germanic monarchy. In fact, many of the early rulers enjoyed the sanction of the Roman emperors whose territorial base of power was now in the Eastern capital of Constantinople. Such was the case with the Ostrogothic king, Theodoric, who ruled in Italy from 493 to 526 and won the support of the old landholding class of aristocrats. A similar relationship emerged in the former Roman province of Gaul, where the barbarian Clovis was awarded an honorary consulate and ruled from 482 to 511 in nominal subordination to the eastern Roman emperor.

Heavenly Mandates, 400–1500 The millennium between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the start of the Renaissance, while recognized by scholars as a period of profound change and intellectual dynamism, is still disparaged in popular discourse as a gigantic detour in the march of human progress. The loaded term “Dark Ages” calls attention to all that was wrongheaded about the successor societies to Rome. A world of ignorance, chronic warfare, grinding poverty, poor hygiene, bad manners, and dogged superstition all presided over by self-serving clerics and illiterate warrior kings—these were the essential material and intellectual conditions in the lands of the former Roman Empire.

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