The Parable of the Talents, Part I: How Christian Thinkers Shaped America’s Republicanism

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Almost every single political system until the democratic Republicanism of America unjustly forced certain people to bury their talents.

For even as a man going into a far country, called his servants, and delivered to them his goods; And to one he gave five talents, and to another two, and to another one, to every one according to his proper ability: and immediately he took his journey. . .Well done, good and faithful servant: because thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will place thee over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord. . .For to every one that hath shall be given, and he shall abound: but from him that hath not, that also which he seemeth to have shall be taken away. And the unprofitable servant cast ye out into the exterior darkness. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. –Jesus Christ, Matthew 25:14-15, 23, 29-30

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid

Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;

Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway’d,

Or wak’d to ecstasy the living lyre.

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page

Rich with the spoils of time did ne’er unroll;

Chill Penury repress’d their noble rage,

And froze the genial current of the soul.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,

The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:

Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen,

And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast

The little tyrant of his fields withstood;

Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,

Some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood. . .

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,

Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;

Along the cool sequester’d vale of life

They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

 â€“Thomas Gray, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

My favorite parable from the Bible is the Parable of the Talents. It seems to me that the whole key for what Christians are supposed to do with their lives is contained in this parable. To attain our full potential—that is, to merit Heaven—we have to use our talents to the best of our ability. Unless we do that, unless we utilize our God-given talents to the greatest extent possible, we will be the man who buried his talents—who was accursed, cast into the outer darkness, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. What I have found particularly interesting, the more I have meditated on this parable, is that, in life, it is possible for somebody to bury another man’s talent. At first, this sounds ridiculous. To a certain extent, we all have control over what we do with our talents; but it is also true that certain systems, cultures, individuals, and societal standards can actually prevent people from utilizing their God-given talents. As a matter of fact, almost every single political system until the democratic republicanism of America unjustly forced certain people to bury their talents.

If you had lived in 17th century France, and had been born a peasant, you were never going to be a political leader. If you were a Jew in medieval England, you were never going to be considered deserving of the same respect and rights as a Christian. If you were a woman in 15th century China, you could never be an acclaimed philosopher. If you were a slave in ancient Sparta, you could not possibly become a celebrated poet.  If you were born to an embalmer in ancient Egypt, you could never be a pharaoh. If you were a cobbler in feudal Europe, the high likelihood is that you would never be considered as good as a duke, no matter how superior you were to him morally, intellectually, or spiritually (or any other way).

There is another flaw in non-republican political systems. Either they try to make people “equal” in all respects (by which they mean exactly the same, no one more or less talented than any other, no one richer or poorer than anyone else)—Sparta, Socialism, Communism, and certain presentations of Catholic social doctrine’s distributism are examples of this extreme. Or the systems try to enforce inequality on people irrespective of what the individuals’ abilities or talents suit them for in life—this would be nearly every system, practiced or proposed, before the 1700s, including all forms of monarchy and aristocracy, empires, feudalism, etc. In the latter systems, certain people were considered as deserving special honors and privileges simply by virtue of their birth (as, for instance, nobles), while others were considered as almost permanently excluded from certain honors and privileges simply by virtue of their birth (as, for instance, peasants or slaves).

This seems not only to be a fundamentally flawed way of thinking, but a non-Christian way of thinking—and many of the greatest thinkers in history also had problems with such standards, to a greater or lesser degree. “Democracy is the form of government in which the free are rulers,” said Aristotle in the 4th century BC. “There is neither Jew nor Greek: there is neither bond nor free: there is neither male nor female,” reads Galatians 3:28. “There is no king who has not arisen from slaves, nor any slave who has not arisen from kings,” Seneca commented in his Epistulae Morales in the 1st century AD. “Honor cometh not to virtue from rank, but to rank from virtue,” said Boethius in the 6th century. “In a commonwealth all men are born naturally free; consequently the people themselves immediately and directly hold the political power so long as they have not transferred this power to some king or ruler,” declared St. Robert Bellarmine. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” reads the US Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson.

The quote from Bellarmine, however, is especially significant, because both Bellarmine and his critics believed he was simply stating the orthodox Catholic-Christian belief from the Middle Ages. As Bellarmine saw very clearly, whenever government becomes bigger, the importance and power of church and individual shrink proportionately. Of course, in practice, there was very little liberty and there were very few rights for ordinary people in feudal Europe (though it does bear the distinction of being the first great civilization not founded on slavery)—yet, throughout those times, the Catholic Church held aloft an ideal, an ideal that few may have followed, but of which many were, willingly or not, frequently reminded—an ideal later carried aloft in the US by Christians of many denominations. Centuries later, Alexis de Tocqueville recognized the origin of American’s republican philosophy in Catholicism in his book Democracy in America when he states that it was the Catholic Church that first began elevating men of obscure birth to high clerical status. He might well have added that the Church, by making sanctity the highest “office” in Catholicism (attainable by everyone), placed at its heart the idea that every man begins at the same spiritual point and can attain greatness by his own efforts (cooperative with God’s grace).  America’s republican democracy was simply an application of this centuries-old Christian ideal to the political and economic sphere.

In fact, the case I make in these two articles is that not only is republican democracy the only form of government yet invented which is designed to allow people to live out the lesson of Jesus’ Parable of the Talents, but it is a system founded upon a philosophy peculiarly Christian and most suited, as a political philosophy, to pair with Christian theology and philosophy in general.

Of course, the seeds were not exactly like the fruit.  St. Thomas Aquinas has gone down in history as a firm supporter of the monarchy, but he describes a standard which has never yet existed in an actual monarchy—replace the word “monarch” or “prince” with “executive power,” however, and something very like a rough draft of America’s philosophy emerges.  Aquinas said that the prince must be subject to the rule of law as much as any of his subjects, and that he must obtain at least implicit approval from both nobles and commoners to enact something into law.  Even more radically, Aquinas said that, if the monarch tries to force a law on his people which is unjust or opposed to their common tradition and practice, they have not only the right but the moral duty to oppose him—even to the extent of removing him from power, if necessary.  Robert Bellarmine was looking to writers like Aquinas when he penned his own democratic philosophy, a philosophy which made him extremely unpopular with a number of monarchs (and some Protestants, interestingly enough) across Europe.

Other great Christian thinkers before the founding of America held to this fundamentally democratic way of thinking.  “The best government is that which teaches us to govern ourselves,” said the poet Goethe. “I think the king is but a man as I am,” William Shakespeare has the disguised King Henry V saying, before adding, “His ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man.”  William Penn observed gravely of society, “There can be no friendship when there is no freedom.” The Scottish political philosopher Adam Smith warned, “The statesman who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals, would not only load himself with a most unnecessary attention, but assume an authority which could safely be trusted, not only to no single person, but to no council or senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it”.

America’s democratic republicanism, therefore, grew out of a rich Christian heritage of thought.  In the second part of these articles, I will address common attacks from Christians on democratic republicanism, and explain more fully why democratic republicanism truly enables one to “enter thou into the joy of thy lord.”

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