Locke and Christianity
John Locke: a religious champion of freedom
By Alejandro Antonio Chafuen
It was by pure chance that I learned about John Locke’s interest in religion. Like others who approach the history of ideas from the perspective of their contribution to the philosophy and practice of freedom, I had only focused on Locke’s writings on private property, tolerance, and the rule of law. I believe that it was Leonard Liggio, that great scholar of liberty, who one day shared with me a copy of an introduction to a new edition of John Locke’s A Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistles of St. Paul (Locke, 1707). I then went on a “hunting” and studying expedition to acquire and learn as much as I can from Locke’s writings on religion.
There are several questions that can be asked about Locke’s studies and attitudes toward religion. I will not focus here on how Locke religious views compare to predominant Christian doctrines today. If I make any comparisons it is to support the main conclusion that I reached after studying his work: Locke’s anthropology is based on his Christian views, and these views were essential to his contributions in political philosophy.
I will approach his writings on religion asking if they occupied a relevant place in his work and if they were an important aspect of his life. I will also briefly focus on the role they played on his political and economic analysis. A more difficult question, which I believe is very relevant but will not be addressed here, is the impact that his religious views might have had on his credibility and influence.
Religion in John Locke’s writings and life
George Santayana started a lecture on Locke saying that a good portrait of him “should be painted in the manner of the Dutch masters, in a sunny interior, scrupulously furnished with all the implements of domestic comforts and philosophical enquiry: the Holy Bible open majestically before him, and beside it that other revelation—the terrestrial globe.” (Santayana, 1933, p. 1).
John Locke spent his life trying to understand the human person. He earned a very good reputation as a physician; he studied the behaviour and customs of people from different corners of the world; and he analyzed men and their political and economic relationships. Yet, after all those studies, he spent the last years of his productive life to better understand the Holy Scriptures and explaining the benefits of Christianity, as well as becoming a great champion of theology. This was a science that stood ‘incomparably above all the rest’, which has as its scope ‘the honour and veneration of the Creator, and the happiness of mankind. This is that noble study which is every man’s duty, and every one that can be called a rational creature is capable of.’(Locke,  1802, p. 72). Locke added: ‘This is that science which would truly enlarge men’s minds, were it studied, or permitted to be studied everywhere with that freedom, love of truth, and charity which it teaches, and were not made, contrary to its nature, the occasion of strife, faction, malignity, and narrow impositions.’(Locke,  1802, p. 73)
He also lived his faith well, according to an unnamed biographer, "as he was incapable for a considerable time of going to church, he thought proper to receive the sacrament at home, and two of his friends communicated with him; as soon as the office was finished, he told the minister that he was in the sentiments of perfect charity towards all men, and of a sincere union with the Church of Christ, under whatever name distinguished." The same biographer states that he spent his time “in ‘acts of piety and devotion’ exhorting those at his bed-side that this life should only be regarded as a preparation for a better.” (Locke  1802, p. vii)[i] Religious writers and, more important, people who lived religious principles promoting honesty, integrity, common decency, have all contributed to the emergence of the free society.
It seems that there is a deliberate attempt by some students of Locke to hide or belittle his religious views. The introduction written by Enrique I. Grossman to a Spanish edition of selected Locke’s writings is a case in point. Grossman argued that “Locke’s opinion definitely pulls apart from the theological model”[ii] (Locke 1973, p. 23). Grossman added: “The biblical quotes and his professions of faith should not misguide us: the threat of burning at the stake, from which, by his retraction, Galileo could barely escape. The effort of that generation for detaching itself from the theological ties turns evident in Grotius statement that the law would still exist even if God did not.”[iii] (Locke 1973, p. 24)
Mark Goldie, a professor of history at Cambridge University, and one of the most renowned Locke experts, recently wrote a piece to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Locke’s death. Goldie mentions only one of Locke’s religious writings, The Reasonableness of Christianity and describes it as “minimalist as to Christian doctrine, and reflecting his fear of clerical power and of religious ‘enthusiasm’ or fanaticism.” (Goldie, 2004)
Similar neglect can be found in libertarian writers. Jim Powell, for example, in his The Triumph of Liberty, pays tribute to John Locke as one of freedom’s greatest champions, but he fails to mention Locke’s religious writings, and his deep commitment to faith. His neglect of religion as a noble motivator affects also his analysis of several other champions of freedom, including that of my mentor Sir Antony Fisher (1915-1988). One has to work hard, however, at finding Classical liberal authors not only studying, but yet along mentioning the deep Christian commitment of John Locke.
Ed Opitz, in his Religion: Foundation of the Free Society has only one, brief, but important comment “Man is God’s property, said John Locke, because He made us and the product belongs to the producer. As an owner, God cares for that which belongs to Him.” (Opitz, 1994, p. 129). Henry Hazlitt, in his The Free Man’s Library (1956) lists three books by Locke, but does not even mention his works on religion. Neither does he mention them in his acclaimed The Foundations of Morality.
Within the Classical Liberal tradition, Donald J. Devine is the one who better captured the importance of Locke’s religious views (1978). He summarized his position stating that “Locke himself says that “to give a man a full knowledge of true morality I shall send him to no other book but the New Testament.” How much clearer could one be?” (1978, p. 248).
Howard R. Penniman, in his introduction to “A Letter Concerning Toleration” recognized that “Locke’s reasonableness, his natural caution, and his “illumined common sense” appear to best advantage in his religious writings. The Reasonableness of Christianity and An Essay for the Understanding of St. Paul’s Epistles by Consulting St. Paul Himself are models of sober scholarship when contrasted with the wrangling sectarianism of other writers in an era that produced so many ritualistic formulae for immortality.” (Locke 1947, p. 17)
J.R. Milton recognized that Locke had many intellectual concerns but acknowledged that “There can be no doubt that Locke was deeply interested in the kind of questions that arise in the area where religion, ethics, and politics mingle together, not only in the early 1660s but for the whole of his life . . .” (Locke 1994, p. 33). In one of the most recent books about Locke (1996), Nicholas Wolterstorff takes into consideration his religious views but mostly focusing on the “whys” of Locke’s writings, and on his epistemology.
Historians have been analyzing Locke’s library and his readings. There might be some doubts about some aspects of these studies, but there is no doubt that most of his books and studies were on medical topics, theology and philosophy. Only a very small fraction was on politics or economics (less than 15% of the books on his library were on those issues and a much smaller fraction were on his reading lists). (Locke 1994, p. 36) Penniman wrote that “Locke was a deeply religious man. . . .His Reasonableness of Christianity (1695) and still more his commentary on the Epistles of St. Paul (1705) were among the earliest examples of modern Biblical criticism produced by an adherent of Christianity.” (Locke 1947, p. 17)
J.R. Milton describes Locke’s studies:
Locke’s theological reading during the early 1660s can be loosely divided into three categories: biblical scholarship, patristics, and Anglican theology. The first of these was an area in which Locke continued to work for the remainder of his life—the Paraphrase was the culmination of a lifetime’s study, not a late intellectual deviation. The other two areas were of course connected—the study of the Church Fathers was always an Anglican rather than a Puritan activity. Locke seems, for whatever reason, to have been interested primarily in the earlier Fathers—Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen. (Locke 1994, p. 42)
Milton also writes that, among later authors, Locke studied the works of various Anglican theologians including Hammond, Heylyn, Pearson, Sanderson, and Hooker. Locke considered that all well educated young person should study the works of Grotius, Pufendorf and Hooker. Works which should continue to be re-studied as people mature.
Locke was familiar with Catholic authors. The history of the Indies written by José de Acosta, a Roman Catholic priest, were widely read during his time. John Locke also studied his works. (Locke, STCG, page 127, paragraph 102). The narratives of Catholic priests were all framed by their theological outlook and their understanding of moral theology. Some of Father Acosta’s views might have influenced Locke’s view on toleration, as when he concluded that “There are no peoples so barbaric that they do not have something worthy of praise, nor are there any people so civilized and humane that they stand in no need of correction.” (Acosta  2002, p. 379) Acosta’s work has similarities with John Locke’s anthropological and historical views. As Goguet, Acosta focused on the description of cultures where men “had neither kings nor commonwealth” (Locke, p. 126) in order to show that political societies “began from a voluntary union, and the mutual agreement of men freely acting in the choice of their governors and forms of government.” (Locke, p. 126) That common law, however, was seen as insufficient to bring about civilized life. They needed a framework of positive law to bring about a true political society.
Maurice Cranston also stressed Locke’s religious interests “Locke was also a deeply religious man—a fact which is often doubted because he spent so much of his time in attacking orthodox theology. But although Locke believed in stripping Christianity down to the bare minimal creed that “Christ is the Messiah,” he clung to that precept with the deepest assurance. He believed that Reason was God’s voice in every man: hence, for Locke, there could be no real conflict between reason and faith.” (Locke, 1965, p. 12)
As John Locke reminded us:
our Savior found mankind under a corruption of manners and principles, which ages after ages had prevailed, and must be confessed, was not in a way or tendency to be mended. The rules of morality were in different countries and sects different. And natural reason nowhere had cured, nor was like to cure, the defects and errors in them. Those just measures of right and wrong, which necessity had anywhere introduced, the civil laws prescribed, or philosophy recommended, stood on their true foundations. They were looked on as bonds of society, and conveniences of common life, and laudable practices. But where was it that their obligation was thoroughly known and allowed, and they received as precepts of law—of the highest law, the law of nature? That could not be, without a clear knowledge and acknowledgement of the lawmaker, and the great rewards and punishments for those that would or would not obey him. But the religion of the heathens, as was before observed, little concerned itself in their morals. The priests, that delivered the oracles of heaven, and pretended to speak from the gods, spoke little of virtue and a good life. And, on the other side, the philosophers, who spoke from reason, made not much mention of the Deity in their ethics. They depended on reason and her oracles, which contain nothing but truth, but yet some parts of that truth lie too deep for our natural powers easily to reach and make plain and visible to mankind without some light from above to direct them. (Locke  1965, pp. 176-177).
Unlike his views on religion, the common ground between the natural law views of Catholic Scholastics and John Locke have been analyzed by several authors. Carlo Lottieri wrote that
“Locke represents a return to the Christian and Natural Law principles; to that authentic natural law which, according to Passerin d’Entreves, had found expression in Thomas Aquinas and in the Scholastics” because “for the these medieval authors, it is the law—the juridical order—not the king or the emperor, who should be the supreme authority in a nation.”[iv] (Lottieri, 2004, p. 289)
For his approach to natural law, Joseph Schumpeter, in his seminal History of Economic Analysis, referred to Locke as a Protestant Scholastic. Schumpeter was aware that Catholic and Protestant “liberals” would not like this label and that they like to see contrast where he sees similarity. (Schumpeter, 1954, p. 116) I can echo his words when analyzing Locke’s religion in relation to his anthropology.
Another reason perhaps some of the neglect of Locke religious writings is because most defenders of the free society in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, approach the issue from an economic angle. Economics gained respectability thanks to the work of moral philosophers of the late middle ages and seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. A positivist outlook is prevalent today and most economists rely only on reason for their oracles. Some are aware of their limitations. The late Peter Bauer, and Nobel Laureate Douglass North, recognized that some of the essential elements needed for development, are factors that are beyond economics. Honesty, trust, integrity, common decency, are needed for the emergence, dissemination, and effective implementation of the institutions of private property. Yet economists have no special training to understand these traits of human behavior. Locke made an effort not only to understand those things that are more readily understood by reason, but also the supernatural. It is actually hard to read any work by Locke that does not bring up God or the Bible. In his “Some Thoughts Concerning Education” for example, not only he recommends that children should read the Bible, but he also states that it would be better if someone would write a good history of the Bible for young people, and he adds
by reading of it constantly, there would be instilled into the minds of children a notion and belief of spirits, they having to do so much to do in all the transactions of that history, which will be a good preparation to the study of bodies. For without the notion and allowance of spirit, our philosophy will be lame and defective in one main part of it, when it leaves out the contemplation of the most excellent and powerful part of the creation. (Locke 1947, p. 368).
He explains even more thoroughly why he thinks it is important that
the Doctrine of the Scriptures [be] well imbibed before young men be entered in natural philosophy, is because matter, being a thing that all our senses are constantly conversant with, it is so apt to possess the mind and exclude all other beings but matter, that prejudice, grounded on such principles, often leaves no room for the admittance of spirits, or the allowing any such things as immaterial beings in rerum natura; when yet it is evident that by mere matter and motion none of the great phenomena of nature can be resolved, to instance but in that common one of gravity, which I think impossible to be explained by any natural operation of matter, or any other law of motion, but the positive will of a superior being so ordering it. (Locke 1947, p. 369)
He then continues with examples to prove his point. The book has a section “On the Worship of God as the Foundation of Virtue” where he recommends that
to prepare a good foundation for virtue in a child there ought very early to be imprinted on his mind a true notion of God, as of the independent Supreme Being, Author, and Maker of all things, from whom we receive all our good, who loves us, and gives us all things; and, consequent to it, a love and reverence of this Supreme Being. This is enough to begin with, without going to explain this matter any farther, for fear, lest by talking too early to him of spirits, and being unseasonably forward to make him understand the incomprehensible nature of that infinite being, his head be either filled with false, or perplexed with unintelligible notions of him. Let him only he told upon occasion, of God, that made and governs all things, hears and sees everything, and does all manner of good to those that love and obey him. You will find, that being told of such a God, other thoughts will be apt to rise up fast enough in his mind about him; which, as you observe them to have any mistakes, you must set right. And I think it would be better, if men generally rested in such an idea of God, without being too curious in their notions about a being, which all must acknowledge incomprehensible; whereby many, who have not strength and clearness of thought to distinguish between what they can, and what they cannot know, run themselves into superstition or atheism, making God like themselves, or (because they cannot comprehend any thing else) none at all. And I am apt to think, the keeping children constantly morning and evening to acts of devotion to God, as to their Maker, Preserver, and Benefactor, in some plain and short form of prayer, suitable to their age and capacity, will be of much more use to them in religion, knowledge, and virtue, than to distract their thoughts with curious inquiries into his inscrutable essence and being.
Locke recommended teaching children how to pray and read Scripture history. In order to give the children strength he told parents to “let them know that God, who made all things good for them, made the night, that they might sleep the better and the quieter; and that they being under his protection, there is nothing in the dark to hurt them.” (Locke 1947, p. 322, point 138). After teaching children that virtue should be founded on “a true notion of a God, such as the creed wisely teaches, as far as his age is capable, and by accustoming him to pray to him, the next thing to be taken care of, is to keep him exactly to speaking of truth, and by all the ways imaginable inclining him to be good-natured. Let him know, that twenty faults are sooner to be forgiven, than the straining of truth to cover any one by an excuse.” (Locke 1947, p. 322, point 139)
His Paraphrase is a way to put his recommendations into practice, he wrote it to improve the understanding of the epistles. Here is a man who, not only studies and practices the principles of his faith, but who does everything in his power to promote the dissemination of those principles.
Writing about Locke’s proof of God’s existence D.J. O’Connor states
There is nothing original about his proof and the only surprising thing about it is that he should have thought that it was logically cogent or that it would convince anyone who did not already believe the conclusion on other grounds. It is historically interesting in that it shows the extent of his dependence on his scholastic background. And we must add in fairness to the scholastics that they did this sort of thing very much better than Locke did. (O’Connor 1967, p. 180).
Toland in his “Christianity not Mysterious” used some of Locke’s arguments. The conduct of the Understanding (Locke 1802, p. vi) Locke’s goal was not so much to show the weaknesses of the Deists “but to lay plainly before them the doctrine of our Savior and his apostles, as delivered in the Scriptures, and not as taught by the several sects of Christians.” (A Second Vindication of the Reasonableness of Christianity (The Works of John Locke, 10 vols.; London, 1823; reissued Aalen: Scientia, 1963), VII, 188. He continues “My Christianity, I confess, is contained in the written word of God. . .” Ibid., VII, 289. “All that is contained in the inspired writings, is all of divine authority, must be allowed as such, and received for divine and infallible truth by every subject of Christ’s kingdom, i.e., every Christian.” Ibid., VII, 356. He especially recommended the reading of the New Testament, “Therein are contained the words of eternal life. It has God for his author, salvation for its end, and truth without any mixture of error for its matter.” “A letter to the Reverend Mr. King,” Works, X, 306.
At least in the topic of religion, John Locke shows the importance of having a preferential option for the poor.
That the poor had the gospel preached to them, Christ makes a mark, as well as the business, of his mission, Matt. 11:5. And if the poor had the gospel preached to them, it was, without doubt, such a gospel as the poor could understand—plain and intelligible—and so it was, as we have seen, in the preachings of Christ and his apostles.” (Locke, 1989, p. 195)
Influence on his political philosophy and economics
Are Locke’s view on religion relevant to his political philosophy and economic views? Locke showed the weakness of those who relied entirely on revelation and disregarded reason and also those who, on the contrary, relied purely on reason. “The philosophers on the other side pretended to noe thing but reason in all that they said & from thence owned to fetch all their doctrines. Though how little their lives answered their owne rules whilst they studied ostentation & vanity rather than solid virtue Cicero tells us.” (Locke 2003, p. 17).
Finding the true goal of life seems natural for someone who like Locke believes that “he who fair and softly goes steadily forward in a course that points right, will sooner be at his journey’s end, than he that runs after every one he meets, though he gallop all day full speed.” (Locke 1802, p. 68) Best selling authors of personal management put it this way today “before you start climbing the ladder be sure it is leading in the right direction.” Locke had no doubts about what should be at the top of the ladder:
Every man has an immortal soul, capable of eternal happiness or misery; whose happiness depending upon his believing and doing those things in this life which are necessary to the obtaining of God’s favor, and are prescribed by God to that end. It follows from thence, first, that the observance of these things is the highest obligation that lies upon mankind, and that our utmost care, application, and diligence ought to be exercised in the search and performance of them; because there is nothing in this world that is of any consideration in comparison with eternity. (Locke, 1947, p. 53)
The purpose of creation
In political economy, few topics are as important as private property. Views on property are strongly influenced by views on the purpose of creation. This is another topic on which Locke sounds like an orthodox Christian of today. On his Second Treatise on Civil Government, Locke’s writes on the destiny of earthly goods: “It is very clear that God, as King David says (cxv. 16), ‘has given the earth to the children of men,’ given it to mankind in common.” (Locke,  1965, p. 28). Yet man also needs to be productive, and Locke’s path to defend private property also invokes the Creator. “Though the earth and the inferior creatures be common to all men, yet every man has a ‘property’ in his own ‘person’” and he continues “God, when He gave the world in common to all mankind, commanded man also to labor, and the penury of his condition required it of him.” (Locke,  1965, p. 31) Proper stewardship is also required “Nothing was made by God for man to spoil or destroy.” (Locke,  1965, p. 31). In that sense, despite that men had property on their own person they do not have “an arbitrary power on his own life.” (Locke,  1965, p. 80)
According to Locke, God, by commanding to subdue, gave authority to appropriate.
And if to encourage stewardship government is brought up, God is also present “God hath certainly appointed government to restrain the partiality and violence of men.” (Locke,  1965, p. 23)
God was so important on Locke’s view, that his call for tolerance did not extend to atheists “those are not to be at all tolerated who deny the being of a God. Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist.” (Locke, 1947, p. 58) Yet believing was not enough either, as most of his views on tolerance did not apply either to Roman Catholics.
Even some of the critics of Locke’s philosophy, such as James Tully, mention his Christian outlook. He argued that Locke’s view influenced those who abused the rights of the Indians, like the “New Englanders” who “with their Christian voluntarism, saw themselves above the rest of nature and under an injunction to subdue and improve it for human purposes.” (Locke, 1994, p. 190). For Tully, it was this philosophy which led to the exploitation of the environment and aboriginal rights. For Locke’s followers, this political philosophy, rooted in Christian thought and paradigms, led to freer and much more prosperous civilizations.
Locke’s view about the human person
Different views about the human being play an essential role in political philosophy and have an impact in civil society. The Christian view of the human person, for example, is different than the concept of the individual, which is at the base of contemporary libertarian and classical liberal thought. Locke’s view about man is much more in line with the concept of the person, than with the concept of the individual. (He seldom used any of these terms, preferring the term man or mankind to describe the human being.)
The concept of the person is similar to the concept of individual but it stresses the existence of the soul, the social nature of human beings, and freedom. Locke is well known as a champion of freedom, but he also stressed that “every man has an immortal soul” (Locke  1965, p. 134) and that the salvation of souls is the “only business of the Church.”(Locke  1965, p.125) The limitations of human nature, “obliges men to enter into society” with one another. (Locke  1965, p.135) God continues to be essential to the internal and external attributes of the person and “reason and common equity” were the measure that “God has set for the actions of men for their mutual security.” (Locke  1965, p. 21)
Few authors, especially among those who tend to be regarded as champions or advocates of the free society, have focused on Locke’s views about religion. Some new books are filling this void. A good exception is John Rogers who correctly stated that “despite their diverse subject-matter, there is an intellectual unity in Locke’s work not always appreciated by his commentators.” (Locke 1994, 1) Rogers continued “There is an important moral basis for Locke’s work which until recently has not been fully or properly appreciated.” (Locke 1994, p. 4)
Locke’s view about creation and about the human person, are today consistent with the views of traditional Christians, including Roman Catholics. Locke will continue to be remembered as a champion of freedom and reason. But both attributes came from God.
Rogers quotes Chappell “freedom belongs only to rational agents, including normal mature, adult human beings; that every free action is voluntary in the sense that it causes include a volition on the part of the agent, but the volition need not itself be a free action.” (Locke, 1994, p. 23)
The fact that freedom is rooted in reason, is an essential point in most Christian religions. The Catechism of the Catholic Church in its point 1730 states “God created man a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions” and quotes St. Irenaeus of Lyons “Man rational and therefore like God; he is created with free will and is master over his acts.” Adv. Haeres
Locke’s views on religion were the foundation of his views of the human person. On that foundation, he contributed as few others to making a case for the free society. A mistaken anthropology, on the other hand, is at the root of the most intolerant and totalitarian systems. Although without question, many authors have come to similar conclusions as Locke without having his same theological and religious interests, most of them developed their ideas and understanding in a world made possible by Locke’s contribution. He was a true religious champion of freedom.
Acosta, José de,  2002, Natural and Moral History of the Indies, Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Cranston, Maurice, ed, (1965) Locke on Politics, Religion, and Education, New York: Collier Books.
Devine, Donald J., (1978), John Locke: His Harmony Between Liberty and Virtue, Modern Age, Summer 1978, pp. 246-256.
Goldie, Mark, (2004), John Locke Icon of Liberty, History Today, October 2004, pp. 31-36.
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Locke, John,  (1989), The Reasonableness of Christianity, Washington D.C., Gateway Editions.
Locke, John, (2002) ed. Victor Nuovo, John Locke: Writings on Religion, Oxford University Press.
Locke, John (1973), El Derecho a la Rebelión, Buenos Aires: Ediciones La Bastilla.
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Locke, John,  (1947) A Letter Concerning Toleration, in John Locke: On Politics and Education, introduction by Howard R. Penniman, Roslyn, N.Y.: Walter J. Black.
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Locke, John (1707) A Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistles of St. Paul to Galatians, Romans, I & II Corinthians, Ephesians. To which is Prefixed an Essay for the Understanding of St. Paul’s Epistles by consulting St. Paul Himself, Awnsham & John Churchill, London.
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[i] From the sketch of his life appearing in (Locke  1802)
[ii] “La opinion de Locke se aleja definitivamente, del modelo teológico.”
[iii] “Las citas biblicas y las profesiones de fe no deben llamar a enganio: la amenaza de la hoguera, de la que Galileo apenas pudo salvarse mediante la retractación.” “El esfuerzo de esa generación por desprenderse de la atadura teológica se hace evidente cuando Grocio manifiesta que el derecho existiría aun cuando no existiera Dios.”
[iv] In Italian “un ritorno ai principi giusnaturalisti e cristiani,” a quel diritto naturale autentico che, secondo Passerin d’Entreves, aveva trovato espressione in Tommasso D’Aquino e nella Scolastica” and continues “la legge—l’ordo justitiae—non il re o l’il imperatore, e per il Medioevo la suprema autoritá nello stato.”