John Neville Figgis

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John Neville Figgis (2 October 1866 – 13 April 1919) was an English historian, political philosopher, and Anglican priest and monk. He is known as the editor of much of Lord Acton's writings.


  • Were the heavens ever opened and a glimpse of the world beyond vouchsafed to men's wondering eyes?
  • War! That is the enduring condition of the Church on this earth. That is what the word means when we call her militant. And war means an enemy, an opposing spirit.
  • Mr. Gladstone used to say that political ideals were never realised. That may be true, but it does not follow that they are never effective. Christian holiness is not only never achieved in perfection, but it is far less nearly and less frequently achieved than the ethical ideals of Pagans or Mohammedans.
  • Men may appeal with more or less of sincerity to Christian sentiment as a factor in political controversy, but they have ceased to regard political theory as a part of Christian doctrine.
  • "The Fellowship of the Mystery"; that is St. Paul's account of Churchmanship. It is a fellowship, a common life; and what is shared is a mystery, something that was once obscure, but is now in process of being made known. And this process goes on. However deep we go, there are yet farther deeps calling to us. No knowledge of God in Christ but opens the gate to a thousand fresh inquiries.

Studies of Political Thought from Gershon to Grotius, 1414–1625 (1907)


Lecture I. Introductory

  • It is not to revive of the corpse of past erudition that I have any desire, but rather to make more vivid the life of to-day, and to help us to envisage its problems with a more accurate perspective.
  • The medieval state had one basis of unity denied to the modern—religion. Baptism was a necessary element in true citizenship in the Middle Ages and excommunication was its antithesis. No heretic, no schismatic, no excommunicate has the rights of citizenship. ... Philip of Spain's famous remark, that he would rather not reign at all than reign over heretics, was merely an assertion of medieval principles by a man who really believed in them.
  • We cannot overestimate the change in men's minds required to produce the ideal of heterogeneity in religion within one State.
    ... In the Middle Ages politics was a branch of Theology, with whatever admixture derived from Aristotle and the Civil Law. Its basis was theocratic. Machiavelli represents the antithesis of this view, discarding ethical and rural as well as theological Criteria of State action.
  • From one point of view we might assert the the Middle Ages ended with the visit of Nogaret to Anagni, and from another it might be said to end only when the troops of Victor Emmanuel entered Rome and the Lord of the world became the prisoner of the Vatican, and of course it ended at different times in different places. Hence arises the extreme difficulty of disentangling the conflicting tendencies and complex political combination of our period.

Lecture II. The Conciliar Movement and the Papalist Reaction

  • The medieval struggles between Popes and Emperors are wrongly regarded as a conflict between Church and State, if by that is meant the relations between two societies. The medieval mind, whether clerical or anticlerical, envisaged the struggle as one between different officers of the same society, never between two separate bodies; this is as true of Dante and Marsilius, as it is of Boniface and Augustinus.
  • How far are unjust laws to be obeyed? Need they be considered laws at all, if we understand St Thomas aright? Can any government exist or claim rights apart from the consent of the governed?

Lecture III. Luther and Machiavelli

  • ... the medieval mind conceived of its universal Church-State, with power ultimately fixed in the Spiritual head bounded by no territorial frontier; the Protestant mind places all ecclesiastical authority below the jurisdiction and subject to the control of the "Godly prince," who is omnipotent in his own dominion.
  • The ideal of Christendom as a whole, with Pope and Emperor at its head, gave way to the notion of the godly prince; and potent in some respects as was Luther's nationalist influence, it was not so much the German people as the sovereign territorial prince that reaped the benefit.
  • It would be impossible to gain any adequate notion of the intellectual forces, that made up the mind of the average European statesman from 1600–1800 if we altogether omitted a consideration of the influence of Machiavelli.
  • The despots of Italy were, in fact, in the Greek sense, tyrants, and Machiavelli did little more than say so. What gives him his importance is that what was true of the small despots of Italy was going to become true of the national monarchs of Europe.
  • The gulf between the Christian ideal of Love, and the ideals of Buddha, Schopenhauer and Tolstoi, which mean the destruction of the individual, is at bottom irreconcilable; yet both by adversaries and believers, the mistake of confounding the one with the other is often made.
  • Our generation has seen one further step taken in the extension of the principles of Machiavelli. The doctrines associated with the name of Nietzsche are exactly similar to those of Machiavelli, except that they are now purely limited to individual ends ...
  • Machiavelli was always considering the practical problem, how is Italy to be saved?

Lecture IV. The Politiques and Religious Toleration

  • Lastly we come to the toleration of the Politiques. Their theory asserts definitely that the State is in fact indifferent to religious unity and gives up the entire attempt to identify Church with State, never abandoned in England till 1688, and not altogether even then.
  • Jean Bodin is, next to Machiavelli, the most important political writer of the sixteenth century.

Lecture V. The Monarchomachi

  • It is the transformation of the desire to persecute into the claim of an inherent right to exist on the part of religious bodies that historically produces those limitations upon State actual which are the securities of freedom.
  • Political liberty is the residuary legatee of ecclesiastical animosities.

Lecture VI. The Jesuits

  • From the Monarchomachi we naturally pass to the Jesuits, the real agents of the Counter-Reformation, and partly also of Spanish aggression. Nearly all of the Jesuit writers of importance in the earlier years of their existence are Spaniards, or Philo-Spaniards. We must regard their attitude as partly, at least, determined by national feeling—even in spite of their professed aims.

Lecture VII. The Netherlands Revolt

  • In the struggle between liberty and authority the possession of a hostile printing press becomes of capital importance.
  • In the days of their triumph the Netherlands became the University of Europe; if we remove from the first half of the seventeenth century the thinkers, publicists, theologians, men of science, artists and gardeners who were Dutch, and take away their influence upon other nations, the record would be barren instead of fertile, despite the great name of Bacon.
  • The object of Grotius was not to make men perfect or treat them as such, but to see whether there were not certain common duties generally felt as binding, if not always practised, and to set forth an ideal.

Civilisation at the Cross Roads (1912)


Lecture I. Armageddon or the Intellectual Chaos

  • How far can the new wine of modern knowledge and changed ways of thought be poured into the old bottles of traditional religion?
  • ... I do not conceive the scientific or mathematical temperament as in any way final. Large elements of life, the artistic, the social, the personal, it cannot handle, and when it tries to do so it is apt to come to grief, and this quite apart from religion.
  • Perhaps not many now read Tancred. ... Yet that book is far more than mere romance. It is evidence of the dissatisfaction with modern civilisation ...
  • The atmosphere in literature and art, in novels and dramas, in newspapers and reviews is not only no longer Christian, but is largely anti-Christian, even on the ethical side. If you think of some of the names most honored of late, Thomas Hardy, George Meredith, Mr. Arnold Bennett, Mr. Bernard Shaw, Mr. H. G. Wells, or Mr. Henry James, none of them can be called Christian ...
  • Apart from the Christian hope, we are in a state of chaos, only the more appalling that it seems to be hardly realised. The chaos is all the greater that it applies not only to fundamental doctrines, but to practical ideals.
  • A society which leaves God out of the reckoning in all matters of family and sexual intercourse is bound direct for the rocks. At this moment indeed it the ethic of Christianity which is more unpopular than the creed. It hinders the free development of the individual in regard to society, or it is disliked as ascetic and unnatural in regard to the private life; and in business relations it is rejected on principle as mere sentimentalism.

Lecture II. Babylon or the Moral Crisis

  • ... art, like religion, appeals to the non-mechanical parts of our nature, to what in us is mystic and vital.
  • Christianity is not less, but ten thousand times more revolutionary than people think. That jaded middle-aged society of the Pagan Empire did well to see in the Church its foe, and to persecute a living spirit with the gift of Eternal youth. Some tell us that Jesus proclaimed a social gospel. So He did. But it was not that of Karl Marx or Henry George or any legislator. He came to upset the whole scale of values, and by changing men's desires to inaugurate a new epoch.
  • Physical science is indeed valued, but mainly because it is hoped to increase the chances of money-making. Take the Western world through, and what unity can you find either in religion or thought or practical ideals except the desire for riches? I think I am not exaggerating.
  • The test of a civilisation is in its characteristic culture and in the type of men and women who thrive best in it.
  • The universe contemplated by religion is by no means self-contained or self-sufficient, it is dependent for its origin and maintenance, as we are for daily bread and future hopes, upon the power and good-will of a being or beings of which science has no knowledge.
  • Our world is fonder of riches, perhaps, than ever it was, but I think that it is ceasing to believe in its idol. The danger is that it should cease to have any belief at all.

Lecture III. Calvary or the Challenge of the Cross

  • If we are not immortal, we may be possessed by the world, we cannot possess it; we are strangers, it is our enemy; we take a little and then are gone. If we are to go on, we can appropriate it, make it our own, so that its beauty and its sorrow, all its mystery and its splendid acts, become part of us and shine for ever in a spirit that lives with God. Even worldliness demand otherworldliness to justify it. Only the immortals have a right to feel at home in this world.
  • The Christian says that life is a good thing, but has been marred by sin; and suffers from the growing pains of youth.
  • The whole movement of the Christian Church may be a delusion, and then we are all in the dark, except that the darkness has been made visible by the pathetic splendour of Christianity.
  • Christianity may be true or false, but it makes claims subversive of all the rationalist projections of life. It rests on presuppositions which cannot by any ingenuity be reconciled with any view which denies the miraculous, the unique, the individual. Its whole meaning comes from a faith in a life of spirits behind the veil. It cannot without hopeless error be confused with those systems which deny such a life or treat it as impersonal.

Lecture IV. Sion or Christian Fact

  • It is strange what an attraction the Christian Church still possesses even for men who scorn her claims.
  • True, the Christian Church still lives on. But it is only a living power in small groups. Some of its apparent strength is due to its inherited wealth and to the general lack of education. All this, however, is but for the moment.
  • The naturalistic theory of Christianity takes on different colours with the temperament of the speaker. From the hysterical contempt of Nietzsche, the hostility of writers like Mr. Dickinson and Mr. Sturt, we may pass through almost every stage of increasing admiration, with one great proviso, that Jesus is not to be worshipped as God.
  • Religion without a Church is not really possible, for not only is man a social animal, but religion is essentially social. And more and more is the comparative study of religion making it clear that men are fundamentally religious.
  • The Gospel is the freshest and most original thing in the world, while the tone of modern intellectualism, with all its culture, is at bottom commonplace and middle aged.
  • Christ does not reveal Himself to those who are satisfied. Why should He? They do not want Him.
  • Man is so made that he cannot be satisfied with less than the highest, and that he must be beaten down before he can be raised up.

Quotes about John Neville Figgis

  • Figgis was fundamentally an unhappy man with a sad history. By nature large, greedy, desperately untidy, kind, lively, gregarious, spontaneous, he suffered through life from a heavy sense of sin and inadequacy. He was manifestly an unconscious homosexual, surrounded by young friends and pupils, uneasy with women unless they were much older and could be met on the intellectual level only. He entered the communal life in a search for the discipline which he believed he needed and could not find within himself. Like many a good College man before and since, he was shamelessly overworked and exploited by colleagues who were only too willing to leave the hard work to the willing horse... From his father to his superior, he was always attaching himself to simpler, stronger men who knew what was good for him; uncoordinated and diffuse in himself, he humbly accepted their guidance, and between them they destroyed him.
    • Geoffrey Elton, introduction to John Neville Figgis, The Divine Right of Kings (1965 ed.), pp. viii-ix
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