University of Oxford, Oxford, Oxfordshire OX1 3PA, UK
Worcester Cathedral, 8 College Yard, Worcester WR1 2LA, UK
Alexander James Carlyle was born on 24 July 1861, the son of the Revd J.E. Carlyle, Minister of the Free Church of Scotland in Bombay, and died in Oxford on 27 May 1943. He was educated at Glasgow University and Exeter College Oxford, and ordained in 1888. He was a fellow of University College and was rector of St Martins and All Saints, Oxford from 1895 to 1919. He played an important role in the Christian Social Union, and was an advocate for social reform and Christian unity. He served as canon of Worcester Cathedral from 1930 to 1934 and became a fellow of the British Academy in 1936.
Carlyle's most significant philosophical works are the six-volume History of Medieval Political Theory in the West, which he completed with his brother, Sir R.W. Carlyle, and Political Liberty. Although the six-volume history is officially authored by both brothers, in fact this is a mark of Alexander's affection for his brother. According to Constantin Fasolt, most of the writing and most of the interpretation is due to A.J. Carlyle. The History was influential, not least in propagating the view that the key turning point in the development of political philosophy came with the introduction of thinking about individual men that coincided with the departure from Aristotle: 'There is no change in political theory so startling in its completeness as the change from the theory of Aristotle to the later philosophical view represented by Cicero and Seneca' because, with this later view, 'we are indeed at the beginnings of a theory of human nature and society of which the "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity" of the French Revolution is only the present day expression' (History of Medieval Political Theory in the West, vol. 1, p. 9). Each volume covers a specific period but takes a consistent topical approach covering ideas about justice, sources of law and the role of the people in politics. The work places great emphasis on the continuities between medieval political thought and law, which is given pride of place. It emphasizes the revolutionary role of the Stoics, and shows up the role of Roman law as the source of the principle that all people are born free by nature. In emphasizing the importance of the Roman and medieval foundations of modern political thought, A.J. Carlyle is in some respects a forerunner of the civic republican thinkers of today, such as Pocock, Skinner and Pettit.
Political Liberty was published in 1941. While it is a meticulous history, Carlyle aims 'to set out the continuity of the development of the conception of Political Liberty during the Middles Ages and the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries ... for this has been inadequately appreciated'. The work is directed at those 'who think that the pursuit of Political Liberty is only a passing phase, an abnormal development, and that all that is needed for the development of civilization is authority and force ... the notion that it is mere force which has created and which holds together human society is an absurdity, an irrational and stupid absurdity.' (Political Liberty, p. vii)
Whilst Carlyle's chief contribution is to scholarship of medieval political theory, he also displayed a commitment to political liberty in dark times.
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