Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Alfred's Will

If Alfred's will were to have been understood in the way David Hume and Edward Burke thought,* it would have allowed the English, after his death, to choose the form of government they preferred most.

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* The interpretation given to Alfred's will by these authors was refuted by Count von Stolberg in his life of Alfred.

[Antonio Rosmini, Philosophy of Right, Volume 6: Rights in Civil Society, Clear & Watson, trs., Rosmini House (Durham: 1996) p. 125.]

The reference for Hume is to the discussion of King Alfred in Hume's History of England:

Yet amidst these rigours of justice, this great prince preserved the most sacred regard to the liberty of his people; and it is a memorable sentiment preserved in his will, that it was just the English should for ever remain as free as their own thoughts.

The reference to Burke is thus probably from his abridgement of English history:

This great man was even jealous of the privileges of his subjects; and as his whole life was spent in protecting them, his last will breathes the same spirit, declaring that he had left his people as free as their own thoughts.

Neither Hume nor Burke need be interpreted quite as strongly as Rosmini does, but it is clear that he is influenced by Friedrich Leopold Stolberg's discussion in his life of Alfred. Stolberg's argument is that the famous phrase, 'free as their thoughts' is due to a clumsy mistranslation into Latin, and that Alfred was actually asking that his noblemen confirm the serfs in their liberties. As Stolberg puts it, having heard the story before, he was delighted to find Hume and Burke confirm it (unsurprisingly, since he was a major Romantic figure), but his dream was destroyed by further research. (I know too well the feeling, Graf zu Stolberg.)

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