Freedom's Progress?: A History of Political Thought, by Gerard Casey
With the writings of Bodin, Althusius, and Grotius, we have moved gradually but inexorably from the end of the Middle Ages to modernity. Whatever lingering remnants of medieval thought may attach to these writers, when we come to the writings of Thomas Hobbes, we find ourselves in a very different intellectual world.
So these three writers seem rather important, occupying time in the period between the Renaissance & Reformation on one end and the Enlightenment on the other. I will cover the three, but not in the order presented by Casey. His order gets in the way of my title, and also doesn’t flow given my focus.
I will spend only a little time on the ugly and the bad, including these only to give context to the good – while all three occupy generally the same time and place, it is the ugly and bad that are remembered while the is good a virtual unknown (even to my spellcheck).
Jean Bodin (1530 – 1596) wrote in the time of great civil unrest in France, so perhaps his thoughts are nothing more than a reaction to the time. Unfortunately, while the context has not remained permanent, Bodin’s philosophy has survived: Bodin wrote of the requirement that state authority be absolute and sovereign.
Bodin is famous for one thing above all and that is his conception of sovereignty, an idea that political theorists and indeed the general educated public now take for granted….
Such a concept, of course, did not exist in the Middle Ages. If anything was considered “sovereign,” it was the medieval law – with all men, including the king, under it. Medieval political discourse revolved around the relationship of – and sharing of power between – the spiritual powers and the temporal powers.
No one in the Middle Ages asked “what is a state and how is it constructed?” Instead the focus was on who was the ruler and what is his power? The transition from this decentralized governance structure to the full-blown state began in the fifteenth century, with Casey identifying its full culmination – in his view, the end of Christendom – with the Treaty of Westphalia and the end of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648.
While Bodin saw the sovereign as absolute, this was somewhat nuanced: the sovereign was not absolute over divine or natural law. However, as there was little recourse for the people to deal with the sovereign who abused this condition, it seems to be a distinction without meaning.
What is this sovereignty then? It is supreme power over subjects unrestrained by positive or municipal law. It is perpetual rather than limited in time. It is primary rather than delegated. It cannot be alienated and cannot be circumscribed by prescription. (Emphasis in original)
In other words, sovereign meant sovereign – what we know today, albeit not as pervasive given the surviving tradition of the times…and also given the lack of technology.
What we see in Bodin is the transition from no sovereign to a sovereign at least theoretically under divine law. It isn’t too big a step to remove the “divine law” part and get to tyranny – the “divine right of kings.”
Hugo Grotius (1583 – 1645) wrote voluminously, yet is described by Casey as a confused thinker. So why does he hold such a high place for those who consider political philosophy? He is said to be the one who developed a theory for international law…but he didn’t! The Spanish jurists had covered much of this ground before him. The Spanish, being Catholic, however, were growing less acceptable to an ever-increasingly Protestant Europe.
Grotius wrote at a time when it was becoming quite obvious that the religious and political divisions of Europe were permanent. Grotius wrote of just war as defensive war; offensive wars can be just if to inflict punishment when deserved – such as for violating a contract; third-party interventions can also justified – even if the third-party is not a party to any dispute.
His view of defensive wars fits very neatly into the libertarian non-aggression principle. Justifying offensive wars is a slippery slope, but I find his justification of third-party interventions as a road to hell – this sounds too close to the United Nations’ adopted “Responsibility to Protect,” which is nothing more than the right to militarily intervene. Grotius desires to limit such interventions to violations of the laws of nature, but we have seen the fruits of such thinking.
For Grotius, the sovereign is not encumbered or burdened by any higher source, other than to the law of nature. However, here again this distinction is meaningless as once sovereignty is transferred from the people it cannot be reclaimed – it is permanent and perpetual. Since Grotius sees voluntary slavery as permissible, he finds no means by which the people can reclaim their sovereignty. What is unaddressed is the fact that there is no account taken of the descendants of these voluntary slaves.
Grotius lived in a time when mathematics was gaining prominence and being inserted into the social sciences – rationalism and certainty were ascendant.
‘My prime concern,’ writes Grotius, ‘has been to base my examination of what belongs to the law of nature on ideas which are so certain that nobody can deny them without doing violence to their foundational being.’
A “certain” social and political scientist. Perhaps the biggest curse ever placed on man.
‘Only at the end of the first century of the Reformation,’ writes Daniel Elazar, ‘did a political philosopher emerge out of the Reformed tradition to build a systematic political philosophy out of the Reformed experience by synthesizing the political experience of the Holy Roman Empire with the political ideas of the covenant theology of Reformed Protestantism.’
The reference is to Johannes Althusius (1563 – 1638). He is referred to by Harvard professor Carl Joachim Friedrich as “The most profound political philosopher between Bodin and Hobbes.” Profound I will suggest only because he was unique for his time: he described a governance scheme that emulated medieval governance…albeit (importantly), without the Church.
While Althusius adopted Bodin’s concept of sovereignty, he saw unalienable sovereignty to belong to the people. But this wasn’t shallow – as we see in today’s world (“…government of the people, by the people, for the people…”). In what way?
As unusual and even startling as Althusius’s theory might appear to be, it is, in fact, in many ways simply a theoretical tidying-up of the de facto political arrangement that subsisted in the Holy Roman Empire…
An “empire” (about as loosely defined as can be) that lasted from about 800 until 1806, and gave us the best of medieval law. Arbitration, not swift and unambiguous verdicts; protests seen as a form of negotiation and aiding political stability; a decentralized and flexible structure; auto-politics and self-regulation; a system relying more on consensus than command. What are seen as weaknesses by orthodox historians are precisely the strengths and virtues seen by Althusius.
Althusius, a Calvinist, tried to capture the political structure of Middle Ages and reintroduce it into a time when western Christianity was no longer unified…kind of like today (only today even more diverse).. Which is what makes Althusius so interesting to me.
Althusius is suggested to offer one of the first theories of federalism based on the concept of subsidiarity. It is believed that Althusius based his model on the governance structure offered in the Old Testament – an interesting note: the Latin for “federal,” foedius, translates as “covenant.”
This ancient federalism was built specifically on a tribal and corporatist structure, whereas modern systems of federalism only focus on the individual.
The Althusius model of federalism is an attempt to combine the strengths and to eliminate the weaknesses of the ancient and modern federalist conceptions. A postmodern federalism must recognize both individuals and their rights and also groups. It must be based on covenant; sovereignty must remain with the people as a whole; there must be some minimal recognition of norms binding citizens and providing a basis for trust and communication; the public and private realms must be distinguished yet connected.
This statement paints the picture that I envision in a decentralized, libertarian order. As Elazar remarks: ‘to read Althusius is to discover how important his ideas are for our times.’ To which, I can say (at least based on this overview), I agree.
The term used to describe the governance structure is “consociation”: the art of associating men. A quality of group life characterized by piety and justice – without which, Althusius believes, neither individual nor society can endure. Men come together by agreement – whether explicit or tacit. It is this “agreement” that is foundational to Althuisus’s construct.
Althusius sees society constituted by an ascending order of consociations, with family at the lowest and the realm or commonwealth at the highest. The agreements are not in perpetuity, but require initial and continuing consent. The lowest form – family – would have a less explicit (in fact, primarily tacit) agreement; the highest form – the commonwealth – would require an explicit agreement. In every case, the consociation is voluntary.
Casey outlines the consociations, from lowest to highest: the family (which could include more than the nuclear family – relatives, in-laws, etc.); the collegium (voluntary groupings such as guilds, corporations, societies, federations, conventions, etc.); the city, or community (a public consociation of private consociations – as groups, not individuals); the commonwealth or realm (with some common laws, coming from the second table of the Decalogue: prohibiting homicide and the inflicting of bodily injury, offenses against chastity, property and reputation).
Althusius sees the commonwealth also as having authority to defend religion – Calvinism in his case. On the one hand, this is problematic. On the other, as this consociation is voluntary, presumably a city – or even lower consociation – can secede if desired. Althusius also comes out strongly against tyrannicide, but, again, given the voluntary nature of the consociation there are other alternatives to resolve such issues.
While Grotius came after Althusius, he clearly represented a step backward for liberty.
Althusius, on the other hand, has earned my interest. The model he offers is conceptually similar to what is on my mind – a melding of libertarian and conservative principles. However, without an authority on more or less equal footing as the commonwealth, it is difficult to see what holds his highest consociation in check. In the Middle Ages, the Church played this role.
While I see no possibility of a unified Christendom, I do see a role that must be played by Christian leaders today if we are to move toward liberty: against war, against torture, against unconditional support of Israel, against government spying, against the violence of “social justice,” against the worst meaning of the term “tolerance.” All in accord with the Gospel, all in accord with moving toward liberty.
Back to Althusius: I will do some more reading (and writing) on his work.