Rereading Politica in the Post-Liberal Moment

This year 2020 marks the 25th anniversary of Liberty Fund’s publication of Politica, an abridged edition of Johannes Althusius’s Politics Methodically Set Forth and Illustrated with Sacred and Profane Examples, first published in Latin in 1603 and then revised through a third edition published in 1614. Liberty Fund’s edition was the first vernacular translation of any substantial portion of Althusius’s work. Professor Frederick Carney of Southern Methodist University served as translator. Professor Daniel Elazar, eminent scholar of federalism and Hebraic political theory at Temple University, wrote the forward.

Althusius as Scholar and Statesman

Althusius (1557-1638), who studied theology in Basle, Roman law in Geneva, and completed doctoral studies in civil and ecclesiastical law, was not just a scholar but also a practitioner of politics. The people of Emden in East Friesland made him their Syndic. Though some have compared a Syndic to a “mayor,” this tempts one to infer that Althusius contracted municipal trash collection or handed out giant keys to the city. To the contrary, Emden was essentially a small polity or city-state in an elaborate web of political and ecclesiastical rivalries. Althusius became a statesman in a diverse and tense religious-political milieu, navigating precarious relationships with a Lutheran provincial lord, a Catholic emperor, and a Spanish Kingdom.

Allied with Dutch Reformed churches and supplying some of their ministers, Emden was the first German city to embrace Reformed Protestant theology and was therefore known as the “Geneva of the North.” Though Althusius is explicit to distinguish politics from theology, his own fondness for Reformed theology can be inferred from his association with Zachary Ursinus and also his use of biblical commentaries by Peter Martyr Vermigli, Francis Junius, and John Piscator, for example. Emden also hosted prominent Polish reformer John Laski and English Protestant divines fleeing “Bloody Mary.”

Althusius’s erudition and wisdom also won him status as a city church elder, giving him a dual authority resembling John Calvin’s own in the latter’s later years. As in all Christian polities at this time, concerns of church and state overlapped, and Politica charges civil authorities with enforcement of what was commonly called “both tables of the law”—laws concerning both God (the first table of the Decalogue) and man (the second table). Such a holistic view of civil flourishing emphasized both piety and preservation from heresy and blasphemy. Althusius’s insistence on confessional conformity was moderate and prudent, however. Furthermore, like Calvin and Theodore Beza (Calvin’s successor) in Geneva, Althusius insisted on ecclesiastical independence and resisted the “Erastianism” of Hugo Grotius and others wherein civil magistrates had authority over the church.

In style and argument, Politica combines Ramist logic with Aristotelian teleology. Ramist logic, founded by French Hugenot Peter Ramus, was a logical and rhetorical method adopted by influential theologians (e.g., Puritan William Ames) who judged it superior to Aristotelian logic. Within this Ramist style that resembled a taxonomy with binary trees, Althusius adapted Aristotelian teleology improved by the vocational theory of Cambridge scholar and popular Reformed theologian William Perkins. In Althusius’s teleological Protestant-Aristotelian hybrid, political society is fulfilled by cultivating love for both God and neighbor. Althusius also eclectically drew natural law theory and jurisprudence from Protestant, Catholic, Roman, and medieval sources, including the fecund School of Salamanca. His diverse array of sources, over 150 in this abridgement alone, should dispel any suggestion (advanced by Mark Noll and others) that magisterial Protestants were narrow Biblicists.

Politics as the Art of Living Together

Althusius uses these diverse sources to develop what he calls “symbiotics,” the art of living together. Though Althusius briefly entertains some conception of pre-political man as solitary, his anthropology is fundamentally social rather than individualistic, and his prescribed polity is an association of associations or “consociationalism,” a term now revived by political scientist Arend Lijphart. Using categorical divisions borrowed from medieval Roman law but eschewing its juridical focus, Althusius classifies political associations as simple and private (family and collegium) or mixed and public (city, province, commonwealth). Families, conjugal and kin, are both natural and volitional. Collegia, another derivation of Roman law, are guilds or corporations rooted in trade, training, and profession. Collegia are gathered by necessity (volitional) and governed directly by their members to satisfy mutually-agreed-upon ends. Secular collegia enable justice or facilitate commercial pursuits and are therefore concerned with producing or preserving bodies or goods. Ecclesiastical collegia are made up of clergy or faculty who produce or preserve good souls.

Whereas private associations have jurisdiction over their members who covenant to create and directly govern them, public associations encompass private associations and have jurisdiction over both territory and associations in consociation. Especially in the case of a province or commonwealth, their members rule indirectly. Public associations may be particular (a city or province, presuming that they are not sovereign) or universal (a commonwealth or realm). Cities are governed by a senate who determines and defends laws executed by a chief executive/ruler removable by the senate. The provincial ruler, by contrast, is accountable to the supreme magistrate of the commonwealth—a concession by Althusius reflecting the circumstances of this era. Only commonwealths or realms possess sovereignty, and Althusius notably dissents from Jean Bodin in locating sovereignty (jus regni, right or law of the realm) in the symbiotic life of the people (populus) and not in the ruler.

The supreme magistrate (or ruler) governing the commonwealth is held accountable by ephors exercising power on behalf of the people. Ephors recognize magistracy through election and inauguration sealed by oath according to established practice. Resembling the seven electors of Germany, Althusius’s ephors defend a faithful magistrate from detractors but may also hold an unfaithful magistrate accountable—even to the point of removal—should he stray outside the legal limits of his office or become tyrannical. As trustees of the popular grant of sovereignty, ephors are also empowered to constitute and establish a magistrate in case of vacancy or interregnum. On this point of accountability, and echoing centuries of constitutionalist sentiment, Althusius writes, “Great power cannot contain itself . . . without some coercion and constraint entrusted to others.” Only ephors may resist a tyrant legally installed in office, but private individuals may use force only against a usurper or tyrant without title.

Flourishing and the Post-Liberal Moment

Althusius’s polity establishes consent and mutual agreement not to protect individual freedom as such, but to enable civil flourishing. His checks on power are intended to thwart a ruler who frustrates consociational flourishing, not one who threatens individual rights as such. Associations are for Althusius largely volitional but no less the organic basis of human flourishing. They are not mere conventions accidental to a good political life.

One way of understanding Althusius’s consociational flourishing is to contrast him with John Locke. Locke casts the Christian church in his Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), for example, as only a voluntary association of individuals. It has only instrumental or accidental civic value, and the magistrate is assigned only the most minimal role (potentially excluding Roman Catholics, for example). However much Locke the man evinced sincere and abiding faith, Locke the political philosopher eschewed any robust discussion of ecclesiastical matters and, in his mature works, placed them outside the purview of the magistrate. Likewise, the instruction prescribed by Locke in Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693) appears best secured by voluntary association and directed largely toward expediency. Locke’s major works on politics, his Two Treatises (1690) treats neither as an essential activity of government.

By contrast, Althusius considers church and school essential to human flourishing and includes both in his political architecture. Together with the associations of professionals (collegia) who govern them, they are an essential part of Althusius’s polity and therefore nurtured by the civil magistrate. For example, magistrates may call a doctrinal council or punish overt and contentious blasphemy. The sacred collegium has responsibility to censor anything corrosive of morals—including luxuries. This latter power is not a civil power as such, but it is an essential for Althusius’s prescribed polity and its mission of robust human flourishing.

Many recent episodes constituting a “post-liberal moment” should discourage us from dismissing Althusius’s prescriptions as irrelevant historical curiosities: the rise of integralism, the French-Ahmari controversy, calls to limit speech (by right or left) or ban pornography, budding intellectual resistance to liberalism, and civil opposition to religious freedom in Europe and North America all demonstrate that competing visions of flourishing are reasserting themselves against both ideals of minimal government and presumptions of neutral space between church and state.

This increasing criticism of liberal, individualistic, transactional views of morality or culture parallel increasingly popular thinking about economics. Althusius’s economic flourishing obliges vocational fulfillment in collegia that facilitate not just the work of faculty or clergy, but the practice of all trades and professions. Those collegia cannot be imagined to exist on a global scale. Althusius’s vision looks much more like today’s rising economic nationalism than the liberal status quo privileging global markets for labor and consumption. Today’s call for a “productive economy” (especially among trades and blue-collar work) is advocated as a means to human flourishing. However anachronistic attempts would be to precisely position Althusius in such debates over political economy, one can hear in Politica the echo of recent calls for an economically active state.

Althusius’s focus on citizens combining to achieve moral ends, and exercising political rights and duties insofar as rights and duties are instrumental to such combinations, makes his political theory more covenantal than contractual. Not only are many of his civil oaths explicit covenants, but his Althusius’s federalism—a facet of his work for which he is best known, draws from Reformed Protestant sources founded on covenant theology: Scottish Presbyterian George Buchanan and French Huguenot works Vindiciae, Contra Tyrannos (1579) and Francogallia (1586). Althusius’s work is a case study in Protestant Hebraism—a distinct tradition of political theory overlooked by scholars of political theory until lately revisited by Eric Nelson, Gordon Schochet, Yoram Hazony, and David Henreckson among others. Althusius’s use of these sacred sources, especially the Old Testament, does not compartmentalize reason and revelation as a Straussian or Biblicist might prescribe, however. His weaving of sacred and secular sources together is deliberate and often seamless.

Althusius’s Legacy

Given the rich breadth and depth of Althusius’s ideas and his rich use of sources bridging ancient, medieval, and modern politics, the absence of Politica from undergraduate and graduate courses—especially survey courses in political theory—is discouraging. Claus Peter Clasen has argued that the intellectual world of Palatine Calvinism was lost in the holocaust of the Thirty Years War, and this is certainly one explanation. But insofar as most American political theorists take their cues from the heavyweights, they’ve not been encouraged to pay much attention to Althusius. Eric Voegelin offered only a terse and critical assessment of Althusius, though Voegelin had little use for any Reformation-era Protestant political theorist. Sheldon Wolin simply places Althusius in the Calvinist tradition but sees little continuity with other streams of thought. Quentin Skinner devotes a little attention to Althusius, and only to leverage him in a larger (and arguably erroneous) argument. Brian Tierney put Althusius in a long five-century continuity of constitutionalism indebted to Roman and canon law, but does not consider him essential. Leo Strauss ignored him altogether.

Things are looking up, however: Althusius’s star has been on the rise over the past few decades, mostly thanks to essays on federalism published in journals or edited collections. Furthermore, there was a revival of interest in Althusius in Europe in the first half of the 20th century though neither of his primary interpreters, Otto Gierke and Carl Joachim Friedrich, can agree on his precise contribution. The same can be said for subsequent European scholars who have studied Althusius’s work (John Neville Figgis, R. W. and A. J. Carlyle, Pierre Mesnard, H.J. van Eikema Hommes, Hasso Hofmann, Werner Kraweitz, Giuseppe Duso, Susanne de Vries, Peter Nitschke, Gerald Hartung, Erik Wolf, Ernst Reibstein, Peter Jochen Winters, or Heinz Werner Antholz). American scholars more in tune with this European legacy likewise disagree on his contribution. John Witte follows Gierke in casting Althusius as a contractarian natural rights theorist, but Carney, Thomas Hueglin, and Ruben Alvarado largely follow Friedrich in being of critical of Gierke’s interpretation.

Such a rich and inclusive catalog of ideas and interpretations should spur scholars to revisit Politica. The fact that recent scholars find familiar political concepts (e.g., federalism, natural rights, contractarianism, communitarianism, and constitutionalism) in a text four centuries old—a text with evident debts to the Romans and Hebrews, reminds us that seminal political ideas have a long provenance. In our post-liberal moment, however, Althusius also reminds us that virtue and liberty cannot be hermetically sealed into neater academic categories of “liberal” or “republican.” Politica gives us a better alternative: a rich constitutionalism that empowers persons to thrive alongside one another in deliberate communities. Ruling these communities (literally: facilitating communication) are authorities whose delegated power is apportioned only to secure human flourishing. We do well to revisit Althusius and reconsider a robust political anthropology wherein liberty and authority are not opponents, but instead partners devoted to the same humane end.