The Debate That Changed the West: Grotius versus Althusius, by Ruben Alvarado
One can point to many inflection points in the history of the west and western tradition: the Resurrection of Christ, the fall of Rome, the establishment of Christianity and Christendom, the Battle of Tours, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Battle of Vienna, the Enlightenment, and, finally, the Great War. Several decades after the Reformation we find this debate.
Alvarado examines this debate between Grotius and Althusius – or, more precisely, between their views on political order. I have examined Althusius in great detail in the past, being introduced to him through Gerard Casey’s work, where he also examined Grotius.
A simple view of this debate: Grotius thought in terms of international governance and individualism; Althusius thought in terms of decentralized and local governance; he attempted to mimic the decentralization of medieval Europe, however while lacking a very important factor: the Church that could stand in the face of the king. In other words, I think the debate had no chance of being given a fair hearing or concluding with any other outcome.
From the Preface:
That the modern world is in a state of crisis is no secret. What has been building up for some time is now breaking out into the open: the utter untenability of a social order based on the primacy of the individual as the absolute standard and justification for authority, law, and order.
I read such words and the libertarian in me cringes – but not nearly as much as I would have cringed ten years ago. I would have cringed reflexively, brought on by any challenge to the (political) primacy of the individual. Yet today I can look around and see the damage this philosophy has brought to liberty. It isn’t that I have done away with the individual; it is just that this idea is too shallow for liberty to survive in its wake.
As Alvarado notes, this has brought politics into every nook and cranny of life, as there is no room for institutions with the authority to intermediate between the individual and the state. Few have pointed to or warned of this danger, but Alvarado notes Robert Nisbet who wrote of it more than 60 years ago. Nisbet, like Althusius, saw the necessity of building from the bottom up such intermediating institutions as necessary to give man room and cover for his liberty.
Alvarado frames the debate that occurred four centuries ago:
For at the crossroads of Western civilization, at around the turn of the 17th century, an eventful and fateful choice was made, to go down the path of rationalist individualism instead of the path of communitarian associationalism. The two representatives of these opposing approaches to social order were Hugo Grotius and Johannes Althusius.
Alvarado offers an essay as introduction to the book: he describes Constantinople in 1453, finally succumbing to the Muslim Ottoman forces.
Western civilization today appears to be in the same position as Constantinople was in 1453: hunkered down behind once-impregnable walls, the breach of which is only a matter of time.
It is depressing to read, but this is the situation today. Unfortunately, today the calamity is entirely self-inflicted – the west is consuming and willingly destroying itself. In this, Alvarado finds it worthwhile to examine the crossroads and path taken at this similar time in the past – occurring in the Dutch Republic during its struggle to free itself from the Spanish Monarchy. Two men, drawing on similar sources and with similar backgrounds, yet developing significantly differing political concepts.
Many new technologies were brought into play, technologies that would also shape the debate: the printing press (a driving factor in the Renaissance and Reformation), gunpowder (leveling the playing field between noble and peasant; changing the dynamic for walled cities), new techniques for silver mining and production (making the New World especially valuable).
In the middle of this were the Ottomans, threatening Europe and the Mediterranean in a manner unseen since the forces of Islam several hundred years earlier. This was a driving factor in Portugal and Spain looking for alternative routes to the East – leading to circumnavigation of the globe. Machiavelli is introduced – maligned by many, yet when taken in the context of the aftermath of the defeat of his beloved Florentine republic becomes, perhaps, a more sympathetic character.
The question at hand – in this tremendous confluence of religious, political, technological, and military upheaval: what of the jus gentium, “law of nations”?
What was involved was a common baseline understanding of sovereignty, extending in both directions – outward toward other nations, and inward, in terms of the structure of authority and constitutionalism.
It would be Spain where this question would first be dealt with, appropriate as Spain sat at the heart of many of these upheavals: the conflicts on the Italian peninsula, a major bulwark against the Ottomans, ruling over the North Countries – soon enough to be embroiled in a Catholic–Calvinist civil war, and a major power in conquering and settling the New World. Each of these issues presented new challenges regarding this “law of nations” – some completely unknown even a few decades earlier.
The pioneer in this regard was Francisco de Vitoria, holder of the first chair of theology at the University of Salamanca, and founder of what has gone down in history as the School of Salamanca.