Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Ugly, the Bad, and the Good

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).

The Ugly

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.”

The Bad

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.

The Good

‘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.


  1. Tom Woods had an episode with Casey on this:

    I also became more familiar with Althusius through Donald Livingston of the Abbeville Institute in his book Rethinking the American Union for the Twenty-First Century, more specifically his essay entitled American Republicanism and the Forgotten Question of Size. Althusius is mentions throughout. The book is here:

    1. Thank you SB. I'm a big fan of the Abbeville institute, even if they are not perfectly libertarian, and Don Livingston in particular.

  2. Althusius gives such a good framework to work through towards liberty today. That is a good discussion to be having. His model won't work today as much of the culture and context has changed, but it is always encouraging to find people of similar thought in the past.

    1. I don't know. I think the concept is useful, even today.

  3. "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."

    This would require Christian leaders who act and think like Christians. A tall order for many of our "Christian" rulers of the day.

  4. Sovereignty in the people!?! Sounds like biblical sedition to me:

    "...In one of his many arguments on behalf of the Constitution, Madison revealed where ultimate power resides in a Constitutional Republic:
    'As the people are the only legitimate fountain of power … it is from them that the constitutional charter under which the [power of the] several branches of government … is derived.'51

    "Alexander Hamilton stated it similarly:

    'The fabric of American empire ought to rest on the solid basis of THE CONSENT OF THE PEOPLE. The streams of national power ought to flow immediately from that pure, original fountain of all legitimate authority.'52

    "This emphasis on the people by both the federalists and anti-federalists alike is evidence that they had lost sight of Yahweh and His ultimate authority. Such an emphasis on the people cannot be found anywhere in the Bible. George Washington (who presided over the Constitutional Convention) confirmed this self-originating authority in his “Farewell Address”:....

    "John Adams confessed to the same humanism regarding the States’ Constitutions:

    'It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service [the establishment of the States’ Constitutions] had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the inspiration of Heaven … it will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses.... Thirteen governments [of the original states] thus founded on the natural authority of the people alone….'55

    "Following are samplings from some of the State Constitutions:

    '…all power is inherent in the people and all free governments are founded on their authority.' (Pennsylvania, 1790, Article IX, Section II)

    ' authority shall, on any pretense whatever, be exercised over the people or members of this State, but such as shall be derived from and granted by them [the people].' (New York, 1777, Article I)

    '…all political power is vested in and derived from the people only.' (North Carolina, 1776, “Declaration of Rights,” Article I)...."

    For more, see Chapter 3 "The Preamble: WE THE PEOPLE vs. YAHWEH" of free online book "Bible Law vs. the United States Constitution: The Christian Perspective" at

    Then find out how much you *really* know about the Constitution as compared to the Bible. Take our 10-question Constitution Survey at and receive a complimentary copy of the 85-page "Primer" of "BL vs. USC."

    1. The good news, under the Althusian model, is that those who find sovereignty in God are free to form their own community.

      I will take it.

  5. Interesting stuff. I was familiar with subsidiarity but not with the name Althusius.

    Just make sure that the consociation is written and is unambigously explcit as to the power to disassociate by the "lower."

    1. Probably will require the right to bear arms to make the clause effective...


  6. The Abbeville Insistite is having a conference in Dallas in November on Secession and Nullification. I believe Livingston will be one of the speakers.

  7. "Sovereignty" of the god We The People is THE PROBLEM, NOT the solution.

    The sooner we all get a grip on this fact and recognize it, the sooner we can all understand the real problems and get to solutions, beginning with repentance for exulting the god "We The People" instead of The Great I Am and His Law as the supreme law of the land.

    We must turn back to The Almighty and His Commandments, Statutes and Judgments, not "hope" in "We The People's" constitution or this, that or the other Amendment; nor in the current illegitimate court system that continues to turn on you conquered people.

    Here's just one example of The Almighty's Perfect Law of Liberty: Did you know that The Almighty's Laws have no prohibitions for owning or carrying weapons, not even a requirement for a concealed carry permit ?! Remember Ehud (Judges 3: 12 - 30) ? What is required is personal responsibility.

    The only way to save this nation is to turn back to Him, His Perfect Moral Laws, Statutes and Judgments, i.e., His Kingdom/Will On Earth.

    He told us that if His people ” … shall humble themselves (e.g., quit thinking we’re the sovereign, take our proper place and quit usurping His), and pray, and seek my face (e.g., He’s to be the ONLY law giver), and turn from their wicked ways (e.g., seek His Kingdom/Will and promote the enforcement of His Laws, Statutes and Judgments); THEN will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.”

    “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, And I will give you rest. Take My yoke (i.e., His Law 1 John 5: 2 & 3, as well as His tithe [tax] system) upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and ‘YOU SHALL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS.’ (Jer. 6: 16). My yoke is easy, and My load is light.” Matthew 11: 28 – 30.

    Seek Him while He may yet be found. The judgments are happening before your eyes !

    1. The good news, under the Althusian model, is that those who find sovereignty in God are free to form their own community.

      I will take it.

  8. Interesting guy this Althusius. Fantastic find! If only we'd received a real education in school and we already knew the names of people like him. OLL has his "Politica" in pdf form.

    From the intro:

    "Johannes Althusius has enjoyed the good fortune in recent times of frequent notice in political, theological, sociological, and historical writings. This has been true ever since Otto Gierke in the latter part of the nineteenth century recovered Althusius from two centuries of relative obscurity, and attributed to his Politica (Politica methodice digesta) the distinction of making one of the pivotal contributions to Western political thought." - Translator, F. Carney

    Otto von Gierke is an interesting author in his own right. He has books entitled "Political Theories of the Middle Age" and "Natural Law and the Theory of Society." He was influential on John Neville Figgis, who was Lord Acton's student and the editor of much of his works (if Wikipedia is to be trusted).

    Another interesting libertarian parallel is that the Spanish School of Salamanca (think proto-Austrian economics) apparently had an influence on Althusius's social thought.

    1. I must give credit to the individual who pushed me into reading this book by Casey....Who was that guy?

  9. This is a great, nuanced write up BM. I look forward to your further explorations on Althusius. It's also great to see the concept of "consociations", of which I've never been exposed to prior, and it's focus on voluntary relationships in a manner that recognizes various governance groups within a "structure".

    These groups, communal(loaded word, I know), seem to be a natural behavior of "man" in general. They are created with the intention of helping man and the key point of "agreements are not in perpetuity, but require initial and continuing consent. " seems to be one of many potential counterbalances when things go wrong. (hence the evil of the "civil war", which ended any notion that the Constitution was a "voluntary" agreement)

    Socialist/communists know exactly what they are doing when they claim "no man is an island" in attacking sovereignty(the difficulty here philosophically is where you draw the line between individuality and sovereignty as a concept, if there is one).

    When they do so, they appeal to man's basic instinct/common sense in knowing that men naturally form said "communes"/groups. But, what they conveniently neglect to mention, is that their version of said groups by default don't include the notion of "voluntary association"- one of the few counterbalances(secession/disassociation) left to any group/society/"consociation" or even individual in dealing with tyranny.

    1. Also voluntary dis-association...even a bigger crime these days.

  10. This may be of interest:

  11. “Medieval popes proclaimed that they "judged all and could be judged by none"; when were certain secular authorities able to make such a claim?”

    This is the basic doctrine of the Dictates Papae of 1075, articles 18-21.

    “In more general terms, when does idea of sovereignty begin to emerge?”

    “Sovereignty existed in fact long before it could be described in theory. The turning point was the recognition of the need for a final authority, not the possession of a “ monopoly of power.”

    “Papal Revolution ca. 1072-1122 gave birth to the modern Western state.”

    “the Gregorian concept of the Church almost demanded the invention of the concept of the State.
    It demanded it so strongly that modern writers find it exceedingly difficult to avoid describing the Investiture Conflict as a struggle of Church and State.”

    “Berman argued that the church from this time forward exercised all the legal functions that we attribute to the modern state.”

    “Political entities, each with its own basic core of people and lands, gained legitimacy by enduring through generations.
    Permanent institutions for financial and judicial business were established. Groups of professional administrators were developed. A central coordinating agency, the chancery, had emerged with a staff of highly trained clerks.

    These basic elements of the state appeared almost everywhere in Western Europe during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

    The rate was most rapid in England, France, and the Spanish kingdoms;”

    “The Peace of Westphalia did no more than legalize a condition of things already in existence.”

    “At Westphalia the state-system does not come into existence: it comes of age;”

    ‘The peace [in 1648] was not the tombstone of the empire but a charter which gave it another century-and-a-half of life’