Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
I have borrowed the title of Frost’s poem; it is also the chapter title from Gerard Casey’s book, Freedom’s Progress?, in which he discusses the political philosophy of Johannes Althusius.
A brief introduction from Casey:
Daniel Elazar notes, and I believe he is correct in this, that the Althusian view lost out to the Bodinian view of ‘reified centralized states where all powers were lodged in a divinely ordained king at the top of the power pyramid or in a sovereign center.’
Had the Althusian and not the Bodinian conception of the locus of sovereignty prevailed, the course of political history might have been very different.
Different…how? Bodin gave us the centralized and sovereign State; Althusius offered instead a decentralized and voluntary polity. This idea has attracted me to study the thought of Althusius more closely, given that decentralization is libertarian theory put into practice.
Further, Althusius is writing at a time after the Reformation, after the decentralizing benefits of a unified Christendom are lost; he is constructing a political theory that captures the decentralization of medieval Europe without the benefit of the competing governance authority of the Church. This is even a more significant issue today as the West no longer even has the benefit of a dis-unified Christendom.
I grant up front: the lack of even a dis-unified Christendom (more specifically, the lack of faithful Christian leaders in the West) – let alone the loss of a unified Christendom – seems to me to be the issue that makes moving toward sustainable liberty impossible. Given that eventually we will have faithful Christian leaders, developing decentralized political theory is a worthwhile endeavor.
Politica: Politics Methodically Set Forth and Illustrated with Sacred and Profane Examples, by Johannes Althusius (Edited and translated by Frederick S. Carney). I will begin with some introductory comments from Carney, who begins by noting that Althusius’ thought remained in obscurity for two centuries – when it was revived by Otto Gierke in the nineteenth century. Gierke saw in Althusius’ thought…
…something of a culmination of medieval social thought and a watershed of modern political ideas. The chief features of this theory, Gierke felt, were to be found in its contractual and natural law principles.
Althusius, born in Westphalia in 1557, was a Calvinist; yet in his thought one will find commonality with the Spanish school of social philosophy at Salamanca. He received his doctorate in Basle in both civil and ecclesiastical law in 1586. Eventually becoming the Syndic of Emden, he exercised an influence there similar to the influence Calvin had in Geneva.
The purpose of political science, according to Althusius, is the maintenance of social life among human beings.
This is described by Althusius as “symbiotics”…
“…the art of associating men for the purpose of establishing, cultivating, and conserving social life among them.”
Althusius has no interest in theories about human rights; instead, his focus is on the question: does the association – any association – fulfill the purpose for which it was formed? He opposes tyrannical rule not because it is tyrannical, but because it is ineffective in supporting the purposes for which men joined together.
Persons enter and remain in association with each other because outside of the mutual communication of things, services, and right they cannot live comfortably and well; indeed, they cannot live at all.
Yet, foundational to Althusius’ view is that each association remains voluntary – initiated and maintained via a covenant among the “symbiotes.” The foundational association is the family. Althusius sets forth the obligations that a husband owes to a wife, a wife to the husband, and the kinship obligations that both owes to their family.
I know that this last bit is hard to swallow for many libertarians. If you are one of these, I cannot help you. Either one finds in the family the fundamental building block of a functional and free society, or one doesn’t.
All is not sweetness and light in Althusius’ world:
Althusius’ discussion of the province contains one of the few basic inconsistencies in the elaboration of his political system. For the ruler of the province is responsible not to the organized community over which this person presides, as is the case in all other associations, but to the supreme magistrate of the commonwealth.
Had Althusius won out over Bodin, I suspect this defect would have been corrected by now – in practice, if not in theory. Where Bodin placed the authority over the commonwealth in an individual or the state, Althusius placed it in the people –voluntarily joined – as a whole. For this reason, if the province (provincial leader) does not fulfill the purpose for which it was formed, those within the province are free to secede.
As to the administration of the commonwealth, the supreme magistrate should be guided by political prudence. His discussion here is guided by his knowledge of both the law and the contingent circumstances to which law is to be applied:
The discussion of law at this point is an extended treatment of the relation of the Decalogue to natural law, and of the role of these two together as common law in the formulation of proper law for particular societies.
If one becomes a tyrant after gaining legitimate title to this supreme office, he is to be resisted by – and only by – those public authorities to whom this authority has been entrusted. Yes, I see libertarian eyes rolling here. But I suggest: whatever the words say – whether those of Althusius, those of the US Constitution, or those of any one of the dozens of contracts or agreements one enters into in life – there is no hope for proper governance unless the nobles act noble. And, for this reason (among others), I keep returning to the idea that there is no hope for liberty unless Christian leaders actually act like Christians.
Althusius draws on Aristotle and Cicero, Spanish Catholic writers on constitutional government, writers such as Botero and Lipsius who find common interest in political prudence, legal writers including Bartolus and Gail, Calvinist theologians, historians who were expert in ancient Israel and Rome, and finally, several opponents in political theory.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Unfortunately we did not follow Mr. Frost’s example.