Politica: Politics Methodically Set Forth and Illustrated with Sacred and Profane Examples, by Johannes Althusius
From the Preface to the First Edition (1603):
This plan and goal was conceived and attempted by me that I might possibly offer a torch of intelligence, judgment, and memory to beginning students of political doctrine.
Althusius dedicates this work to two “most distinguished and learned men,” both he describes as his relatives. The first is Martin Neurath, a trial lawyer –Althusius’ wife was Margarethe Neurath. The second is Jacob Tieffenbach. So this first preface is a personal letter; it isn’t addressed to the general reader, but to two relatives, perhaps also close associates, if not mentors.
…I have therein attributed [the rights of sovereignty] to the realm, or to the commonwealth and people. I know that in the common opinion of teachers they are to be described as belonging to the prince and supreme magistrate. Bodin clamors that these rights of sovereignty cannot be attributed to the realm or the people….
I know some read these words and will throw out Althusius almost as quickly as they would Bodin. But this ignores the reality that people will organize politically – the only question is the extent to which coercion is introduced in the mix. It is for this reason that I am attracted to Althusius – certainly he was unique in his time (and also in small company since the Renaissance) for his views on decentralization and subsidiarity.
…I am not troubled by the clamors of Bodin nor the voices of others who disagree with me, so long as there are reasons that agree with my judgment.
Althusius sees the prince or magistrate as a steward or administrator, but the rights are not his – the rights remain with the people (technically, within voluntarily-formed groups of people). These rights cannot be renounced – in other words, they cannot be granted irrevocably or without recourse. This seems to me an important point.
From the Preface to the Third Edition (1614):
Dedicated to the illustrious leaders of the estates of Frisia between the Zuider Zee and the North Sea most worthy lords.
The import of this dedication will be made clear shortly.
All copies of the earlier editions had been sold out. Althusius, therefore, offers this third edition, “done during the odd hours permitted me between responsibilities to the Commonwealth.” What was this “Commonwealth”? It will be remembered that at this time, Althusius was the Syndic of the city of Emden; in other words, he viewed a city as a commonwealth – the highest political association.
This should be kept in mind as we move through the examination of his book – the commonwealth included a region that included people with common wealth: the key term being “common.” Not in terms of communism, but in terms of what Althusius calls “communication”: the various exchanges done by and amongst a common group of people.
Of course, it could be argued that a modern economy does not allow for such a small commonwealth. But is this so? We need not confuse the trading of goods with the merging of polities. We have Switzerland, we have Lichtenstein, we have Singapore. Not every commonwealth need include hundreds of millions of people under one roof.
The Decalogue plays a foundational role in Althusius’ view:
For what would human life be without the piety of the first table of the Decalogue, and without the justice of the second?
We see all around us what that life would be: the piety of the first is lost, and the justice of the second is, at best, wobbly.
I claim the Decalogue as proper to political science insofar as it breathes a vital spirit into symbiotic life.
So I am clear: a theocracy is not in my vision. It is sufficient for me that Christian leaders teach this to their congregations: no laws, no force, no prisons, none of that. Libertarians are OK with the idea of doing battle via ideas; I am merely suggesting that Christian leaders might consider the same. I am also suggesting that institutionally there is no better-equipped body to take on the power of the state.
Do I suggest this for the sake of conversions? No; within the context of this blog your eternal soul is not my concern. I suggest it for the sake of liberty: apply laws against killing, theft, covetousness to the government; teach a moral and humble life; keep in mind that Christians have a duty to live thus on this earth, and not merely wait for the next.
Althusius again repeats his views on sovereignty: this does not rest with the supreme magistrate but with the people as a whole:
These rights of sovereignty are so proper to this association, in my judgment, that even if it [the people as a whole] wishes to renounce them, to transfer them to another, and to alienate them, it would by no means be able to do so, any more than a man is able to give the life enjoys to another.
If there is a fly in the ointment of Althusian political theory, it is that of the relationship of voluntarily formed groups to the commonwealth and the princes or magistrates above these. And it is here that I will return to Althusius’ dedication to this third edition and the worthy lords of Frisia:
To demonstrate this point I am able to produce the excellent example of your own and the other provinces confederated with you. For in the war you undertook against the very powerful king of Spain you did not consider that the rights of sovereignty adhered so inseparably to him that they did not exist apart from him.
…you declared that these rights belong to the associated multitude…you not only defended and conserved your commonwealth from tyranny and disaster, but also made it even more illustrious.
The commonwealth was not the same thing as the kingdom or empire. It took war to exercise this right of the people as a group, but it is justified to Althusius within his political construct.
From what I gather so far, as advocated by Althusius:
· The commonwealth was local, and its boundaries were not necessarily fixed.
· Some moral rules beyond non-aggression are called for if one desires healthy communication (call it “relationships,” broadly speaking) with one’s neighbors.
· The people (or rather, various groups of people) are justified – even to war – to remove themselves from a king who does not properly respect the people as a whole.
All points that most libertarians can get behind, it seems to me.
I think it is worth a few words about this war within the context of Althusius’ work:
The Eighty Years' War or Dutch War of Independence (1568–1648) was a revolt of the Seventeen Provinces of what are today the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg against Philip II of Spain, the sovereign of the Habsburg Netherlands.
Althusius wrote this preface in 1614, right in the middle of this ongoing conflict. What was the situation at the time of his writing? In 1581 – thirteen years into the war – the northern provinces established the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands. In 1609, an official truce was established, lasting for twelve years; it was during this period that Althusius wrote his preface.
War resumed for the Dutch, generally corresponding with the start of the Thirty Years’ War. This war between the Netherlands and Spain ended in 1648 only with the Peace of Münster, which formed a part of the Peace of Westphalia:
Scholars have identified Westphalia as the beginning of the modern international system, based on the concept of Westphalian sovereignty.
Westphalian sovereignty, or state sovereignty, is the principle in international law that each nation state has exclusive sovereignty over its territory.
So much for voluntarily forming groups, provinces, and commonwealths.