On Law and Power, Johannes Althusius
The book opens with a look at Althusius in the context of his time, written by Stephen J. Grabill. I do not intend a biographical review; there are tidbits in this section that give context to the time and place in which Althusius developed his thought.
Althusius was born in 1557, in the heart of Reformation country and during the time when Reformed theology brought forward an explosion of thought – in virgin philosophical and theological territory, everyone was free to explore.
He seemed to garner more than his share of controversy – both during his time and in historical interpretation: how he comes to natural law; does he come to natural law; the role of the Decalogue. He received “a maelstrom of criticism” in his time from all sides – from Henning Arnisaeus to Hugo Grotius. He was attacked by many of his contemporaries.
…Politica was “a book worthy of the flames,” “the most noxious fruit of Monarcho-machism,” “the dogma of popular sovereignty, a product of Presbyterian error,” and its author “the seditious architect of disorder.”
Althusius attempted to synthesize the Decalogue, Jewish law, Roman law, and the various streams of European customary law into an integrated framework. Politica was both widely read and widely despised. Why such nastiness?
…Politica…vigorously defended the local autonomies of the old plural order of guilds, estates, and cities against the rise of territorial absolutism and those early apologists of the modern unitary state…
Apologists such as Jean Bodin and Thomas Hobbes.
Althusius words found application, providing theoretical justification for the Dutch revolt against Spain; he is also credited with assisting Emden – a major center for Calvinist refugees – in achieving independent statehood.
He was rediscovered after two centuries of obscurity, in the nineteenth century. This rebirth offered about as much controversy as Althusius suffered in his lifetime – a pivotal figure in the evolution of modern constitutionalism; controversy regarding his views of natural law.
I was wrong about something in my previous post on this book, where I noted that Althusius’ focus on subsidiarity was barely dealt with; working through this current post with a more careful eye, this book does offer Althusius’ contribution in this area.
He is recognized for developing the modern beginning of the idea of subsidiarity, with this concept incorporated in a 1571 resolution passed by Althusius’ Synod of Emden. As I noted in my earlier examination of Althusius, he attempted to recapture the decentralized governance of the Middle Ages in the time when there was no longer a unified Church. We can credit him with at least this one success in the real world.
In a second introductory section, John Witte, Jr. examines Althusius’ theory of natural law and the rise of Calvinist jurisprudence.
Natural law is “the will of God for men,” Althusius argued. God has “written this natural law” on the hearts, souls, minds, and consciences of all persons, as Romans 2:15 and sundry other biblical and classical sources make clear.
Humans are inclined to ally themselves with others, rally around natural leaders, and educate their children. Self-preservation, self-protection, and self-perpetuation are “natural inclinations.” God has written the knowledge of good and evil in man’s heart.
We can know the norms of the natural law if we study both Scripture and tradition, revelation and reason very carefully, Althusius argued.
This study must specifically include the Ten Commandments, Moses and the prophets, and Christ and the apostles; these provide general law. Of course, specific applications will differ in different cultures, geographies, and circumstances. For this, Althusius finds the need for enlightened leaders to develop properly considered positive laws.
However, the guiding star for general law for Althusius was the Decalogue: justice, love, faith, and piety are all to be found here. He does not extend this to the entirety of biblical law: much of this was positive law specifically for the ancient Jewish people – people with a specific culture, geography and circumstance.
Witte examines one illustration of this natural law as offered by Althusius, that of the freedom and rights of the body. Althusius offers that one is free “to do or conduct anything in a way that is both agreeable and permissible.”
There are phrases that seem a bit troubling – that need more unpacking than that which is available here. Words like “unless obvious exceptions are made,” “unless it is prohibited by force or by law.” There are other words that offset these concerns. “Not everything which is lawful is honorable,” offering the possibility that not every vice (immorality) should be the subject of law.
Self-defense is clearly in the view of natural law; man is allowed to carry weapons for this purpose; he is allowed to use force against those who injure or harm him, “so long as the defensive force is not greater or fiercer than the attacking force….” Althusius’ thought was supported by citations of nearly one hundred texts from the Bible and Apocrypha.
Althusius was writing for a world wracked by inquisition and religious warfare; he was writing for a fragile Netherlands after its bloody revolt from Spain; he was writing for the Holy Roman Empire, still comprised of 350 polities each bent on preserving their unique rights. His origin was Calvinist, but his theory was intended to be universal.
Universal is a scary and even murderous word when it comes to political theory, but in Althusius’ case it is the one and only valid use. Althusius fully developed a political theory of subsidiarity and voluntary governance structures. This, it seems to me, is both universal and fully libertarian.
The difficulty for Althusius – and us; the benefit in ensuring this decentralized structure of a unified Church was and is lost. We are left to find another way.