EthicsPolitics and Current EventsReformed

Althusius, Symbiotic Man, and Reliving the Sixteenth Century


Back in December, historian Niall Ferguson gave a lecture in which he drew an analogy between today’s political polarization and the religious polarization of the post-Reformation sixteenth century, which as we know, led to a hundred-year decimation of Europe and culminated in the Thirty Years’ War. Ferguson’s analysis suffers from an overly materialistic focus, as secular historians are wont to employ, and fails to give due regard to theological motivations. This is forgivable since the historical narratives told by church historians have the converse tendency to disregard economic and technological factors.

But Ferguson’s basic thesis, that the technological disruption and political polarization of the sixteenth century has more similarities to our own day than does, say, mid-twentieth century Europe (the analogy employed ad nauseum by journalists) is in my opinion (for what it’s worth), basically correct. The closest historical analogy to the advent of the internet and the subsequent democratization of publishing via social media is the printing press of Luther’s day. Consequently the resultant disruption of institutional hierarchies and ideological polarization produced by each innovation are comparable.

If that is the case, then for Christians, who should take theological factors seriously, it is worth revisiting those theologians and political theorists living in the pre-Westphalian world to examine their ideas that are relevant to topics where tension is currently most apparent. It has become evident to me that the ongoing, and escalating, debates surrounding the social justice movement within Evangelical circles are conspicuously devoid of such considerations. Similarly, there is little discernible interest in discussing what we might call first principles: e.g., the nature of society, the role of government, or the purpose of political life on a basic level.

Such discussion, tending to be rather nuanced and voluminous, is difficult to fit into a tweet and distracts from expressing outrage against the latest news cycle. For that matter, neither side appears to be all that concerned with convincing their opponents via finely-tuned, historically conscious, nuanced argument, so much as they are with exonerating themselves of blame or obtaining the moral high ground. We are to assume that “virtue signaling” is more effective from higher altitudes.

Yet, it seems to me that whenever matters of justice or politics, and the church’s place therein, are being referenced, one must at least offer passing consideration to fundamental principles. And said principles should inform our responses to contemporary issues. This is especially the case if we truly are reliving, in some respect, the mid-sixteenth century.  

The popular narrative says that the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were marked by an increasing bifurcation of religion and politics, and the secularization of society; a sort of warm-up for the Enlightenment, a “period” that is also subjected to many myths. But as John Figgis argued over a century ago, the Reformation made politics more theological, not less.1 This was true for Protestants and Catholics alike. A myriad of factors in the post-Reformation world helped create “the habitat of competing sects and compact nations,”2 which are the conditions of modern politics.

What resulted was robust reassessment and development of political and legal theory within what was still a distinctly religious intellectual milieu. And many of the institutions that “have become a part of the furniture of our minds”3 were brought to full bloom in this period of great disruption: the rule of law, popular sovereignty, and constitutional order, to name a few.

But it must be remembered that sixteenth and seventeenth century theorists were not creating ex nihilo. They self-consciously drew on not only the works of antiquity, but also the fourteenth century Conciliarists who had sowed the seeds for ideas (i.e. popular sovereignty and corporate personhood) that could be more fully realized a few centuries later.4

One such theorist was Johannes Althusius (1557-1638) to which, following this prolonged introduction, we now briefly turn for intellectual stimulation regarding the nature of society and politics from someone who, per Ferguson, has lived through our time before.

Althusius and the Politica

Althusius is arguably the Reformed tradition’s most comprehensive political theorist. He may not be the last word on the subject, but he is first word. Carl J. Friedrich called him “the clearest and most profound thinker which Calvinism has produced in the realm of political science and jurisprudence.”5 It is a travesty that more self-professed “Calvinists” are not acquainted with him, especially those who endeavor to comment on matters of social and political import.

After receiving his doctorate in canon and civil law from the University of Basel, Althusius became professor and rector of the Herborn Academy, a newly founded Calvinist college in Germany. He later moved to the Netherlands where he served as legal counsel for the city of Emden. His most famous publication was the Politica Methodice Digesta, Atque Exemplis Sacris et Profanis Illustrata (1603) [Politics Methodically Digested and Illustrated from Profane and Sacred Examples]. The Politica was meant to serve as a Reformed scheme of law and politics, a theory of society itself, as well as an apology for the Dutch Revolt against Spain.6  

Althusius developed his “universal theory” of law and politics in the midst of the Thirty Years’ War on the continent. He was simultaneously a comprehensive and practical thinker in that he was attempting to produce a workable theory for a war-torn Europe. He drew upon the vast body of Western thought to do so, citing some 200 sources ranging from Aristotle to Calvin to Bodin to Machiavelli, with heavy reliance on Theodore Beza’s De iure magistratuum (1574) and Mornay’s Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos (1579).7  

Found in the prodigious Politica are the principles of the rule of law, popular sovereignty, resistance theory,8 and separation of powers; the embryo of modern federalism. But two dominant elements are discernable in Althusius’ works: (1) a “demonstrative theory” of universal natural law, and (2) “a symbiotic theory of human nature” which focuses on man’s natural attachments to God, family, neighbor, and society ultimately expressed in a series of covenantal associations.9 It is the latter element that will be of primary focus here.10   

Symbiotic Man

Althusius began his consideration of political order with a discussion of the nature of society itself. But a theory of society must spring from a theory of man. Althusius first affirmed the Biblical principle that humans are image bearers of God. They are moral creatures who possess knowledge of the natural law and natural sovereignty under God. Furthermore, God created humans to reproduce and possess the instinct of self-preservation. In short, God intended humans to flourish (Gen. 9:7). Furthermore, humans are “language-bearers” designed to communicate and learn in a communal context. “God willed to train and teach men not by angels, but by men.” Basically, men are designed to be improved through the means of associating with others.11

Hence, in a state of nature, man is endowed with a “symbiotic impulse for community”; “an instinct to live together with others and to establish civil society,” so that he might flourish. He is sociable and possesses a natural inclination for the polis, since, as Aristotle said, he is neither god nor beast.12 It is not good that man should be alone (Gen. 2:18). Man relates to both God and his fellow men through covenantal bonds (Althusius also capitalized off the covenant theology of Calvin and Olevianus). Sounding very Augustinian, Althusius identified man as a loving creature, both desirous to show and receive love.13 It is simply a question of discerning the proper object. Through covenantal relations, some natural and private, others voluntary and public, man is “brought to this social life and mutual sharing.”14 To Althusius, contra Hobbes and Rousseau, society is not what corrupts man, but what man was made for.

John Witte rightly points out that Althusius’ anthropology is fundamentally Aristotelian15 and “far more complex… than the bleak Hobbesian view of self-interested individuals” who exist in a state of “perpetuall Warre” unless they be coerced into civility by an all-powerful sovereign.16 A state of nature that features a radically individualistic man is at variance with man’s true nature and experience.

Theory of Society

Given man’s symbiotic nature, there is no truly pre-social or pre-political existence in Althusius’ scheme. The primary natural associations of marriage and family (“the domestic commonwealth”) are just as primordial as man himself, and they constitute a single unit or corporate person. Other voluntary, private associations flow from families, ultimately culminating in the formation of a government, all constituted by voluntary covenant.17 In each association, people covenant together to share a portion of their property, work, and rights with other members, “each fairly and properly according to his ability.”18 The association is the formal cause of socio-political life; covenants the efficient cause; and the enjoyment of the common welfare and peaceable living (symbiosis) is the final cause. (footnote: the “material” of political life is “the aggregate of precepts” for communicating benefits to promote symbiosis).

The symbiotes [i.e. people living together],” Althusius said, “are co-workers who, by the bond of an associating and uniting agreement, communicate among themselves whatever is appropriate for a comfortable life of soul and body. In other, words, they are participants or partners in a common life.19

Throughout this progression the natural law, of which all humans have an intrinsic knowledge, governs.20 Appointed authorities are to rule for the common good, equity, and justice of the subjects. The positive laws formed by each association should reflect the natural law, and appointed rulers (whether the head of a family, guild, or state) should govern within the terms of the relevant constitutive covenant.  

Regarding these covenantal relations and the appointment of rulers, Althusius argued that, “By the natural law all men are equal and subject to the jurisdiction of no one, unless they subject themselves to another’s authority by their own consent and voluntary act, and transfer to another their rights.” Althusius held to a republican notion of freedom, namely, absence of arbitrary restraint. The only non-arbitrary restraint is that which is consented to and agrees with the natural law.21 

Althusius spent relatively little time strictly on the question of equality, but in a general statement within his treatment of the city he argued that:

Concord is fostered and protected by fairness [aequabilitas] when right, liberty, and honour [sic] are extended to each citizen according to the order and distinction of his worth and status. For it behooves the citizen to live by fair and suitable right with his neighbor, displaying neither arrogance nor servility, and thus to will whatever is tranquil and honest in the city. Contrary to this fairness is equality [aequalitas], by which individual citizens are levelled among… From this arises the most certain disorder and disturbance of matters.22 

The terms used by Althusius, aequabilitas and aequalitas, could alternatively be translated as “an adequate and fair degree of equality” and “absolute equality,” respectively.23 The point is that relative equality or fairness fosters concord in society whilst absolute equality yields social disorder. The Althusian scheme is antithetical to pure equality. “God distributed his gifts unevenly among men.”24 Fairness rather than equality should govern. People, and laws, should therefore treat people fairly, which is to say justly (giving each man his due), rather than equally in the absolute sense. 

All men being naturally equal and self-governing, governmental authority structures are unnatural but necessary to preserve the more basic associations that man enjoys. But it must be pointed out that the natural freedom of man cannot be considered, in the Althusian mind, apart from the associations that he is effectively born into. It is really freedom of individual associations, that Althusius is referring to, not individuals as such. And with each successive associational formation, some further original freedoms of the individual are relinquished. With any covenantal relationship there are authority structures, obligations, and duties attached.

Thus, albeit government as such is unnatural, strictly speaking, authority is not. As much as there is no pre-social, pre-political state of man, neither is there a pre-authority, anarchical state of man roaming the forest, as Rousseau envisioned. Althusius notes that “in every association and type of symbiosis some person are rulers or superiors, others are subjects or inferiors.”

All governments are held together by some kind of “imperium and subjection.” And this was present from the beginning in humanity, says Althusius, citing Genesis 2:16, 3:16 and Ecclesiasticus 17. In an ideal situation, the “consensus and will of rulers and subjects is the same.”25  But rulers, as alluded to above, are in truth, no more than servants, and are to lead graciously as parents to their children and husbands to their wives. Quoting Aquinas, Althusius says that “to govern is to lead what is governed to its appropriate end.”26

Covenantal Government, Popular Sovereignty

God has ordained the institution of government, as well as the family, etc., yet these institutions are practically established by men themselves as the secondary cause. Hence, “The people can exist without the ruler, but the ruler cannot exist without the people.”27 The people mediately create government and therefore are above it, collectively though not individually.  

As already mentioned, the establishment of a government, like preceding associations, is birthed by covenant — the first phase of which is an agreement between the preexisting consociations to form a political association. The second is between the ruler and the people which establishes the norms of this new association. The third is between the ruler and God, that the former will rule according to the precepts of the latter. And the fourth is between the head ruler and the lower rulers or magistrates (the estates, or myriad consociational groups that constitute the government) which establishes system of checks and balances to guard against overly-centralized power and tyranny.28

These covenantal phases, and the stipulations therein, collectively establish the fundamental law of the community, the “guiding light of civil life, a scale of justice,” according to which each member must act. And this fundamental law would be best upheld if codified in written form. Here Althusius sets forth the principle of the rule of law.   

Being a covenantal association itself formed by the coming together of several preexistent associations, government is not created to protect radical individualism and self-interest, but to protect the natural relations between people; the smaller associations, or, in Burkean language, the little platoons. As a side note, we see here the seeds of a better rationale for government involvement in marriage and family life than Hobbesian and Lockean theories provide.

Purpose of Politics

The conjunction of Althusius’ symbiotic anthropology, covenantalism, and popular sovereignty directly informed his understanding of the purpose of political life. “Politics,” he wrote, “is the art of associating [consociandi] men for the purpose of establishing, cultivating, and conserving social life among them.” Accordingly, “The subject matter of politics is therefore association, in which the symbiotes [i.e. those who live together] pledge themselves each to the other, by explicit or tacit agreement, to mutual communication of whatever is useful and necessary for the harmonious exercise of social life.” It follows, then, that “The end of political ‘symbiotic’ man is holy, just, comfortable, and happy symbiosis [i.e. life together].”29 The goal of politics is not to amass individualized benefits or freedoms. Proper political life is always directed toward a holy and just life, together wherein man flourishes by “mutual communication” of benefits, and necessarily maintains his duties and obligations to his natural associations which undergird derivative ones.  

Lessons from Althusius?

First, Althusius’ symbiotic theory of human nature and covenantal theory of society suggest that when discussing social and political questions we must conceive of man as a fundamentally social creature. P.S. Gerbrandy observed that Kant took individual man as that starting point, making him participate in two distinct worlds, i.e., that of fact and norm. Althusius only considered man “in light of the community in which he lives: marriage, the family, the guild, the town, the church, the state. Existence of and existence within these communities is not only a fact, but at the same time the standard of purposeful behavior.”30  

John Ehrett recently offered a sobering correction to the millennial mantra, you can be whatever you want to be. Althusius’ symbiotic anthropology also forces us to reject such a fantasy. There is no original state of man in which he was socially detached, autonomous, and free from obligation and duty. Such would fly in the face of man’s very nature as sociable creature. We are dependent, covenantal beings, a point which Reformed theology has repeatedly affirmed.  

Autonomous, individualistic self-interest is not fulfilling to us; the self cannot be man’s chief end towards which he directs his love, or from which he derives all happiness. In Althusius’ view, a self-interested, isolated existence is unnatural, and any revolt against the natural associations that undergird derivative associations leads to the disorder of the entire associational chain. Orderly, effective government cannot be expected without robust, primitive associations underneath.

Furthermore, against the opinion currently in vogue, Althusian anthropology views behavior that undermines the foundational associations to be, in a sense, more heinous than others. On the one hand all sin is detrimental to human relationships and has unquantifiable repercussions felt by everyone. But on the other hand, those sins that strike directly at natural, covenantal relationships are more immediately detrimental to human flourishing; more unnatural. They have the effect of destabilizing all associations, both private and public.

Second, the government exists to protect and cultivate such natural associations. Its role is preserving the natural sovereignty of each associational realm and to ensure that each is being conducted in service to the common good of its members under the rule of the natural law. The state is limited in its scope but strong in its administration for Althusius. It is to be effective in its role. But the state is not ultimate. Rather, it is merely one of several horizontal relationships in society and necessarily subservient to those which proceeded it in the associational chain. A state government only remains valid when it respects the boundaries placed upon it by the creative covenant that formed it, and when it governs in a way that is conducive to more basic human associations, leading what is governed to its appropriate end. It is on this basis that legislation and administrative actions should be judged.

Third, within each association, the fundamental law written into social covenants must both conform to the natural law and be equitably, or fairly, administered. Within each association, not every man is absolutely equal. An egalitarian, levelling approach to society is a fool’s errand and rebels against the natural order. What’s more, as history has so often shown us, a planned society with radical equality as its basis inevitably erupt into equally radical injustice and oppression. Just read Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.

Yet, all men deserve fair treatment under the law. Althusius included in his conception of the rule of law procedural rights according to which justice should be administered, whatever the specific content of a given positive law. False arrests and accusations, use of untested evidence, the enslavement of prisoners, ex post facto laws, and incompetent judges, as well as cruel or inconsistently applied punishments, all represented procedural violations which the natural law forbade. A persistent pattern of such abuses was a prima facie case of judicial tyranny, which merited the removal of the offending magistrates or, perhaps, a restructuring of judicial procedures.31

When unprecedented disruption struck Europe in the sixteenth century, Althusius and other seminal thinkers navigated those rough seas by returning to first principles, and thereby sought to construct a comprehensive theory of society that could meet the demands of their moment in history. If we are living through our own version of the sixteenth century revolutions then it behooves us to revisit the wisdom of the past and humbly allow it to influence our thought and discourse.    

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Timon Cline

Timon Cline

Timon Cline is a native of Memphis, TN and grew up in Dakar, Senegal. He is a graduate of Wright State University, and is concurrently pursuing a J.D. at Rutgers Law School and a M.A. in Religion at Westminster Theological Seminary. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Rachel.

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