1. Juan de Mariana: 1536–1624

The central feature of medieval politics was the unifying supremacy of the papacy over the kings; the outstanding aspect of modern political history is the conflict of national states freed from papal power; hence the first question that agitated political philosophy in the century after the Reformation was the demand of Catholic thinkers that papal supremacy be restored, and the demand of Protestant thinkers that papal authority be wholly destroyed. Papal polemists argued that absolute kings, claiming divine right and repudiating all restraints by religion, morals, and law, would tear Europe to pieces; the defenders of the Reformation replied that no supranational authority could be trusted to seek the good of mankind rather than its own power and profit; moreover, a supreme Church would stifle all freedom of life and thought.

The Scholastic philosophers of the Middle Ages, echoing Roman jurists, had derived all royal authority from the consent of the people rather than from God; consequently there was no divine right of kings, and a bad ruler might be justly dethroned. Calvinist thinkers, like Bèze, Buchanan, and the author of Vindiciae contra tyrannos, warmly seconded this view; but Lutheran and Anglican theologians supported the divine right of kings as a necessary offset to public violence and papal claims, and upheld the duty of obedience even to unjust kings.47

The defenders of popular sovereignty included many Jesuits, who saw in this view a means of weakening royal as against papal authority. If, argued Cardinal Bellarmine, the authority of kings is derived from, and therefore subject to, the people, it is obviously subordinate to the authority of the popes, which is derived from the establishment of the Church by Christ, and is therefore subject only to God. Luis Molina, a Spanish Jesuit, concluded that the people, as the source of secular authority, may justly—but by orderly procedure—depose an unjust king.48 Francisco Suárez, “the finest theologian the Society of Jesus has produced,”49 restated this view, with careful modifications, in countering the absolutist claims of James I, and upheld the right of popes to unseat kings. The Jesuit Juan de Mariana’s defense of tyrannicide roused an international furor because it was alleged to have encouraged the assassination of Henry IV.

Mariana (whom we have already noted as the greatest historian of his generation) was in all ways a remarkable individual, renowned for learning, eloquence, and intellectual audacity. In 1599 he dedicated to Philip III, and published with the permission of the local Jesuit censor, the treatise De rege et regis institutione (On the King and His Education). Anticipating Hobbes by half a century, he described a “state of nature” before the origin of society; men then lived like animals in the wild, free from all restraints but their physical limitations, recognizing no law and no private property, and following instinct in seeking food and mates. But there were inconveniences in this Rousseauian freedom; e.g., dangerous animals abounded. To protect themselves men formed social organization, the greatest of all tools yet invented and a necessary counter to the physiological organs of defense and offense given by nature to animals. By an explicit or implicit compact, the members of a group agreed to delegate their collective authority to a chief or king; but sovereignty remained in the people, and in almost all cases (as in the Cortes of Spain) a national assembly checked this delegated power, retained control of the purse, and formed a body of laws whose authority was superior to the king’s.

Democracy, in Mariana’s view, is made impossible by the unequal distribution of ability and intelligence among men. It would be ruinous to let policy be determined by plebiscites.50 A limited, or constitutional, monarchy is the best form of government compatible with the nature of man and the survival of the state. It should be hereditary, for an elective monarchy is a periodic invitation to anarchy.

The king should be limited by laws, by religious and moral restraints, and by the right of the people to depose him if he becomes a tyrant. He must not change the laws or levy taxes without the people’s consent. He “should determine nothing about religion,”51for the Church is superior to the state and must rule herself; nevertheless he must protect the national religion, for “if religion is neglected a state cannot stand firm.”52 The state should support religion in maintaining morality; it should condemn bullfights as encouraging brutality, and the stage as stimulating sexual license.53 It should finance the care of the sick and the poor through a wide distribution of hospitals and charity; and the rich should give to the needy what they now spend on their luxuries and their dogs. Taxes should be high on superfluities, low on necessaries. The goods of the earth would suffice for all if they were rightly distributed.54 A good prince will guard against the concentration of wealth. Private property replaced primitive communism because “greedy and furious avarice laid its hand upon the divine gifts and claimed everything for itself”;55 it is now a necessary institution, but in heaven communism will be restored.56

A tyrant may be deposed, he may rightly be killed, even, in some circumstances, by an individual.

Who may justly be held a tyrant? … We do not leave this to the decision of any individual, or even to the judgment of many unless the voice of the people publicly takes part, and learned and serious men are associated in the deliberation…. [But] when a prince brings the country to ruin, abuses state property and the possessions of individuals, spurns public laws and holy religion, begins to assert himself arrogantly, insolently, and impiously, … [when] citizens have been deprived of the possibility of assembling for general deliberation, but are earnestly minded to put an end to the existing tyranny—and supposing this to be notorious and unendurable … if in such a case any individual comes forward who responds to the general desire and offers to put such a ruler to death, I for one shall not regard him as an evil-doer. … It is a salutary reflection that princes have been persuaded that if they oppress the state … they can be killed not only justly but with praise and glory.57

Mariana reminded his readers of historic tyrannicides—of Harmodius and Aristogeiton who killed Hipparchus, tyrant of Athens, and of Brutus who drove the tyrant Tarquinius from Rome; and he pointed out that Athens and Rome, indeed all literate Europe, honored their memory. But Mariana showed his hand and bias by half approving the recent (1589) assassination of Henry III by Clément:

Henry III, King of France, lies dead, stabbed by a monk in the intestines with a poisoned knife, a detestable spectacle…. Jacques Clément … studied theology in the Dominican college of his order. He was told by the theologians whom he had consulted that a tyrant may be killed legally…. Clément died an eternal honor to France, as it has seemed to very many…. Many people consider he died worthy of immortality, while others, pre-eminent in wisdom and learning, think it blamable.58

Henry III, it will be recalled, had opposed the Catholic League and had ordered his aides to kill Henri, Duke of Guise, its leader. Philip II of Spain had supported and in part financed the League; he had agreed to the assassination of Elizabeth I and William of Orange. And Philip III had no objection to a doctrine that justified the killing of an enemy of Spain.

In 1599 Claudio Aquaviva, general of the Society of Jesus, ordered that Mariana’s De rege should be “corrected.” When Henry IV was murdered by Ravaillac (May 14, 1610), Aquaviva condemned Mariana’s teaching on tyrannicide (July 8), and forbade its propagation in Jesuit instruction. Meanwhile Mariana had been arrested, not for praising tyrannicide but for arguing against Philip Ill’s debasement of the coinage and warning him in a brilliant treatise, De monetae mutatione (1605), of the evils of inflation. Mariana suffered his confinement philosophically, survived it, and lived on till 1624, dying at the age of eighty-seven.

2. Jean Bodin: 1530–96

How different was Bodin! No theologian with his feet in the sky, no somber lover of the League, but a Politique after L’Hôpital’s heart, a defender of toleration, a counselor and admirer of Henry IV. Born at Angers, probably of a Spanish-Jewish mother, he came to Paris in 1560, practiced law unprofitably, and lost himself eagerly in philosophy and history. He studied voraciously Hebrew, Greek, German, Italian, Livy, Tacitus, the Old Testament, Cicero, and the constitutions of all the West European states. He believed that the study of history is the beginning of political wisdom. His first venture into print was a Methodus ad facilem historiarum cognitionem (1566)—Method for the Easy Understanding of History. The student will find it jejune, rhetorical, verbose—the philosophic mind does not mature early. Bodin, at thirty-six, thought that history inspires us to virtue by showing the defeat of the wicked and the triumph of the good.59 Nevertheless the book, after Machiavelli’s Discourses, is the first significant work on the philosophy of history.

Here and in the later De republica, a century and a half before Vico and Montesquieu, is a systematic consideration of climate and race as factors in history. History is a function of geography—of temperature, rainfall, soil, topography. Geography determines character, and character determines history. Men differ in character and conduct according as they live on mountains, plains, or the sea. In the north they excel in physical strength and muscular energy, in the south in nervous sensitivity and subtlety of mind; men in the Temperate Zone, as in the Mediterranean nations and France, unite the qualities of north and south—more practical than in the south, more intellectual than in the north. The government of a people should be adapted to its geographically and racially determined character, which hardly changes in time. So the peoples of the north should be ruled by force, those of the south by religion.

In a minor work, Réponse au paradoxe de M. Le Malestroict, Bodin almost founded “political economy.”60 He analyzed the reasons why prices were rising so rapidly in Europe, discussed the evils of a debased currency, advocated freedom of trade in an age of natural and regional protectionism, and emphasized the relations between economic realities and governmental policies.

But his chef-d’œuvre—the most important contribution to political philosophy between Machiavelli and Hobbes—was La République (1576). Bodin used this word in its Roman sense, as meaning any state. He distinguished between the state and society: society is founded on the family, which has a natural basis in the relations of the sexes and the generations; the state is founded on artificial force. In its natural form the family was patriarchal—the father had absolute power over his wives, his children, and the family property; and perhaps civilization has dangerously reduced the patriarchal rights. Woman should always be subject to man, for she is mentally weaker; to raise her to equality would be a fatal disregard of Nature. The husband should always have the right of divorce at will, as in the Old Testament. The decline of paternal authority and family discipline (thought Bodin) was already sapping the natural foundations of social order. For the family, not the state, is the unit and source of order and morality, and when family unity and discipline decay, no number of laws can take their place.61 Private property is indispensable to the structure and continuance of the family. Communism is impossible because all men are born unequal.62

Bodin is more realistic than Mariana and Rousseau in discussing the origin of the state; there is no nonsense here about a social compact or contract. Village communities might originate in such an agreement, but the state originated in the conquest of one group of families by another, and the leader of the victors became king.63 The sanction behind the laws was not the will or “sovereignty” of the people, it was the organized force of the government. Consequently absolute monarchy is natural; it continues in the state the power of the father in the patriarchal family; no government is sovereign if it is subject to any laws but those of Nature and of God.64 Just as Hobbes was to run to these conclusions in flight from the chaos caused by the English Civil War of 1642–49, so Bodin saw in an absolute government the only escape from the Religious Wars and the division of France; note that his book was published only four years after the Massacre of St. Bartholomew; it could have been written in the blood that ran in the streets of Paris. It seemed to Bodin that if the function of the state is to maintain order, it can do this only through absolute and inalienable sovereignty.

Hence the best form of government is unlimited and hereditary monarchy: it must be unlimited if it is not to end in chaos, and it must be hereditary to avoid wars of succession. Monarchy, like paternal authority, has prevailed over most of the earth and through the longest time; it has the sanction of history. Democracies have only briefly ruled states. They go to pieces on the fickleness of the people and the incompetence and venality of popularly elected officials.65 “In every popular assembly the votes are counted without weighing them [for the quality of thought behind the vote]; and always the number of the foolish, the wicked and the ignorant is a thousand times greater than the number of men of worth.” The salvation of democracy is that behind the pretense of equality only a small minority rules, and the balance of brains outweighs the count of heads.66

Bodin recognized that some escape would have to be found from absolutism if the monarch became a tyrant; therefore, perhaps illogically, he allowed the right of revolution and tyrannicide. He admitted that even his complete monarchies would in time decay and be overthrown by ineluctable change. Anticipating Hegel, he divided history into three periods, the first dominated by Oriental states, the second by Mediterranean nations, the third by north-European countries. Through this concatenation of rising and falling states Bodin thought he saw some progress. The Golden Age lies not in the mythical past but in a future that will reap the results of the greatest of all inventions—print.67 And the sciences, he wrote (half a century before Bacon), “contain in themselves treasure that no future ages will ever be able to exhaust.”68

Bodin was a freethinker with a wholesome regard for the Bible (or, rather, for the Old Testament—he almost ignores the New), and with strong convictions about the reality of witchcraft, angels, demons, astrology, and the necessity of building a state in accord with the mystic virtues of numbers. He called for the severest sentences against witches. He advised princes to maintain unity of religious belief as long as possible; but if a heresy should become powerful and widespread, it would be unwise to use force in its suppression; better rely on time to win the heretics to the official faith.

What that faith should be Bodin did not say. His own faith was dubious. In his strange Heptoplomeres colloquium (Colloquy of Seven Men), which he cleverly left unpublished (it was first printed in 1841), he pictured a Catholic, a Lutheran, a Calvinist, a Jew, a Mohammedan, an Epicurean, and a deist in disputation at Venice. Judaism comes off well, the Christian dogmas of original sin, the Trinity, and the Incarnation are more strongly attacked than defended; and only the belief in God emerges unharmed. Bodin’s critics denounced him as a Jew, a Calvinist, and an atheist, and reported that he died without religion, “like a dog.” But belief in the divine guidance of the world is vigorously expressed in The Republic, and atheism is put beyond the pale of toleration, as making nonsense of the universe.69

Bodin, like Hobbes, was a frightened man trying to reason his way to stability amid the flux of revolution and war. His greatest book was infected by his time; it was a philosophy for a disordered world longing for order and peace. It cannot compare with the urbane wisdom of the Essais of the less harassed Montaigne in those same years. And yet no one since Aristotle—except possibly Ibn Khaldun—had spread political philosophy over so wide a field, or defended his prejudices with so much learning and force. Not till Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651) shall we find so resolute an effort to discover a logic in the ways of states.

3. Hugo Grotius: 1583–1645

If Huig de Groot is remembered when most of the pathfinders in his field of international lawII are almost forgotten, it may be because he lived as well as wrote, and because he composed his classic in the interims of active diplomacy and perilous politics. Born in Delft, educated at Leiden in mathematics, philosophy, and jurisprudence, he won the praise of Scaliger for his Latin style, and at twenty-six earned the applause of his country for his Mare liberum (1604), which outlined maritime law, and argued for freedom of the seas for all nations—especially for the Dutch, who were challenging the Portuguese assumption of maritime monopoly in the Far East. Appointed historiographer for the United Provinces, he composed in almost classical Latin a spirited but accurate history of the great revolt. We have seen him fighting on the side of Arminian liberalism in the conflict between Oldenbarneveldt and Maurice of Nassau. Arrested, he confessed his errors,70 and was let off with life imprisonment. His wife begged and was allowed to share his captivity. After nearly three years in jail he escaped, concealed by his wife in a chest of books, and fled to Paris (1621). Louis XIII gave him a small pension, and while Germany intensified its Thirty Years’ War, Grotius, living in poverty, composed his De iure belli et pacis (The Law of War and Peace, 1625).

I saw prevailing throughout the Christian world a license, in making war, of which even barbarous nations would have been ashamed, recourse being had to arms for slight reasons or no reason; and when arms were once taken up, all reverence for divine and human laws was thrown away, as if men were thenceforth authorized to commit all crimes without restraint.71

Machiavelli had argued that states cannot be preserved unless they are absolved from obeying the moral code laid upon their citizens; statesmen must be ready—usually by proxy—to lie, rob, and kill as amply as may seem to them desirable for the good of the state. For states, as yet, live in a jungle stage like that of families before states came; they know no law but that of self-preservation. Grotius admits that governments may be exempt from lex—i.e., “positive,” man-made law; but he holds them bound to obey ius naturale. He defines this “natural right” or law as “the dictate of right reason showing the moral turpitude, or the moral necessity, of any act from its agreement or disagreement with a rational nature, and consequently [showing] that such an act is either forbidden or commanded by God, the author of nature.”72 Natural law, then, is that system of rights and duties which follows from the essential nature of man as a rational being living in a society. Whatever is necessary for his existence and his participation in society is his natural right, it is something due to his nature. The behavior of states should observe these rights.

Moreover (Grotius continues), it should be subject to ius gentium. Roman jurisprudence had used this term to mean the laws of peoples not included in Roman citizenship. When the western Roman Empire broke up, medieval jurists applied it to the relations of states with one another. In Grotius it becomes the vague accumulation of rules and restraints customarily accepted by the most developed nations in their mutual contacts. On these two bases—ius naturale and ius gentium—he builds his theoretical structure, the first modern formulation of desirable international law.

He by no means outlaws war in general. He knows that a group, like an animal, when it feels itself threatened in its dearest possessions or its life, will defend itself by any available means—if possible, by argument or law, and then, if these prove inadequate, by any force it can command.73 Consequently, a state in like circumstances is justified in going to war to defend the lives and properties of its citizens. But war is unjust if it is waged for conquest, for plunder or land, or from the real or pretended desire to impose a beneficent government upon a people unwilling to receive it.74 Preventive wars are unjust. “Some writers have advanced a doctrine which can never be admitted, that the law of nations authorizes one power to commence hostilities against another whose increasing greatness awakens her alarm. As a measure of expediency such a measure may be adopted, but the principles of justice can never be advanced in its favor.”75 Individuals are bound to refuse to serve in wars that they judge clearly unjust.76

Assuming, then, that a war can be just, every nation entering into it has certain rights. It may use deceit, make reprisals, capture spoils, take and use prisoners. But the nation has duties as well as rights. It should declare war before waging it. It should honor any treaty responsibly made for it, no matter with whom. In conquests women, children, and old men—indeed, all noncombatants—should be spared. Prisoners may be enslaved, but they should not be killed. Grotius welcomes one sign of progress: Christians and Mohammedans have ceased to enslave prisoners of their own faith.

It was a noble and moderate argument, despite its flaws. If natural law is a “dictate of right reason,” who shall determine what reason is right? In a state this is determined by a government armed with force; ultimately a commandment of conduct is obeyed because the legislator can enforce it; might does not make right, but it makes law. International law waits for an international legislature buttressed by an international force; meanwhile it will consist chiefly of modest restraints and violable agreements accepted as convenient for the time being by the powers concerned. To define the “law of nations” as the customs of the most developed peoples again presupposes some authority competent to name the most developed; but where is he? In Europe? In China? In Islam? And can a government afford to let its citizens judge for themselves whether a war is just or not? It can if its machinery of indoctrination is adequate.

It was an illogical book, but a necessary one. A thousand unjust wars had been fought; it was good that someone should outline measures for mitigating incorporated homicide with mutually accepted restraints; good that wars of conquest or plunder should be condemned; good that a plea should be made for mercy to noncombatants and prisoners. The Thirty Years’ War made a mockery of these distinctions and pleas; but when that madness abated, Grotius’ book seemed all the more justified by the condition of Germany.

Richelieu, resolved to enter the Thirty Years’ War, withdrew Grotius’ pension, and the endangered author retired to Hamburg. In 1635 Oxenstierna sent him back to Paris as Sweden’s ambassador. But, like most philosophers, Grotius was more at home with ideas than with men; he allowed his dislike of Richelieu, and then of Mazarin, to determine his diplomacy; and in 1645 he returned to the comfort of his books. Queen Christina invited him to stay at her court as a well-pensioned scholar, but he obtained her permission to retire to Germany. She arranged for his passage to Lübeck; the vessel was driven ashore by a storm; Grotius suffered from shock and exposure, and died at Rostock, August 29, 1645, aged sixty-two.

After 267 years Holland forgave him his liberalism and raised a statue to him (1886) in the city of his birth. In 1899 the delegates of the United States to the International Peace Conference at The Hague placed a silver wreath on his tomb in recognition that his book had for a time shared in mitigating the sport of kings.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!