Johannes Althusius

By John Coffey 10 Mar 2004

Perhaps the most explicitly relational thinker in the history of Christian political thought is the German Calvinist, Johannes Althusius (1557–1638), whose Systematic Analysis of Politics was first published in 1603.

Althusius began his great work with a striking (re)definition of politics: ‘Politics is the art of associating men for the purpose of establishing, cultivating, and conserving social life among them. Whence it is called “symbiotics”.’ [1] It would not do violence to Althusius to translate his words slightly differently: ‘Politics is the art of relating …The subject matter of politics is therefore relationship‘. He also offers a powerful statement of human interdependence:

Truly, in living this life no man is self-sufficient, or adequately endowed by nature. For when he is born, destitute of all help, naked and defenceless…he is cast forth into the hardships of this life, not able by his own efforts to reach a maternal breast, nor to endure the harshness of his condition… Nor in his adulthood is he able…to provide by his own energies all the requirements of life… As long as he remains isolated and does not mingle in the society of men, he cannot live at all comfortably and well while lacking so many necessary and useful things. An aid and remedy for this state of affairs is offered him in symbiotic life. He is led, and almost impelled, to embrace it if he wants to live comfortably and well, even if he merely wants to live.

For Althusius, then, politics was indeed the art of living together. ‘Clearly, man by nature is a gregarious animal born for cultivating society with other men, not by nature living alone as wild beasts do, nor wandering about as birds. And so misanthropic hermits, living without fixed hearth or home, are useful neither to themselves nor to others, and separated from others are surely miserable.’

Althusius believed that the purpose of the state (or kingdom) was to protect and foster social life as it was expressed in the family, college, city, and province. Like Abraham Kuyper after him, Althusius emphasised that each of these associations had their own integrity – indeed he has been seen as the originator of the neo-Calvinist principles of ‘sphere sovereignty’. As a defender of small communities against territorial absolutism he maintained that cities and provinces should possess considerable autonomy as part of a confederal, quasi-democratic German empire. One of his major goals was to defend the autonomy of cities and provinces against contemporary trends towards the centralisation of sovereignty in new nation states.

The wisdom of the Jewish polity

Althusius appealed to a wide range of classical and contemporary sources; he also found his inspiration in the ethos of the German guild-towns with their fierce sense of local pride and independence.

But alongside these, Althusius drew heavily on the Bible. Indeed, in the preface to the 1614 edition, he explained: ‘I more frequently use examples from sacred Scripture because it has God or pious men as its author, and because I consider that no polity from the beginning of the world has ever been more wisely and perfectly constructed than the polity of the Jews. We err, I believe, whenever in similar circumstances we depart from it.’

In drawing inspiration from the Jewish polity, Althusius was following a contemporary trend. As Lea Campos Boralevi has pointed out, the role of the Jewish Commonwealth as a model for early modern political theorists has been missed by historians, but was of vital importance in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. [2]

Different writers, however, drew very different conclusions from the Jewish polity. Some employed it to justify Erastianism (the idea that the state should have supremacy over ecclesiastical affairs); others claimed that it demonstrated the independence of the church from state control. Many provided a firmly monarchical reading of the Old Testament; others used it to justify republicanism. The richness and complexity of Old Testament law and history meant that it provided ammunition for all sides in contemporary political controversies. Althusius was no exception, and at times his use of Scripture seems to slip into dubious proof-texting. But his major work did include lengthy sections on the polity of ancient Israel.

With regard to the Mosaic judicial law, Althusius was scornful of those who suggested that it should be adopted wholesale by Christian states. He distinguished between the ‘common law of nature’ (universal, perpetual and encapsulated in the Decalogue), and the ‘proper law’ which makes the general commands of the common law specific to the circumstances of each state. Instead of applying the Mosaic judicial laws with wooden literalism, the magistrate should view the Jewish polity as a model of how the ‘common law of nature’ can be applied to a specific situation, and should then draw up his own ‘proper law’ suited ‘to the nature, utility, condition and other special circumstances of his country’. So although the Jewish polity was ‘the best of all’, Christians had to display some imagination in translating its underlying permanent principles into their own specific culture.

Althusius himself used the Jewish polity to demonstrate a series of key points including:

  • the integrity and autonomy of voluntary associations, or collegia
  • the necessity of municipal tribunals of justice and a measure of self-government for cities, tribes and provinces (Exodus 18:17–25; Deuteronomy 16:18; Ruth 4; 2 Chronicles 19)
  • the fallacy of Bodin’s notion that there should be a single focus of sovereignty above the law (Deuteronomy 17:18–20; Joshua 1:7ff; Psalm 119)
  • the need for magistrates and administrators ‘to regard their subjects not as slaves and bonded servants, but as brothers’ (Deuteronomy 1:16; 17:20; 1 Chronicles 13; 28:2)
  • the election and constituting of magistrates and monarchs by the popular consent of the political community (Deuteronomy 17:15; 2 Samuel 5:3; 1 Kings 12:1ff)
  • the foundational role of a ‘reciprocal contract’ or covenant between the supreme magistrate and the people (Deuteronomy 17:20; 2 Samuel 23:3)
  • the importance of inferior magistrates sharing rule with the supreme magistrate (Numbers 11:16f)
  • the necessity of political prudence and experience in magistrates (Exodus 18:21; Deuteronomy 1:13–15; Numbers 11:16; Psalm 78:70, 72; Ecclesiastes 1:13)
  • the legitimacy of just wars (Genesis 14; 1 Samuel 11; 1 Kings 30; 1 Chronicles 10; Nehemiah 4)
  • the overthrow of tyrants by lesser magistrates not by private persons (2 Kings 11:2; 2 Chronicles 23).

A relational society

Althusius was convinced that Scripture not only recommended ‘symbiotic’ (relational) life but also condemned the solitary life – the punishment of Cain showed that the wandering, lonely life was a curse (Genesis 4:14), and the later scattering of the Jews supported the point that solitariness was a curse and community a blessing (Deuteronomy 28:64–65; Psalm 107).

Althusius also relied heavily on New Testament texts. Because he was writing for political communities which saw themselves as Christian communities, he had no difficulty in applying to them instructions the New Testament directed to the body of the church.

In order to demonstrate the necessity and value of ‘symbiotic’ communities he appealed to a wide range of texts: the Decalogue, each and every principle of which was ‘political and symbiotic’ since it taught men ‘piety toward God and justice toward symbiotes’; Christ’s summary of the second table of the Decalogue as ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 22:39); the Psalmist’s declaration, ‘Behold how good and delightful it is for brothers to dwell in unity’ (Psalm 133:1); Christ’s Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12); and Paul’s counsel that we willingly give up our own right for the good of our neighbour (Philippians 2:4–6; 1 Corinthians 10:24; 12:25ff).


All in all, this amounts to a richly textured picture of political community, one that highlights not merely the role of the supreme magistrate, but a whole network of relationships between different levels of society and between governors and people. By starting out from a definition of politics as ‘symbiotics’ (‘the art of associating men for the purpose of establishing, cultivating, and conserving social life among them’), Althusius is able to avoid a reductionist political theory focused entirely on the centralising state. Instead, he offers a vision with more depth, one that never loses sight of the mediating structures (including families, voluntary associations, and local government) below the level of the state.

According to Thomas Hueglin, Althusius’s theory is remarkable because it combines several elements: political organisation is bottom-up, with residual powers located at the lowest possible levels (subsidiarity); the federal body is made up of functional as well as territorial groups (societal federalism); co-operation and consensus are preferred to majoritarian decision-making (consociationalism), and plural group liberties take priority over individual liberties (corporativism). Althusius therefore reminds us that there is an alternative to the dominant Western tradition of the centralised nation state associated with Jean Bodin and Thomas Hobbes. Too much attention, Hueglin argues, has been devoted to these theorists of centralisation and not enough to writers like Althusius who envisage less centralised and more devolved forms of polity. In an age in which nation states struggle with the demands of both multiculturalism and multinational bodies, the proposals of Althusius seem more relevant than ever. [3] The fact that they are rooted (in part) on a study of the Jewish polity makes them all the more intriguing for Christians.

Dr. John Coffey is a Reader in history at the University of Leicester. He is also a member of the Cambridge Papers writing group.

[1] F. S. Carney (trans. and abbr.), The Politics of Johannes Althusius, (Liberty Fund, 1995).

[2] L. C. Boralevi, in M. van Gelderen and Q. Skinner, (eds.), Republicanism: A Shared European Heritage (2002).

[3] T. Hueglin, Early Modern Concepts for a Late Modern World: Althusius on Community and Federalism (1999).

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