Althusius, Johannes (1557–1638)

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Johannes Althusius, the German legal and political philosopher, was born at Diedenshausen, a village of the county of Wittgenstein-Berleburg in the Westphalian Circle. He is thought to have been the son of a farmer, although all data of his early youth are quite unknown. By 1581 he was studying Aristotle in Cologne, and he later studied Roman law at Basel. His experience of the Swiss way of life gave him a predilection for municipal freedom and self-government and for republican constitutionalism. Although deeply influenced by Calvinist piety, he was eager to become a learned classical scholar. The forces of Christian faith, humanistic learning, and democratic feeling formed his character. He was both a man of strong will with a tendency to stubbornness and an austere moralist. It is, therefore, not surprising that he was a rigorous logical thinker and a systematic teacher as well as a realistic positivist with a desire to describe the empirical realities of social life.

Althusius passed his examination for the doctorate of civil and ecclesiastical law at Basel in 1586 with theses on the right of succession. In the same year he published a booklet, Iurisprudentia Romana, vel Potius Iuris Romani Ars, 2 Libri, Comprehensa, et ad Leges Methodi Rameae Conformata (Basel, 1586), that discussed fundamental questions of Roman law and that is also of philosophical interest. Through this work Althusius introduced into political science the systematic method of the French philosopher Petrus Ramus that contrasted with the prevailing humanistic method based on philological concerns. But although Ramus opposed the traditional Scholastic method of instruction, he had nevertheless retained the formalism of his predecessors insofar as he used the "method of dichotomy." This specific "ramistic" method divided every logical concept into two others, and each of them into two new concepts. This method of an endless, progressing, systematic presentation was applied by Althusius to all his later writings.

Soon after receiving his doctorate, Althusius became a lecturer in Roman law and in philosophy at Herborn, a newly established Calvinist college attended by students from many countries. In 1594 he became professor of law, and he was appointed rector of the college in 1597 and again in 1602. He also served as an advocate in the chancellery at Dillenburg. In this capacity he defended the rights of the college against the ambitions of the noblemen of the county. He was also involved in controversies with his colleague, the law professor Anton Matthäus (15641637), and with some of the Herborn theologians. In spite of these activities, he found time to write his most famous work, Politica Methodice Digesta et Exemplis Sacris et Profanis Illustrata (Politics methodically arranged and illustrated by holy and profane examples [Herborn, 1603; 2nd enlarged ed., Groningen, 1610; 3rd enlarged ed., Herborn, 1614]). This work was, as C. J. Friedrich wrote, "the culminating point of his life." The book clearly showed Althusius's systematic strength. He undertook to coordinate the diverse views of the Bible, Roman law, and the advocacy of the right to resist an unjust monarch of George Buchanan and the monarchomachs, and, on this basis, to write a compendium of political science.

The book was a natural and rational system of sociology, involving all the contemporary discussions of the problematical questions of theology, ethics, and jurisprudence. Althusius's fundamental view was that "politics is the science of linking human beings to each other for a social life." The whole of humankind, living in natural cooperative groups, builds up a universal community of civil and private corporations. The members join each corporation by the force of their sympathetic emotions. In this respect Althusius resembled both Hugo Grotius and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. However, he was a strong opponent of Jean Bodin's doctrine of royal absolutism, believing that the constituent power belongs to the community and that sovereignty is an attribute of the organized people, not of the king. The people decide all fundamental political questions through the representative assembly, and the chief of state is only a commissioner of the people and may be deposed if he acts contrary to the contract between him and the community. The representative assembly must obey the commandments of God and observe the natural laws. The necessities of human nature are as much a source of social order as is God's will.

Thus, Althusius held a threefold conception of social order: as a biopsychological social phenomenon, as a historically conditioned reality, and as a divinely limited work of man.

The principal sources of Althusius's thought were faith, reason, and experience. A major work composed somewhat later, Dicaiologicae Libri Tres Totum et Universum Ius, Quo Utimur, Methodice Complectentes (Digest of jurisprudence [Herborn, 1617]), is based on these three elements. In this work Althusius discussed the fundamental principles, institutions, and concepts of public and private law as they were found in the Roman jurisprudence of his day. By presenting the law as the realization of the concept of law and of its component legal categories, Althusius became one of the most important forerunners of modern Continental "legal conceptualism."

Meanwhile, in 1604 Althusius had been called as a syndic to Emden, a Calvinist city in eastern Frisia. He was soon appointed to the council, and he played an important part in the struggles of the city with the count of Frisia. He also became a dominant figure in the consistory of the Reformed Church in Emden.

See also Aristotle; Bodin, Jean; Grotius, Hugo; Political Philosophy, History of; Ramus, Peter; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques.


primary works

"Politica Methodice Digesta" of Johannes Althusius (Althaus). Edited by Carl J. Friedrich. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1932.

The Politics of Johannes Althusius. Abridged and translated by Frederick S. Carney. Boston: Beacon Press, 1964.

Politica. Edited and translated by Frederick S. Carney. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1995.

secondary works

Friedrich, Carl S. Johannes Althusius und sein Werk im Rahmen der Entwicklung der Theorie von der Politik. Berlin: Duncker und Humblot, 1975.

Gierke, Otto von. The Development of Political Theory. Translated by Bernard Freyd. New York: Norton, 1939.

Hueglin, Thomas O. Early Modern Concepts for a Late Modern World: Althusius on Community and Federalism. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1999.

Wolf, Erik. Grosse Rechtsdenker der deutsche Geistesgeschichte, 4th ed. Tübingen: Mohr, 1963.

Erik Wolf (1967)

Bibliography updated by Philip Reed (2005)