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Figgis, John Neville

Figgis, John Neville

The monistic theory

The corporation as a real person



The work of John Neville Figgis (1866-1919) in political philosophy constitutes the fusing of two interests and two careers. Born in Brighton, England, and educated at Cambridge University, he developed and matured as a student of history and political thought under the influence of Mailand. Influenced also by another distinguished Cambridge teacher, Mandell Creighton, he recognized a call to the religious life, which led him to the Church of England and eventually to a monastic order of that church, the Community of the Resurrection. He continued writing and occasional lecturing on both religious and political-historical topics until his death.

In his historical works on political theory, Figgis laid greatest emphasis, in the tradition of Gierke and Maitland, on the importance of man’s corporate life as the foundation of the state. His Churches in the Modern State(1913) is a popular exposition of the nature of corporate life and an application of his theory to the question of the nature of a church and its relation to the state. It exhibits a passionate concern for freedom in the face of the growing power and authority of the state.

From his scholarly studies of the history of political thought, especially that of the Middle Ages and the early modern period, Figgis concluded that there are two ways of understanding the corporation. He assumed that a corporation is “a society of men bound together for a permanent interest,” and he recognized as corporations such bodies as the family, the club, the union, the college, and the church. Bodies other than the state must be understood either as creatures of the state or as real persons with lives of their own and an origin independent of the state. From Figgis’ point of view, the former approach is wrong, and the latter is true to the facts of history and social life.

The monistic theory

Figgis traced the theory that the corporation is a creature of the state to the concept of absolute sovereignty, which in turn he traced to the abstract idea of unity. Modern monism (the theory of the unitary or all-embracing state) derives, he suggested, from the ancient conception of the city-state as an organic unity and from the view developed in Roman law of the position and authority of the emperor as sovereign. These notions were imported into the Roman Catholic church in the medieval period and developed (with only a slight setback—the conciliar movement in the fifteenth century) into the nineteenth-century doctrine of the absolute power and infallibility of the pope. In the course of this “crescendo of Papal claims,” attempts were made by some popes—for example, Boniface VIII, 1294-1303, and John XXII, 1316-1334—to claim secular power as well as spiritual power and authority. With the rise of national states after the Renaissance, these attempts failed, but a political theory was developed by Machiavelli, Bodin, and Hobbes that claimed for the ruler in the secular realm the same authority that the popes had been able to establish for themselves in the church. According to this theory, as Figgis described it, the sovereign of the state, whether one man, a few men, or all men, is the sole source of social authority and social life; no other society (corporation) has a life of its own. Each society in the state exists, carries on its affairs, and exercises its authority over its members with the permission, tacit or express, of the sovereign. All such societies are merely creatures of the state; they have no innate life of their own and no original right or authority.

This theory of corporations is rejected by Figgis on two main grounds: first, that it does not square with the facts of history; and second, that the implications of this doctrine are inimical to the self-development and freedom of the individual. The evidence to support the first argument was developed by Gierke in his monumental Das deutsche Genossenschaftsrecht. Gierke had shown that there is another way to conceive of corporations and even a spirit of corporate life. Figgis accepted Gierke’s approach and developed evidence of his own from his analysis of the situation in his own day of social groups vis-à-vis the state. He was especially concerned with the problem of the relation of churches to the state in a period of religious heterogeneity. Put simply, the question is, What authority does a modern state (for example, England in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century) have over the churches that have been organized within its borders? (The problem of England is especially complicated because it has both an established church and unestablished churches, which are both national and international.) The state clearly has the right to prevent or punish violations of law. But does not a church have the right to determine its membership conditions, its ritual, and even its purpose without state interference? The issue had been met in the courts where some members of a church sued to prevent church leadership supported by a majority of the membership from amalgamating with another church (1913, pp. 18-20). The results of these cases pointed sometimes to the monistic theory (when churches were prevented from changing) and sometimes to the other theory (when churches were left to themselves). Similar cases arose and continue to arise in connection with trade unions, and the issue has not really been settled.

The second argument against the monistic theory, namely, that its implications for individual freedom are repugnant, hinges on the demonstration that there is a growing trend, independent both of the development of one-man rule and of democratic rule, toward the destruction of smaller organizations either by their consolidation into larger ones or by their absorption into the state. Believers in freedom for the individual must condemn this development because it cuts off from more and more individuals their sources of social power and their support against the might of the state. It does not matter that the state is one which exhibits popular sovereignty. The life of man is a social life, and if ultimately there is no society other than the state, man becomes a creature of the state. Figgis did not live to see the rise of modern totalitarianism in the third and fourth decades of the twentieth century, but he did foresee it. Much evidence could be found in the later period to confirm his fears.

The corporation as a real person

A more adequate theory of corporate life, Figgis held, sees any corporation (especially such a voluntary association as a church) as possessing an inherent life of its own, generated out of the spirit and will of its members. He recognized the affinities of his approach to that of Rousseau. A corporation is a living force with powers of self-development. It has a life greater than the mere sum of the individuals composing it and is not merely a matter of contract. Each such body has its own individuality, its own ethos. The existence of such bodies is a “social fact” that may or may not be recognized by the state. Failure to recognize it leads to a condition akin to that of individuals in slavery. Recognition of the real personality of corporations by the state leads to a conception of the state as a communitas communitatum.

Groups that arise in society out of the efforts of individuals to realize themselves do not develop without genuine authority over their members, and this authority manifests itself in a government that has legislative, executive, and judicial powers. The authority of the group comes from the consent of its members. The group carries on activities that are public for its members, but private in relation to the state. But Figgis realized that this distinction between public and private does not satisfactorily describe life in modern societies. Instead of seeing society as a collection of individuals confronting an entity called the “state” and being unified by it, he saw society as a complex of individuals, groups, and corporations presided over by a rather special sort of group called the “state.” Figgis was part of that pluralistic movement that saw the state as one group in society having distinctive functions, but one which was not in all ways superior to every other group, either in its claims on the individual or in its benefits to him. The state is a strong power that is needed to prevent injustice between groups and to secure to each group its rights. It does not create the groups, but in pursuing its own goals it has to regulate them, limit their activities, and settle conflicts among them. However, the resolution of conflicts has tended to produce, Figgis believed, unwarranted interference in the internal life of groups. His doctrine, reminiscent of that of Mill, is that the state has the right to limit the activities of groups only insofar as they impinge on other groups or individuals and that the internal life of the group is inviolable. For Figgis, this is the meaning of the doctrine of the real personality of corporations, and it seems to stand or fall on the adequacy of the distinction between the internal (private) and the external (public) activities of groups.

Although Figgis never developed a systematic political theory in any detail, he offered hints as to the proper point of view of an adequate political theory, and from these hints his readers may gain some idea of the sort of theory he would defend. The recognition of the real personality of groups, the importance of “self-realization” for groups, and the characterization of the state as the communitas communitatum suggest that his theory would derive from Gierke and Maitland on the one hand and from the British Hegelians on the other. His concern for freedom speaks of the influence of Mill and Acton. Yet he never does come to grips with the question, What is a state? If corporations are real persons, it is self-contradictory to say that it is a communitas communitatum, for if the state is taken to be a real person, what happens to other groups which are internal to it? If, however, the other groups are seriously thought to be independent of the state, in what sense does it continue to be a communitas? The doctrine of the real personality of corporations seems to introduce rigidities of its own that inhibit the clear observation of the facts of social life. The subsequent development of pluralism (political, social, and economic) carried further the “discrediting” of the state and provoked, in turn, a reaction in the direction of statism that Figgis would have deplored.


[For the historical context of Figgis’ work, seePLURALISM and the biographies ofACTON; GIERKE; GREEN; MAITLAND; MILL . For other relevant material seeSOVEREIGNTY; STATE; VOLUNTARY ASSOCIATIONS .]


(1896) 1922 The Divine Right of Kings.2d ed. Cambridge Univ. Press. → First published as The Theory of the Divine Right of Kings. A paperback edition was published in 1965 by Harper.

1907 Studies of Political Thought: From Gerson to Grotius, 1414–1625. Cambridge Univ. Press.

(1913) 1914 Churches in the Modern State.2d ed. London and New York: Longmans.

1917 The Will to Freedom, or the Gospel of Nietzsche and the Gospel of Christ. New York: Scribner.

1921 The Political Aspects of St. Augustine’s City of God. London: Longmans.


Magid, Henry M. 1941 English Political Pluralism: The Problem of Freedom and Organization. Columbia University Studies in Philosophy, No. 2. New York: Columbia Univ. Press. → See especially pages 10-30 on “Figgis: The Significance of the Real Personality of Groups.”

Tucker, Maurice G. 1950 John Neville Figgis: A Study. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

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