Front Page Titles (by Subject) IX: Political Sovereignty and Ecclesiastical Communication - Politica
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
IX: Political Sovereignty and Ecclesiastical Communication - Johannes Althusius, Politica 
Politica. An Abridged Translation of Politics Methodically Set Forth and Illustrated with Sacred and Profane Examples, ed. and Trans. Frederick S. Carney. Foreword by Daniel J. Elazar (Indianapolis: 1995 Liberty Fund).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Political Sovereignty and Ecclesiastical Communication
§ 1Now that we have discussed particular and minor public associations, we turn to the universal1 and major public association. In this association many cities and provinces obligate themselves to hold, organize, use, and defend, through their common energies and expenditures, the right of the realm (jus regni)2 in the mutual communication of things and services. § 2For without these supports, and the right of communication, a pious and just life cannot be established, fostered, and preserved in universal social life.
§ 3Whence this mixed society, constituted partly from private, natural, necessary, and voluntary societies, partly from public societies, is called a universal association. It is a polity in the fullest sense, an imperium, realm, commonwealth, and people united in one body by the agreement of many symbiotic associations and particular bodies, and brought together under one right. For families, cities, and provinces existed by nature prior to realms, and gave birth to them.
Many writers distinguish between a realm (regnum) and a commonwealth (republica), relating the former to a monarchical king and the latter to polyarchical optimates.3 But in my judgment this distinction is not a good one. § 4For ownership of a realm belongs to the people, and administration of it to the king. Thus Cicero, as cited by Augustine, says “a commonwealth is the weal of the people, although it may be well and justly ruled either by a king, by a few optimates, or by the whole people.” 4 Indeed, any polity whatever, including a city, can be called a commonwealth, such as the Athenian, Spartan, Hebrew, and Roman commonwealths, of which many have not been without their kings. …
§ 5We will discuss, first, the members of a realm and, then, its right. The members of a realm, or of this universal symbiotic association, are not, I say, individual men, families, or collegia, as in a private or a particular public association. Instead, members are many cities, provinces, and regions agreeing among themselves on a single body constituted by mutual union and communication. Individual persons from these group members are called natives, inhabitants of the realm, and sons and daughters of the realm. They are to be distinguished from foreigners and strangers, who have no claim upon the right or the realm. It can be said that individual citizens, families, and collegia are not members of a realm just as boards, nails, and pegs are not considered parts of a ship, nor rocks, beams, and cement parts of a house. On the other hand, cities, urban communities, and provinces are members of a realm, just as prow, stern, and keel are members of a ship, and roof, walls, and floor are essential parts of a house. …
§ 7The bond of this body and association is consensus, together with trust extended and accepted among the members of the commonwealth. The bond is, in other words, a tacit or expressed promise to communicate things, mutual services, aid, counsel and the same common laws (jura) to the extent that the utility and necessity of universal social life in a realm shall require. Even the reluctant are compelled to comply with this communication. However, this does not prevent separate provinces of the same realm from using different special laws. Plato rightly said that this trust is the foundation of human society, while lack of trust is its plague, and that trust is the bond of concord among the different members of a commonwealth. For the promise of so many different men and orders has as its purpose that the diverse actions of the individual parts be referred to the utility and communion of one commonwealth, and that inferiors be held together with superiors by a certain fairness in the law (jus). …
§ 9The more populous the association, the safer and more fortunate it is. Therefore the depopulation of a city and realm is understood to be among the more severe punishments. It is useful and necessary to have an abundance of citizens both in time of war and in time of peace. In time of war a large number can better restrain and hold out against external force. A small number is more easily and quickly diminished and ruined by a baneful misfortune. … In time of peace a large number of people augments the public treasury by their taxes, tolls, fines, business, commerce, and goods. …
§ 10On the other hand, a commonwealth or region overflowing with an excess of people is not free from disadvantages, and is exposed to many corruptions. For by such an excess of men all things are more easily consumed and exhausted, a great scarcity of things develops, and poverty occurs. Nor can so many be ruled easily and well. Nor can concord, good order, and proper discipline be preserved as easily among many persons. They overflow with sycophants, with wealth and corruption, until wealth is preferred among them to virtue, bribes to justice, timidity to courage, and evil to good. Just as iron by its nature produces rust by which it is gradually corroded, and just as ripe fruit produces worms by which it is gradually consumed, so also large, populous, and mighty imperia 5 manifest many corruptions by which they are gradually worn down. Experience testifies that might leads to over-confidence, over-confidence to folly, folly to contempt, contempt to the weakening of authority, and so to the loss of imperium. Might also leads to wealth, wealth to the pursuit of sensual pleasures, and so to everything corrupt. When the might of a commonwealth grows, fortitude and virtue decline. Thus the Roman imperium was in its highest state of authority and dignity under Augustus. Under Tiberius, however, the pursuit of sensual pleasures began, and virtue was stilled by lust. Under Caligula, Claudius, and Nero virtue was utterly destroyed. For a while, first under Vespasian and then under Trajan and Anthony Pius, virtue again came forth, and with it came imperial grandeur. However, soon afterwards under Domitian, who followed Vespasian and Titus, and under Commodus, who followed Trajan and Anthony Pius, virtue once more gave way, and with it the imperial glory.
§ 11From these considerations one may conclude that a commonwealth of medium size is best and steadiest. Such a commonwealth can resist external force, and is not dominated by the corruptions I have discussed. It also labors less under misguided affections, commotions, avarice, and ambition. As it is forced to be suspicious of the might of its neighbors, so it also is forced to be more cautious. The Roman commonwealth is an example. When it was of medium size, it was free from many corruptions. When it grew to a great size, however, with greater might and a larger population, as in the time of Marius, Sulla, Pompey, and Julius Caesar, it abounded with corruptions so much that it was thrown into great calamities. But the Venetian commonwealth, because it remains of medium size and vigorously resists willful corruptions by the severity of its laws, has endured for the longest time, as one was also able to say of the city of Sparta.
§ 12Such are the members of the realm. Its right is the means by which the members, in order to establish good order and the supplying of provisions throughout the territory of the realm, are associated and bound to each other as one people in one body and under one head.6§ 13This right of the realm (jus regni) is also called the right of sovereignty (jus majestatis).7 It is, in other words, the right of a major state or power as contrasted with the right that is attributed to a city or a province. …
§ 15What we call this right of the realm has as its purpose good order, proper discipline, and the supplying of provisions in the universal association. Towards these purposes it directs the actions of each and all of its members, and prescribes appropriate duties for them. Therefore, the universal power of ruling (potestas imperandi universalis) is called that which recognizes no ally, nor any superior or equal to itself. And this supreme right of universal jurisdiction is the form and substantial essence of sovereignty (majestas) or, as we have called it, of a major state. When this right is taken away sovereignty perishes. …
§ 16The people, or the associated members of the realm, have the power (potestas) of establishing this right of the realm and of binding themselves to it. So Vásquez demonstrates from Bartolus and other authorities.8 And in this power of disposing, prescribing, ordaining, administering, and constituting everything necessary and useful for the universal association is contained the bond, soul, and vital spirit of the realm, and its autonomy, greatness, size, and authority. Without this power no realm or universal symbiotic life can exist. § 17Therefore, as long as this right thrives in the realm and rules the political body, so long does the realm live and prosper. But if this right is taken away, the entire symbiotic life perishes, or becomes a band of robbers and a gang of evil men, or disintegrates into many different realms or provinces.
§ 18This right of the realm, or right of sovereignty, does not belong to individual members, but to all members joined together and to the entire associated body of the realm. For as universal association can be constituted not by one member, but by all the members together, so the right is said to be the property not of individual members, but of the members jointly. Therefore, “what is owed to the whole (universitas) is not owed to individuals, and what the whole owes individuals do not owe.” 9 Whence it follows that the use and ownership of this right belong neither to one person nor to individual members, but to the members of the realm jointly. By their common consent, they are able to establish and set in order matters pertaining to it. And what they have once set in order is to be maintained and followed, unless something else pleases the common will.10 For as the whole body is related to the individual citizens, and can rule, restrain, and direct each member, so the people rules each citizen.11
§ 19This power of the realm (potestas regni), or of the associated bodies, is always one power and never many just as one soul and not many rules in the physical body. The administrators of this power can be many, so that individuals can each take on a share of the function of governing, but not the plenitude of power. And these individuals are not themselves in control of the supreme power. Instead they all jointly acknowledge such a power in the consent and concord of the associated bodies. Whence jurists have declared the rights of sovereignty and of the realm (jura majestatis et regni) to be indivisible, incommunicable, and interconnected, so that whoever holds one holds them all.12 Otherwise two superior entities would be established in one imperium. But a superior entity can have no equal or greater superior. And imperium and obedience cannot be mingled. These rights can, however, be lawfully delegated, so that in their administration someone other than their owner may perform the duties of a supreme magistrate.
§ 20Bodin disagrees with our judgment by which supreme power is attributed to the realm or universal association. He says that the right of sovereignty, which we have called the right of the realm, is a supreme and perpetual power limited neither by law (lex) nor by time.13 I recognize neither of these two attributes of the right of sovereignty, in the sense Bodin intends them, as genuine. For this right of sovereignty is not the supreme power; neither is it perpetual or above law. § 21It is not supreme because all human power acknowledges divine and natural law (lex divina et naturalis) as superior. Note the argument of Romans 13: the minister of God is for your good. If he is the minister of God, he can do nothing contrary to the commandment given by his Lord.14 Indeed, an absolute and supreme power standing above all laws is called tyrannical. Bartolus says, “great is Caesar, but greater is the truth.” 15 Augustine says, “when justice is taken away, what are realms except great bands of robbers?” 16 On this point, however, not even Bodin disagrees with us. For he does not release the power he calls supreme from the imperium of divine and natural law (jus divinum et naturale ).17
Our question, therefore, concerns civil law and right (civilis lex et jus). Should he who is said to have supreme power subordinate his imperium and high office to civil law as well? Bodin says no, and many others agree with him. In the judgment of these men there is supreme power above civil law and not limited by it. This is a judgment I would not hold. To liberate power from civil law is to release it to a certain degree from the bonds of natural and divine law (lex naturalis et divina). For there is no civil law, nor can there be any, in which something of natural and divine immutable equity has not been mixed. If it departs entirely from the judgment of natural and divine law (jus naturale et divinum), it is not to be called law (lex). It is entirely unworthy of this name, and can obligate no one against natural and divine equity. Therefore, if a general civil law enacted by a prince is fair and just, who can free him from the obligations of this very law? On the contrary, it should be the judgment of the supreme legislator that whatever we wish men to do to us, we should do those things to them.18 But insofar as this civil law departs in certain respects from natural equity, I will grant that he who has supreme power, and does not recognize any superior except God, together with natural equity and justice, is not bound by this law, especially in applying punishment to himself.19
§ 22If law (lex), and freedom from law by a supreme power, are accepted in this sense, I concede to the judgment of Bodin, Petrus Gregorius, Cujas, Doneau, Duaren, and other jurists. But by no means can this supreme power be attributed to a king or optimates, as Bodin most ardently endeavors to defend. Rather it is to be attributed rightfully only to the body of a universal association, namely, to a commonwealth or realm, and as belonging to it. From this body, after God, every legitimate power flows to those we call kings or optimates. Therefore, the king, prince, and optimates recognize this associated body as their superior, by which they are constituted, removed, exiled, and deprived of authority. … § 23For however great is the power that is conceded to another, it is always less than the power of the one who makes the concession, and in it the pre-eminence and superiority of the conceded is understood to be reserved. Whence it is shown that the king does not have a supreme and perpetual power above the law, and consequently neither are the rights of sovereignty his own property, although he may have the administration and exercise of them by concession from the associated body. And only so far are the rights of sovereignty ceded and handed over to another that they never become his own property.
§ 24Bodin defends the opposite position by distinguishing between the sovereignty of the realm and of the ruler.20 But if sovereignty is therefore twofold, of the realm and of the king, as Bodin says, I ask which is greater and superior to the other? It cannot be denied that the greater is that which constitutes the other and is immortal in its foundation, and that this is the people. Nor can it be denied that the lesser is that which appears as one person, and dies with him. The king represents the people not the people the king, as we explain later.21 And greater is the power and strength of many than of one. Whence the supreme monarch is required to give an account of his administration, is not permitted for his own pleasure to alienate or diminish the provinces, cities, or towns of his realm, and can even be deposed. …
§ 25We must now define this supreme power. We attribute it by right of sovereignty to the associated political body, which claims it for itself alone. In our judgment, it is derived from the purpose and scope of the universal association, namely, from the utility and necessity of human social life. According to this position, therefore, the nature and character of imperium and power will be that they regard and care for the genuine utility and advantage of subjects. Vásquez demonstrates this when he says that there is no power for evil, but only for good, none for doing harm or for ruling in the interest of pleasure or self-aggrandizement, but only for considering and supporting the genuine utility of subjects.22 Whence Augustine says that to rule is nothing other than to serve the utility of others, as parents rule their children, and a man his wife.23 … § 27Universal power is called pre-eminent, primary, and supreme not because it is above law or absolute, but in respect to particular and special subordinate power that depends upon it, arises and flows from it, returns in time to it, and is furthermore bound to definite places. Such is the power that is given to universal administrators, and to special heads of provinces as their deputies, delegates, administrators, procurators, and ministers. All have only the use and exercise of power for the benefit of others, not the ownership of it.
§ 28This right of the realm (jus regni) is twofold. It pertains both to the welfare of the soul and to the care of the body. Religion, by recognizing and worshiping God, seeks the welfare of the soul. The care of this life seeks the welfare of the body. Prayers are to be poured forth “for kings and all who are in high positions, that under them we may lead a peaceful and quiet life in all piety and respectfulness.” 24 We are trained “to renounce all impiety and worldly desires, and to live temperately, justly, and piously in the present world.” 25 We should live temperately toward ourselves, justly toward our neighbor, and piously toward God. Piety is to be understood according to the first table of the Decalogue, and justice according to the second. Polybius says that the desirable and stable condition of a commonwealth is one in which holy and blameless life is lived in private, and justice and clemency flourish in public.26
§ 29Each part of this right of the realm about which we have spoken consists of universal symbiotic communion27 and of its administration. We will first discuss this universal communion,28 and later its administration.29§ 30Universal symbiotic communion is the process by which the members of a realm or universal association communicate everything necessary and useful to it, and remove and do away with everything to the contrary. And therefore this right of the realm pertaining to symbiosis and communion can be described as living lawfully, as nourishing life, and as sharing something in common.
§ 31Universal symbiotic communion is both ecclesiastical and secular. Corresponding to the former are religion and piety, which pertain to the welfare and eternal life of the soul, the entire first table of the Decalogue. Corresponding to the latter is justice, which concerns the use of the body and of this life, and the rendering to each his due, the second table of the Decalogue. In the former, everything is to be referred immediately to the glory of God; in the latter, to the utility and welfare of the people associated in one body. § 32These are the two foundations of every good association. Whenever a turning away from them has begun, the happiness of a realm or universal association is diminished. …
§ 33Ecclesiastical communion of the realm30 is the process by which those means that pertain to the public organizing and conserving of the kingdom of Christ (regnum Christi) are established, undertaken, and communicated according to his will throughout the territory of this universal association. This is done to the eternal glory of God and for the welfare of the realm. § 34Whence the ecclesiastical and sacerdotal right of sovereignty of the realm is called the business of Jehovah. Within the boundaries of the realm, this right guides the enjoyment of a pious life by which we acknowledge and worship God in the present world. …
§ 35This sacerdotal or ecclesiastical right is properly instituted in the territory of the realm when the same public and uncorrupted worship of God is established, practiced, and conserved according to the will of God in the individual cities and provinces or members of the realm, and when the general care of it is expressed by the universal association. § 36This care is expressed, first and foremost, by the public introduction, establishment, and conservation of religion and uncorrupted worship of God, as they are approved by sacred writings, in the territory of the realm, and in all the cities and provinces thereof. “Seek first the kingdom of God.” 31 “For the fear of the Lord is the beginning of understanding.” 32 All members, both individually and collectively, are obligated to the profession of this religion and divine worship. … § 37The true and pure religion and worship of God are to be established not by a majority of the citizens, nor by the weight or vote of men, but by the Word of God alone, according to their agreement with faith.
§ 38Public schools provide for the conserving of true religion and the passing of it on to later generations, for informing the life and customs of citizens, and for acquiring knowledge of the liberal arts. Schools are to be opened in the cities and provinces of the commonwealth in order that professors and instructors of liberal arts may publicly teach, that they may distribute prizes and honors for merit, and that they may confer upon their scholars the insignia of the master, the licentiate, and the doctor. In these schools the seeds of piety and virtue are adroitly poured into the youth from sacred writings and the more human liberal arts, so that good citizens may go forth as pious, manly, just and temperate persons. … § 39Moreover, these schools are the custodians of the keys of science and doctrine, by which the resolution of all doubt is sought and the way of salvation is disclosed. Whatever the quality of rulers and citizens the school produces, of such is the commonwealth and church constituted. …
§ 41Also pertaining to the conservation of religion, of divine worship, and of the church is their defense against all disturbers and scorners. Whence arises the right and power of restoring the uncorrupted worship of God, of expelling from the territory those alien to uncorrupted religion, and of compelling the citizens and inhabitants of the realm, by public ordinances and even by external force, to worship God. … On the other hand, the worshipers of the true God are to be defended and protected in the realm, even if they are few in number and there are many who profess another religion. …
§ 42Nevertheless, a schism should not be made, nor a separation from the church be granted, merely because of some error, sacramental reason, or other cause, provided the foundation of the true religion is retained and other human opinions merely added to it. … “Welcome the man who is weak in faith.” 33 The Apostle Paul recognized as brothers those who came close to idolatry, profaned the supper of the Lord, and erred concerning the resurrection.34 “If you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not in turn consumed by one another.” 35 Christ suffered disciples who were weak, sinful, crude, inexperienced, and erratic.36 The Gospel collects in its net not only good fishes, but others also.37 It further advises that tares not be rooted out from good seeds.38 “In a great house there are vessels of gold and of clay, and some perform with honor and others with dishonor.” 39 The church is likened to a granary in which there are both grain and chaff,40 to a banquet in which both good and evil feast together,41 to the ten virgins,42 and to a sheepfold in which there are both sheep and goats.43
§ 43Moderation should be observed, as Benedict Aretius says. The problem is to be handled in one way for authors of schisms and those who have openly separated themselves, and in another way for those who have been misled by a jealous piety and a certain simple ardor. It is indeed handled very badly when we demand a decision on all opinions in even the most minute matters, and, unless this decision is subscribed to in all particulars, we give way to thunderbolts, factions, sects, curses, even to prisons and deaths. For no mode of thought has ever come forth as so perfect that the judgment of all learned men would subscribe to it. Aretius concludes that if the principal articles of faith are preserved, nothing should stand in the way of disagreement on opinions in other Christian matters.44
§ 44To be sure, persons are not to be suffered who are openly and publicly atheists, who take action against the magistrate, who promote unnecessary wars, who support shameful acts in public, and who deny, break, or call into doubt the articles necessary for salvation. § 45It is not permitted that everyone should be free to enjoy his religion in total opposition to the Christian faith. For as God is one, so there is one formula for rightly worshiping him, which he has set forth for us, and outside of which it is not possible to please him. There is no communion of light with darkness, of Christ with Satan. And if Jehovah is your God, why do you not follow him? God wills that violators of orthodox religion be severely punished. He makes the magistrate the defender of his cause, and commends to him the protection and defense of the pious. … For this kind of liberty fights with faith and renders it uncertain. Many faiths, and many diverse churches, introduce idolatry and impiety. Moreover, diversity destroys unity. “Whoever is not with me is against me.” 45 To what extent a magistrate in good conscience can tolerate men who stray from true religion in his realm will be discussed later.46
[1 ] [ universalis: inclusive of all other associations within a given large area, and recognizing no superior to itself sovereign in its own territory.]
[2 ] [fundamental law of the realm.]
[3 ] [ optimates: the chief men of the realm; those who hold the more powerful offices. In some realms optimates are not merely nobles, but also leading burghers or their representatives.]
[4 ] Cicero, The Republic, III, 27; Augustine, The City of God, II, 21. A more accurate reference in Cicero for this notation is in I, 26 of the same work. The precise quotation used by Althusius, however, is found in the Augustine reference.]
[5 ] [ imperium (pl. imperia): sometimes empire, sometimes rule, and sometimes both empire and rule. In the universal public association, it very often means empire, as it does here. However, in smaller associations, both private and public, the word means merely rule. Throughout this translation the word has usually been rendered “imperium” in order to convey Althusius’ understanding of the centrality and continuity of the principle of rule in all associations.]
[6 ] “Then Samuel proclaimed the right of the realm (jus regni) among the people, and wrote it in a certain book.” I Samuel 10:25.
[7 ] [In the equivalent chapter (VI) of the edition of 1603, Althusius limited the right of sovereignty to the power of administration, which he placed under the fundamental right or law of the realm. Here, of course, it is identified with this right or law. Sovereignty henceforth pertains to the people and their constitution, not merely to the chief administrator and his actions.]
[8 ] Fernando Vásquez Illustrium controversiarum, I, 47; Bartolus, Commentarii (Digest I, 1, 9; I, 4, 1; I, 1, 5; XII, 6, 64); Conrad Lancellot, Templum omnium judicum, I, 2; Paul Castro, Commentaria (Digest I, 1, 5).
[9 ] Digest III, 4, 7, 1.
[10 ]See Francis Hotman, De antiquo jure regni Gallici, I, 19 and 23; Fernando Vásquez, Illustrium controversiarum, I, 47.
[11 ] However, Vásquez wrongly rejects this comparison.
[12 ] Roland a Valle, Consiliorum, I, cons. 1, num. 138; Marc Antony Natta, Consilia, cons. 636 and 640; Charles Dumoulin, Consuetudines Parisienses, tit. 1, art 8, glos 4, num. 16 f.; Diego Covarruvias, Practicarum quaestionium, 4.
[13 ]The Commonweale, I, 8. Jacob Bornitius further develops his idea of sovereignty in De majestate politica, I.
[14 ]See also Deuteronomy 17:18–20; Joshua 1:7 f.; Psalm 119.
[15 ]Commentarii (Digest IV, 4, 38).
[16 ]The City of God, IV, 4.
[17 ] [Althusius seems to make no distinction between lex divina et naturalis and jus divinum et naturale. ]
[18 ] Matthew 7:12; Luke 6:31.
[19 ] Jacob Bornitius, however, would indiscriminately subordinate the prince to civil law to the extent that such law can be analogically accommodated to him. De majestate politica, I, 10.
[20 ]The Commonweale, I, 7 and 8.
[21 ] Chapters XVIII and XIX.
[22 ]Illustrium controversiarum, I, 26 and 45.
[23 ]The City of God, XIX, 15. [XIX, 14 in the Modern Library edition.]
[24 ] Timothy 2:2.
[25 ] Titus 2:12.
[26 ]Histories, VI, 47.
[27 ] [ communio: communication; sharing.]
[28 ] The rest of this chapter and the whole of Chapters X-XVII.]
[29 ] Chapter XVIII and following.
[30 ] [The rest of this chapter is devoted to ecclesiastical communion, and Chapter XXVII to secular communion. Ecclesiastical matters will be discussed again in Chapter XXVIII, but therein as an element of administration, not as part of the discussion of communion. Note also that Althusius uses “communication” and “communion” interchangeably]
[31 ] Matthew 6:33.
[32 ] Psalm 111:10.
[33 ] Romans 14:1.
[34 ] Corinthians 8:9 f.; 11:20 ff.; 15:12 ff.
[35 ] Galatians 5:15,
[36 ]See Zachary Ursinus, Dispositiones, II, in fine; Benedict Aretius, Problemata theologica, I, loc. 9 and 58 f.
[37 ] Matthew 13:47.
[38 ] [Matthew 13:29.]
[39 ] II Timothy 2:20.
[40 ] Matthew 3:12.
[41 ] Matthew 22:1 ff.; Luke 14:16 ff.
[42 ] Matthew 25:1 f.
[43 ] Matthew 25:32 f.
[44 ]Problemata theologica, I, loc. 58.
[45 ] Luke 11:23.
[46 ] Chapter XXVIII.