Niccolo Machiavelli   Francisco Suarez
Intellectual history
and political thought
The two main sources of authority in early-modern political thought were the Bible and the classical writers of Greece and Rome. Roman Law and Canon Law (the law of the Roman Catholic Church) were also very important.

Scholasticism and humanism

The Renaissance of the 15th to 16th centuries has often been regarded as marking a radical change in patterns of thought - from religion to secularism, communalism to individualism, and superstition to science. In particular, many historians have seen this a a time when medieval scholasticism gave way to humanism.
Scholasticism was an intellectual system which dominated the teaching of medieval universities. Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and William of Ockham (ob. 1347) were two key scholastics who aimed to reconcile the teaching of the Fathers of the Christian Church (especially Augustine of Hippo) with classical philosophers (especially Aristotle).
The scholastics were more concerned with logical precision and philosophical truth than with presenting their findings comprehensibly or with tying their speculations to empirical observation. Scholastic philosophy was written by and for the clergy who dominated European universities.

A different culture began to develop in Northern Italy. Here wealthy merchants established a more secular society in the self-governing republics of Florence and Milan. The need to persuade and convince other members of the governing elite led to a stress on eloquence and rhetoric. Politicians used arguments to convince and persuade, rather than to achieve logical consistency.


As Western European monarchies became more sophisticated the same talents achieved a premium - diplomats and advisors also obtained advantage from the skilful use of language.
These humanists studied the writings of ancient Rome - especially of Cicero and of Tacitus - as great models of eloquence.

"… illa vis autem eloquentiae tanta est, ut omnium rerum, virtutum, officiorum omnisque naturae, quae mores hominum, quae animos, quae vitam continet, originem, vim mutationesque teneat, eadem mores, leges, iura describat, rem publicam regat, omniaque, ad quamcumque rem pertineant, ornate copioseque dicat".

Cicero, De Oratore, 3.XX. (Eloquence is so powerful that it embraces the origin and operations and developments of all things in the world, all the virtues, duties, and natural principles related to the manners, minds, and lives of mankind. Eloquence also determines customs, laws, and rights, controls government, and expounds every kind of topic in a polished and refined manner).

Yet Renaissance readers of classical texts soon began to notice how corrupted these had become over the centuries, through repeated errors of copying. Scholars became interested in finding the various copies of different texts and collating different versions.
Interest spread to writings of classical Greece. Aristotle's works were known only from Latin translation - not until the fifteenth century did scholars begin to study the original Greek.
Plato, too, aroused increasing interest. Marsilius Ficino (a client of Cosimo Medici) was a seminal figure in the early-modern revival of Neoplatonism - a mystical system that saw the world as an emanation from God.

In about 1440, Johannes Gutenberg (c. 1397-1468) combined a simple press with movable type to produce the first printed books.
Towards the end of the fifteenth century, a Venetian - Aldus Manutius (c 1452-1515) - developed a compact, legible italic type and began to print the Greek and Roman classics in portable, affordable versions. During the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, Italy was at the centre of publishing.

In the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries publishing expanded in Northern Europe. The Netherlands and especially the Elzevir press took an increasingly large portion of the book market. They specialized in printing the classics (and some contemporary works) in a tiny font. The small format made the books very cheap.


The humanists' textual criticism soon moved from classical texts to religious writing. The New Testament was written in Greek, but for many centuries a translation  into Latin (known as the Vulgate) had been used almost exclusively by the Western Church. In 1515/16 Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam produced an edition of the New Testament in Greek (the Latin was printed alongside in a parallel column) based on Greek manuscripts.

Erasmus' translation of the New Testament aroused considerable controversy because it suggested that there were many errors in the Vulgate translation. Erasmus' own text had many problems: the only available manuscripts dated from many centuries after Christ, and contained errors and omissions. He was forced to translate a missing chunk of the Book of Revelation back into Greek from the Vulgate - he added an extra error or two of his own at this point.


Humanist learning soon spread across Europe. Its defining characteristics - exacting classical scholarship and elegant expression - were compatible with many views. The Jesuits, for example, employed humanist techniques to present scholastic doctrines in a persuasive and compelling manner. However, unlike the scholastics whose goal was abstract truth, humanism embodied a new interest in action and practice.

Civic humanism

The civic humanists of Renaissance Florence argued that the best form of government resulted from the participation of all citizens (by which they meant a select group of wealthy males) in decision-making. They lauded involvement in public affairs over private concerns and disapproved of significant variations in wealth amongst the elite.
Direct democracy was a practical possibility amongst the merchant elites of Italian city states, but it was difficult to apply in major Western states like England, France, and Spain.
The greatest spokesman for Florentine civic humanism was Niccolo Machiavelli, whose Discourses (published 1531) transmitted his admiration for Roman republicanism to Europe.
The message from Machiavelli was a somewhat mixed one, since he was also the author of The Prince (published 1532). This short work advised rulers to set aside moral constraints when it was necessary to further the interests of their dynasty and country. The doctrine of "reason of state" (as it became known) was also to find adherents in early-modern Europe.
[Read a sample of Machiavelli's political writing].


Christian humanism

Sir Thomas More


Early humanism concentrated on the classical world, but in the later fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, Erasmus, Sir Thomas More, his friend, John Colet, and others began to apply humanist attitudes to Christianity. They argued that scholastic theologians had forgotten the practical aspects of Christian doctrine - charity to others and personal self-sacrifice.
Sir Thomas More's fictional commonwealth "Utopia" (1516) was marked by tolerance, equality, and rationality.
Erasmus' stress on tolerance and individual moral responsibility made little impact on the bitter divisions of Reformation Europe, but in a few quarters and especially in his native Holland, his ideas remained influential. In Holland and England during the seventeenth century, more theorists defended religious toleration, and they drew on the Erasmian tradition.
The English Leveller, William Walwyn wrote defending religious freedom in the Christian humanist tradition, and John Locke's great defense of religious toleration, Epistola de tolerantia (soon translated as A Letter concerning Toleration) (1689) was written while in exile in Holland.


The Faculty of Law, University of Coimbra

Medieval scholasticism changed under the impact of humanist thought, and this "neo-scholasticism" was very important in 17th century universities.
Its most important practitioner was the Spaniard, Francisco Suarez (1548-1617). Suarez was Jesuit who taught at a number of universities but settled at Coimbra in Portugal. He was important as a philosopher and theologian, particularly his Disputationes metaphysicæ, which influenced both Descartes and Malebranche.
Still more important and influential was Suarez, De Legibus (1612). This discussed the laws of God and nature, of church and state; it even laid many of the foundations for the theory of international law. Suarez believed in using reason to devise laws and governments that accorded with human nature. Laws should facilitate cooperation between people so that they could pursue secular and spiritual goals. Natural associations (e.g. the family) and spiritual institutions (the Church) had independent legitimacy but a certain amount of state coercion was necessary to prevent disorder. However, government was established for the public good, and if it grew tyrannical could be resisted. States were autonomous and, in Suarez' view, could only justly make war to defend their own territories or other innocent victims. Even then, war had to be conducted in such a way as to avoid harm to non-combatants wherever possible.
The basics of this Natural Law theory were shared by many European political thinkers: - Protestant as well as Catholic. Many of Suarez' ideas were repeated by Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) and Samuel Pufendorf (1632-94), for example.
The ideas of the Natural Law tradition were shared by Catholics and Protestants, humanists and scholastics, and were used to support both absolutism and constitutional resistance theory.

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