Contractarians, republicans & skeptics

Constitutionalism and contract

Francisco Suarez argued that Natural Law led the people to establish the state and government. Since all people are free and equal, he claimed, then when a state is established the only way to decide on policy would be by the consent of all. In Suarez' view, therefore, all states were originally direct democracies.
Since direct democracy is impracticable except in the smallest of city states, the people would probably choose to delegate one (monarch) or a few (aristocrats) to rule. However, the people would place limitations on their rulers' power. Suarez called the conditions on which people granted power to their rulers the "original contract", and argued that these survived as the constitutions of states.
The powers of kings, emperors, sultans, republics, and so on varied from place to place, because different people had established different conditions for their rule.
Suarez and other Jesuits used the theory of the original contract to justify resistance to tyrants. The people, in their view, had a right to judge if a monarch was acting tyrannically and in breach of contract. The Parlement of Paris was so annoyed by Suarez' justification of resistance that in 1613 it ordered that De Legibus be burnt. They held the spread of such theories responsible for the assassination of Henry IV (1610). Gallicans specifically blamed the Jesuits and tried to have them expelled from France. Consequently, later Jesuits were much less ready to endorse popular resistance.

Protestant contractualists

One of the most important Protestant political thinkers of the seventeenth century was Hugo Grotius (Hugo de Groot, 1583-1645).
Grotius was an important Arminian in the Netherlands, a supporter of Oldenbarnevelt. He was imprisoned on Oldenbarnevelt's fall, but escaped and fled to Paris.
In 1625, Grotius published De jure belli ac pacis.

Another important Protestant contractualist was Samuel Pufendorf (1632-94). Pufendorf was a German Lutheran academic, who taught in Germany and Sweden.
His most important work was De jure naturae et gentium (1672).

Both Grotius and Pufendorf agreed that political power was originally held by the people, and both agreed that people could part with this power on very unfavorable terms. A people might have contracted to obey an absolutist king, just as a person might have agreed to a very onerous contract of employment.
The people had to show that the king really was in breach of the original contract before it could do something as extreme as resist the government. However, certain acts of aggression against the people were so direct that these could be presumed in breach of contract.
During the seventeenth century, many theorists adopted this conservative interpretation of contract theory, but there were exceptions. During the English Civil War, the Levellers and others used contract theory to defend overthrowing Charles I. In 1689, John Locke's Two Treatises of Government was used to justify resistance to James II.
In the 1680's, the Huguenot Pierre Jurieu (1637-173) wrote in defense of resistance to Louis XIV.
In general, seventeenth century political theorists were cautious about calling for resistance, and strictly limited the circumstances under which it was legitimate. Exceptions include the Germans Johannes Althusius (1563-1638) who argued that the people is sovereign in every state, and David Pareus (1548-1622), and a number of English writers of the 1640s and 1680s.


Republicanism and radicalism

Although much of seventeenth century Europe was ruled by absolutist monarchs, there were a few republics. The most notable were Venice and the United Provinces (Dutch Republic). In the latter, while De Witt was Pensionary (1653-72), there was an alliance between new scientific thinking and republican ideas.
The most famous republican theorist in the Dutch Republic was Benedict (Baruch) Spinoza (1632-77). His Tractatus politicus (1677) advocated democratic government and complete religious toleration.
Both the new science and republicanism were viewed with deep suspicion by the Dutch Calvinist clergy, and they were supported by the House of Orange. When the Stadholder's influence increased after the French invasion of 1672, radical thinking was stifled.

Another important republican was James Harrington (1611-77). Deeply influenced by Machiavelli, he was one of the first to argue that economic and political power are closely connected. His utopian Commonwealth of Oceana (published 1656) described in pedestrian detail the constitutional mechanisms necessary to establish a stable state, ruled by well-meaning landed gentlemen like himself. His ideas influenced some eighteenth-century American thinkers.

During the English Civil War, the Levellers argued for the establishment of a new English constitution (called An Agreement of the People)  with frequent Parliaments elected by all adult males.
Another group led by Gerard Winstanley, who called themselves the "True Levellers" and who became known as Diggers, advocated the abolition of property. These religiously-inspired radicals wanted a system of communal farming, and believed that government would be unnecessary as rural harmony would blossom in the absence of property rights.

"But when once the Earth becomes a common treasury again, as it must, for all the prophesies of Scriptures and reason are circled here in this community, and mankind must have the law of righteousness once more writ in his heart, and all must be made of one heart, and one mind. Then this enmity in all lands will cease, for none shall dare to seek a dominion over others, neither shall any dare to kill another, nor desire more of the Earth then another; …"

From The True Levellers Standard Advanced (1649).

A few communes were established (the largest at St. George's Hill in Surrey) - all of which failed rapidly.


During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Europeans made increasing contact with distant lands. They found societies with wholly different customs and beliefs. This led Europeans to question their own assumptions about just what was "natural" and "common to all mankind".
The discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo destroyed belief in old theories of a universe of perfect spheres.


"And new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The element of fire is quite put out,
The sun is lost, and th'earth, and no man's wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.
And freely men confess that this world's spent,
When in the planets and the firmament
They seek so many new; they see that this
Is crumbled out again to his atomies.
'Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone,
All just supply, and all relation;
Prince, subject, father, son, are things forgot,

From John Donne, An Anatomy of the World.


The revival of classical learning also led to new study of classical skeptics,  especially the summary of Pyrrhonist ideas provided by Sextus Empiricus (c. 200 BCE) Sextus had stressed the difficulty of obtaining any reliable knowledge, given the fallibility of human senses.
Skeptical arguments were used in partisan fashion in the religious debates of the day, but thorough-going skepticism undermined all belief. In fact, the ancient skeptics had indeed concluded that everyone must simply suspend judgment, since there is simply not enough reliable data on which to base conclusions.
Skepticism spread in educated circles during the seventeenth century, especially in France. In the early seventeenth century, such thinkers as Gabriel Naudé and Cyrano de Bergerac questioned both moral and scientific assumptions. Later, Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) carried the same tradition into the later seventeenth century.


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