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Index by Period

Political Philosophy & Philosophy of Law

The growing sense of political individuality and the gradual dwindling of the ideal of a universal Christian empire were most important factors in the change from ancient to modern modes of thought. Dante's De Monarchia no longer embodied the political aspirations of European states. Humanism, moreover, had restored ancient ideals of political life, and the result was an attempt on the part of some Renaissance writers to formulate systems of political philosophy which should meet the conditions of the times.

The first independent political philosopher of this period was Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527). In the celebrated work entitled Il Principe and in his other writings Machiavelli expounds a system of state utilitarianism. He teaches that, in the government of the state, means are to be judged exclusively with reference to the end for which they are employed, without consideration, or at least without due consideration, of the relation which they bear to the principles of morality. "Where it is a question of saving one's country," he writes, "there must be no hesitation on the score of justice or injustice, cruelty or kindness, praise or blame, but, setting all things else aside, one must snatch whatever means present themselves for the preservation of life and liberty." [1] Machiavelli waged war on the Christian religion, contending that Christianity is opposed to the true advancement of the state, and that it is inferior to the religion of ancient Rome, inasmuch as it fails to inculcate the political virtues. His ideal of a ruler is that of one who should combine the qualities of the fox with those of the lion. The ruler should make himself liked if he can; if he cannot, he must make himself feared: he should maintain the outward semblance of honesty and morality even when, for reasons of state, he is obliged to set the principles of honesty and morality aside. [2]
[1] Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio, III, 41, quoted by Pastor, op. cit., V, 165.

[2] Il Principe, Capp. 15 ff.
Thomas More (1478-1535) and Jean Bodin (1530-1596), inspired by a spirit altogether different from that which animated Machiavelli, developed from Platonic principles highly ideal schemes of state organization and government. More (Blessed Thomas More, as he is now entitled to be called) was educated at Oxford, and after some years of very successful practice at law entered into political life, becoming successively Speaker of the House of Commons, treasurer to the exchequer, and lord chancellor. Having incurred the displeasure of Henry VIII, he was committed to the Tower, and after eighteen months' imprisonment was executed on the charge of attempting to deprive the king of the title of Supreme Head of the Church in England. In his Utopia (De Optimo Reipublicae Statu deque Nova Insula Utopia) he describes an imaginary republic so governed as to secure universal happiness. Bodin is more scientific in his method than any of the other political philosophers of this period. He may be said to have inaugurated the historical method of studying political philosophy.


Life. Thomas Hobbes was born at Westport, now in Malmesbury in Wiltshire, in 1588. He was educated at Oxford, and during his repeated sojourns at Paris he became acquainted with Gassendi, Mersenne, and Descartes, who had a marked influence on his system of speculative philosophy. His political doctrines were influenced, no doubt, by the disorders of the English Revolution. He died in 1679. His principal works are Leviathan, sive de Materia, Forma et Potestate Civitatis Ecclesiasticae et Civilis, and Elementa Philosophiae including three parts: De Corpore, De Homine, and De Cive. [3]
[3] De Cive (1642) was translated in 1651 under the title Philosophical Rudiments concerning Government and Society. The Leviathan, or the Matter, Form, and Authority of Government, appeared in English in 1651 and was translated into Latin in 1670. Extracts from the English edition are given in Woodbridge, Philosophy of Hobbes (Minneapolis, 1903).
[4] Consult Robertson, Hobbes (Blackwood's Philosophical Classics, Edinburgh and Philadelphia, 1886); Tonnies, Hobbes (Stuttgart, 1896). Hobbes' complete works were published by Molesworth (London, 1839 ff.).
Hobbes, like Bacon, concerned himself chiefly with the practical aspect of philosophy; but instead of applying philosophical principles to technical inventions, as his fellow-countryman had attempted to do, he addressed himself to the task of applying philosophy to the solution of political questions. We shall study, therefore, first the speculative and secondly the political doctrines of Hobbes.

1. Speculative Philosophy. Hobbes is the first in a long line of English nominalists and sensists. The only universality which he admits is that of the name. The name is a sign taken at pleasure to designate a plurality of objects. It is for us to decide what objects a name shall designate, and the announcement of such a decision is what we call a definition. In this connection he remarks that "Words are wise men's counters; they do but reckon by them: but they are the money of fools." [5]
[5] This and the following quotations are given by Lewes, Biog. Hist. of Phil. (2 vols., New York, 1893), pp. 495 ff.
Reality is not only individual, it is also corporeal. All that exists is body, all that occurs is motion. Spiritual substance can neither be nor be thought. Neither is there in human knowledge any element superior to sense. "The original of them all," he says, speaking of men's thoughts, "is that which we call sense, for there is no conception in a man's mind which hath not at first, totally or by parts, been begotten upon the organs of sense." From the foregoing principles Hobbes is led to affirm the doctrine of subjectivism. "I shall endeavor," he writes, "to make plain these points: that the object wherein color and images are inherent is not the object or thing seen: that there is nothing without us (really) which we call image or color: that the said image or color is but the apparition unto us of the motion, agitation, or alteration which the object worketh in the brain or spirits or some internal substance of the head."

2. Political Philosophy. Hobbes begins by denying the doctrine on which Aristotle's philosophy of the state is based, the doctrine, namely, that man is a political animal. The English philosopher assumes rather the Epicurean principle that originally there existed a condition of natural warfare among men -- homo homini lupus, or bellum omnium contra omnes. But, he goes on to say, when men discovered the disadvantages of continual strife, and realized that the safety of life and property is a condition essential to progress, they entered into a compact, by which it was stipulated that the individual should vest all his rights in the supreme and absolute authority of the state. The authority of the state has its origin, therefore, in a social compact, and since the renunciation and transference of private rights was complete and unreserved, the authority of the state is absolute. Hobbes carries the doctrine of state absolutism to the extreme of subjecting even conscience and religion to the authority of the ruler. He teaches that the will of the ruler is the supreme arbiter of right and wrong in the moral order and of true and false in the matter of religious belief.

Historical Position. It would be difficult to overestimate the influence of Hobbes on the subsequent development of philosophic thought in England. Despite the wise maxim quoted above, philosophers have too often used words as money rather than as counters, and all the confusion arising from the use of vague and inaccurate terminology -- a confusion which is, to the present day, the bane of English philosophy -- may be traced, in large measure, to Hobbes. For him, substance and body, imagination and intellect are synonymous, and if these terms are confounded by subsequent writers, upon Hobbes must be laid the chief part of the blame.

The causes which led to the study of political philosophy during the transition period led also to the study of the philosophy of law. The Italian Alberico Gentili (1552-1608) paid special attention to the study of the law of war. The German Althus (1557-1638) devoted himself to the study of Roman law. To these succeeded the Netherlander Hugo Grotius (Hugo de Groot) (1583-1645), who in defending the rights of his country to free trade with the Indies developed a system of philosophy of natural law. His most celebrated work is entitled De Jure Belli et Pacis (1625). He maintains the doctrine of social contract, but while Hobbes regards the transference of the rights of the individual to the state as irrevocable, Grotius considers that rights once transferred may afterwards be recalled. He favors the separation of Church and State, and advocates religious toleration. By the phrase jus gentium he does not mean natural law but rather positive international law, or the law regulating the relations of one state with another.

Retrospect. The period of transition from mediaeval to modern philosophy was a period of tendencies rather than of systems. It was an age of new ideas, and of changes in the world of letters, science, politics, and religion. It witnessed the disappearance of the old order and the advent of the new. During this period of change, the Aristotelian and Scholastic idea of a geocentric universe gave way to the modern scientific notion of a heliocentric system; the mediaeval ideal of a universal Christian empire gave way to the modern ideals of individual national life; and in many European states the spirit of ecclesiastical unity disappeared, to be replaced by the notion of national church organization and the assertion of individualism in matters of religious belief. Thus did the Renaissance period usher in the modern era. It did not itself contribute any permanent system of philosophy. To systematize in a speculative scheme of thought the wealth of ideas, facts, and tendencies resulting from the great intellectual movements of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, was the task which the Renaissance set and which the seventeenth century undertook to accomplish.

Hugo Grotius
Thomas Hobbes
Niccolo Machiavelli
Sir Thomas More


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