Malthus or Althusius?

We seem to live in a Malthusian age, i.e., an age of increasing scarcity or perhaps fear of scarcity, where concern over how to divide an economic (and environmental) pie of limited size (called a “zero sum game”) has replaced the idea of expanding the economic pie, as it were.

The original modern theorist of increasing scarcity and over population (whose ideas were influential in the 1970s during the Carter “malaise” years) was Thomas Robert Malthus (1766–1834). Malthus theory of future scarcity and over population helped to prepare the ground for Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Malthus’ fears, in the context of Darwin’s theory, with the ugliness of early urban industrialism, combined with Thomas Hobbes’ (1588–1679) theory that without a powerful central state (a “leviathan”) life would devolve into a dystopian “state of nature,” a state of war of “all against all,” in which life would be “solitary, nasty, brutish, and short” helped to propel the modern creation of centralizing state. Hobbes and Malthus’ theories were united by a common fear about the future. Hobbes explicitly rejected the Christian account of God and man and intentionally turned the covenant of works on its head.

There was an alternative to this dark picture that was informed by an Augustinian and Calvinist doctrine of post-lapsarian human depravity but which distinguished between various spheres and webs of human relationships in a series of concentric circles. We might call him the original Reformed theorist of sphere sovereignty. That theorist was Johannes Althusius (1557–1638). Born in Westphalia (Germany) just after the Peace of Augsburg, Althusius spent his life under the shadow of religious and political tensions which finally broke out into open warfare in 1618. He died a decade before peace came to Europe but those tensions and that war left their marks.

An orthodox, confessional Reformed Christian, Althusius was not a minister. He was a legal scholar who taught first in the Academy in Herborn (whose first rector was Caspar Olevianus, 1536–87, though the academy is sometime dated from 1592) and served for many years as a (ruling) elder in the Reformed church in Emden (Friesland) and as a political leader there. A great deal has been written about Althusius in the last few decades. Alain de Benoist has written a helpful survey of the literature and Daniel J. Elazar and Charles McCoy and others have pointed to Althusius as one of the sources of 18th century political federalism. In 2004 the English historian John Coffey offered this summary of Althusius’ “relational” political theory.

In 1603 Althusius produced the first edition of his great treatise, Politics Methodically Digested and Illustrated from Profane [secular] and Sacred [biblical] Examples(Politica methodice digesta atque exemplaris sacris et profanis illustrata). The work would go through three editions between 1604–1614 and was published in an abridged English translation by Frederick S. Carney in 1964. It’s available in hardcover and online here and here.

It’s been a while since I read Politica but I thought that, in the wake of the election, and in light of the sense of confusion and uncertainty that I am hearing from people (via email and phone calls) it might be well to look at Althusius to see what we can learn from him. He is interesting and useful because he illustrates the relative sophistication of Reformed political theory at the turn of the 17th century, on the cusp of the early modern world. He benefited from the earlier work by Theodore Beza (De iure magistratuum; 1574) and the pseudonymous, Vindication Against Tyrants (1579) but he moved beyond their occasional tendency (their theology not withstanding) to treat the post-canonical state as if it were equivalent to national Israel.

Althusius actually attempted to formulate a theory of human relations on the basis of the natural, created, divinely established order. He attempted to establish from nature (and confirm from Scripture) what the most basic social unit is and then he reasoned from that natural unit of association out to other social associations. He did his work in light of medieval legal texts and theories, the Reformation (e.g., Calvin), the development of covenant theology (Olevianus et al), and all this during the time Reformed orthodox theology was becoming more sophisticated.

We’ll be taking a look at Althusius’ Politica in the coming weeks as an antidote to some of the angst to which one might be tempted. As a Reformed theorist who appreciated natural law Althusius will be an interesting alternative to some of the approaches being touted today.

Part 2-Althusius: Pioneer of Reformed Natural Law Theory


  1. I remember hearing a few years ago that Thomas Jefferson was also influenced by Malthus, particularly as it regards to Malthus’s view of the inability for large populations to be sustainable. I’m not sure if it was tied to Jefferson’s thinking on the U.S. as a nation of farmers.

    The name Malthus actually pops up in the study of differential equations. There is a type of growth called Malthusian growth.

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