By Categories: Editorials, Ethics

The State as Viewed by the Forerunners of the Renaissance:-

It was at this time that man began to assert his own freedom and to challenge the power of rulers who held key positions in the state. The democratic spirit was afoot in the land, and absolute rule was being effectively beaten in many places.

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Part – II, can be read from here – Click Here

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Indeed, everywhere the spirit of freedom was breaking through the heavy crust of the Middle Ages, and man was struggling to become a true individual and obtain some power to rule himself. Added to this was the growing feeling of nationalism evident on all sides.

Groups of individuals with common language, customs, and traditions began to appear and to assert themselves over against other such groups. But there was opposition to all such nations on the part of the Church, which saw its world domination threatened.

Thus, a struggle ensued out of which gradually developed the nations of the modern world, large groups of individuals with a common concern and a growing desire to establish themselves as units. In addition, the individual began to assert his own independence of thought, and to believe that human reason was superior to authority.

Slowly the idea took form that truth was a thing to be reached by the operation of human reason and not something handed down by an authoritative Church. All these movements tended to weaken the power of the Church and place the individual man, both as an individual and as a member of a political group, in the center of the stage.

In this setting philosophers began to dream of a perfect social group in which ideal conditions would exist An example of this trend is the City of the Sun, a Utopian treatise by TOMMASO GAMPANELLA. In this volume Campanella sketches the outline of a socialistic state similar to that found in Plato’s Republic, a state in which knowledge is the governing force and power.

Everyone in this state is equal since there is only one class. However, Campanella does make distinctions between men on the basis of their knowledge. The philosophers, who are also priests, are the rulers. In making this assertion, he shows his desire to effect a compromise between the Church and the growing national feeling of the times.

In his state there was to be a sort of papal monarchy, a religious unity as the basis for political unity. Campanella’s work is typical of the preliminary work toward thinking through a new theory of the state and its relations with its citizens. However, the general trend of the times was away from the authority and dominance of the Church, a trend in the direction of political independence.

Machiavelli’s Conception of the State:-

The most violent attack upon the Church and its hitherto generally accepted dominance over the state was made by NICCOLO MACHIAVELLI. His ambition was to establish a united Italian nation wholly independent of the Church.

He took as a model for this state the old political forms established by Sparta, Rome, and Venice. Since the general situation of his day was one of corruption, Machiavelli argued that such a state could be established only by a strong and absolute despot. Although such a political structure would destroy civic freedom, Machiavelli thought of this as a necessary intermediate stage out of which man could eventually work as he became less corrupt.

His ideal was a free, independent nation in which civic rights would be cherished and the independence of each individual guaranteed. To accomplish his ends, the prince or ruler had the right to use any means necessary, even force, deceit, or breach of the moral law. He had to fight trickery with trickery, deceit with deceit.


Grotius, Hobbes, and Other Thinkers of the Renaissance:-

Another thinker of the period, JEAN BODIN, taught that the state is founded upon a contract which the people make with their ruler. The fundamental article of this contract is one which gives over to the ruler all authority and which permits the people under no circumstances to take it back.

JOHANNES ALTHUSIUS attacked this position, holding that the people could never give away their authority. Rather, he argued, the contract which the people make with their ruler lasts only so long as the ruler fulfills his part of the bargain. When he violates the contract he may be dethroned and executed and another ruler set up in his place by the people.

HUGO GROTIUS, a leader of the aristocratic party in Holland, developed the theory of absolutism in great detail and with many cogent arguments. He taught that man has certain natural rights which are rooted in his very nature and which even God cannot change or destroy. But these natural rights may be limited, and indeed are limited by the positive law which results from man’s voluntary agreement to live in groups.

We give up the privilege to exercise certain natural rights in order that we may live together as members of a state. Thus, the state is a result of the free agreement among its members. Consequently, at no time can man give up his natural rights unconditionally. But, he may delegate these rights to a ruler forever.

Therefore, during this early modern period the tendency was toward absolutism. The ruler had power which, though originally given him by the people, was more or less absolute from then on. Of course, there was opposition to this point of view.

When the practice of more or less absolute sovereignty reached its climax in the reign of Louis XIV in France, a climax expressed in his famous saying, “I am the state,” there was sufficient opposition to effect an overthrow of the whole position and to begin building the more modern idea of democracy.

But that is getting ahead of our story. The materialist, THOMAS HOBBES, based his theory of the state upon the fundamental principle that man has the natural right to do anything which he pleases. The most primitive urge of all men is that of self-preservation. To accomplish this end, man may use any means he deems necessary. In this state of nature man may invade the rights of others with the result that chaos reigns.

Man is, then, fundamentally a ferocious animal, one who engages in war and pillage, seeking always his own gain. But, in such a state no man can be strong enough to preserve himself for long. Each man will destroy the others and he in turn will be destroyed by others.

Thus, to escape from this inevitable end, man creates a society in which he voluntarily gives up his rights in many matters. This is a contract which men make with each other by which they give up certain rights in order to obtain others which they desire. To insure this mutual contract, men transfer power to one ruler or an assembly. After the ruler has been set up and given power, men must obey.

It is true, Hobbes recognizes, that at times the ruler will be unjust and will wreak hardships upon men. But they have no right to rebel. Hobbes justifies this position by holding that even at their worst, the injustices of a ruler are never so bad as the original state of man before power was given to the ruler. Hobbes believes that the absolute monarchy is the best form of government.

But, there are certain things that even the king cannot force men to do. Among these are suicide, murder, or the confession of crime. These the king has no right to impose upon any man. Hobbes argued further that the king was God’s representative on earth and that God spoke through him. Thus, freedom of religion cannot be tolerated. The religion of the king must be the religion of all the people.

This theory of Hobbes is actually an attempt to defend philosophically the power of the English king and the general structure of the English monarchy. The defense led to the theory of the “divine right of kings’ and to the position that the king can do no wrong. So long as the king can protect the people he is absolute and no one has the right to challenge his authority.

To be Continued…

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