Early Modern Political Theory I


A basic overview of the broad spectrum of political positions for the period:

Divine Right of Kings - Jacques-Benigne Bossuet (1627-1704) reinforced medieval notions of kingship in his theory of the Divine Right of Kings, a theory which argued that certain kings ruled because they were chosen by God to do so and that these kings were accountable to no person except God.  Not only did God bestow power on certain monarchs (and he argued that his king, Louis XIV of France , was one such monarch), but the bestowal of this power legitimated autocracy (rule by one person). The king ruled by virtue of God's authority; therefore he should be obeyed in all things. No group, whether they be nobles, or a parliament, or the people in the street, have a right to participate in this rule; to question or oppose the monarch was to rebel against God's purpose. This doctrine of absolutism would follow a tortured course through the eighteenth century culminating in the French Revolution of 1789-1792 and the beheading of Louis XVI, the king of France .

(taken from http://www.wsu.edu/~dee/GLOSSARY/DIVRIGHT.HTM)

Enlightenment Despotism - (also known as benevolent despotism or enlightened absolutism) is a term used to describe the actions of absolute rulers who were influenced by the Enlightenment. The main Enlightenment-era proponent of this system was Voltaire, who regularly corresponded with several of the rulers of this time.

Enlightened monarchs were rulers who distinguished themselves from traditional monarchs in the way they governed. Specifically, enlightened monarchs embraced the principles of the Enlightenment, especially its emphasis upon rationality, and applied them to their territories. They tended to allow religious toleration, freedom of speech and the press, and the right to hold private property. Most fostered the arts, sciences, and education.

Enlightened despots' beliefs about royal power were often similar to those of absolute monarchs, in that many believed that they had the right to govern by birth and generally refused to grant constitutions, seeing even the most pro-monarchy ones as being an inherent check on their power.

(taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enlightened_despot)

Constitutional Monarchy - A constitutional monarchy is a form of government in which a king or queen reigns with limits to their power along with a governing body (i.e. Parliament), giving rise to the modern adage "the Queen reigns but does not rule". A constitutional monarchy was able to form in England across different periods of history for a complex combination of reasons: sometimes due to a lack of strong leadership, and at other times due to strong leaders short of funding, who needed to raise money to prosecute wars, and needed to address public grievances to ensure this money was forthcoming. Historically, the English had not believed in the "Divine Right of Kings": ever since Magna Carta in 1215, the monarchy had been regarded as a contractual political instrument. In the 17th Century, abuse of power by the Stuart dynasty, and their attempts to import the doctrine of "Divine Right" from Scotland , caused the English to question the royal authority and revive earlier safeguards against executive power.

(taken from http://www.wsu.edu/~dee/GLOSSARY/ABSOLUTE.HTM and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constitutional_monarchy)

Oligarchy - Oligarchy is a form of government where most or all political power effectively rests with a small segment of society (typically the most powerful, whether by wealth, family, military strength, or political influence). The word oligarchy is from the Greek words for "few" and "rule" Some political theorists have argued that all governments are inevitably oligarchies no matter the supposed political system.

Oligarchies are often controlled by a few powerful families whose children are raised and mentored to be heirs of the power of the oligarchy, often at some sort of expense to those governed. In contrast to aristocracy ("government by the 'best'"), this power may not always be exercised openly, the oligarchs preferring to remain "the power behind the throne", exerting control through economic means. Although Aristotle pioneered the use of the term as a synonym for rule by the rich, for which the exact term is plutocracy, oligarchy is not always a rule by wealth, as oligarchs can simply be a privileged group. The notion of an oligarchy of virtue, modeled on the ideal of the Roman Republic, was especially important among 18th-century aristocratic circles, such as that of Richard Boyle, Lord Burlington.

(taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oligarchy)

Republicanism - Republicanism is the ideology of governing a nation as a republic. The term "republic" has been defined in many different ways, but it most often refers to a state in which sovereignty is invested in the people, rather than in a hereditary elite. Republicanism is therefore opposed to monarchy, aristocracy, oligarchy and dictatorship - though these distinctions can be somewhat vague, as constitutional monarchies share many republican ideals and a great number of dictatorships have called themselves republics.

More broadly, "republic" can refer to any state that is governed in accordance with a written constitution and laws, regardless of their actual content. In this view, republicanism means advocacy of the rule of law; it emphasizes civic duty and civic virtue and strongly opposes corruption (the use of public office for private profit).

(taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Republicanism)

Democracy - (literally "rule by the people", from the Greek demos, "people," and kratos, "rule") Term originating in ancient Greece to designate a government where the people share in directing the activities of the state, as distinct from governments controlled by a single class, select group, or autocrat. The definition of democracy has been expanded, however, to describe a philosophy that insists on the right and the capacity of a people, acting either directly or through representatives, to control their institutions for their own purposes. Such a philosophy places a high value on the equality of individuals and would free people as far as possible from restraints not self-imposed. It insists that necessary restraints be imposed only by the consent of the majority and that they conform to the principle of equality.

(taken from http://education.yahoo.com/reference/encyclopedia/entry/democrac and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democracy)

Anarchy - Anarchy is the anarchist society, the stateless society of free people. Anarchism is the name of a political philosophy, or a generic term for a group of more-or-less related political philosophies, derived from the Greek an-archos ("without archons" or "without rulers"). Thus, "anarchism," in its most general semantic meaning, is the belief that all forms of rulership are undesirable and should be abolished. William Godwin (1756-1836) represented one of the foremost radical proponents of this in the 18th century.

Although anarchists are unified in the rejection of the state, they differ about economic arrangements and possible rules that would prevail in a stateless society. On this issue anarchists differ widely, ranging from advocates of complete common ownership and distribution according to need, to supporters of private property and free market competition.

The word "anarchy", as most anarchists use it, does not imply chaos, nihilism, anomie or the total absence of rules, but rather an anti-authoritarian society that is based on voluntary association of free individuals in autonomous communities, operating on principles of mutual aid and self-governance.

(taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anarchy)


The following represent some of the more important theorists in the 17th and 18th century before the French Revolution. (We will examine the debate surrounding the French Revolution later in the semester.) 

Note: Not all of these are reflected in our readings for the course.

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651) 

Key Principles:

  1. The natural state of humanity is violent and dismal: "No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

  2. Competition amidst a system of personal honor assures that human life is always unlimited.

  3. Human beings have the right to self-defense, but it is only rational among humans to grant this right to a sovereign who can mediate conflict.

  4. The order, peace, and stability of society can, thus, only be maintained by an absolute central sovereign, who mandates a uniformity of political, economic, and religious policy.

  5. Absolute power makes it possible for the sovereign to be disinterested since desire is generated by a perceived lack or want. The sovereign, lacking nothing, will wish for nothing personal.

John Locke, The Second Treatise of Civil Government (ca. 1680/1688)

Key Principles:

  1. In a state of nature, people are free and equal, but that freedom must be managed according to reason and the laws of nature, both which God has intended for human fulfillment.
  2. Equality implies reciprocity of power and jurisdiction.
  3. Liberty does not imply the right to moral license, especially at the expense of others.
  4. Political societies are formed when people give up some measure of their freedom in order to obtain the safety, conveniences, and other goods of an organized society.
  5. Government helps provide a moral framework for people, and it acts as a neutral referee in matters of dispute between private parties. To do this, it needs a certain ability to enforce decisions, though this power must be carefully circumscribed.
  6. Absolute monarchies tend to arbitrary government in that they tax people without their consent, forbid free and representative assembly, and in general make life worse off for the people.
  7. Reasonable people cannot approve of arbitrary actions on the part of its government; therefore, the theory of royal prerogative is ill founded.
  8. People have a right to amass and maintain private property. Property includes what a person labors for and produces. In particular, one has the right to claim what one has improved, except that which is already claimed by the collective as common property.
  9. Likewise, the people have the right to rebel against a government which fails to honor the laws of nature, especially if its fails to work for the common good and loses the trust of its people.
  10. Governments, and legislatures, that fail to uphold the limits of positive law are illegitimate. Their power only extends to their ability to increase the common good.

Baron de Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws (1748)

Montesquieu was a political realist and by temperament, a conservative. He intends his political theory to provide a way of assessing the strengths and weaknesses of various governments, feeling that no one system is a perfect ideal, but that each has its potential positives and negatives. He examines four possible systems:


Overarching Principle

Where Power Resides






Self-restraint of the people

Anarchy or Oppression



Monarch and laws

Self-interest of the monarch




A few families

Prerogatives of the nobles

Arbitrary Power



Ruler’s arbitrary whims

Contempt of life


Key Principles:

  1. In a republic, crimes become public matters against the people rather than simple private matters between individuals.
  2. Likewise, in a republic, respect for the system of government must be taught along with the prerequisite public virtue. This requires that republic be a small nation so that the common good may actually be fairly achievable.
  3. A separation of powers is necessary to ensure that no one power dominates and abuses the others. These powers are the executive, the legislative, and the judicial.
  4. Climate, national character, psychology, and history are all determining factors in what makes the best government for a people.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract (1762)

Key Principles:

  1. Consent is at the heart of liberty and human equality. Aristocracies, by their very nature, are indicative of social inequality. Force and power do not make someone morally better.
  2. The social compact  is “a form of association which will defend and protect with the common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before” (432).
  3. What people lose by giving up the state of nature is compensated by a state that allows for moral liberty.
  4. As societies age, they become more unequal, concentrating wealth and power in the few. Progress is not inevitable. Natural inequalities, such as that of strength, health, or intelligence, do not create much ill will. Manufactured inequalities, on the other hand, lead to a state of internal, social war.
  5. Sovereignty is found in the general will of the people, which is the ability of each person to put the common good above self-interest or their own particular, individual will. This is not “the will of all, which is simply the competing wills of individuals.
  6. Liberty is more than freedom from the control of others, it is also the positive opportunity for self-government through civic involvement and service. This requires a small society.
  7. True freedom takes place in a country that requires public action and work of its citizens.
  8. Some who exalt their particular self-interest may have to “be forced to be free.”
  9. Partial associations by their very nature work against the general will, so they must either be eliminated or multiplied so that one association may not disrupt the common good.
  10. Constitutional limits are necessary to control the power of the state.  

Thomas Paine, Common Sense (1776)

Key Principles:

  1. Societies are a natural state of things, while governments are inherently artificial; therefore, societies may correct or even overturn governments.
  2. Societies result from the human desire for various goods and are formed to protect people against the insecurities of life.
  3. Governments are agreed to by people in order to restrain vices, protect human rights, and promote the common good. They are inevitably "a badge of lost innocence."
  4. At first, they tend to be more democratic and ad hoc in structure, but as societies grow and become more complex and spread-out, they need to be more centralized in decisions and power.
  5. Representatives are elected, but must be responsible to those whom they represent.
  6. Governments should not curtail freedom more than is necessary for the common good.
  7. Hereditary succession is an insult to the essential equality of human beings; it violates both the state of nature and the consent of the governed. It also invites wicked men to pride and insolence toward others.

In particular, Paine argues that the British Constitution, while good for its time, is infected with two forms of real tyranny: monarchial in the king and aristocratic in the House of Lords. The House of Commons does not function as a true check on the other two powers.

James Madison, Federalist No. 10, 51 (1787-1788)

Key Principles:

  1. Political factions lead to social and governmental discord. One can either limit the impact of a faction or try to remove the underlying causes behind it. The later is impractical--homogenous societies are rare and short-lived.
  2. People are motivated by their own convictions, wants, interests, and passions, and it is inevitable that people fall into various confrontations. Removing the causes of faction is impossible.
  3. One should focus on controlling the effects. Governments exist to protect the right of property from being abused.
  4. If the faction is a minority, the structure of democratic government allows the majority to overrule the minority.
  5. In a small democracy, however, the majority is likely to dominate the rights of the minority, so some means must be present to limit oppression by the majority.
  6. In a republic the people are more likely to elect their best citizens-- "enlightened statesmen," especially if the republic is of a fairly large size.
  7. The more extensive the nation, the more numerous the factions, so the less likely any one group is to dominate the rest, thus allowing for checks and balances.
  8. "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition." The branches of government--executive, legislative, and judicial should not be dependent on each other, and they should be elected separately. This makes checks and balances possible, thus keeping governmental abuse in check.
  9. The legislative branch should have multiple parts to hold itself in check.
  10. Likewise, the various states of the nation should have a means of representation that holds in check the domination of the minority by the majority. 



"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding