Johannes Althusius

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Johannes Althusius, engraving by Jean-Jacques Boissard.

Johannes Althusius (1563 – August 12, 1638)[1] was a German jurist and Calvinist political philosopher.

He is best known for his 1603 work, "Politica Methodice Digesta, Atque Exemplis Sacris et Profanis Illustrata".[a] revised editions were published in 1610 and 1614. The ideas expressed therein relate to the early development of federalism in the 16th and 17th centuries and the construction of subsidiarity.


Althusius was born in 1563, to a family of modest means in Diedenshausen, County Sayn-Wittgenstein (Siegen-Wittgenstein),[1] a Calvinist County in what is now the state of North Rhine Westphalia (but was then the seat of an independent Grafschaft or County). Under the patronage of a local count, he attended the Gymnasium Philippinum in Marburg from 1577 and began his studies in 1581, concentrating in law and philosophy. He first studied Aristotle in Cologne, then studied law around 1585/86 under Denis Godefroy at Basel.[2] In 1586, Althusius received his doctorate in civil and canon law from the University of Basel. While studying at Basel, Althusius lived with Johannes Grynaeus for a period of time, with whom he studied theology.[2]

After completing his studies, in 1586 Althusius became the first professor of law at the Protestant-Calvinist Herborn Academy of Nassau County.[2] From 1592 to 1596, he taught at the Calvinist Academy in Burgsteinfurt/Westphalia. In 1599 he was appointed president of the Nassau College in its temporary location in Siegen, returning with it to Herborn in 1602.[1] At the same time he began his political career by serving as a member of the Nassau (Germany) county council.

For the next several years, he was involved in several colleges in the area, variously serving as their president and lecturing on law and philosophy. In 1603 he was elected as a municipal trustee of the city of Emden, in East Frisia, where he ultimately made his fame. He became a city Syndic in 1604, which placed him at the helm of Emden's governance until his death.

In 1617, Althusius published his principal judicial work, Dicaeologicae. In this work, he categorized laws into types main types: natural laws and positive laws, and argued that natural law is "the will of God for men."[3] Althusius contended that terms such as "common law" and "moral law" were other names for natural law. In order to know the true dictates of natural law, he argued, we must carefully study Scripture and tradition, as well as revelation and reason.[4]

Johannes Althusius died on August 12, 1638, in Emden.[1]

After his death, Althusius remained a controversial thinker. His Politica was attacked by Henning Arnisaeus and Hugo Grotius during the seventeenth century for its defense of local autonomies against the rise of territorial absolutism and proponents of the modern unitary nation state.[5]

Althusius saw confederations as feasible and successful cooperative constitutional orders. In his view, a confederation could be built on successive levels of political community where each community pursues common interests. A village was a union of families, a town was a union of guilds, a province was a union of towns, a state was a union of provinces, and an empire was a union of states.[6]


By the time Althusius began his formal studies in 1581, the Dutch Revolt against Spain had already come to a head, and it was not to be settled until Dutch independence was recognized in 1609. Because the nature of the conflict was largely religious – Calvinist states rebelling against their Catholic overlords – it was of especial interest to Calvinist political thinkers such as Althusius.

In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Emden in East Frisia (now Germany) was at the crossroads of political and religious activity in the region. A prosperous seaport situated between the Netherlands and the Holy Roman Empire, with convenient maritime access to England, Emden was a prominent city in the politics and policy of all three nations, and was thus able to retain a significant amount of political freedom. It was located within the overlapping territories of the Catholic Habsburg emperor and a Lutheran provincial lord, but its population was mainly Calvinist, and the city had a strong Calvinist spirit. Emden also played host to two Protestant synods, first in 1571 and again in 1610, and was widely regarded as the "Geneva of the North" or the "alma mater" of the Dutch Reformed Church. These attributes made the city the ideal place for Althusius to propose his particular brand of political philosophy; Emden's theological and political prominence coupled with its yen for religious and civic independence made the Althusian political theory both topical and popular.


  • Civilis conversationis libri duo, 1601
  • Politica, the first edition of which was completed in 1603, is considered not only the most fully developed scheme of Calvinist political theory, but also the only systematic justification of the Dutch Revolt. Althusius took from thinkers in various fields, including Aristotle, Calvin, Bodin, Machiavelli, Grotius, and Peter Ramus; Politica cited close to 200 books in all; the first edition of Politica was received with wide acclaim in Emden and in the Netherlands beyond. It may have been influential on American via Alexander Henderson.
  • Dicaeologica libri tres, totum et universum Jus, Frankfurt, 1618. Sections of this work have been recently translated into English and published by Christian's Library Press as On Law and Power (2013).


He was married in 1596 in Siegen to Margarethe Neurath (born 1574), with whom he had at least six children.


  • Althusius, Johannes (1997) [1603], Politica, Edited and translated by Frederick Smith Carney, Liberty Fund, ISBN 9780865971158.
  • Althusius, Johannes (2009) [1603], Malandrino, Corrado (ed.), La politica (in Latin and Italian), translated by Corrado Malandrino; Francesco Ingravalle; Mauro Povero, Turin: Claudiana.
  • Althusius, Johannes (2013) [1617], On Law and Power. CLP Academic.


  1. ^ Latin for "Politics Methodically Digested, Illustrated with Sacred and Profane Examples".


  1. ^ a b c d "Johannes Althusius", Encyclopædia Britannica.
  2. ^ a b c Johannes Althusius, On Law and Power. CLP Academic, 2013, p.xx.
  3. ^ Johannes Althusius, On Law and Power. CLP Academic, 2013, pp.lvi.
  4. ^ Johannes Althusius, On Law and Power. CLP Academic, 2013, p.lviii.
  5. ^ Johannes Althusius, On Law and Power. CLP Academic, 2013, p.xxiii.
  6. ^ Hechter, Michael (2001). Containing nationalism. Oxford University Press. p. 42. ISBN 0-19-924751-X. OCLC 470549985.


  • Althusius, Johannes, On Law and Power. CLP Academic, 2013.
  • Alvarado, Ruben. The Debate that Changed the West: Grotius versus Althusius (Aalten: Pantocrator Press, 2018).[permanent dead link]
  • "Il lessico della Politica di Johannes Althusius", a cura di Francesco Ingravalle e Corrado Malandrino, Firenze, Olschki, 2005.
  • Follesdal, Andres. "Survey Article: Subsidiarity." Journal of Political Philosophy 6 (June 1998): 190-219.
  • Friedrich, Carl J. Constitutional Reason of State. Providence: Brown University Press, 1957.
  • Hueglin, Thomas. "Covenant and Federalism in the Politics of Althusius." In The Covenant Connection: From Federal Theology to Modern Federalism, ed. Daniel J. Elazar and John Kincaid, 31-54. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2000.
  • Hueglin, Thomas. Early Modern Concepts for a Late Modern World: Althusius on Community and Federalism. Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1999.
  • ________. "Federalism at the Crossroads: Old Meanings, New Significance." Canadian Journal of Political Science 36 (June 2003): 275-293.
  • ________. "Have We Studied the Wrong Authors? On Johannes Althusius as a Political Theorist." Studies in Political Thought 1 (Winter 1992): 75-93.
  • Kistenkas, Frederik Hendrik. European and domestic subsidiarity. An Althusian conceptionalist view, Tilb. Law Rev. 2000, p. 247 ev.
  • Lakoff, Sanford. "Althusius, Johannes." In Political Philosophy: Theories, Thinkers, and Concepts. Edited by Seymour Martin Lipset, 221-223. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2001.
  • von Gierke, Otto. The Development of Political Theory. Translated by Bernard Freyd. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1939.