Political Thought

Mark Jurdjevic

in Renaissance and Reformation

ISBN: 9780195399301
Published online June 2012 | | DOI:
Political Thought

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  • Modern History (1700 to 1945)
  • Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy


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Early modern European political thought is notable for its considerable variety and complexity. The broad range of arguments and themes developed between c. 1350 and c. 1650 reflect the particularly swift rate of change in Europe’s political, religious, and geographical landscape. In the 14th century, as the monarchies north and west of the Alps began a process of political consolidation that gradually ended feudalism, the city-states of Italy began to develop systematic theories of popular sovereignty and celebrations of active citizenship. The optimism of humanist political thought suffered a major setback during the French invasion of Italy and ensuing Italian wars, a traumatic context that gave rise to the pessimistic realism of Machiavelli and Guicciardini. In the 16th century, humanism’s political assumptions spread north and were further developed by Christian humanists such as Thomas More and Erasmus. Initially an Italian phenomenon, humanism became an important aspect of western European political culture concurrent with the 16th-century Reformation. Political thought of the Reformation era, guided at first by bellicose figures such as Luther, Calvin, and Loyola, initially stressed obedience and uniformity, even as embattled French Calvinists began to develop theories of political resistance and German and Dutch Anabaptists began to champion voluntary religion, pacifism, and the separation of church and state. The apparent intractability of religious conflict led many political thinkers to seek order in a new absolutist vision of a powerful centralized state. In the 17th century and in France, most successfully, self-styled absolutist monarchs made yet more ambitious and unbounded claims to power. Such claims did not go uncontested, however. In England, the apparent encroaching absolutism of the Stuart dynasty led to a twenty-year conflict between royalists and parliamentarians that saw the trial and execution of Charles I and the sudden urgency of arguments by radical political groups such as the Ranters, Levellers, and Fifth Monarchists for community of goods, sexual freedom, and religious toleration. Concurrent and frequently intersecting with these political upheavals was the European discovery of the New World, the enslavement of Central and South America’s indigenous peoples, and the establishment of trading colonies in the Americas, which led to the reinterpretation of ancient theories of slavery and empire and the emergence of international law by thinkers such as Hugo Grotius and Samuel Pufendorf.

Article.  11229 words. 

Subjects: Modern History (1700 to 1945) ; Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy

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