Academic journal article Journal of Markets & Morality


Academic journal article Journal of Markets & Morality


Article excerpt

Biographical Sketch

Johannes Althusius, whose surname appears variously as Althus, Althusen, or Althaus, was born in 1557 at Diedenshausen, a village in the countship of Witgenstein-Berleburg. (1) Very little is known for certain of his parents, his youth, or his early course of studies. He appeared at Cologne in 1581, where he apparently studied the writings of Aristotle. At some point prior to obtaining his doctorate, Althusius also studied law at Geneva with Denis Godefroy (1549-1622), the renowned legal scholar who published the first complete edition of Roman Civil Law in 1583. (2) He received his doctorate in both civil and canon law at Basel in 1586. Astonishingly, he published his first book Jurisprudentiae Romanae, which was a systematic treatise on Roman law based on the Godefroy edition, during the same year. While at Basel, he lived for a time in the home of Johannes Grynaeus (1540-1617), with whom he studied Reformed theology and thereafter maintained a lifelong correspondence.

In 1586, he accepted a call to teach in the newly founded law faculty in the Reformed Academy at Herborn. The Academy, which had been founded only two years earlier by Count John VI of Nassau-Dillenburg (1535-1606), became immediately successful and attracted an international student body. Its first rector was Caspar Olevianus (1536-1587), the coauthor with Zacharias Ursinus (1534-1583) of the Heidelberg Catechism. (3) As the first professor of law at Herborn Althusius began lecturing on Justinian's Institutes, but his teaching interests soon shifted to the science of public law, or what is now political science. In 1589, he became a member of the count's Chancery at Dillenburg and later became councilor to the count (1595). (4) After studying theology for a time in Heidelberg, (5) Althusius was made rector of the Academy in 1597. His second book, a volume on ethics titled Civilis conversationis libri duo, was published in 1601. The most notable achievement of his tenure at Herborn was the publication in 1603 of the Politica methodice digesta & exemplis sacris & profanis illustrata, a work that received immediate and widespread attention.

Even though Althusius had already begun to establish a scholarly reputation with his first and second books, it was the Politica that seems to have been instrumental in securing for him an attractive offer to become syndic of Emden in Friesland. Althusius assumed his duties in 1604 and led the city's legal and political affairs without interruption until his death in 1638. During his lengthy term of service, he engaged in strategic diplomatic missions with the territorial authorities to assist Emden in achieving independent statehood, he also developed and maintained a municipal constitution, and kept up with his literary pursuits. He published two new and enlarged editions of the Politica (1610 and 1614), and also wrote the Dicaeologicae (1617), a work in which he systematized the entire body of existing law and coordinated it with Roman and Jewish civil law. In 1617, Althusius was elected elder of the church of Emden, and was highly esteemed by the Reformed clergy under the leadership of Menso Alting (1541-1612). "There is a sense in which [Althusius'] two functions of syndic and elder, coupled with capacities for leadership and hard work," observes Carney, "enabled him to coordinate the civil and ecclesiastical jurisdictions of the city, and thus to exercise somewhat the same kind of influence in Emden as Calvin did in Geneva." (6)

Johannes Althusius: Political Theorist, Jurist, Syndic of Emden

Until Otto von Gierke's (1841-1921) rediscovery of Althusius in the 1880s, few political theorists and jurists, and even fewer theologians, had any substantive appreciation for Althusius' contribution to either the Western political canon or the Western legal tradition. One possible explanation for the rather slow reception of Althusius among twentieth-century scholars, at least until recently, is that prior to Frederick Carney's 1964 translation there had been no published translation of a substantial portion of the Politica in any vernacular language. …

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