A History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century

By J. W. Allen | Go to book overview

CHAPTER III
THE VERY AND TRUE COMMONWEAL

§ 1. INTRODUCTORY

THE expression of political thought in England, at least down to Elizabeth's reign and even to the end of the century, was, for the most part, inextricably entangled with religious controversy. Thinkers were concerned chiefly with the question of the nature of the Church and its relation to civil authority, as they had been in the Middle Ages. Even the question of the nature of political obligation was discussed chiefly in this connection. But under Henry VIII and Edward VI political thought was also taking another and quite different direction. The conception of an 'absolute' national sovereignty was developed mainly in connection with the Reformation: the conception of the Church of England as an aspect of the commonwealth presupposed a conception of the commonwealth. This idea of a Christian commonwealth, inherited from the Middle Ages, was being explored without specific reference to the Church. Men were considering the actual structure of society and asking how its parts are related and what binds it together and what should be its animating purpose. In this there was nothing whatever that was new. It is true to say that, under Henry VIII and Edward VI, there was formed a conception of what the commonwealth should be, or, if you like to put it so, of what it really is. It would be more fully true to say that medieval conceptions received at that time a fresh expression. The writers who furnished that expression were, in the main, reproducing medieval conceptions of the meaning and purpose of the social and political order and of the duty of every man in his station to see to it that his activities were strictly related to that end. So only could he be justified and so only serve the purpose of God. England in the sixteenth century was passing through an economic as well as a religious revolution. The idealists of the mid- century, therefore, tended to see in co-operation for economic purposes the immediate object of the social and political structure. But that tendency, too, is visible earlier; and as fully as Aquinas or St. Antonino of Florence, they found in religion the unifying and defining and animating purpose of society.

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