A History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century

By J. W. Allen | Go to book overview

CONCLUSION

I AM told that, in this concluding chapter, I ought to summarize the results of my explorations in the political thought of the sixteenth century. It would certainly be well to do so, were it not for the fact that this whole book is but a summary and a summary summary and incomplete at that. It is with deep misgivings that I attempt still further to condense.

People in the sixteenth century, when they thought politically, were above all preoccupied with the problem of establishing and maintaining order. Just because order was the thing most needed it was a century of efforts to create and to centralize administrative arrangements for its enforcement. In England solid success was achieved: in France there was failure so pronounced that the country all but broke in pieces. In Spain the success was, it seems, both illusory and disastrous. In Germany, as a whole, the effort produced disintegration; but that disintegration was due to the success of the effort to establish new centres of order and strong government. The Italian settlement, largely brought about by the wisdom and moderation of Charles V in victory, stereotyped a series of petty despotisms and oligarchies, but at least put an end to chronic internal warfare.

Intentness on a practical need acutely felt involves of itself no kind of political theory. But, under the actual circumstances, recognition of the need of order, and policies of centralization, involved preoccupation with certain questions incident and relevant to the practical problem. It was very manifest that what above all was needed was a profound recognition of the duty of obedience to duly constituted political authority. The question how such authority is derived, on what rests the obligation to obey and how far and in what sense it is limited, was, above all else, the question of the century.

It was answered in various ways; but the assumptions habitually made as to natural law and as to the absolutely imperative nature of Scriptural commands and directions, limited the possibilities of answer. Study of the Scriptures led, indeed, to quite different conclusions. Yet certain points remained fixed. One must in any case obey God's commands whatever the political sovereign might say; and there was a general persuasion that one ought to disobey commands

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