In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Political Thought

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

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Renaissance and Reformation Political Thought
Mark Jurdjevic
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 June 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0117


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.

General Overviews

Because of the range and variety of early modern political thought, there are relatively few comprehensive pan-European surveys. The few that exist, however, are excellent and essential points of departure. Given the considerable variation in early modern political thought, scholars have interpreted it from a wide variety of perspectives and methodologies. Two dominant approaches, however, stand out: the “Cambridge School,” loosely associated with J. G. A. Pocock and Quentin Skinner, which seeks to situate ideas within a broad intellectual context, and the “Straussian” methodology, loosely associated with Leo Strauss and Harvey Mansfield, which seeks to uncover esoteric and often hidden meanings in major texts. Burns and Goldie 1991 offers a broad overview of early modern political thought, while Pagden 1987 provides a collection of essays written by experts on modern political thought. Pocock 1975 and Skinner 1978 are each classic texts; Pocock focuses on Florentine political thought, while Skinner focuses on Italian humanism and counter-reformation thought, among other topics. Strauss and Cropsey 1987 offers a collection of essays that covers almost every major early modern political thinker.

  • Burns, J. H., and Mark Goldie, eds. The Cambridge History of Political Thought, 1450–1700. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521247160

    This volume is the most thorough and wide-ranging survey of early modern political thought. It features contributions on the Renaissance, Reformation, absolutism, jurisprudence, natural law, constitutionalism, Aristotelianism, and liberalism by established experts in the respective fields. An essential text for all students of political ideas in early modern Europe.

  • Pagden, Anthony R., ed. The Languages of Political Theory in Early-Modern Europe. Ideas in Context Series. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511521447

    An excellent collection of essays by leading authorities on major texts and themes in early modern political thought.

  • Pocock, J. G. A. The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975.

    A classic and hugely influential study of the role of republican ideas in Western political thought. The core of the text is Florentine political thought, particularly as articulated by Machiavelli, but Pocock makes a compelling case for seeing a broad continuity of Aristotelian republicanism in Renaissance Italy, 17th- and 18th-century England, and colonial America.

  • Skinner, Quentin. The Foundations of Modern Political Thought. 2 vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

    Classic study by a leading pioneer of situating political texts in context. The first volume focuses on Italian humanism, the mirror-for-princes tradition, and communal and republican thought. The second volume focuses on the political implications of Lutheran, Calvinist, and counter-reformation thought.

  • Strauss, Leo, and Joseph Cropsey, eds. History of Political Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

    A classic collection of essays spanning political thought from Thucydides to Nietzsche. The volume includes essays by influential political theorists on almost every major early modern political thinker.

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