Mar 1, 1982

Scholastic Origins of Popular Resistance Theory

“The Calvinists would seem to be wrapping their revolutionary argument in the legitimacy of earlier, Catholic arguments.”

Quentin Skinner
Cambridge University

“The Origins of the Calvinist Theory of Revolution.” In After the Reformation: Essays in Honor of J.H. Hexter. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1980, pp. 307–330.

When and where did a recognizably modern justification of revolution first come to be stated in early modern Europe? In other words, what are the true origins of John Locke’s arguments for active political resistance as formulated in his Two Treatises of Government (1690)? To qualify as an authentic source of such a revolutionary doctrine, Locke’s predecessors’ doctrines must be both secular and populist, and exhibit these three fundamentals: (1) The right of resistance to tyranny must be held to be lodged with the body of the people at all times, and sometimes delegated but not alienated to a minister (thus opposing the more conservative form of populism espoused by such Thomists as Molina and Suárez); (2) The possibility of resistance must be seen as a natural right, not simply the people’s religious duty to uphold God’s law (thus opposing Knox’s belief); The right of resistance must be treated as the possession of each individual citizen, and hence of the whole body of the people viewed as a legal entity (thus opposing the more conservative doctrine of the sixteenth-century French monarchomachs who held that constitutional officials alone were entitled to declare and conduct resistance). Who, of Locke’s predecessors, can rightly hold title to being the originator of such a secular and populist doctrine of political resistance?

For some time the study of radical politics in early modern Europe has been dominated by the concept of the originality of the Calvinist theory of revolution. Arguing against the priority of the Calvinists in shaping the secular and populist right to political resistance, Skinner maintains that it is misleading to look to the 16th-century Calvinists as the originators of radical resistance theory (as does Michael Walzer). Skinner concedes that the 16th-century European revolutions were largely conducted by professed Calvinists, but points out that the justifying theories behind these actions were not specifically Calvinist. When the Calvinist George Buchanan, in The Right of the Kingdom among the Scots (written in Scotland in 1567, but not published until 1579) stated for the first time in defense of the Reformed Churches a fully secularized and populist theory of political resistance, he was largely restating a position already elaborated by the Scot, John Mair (1467–1550).

Mair and his more radical student, James Almain (1480–1515) revived in the early 16th century two important strands of late medieval legal and political thought. The radical scholastic doctrine of William of Ockham developed the Roman legal doctrine of the licitness of repelling unjust force with force and held that it is “lawful for the people to depose their king.” The other and even more important basis for the development of radical scholastic ideas in the early 16th century was provided by the theorists of the Conciliar movement. At the time of the Great Schism at the end of the 14th century, Jean Gerson (1363–1429) and his followers adapted the Roman law theory of corporations in such a way as to defend popular sovereignty in the Church: no ruler can ever be greater in power than the community whose agent he is. Around 1510, Almain and Mair developed Ockham’s and Gerson’s ideas to support Louis XIII against Pope Julius II. Mair, in particular, is the channel of the radical scholastic ideas to the Calvinist revolutionaries. His pupils included Calvin, John Knox, and George Buchanan. Almain drew the more radical populist implications of the scholastics’ doctrines. The ruler is pictured by both Almain and Mair as a mere “minister” of the people, elected on the condition that he protect their rights, and must be resisted by the people if he fails to discharge his duty.

The Calvinist revolutionaries of the 16th century were voicing Catholic political philosophy of the radical scholastics when they urged popular resistance to rulers. The Calvinists would seem to be wrapping their revolutionary argument in the legitimacy of earlier, Catholic arguments.