The Foundational Tenets of Johannes Althusius’ Constitutionalism

  • Koos J Malan University of Pretoria
Keywords: Territorial state, statist paradigm, statist-individualism, statist-collectivism, post statist constitutional thinking, piety, justice, community, covenant, public office, communitarian theory


In his Politica: Politics Methodically set Forth and Illustrated with Sacred and Profane Examples published in 1603 Johannes Althusius’ sets out his grand scheme of republican federalism. Soon, however, the final establishment of the territorial state and the paradigm of statism relegated grand federalism to the distant margins of constitutional theory.

Statism as concisely enunciated in this article, recognises only two entities namely the state as a centralised power apparatus and the abstract individual on whom a statist identity in the image of the state is enforced. Statism dispenses with communities.

Statism has been playing out on a continuum, with the statist-individualism on the one and statist-collectivism on the opposite extreme. Statist-individualism seeks to fend off the risks of supreme political power with strategies for the protection of individual rights. In contrast, statist-collectivism dispenses with the subtleties of statist-individualism and is distinctively more blatant in forging a homogeneous statist nation.

In the face of the rise of claims of communities, the emergence of communitarian thinking and increased evidence of the receding territorial state, new - post statist - constitutional thinking is gathering strength. This has unleashed considerable interest in alternative thinking such as that of Althusius.

Althusius’ grand federalism should be viewed, however, within the context of his broader constitutional thinking, which on close analysis, is constituted by four interlinked aspects namely: piety, justice and community; covenant (or contract); supremacy of the commonwealth and of the law; and political authority and public office. These tenets are the main focus of the present discussion.

There is no room for a blanket transplantation of Althusian thinking into modern constitutional theory. However, it does provide a valuable source of communitarian theory for contemporary constitutional law. It brings to light that (individual) identity, morality, and a happy life and individual rights can only be conceived of within the framework of communities.  Moreover, Althusius’ convictions on (shared) popular sovereignty, in contrast to undivided (statist) sovereignty and his views on public office provided the framework for constitutionalism and limited government which could arguably improve on that of contemporary statist constitutionalism.




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