The English School (ES) presents us with a puzzle regarding the origins of modern international society: on the one hand, the medieval political order is defined as respublica Christiana; on the other hand, the Thirty Years War and the Peace of Westphalia are identified as marking the collapse of that political order. Yet, the participants in the negotiations that led to the Peace often referred to the respublica Christiana, demonstrating that they saw themselves as belonging to such a political republic. Moreover, other political figures and thinkers continued to use such an expression well beyond 1648.
The ES solves this puzzle in a odd and, in my view, ultimately unsatisfactory manner. Basically, the solution suggests that the term respublica Christiana persisted due to the absence of a better alternative term. Political participants and thinkers were not able to articulate a notion that could define the new political system and, consequently, only the passage of time could provide a satisfactory conceptual clarification. This solution to the puzzle is rather odd since it posits that the persistence of the term respublica Christiana implies that its survival was due to the inability of XVII Century political thinkers to develop the concept of anarchical state system.
Let me give an example to show the oddity of this argument. Imagine that fifty years from now the European Union is a unitary federal state. That is to say, European sovereign states have disappeared. Then imagine that two hundred years later, political historians and thinkers argue that the end of the Second World War (which in fact terminated also a kind of Thirty Years War) constituted a profound revolution in European political history. Specifically, the beginning of the European federation and the end of the sovereign state in Europe. Continuing with this use of historical analogy, the Rome Treaty would be a kind of Peace of Westphalia. Of course, someone with a keener interest in History would note that European political figures and thinkers of the period still relied on the notion of the sovereign state. Indeed, well until the twenty first century, the European Union was defined as an association of sovereign states.
If these future political thinkers reason along the lines of the members of the ES, they will argue that the use of the term sovereign state simply reflects a deep inability to define the European federation rather than the persistence of the sovereign state itself. However, I do not think that it is excessive to say that the sovereign state is still quite important in Europe. This is a relevant point for the process of European integration and will have far-reaching consequences in the shaping of the kind of political confederation that is emerging in Europe.
If we take this example seriously, the solution to the puzzle offered by the ES is clearly unsatisfactory. The persistence of the notion of respublica Christiana well after the Peace of Westphalia demonstrates that we cannot really understand the nature of modern international society without simultaneously taking into account many ideas inherent to that notion. Just as any sort of European confederation will inevitably be influenced by ideas inherent to the concept of sovereign statehood, modern international society has been influenced by ideas inherent with the notion of respublica Christiana.
In light of what I have so far said, perhaps another solution to the Westphalian puzzled may be offered. Part of my solution is simply not to see it as a puzzle. The fact that political figures and thinkers in the XVII Century often referred to the idea of respublica Christiana only demonstrates that the idea was both politically relevant and significant. In short, we should take these political actors and thinkers in a rather serious way. The concept of respublica Christiana, a creation of Renaissance humanism and republicanism, served as an alternative to the medieval notion of universal monarchy, which was associated in early modern Europe with Catholic imperialism. It was precisely this humanist conception of respublica Christiana that participants in the Peace of Westphalia invoked. Looking at the problem in this faction, the fact that the participants in the negotiations of a settlement that defeated the Catholic project of universal monarchy remained loyal to the idea of respublica Christiana ceases to a puzzle.
This paper offers a solution to the Westphalian puzzle. In the first section, I discuss the humanist conception of empire, which emerged in the high middle ages, in opposition to Christian conception of universal empire. In the second section, I trace the transformation, during the Renaissance, of the humanist conception of empire into the idea of respublica Christiana. Finally, in the third section, I explain the significance of the idea of respublica Christiana in the process that led to the Peace of Westphalia. In the conclusion, in a brief way, I say something on why the ES could not solve the puzzle in this way and I justify why it is important to solve such a puzzle.
The English School, the Notion of Respublica Christiana, and the Significance of the Peace of Westphalia
The ES’s analysis of the medieval respublica Christiana emphasises four points. First, its imperial nature. In Systems of States, Martin Wight emphasises the institutional unity of medieval politics. Despite the recognition of the existence of ‘an innumerable multitude of governmental units’, for instance Wight refers to the distribution of power among many political units, with some of them developing ‘the internal organisation and external claims which in due course gave birth to the conceptions of ‘sovereignty’ and the ‘state’’, he clearly emphasises the ‘unity rather than separateness’, ‘hierarchy rather than equality’, the Empire’s claim to universal jurisdiction in temporal matters, and ‘[t]he universal government of the papacy’. Wight even calls the Church ‘the real state of the Middle Ages’. Likewise, drawing on Otto Gierke, Bull defines respublica Christiana in imperial terms. More recently, Robert Jackson has recovered this conventional view. For him, ‘respublica Christiana was a unified authority’, defined by a ‘dual arrangement’: a religious authority...headed by the pope and a political authority...headed by a secular ruler designated as emperor’.
The second point refers to cultural unity. Again, Wight recognises a strong cultural unity in the medieval political society, which was associated with the Christian religion. The term societas christiana characterises precisely such a religious unity. This sense of spiritual unity was the basis of the Holy See political power, which was confirmed by the doctrine of the Pope as dominus mundi, or ‘lord of all mankind’. The crucial episode in the emergence of this Christian conception of imperial order was the coronation of Charlesmagne, by the Pope, as Emperor in the Christmas Day of the eighth century. From this moment, the papacy claimed universal jurisdiction in both spiritual and temporal matters. In the same vein, for Bull, in medieval politics, ‘the values which they held to underly the society were Christian’. Jackson affirms that respublica Christiana defined and guaranteed the ‘belief system of Europeans in the western half of the continent’.
Thirdly, for the ES, ‘theorists of this period provided no clear guidance as to who the members of international society were; no fundamental constitutive principle or criterion of membership was clearly enunciated’. In particular, the sovereign state had not emerged. Given ‘the assumptions of a universal society…what is lacking is a conception that makes independence of outside authority in the control of territory and population the inherent right of all states’. In Jackson’s words, the imperial institutional architecture of the medieval international society ‘did not imply sovereignty’: No ruler was fully independent or sovereign, all were ‘semi-autonomous’.
Finally, according to the ES, the institutions of the Christian international society did not derive ‘from the co-operation of states’. ‘On the one hand, the existing ‘international’ or ‘supranational’ institutions were those of the decadent Empire and Papacy, and did not derive from the co-operation or the consent of states; and on the other hand the tradition of co-operation which states were developing was not yet perceived as taking the place of these institutions’. For instance, institutions that later came to have a central role in the system of states, such as diplomacy or international law, were under the papal authority. The emergence of the modern society of states had to wait for the collapse of respublica Christiana. In Jackson’s words, ‘Before a plural system of sovereign states could fully emerge, the supreme authority of respublica Christiana had to be extinguished or at least rendered superfluous’. For the ES, the Peace of Westphalia is the historical symbol of such a collapse.
The association between the emergence of the modern system of states and the defeat of the imperial project is an idea that often appears in the work of the ES. For instance, Wight stresses the break between the medieval and the modern political systems. In his own words, modern ‘international anarchy’ arose from the ruins of the medieval international monarchy. Moreover, the modern society of states not only replaced the medieval imperial order, but it also emerged after ‘the interval of realism’ that lasted for thirty years. Between the medieval Christian political society and the modern European international society, there was a period characterised by power politics, which was marked by the religious and dynastic wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. For Bull, there was already a states-system, ‘which must be dated from the appearance of sovereign states whose behaviour impinged on one another’, and which ‘began at least as early as the late fifteenth century’. Yet, there was not an international society in the sense of states following legal rules in their mutual relations. The modern society of states only emerged in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia.
Such a view demonstrates that, in Bull’s historical account, the Peace of Westphalia occupies a privileged place. On the one hand, the Peace recognises a modern and anarchical society of states, in opposition to the medieval imperial political society; and, on the other hand, the Peace establishes a society of states after the ‘interval of realism’ of the early modern states system. The modernity of the Peace lies in its crucial role in the development of a statist international society, in the recognition of the emergence of secular principles and institutions to manage international politics, and lastly in the establishment of a body of rules to be applied to the states system as a whole. In this sense, the Treaties of Munster and Osnabruck also marked the historical transition from an international system of power politics to an international society of common norms and institutions. In other words, the historical significance of the Peace of Westphalia derives from its recognition of the emergence of the modern international society. Therefore, the Peace of Westphalia represents, in historical terms, the alternative to both political anarchy and to hegemonic empire. In theoretical terms, this view translates in the transformation of the Peace of Westphalia as the historical symbol of rationalism and in its opposition to both realism and revolutionism.
As a result of this structural transformation, ‘State sovereignty displaced the sovereignty of God’, and ‘Europe was defined as a plurality of regna’. After the Peace of Westphalia, the entities of the Empire, ‘formerly subordinated’, ‘became independent authorities within their own territories’. Thus, in Westphalia, ‘A modern society of sovereign states had been created out of the political debris of a ruined medieval Christian empire’. Jackson strongly emphasises the significance of this historical change
The great political transformation symbolized by Westphalia can be captured conceptually as a reconstitution of European politics from that of a universitas, based on the solidarist norms of Latin Christendom, to that of a societas, based on the pluralist norms of state sovereignty and political independence.
In the ES’s definition of the ‘societas of sovereign states’, the emphasis on the unitary and absolutist nature of the sovereign state is quite clear. As Jackson puts it, the modern sovereign state can be defined ‘as a single governing authority which is acknowledged to be supreme over all other authorities within a certain territorial jurisdiction and is independent of all foreign authorities’. Form this follows the absolute defence of the principle of non-intervention, the opposition between pluralism and solidarism, and the association between solidarism and imperial order. It is quite common to find these assertions in the work of the central members of the ES.
It is now the moment to return to the Westphalian puzzle, identified in the beginning of the paper. Jackson’s recent work can serve to illustrate the ES problematic answer to the puzzle. At a certain point in his account of the Peace of Westphalia, Jackson makes an interesting and relevant point: ‘The conceptual and linguistic categories available to the statespeople at Westpahlia were those of the late medieval era’. Accordingly, those statespeople saw themselves as ‘Christian rulers’, as belonging to the ‘universal community’ of ‘Christendom’, and understood the Peace as representing the ‘senate of the Christian world’. These observations lead Jackson to admit that ‘The peace treaties do not specifically include much evidence for the claim that Westphalia is the crucial turning-point in the emergence of sovereignty’. However, and despite the views and the language used by the participants in the negotiations that led to the Peace, Jackson ‘knows’ what those participants ‘did not know’ at the time. Although the transition did not become ‘clearly evident’ then, it is ‘clearly evident’ now for Jackson that it occurred then. This interpretation is, in my view, extraordinary and demonstrates that, contrary to Jackson’s intentions, he does not ‘understand the Westphalian moment from the perspective of that time’, but rather ‘from the present time’. If we really attempt to understand what happened in Westphalia ‘from the perspective of the time’, then we need to take their language and views seriously. In particular, we need to grasp that their use of the term, and attachment to, respublica Christiana was not a legacy of the medieval period, condemned to disappear. The problem is that Jackson, like Wight and Bull before him, confuse the notion of respublica Christiana with the Christian idea of universal monarchy and fails to perceive that the emergence of the secular and humanist conception of respublica Christiana was the response to the failure of universal monarchy. It is important to understand how such a conception emerged.
Medieval Political Thought and the Notion of Empire
As I said in the Introduction, we need to grasp that the idea of respublica Christiana emerged only in early modern Europe and as a reaction against universal monarchy. To understand this point, it is helpful to, briefly, return to the medieval period. One of the central political notions during that period was the notion of empire. Both historical memory and political experience contributed to keep the idea alive throughout the medieval period. On the one hand, the memory of the ancient Roman empire was very powerful and was readily invoked by political agents. In the medieval political imagination, the empire of Rome was associated with progress, with justice and with political order. In a nutshell, Rome was the symbol of civilisation. It was this image that gave legitimacy to the aspiration of restoring the empire. A contemporary medieval historian calls this ‘the ideology of Roman imperial restoration’. On the other hand, the idea of empire also arose form more recent political experience, namely the political experience of the empire of Charlemagne, which was created in the eighth century. Like the old Roman empire, this early medieval imperial experience became quickly associated with political order and progress. We should not forget that the creation of the Carolingian empire ended a period of barbarism, characterised by centuries of permanent anarchy and warfare. Yet, despite the aspiration for an imperial order, ‘the movements towards the unity of a universal empire was more than balanced by movements towards the separation and division of independent states or kingdoms’. Therefore, it is not entirely correct to characterise medieval political order in terms of imperial unity; and this crucial point is not entirely captured by the ES. Yet, on the other hand, the imperial idea was very powerful in the minds of both scholars and politicians.
From these observations, we can draw three conclusions. First, the idea of empire meant order, progress, security and civilisation, and as such became a legitimate political aspiration. Secondly, the notion of empire was associated with rulership over many different territories and peoples. It was seen as an extended political system where the centre, through expansion, ruled over the peripheries, or the provinces of the empire. However, emperorship was by no means always necessarily viewed in absolutist, unitary and universal terms. In other words, empire did not necessarily mean ‘universal monarchy’. This point leads to the third conclusion, which is the most significant in the context of this paper. It is important to bear in mind that there were two competing conceptions of empire during the high Middle Ages, particularly after the Carolingian period.
Janet Nelson makes a distinction between the ‘Rome-free imperial idea’, and the ‘Rome-centred imperial idea’. It is important to note that the term ‘Rome’ here refers to the papacy and not the Roman empire. Let me call these two versions of empire the decentralised or the humanist conception and the hegemonic or the Christian conception. I want to briefly elaborate on this distinction, starting with a discussion of the origins of the Christian conception of empire. The emergence of such a conception knows two crucial historical moments. First, the conversion of Constantine and the progressive christianisation of the Roman Empire. For Christian thinkers, ‘the conversion of Constantine’ was a ‘watershed between the age of a persecuted church and the age of a triumphant established Christianity’. This gave origin to an increasingly popular ‘vision of a christianised Roman Empire’. Thus, the ideas of ‘Roman’ and ‘Christian’ tended to merge. The identification between the Roman Empire with the Christian society raised a crucial issue: ‘who exercised ultimate authority in such a society?’. As we will see below, this question is central for the critics of the Christian conception of empire. The second crucial moment occurred on Christmas Day 800, when the two ideas, the Roman and the Christian, ‘intersected in the coronation of Charlemagne by Leo III in Rome’. After almost four centuries of political anarchy, the Christian Roman Empire was rebuilt, and, in the words of a historian, ‘Charlemagne’s imperial seal was inscribed Renovatio romani imperii’. Since the Carolingian period, the notion of empire in the middle ages acquired a Roman-Christian universality. The political implications were far-reaching.
From the mid-twelfth century the papacy was characterised above all by its development as a legal and governmental institution. In following this path...the papacy pursued a policy of centralisation by means of the extension of its jurisdiction. This was the context in which theories of papal power were developed and reactions against them emerged.
We can draw three conclusions from the views of those who defended the project of the Christian universal empire. First, the imperial powers were bound to fulfil two central functions: to preserve peace within Christendom, and to expand and defend the Christian faith against non-Christians. Secondly, they embraced the papal hierocratic thesis, which identified a legitimate political order with the establishment of political unity under a imperial single ruler. Thirdly, Christianity was recognised as the official religion of the empire. This Christian conception of empire is quite similar to the ES’s definition of the respublica Christiana. As we saw above, Wight, Bull and Jackson stress the imperial unity and the Christian nature of the medieval respublica Christiana. However, there were alternatives to the Christian conception of empire. In the words of a medieval historian,
The Christian idea of empire...was a powerful force in the middle ages, influential in the minds and actions of many kings and emperors...But we shall simply pile up confusion if we attempt to identify it with the historical empire in the west.
One of this alternative conceptions corresponds to what I call the decentralised or the humanist vision of empire. I shall use the thought of the Florentine writer, Dante, as the example of such a conception. Two crucial issues marked the political context of the early Renaissance, Dante’s lifetime. On the one hand, the conflicts between city-states in the north of Italy. On the other hand, the attempt by the papacy to impose imperial authority on northern Italy, which resulted into the return of the papal hierocratic imperial argument. For Dante, the authority of the Holy Roman Emperor was the answer to both problems. Only imperial authority could bring peace to the north of Italy and at the same time defeat the papacy’s ambitions. In his book, De Monarchia, published in the beginning of the fourteenth century, Dante discusses the legitimacy and the origins of empire. In particular, he answers three questions: first, is the empire ‘necessary to the well-being of the world?’ Secondly, ‘did the Roman people take on the office of the monarch by right?’ Thirdly, ‘does the monarch’s authority derive directly from God or from someone else?’. It is the answers to the first and the third questions, treated by the author, respectively, in Book One and Book Three, that directly concern us here. To justify the imperial authority, Dante develops three arguments. First, for Dante, the monarch’s double function ‘is that of peace-keeper and lawgiver’. Dante firmly believed that only a single sovereign authority could provide peace to humankind. Indeed, it was the capacity to maintain peace among Christians that justified the legitimacy of the imperial political order. Secondly, without imperial authority it would be impossible to resolve the conflicts that arise between lesser kings and princes, who compete for territory and power, and thereby Christendom would not be at peace. In other words, without a universal empire, Christendom is ‘condemned to endemic conflict’. Thirdly, in this sense, the progress of Christendom called for the authority of the Emperor. Universal authority can ensure that ‘human beings can achieve self-fulfilment individually and collectively’.
In the final chapter of Book One, Dante links his philosophical claims to history. He recalls a brief period when humanity enjoyed universal peace due to the existence of a universal empire: ‘under the immortal Augustus, when a perfect monarchy existed...mankind was then happy in the calm of universal peace’. For Dante, this episode shows that ‘the role of the Roman empire in human history was crucial’, which legitimises the exercise of imperial authority. It also demonstrates that the universal empire described in Monarchy is not an idealized philosophical abstraction, but a historical reality. In other words, Dante recovered the idea of a secular Pax Romana. This last point leads us to consider Dante’s answer to the question of the sources of imperial authority, which is the subject of Book Three. As I mentioned above, one of the central political issues of Dante’s age was the relationship between religious and secular power. Dante argued that ‘the authority of the monarch [emperor] comes from God directly’, and it is completely independent of the Pope. In the context of this paper, it is important to emphasise two conclusions regarding Dante’s contribution. First, he starts to develop a secular conception of imperial authority, which is opposed to the Christian vision of empire. Secondly, although he clearly develops a theory of universal monarchy, he does not ignore the gradual emergence of territorial sovereignty. This leads Anthony Black to observe that Dante’s conception of imperial authority ‘does not mean empire in the conventional...sense but something a bit closer to confederation’. Black goes on saying that
Separate states and nations keep their own laws; the emperor acts not as a court of first instance but when municipal laws are defective, and on matters common to the whole human race...On the other hand, it is clearly part of the emperor’s function to discipline and depose bad rulers and install better ones.
That is, Dante attempts to articulate the ideas of universal unity and state autonomy in his vision of empire, and this moves him considerably away of the Christian conception of empire. Therefore, the points I wish to stress at this point are, first, Dante’s move towards secularism and, secondly, his move towards confederalism; that is, his attempt to articulate political and institutional unity, or empire, with political and institutional diversity, or state autonomy. These two themes would be developed in early modern Europe.
The Renaissance and the Idea of Respublica Christiana
Now, it is fundamental to see how these two conceptions of empire dominated again European politics during the late Renaissance and the early modern period, up to the Peace of Westphalia. In particular, the processes that led, on the one hand, from the Christian conception of empire to the idea of universal monarchy and, on the other hand, to the emergence of the notion of respublica Christiana. In early modern Europe, it was the Habsburgs, both the Spanish and the Austrians, with the support of the papacy, who sought to recover the Christian version of universal empire. Since the reign of Charles V, which started in 1519, the Habsburgs sought to implement an hegemonic imperial order in Europe. Simultaneously Holy Roman Emperor and Spanish monarch, Charles V became, in the sixteenth century, the political symbol of the universal monarchy. Whereas the former title gave him a connection with the classical Roman Empire, the latter made him the ruler of an expansionist European empire. He could thus link the old to the new world and as such to integrate the Americas into a European universal monarchy. As it was observed, ‘the sheer extent of his inheritance made possible a monarchy on a scale not seen since the Roman Empire’. In this regard, Charles V could claim to be the ‘universal and sole monarch of the world’.
During the reign of Charles V, international politics in Europe were dominated by political and religious conflicts in the Empire, which questioned religious unity in Europe, and by the threat of an expansionist Ottoman Empire. As we saw above, imperial powers were bound to fulfil two central functions: to preserve peace and religious unity within Christendom, and to expand and defend the Christian faith against non-Christians. The idea of universal empire, for many Europeans, became the symbol for political unity of the Western civilisation. In early modern Europe, the accomplishment of these functions meant the preservation of the Christian faith, which demanded from the Emperor the capacity to defend Christendom from the external menace of the Turk and to impose religious unity challenged from within by the Protestant Reformation. This clearly demonstrates the religious nature of the Christian conception of empire.
Moreover, Charles V’s imperial project sought to create an hierarchical political order, well in accordance with hegemonic conception of empire. In this vein Charles V’s imperial power should encompass all other political rulers, which would question the principle of political autonomy. To attain these ends, Charles V’s empire engaged in a process of territorial expansion, captured by the term ‘incorporating empire’, or in Machiavellian terms, ‘commonwealth for expansion’. Such an expansion required the attempt ‘to concentrate power in the hands of a single man’. The Emperor, and the Pope, were thus seen as dominus mundi, that is as the rulers that could claim to monarchia universalis, or to world domination. For the Christian conception of empire, the term ‘universal’ had a double meaning. On the one hand, ‘it referred to the superiority of the emperor over all other rulers’; and, on the other hand, ‘it designated the area of imperial authority, which was regarded as universal and not circumscribed by any political borders’. This usage of the term universal had also a double implication. First, no territorial limits could be imposed on the Emperor’s authority and as such the world as a whole could be subject to his rule. Secondly, all other rulers of both the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ world were bound to the Emperor’s law. Such a conception of universality could thus be used to justify any policy of expansionism. Those who favoured the project of universal empire in early modern Europe used these arguments quite consistently. To a great extent, these arguments were recovered from the medieval Christian and hegemonic conception of empire.
The idea of universal empire was elaborated, during the first half of the seventeenth century, by scholars in order to legitimise the imperial claims of the Habsburgs. In 1640, an influential treaty, De Monarquia Hispanica, which defended the idea of universal monarchy, was published by a Napolitan thinker, Tommasio de Campanella. Despite the title, Campanella considered the Habsburgs, and not only the Spanish monarch, as the new Roman emperors. Campanella argued that the establishment of the empire was fundamental in order to maintain peace in Europe, to defeat the Protestant revolt, and to defend Christendom from the Ottoman threat. Campanella’s work also demonstrates that for many in Europe the issue that was really at stake in the Thirty Years’ War was whether the future of the international political order would follow the imperial model of the universal monarchy. To a large extent, the central issues of the War, both religious and political, were the outcome of unsolved conflicts and struggles that had emerged during the sixteenth century. The background against which we should understand all those questions was the opposition between those who fought for universal monarchy and those who resisted in name of the liberty of Europe. At this point, it is worth noting that the ES’s notion of respublica Christiana corresponds, in broad terms, to this Christian and hegemonic conception of universal monarchy.
As I observed in the Introduction, the confusion between the ideas of respublica Christiana and universal monarchy is precisely the crucial problem with the ES’s historical account. Some of the central points of the idea of respublica Christiana build on the medieval humanist and decentralised conception of empire, particularly secularism and the confederal nature of political order. Moreover, such a conception of respublica Christiana was also inspired in the classical Roman model. As Anthony Pagden notes, ‘Tacitus spoke of the Roman world as an ‘immense body of empire’…the kind of political…unity created out of a diversity of different states widely separated in space’. The idea of a diversity of territories united under the rule of law underpins the early modern republican conception of empire. Republican thinkers recovered such a view of imperium when they tried to show that ‘size…was no impediment to true republican government, so long as the various parts of the state constituted an association of states or a confederacy’. Thus, the Roman republic and the early republican phase of the empire were used as historical examples of a confederal empire.
We first find a strong attempt to develop the idea of a confederal empire in early Italian Renaissance with the school of legal humanism. Those legal humanists lived in a political context marked by the struggle for political self-determination against the Emperor. The central political concern of early modern Italian humanists was the justification of the Northern Italian city-states’ fight for political liberty against the Emperor. Legally, these cities were vassals of the Holy Roman Empire, and this condition extended as far back as the ninth century. Yet, despite this legal subjection, Northern Italian cities were able to acquire a great measure of de facto autonomy during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Such a political self-determination was threatened y the Emperor Barbarossa’s expeditions to Northern Italy during the second half of the twelfth century. From that moment, the Holy Roman Emperors tried ‘to impose their rule’ in Italy, ‘while the leading cities…fought with no less determination to assert their independence’. The Emperors had a very strong ally in the scholastic legal school, which interpreted Roman Law in the terms of the Justinian’s Code. For scholastics, Roman law was interpreted in a way that permitted the Emperor to be ’regarded as the dominus mundi, the sole ruler of the world’. The implication of this conventional view was that the legitimisation of the cities’ resistance to the imperial dominion required a legal revolution. Pure political arguments and the fight for self-defence were not enough.
The decisive move was to abandon the interpretation of Roman Law as civil law and to see it as the common law of the Empire. The Corpus Juris began to be presented ‘as a kind of European common law, which [was] not necessarily associated with political subordination to the emperor’. For legal humanists, Europe was regarded less as a system of political subordination than as a set of communities, which recognised a single common law. Such a theoretical break, however, accepted the existence of two levels of legal authority. First, the domestic legislative sovereignty, which justified the cities’ claims to political self-determination. For instance, Bartolus, in one of his works, explicitly asked ‘whether the Italian cities may be said to have the rights to make their own laws’. His answer was that ‘every king within his own kingdom is equivalent in authority to the Emperor’, and in this sense Italian cities ‘ought to be recognised as fully independent sovereign bodies’. At a second level, legal humanists admitted that the Emperor kept some sovereign authority over the Empire, and it is in this sense that it was referred that the reaction of the legal humanists was not radical. In particular, it was recognised that the Emperor had the authority to mediate conflicts between the civitas, and to impose his views, and to organise external defence against the common enemies of the Empire.
Therefore, the humanist arguments justifying political autonomy did not involve a radical attack on the imperial structures, but only a defence of the modification of those structures in a way that could respect political freedom. This means that Renaissance legal humanists, although defending the freedom of political communities in Northern Italy, ultimately accepted the existence of imperial structures. In the language of contemporary international theory, which was not the language of the Renaissance, but helps to understand the points I am trying to make, the coexistence between state sovereignty political and imperial structures was not, for the Renaissance humanists, a constitutional anomaly. Otto Gierke defined this view as the ‘federalistic construction of the Social Whole’. In the words of one of his early modern supporters, Bartolus,
The Emperor is truly lord of the entire world. And this does not prevent that others should be lords in a more particular sense, because the world is a kind of universitas, and hence there may be a person who possesses the said universitas and yet the individual things do not belong to them.
Thus, for the Renaissance humanists, the European Empire was simultaneously united and plural. On the one hand, the newly independent civitas expressed the political pluralism of the Renaissance Europe, while, on the other hand, the Emperor symbolised the unity of the Empire. The thought of these humanists constitutes the transition from the humanist conception of empire to the early modern idea of respublica Christiana.
Justus Lipsius made a central contribution to the humanist conception of respublica Christiana. In this sense, his main political work, Six Books of Politics, will serve to illustrate the importance of such a model of international order in early modern Europe. Gerhard Oestreich sees Lipsius as ‘the chief figure’ of European political thought during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, whose ‘mirror of princes appealed to the prudentia of the leading personalities in the state...and called for vis to be restrained by virtus’. Indeed, in the preface to the book, Lipsius is clear concerning his intentions to offer advises to the rulers. He starts by addressing the ‘Emperor, Kings, and Princes’.
The change you sustain is great and glorious. What is more magnificient among men, then for one to have authority over many; to give laws and commands; to govern the sea, the land, peace and war?
Lipsius continues by making, at once, the distinction between two forms of exercising princely authority. ‘Your end’ is to exercise such tasks for ‘the profit and good of the Commonwealth’, and ‘for the benefit of men’. However, there are ‘idle and wicked Princes, who in a kingdom think upon nothing else but the commandement they have…and who do imagine they are not given to their subjects, but their subjects to them’. This distinction indicates that one of the greatest contributions of Lipsius was the idea that the good of the commonwealth and the benefit of citizens, the central duties to be pursued by the ruler, require a peaceful international order. To contribute to the maintenance of international peace is a duty of the ruler that follows from her/his duty to guarantee domestic security. This new kind of secular prince, in Lipsius’s view, embraces the classical Roman values and is, ‘in the Stoic sense’, a ruler of the world, and not just of her/his own country. The implication is that European rulers are politically responsible to a political society that exists above their states, the respublica Christiana.
In accordance with his political morality, Lipsius affirms that peace is the ultimate political goal, and he ‘warns against the principal causes of war: ambition, power-hunger and acquisitiveness’. In this regard, in book five, addressing the question of ‘military prudence’, he treats the problem of just and unjust wars. In very conventional terms, according to the humanist tradition, the issue of the justice in war is further divided into three questions: just origins, just causes and just objectives. Here, Lipsius’s discussion, in particular on the causes and origins of war, is dominated exclusively by defensive, and not offensive, concerns. As for the objectives of war, ‘a good end is required, which is peace’. Lipsius made the connection in rather different terms: virtuous and prudent statecraft leads to the quest for international peace. We have here again the vital distinction between ‘commonwealths for expansion’ and ‘commonwealths for preservation’. What is quite interesting is Lipsius’s ability to reconcile a conception of the sovereign state based on power with a Neostoicist political morality, which in the end permits to discipline and to limit the use of state power itself. It is crucially important to see why Lipsius focuses on the doctrine of just war. The Six Books of Politics was published in the end of the sixteenth century, a period marked by political and military conflicts throughout Europe. For Lipsius, the majority of these conflicts could not be considered as falling into the category of just war. They were, on the contrary, part of a general civil war within the respublica Chrisitana. Lipsius sought to tell his European audience that if all European rulers respected the doctrine of just war, civil wars within the European respublica Christiana could be avoided.
In this regard, Lipsius praised moderate republics. For instance, Lipsius admired the fact that Venice had always been peace-loving and not expansionist. This shows the contrast between Lipsius and Machiavelli, for the second criticised Venice for its moderation and its inability to expand, as in opposition to the imperial Rome. In other words, whereas Machiavelli defended the ‘commonwealths for expansion’, Lipsius was strongly in favour of ‘commonwealths for preservation’. As the thought of early modern defenders of the Habsburg empire, such as Botero and Campanela, demonstrated, the notion of commonwealth for expansion was associated with the project of universal monarchy. Thus, contrary to Botero and Campanela, Lipsius showed a clear concern for peace over expansion, a quality associated with the republic of Venice, a commonwealth for preservation, and a fundamental condition for political order in the respublica Christiana.
We should now note the significance of another crucial contribution offered by Lipsius. Contrary to the case of the Italian Renaissance humanists, the term empire does not appear in Lipsius’s writings. He replaces the notion of Christian, or universal empire, found in thinkers such as Dante, Padua and Bartolus, by the term respublica Christiana. Now, Christian Europe is not an empire, but a republic. This indicates that the notion of respublica Christiana was a creation of the early modern Europe and not of the medieval Christendom, it was tied to a secular and humanist view of the world, and it served as an alternative to the Christian and imperial notion of universal monarchy. As Richard Tuck recently observed, ‘the respublica had to have an institutional character separate from that of the old imperial Europe’.
This third part of the paper argues that we find in Renaissance humanist thought the emergence of a secular and confederal notion of respublica Christiana as the model for international political order. These two themes, secularism and confederalism, ought to be emphasised. The emphasis on these two points shows, first, that the idea of respublica Christiana was developed as an alternative to the Christian conception of universal empire. Secondly, it shows the link between the humanist conception of empire and the Renaissance’s humanist conception of respublica Christiana. However, the creation of the notion of respublica Christiana is also the result of a break with the medieval notion of empire. As we saw with the thought of Lipsius, respublica replaces empire. We shall see now how the participants in the conferences that led to the Peace of Westphalia recovered such a conception to rebuild international order in Europe.
The Peace of Westphalia and the Idea of Respublica Christiana
As I argued, two central ideas define the humanist conception of respublica Christiana. On the one hand, secularism, which demonstrates the humanist opposition against a Catholic political order. As we also saw, for the ES respublica Christiana is associated with Catholicism. On the other hand, I emphasised the idea of confederalism. In this paper, confederalism only means that there is no contradiction between respublica Christiana and sovereign statehood. In other words, an international respublica can be composed of sovereign states. Again, in this case, the ES offers a different interpretation. For its members, the triumph of the modern sovereign state resulted from the collapse of the medieval respublica Christiana. In this section, I want to make two arguments. First, the ideas of universal monarchy and respublica Christiana went through important transformations during the Thirty Years War and the negotiations that led to the Peace of Westphalia. Secondly, despite these transformations, the international order built in Westphalia was founded on the idea of respublica Christiana. In other words, there is a remarkable continuity between the idea of respublica Christiana articulated by Lipsius and other Renaissance humanists and the vision of international order that eventually was accepted in the Peace of Westphalia.
Let me start by discussing the transformation of the meaning of universal monarchy in the seventeenth century, particularly during the Thirty Years War. It ceased to be identified with the imperial order and started to be identified with hegemonic attempts by great powers to dominate Europe. In this sense, every action to achieve universal monarchy constitutes an aggression against all other states. As a result, all states are justified to combine their forces to wage a defensive and just war against the potential universal monarch. This view is clear in the manner the French monarchy presented the Thirty Years War. In a memorandum of 1629, Richelieu wrote that ‘[o]utside our realm...it must be our constant purpose to arrest the course of Spain's progress’. To achieve that, he adopted the strategy of identifying the idea of universal monarchy empire with Spanish and Austrain hegemonic ambitions. Of course, he was aware of the supranational character of the idea of universal monarchy, as the existence of a radical Catholic party in France demonstrated. Yet, the ‘Spanization’ of Habsburg imperialism was a necessary step to justify both a policy of external alliances with Protestant states, and the French intervention in the war as a defensive and just act.
One of the central implications of the widespread use of the term respublica Christiana was the view that ‘warfare between Christian princes was condemned as civil war, the worst fate that could befall a republic in Roman eyes’. This became a common view towards the end of the Thirty Years War, which led to the signature of a peace of compromise in Westphalia. It was through Lipsius’s thought that these ideas influenced both French and Spanish views. The influence of Lipsius’s thought on Richelieu’s approach to politics was recently emphasised. In his study of Lipsius’s political thought, Oestreich observes that
Richelieu...seems to have been influenced by Lipsius. In his youth he had been close to the party of the Politiques, at whom the Civilis doctrina seems to have been aimed, and he lived in the Neostoic climate of his age. Anyone who studies the cardinal’s practice and reads his political testament can discern the voice of the Netherlander.
As we saw above, Lipsius’s conception of reason of state defends a prudent and not an expansionist self-interest. Moreover, Lipsius associated the commonwealts for preservation with European peace and order. Likewise, since France’s involvement in the war, Richelieu always claimed that his ultimate goal was the public good of respublica Christiana. According to the editor of Richelieu’s instructions for the French negotiators at the Conference of Munster, the German historian Fritz Dickmann, ‘for Richelieu the great political decisions were also decisions of conscience; much more than we might expect he evaluates questions of power politics by way of legal concepts’. Therefore, as William Church put it, Richelieu ‘consistently defended legality, built upon it, and believed it essential to the peace of Europe’.
This concern for the European public good anticipates the recognition that the idea of respublica Christiana, as a particular conception of international order, gained in the Peace of Westphalia of 1648. For instance, Andreas Osiander argues that European states felt a sort of collective social obligation towards Christendom, or Europe. In this regard, the political and diplomatic community referred to the Conferences in Munster and Osnabruck as the ‘senate of the Christian world’. Although the term Christiana was often used, this should not lead us to overlook the secular conception of the seventeenth century international order. In fact, secularism was the only possible solution for a political order that had to recognise confessional pluralism and sought to end with the religious conflicts that so deeply affected European politics since the first quarter of the sixteenth century. More than on a common Christian religion, European public peace rested on ‘a common secular heritage’. Ideas such as the opposition to universal monarchy, the rule of law, just war, a defensive conception of reason of state, division of power and political equilibrium were the central elements of that legacy.
We should also, and crucially, grasp the confederal nature of the European respublica Christiana. As I observed above the term confederal is used to capture the coexistence between the unity of an international respublica and the diversity of sovereign states. For the participants in the conferences of Munster and Osnabruck there was no puzzle about such a coexistence. Again, Richelieu’s plans provide a good example. His vision of European peace was based on Sully’s Grand Design. At the end of the sixteenth century, Sully was a minister of the French king Henry IV. In his memories, he referred to a project for the European political order, which he attributed to Henry IV. Such a political project has been interpreted by some as proposing the establishment of a European confederation. For instance, as a solution to European conflicts, Sully refers to a ‘federal council to settle disputes and maintain the peace’, resulting from ‘a reunion of all the different states’. Remarks such as this one even led F. H. Hinsley to refer to Sully as a forerunner ‘of the League of Nations or United Europe or the United Nations experiment’. Sully’s plan of a European confederation was recovered by Richelieu under the term of ‘the peace of Christendom’. From these observations, it is important to stress two points. The establishment of a European confederation would signify the defeat of universal monarchy in Europe. As we saw in this paper, the resistance to universal monarchy is one of the constitutive principles of the idea of respublica Christiana. Secondly, there is no contradiction between the formation of a confederation and the existence of ‘different states’, to use Sully’s words.
This humanist conception of respublica Christiana still influenced European politics and thinking well into the eighteenth century. In the introduction to the paper, I observed it is important to understand that the term respublica Christiana was used in opposition to the project of universal monarchy. Subsequently, European political thinkers used the term universal monarchy to define the goals of Louis XIV during the wars of the Spanish Succession and Napoleon during the wars that followed the French Revolution. This clearly suggests that one of the consequences of those wars was the destruction of the European international respublica. The examples of Leibniz, Fletcher, Montesquieu, Burke and Constant. The Peace of Utrecht; the thought of Leibniz and Fletcher, Montesquieu, and Hume (Thesis, 198-206). Quite significantly, Pufendorf and Leibniz associated the Peace of Westphalia with the seventeenth century European republican peace. Moreover, they both strongly opposed Louis XIV’s attempts to impose a universal monarchy in Europe. Leibniz devoted a great deal of his political writings to combat the French monarch’s expansionist policies. As for Pufendorf, he warned that ‘if the French nation should aim at universal Monarchy the attempt would be vain’, for ‘the other powers of Europe would join against France’. However, none of these writers explicitly developed a republican conception of international society. For instance, in Leibniz’s idea of Respublica Christiana, we can still notice a strong medieval outlook, where the papacy and the Emperor play a vital role. As we shall see now, a truly secular notion of international respublica was only formulated during the eighteenth century.
In the conclusion, I want to briefly address two points. First, I will try to explain why the ES was not able to capture the humanist conception of respublica Christiana. We only understand this if we place the Renaissance at the starting-point of the modern international society, and forget the Reformation for a moment. The problem with the ES is that it attributes to the Reformation the central role in the emergence of the modern international society. According to Jackson, Reformation ‘disengaged the authority of the state from the overarching religious sanction of respublica Christiana’. Therefore, ‘the formation of the modern European society of states is, in a very significant way, a religious transformation: the Protestant Reformation’. There are two consequences from attributing a central role to the Reformation. First, the political propaganda of the Reformation during the XVI and XVII Centuries identified any kind of political and institutional unity in Europe, which of course includes the idea of respublica Christiana, with Catholic imperialism. As Andreas Osiander argued in a recent article, it was the political propaganda of the Reformation during the Thirty Years’ War builds the imperial conception of respublica Christiana. To a large extent, for radical Reformation, the absolute defeat of Catholicism and papism would necessarily result, in international terms, in the state of nature. Then the new sovereign states could create a new international society through a collective contract. The identification between Reformation and the modern national narrative is reinforced during the nineteenth century. This is clear in the thought of the Prussian historian Leopold Ranke when he identifies the beginning of the struggle of German nationalism against medieval imperialism with the Lutheran Reformation against Catholicism. We all know the influence of Ranke’s historiography in the work of the ES, through the influence of Herbert Butterfield. In an important sense, the political propaganda of the Reformation and its subsequent historiography are the creators of the understanding of modern international society in statist terms and in accordance with the idea of state of nature. The ES was never able to escape this ideological trap.
The second consequence is the relative neglect of the role of the Renaissance in the emergence of modern international society. Jackson admits that the Renaissance played an important role in the emergence of ‘a separate political ethics liberated from the Christian Church’ and in the articulation of the modern ideas of diplomacy and the state. Yet, like Wight, Bull before him, Jackson associates the Renaissance political thought with realism. Renaissance contributed to the emergence of the international system, but the creation of the society of states involved a reaction against the realism of the Renaissance thinkers. Jackson entirely ignores that the idea of respublica Christiana was a creation of the Renaissance, and not of Catholicism, and that it was used precisely to combat the Catholic idea of universal monarchy. Moreover, by neglecting the role of Renaissance, the ES does not fully capture the secular dimension of modern international society. It is secularism, and not the Reformation, even in its liberal wing, that allows us to fully grasp that there is more to the history of modern international society than the nationalist interpretation tells us. It is this emphasis on the Reformation and the related neglect of the Renaissance that explains the title of my paper. I must admit that it is not entirely correct. After all, some key continental figures contributed to the Reformation historiography, and some, although not many, English thinkers have recognised the fundamental role of the Renaissance in modern political thought. Yet, despite an element of overstatement, I believe that the title captures the crucial point of my view. In this sense, well in accordance with the humanist tradition of the Renaissance, we should probably take it as a piece of rhetoric.
Now, why is the interpretation that I offer relevant? First, there is the obvious point that any argument that contributes to a more correct understanding of the history of modern international society, and I believe that this is the case, is always well come. Secondly, and more important, my understanding of the significance of the Peace of Westphalia allows us to develop a different interpretation of the nature of modern international society, in a manner that may solve other puzzles that often appear in IR discussions. Here, I want to emphasise the confederal nature of the idea of respublica Christiana. The ES’s conception of society of states is based on an absolutist and unitary understanding of sovereignty. The recovery of the humanist and republican conception of respublica Christiana allows us to treat sovereignty in a radical different way. In particular, we find two themes in work of the writers who define international society as a political respublica. First, rather than in unitary terms, sovereignty can also be understood as divided sovereignty. This view has obvious implications for the notion of international confederations or confederated empires. Secondly, rather than in absolutist terms, sovereignty can also be seen as limited and conditional sovereignty. This understanding is linked with the existence of international political and normative standards imposed on states and, ultimately, with the idea of legitimate sovereignty and legitimate forms of international coercion such as intervention.
I am not making a radical claim if I say that the ideas of divided sovereignty and limited sovereignty are quite important in contemporary world politics. We cannot properly understand the constitutional nature of the European Union, the growth of interventions, and of international protectorates, without grasping the nature of the notions of divided sovereignty and limited sovereignty. This paper is the result of the belief that perhaps we can have a better understanding of these practices if we study again the history of modern international society. In turn, this belief results from another belief: the way we define international society is the consequence of the way we understand its historical evolution. Thus, in moments of conceptual discussions we need to examine our historical interpretations.