Pantocrator, Aalten, 2017. 186 pages. ISBN 978-90-76660-47-9.
Making sense of modernity is a favorite pastime for historians and political theorists. One common manifestation of this pastime is the search for the roots of liberalism. Ruben Alvarado, in his Calvin and the Whigs, provides yet another attempt to locate the mysterious roots of modern political thought and emergence of the hegemonic liberal individualism.
However, Alvarado is not simply concerned with liberalism. He is also concerned with the Christian, specifically Augustinian, roots of constitutionalism. The Christian political vision of the bishop of Hippo, he claims, paved the way for a political and social order where state and church mutually limited each other. Indeed, the social order of Christendom was one of the triumvirate of family-church-state. This, argues Alvarado, led to the development of medieval constitutionalism which undergirded the relationship between ruler and ruled via a covenantal societal structure through which rulers and subjects were bound to contractual social, economic, and political duties. The climax of this, at least in Alvarado’s telling, is the Calvinist iteration of the Augustinian vision worked out by the Huguenots.
Alvarado then describes how all of this unraveled. The broad Augustinian consensus which dominated the thought of the Middle Ages was undermined by the perceived need to reconcile rival confessional claims in the seventeenth century. Enter Hugo Grotius, who availed himself of the opportunity by pulling the theocratic rug from underneath the state and reimagining political anthropology in terms of pre-political natural rights. John Locke is then brought in by Alvarado as the major figure in the development of liberalism. It was he, argues Alvarado, who further worked out Grotius’s ideas, replacing the church with the sovereign individual in the social order, leading to the modern state-individual basis for political and social theory.
Alvarado’s narrative is, on the whole, convincing and is told in a compelling manner. The early chapters, covering Augustine, feudalism, and Calvinist and Huguenot thought, are coherent and well written. Some gripes might be had with his analysis of Thomism, which is curiously silent on the influence of Aristotle. Alvarado’s reading of Marsilius of Padua seems to be too heavily informed by Herman Dooyeweerd’s somewhat idiosyncratic interpretation. Likewise, his assessment of Lutheran thought seems to rely too much on Quentin Skinner and not enough on primary sources. If Alvarado had let the primary sources in these chapters speak for themselves, the reader would be more convinced of his narrative.
However, as the book moves into the early modern period Alvarado seems more at home in the primary sources. It is here that he makes excellent use of the neo-Calvinist insight into the reality of conflicting worldviews, especially in his very interesting observation that the major conflict of the sixteenth century was not between Protestant and Roman Catholic, but between Pelagian toleration and Augustinian theocracy (72). This has potential to turn some historiographical tropes about the Reformation period on their head. And it is here that the story takes a more interesting turn, when Alvarado addresses Grotius’s natural law theory. Alvarado argues that the liberal turn begins with Grotius and his theory of natural law, and combines with a turn away from theocratic constitutionalism. And on he goes into a careful consideration of the relationship between Grotius, Locke, and the emergence of liberalism.
There are some weaknesses in this volume, some of which have been mentioned above. One is that the book is a re-worked manuscript which is almost two decades old. This manifests itself, not so much in the argument itself, or even in the quality of the work, but in Alvarado’s interaction with secondary literature. More recent developments in historical scholarship are not taken into consideration, including important contributions in the Cambridge History of Political Thought series and, most pertinently, Francis Oakley’s trilogy on the emergence of Western political thought. There has also been much scholarly work done on the role of natural law and natural right theories in the post-Reformation context; the scholarship of Ian Hunter and Knud Haakonssen comes to mind. These are entirely overlooked.
That said, this book has significant merit, especially in its reconsideration of the role of Grotius in the story of modern political thought, and in Alvarado’s emphasis on modern natural right and political anthropology. Indeed, in many ways, this work shows that the favorite pastime of searching for the roots of liberalism remains a fruitful activity.