The Modern Era of political philosophy is best characterized as a revolt against the traditional constraints of the time. Machiavelli believed that politics should be separate and distinct from ethics, morality, and religion. Protestant reformers such as Luther and Calvin went head to head with the Catholic Church, paving the way for religious individualism and incorporating various political revisions. Hobbes called for a major overhaul in England concerning not only political and religious issues, but social and economic ones as well. As modern philosophers began to voice their opinions, Central, Southern, and Western Europe began to change drastically–changes that would affect the direction of Western political thought forever.
Niccolo Machiavelli, born in Florence, Italy in 1469, was the first political philosopher to recognize the importance and potential of the nation-state, an idea he shared with the world. This idea was shared primarily through Machiavelli’s most notable works: The Prince and Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius. The Prince was dedicated to the new Medici (the ruling family in Florence at the time) ruler, Lorenzo; some modern interpreters have viewed the work primarily as a plea for forgiveness, as Machiavelli wanted his civil service job back after being suspected of treason. As indicated in his two major works, Machiavelli had two distinct goals: the desire to return to active government service and the promotion of stability and freedom from foreign control, secular or religious, for all of Italy.
Martin Luther’s (1483-1546) discrepancies with the Catholic Church began early in his career when he attacked the sale of indulgences and also came to the conclusion that human nature is wretched and sinful. He also criticized the pope’s absolutism and the church hierarchy. When Luther finally poured his heart out onto paper in 1517, the result was his “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” otherwise known as the Ninety-five Theses, which he promptly nailed to the church door in his hometown of Wittenberg, Germany. Three years later Luther wrote an essay entitled “An Appeal to the Ruling Class.” Each of these works as well as Luther’s other writings made three main allegations against the church. These allegations were known as the “Three Walls.” The first wall he attacks is the fact that secular power has no control over the pope.
The second wall deals with the idea that the church is more than just the pope; it encompasses everyone who is a member of the faith. This particular wall disputed the idea of papal infallibility as well as the pope as the sole authority of the church. The third wall Luther confronts concerns the claim that only the pope can summon a council to resolve or address church issues, such as questions of doctrine. Later that same year, the pope excommunicated Luther from the Catholic Church, but not before Luther’s words had a significant impact on the Catholic Church. These events cause Christians to reexamine the relationship between church and state-authority through the eyes of the individual, as well as defining limits on both church and state power.
John Calvin, born in 1509, founded one of the first sects of Protestantism that developed after Luther’s revamp of the Catholic Church. Calvin shared the belief that human deeds cannot ensure salvation and that government serves as a punishment and remedy for human sin. In his book Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin distinguishes two types of government: the spiritual, by which the conscience is formed to piety and the service of God; and the political, by which a man is instructed in the duties of humanity and civility. Almost overnight, the Protestant Reformation brought the monolithic foundation of medieval Christianity down, leaving behind several new concepts in political thought.
During the first half of the 17th century, English philosopher Thomas Hobbes found conflict on numerous fronts concerning English society. The first issue was concerning religious freedom, pitting King Charles I and his Anglican Church against a number of independent Protestant sects. Hobbes and his Protestant followers claimed that the Anglican Church was too close in organization and liturgy to the Catholic Church. They also rejected the claim of Charles I to rule by divine right.
The second issue was political in nature, concerning the fact that England did not have a written constitution (and still do not today), thereby allowing for Parliamentary error and inconsistancies. The third issue that Hobbes was concerned with was the fact that social and economic issues were becoming interrelated due to a growing middle class who demanded more political representation in Parliament. During Hobbes’s lifetime, the world experienced a scientific revolution due to important discoveries. The spirit of forward progress influenced Hobbes’s understanding of politics as well. Hobbes treated his issues like scientific theory, always concerned with precise definitions and correct terminology.
“On what basis could the practice of government be conducted once society was no longer a community?” asks the central philosophical question concerning Hobbes’s political philosophies. Hobbes reinforces the basis for politics of the Modern Era by uniting absolutism and consent, taking his cues from the scientific revolution of the era. Hobbes’s most important philosophical work, Leviathan, discusses human nature from the standpoint of the individual, thus defining the foundation for Hobbes’s political universe. Obviously, Hobbes’s political focus is on the individual; however, some critics argue whether Hobbes’s philosophies were intended as a scientific blueprint for a fit government as Hobbes saw it, or if his philosophies merely succeeded in raising questions about the balance between individual liberty and social order.
Of all the versatile philosophers associated with the Modern Era of political philosophy, only Niccolo Machiavelli can be described as “the personification of the transformation from the medieval to the modern era.” Machiavelli’s aggregate view of politics focuses on the individual. In contradiction to the values of ancient and medieval political philosophers, Machiavelli establishes a separation between personal morality and necessary political practice. The Florentine also supports the idea of a republican state, thus allowing the greatest degree of liberty. He created a new science of politics with a more down-to-earth and practical set of principles. Machiavelli’s recognition of the importance and potential of the nation-state not only set him apart from his predecessors, but also ushered in a new era of political thought, paving the way toward the unfolding Western political tradition.
The importance of the Modern Era of political philosophy is plainly evident in today’s society. A large part of the Constitution of the United States is based on the liberal philosophies of the Modern Era. The idea of “separation of church and state” is most prolific during this era, and it remains today one of the fundamental principles of liberty upon which the governments of the United States and numerous other nation-states in the West are based. Also, the focus of individual liberty is very apparent in many of the political discourses of the Modern philosophers. Had the philosophers of the Modern Era not battled the widespread corruption apparent in the Catholic Church and the ruling classes across Europe, who is to say that the Western political tradition would have unfolded at all?