One of the most interesting aspects of Calvin’s ideas is his view on the nature of politics and the best form of government. I’ve discussed in previous blog posts about Christianity and the origins of democracy the comparatively democratic nature of Calvin’s Geneva and the influence this had in the development of European and American democracy. I’ve done a little bit more reading since then, and feel that there is some more that could be said. In his consideration of the nature of politics and the forms of government and the state, Calvin believed that every nation should be free to create for itself the form of government that best suited it, and considered that it was a sign of God’s grace and benevolence that different nations had different forms of government. Nevertheless, he believed that good government should be based on Christian moral foundations, and caritas, love. He also felt that it should acknowledge human equality in the sense that it recognised that everyone had an innate value and that those in authority were tempted to abuse their positions. After his return to Geneva in 1541, the Small Council formed a committee to draw up a constitution for the church, which introduced greater lay participation in church government. When dealing with disputes within the church, he insisted on treating and punishing everyone similarly, regardless of their wealth or fame. He also felt that everyone, even the poorest, should be able to call on the law and the magistrates to act against injustice against them, as civil magistrates had been appointed by God for humanity’s benefit and the just defence of their interests.
He also did not believe in hereditary monarchy, as he felt that, because of their elevated personal status, kings felt themselves separate and above the rest of humanity. Furthermore, as only they possessed political power, they had extreme difficulty restraining themselves and acting only for justice. He considered the best form of government to be a mixture of aristocracy and democracy, as it was safer for a number of people to rule rather than a single individual. When government was held by a group, the various people composing it could act to help, instruct and admonish each other, and, if one person was tempted to abuse their power, they could be held back by the others. However, Calvin nevertheless recognised, following St. Paul, that the kingdom of God did not reside in human laws and institutions. 1
He also attempted through his preaching to promote a more ethical society where the poor would not be exploited and deprived of their property by the wealthier members of society. He was extremely critical of the exploitation of the poor by the rich, and felt that many of them had gained their wealth at the expense of their poorer citizens. In these instances, believers should assist the poor while being wary of committing any wrong themselves. He felt that believers should not only not steal or exploit others themselves, but should act when they saw others being treated unjustly, as if they failed to act against injustice and oppression, they became implicated in them. Thus, Calvin stated that
‘(L)et none of us think that it is only lawful for us to guard what we have, rather, as the principle of charity exhorts us, let us see that we preserve and procure our neighbor’s property as much as our … (and) that we should always aspire towards that celestial heritage, knowing that therein we shall possess the fullness of all goods in perfection’. 2
Thus, while it took many centuries for modern democracy to emerge in Europe and America, Calvin’s Geneva was a strong influence in the development of democratic ideas through Calvin’s belief in the human equality before God, his belief that the best form of government was a mixture of democracy and aristocracy, rather than monarchy, and his concern to protect the interests and property of the poor against exploitation by the wealthy, ideals that continue to be expressed and influence contemporary views and discussion of the nature of democracy, even if the influence of Calvin, along with other political theorists and philosophers, is not always recognised.
1. See William R. Stevenson, JR., ‘Calvin and Political Issues’ in Donald K. McKim, ed., The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press), pp. 179-80.
2. Benjamin W. Farley, ed. and trans., John Calvin’s Sermons on the Ten Commandments (Grand Rapids, Baker 1980), pp. 200-1, cited in D. Devries, ‘Calvin’s Preaching’, in Donald K. McKim, The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin (Cambridge, CUP 2004), p. 116.