The Political Adherence to Humanistic Principles: Civic Humanism

The political adherence to humanistic principles that is founded on elements of communism, republicanism, and statism is referred to as civic humanism. Rule of law is the practice of the government operating in accordance with the provisions of the law rather than with regard to the interests of particular parties, making the law supreme. In order to guarantee equity and the protection of human rights, social justice must be practiced. The three ideas that were addressed in The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli, Utopia by Thomas More, and Luther and Calvin on Secular Authority by John Calvin will be examined in this essay. All three works contained philosophical ideologies relating to humanity, social justice, and rule of law which when reflected upon illuminate on the reasons behind the Reformations which took place in Europe.

Civic Humanism

Nauert traced the beginnings of civic humanism to elite practice in Europe during the Renaissance. Humanism permeated popular culture and led to changes that were witnessed in the Catholic and Protestant Reformations. The reformations based on humanism were inspired by a need to change the tradition of natural theology that was rampant and instead to replace it with active civic participation that enabled the society to feel more fulfilled by its leaders.

Machiavelli's The Prince contained tenets of civic humanism. Just like civic humanism was labeled as encompassing rhetoric, moral philosophy, and grammar, Machiavelli's perception of the manner in which the prince ought to behave was marked by similar sentiments. Machiavelli provided the view that human beings were not absolutely corrupted and as such, possessed the ability to make meaningful choices that would affect their future. The examples of civic humanism that can be seen from Machiavelli's advice on the manner in which a prince should behave include: his assertion that the prince should be knowledgeable in history; thereby not only improving himself through sharpening his mind, but also acquiring great lessons on the manner in which the public could be appeased and led well. Emperors such as Alexander are cited as some of the people whom the prince should look up to because of their acts of justice and prevention of cruelty. Even in instances where cruel leaders such as Severus are cited, the prince is urged to draw lessons from them in order to be conscious of civic humanity. However, there are instances where Machiavelli subverted the view of civic humanity. When he applauds leaders such as Hannibal who were successful because of their cruelty, he provides a position that civic humanity should not be an absolute aspiration of a leader. However, republicanism is espoused by Machiavelli because it is an important factor for the maintenance of his rule.

In Utopia, civic humanism is espoused in a manner similar to the Italian humanist ideals. The blend of civic humanism and religious values is responsible for the successful creation of a Utopian society. Through a critical analysis of the book, it is evident that classical ideas in respect to humanism were applied to the society and politics. The social inequalities that were evident in Europe during the sixteenth century were subtly criticized. Since the book was an illustration on the best scenario for human beings, civic humanism was at its core. The author also drew his ideas from Aristotle's Republic which is propounded as being a root of civic humanism.

In John Calvin's Luther and Calvin on Secular Authority, civic humanism is espoused by Calvin who derogates from the view of Luther which presupposes that morality can only be derived from religion. Despite the view of Luther, the state's role is marked with civic humanity aspects. An example is the fact that the state's role is to guide the souls of its citizens towards religion and God. Such a decision presupposes that the state would act in the best interests of its citizens thereby espousing tenets of Aristotelian humanism. The writer also has examples that relate to communist civic humanism for example the relinquishing of private property.

Social Justice

Social justice was a precursor to the reformations that were took place in Europe. Religious and social injustice resulted in revolutions due to the aspiration for justice. In Machiavelli's The Prince, social justice was encouraged despite the appearance of it as mere rhetoric. The prince, for example, is advised that it is important to appear to be religious In order to maintain their rule; a prince had to be seen as committed to social justice. During his time, religion was an important factor in determining the goodness of a leader and as such, his perception of social justice. Despite the view that the book promoted the enhancement of power at all costs, Machiavelli points out the importance of justice in numerous examples. Machiavelli pointed out that victories which leaders enjoyed were never decisive enough for such a leader to exhibit totalitarian rule at the expense of justice.

Luther and Calvin also focused on social justice from a religious angle. Luther believed that social justice could be achieved through the populace and the state's submission to religion. Righteousness was posited as being an essential aim for governments in order to implement social justice. The authors also acknowledged that Christians should owe their allegiance to God as opposed to their governments and as such, they would hold the government accountable if it acted in a manner that contravened social justice. The placement of religion as a central aspect of religion, without which human beings were incapable of moral decision making was eminent in the Dark Ages and went on even after Protestantism came into existence. All in all, religion's role in the state was to ensure that there was morality which would thereby prevent social injustices.

Thomas More's Utopia contains exemplary examples of the manner in which social justice can be achieved. Private property, for example, was viewed as a precursor to the greed of men in the society. Without an environment which pressured men to acquire more wealth, it was possible to achieve social justice as each person would be adequately provided for. The alternate society advocated for in the book would have no poor persons and all people would be cared for through the provision of social amenities such as hospitals at no cost. The reformation that took place subsequent to the idealization of Utopia by Thomas More was, however, different from what he had espoused. The main concern of the reformers was concerned with social change without a deeper understanding of the manner in which life ought to be lived.

Rule of Law

The protestant and Roman Catholic followers played a major role in the emergence of the doctrine of the rule of law in the reformations that took place within Europe. Although Machiavelli's focus on politics opined that power was the main factor in maintenance of one's rule; he also propounded on the importance of a leader to be ethical and flexible in their decision making. However, absolute power has been asserted as having the power to corrupt absolutely, as such, Machiavelli's idea of the rule of law would fail to ensure that a leader always upheld the law. In Machiavelli's The Prince, The law is just another tool which the leader or prince in that case should manipulate in order to gain or maintain their political power. Machiavelli believed that a leader should not blindly follow the law or be virtuous but rather maintain an appearance that they were committed to the rule of law while subtly ensuring that such law could not be used to diminish their power or remove them from their positions.

Luther and Calvin believed in the rule of law albeit in religious terms. God was the ultimate source of law and as such, in order for the rule of law to be in existence; all men had to subject themselves to God through religion which would provide them with a guide on laws and the manner in which they ought to behave. In order to implement the rule of law, the state was tasked with guiding the souls of their citizens towards God through the use of religion which would ensure that they obeyed all laws. Leaders were not viewed as being above the law because every human being was in a position of subjection to God.

Utopia by Thomas More was committed to the rule of law as the precursor to order in a society. According to the work, a perfect society was one in which there were few laws which every person could be governed by. Each man would, therefore, be an expert in the law. The equality in accessing justice would also enable the rule of law to prevail as other men would be deterred from breaking the law. The laws in a country would be adjudicated upon by magistrates who would have the discretion on how to sentence persons convicted. Thomas More recognized that human beings were incapable of perfection albeit the laws in the state would keep them in check and ensure that they acted in the best interest of the entire community.


Utopia, The Prince, and Luther and Calvin on secular authority all espoused relevant ideas which pertained to civic humanism, rule of law, and social justice. Their works inspired reformations in Europe. Machiavelli's work, although bearing more emphasis on the maintenance of political power, contained some illustrations which advanced the ideas of humanity, social justice, and the rule of law. For the prince to maintain his political power, he had to act in a manner that would be favorably perceived in the public domain thereby instilling the need for social justice, rule of law, and humanism. Calvin and Luther's explanations on secular governance constrained the manner in which the state actors and citizens behaved through the use of religion. In acting pursuant to the wishes of God, human beings would achieve civic humanity, social justice, and the rule of law. Utopia exemplifies the best depiction of the three concepts. It portrays an example of a society wherein the three concepts are upheld leading to harmonious and satisfactory lives. The idealism behind the book, however, offers the best critic against it. Communism, which was espoused in the book, is practiced in very few parts of Europe, for example. All three works offer insight to leaders on the manner in which societies should be governed.


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Calvin, John, and Martin Luther. Luther and Calvin on Secular Authority. Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Machiavelli, Niccolo, and David Wootton. The Prince. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub Co, 1995.

McNeill, John T. "Natural Law in the Teaching of the Reformers." The Journal of Religion 26(3), 1946: 168-182.

More, Thomas, and Paul Turner. Utopia. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1972.

Najemy, John M. "Baron's Machiavelli and rennaissance republicanism." The American Historical Review, 101(1), 1996: 119-129.

Nauert, Charles G. Humanism and the Culture of Renaissance Europe. Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Tracy, James. Europe's Reformations, 1450-1650: Doctrine, Politics and Community 2nd Edition. Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006.

White, Thomas I. "Pride and the public good: More's use of Plato in Utopia." Journal of the History of Philosophy, 20(4), 1982: 329-354.

Winks, Robin W. Europe in a Wider World 1350-1650. Oxford, 2003.

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