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  • Jesuit Political Thought: The Society of Jesus and the State, c. 1540–1640
  • Thomas Worcester
Harro Höpfl . Jesuit Political Thought: The Society of Jesus and the State, c. 1540–1640. Ideas in Context 70. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. xii + 406 pp. index. bibl. $90. ISBN: 0–521–83779–0.

On its dustjacket this book declares that the Jesuits "were the single most influential body of teachers, academics, preachers and priests in early modern Europe." Yet the book makes abundantly clear that influence accompanied controversy rather than consensus, especially in matters concerning the state. The author shows how the Society of Jesus was resented, mocked, vilified, slandered, and used as a scapegoat for every manner of ill, with regicide in particular repeatedly blamed on Jesuit theory and practice. At the same time, as Höpfl masterfully demonstrates, Jesuit political theorists such as Francisco Suárez commanded such respect throughout Europe that even Protestant politicians — such as members of the British Parliament — were eager to show that their policies conformed to Suárezian principles.

This study does an excellent job of demonstrating the diversity and complexity of Jesuit political thought; there was no "collective political doctrine" (1) of the Society of Jesus. Efforts at censorship by Jesuit or other authorities made little difference; individual Jesuits continued to publish on contested topics. Höpfl does identify some important areas of general agreement among Jesuit theorists. A key one is the promotion of the common good as the justification for the very existence of secular government and law. Relying at least in part on Aquinas for this explanation of the state, Jesuit theorists also tended to agree in their hostile attitudes toward Machiavelli. Machiavelli advised princes on how to use whatever means necessary to hold onto power; Jesuit political theorists upheld the legitimacy of monarchy, but subordinated rulers to the common good of their peoples and to natural and divine law. Jesuits tended to identify similarities or correspondences between the structure of the state and that of the church, or of a religious order such as their own. In each of these three cases, the Jesuits spoke of a body with interconnected parts, a body that needed a head who would act with prudence in directing the parts.

The author shows persuasively how, in the context of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, some Jesuit views were outdated while others were [End Page 637] ahead of their time. The notion of an "indirect" papal power over Catholic rulers, and perhaps including some means to depose "heretical" monarchs, was no longer related to political or ecclesiastical realities. In the same era, Jesuit efforts to articulate a theory of international law that would transcend the boundaries of rival nations and empires anticipated developments in twentieth-century legal thinking.

Jesuit political thought ca. 1540–1640 was also very much a part of its own time. Approaches to the thorny question of when various degrees of dishonesty might be licit were closely related to the situation of Catholics experiencing persecution in places such as England. While Jesuit theorists did not justify outright lying, some of them did explain how equivocation, dissimulation, and mental reservation could be used against persecution. Thus, when a Jesuit in England is asked if he is a Jesuit, he may deny it, if he understands the goal of the question to be whether he is "engaged in subverting the English state" (144).

This is an excellent book, well worth attention by a broad range of students and scholars. But at least three important topics regarding Jesuits and the state receive too little or no attention at all. Höpfl gives most of his attention to works written and published in Latin; he makes but a few comments on vernacular texts, and the ones he does treat are mostly from the British context. Jesuits published many works of political thought in French, Italian, and other languages. A good example of a vernacular, continental work ignored by Höpfl, but worthy of discussion, is Quel est le meilleur gouvernement? (Paris, 1636), by Etienne Binet, S. J. A second lacuna concerns local government. Jesuits devoted much of their energies...


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pp. 637-638
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Archived 2009
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