Reformation and Renaissance Political Thought

Numerous intellectual and practical developments in politics, law, and government occurred during the Middle Ages. However, the pace of change increased dramatically and often violently with the beginnings of the Renaissance and the Reformation. These intellectual influences resulted in new thinking about politics from many sources and perspectives. New justifications and organizing principles for the state were proposed. New rules for the interactions between states were needed in the wake of the violence of the Thirty Year's War. The theologians on both sides of the Reformation/Counter-Reformation described their concepts of government, and thinkers such as Hugo Grotius and Niccolò Machiavelli proposed new principles.

Simultaneously, another revolutionary event changed Western civilization: the European encounter with and colonization of the Americas. As European explorers and conquerors encountered civilizations unlike anything they had seen before, Spanish intellectuals debated how they should deal with these indigenous cultures. The leading figure among these efforts was Francisco de Vitoria, who is considered by some as the father of international law. These encounters required new thinking on the relationships between nations. They led to dramatic advances in the ideas of human rights, private property, and forms of government.

Show More

More About This Topic...

Click thumbnails below to view links

Quote Page

Commentary or Blog Post

This article, reviewing a biography of Thomas More, provides a brief account of his life and a glimpse of his ideas on government and law.

Analysis Report White Paper

An outline of François Quesnay's contributions to the study of economics. Included is his Tableau économique, which provided a diagram explaining his views of the causes of growth and economic development.

Murray Anthony Potter analyzes the Renaissance's various facets and examines man's growth from the Middle Ages into the Renaissance.

An encyclopedic outline of Hugo Grotius' life and his contributions to philosophy. It explains his views on the laws of nature and his just war doctrine.

A brief biography of John Calvin and the development of Calvinism. It also considers his influence on philosophy through his occasional antipathy towards philosophers.

A biography of Martin Luther with specific insights into the theology he helped develop. It also delves into his opinions and influence on the philosophy of the day.

A biography of Machiavelli emphasizing his contributions in analyzing power, the role of morality in politics, liberty, and conflict.

The article argues that the intellectuals of the Spanish universities in the 1500s and 1600s provided key influences in the development of modern economics, international law, and human rights.


In this lecture Koterski discusses the ways in which More can be seen as a patron saint for statesmen.

A Discovery Channel video discussing Machiavelli and the role his book The Prince played during and after the Renaissance.

A two-part documentary piece on the Protestant Reformation. The two videos cover the major protestant reformers and places, such as: Luther, Calvin, England, Germany, and France.

Primary Document

Niccolò Machiavelli's defense of republican principles. He argues for governments of the people because they are better than those of princes. His arguments have had great influence across the centuries and deeply influenced the American Founders.

Commonly known as the Ninety-Five Theses, Luther's protestations against clerical abuses and the sale of indulgences sparked the Protestant Reformation.

"[I]n public affairs, there is no government so ill, provided it be ancient and has been constant, that is not better than change and alteration. Our manners are infinitely corrupt, and wonderfully incline to the worse; of our laws and customs there are many that are barbarous and monstrous; nevertheless, by reason of the difficulty of reformation, and the danger...

These three works were More's later writings after Utopia. The third of these, A Dialogue on Conscience, was written while imprisoned in the Tower of London and consists of his letters explaining his refusal to take an oath against the dictates of his conscience (a refusal for which he was later executed). Thomas More's stand on conscience over political expediency has been influential by example and argument.

These are the lectures given by the great English classical liberal historian, Lord Acton, in the academic years 1899-1901 at Cambridge University. It is a survey of modern history from the rise of the modern nation state to the American Revolution.

In this excerpt, University of Salamanca Professor Francisco de Vitoria presents his arguments that the Spanish are not permitted by natural law to enslave the Indians or take their possessions.

Francisco de Vitoria examines the roots of a just war. He analyzes specific situations for war, killing, profit, and reimbursement. Each question he poses, he explains in detail, in order to answer all possibilities.

Erasmus, one of the best-known Renaissance scholars, wrote this book for Charles V, then King of Spain. He argues that a prince needs a good education in order to be able to rule justly and benevolently, and that the prince should avoid oppressing the people.

Niccolò Machiavelli's famous work discussing the proper role of a ruler within society. He presents purely practical solutions to maintaining power and control without limiting himself to morality.

Grotius, another scholar sometimes referred to as the Father of International Law, wrote following the incredible devastation of the Thirty Year's War. He maintains "that there is a common law among nations, which is valid alike for war and in war.... I have had many and weighty reasons for undertaking to write upon the subject.... I observed that men rush to arms for slight causes, or no...

St. Thomas More's work describing a fictional land. He satirizes collectivist ideals, but includes within his description his opinions of the source of political problems and possible solutions. This work became not only a significant influence on political thought, but a model of a way to present political criticism and its political system.

Francisco de Vitoria was a Professor at the University of Salamanca in the 1500s. He is noted for his reasoned defense of the rights of Native Americans and is sometimes considered the Father of International Law. This compilation of lectures de Vitoria gave provides a comprehensive introduction to his political thought.




Click thumbnails below to view links


In a highly regulated society such as ours, it's very easy to get yourself in trouble with the law. Learn more about how to protect yourself with the 5th Amendment and how to interact with the police.
The Association of American Educators (AAE) advances the teaching profession through personal growth, professional development, teacher advocacy and protection, as well as promoting excellence in education so that our members receive the respect, recognition and reward they deserve.