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The Political Theology of Brunch: a Post in Honor of the Season

December 23rd, 2019 | 7 min read

By Susannah Black Roberts

Among the many reasons for my affection for the 16th c. German political philosopher and jurist Johannes Althusius is this: He gets specific, to a degree that may be fanciful but is endlessly fascinating, about the commonality between different levels of political community.

Of course he recognizes the distinction between complete and incomplete communities too, although he’s fuzzier about this (appropriately so) than others are, in that he doesn’t regard the city-state as the One Right Size of Actual Properly Political Community, but makes generous room for proto-nations, regions, federations, commonwealths, empires and a bouillabaisse of other political forms, in a way that makes nation-statism look like the goofball aberration that it is. He also doesn’t give the city sovereignty; that belongs to the commonwealth alone (and here I am inclined to squabble with him, of course.)

But that distinction is not what I’m focusing on here. Rather I’m focusing on the distinction between what he calls private and public communities.

To begin with, he considers communities constituted by natural familyish affection, that is, kinship bonds (which in his mind includes both marriage and a kind of strong reading of friend/in-law/tribe/kinsmen-by-adoption; its characteristics are natural affection and family-feeling.) In this, he strikes something of a balance between two aspects of the tradition: the emphasis on the love-of-friendship which desires the virtue of the friend as the love that most truly constitutes human society, and the idea of the married couple as the first society. “Why not both?” he seems to say.

He also puts into the category of “private political community” the collegium– more or less a guild, or a college in the general sense. A college is a group of colleagues, as long as we read “colleague” as someone with whom we share a true affection and common good– he calls them “colleagues, associates, even brothers”– though not intimacy to the level of the kinship group. He throws out with a generous hand examples of the kinds of groupings he means: there are collegia of theologians and philosophers, of magistrates and judges, of craftsmen.

These more formalized groups, made up (in his mind) of men who, having left the imperium which they have at home, come together as peers for common pursuit, owe each other (or share in common with each other; the way he speaks about this varies) four things: Goods, services, “symbiotic right” (jus symbiotica), and benevolence.

The form that “symbiotic right” takes in these collegia is that of the corporate charter, the private law by which all the members agree to be bound. But this is only the formalized and bro-ified version of a general kind of right which obtains at every level of political organization, including that of the household and kin group: symbiotic jus is the right that governs the “art of living together,” which is how he thinks of politics. It is the moral reality behind the sharing of goods, services, and even mutual benevolence; it is the natural law behind our dealings with each other, which elevates all our natural affections to kinds of love that are both instinctive and rational at once. It is what makes even those relationship-feelings we share with animals– family affection, sexuality, some kind of herd instinct– perpetually and at every moment human. Men assembled without symbiotic right are a “crowd, gathering, multitude, assemblage, throng.” “Friendship” without symboiotic right is utilitarian association of advantage; sex without symbiotic right is just hooking up.

These collegia, and these couples, and these kinship groups are, he insists, private, but properly political. He gets very cross about this: “Certain political writers,” he says in the distinct tone of voice of a subtweet,

eliminate, wrongly in my judgment, the doctrine of the conjugal and kinship private association from the field of politics and assign it to economics. Now these associations are the seedbed of all private and public associational life. The knowledge of other associations is therefore incomplete and defective without this doctrine of conjugal and kinship associations, and cannot be rightly understood without it.

And his whole scheme depends on the idea that the bigger collegial and civil and imperial political bonds that people have with each other aren’t really a different kind of thing from these bonds of primary affection. The jus symbiotica that kinsmen owe each other is actually a real political right. He’s also, of course, a federalist, and so he sees these mini-societies as arising from either explicit or implicit covenants, based on affection: “Whence arises the particular and private union and society among the covenanters, whose bond is trust granted and accepted in their communication of mutual aid, counsel, and right.”

Althusius is that he does not quite conflate, but throws together, the natural and supernatural ends of man. The telos of man as man is the same as the telos of “symbiotic” or political man: “holy, just, comfortable, and happy symbiosis, a life lacking nothing either necessary or useful.”



We begin as babies:

Truly, in living this life no man is self-sufficient [or self-ruled, αὐτάρκης], or adequately endowed by nature. For when he is born, destitute of all help, naked and defenseless, as if having lost all his goods in a shipwreck, he is cast forth into the hardships of this life, not able by his own efforts to reach a maternal breast, nor to endure the harshness of his condition, nor to move himself from the place where he was cast forth.

But, just as there is no man in the state of nature for him, no pre-political man; likewise, there is no pre-religious man. We are aimed at political life not just to live “commodiously” but to live in holiness, to live as the true kinds of creatures we are, that is, creatures made in the image of God to bear his image.

It is Christmas, and so I will say something nice about John Rawls: he puts well what Althusius means. Society, Rawls says, is “a social union of social unions,” for a shared purpose, the “common aim of cooperating together to realize their own and another’s nature in ways allowed by the principles of justice.”

So we come together in social union to realize our natures. Rawls is wrong about our natures and about the nature of justice, but he gets it right that those natures are social— we can’t be ourselves by ourselves. So “being yourself” is something more like “being a daughter” than it is like “having a piece of cake.” We can’t enjoy being ourselves alone, as we can enjoy a piece of cake alone. In a certain way, the flourishing of each of us is according to our nature is, thus, a common good. This is the incredible nature of friendship, of love: we are given each other to care about, and in caring about others and seeking their good, we find ourselves.

Even hermits are not alone: they are entering into being themselves through union with God. There’s a line in Bonhoeffer’s Life Together which, when I first converted, used to terrify me: he said something like, “We see our brothers not immediately, but mediated through Christ.” This sounded hideous at the time: as though we were insulated from each other. But I know what he means, now: this social nature of ours finds its fruition in… I’m not sure how to put it… in the nexus of God. If there’s not a primary way in which our social selfhood is fulfilled by the love of the Trinity itself, then the secondary ways it can and should be fulfilled can get grasping, codependent; we either idolize others or use them. But our nature is not to worship each other or to receive living water from each other, but from God. When that’s true, we then begin to really be able to discover who we are as social selves, and who our friends are.

What this means is that you can’t talk about politics, or about the common good, without talking about what our natures are. And you can’t talk about those without talking about the God who is the one who made and loves us. We begin as the rightful subjects of God who is King, and we never cease to be so. All our political relationships are founded on this base. Thus Althusius:

The wickedness of administrators cannot abolish or diminish the imperium and might of God, nor release the administrators from the same. For the power and jurisdiction of God are infinite. He created heaven and earth, and is rightly lord and proprietor of them… “The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof,” and is so by the right of creation and conservation. God is therefore called “King of kings and Lord of lords.”

It is because of this that, in our rulers, we require, he says, two things: “love and ability.”

We require love toward the association that is committed to them so that all its hardships may be lighter; and we require ability of governing and administering so that the commonwealth may not suffer damage by the deficiency of administrative competence.

Our rulers, then, must love us, and they must be good, skillful, at ruling.

But this is getting us into the realm of the public political community, and that’s not what I’m focusing on here. Let’s talk about mutual benevolence.

Mutual benevolence, that fourth thing that members of collegia owe each other, he considers in both psychic and practical ways. It is, he says,

that affection and love of individuals toward their colleagues because of which they harmoniously will and “nill” on behalf of the common utility. This benevolence is nourished, sustained, and conserved by public banquets, entertainments, and love feasts.

The thing that I love about this is that it’s both natural and artifactual all the way down (and up.) In the family, or in the kinship group, this is obvious: throughout the year, we have dinner with our friends, we have breakfast with our children and our spouses, we have coffee, we share wine, we share bagels. But, he says, this kind of affectionate feasting is required at the collegial level too. At least once a year, in other words, even for collegia, there must be brunch.

One might call this the Mimosa Principle. We don’t just owe each other jus: we also owe each other prosecco.

Merry Christmas. The Trinity, all-sufficient, needing nothing from you, sent one of its persons to become man for you, so that you could be yourself. If you are alone in a crowd, find yourself a kinship group, find yourself a collegium. Find yourself some brunch.

Susannah Black Roberts

Susannah Black Roberts is senior editor at Plough. She is a native Manhattanite. She and her husband, the theologian Alastair Roberts, split their time between Manhattan and the West Midlands of the UK.