The Dark Side of Civil Society: Elizabethan Ireland

The second strand of research examines the challenges posed by reformation thought for the meaning of civil society. In the context of religious division, questions arose about whether different confessional groups truly knew God and were therefore capable of acting well, for the common good. By way of answer, appeal was made to reason and natural law. Reason, it was argued, allowed the fundamental natural law principles governing civil society to be discerned. This argument was contested. For Calvinists in particular, reason remained overpowered by ‘the will’ which remained bound in sin. Only through the operation of God’s saving grace would humanity’s will be reformed. Without grace, the will was recalcitrant and would not seek the good unbidden. Thus in Ireland the failure of English efforts to build a godly society led to an increasingly coercive policy in the name of ‘civilitie’, because God’s grace was thought to be absent. This was the context in which John Dickenson dedicated his translation of Aristotle’s Politics (1598) to Robert Sidney, the son of Elizabeth I’s sometime Lord Deputy of Ireland, Henry Sidney. Similarly, on behalf of the Calvinist Palatinate, Ludwig Camerarius engaged in a vigorous polemical exchange, in the midst of the Thirty Years War, which brought the norms of civil society into dispute. In a world marked by religious division, how, if at all, could a shared conception of politics and society be constructed?