The Pathos of Politics (26) Jean Bodin

Jean Bodin

Sovereignty is the absolute and perpetual power of the state. ~ Jean Bodin

French jurist and political philosopher Jean Bodin (1530–1596) is widely credited with solidifying the concept of sovereignty in political thought.

Machiavelli had come close to the ideas of statehood. He was first to coin the term state (lo stato).

Machiavelli was primarily interested in power and those who struggled for it. His use of the term state was permeated with governance: the state as ruler and associated machinery for exercising power. This was a personal view, not an institutional one.

A public legal group – Politiques – sought to stem the tide of religious fanaticism that fueled the French religious war. Bodin became its best-known theorist.

Bodin defined sovereignty as “the absolute and perpetual power of the state.” He distinguished the government, which exercised sovereign power for a limited time, from the state, which had perpetual sovereignty.

Bodin more clearly saw than anyone before him that the essence of sovereignty lay in the making of laws.

In the Middle Ages, the law was cumulatively accreted by judges (common law), not crafted by legislators. It was thought a slow synthesis of the will of God, the law of Nature, and the immemorial custom of the land.

Bodin made a revolutionary break in spurning the feudal system of diffuse authority to espouse centralized sovereignty. Boden perceived the limits of sovereignty as checked by divine and natural law.

Bodin preferred monarchy to aristocracy or democracy because the indivisibility of authority seemed best safeguarded by 1 man. In several aspects, Bodin followed the philosophic logic laid out in Vindiciae.

Bodin accepted religious diversity on philosophic grounds (“the more the will of men is forced, the more it becomes obstinate”), and opposed slavery as unjust.

Bodin’s bourgeois perspective was reflected in his views on property and war. He held that taxation without the consent of the “estates” (i.e., property-owning men) was unjustifiable.

Although recognizing that “excessive wealth of the few and extreme poverty of the many” was a formula for revolution, conservative Bodin strongly opposed equality, as the foundation of the state is good faith, which equalization would subvert by sundering traditions.

Bodin considered war destructive of human associations, both material and spiritual. War was only justified to repel aggression.

Bodin’s vision of a strong state, monarchial but not tyrannical, became the model for the French nation-state, in which the interests of the monarchy were allied with of the ascendant merchant and middle classes against church and aristocracy. This alliance between king and bourgeoisie was to last over 2 hundred years, until the French Revolution raised the fundamental issues of where sovereignty should reside, and how much economic inequity should be tolerated.

Among all the causes of sedition and basic changes of the state, none is more important than excessive wealth of the few and extreme poverty of the many. ~ Jean Bodin