Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The Road to Sovereignty

Contrary to popular belief in our circles, the reality of political sovereignty in a monopoly State was not always with us.  It certainly did not exist in the European Middle Ages; such sovereignty was certainly not invested in the kings of the time.

Whether coincidence or causation (you know my view), the road to sovereignty aligns with the period beginning with the Reformation and Renaissance and reaches maturity with Enlightenment thinking.  In this chapter, Nisbet examines three of the important political theorists during this period of transition from decentralized governance to political sovereignty; I will complement Nisbet’s work with relevant excerpts from Jacques Barzun’s magnum opus, From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life.

The three characters are Jean Bodin, Thomas Hobbes, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  Each one successively advanced the cause of the destruction of intermediate authorities and advanced the cause of centralization under the sovereign.

Bodin ascribes unconditional power to the sovereign, yet sovereignty remains weak as it is associated strictly with the monarch; Hobbes moves sovereignty from the monarch to the legal State, all customs and traditions having legitimacy only due to the State; Rousseau tears down the intermediate institutions completely, and identifies sovereignty in the will of the people – the General Will.

Jean Bodin

Jean Bodin (1530–1596) was a French jurist and political philosopher, member of the Parlement of Paris and professor of law in Toulouse. He is best known for his theory of sovereignty; he was also an influential writer on demonology.

From Nisbet:

Of Bodin it has been well said that he had ceased to be medieval without becoming modern.

Bodin was one of the Politiques, a group of men who were dedicated to action in behalf of the central power at the expense of all other social and moral authorities.  This was during the time of the Wars of Religion, it an outgrowth of the Reformation (and it an outgrowth of complaints, both legitimate and otherwise, against the Church).

“Majesty or sovereignty,” he declares, “is the most high, absolute and perpetual power over the subjects and citizens in a Commonweale.”

His power was to be inalienable and imprescriptible; it could not be limited by custom; the king was no longer below the law, but above the law; the edict of the sovereign was the law of the land.

From Barzun:

For France, Bodin is sure that a division of powers, a so-called mixed government, will not work…. The only check on monarchy that Bodin would retain was the Estates General, the irregularly summoned assembly that voted new taxes… The Estates represented the three orders – clergy, nobles, and commoners….

Bodin could not completely divorce himself from the traditional past.  He made a sharp distinction between State and society; he held a devotion to the moral and social qualities of intermediate associations.  He does not believe a commonwealth could exist without such intermediate associations.  He finds the highest place for family, thus demonstrating his connection to the medieval past.

Bodin will not tolerate the thought that the political sovereign should be supreme over the individual members of the family and over its customs and property.

It was via property that Bodin would make his stand:

If the State were given the power to alienate property, through interference with customs of inheritance, there would be no limit to the State’s capacity for the enslavement of man.

The man’s home was his castle – even extending to the father’s right over life and death of the family members.  How this castle was to be defended when man was left nowhere to appeal other than the sovereign is not clear.

Yes, there were logical confusions in Bodin’s thought. Keeping in mind that he was writing in a time of religious wars in France and under the effects of the breakdown in Church authority, this is, perhaps, understandable.

Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes (5 April 1588 – 4 December 1679), in some older texts Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury, was an English philosopher who is considered one of the founders of modern political philosophy.  Hobbes is best known for his 1651 book Leviathan, which established the social contract theory that has served as the foundation for most later Western political philosophy.

Writing seventy-five years after Bodin, Hobbes suffered none of Bodin’s confusions.  Hobbes leaves virtually nothing of the medieval social and moral order intact.  Gone are associations based on locality and faith; gone is the veneration of kinship; gone is the inviolable household.  Neither family, nor church, nor community can stand between the individual and the State – and the individual and the State are the only two essential elements of society.

Of Hobbes, Barzun offers:

Hobbes saw man in the state of nature as an aggressor; man is a wolf to man.  Unless controlled, he and his fellows live a life that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  From these premises reason concludes that government must be strong, its laws emphatic, and rigorously enforced to prevent outbreaks of wolfish nature against other men.

Neither the revealed wisdom of the church nor the wisdom of historical precedent would suffice; all principles of society would have to be derived strictly from man’s reason.  Contract would be man’s only form of social cohesion, replacing the morality of the church or the wisdom of the ages.  Returning to Nisbet:

Ernest Barker has perceptively suggested that the seventeenth-century philosophy of natural law was in certain significant respects a kind of subtle rationalization of the principles of Roman Law.  It adhered to the same conception of the primacy of the individual and individual will in legal matters.

I admit that every time I butt up against statements such as this, I am thrown for a big loop.  On who or what beside the individual should law focus?  Yet, man was most free when the law was not so atomized.  So, what gives?  Yes…a lifetime of work for me.

It made relationships of contract fundamental in the constitution of society.

Leaving no room, it seems, for custom and tradition.  Leaving no room, it seems, for the culture to do its governing work. 

All the symmetry of design and centralization of function and authority to be seen in Roman Law are clearly apparent in seventeenth-century natural law.

Hard to describe any of this as anything other than libertarian, except for the State part.  But absent any intermediate institutions of governance, it seems there can be no “except” for the State part.

As an aside: If law is natural, there must be one law for all.  But one law for all sounds rather monopolistic, and we know that monopolies can only be created and enforced by a powerful central (world) government.  One all-powerful central (world) government doesn’t sound like an institution that would be very interested in defending natural law.

Anyway…don’t like my use of the term “libertarian” in connection with Hobbes thinking?  Barzun understands your confusion; he notes…

… [Hobbes’] contemporaries were not sure which camp Hobbes belonged to.  He was praised and pelted equally by Puritans, Presbyterians, and Royalists.

As Nisbet points out, too many critics of Hobbes have only read him through the words of his enemies:

Hobbes did not seek the extermination of individual rights but their fulfillment.  This could be accomplished only by removing social barriers to individual autonomy.  In his eyes the greatest claim of the absolute State lay in its power to create an environment for the individual’s pursuit of his natural ends.

Hobbes gave birth to Locke, according to Nisbet.  Whereas many see Locke as a reaction to Hobbes, Nisbet offers:

Actually, although Locke, by virtue of his later position with respect to Hobbes, could give more explicit emphasis to individual rights, the fact remains that it was Hobbes’ own brilliant sketching of the political environment of individualism that made the later system possible.

It is in Hobbes where one finds the liberty that would later be identified with the Enlightenment in England and France.  A hard pill to swallow, perhaps?  Well, what does Nisbet know…

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (28 June 1712 – 2 July 1778) was a Genevan philosopher, writer and composer. Born in Geneva, his political philosophy influenced the Enlightenment across Europe, as well as aspects of the French Revolution and the overall development of modern political and educational thought.

From Nisbet:

By far the most rigorous and revolutionary theory of sovereignty is that of Rousseau….Rousseau sees the State as the most exalted of all forms of moral community.

Rousseau sees the State as capable of resolving all conflicts between and amongst not only individuals and institutions, but even conflicts within each individual!  He sees the individual and the State as the only entities of legitimacy:

The result is the confluence of a radical individualism on the one hand and an uncompromising authoritarianism on the other.

This parallel existence has left Rousseau open to charges of inconsistency, yet after a thorough reading of Nisbet’s work thus far one can understand – even if not agree – that this charge of inconsistency need not be valid.

The individualism of Rousseau’s thought is not the individualism of a William Godwin; it is not the libertarian assertion of absolute rights against the State.  Rousseau’s passionate defense of the individual arises out of his opposition to the forms and observances of society.

Of course, to free the individual from the tyranny of these various and decentralized social institutions, one requires a pretty strong – call it absolute – State.

[The State’s] mission is to effectuate the independence of the individual from society be securing the individual’s dependence upon itself.

Tear down all other social structures – built by culture and tradition through the family, religion, guild and university – and all that is left is the State.

Through the power of the State, man is spared the strife and tyranny that arise out of his selfish and destructive passions.

Barzun notes the well-cited line from Rousseau – that man is born free and everywhere in chains.  Far from suggesting that the chains be broken, Rousseau offers: “I will now endeavor to show how they [the chains] are legitimate.”

Farther on we come upon the savage once more and learn that although he is free of some faults, he is not a moral being – not immoral, amoral.  So he cannot be material for building a society and running a government.

Salvation by State!  And what is the engine behind the State’s authority?  How will this all-powerful institution determine its direction?  This will be found in the General Will; returning to Nisbet:

The General Will is indivisible, inalienable, and illimitable.  It demands the unqualified obedience of every individual in the community and implies the obligation of each citizen to render to the State all that the State sees fit to demand.

And this is how man would gain his liberty from traditional society.

Power is freedom and freedom is power.  True freedom consists in the willing subordination of the individual to the whole of the State.


The possibility of sovereignty was born in the West with the Reformation and Renaissance.  Its progression can be seen through the Enlightenment. 

There is no possibility of freedom when the focus is the individual.  Absent intermediate institutions and competing governance structures, formed and accepted within a common cultural tradition, the individual is left naked in front of the State.  This connection and path are made clear by Bodin, Hobbes, and Rousseau.

If liberty is to be salvaged, libertarian theory must incorporate something beyond the individual as sovereign.  The only way to get to a sovereign individual is through an all-powerful State.


Early critics of Rousseau included…Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Hegel argued that, because it lacked any grounding in an objective ideal of reason, Rousseau's account of the general will ineluctably lead to the Reign of Terror.

The Committee of Public Safety—created in April 1793 by the National Convention and then restructured in July 1793—formed the de facto executive government in France during the Reign of Terror (1793–94), a stage of the French Revolution.

The Reign of Terror, or The Terror, is the label given by some historians to a period during the French Revolution after the First French Republic was established.

There was a sense of emergency among leading politicians in France in the summer of 1793 between the widespread civil war and counter-revolution. Bertrand Barère exclaimed on 5 September 1793 in the Convention: "Let's make terror the order of the day!" They were determined to avoid street violence such as the September Massacres of 1792 by taking violence into their own hands as an instrument of government.

Robespierre in February 1794 in a speech explained the necessity of terror:

If the basis of popular government in peacetime is virtue, the basis of popular government during a revolution is both virtue and terror; virtue, without which terror is baneful; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing more than speedy, severe and inflexible justice; it is thus an emanation of virtue; it is less a principle in itself, than a consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing needs of the patrie.


  1. I admire and appreciate this work you do, Mr. Bionic, and am a consistent reader of this blog. I also find the comments from other of your readers to be helpful to my understanding of “how the world works.” As a footnote, I recently re-read all of Edith Pargeter’s (Ellis Peters) Brother Cadfael books. These are set in 12th Century England, and Cadfael is a monk who in younger days spent years participating in the Crusades before returning to England and joining the church. If you aren’t familiar, I believe you would enjoy Pargeter’s grasp of medieval everyday life in Europe in that time period, and in particular the juxtaposition of the church and secular authority. I’m also slogging my way through Barzun’s magnum opus after reading your commentary on it, and will eventually get to the Nisbet book you are recently examining. Thank you again, and please carry on. Peggy in Oregon

  2. Schematically, Foucault tells us, the problem for political power in the middle ages was the control of territory. For the political power of the modern state, the problem transformed into the problem of the control of populations. It was within this transformation where such institutions were first deployed as the public school, the penitentiary, the police, the hospital, the elaboration and bureaucratization of the courts, and even the universities which served to bureaucratize fields of knowledge the better to regulate what could be thought.

  3. I will read this post more carefully later. I so glad you quoted Barzun and Nisbet with regards to Hobbes. I have read Leviathan and my conclusion was that Hobbes supposed fathering of the totalitarian state was wrong. Hobbes does write about agency and that that agency/agent be explicitly empowered to do the task delegated, that such agency/agent has no authority to go beyond that which was delegated. But, Hobbes did warn of the danger of an agency/agent trying to increase its authority and justify it by claiming a need to properly accomplish the delegated task. That is why the English monarchy was suspicious of Hobbes - the monarchy ruled not by Divine Right but by the people's delegation of authority/power. Remember, the principal is always above the agent and that equation cannot be altered without severe consequences.