28 October 2012
Jean Bodin was a lawyer, economist, and a major political thinker, along with many other things, in the sixteenth century. (Empson) He and his methodologies are studied widely by contemporary political philosophers and historians. Of the work he did, the most widely studied and influential is his book called “The Six Books of Commonwealth.” Within this, Bodin gives an introduction to what is called sovereignty. Bodin is acknowledged by many as the one who coined the term and the father of “sovereignty.” Bodin uses the ideals of sovereignty how power is distributed, how the sovereign should rule and command, how the state should act to explain what, in his opinion, is the best form of government.
Sovereignty, by the definition formulated by Bodin, “is the absolute and perpetual power of a commonwealth.” (Bodin 1) He explains that in order to be considered a sovereign, one must hold absolute power, for the entirety of his life. (Bodin 2) He cannot be limited by time in position as the ruler. (Bodin 2) He cannot be given orders by any other peers or mortals. If a subject were to be given absolute power for a certain amount of time, he cannot be considered a sovereign ruler. (Bodin 5) Even during his reign, he is not to be called a sovereign. Although they may enjoy the power, these people are nothing but trustees who are granted power, until come the expiration when the power is revoked from them. (Bodin 7) Bodin believes that much like how people who lend property or resources still rightfully hold the name as the owner, rulers
who give power, regardless of the expiration time or lack of, are the sole possessors of that power. “They still remain lawfully possessed of power and jurisdiction, which the others exercise in the manner of a loan or grant on sufferance.” (Bodin 2)
So if a given ruler has no time limitations, how can we know that he is then a sovereign?
Bodin explains that the power must be “stripped” from the people, putting him in possession of it, transferring along with it “all of its power, authority, prerogatives, and sovereign rights to him.” (Bodin 67) If he is given the absolute power with no contract that makes the power revocable, or without any conditions, he should be acknowledged as the sovereign. “I have said that this power is perpetual, because it can happen that one or more people have absolute power given to them for some certain period of time, upon the expiration of which they are no more than private subjects.” (Bodin 12) Although this quote exemplifies and supports the afore mentioned ideas, the key point to notice here is the emphasis on status and hierarchy. Hierarchy and social status took a big role in governing how individuals act in the sixteenth century societies. (Sabean Lecture) Bodin shows that one who is temporarily in power, is nothing but a meer subject to the prince or the people once the power is revoked. A true sovereign, is not subject to the commands of others. In fact, he is not bound by the laws of his predecessors nor the laws of himself. Though, “for divine and natural laws, every prince on earth is subject to them, and it is not in their power to contravene them unless they wish to be guilty of treason against God.” (Bodin 13) Bodin’s understanding of power is that the sovereign is the next one down from ‘God’ himself.
Simply put, society can be partitioned into three parts: God, the sovereign, and his subjects. The sovereign cannot impede on the laws that are seen as divine. Although, he can overrule his own laws. His relationship is different with the people in these matters, according to
Bodin. In rulership, the prince is not bound by his promises in keeping his own laws. But if the sovereign has no just cause for setting aside a law, the prince cannot disobey it. “A contract between a prince and his…