J.P.Sommerville

Jean Bodin and Absolutism

[Jean Bodin]

The late-sixteenth, seventeenth, and early-eighteenth centuries in Europe are sometimes described as the age of absolutism. In many European countries, the power of the state - typically governed by a king - grew at the expense of regional and individual liberties. In France, for example, royal power had fallen to a low point in the late sixteenth century during a period of religious civil wars between Catholics and Huguenots, but then began to rise sharply under Henry IV (1589-1610), under Louis XIII (1610-43) and his chief minister Cardinal Richelieu (d. 1642), and especially under Louis XIV (1643-1715).

One of the most famous and influential theorists of absolutism was the Frenchman Jean Bodin (1529 or 1530 to 1596). After receiving a good education in classical languages and literature, he studied law, and became a successful lawyer, judge, and (at times) advisor to members of the royal family. Bodin may have flirted with Protestantism, but eventually he came to believe that religious civil war was an extremely bad idea, and that all French people ought to put their country before ambitions to enforce their religion. Peace was more important than religious unity. People like Bodin who put political before religious considerations were called politiques (a word closely connected with the English terms "politic" and "politics," which were just becoming fashionable then). It is possible that Bodin personally came to believe in a religion that contained Islamic and especially Jewish elements, as well as Christian ones, and that he wrote a book called the Colloquium of the Seven in which he develops his eclectic and syncretist ideas. The Colloquium was attributed to Bodin and circulated in manuscript in the seventeenth century, and published as his in the nineteenth, but his authorship has recently been questioned. Though Bodin supported religious toleration, he strongly advocated the persecution of witches, and wrote a lengthy book on witchcraft.

Bodin's major political work was the Six Books of the Commonweal (or State) (Six livres de la république), which was published in French in 1576 - at the time of the religious wars - and in a Latin translation (by Bodin himself) ten years later (when the religious wars were still going on). It was frequently reprinted in both languages, and translated into others including English (in 1606; this is the only complete English translation; it was reprinted by Harvard University Press in 1962, edited by Kenneth McRae). Our text of the Six Livres is a condensed version of the book, abridged by M. J. Tooley (1955). Bodin's book is a very wide-ranging discussion of political and social organization, discussing different forms of government, the influence of climate and geography on politics, the relationship between states and subordinate bodies, and so on. In its standard sixteenth century French version, it runs to over 1000 pages. it has claims to being the first full-scale work of political science.

Especially important for the later development of political theory was Bodin central doctrine - of unlimited and indivisible sovereignty. According to this doctrine, in every state there must be one person (or one defined group of people) who has all the powers necessary to govern the community, and who is its sovereign. If one person made laws, but another commanded the army, and a third ran the economy, there would be eternal disagreements, and the state would soon collapse. So sovereignty cannot be divisible between different people. Again, a sovereign who was accountable to someone else would not really be sovereign; so no one can have the right to impose limitations on the power of sovereigns, or to resist them by force of arms. Though Bodin held that people have no right to rebel against the sovereign, he argued that we ought not to obey sovereigns if they command things that are contrary to the law of God or the law of nature. These laws established religious and moral rules which no one could countermand. If the sovereign ordered us to break the rules (say, by stealing, or committing adultery) we would have to disobey him, but meekly accept whatever punishment he inflicted on us (Bodin thought of the sovereign as "he"/ "him": he held that rule by women was a very bad idea, and criticized the government of Elizabeth I of England, irritating English writers).

Bodin's sovereign, then, was not wholly unlimited - not as unlimited as the sovereign in Hobbes' thinking, for example. Was Bodin right to think that there must be an indivisible and (largely) unlimited sovereign in each state? Was he right to claim that there are some moral rules which even the sovereign cannot authorize us to break? What can be said for and against the idea that Bodin was an absolutist, or that the states of the seventeenth century were absolutist? In what ways, for example, do Bodin's recommendations about state power fall short of things we now take for granted (e.g. state control over education, health, food, policing, etc.)? How do Bodin's ideas differ from the theory of the "Divine Right of Kings"?

A few suggestions for further reading:

J. H. Burns, "Absolutism: the history of an idea," London 1986 (a lecture; clear, short discussion);
Julian Franklin, "Sovereignty and the mixed constitution: Bodin and his critics," in J. H. Burns, ed., with the assistance of Mark Goldie, The Cambridge History of Political Thought 1450-1700, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1991, 298-328 (on Bodin's influence and German replies to him);
Nicholas Henshall, The myth of absolutism, London 1992 (argues that absolutism did not exist);
James VI and I, Political Writings, ed. Johann Sommerville, 1994; classic British absolutist texts, esp. the brief True law of Free Monarchies);
Johann Sommerville, "Absolutism and royalism," in J.H. Burns, ed., The Cambridge History of Political Thought 1450-1700, Cambridge 1991, 347-73 (overview of seventeenth-century absolutism, the Divine Right of Kings, etc.).

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