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Sovereignty - Early Modern Views: Absolutism

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The real crystallization of the doctrine of sovereignty occurred in sixteenth-century Europe and, like so much else, in the context of the religious turmoil that accompanied the Reformation. In France, Germany, England, and the Low Countries, the salient issue driving affairs of state in external relations with their neighbors and internal dealings with their populations concerned the determination of religious confession. Regardless of whether toleration or establishmentarianism prevailed, it came to be recognized—theoretically as well as practically—that a single authority must be ceded the right to determine how inhabitants might worship. And this ultimate and supreme authority enjoyed sovereignty.

The classic statement of this position is ordinarily ascribed to the Six livres de la république (1576) by the French lawyer and humanist Jean Bodin (1530–1596). Bodin proposed a definition of sovereignty as absolute and indivisible, so that the ruling power possessed sole final authority over the legislative, judicial, administrative, and military functions associated with the state. In formulating this conception of sovereignty, Bodin explicitly challenged many of the central tenets of Aristotle's political science, such as the distinction between the governance of the family and the rulership of the state. Moreover, Bodin ridiculed as incoherent the idea that sovereignty could be shared between or mixed among different groups or institutions. The sovereign is answerable to no earthly authority and, while he is cautioned by Bodin to subject himself to divine and natural law, there is no temporal compulsion that he do so. Hence, Bodin's doctrine is generally described as "absolutism," since it posits the absolute and unchecked sovereignty of the monarch.

Another important advocate of absolutism was Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), especially in his masterpiece, the Leviathan (1651). Like Bodin, Hobbes insisted that the only justifiable form of sovereign authority is absolute and indivisible. Hobbes ascribed to human beings natural liberty and equality, which licenses them to undertake any actions necessary in order to preserve themselves and to avoid pain. He believed that the pursuit of self-preservation by free and equal creatures left to their own devices (the "state of nature") logically leads to unceasing conflict and unremitting fear. Frustrated in their realization of their basic desires, human beings voluntarily exchange their chaotic natural freedom for peace and order by means of a social contract, the terms of which call upon the parties to renounce all liberties and rights they possess by nature (with the exception of self-preservation itself). Any contract that permits the retention of some rights, and thus a limitation on the sovereign's absolute authority, will fail to achieve the peace sought and will eventually slip its members back into the state of nature. In contrast with Bodin, Hobbes did not insist that the constitutional form of sovereign rule must be monarchy, although it is evident that he preferred royal government. Rather, Hobbes held that any type of regime—aristocracy (rule of the few) and democracy (the rule of the many) as well as kingship (the rule of one)—might meet the standard for sovereign authority so long as it commanded with an undivided and single voice.

Hobbes recognized that religion constituted an especially fertile source of political conflict and thus a particular threat to the maintenance of sovereign authority. To remedy the divisive consequences of religion, he offered a rather extreme solution in the second half of Leviathan, of strictly limiting the autonomy of ecclesiastical officials and offices and reinterpreting Christian theology in a manner consonant with his conceptions of human nature and sovereignty. While Hobbes's Erastian proposals were highly unusual, his comments about religion and public order demonstrate clearly how the emergence of the idea of sovereignty reflected deep concern about the corrosive effects of confessional dispute.

A further strand of absolutism may be associated with "patriarchal" ideas, such as were proposed by Sir Robert Filmer (c. 1586–1653). In his Patriarcha, Filmer drew a direct analogy between Adam, to whom God had entrusted the whole of the earth, and the kings who followed after him. Since Adam enjoyed unchecked sovereignty over both natural resources and over his family, so should his heir, the king, possess fatherly authority to dispose of his subjects and their goods as he saw fit, without the approval of a superior authority.

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