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Early Concepts

As an intellectual construct, sovereignty has often been assimilated to the rise of the nation-state in Europe during the early modern period. It is true that sovereignty as a theoretical or a practical precept is incompatible with tribal or feudal societies, where power is decentralized or parceled out into the hands of numerous lordlings, all of whom exercise governmental functions in overlapping and semi-autonomous forms. Yet societies that deified their supreme rulers, such as ancient Egypt or Japan, thereby sought at least implicitly to capture a salient element of sovereignty: that a unitary source existed from which flowed the validity of all lesser forms of command and rule.

Perhaps the political and legal system that most cogently expressed the aspiration to sovereign authority before the rise of the modern state system was the Roman Empire. (Of course, Roman ideas, especially those contained in its civil law, in turn exercised considerable influence on early modern thought.) The Roman doctrine of imperium, meaning the concentration of powers over the territories of the Empire in the hands of its Emperor, conveyed the unrivaled and unchallengeable supremacy invested in the ruler. To affront this imperium by word or deed constituted a grave crime against the Roman majesty, punishable by execution. When imperium is coupled with the legal doctrine that the Emperor is legibus solutus—a law unto himself answerable to no one—one arrives at a concept very nearly identical to that of sovereignty.

Although Roman law was widely disseminated in Europe during the postclassical period, and concepts such as imperium and legibus solutus were widely discussed, the conjunction of a feudal social structure with religious and ecclesiastical constraints on power rendered sovereignty functionally inapplicable to temporal government. The ecclesiological doctrine of the pope's "plenitude of power" (plenitudo potestatis), according to which the papacy possesses final authority over the determination of matters of orthodox, however, does involve elements of a theory of sovereignty. Yet not even extreme papalists would claim that the pope is beyond error or "infallible" (in the meaning of that term as, in effect, spiritually sovereign, which was eventually proclaimed by the First Vatican Council in the nineteenth century).

Only near the end of the Middle Ages does the word sovereignty appear in the major vernacular languages of Europe, and its meaning during this time remains ambiguous. A particularly clear example of this ambiguity is afforded by the French law book Coutumes de Beauvaisis, compiled by Philippe de Beaumanoir (c. 1250–1296) during the later thirteenth century. Beaumanoir declared that "the king is sovereign (souverains) above all others and by his rights has the general protection of the whole realm, because he can make all statutes for the common benefit and what he decrees must be followed." The assertion of binding legal authority sounds very familiar to modern ears. Yet Beaumanoir also blunts some of the impact of this sovereignty by insisting that "every baron is sovereign (souverains) in his barony," meaning that each noble prince can do for his immediate territorial subjects precisely what the king does for the entire realm. Hence, an exclusive franchise is lacking from Beaumanoir's doctrine, which remains consonant with the multiple and overlapping jurisdictions typical of European feudalism. The key idea of "complete" sovereignty stemming from a unitary wellspring is absent.

The Western world was not alone in struggling with the meaning behind sovereignty. In the Persian-language treatise of political advice Mau'izah-i Jahangiri (1612–1613), written in Muslim-controlled India by Muhammad Baqir Najm-i Sani (d. 1637), the ruler is counseled to exercise his "sovereignty [ dawlat ] according to the injunctions of Islamic law." The word dawlat has a general meaning of "bliss" or "felicity" in Persian, as well as the more concrete connotation of supreme political authority. Given the intertwined personal, religious, and political overtones, it becomes difficult to specify with precision whether Baqir intended to conceive of the Emperor as fully sovereign or whether instead the ruler must subject himself to religious precepts that constrain his authority.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Adam Smith Biography to Spectroscopic binarySovereignty - Early Concepts, Early Modern Views: Absolutism, Early Modern Views: Popular Sovereignty, Later Developments