After reading this article you will learn about the views of Machiavelli, Bodin and Hobbes on sovereignty.
Machiavelli (1469-1527), Bodin (1529-1596) and Hobbes (1588-1679) dealt with the most important and vexed issue-the sovereignty. But Machiavelli did not directly analyse the idea. The interpreters of his political ideas, however, have deduced certain features of sovereignty from his long and variegated advice to the prince.
On the other hand, Bodin and Hobbes directly dealt with the concept. We have noted that Jean Bodin, the great sixteenth century French philosopher, was of opinion that the religious and civil problem as well as conflicts could easily be solved if there were a sovereign power with unlimited authority at his disposal. Because with the help of this unrestricted power he could control the unruly behaviour of some groups of persons or individuals. Bodin concluded this because he was the witness of the great Bartholomew Massacre (1572).
Bodin thought of a well-ordered government with absolute sovereign power. Bodin had an idea that the French Government of his time was not capable of controlling the recalcitrant elements.
He was of opinion that a government must have enough power to control any problem that might threaten the peace, and harmony of society. Again, the sovereignty must have unlimited power to make law.
He in his Six Books on Commonwealth made the following observation:
“There are none on earth, after God, greater than sovereign princes, whom God establishes as His lieutenants to command the rest of mankind”.
To sum up, Bodin’s sovereignty is absolute and enjoys unlimited power.
Machiavelli did not directly deal with the idea of sovereignty. But we think that he was a great supporter of absolute power and he always advised his prince to exercise absolute power to achieve his objective which is the unification of Italy. Machiavelli thought that the sole objective of the prince must be to unify the various warring states of Italy.
It was his belief that the main cause of backwardness of Italy was the internecine conflict among the several parts of Italy. Whatever might be the cause of disunity or division, Machiavelli’s chief concern was to unify Italy and if this could not be achieved the progress would remain a distant hope. Machiavelli advised his prince to apply absolute power whenever necessary and in this regard he must not hesitate.
Machiavelli’s concept of sovereignty is not well built and academically of high standard. David Held says; Bodin was a critic of Machiavelli’s defence of centralised power—a defence of which, Bodin held firmly placed the ends of the state or community above these of individual subject and uncritically affirmed that “reasons of state” held priority over the rights of individuals.
In contrast to Machiavelli, Bodin sought to show that a sovereign authority could only be properly established if the body-politic was regarded as being composed of both ruler and the ruled.
To Machiavelli sovereignty was simply a type of power which the prince could use. On the other hand, to Bodin, sovereignty was an element of state. Bodin was a man of jurisprudence and that is why he viewed it from the standpoint of law.
Whereas Machiavelli was a statesman. For this reason we find differences in the approaches of two persons it is, however, interesting to note that both Machiavelli and Bodin emphasized the unity of state. Machiavelli advised his prince to neglect or deny morality and religion. But Bodin never said so.
Machiavelli’s theory of sovereignty is not well-argued and elegant. But we witness all these qualities in the theory of Bodin. Almost all the characteristics of “classical’ theory of sovereignty are found in Bodin’s theory. But Hobbes’s theory is better than Bodin’s.
It is logical and well-structured. People in the state of nature suffered a lot of insecurity and other hazards in day-to-day life and that made their everyday life miserable.
This led them to find a way out and tor that reason they set up a civil society and placed an absolute power at the top of the organization that is body-politic.
Drawing a comparison between Bodin and Hobbes David Held makes the following observation:
“Hobbes provided one of the most elegant rationales for the primacy of the state….and for the necessary unity of the state as the representative of the body-politic, and for the necessity of the state as the creator and maintenance of positive law. Like Bodin, he wrote against the background of social disorder and political instability, in this case, the English civil war. Like Bodin, he sought to establish the necessity of an all-powerful sovereign capable of securing the conditions of peaceful and commodious living”.
We thus find that both Bodin and Hobbes wrote their theory of sovereignty being influenced by prevailing circumstances and they also thought that only an absolute sovereign power was the real remedy to the undesirable and harmful situation.
Hobbes’s sovereignty is the product of the covenant. There were several stages. At the preliminary level the people of the state of nature abandoned that atmosphere assembled together, decided to set up a body-politic; created a sovereign power and at the penultimate stage handed over all the civil, legal and various other powers at the hands of the absolute sovereignty.
No conditions of serious nature were imposed upon the exercise of sovereign power. Of course, there were few exceptions and those were not supposed to curtail the power of the sovereignty considerably. Bodin’s sovereignty had to face certain limitations.
So far as the concept of sovereignty in these three cases (Machiavelli, Bodin and Hobbes) is concerned there is a very interesting similarity among the three. This is, all the three were great admirers and supporters of the nation-state. Machiavelli could not tolerate the multiple divisions of Italy.
He wanted a strong and powerful nation-state and it was his firm belief that such a state was the powerful precondition of progress.
We know that the most vital elements of nation-state are specific geographical area, a government with absolute power, and a well-ordered administration Machiavelli, Bodin and Hobbes have all emphasized these three vital elements of nation-state in one way or other. Machiavelli strongly supported a strong and unified Italy.
In Bodin’s mind the picture of a strong and well- administered France was very active and clear. Hobbes laid the foundation of the nation-state. Before the setting up of a state people lived in the state of nature and the state of nature in the remotest sense cannot be regarded as a state or nation-state Bodin was perhaps convinced that the religious strife and other troubles posed dangerous situation for the very physical existence of a state. All of them were led to believe that only the erection of absolute sovereign power could act as a saviour.
There are divergent assessments about Hobbes, a political philosopher, and Maxey has offered us some of them (Maxey—Political Philosophies).
Dunning’s opinion is:
“His work placed him at once in the front rank of political thinkers and his theory became from the moment of its appearance the centre of animated controversy and enormous influence throughout Western Europe.”
But other interpreters of Hobbes’s political philosophy do not agree with Dunning. The language of their criticism is unpalatable.
For example H. R. Murray (The History of Political Science from Plato to the Present) writes – “Hobbes’s biographer could only find a solitary supporter, while his assailants were countless. Hobbism stood for atheist materialism, despotism or indeed for any other ‘ism’ that the fancy of the age suggested.”
In evaluating the importance of Hobbes’s thought R. G. Gettel writes:
“The theory of Hobbes had little immediate following in English political thought, although it probably influenced Cromwell to assume dictatorial power. His doctrines were not revived in England until the second half of the eighteenth century in the works of Bentham and Austin.”
C. B. Macpherson in his Introduction to Leviathan has raised a very pertinent question which runs as follows—why, in the second half of the twentieth century, do we still read Hobbes who wrote three centuries ago? He has also raised few other questions and has given replies. Macpherson’s opinion is—the world in which we live is highly preoccupied with numerous problems related to power.
Now if we go through the Leviathan we shall find that Hobbes’s analysis chiefly deals with power. Although Hobbes has analysed the various aspects of power he did throw enough light upon how to harness power or how to utilities it for proper development of society.
Hobbes, we know, also applied science to the study of politics and this approach has been appreciated by a large number of the interpreters of Hobbes’s philosophy. Finally, Hobbes wanted to establish peace in a highly disturbed society.
So there were three main concerns of Hobbes, power, science and peace. Today we are also concerned with these three. C. B. Macpherson rightly says – “So we may say that the twentieth century has brought us closer to an appreciation of Hobbes on three counts – power, peace and science” In both national and international spheres there is problem of power.
The nations are struggling for power. In the sphere of national politics there are numerous groups which are either directly or indirectly involved in power and power politics. Hobbes’s love for science and motion and their application in political science really impress us. Sabine has rightly said that he was the first man to apply science to politics.
David Held has appreciated Hobbes’s importance from another angle. He says Hobbes drew a direct comparison between international relations and the state of nature. He described the international system of states as being in a continuous posture of war.
Today the peace- loving people of the world have set up United Nations for the maintenance of international peace and security and has armed the key organ of the United Nations—the Security Council—with enormous power.
In the middle of the seventeenth century Hobbes created a civil society and placed a sovereign power at the top of the civil society. He prescribed that in one hand of the sovereign there shall be a sword and in the other a law book. All these arrangements are for the sake of peace.
Today Hobbes’s political ideas have relevance in the field of international politics. Held writes; In the study of international affairs Hobbes’s account has become associated with the realist theory of international politics.
Realism posits, in the spirit of Hobbes’s work, that the system of sovereign states is inescapably anarchic in character and that this anarchy forces all states to pursue power politics in order to attain their vital interests.
The approach of Hobbes can suitably be termed as real politic. Hobbes’s concern was neither morality nor religion but simply security; and he openly declared that without security nor absence of anarchy there was no scope of development in economy, progress in commerce and advancement in transport and communication.
“Nor did any political thinker ever formulate better grounds than Hobbes for the suppression of revolution and rebellion. Abraham Lincoln of necessity fell back on the Hobbesian conception of social compact and sovereignty in order to find justification for the use of force in quelling the secession of the South” Maxey continues – “If Hobbes was a materialist, he was also a rationalist, and rationalism, not to say realism, in copious doses was needed to shock political thought out of the academic obfuscation in which in Hobbes’s time it tended to become enveloped.” To sum up, Hobbes’s Leviathan is really fascinating.
We may not agree with his observations, conclusions and methods. But there is no doubt that in the prevailing circumstances his suggesting or recommendations were by far the best. While evaluating Hobbes’s contribution we must remember it.