Sovereignty, Virtue, and Vice in the History of Political Theory

Topic: Political Culture
Words: 2815 Pages: 10

Sovereignty in Modern Political Thought

While many concepts in political science ultimately go back to Classical antiquity, sovereignty is, by and large, a distinctly modern phenomenon. Although one can search for and even find similar ideas in the writings of ancient or medieval authors, sovereignty as a clearly defined and frequently discussed concept emerges in the early modern period. Different authors agreed on describing it as an underlying principle of political power but disagreed on whether it is invested in unchallengeable rulers of the population at large.

Historically speaking, the first author to write on the subject of sovereignty explicitly and in considerable length was the French statesman Jean Bodin. The most important source on that matter is his “The Six Books on the Commonwealth,” where “commonwealth” is a translation of the Latin “Res Publica.” According to Bodin, sovereignty is the “absolute and perpetual power vested in a commonwealth” (24).

The key characteristic of sovereignty is its perpetuity, and no person or group whose power can be revoked can ever be considered a sovereign ruler. Sovereignty, thus, presumes not only the absolute and unlimited power to govern a certain territory and its population but also means that this power “lasts for the lifetime of him who exercises it” (Bodin 26). Although it is the people who possess sovereign power initially, they renounce it by creating a sovereign power over them and, having done so, cannot take it back (Bodin 26).To put it simply, sovereignty refers to the political power that cannot be limited by its subjects, either temporarily or in scope.

At the same time, it does not mean that the sovereign ruler, as understood by Bodin, has no limits whatsoever. He posits that the sovereign governments, while unchecked by those they rule, are still “subject to the laws of God and of nature” (Bodin 28). The divine and natural law, the two always mentioned in succession, are a recurring concept in Bodin’s treaty and mainly refer to the preservation of life, peace, and prosperity. Although a ruler is not strictly bound to obey judicial decrees, whether his own or those of his predecessors, there is still a higher authority they answer to. Thus, Bodin’s account of sovereignty produced two key ideas: the principle of absolute and unalienable authority as a remedy against civil strife and the idea of natural and divine order that serves as a mitigating factor in the exercise of power.

It is not hard to note a contradiction in Bodin’s combination of these principles. On the one hand, the subjection of the sovereign ruler to God means that the natural and divine law imposes ethical obligations upon the sovereign. On the other hand, the fact that the sovereign answers to God alone make rebellion against him a “treason and rebellion against God” (Bodin 29). Bodin is only able to solve this conundrum by saying that overthrowing a tyrannical ruler can be justified solely when undertaken by a “special and indubitable commission from God” (68). Still, as there are only distant Biblical precedents for such commissions, the contradiction between the absolute power and the law of nature remains in force.

The first man to solve this contradiction was the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes. In his “Leviathan,” Hobbes develops Bodin’s idea of an absolute and unalienable sovereign power by renouncing the mitigating factors contemplated by his French counterpart. Hobbes proceeds on the premise that humans are more or less equal in their capabilities and needs. It means that “if any two men desire the same thing, which, nevertheless, they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies” (Hobbes).

It makes the state of nature that of unceasing war of everyone against everyone, meaning no one can enjoy the safety that only comes with peace. From this, the philosopher derives his interpretation of the natural law: it requires people to seek peace and, to ensure it, “to lay down [the] right to all things” (Hobbes). By doing so, people create an unlimited sovereign power to rule over them and maintain civil peace by punishing everyone who tries to break it. Thus, while Bodin’s natural law was meant to mitigate the excess of absolute power, Hobbes’ interpretation of the same concept justifies it instead.

Having renounced the factors that can theoretically limit a sovereign, Hobbes creates a very consistent justification of absolute power. He points out that, by creating a sovereign, the people surrender their political agency once and for all and, thus, “cannot lawfully make a New Covenant” (Hobbes).

He also dismisses any notion of tyranny and justified rebellion. Since the sovereign is created through a mutual agreement by all people, and nothing done to people by their own consent can be an injury, a subject cannot be logically wronged by a sovereign (Hobbes). “Logically” is the operative word – although Hobbes occasionally invokes God and uses Biblical examples, his social contract theory proceeds rationally from his ideas of nature and does not use the divine will as a premise. For Hobbes, reason teaches that a sovereign should be all-powerful and cannot be justly limited or challenged under any circumstances.

While Hobbes developed Bodin’s premise of sovereignty as unassailable, the French thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau contemplate another facet of his theory – the limiting factors and the idea of sovereignty as originally coming from the people. While both Bodin and Hobbes associated sovereignty with the ruler, Rousseau makes a sharp distinction between sovereignty and the government. For him, sovereignty, “being nothing less than the exercise of the general will, can never be alienated” from the people it resides in (Rousseau).

Sovereign, thus, is not the person or groups of people exercising power – these would be “magistrates” – but the common interest of people as political actors (Rousseau). Hence, while Bodin and Hobbes consider overthrowing the government a crime against the sovereign, this approach would make no sense to Rousseau since the sovereign power is invested in the people rather than the rulers.

To summarize, the development of sovereignty as a concept gave rise to two major traditions – absolute and popular sovereignty. Bodin laid the groundwork for both, depicting the sovereign power as absolute and unalienable yet leaving it subject to the laws of God and nature. Hobbes appropriated the first premise and created the theoretical justification of an absolute government that cannot be challenged under any circumstances.

Conversely, Rousseau developed Bodin’s idea of sovereignty as originally invested in the people and separated it from the government. Regardless of these differences, all early modern thinkers interested in sovereignty deduced their theories logically relying upon reason rather than authority. Their premises were the ideas of natural and, sometimes, divine law that defines humans’ role and place in the Universe and elevates them above other creatures, whether as reasonable actors or God’s favorite creations.

Virtue, Sovereignty, and Political Power

The idea of interlocking virtue, political power, and, by extension, sovereignty goes deep in western political thought. Philosophers of Classical Antiquity were among the first to pay extensive attention to this topic and discuss whether admirable human qualities and power were – and out to be – connected. Both Plato and Aristotle viewed sovereignty and political agency as closely tied to virtue, but while Plato ascribed it to the class of thoroughbred guardians, Aristotle distributed it more evenly among the people.

Plato’s The Republic resides on the premise that the state comes from the necessary division of labor, and each person has to excel in his or her vocation. The Greek philosopher points out that “all things are produced more plentifully and easily and of a better quality when one man does one thing which is natural to him” (Plato II). He views the exercise of political power as one of the hardest crafts in existence which should, therefore, be ascribed to a professional class of guardians thoroughly trained in virtue. Based on this, Plato insists on the necessity to pick “natures which are fitted for the task of guarding the city” and educate them mentally, morally, and physically for this role (II). This class of superbly virtuous human beings possesses political agency and, thus, sovereignty in Plato’s ideal state.

Plato also pays attention to the specific virtues he deems crucial for a statesman in the exercise of his duties. He identifies the four crucial virtues as wisdom, temperance, courage, and justice, although he covers the latter in more detail than the first three (Plato IV). What is the most interesting, though, is not the list of virtues themselves but the interpretation Plato ascribes to them in the political context. By equating justice with the separation of labor, he concludes that the social classes “meddling of one with another” and challenging the guardians’ monopoly on political power is irredeemable evil (Plato IV). Thus, Plato wholeheartedly supports the idea of virtue as a prerequisite for political power and, by doing so, invests sovereignty into the hands of a thoroughbred class of people born and educated to rule.

Aristotle also views power and virtue as inherently connected but offers a different interpretation of this relationship as compared to Plato. First of all, while Plato views the state as a natural result of the division of labor and nothing else, Aristotle provides a more utilitarian approach. According to him, “the end of the state is a good life,” which necessarily presumes happiness (Aristotle III.IX). He outright criticizes Plato’s ideal state as one devoid of happiness even for its ruling elite, much fewer warriors or artisans. As he puts it, Plato “deprives the guardians even of happiness, and says that the legislator ought to make the whole state happy” (Aristotle II.V).

From his perspective, the idea of providing happiness by depriving people of it makes little sense, and, as such, Plato’s proposed constitution does not fulfill the primary purpose of the state. As far as Aristotle is concerned, this purpose is not merely reinforcing the just division of labor with an unflinching hand but allowing the state’s citizens to live full and productive lives happily.

This is where virtue becomes truly important because Aristotle views it as a crucial and necessary prerequisite of happiness. He outright states that a “happy life is the life according to virtue lived without impediment” (Aristotle IV.XI). However, it is hardly possible to attain and develop one’s virtues alone, living in complete isolation. According to Aristotle, this, rather than the simple division of labor, is the true purpose of the state: “political society exists for the sake of noble actions, and not of mere companionship” (III.IX). Thus, the only way to live a properly fulfilling life by developing and exercising virtue is to participate in politics.

People’s pursuit of happiness and virtue makes them political creatures and elevates them above animals, and the proper way to exercise virtue and achieve happiness is through political life. Independent political agency and, thus, sovereignty is not necessarily invested into a single class of superbly virtuous individuals but can reside with the people as a whole due to their capacity and will for virtue. For Aristotle, virtue is not the criterion to limit political participation but the end goal of social and political life.

To summarize, Plato and Aristotle both laid grounds for associating virtue and political authority, even though they approached the issues from different perspectives. For Plato, extensive training in virtue was a prerequisite for participation in political life, and the sovereignty should be invested in the class of exceptionally virtuous guardians. Aristotle, on the other hand, posits that people naturally aspire to virtue, and helping them to exercise it through noble actions in the political community is the state’s foremost goal. As a result, virtue turns from an ideological justification to ascribe sovereignty to a limited group to an explanation of why and how it can reside within the community of full-fledged citizens in its entirety.

Vice, Sovereignty, and Political Power

Just as a virtue, vice has been a ripe topic for discussion throughout the centuries of Western political thought. The development of this topic led to the emergence of two traditions that one can roughly designate as idealist and realist. While the idealist position, going back to Plato and Aristotle, holds vice to be an unequivocal impediment to building a good state, the realist tradition, best exemplified by Machiavelli, focuses on practicability over ethical considerations.

Plato raises and dismisses the issue of vice as potentially profitable in all matters, including political ones, but does not develop it in any considerable length. He posits that all things being equal, wise people would agree on everything, including the necessary degree of material prosperity. The wicked people, who desire to have more than the virtuous and the wicked alike, demonstrate no such agreement and, hence, are unwise and unfit to create a good and prosperous state (Plato I). While this syllogism is fairly susceptible to criticisms, it is not its justice but, rather, the manner of its application that matters most.

The Greek philosopher is adamantly convinced that “the just man then if we regard the idea of justice only, will be like the just State” (Plato IV). In other words, Plato insists that the virtues and vices of an individual and the virtues and vices of the state – and, hence, those exercising the sovereign power in it – are essentially the same. In this respect, what is vice for a single person is also a vice for a state and should be avoided and eradicated?

Aristotle also pays attention to vice as it pertains to political life and, unlike in other respects, is not too different from Plato in this regard. He outright states that “those who care for good government take into consideration virtue and vice in states” (Aristotle III.IX). Since “virtue must be the care of a state which is truly so-called,” exercising vice goes squarely against it and stands in a direct contradiction with the purpose of political society (Aristotle III.IX).

He admits that the “virtue of the good man is necessarily the same as the virtue of the citizen of the perfect state” (Aristotle III.XVIII). At the same time, he makes no such distinction for vice, meaning he shares Plato’s conviction that it remains largely the same for an individual and the state alike. As far as Aristotle is concerned, a vice is a vice no matter whether it applies to an ordinary person or a sovereign possessing supreme power.

Unlike the idealist tradition, which focuses on what a state should rather than can be, the realist tradition denounces this premise. Instead, it maintains that a ruler can build a prosperous state by using any and all methods insofar as they are practical and conducive to achieving positive goals of stability, internal peace, and economic development. There is no clearer example of this approach in Western political theory than Niccolo Machiavelli and his The Prince.

In this treatise, Machiavelli asserts that “any man who under all conditions insists on making it his business to be good will surely be destroyed among so many who are not good” (58). This premise serves as a foundation for his entire discourse: Platonic or Aristotelian development of virtue is politically useless as long as one’s competitors are ready to use an entire array of wicked devices. From this perspective, pursuing an ethical ideal in politics is a costly yet useless fancy that brings more harm than good, and the wise ruler would do well to embrace this principle.

Similarly, while the idealist tradition maintains that what is vice for a person is an equally undesirable vice for the state, the realists take a different approach. As far as Machiavelli is concerned, a quality that would be a vice in an ordinary person becomes a virtue in a ruler when applied properly. If a ruler can cut on the unnecessary lavishness, this seemingly vice of stinginess provides for better economic development (Machiavelli 59).

Through cruelty, a wise prince “keeps his subjects united and loyal” and, thus, promotes happiness and prosperity (Machiavelli 61). Moreover, by engaging in such useful vices, a prince makes his state more stable and able to “defend himself against anyone who makes war on him” (Machiavelli 59). In other words, the reasonable application of vices makes a state self-sufficient and its ruler truly sovereign, which is how the realist tradition links these concepts together.

To summarize, one can roughly divide the intellectual traditions discussing the relationship of vice to political power and sovereignty into idealist and realist ones. The tradition going back to authoritative Ancient Greek philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, vice was unequivocally harmful to building a good state and remained the same in private individuals and bearers of sovereign power. It took Machiavelli and his realist interpretation of politics to show that a skilled execution of what would be generally considered vices can benefit states and pave the way to full-fledged and unlimited sovereignty.

Works Cited

Aristotle. “Politics.” The Internet Classics Archive. Web.

Bodin, Jean. Six Books of the Commonwealth. York University. Web.

Hobbes, Thomas. “Leviathan.” Project Gutenberg. Web.

Machiavelli, Niccolo. “The Prince.” Machiavelli, The Chief Works and Others, vol. I, translated by Allan Gilbert, Duke UP, 1989, pp. 5-96.

Plato. “The Republic.Project Gutenberg. Web.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. “The Social Contract & Discourses.” Project Gutenberg. Web.

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