Sovereignty, Age of Enlightenment

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Summary

Sovereignty, in political theory, is a substantive term designating supreme authority over some polity. It is a basic principle underlying the dominant Westphalian model of state foundation.

Details

During the Age of Enlightenment, the idea of sovereignty gained both legal and moral force as the main Western description of the meaning and power of a State. In particular, the "Social Contract" as a mechanism for establishing sovereignty was suggested and, by 1800, widely accepted, especially in the new United States and France, though also in Great Britain to a lesser extent.

Thomas Hobbes, in Leviathan (1651) borrowed Bodin's definition of sovereignty, which had just achieved legal status in the "Peace of Westphalia", and explained its origin. He created the first modern version of the social contract (or contractarian) theory, arguing that to overcome the "nasty, brutish and short" quality of life without the cooperation of other human beings, people must join in a "commonwealth" and submit to a "Soveraigne Power" that is able to compel them to act in the common good. This expediency argument attracted many of the early proponents of sovereignty. Hobbes strengthened the definition of sovereignty beyond either Westphalian or Bodin's, by saying that it must be:

  • Absolute: because conditions could only be imposed on a sovereign if there were some outside arbitrator to determine when he had violated them, in which case the sovereign would not be the final authority.
  • Indivisible: The sovereign is the only final authority in his territory; he does not share final authority with any other entity. Hobbes held this to be true because otherwise there would be no way of resolving a disagreement between the multiple authorities.

Hobbes' hypothesis that the ruler's sovereignty is contracted to him by the people in return for his maintaining their physical safety, led him to conclude that if and when the ruler fails, the people recover their ability to protect themselves, including by forming a new contract.

Hobbes's theories decisively shape the concept of sovereignty through the medium of social contract theories. Jean-Jacques Rousseau's (1712–1778) definition of popular sovereignty (with early antecedents in Francisco Suárez's theory of the origin of power), which only differs in that he considers the people to be the legitimate sovereign. Likewise, it is inalienable – Rousseau condemned the distinction between the origin and the exercise of sovereignty, a distinction upon which constitutional monarchy or representative democracy are founded. John Locke, and Montesquieu are also key figures in the unfolding of the concept of sovereignty, and differ with Rousseau and with Hobbes on this issue of alienability.

The second book of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Du Contrat Social, ou Principes du droit politique (1762) deals with sovereignty and its rights. Sovereignty, or the general will, is inalienable, for the will cannot be transmitted; it is indivisible, since it is essentially general; it is infallible and always right, determined and limited in its power by the common interest; it acts through laws. Law is the decision of the general will in regard to some object of common interest, but though the general will is always right and desires only good, its judgment is not always enlightened, and consequently does not always see wherein the common good lies; hence the necessity of the legislator. But the legislator has, of himself, no authority; he is only a guide who drafts and proposes laws, but the people alone (that is, the sovereign or general will) has authority to make and impose them.

Rousseau, in his 1763 treatise Of the Social Contract

argued, "the growth of the State giving the trustees of public authority more and means to abuse their power, the more the Government has to have force to contain the people, the more force the Sovereign should have in turn in order to contain the Government," with the understanding that the Sovereign is "a collective being of wonder" (Book II, Chapter I) resulting from "the general will" of the people, and that "what any man, whoever he may be, orders on his own, is not a law" (Book II, Chapter VI) – and furthermore predicated on the assumption that the people have an unbiased means by which to ascertain the general will. Thus the legal maxim, "there is no law without a sovereign."

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