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“Take control”: delusions of sovereignty

The phrase “take control” served as a mantra for the Vote Leave campaign in the United Kingdom’s referendum of 2016 about its membership of the European Union. The country was held to the same constraints and obligations as the EU’s other twenty-seven members. The United Kingdom, as the campaigners declared, could not manage its own borders, organise its own trade, define and regulate the rights of its own citizens ,and, above all, determine its own laws. Admittedly, none of these incapacities was entirely the case; but, taken together and in conjunction with other alleged drawbacks of membership, they surely constituted a dilution of “British sovereignty.” The Leave campaigners explicitly associated “control” with “sovereignty,” and thereby furnished their favoured term with appearances of technical resonance and historical depth.

For the term “sovereignty” is certainly a time-honoured concept, and heavy with legal implications. Traceable to ancient Rome if not to ancient Greece, its origins have been discerned in the emperor’s imperium, authority exercised over a unitary empire, and the source of law from which, as the great jurisconsult Ulpian declared, the legislator himself was absolved. Medieval canonists translated the concept into plenitudo potestatis, ‘fullness of power,’ a level of authority, divinely conferred, which the papal monarch wielded in relation to a universal church.

Image credit: Les Six Livres de la République by Jean Bodin. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Formulation of the secular equivalent for the modern era has been credited to the French jurist and philosopher Jean Bodin who expressed it by means of the term souveraineté. Sovereignty, for Bodin, was “the absolute and perpetual power of a state” (état, république), an entity characterised by “union under the same authority”, an authority indivisible and made manifest through the giving of law “to all in general and each in particular.”

The definition reverberated down the ages, with regular emphasis upon unity. For Hobbes, the “great Leviathan” took shape when a people formed “a real unity of them all” with no “return to the confusion of a disunited multitude” and under the aegis of a “sovereign” as “sole legislator.” For Rousseau, a république is constituted by a “multitude united in one body,” an entity “sovereign when it is active” and possessing a “general will” expressed in the form of law. And for Kant, the “forms of a state” were divided and determined by its “form of sovereignty” and “form of government,” laws in the republican form being acts of the “general will through which the many persons become one nation.”

It would seem, then, that all these thinkers were dealing in much the same set of ideas. But such an appearance of consistency is, of course, misleading. In the history of ideas, considerations of context are of first importance, as are medium of communication, the physical context within which every thinker conducts his or her life, the intellectual context in which each individual pursues his or her thought, and the language in which that thought is expressed. How can products of Kantian rationalism, presented in German in eighteenth-century Prussia, be treated simply on a par with elements of Rousseauian moralism, written in French in Louis XV’s France; or equated with particular outputs of Hobbesian materialism or “scientism,” expressed in English in seventeenth-century England; or married with offspring of Bodinian blends of scholastic and humanist ideas, discussed now in French, now in Latin, in the troubled setting of sixteenth-century France?

Concepts in history are, to borrow a distinguished scholar’s formulation, “culturally embedded.” We have indeed and long since understood that they are not to be treated as nuggets of ideas, inert, objective, transferable from thinker to thinker down the ages and conveying the same essential meaning at every stage. Even so, appreciation of their cultural conditioning requires much more than cursory acknowledgement by means of some categoric term or phrase. Scarcely more adequate for such a purpose are broad overviews, sweeping approaches surveying over several centuries numerous thinkers of multiple cultural provenances. If we are to penetrate what another distinguished scholar has termed “an author’s contemporary world of meaning”, there can be no real substitute for detailed evaluation case by case. And this requires groundwork: in other words, not just ‘intellectual history’, but ‘intellectual biography.’

The historical enterprise has undergone many changes since Carlyle wrote almost two centuries ago of history as “the essence of innumerable biographies.” Yet in the history of concepts, the proposition must still bear much weight. It carries considerable importance for the contemporary world if the validity of political positions supported through casual deployment of portentous terminology such as “sovereignty” is to be properly assessed.

Featured image: Plan of Paris c. 1550, attributed to Olivier Truschet and Germain Hoyau, showing the Île de la Cité with the Parlement where Jean Bodin spent much of his professional life. Credit: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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