Essay on the Term ‘Sovereignty’ and Its Development



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For the ancients it simply meant “statement of the fact that there must be an ultimate control, someone with the last word in any case of dispute, able to make final adjustments in the sharing of responsibility and power;’ and that the State, and no other social force, must exercise this final authority.” Creon says in Sophocles’s tragedy Antigone, “Whatever the State appoints must be obeyed in everything, small and great, just and unjust.”

Plato and Aristotle recognised the presence of the “supreme power” in the State and emphasised the respect for State authority; the finality of law. Aristotle claimed for the State a natural priority to the family and the individual. The Roman lawyers and the medieval writers spoke of “fulness of the power of the State.”

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The middle Ages knew nothing about the doctrine and practice of concerted final authority. The political form, then, was feudalism, based on personal dependence and allegiance within many small groups.

Feudalism was the antithesis of unified authority. There was open conflict between the Spiritual and Temporal authorities and if anybody, under the circumstances, could claim final authority, it was the Church and not the State.

Moreover, peoples’ firm belief in the laws of nature or God and the sanctity which was attached to such laws over man-made laws retarded the growth of the modem idea of sovereignty.

Summing up the nature of sovereignty in the middle Ages, Ward says, “The authority of Feudalism and the belief in the law of God or nature superior to the human law made impossible the modern idea of the unlimited and indivisible sovereignty of the State over all citizens.”

The religious wars of the sixteenth century destroyed the unity of the Church and on the ruins of this destruction were built the modern State. The triumphant monarch either gradually destroyed or absorbed all possible rival intermediaries between himself and his subjects, including the Church. Sovereignty came to be regarded as one of the essential attributes of the State, incarnate in the king, the head of the State.

His authority was final to define and pronounce the law. The emergence of the modem State, thus, gave a new meaning to the term sovereignty. The struggle which gave rise to the conception of sovereignty was undertaken and sustained by the monarch himself in order to establish his personal independence. To the victor belonged the spoils of war.

Bodin and Hobbes:

The new reality of sovereignty of the State was given.its philosophical justification by a Frenchman, Jean Bodin, and an Englishman, Thomas Hobbes, each writing during the full agony of the civil and religious wars of his country, the former at the beginning and the latter in the middle of the seventeenth century.

Both Bodin and Hobbes defended the need for one single unified authority, which should be accepted by all and against which no group or individual could raise the objection of any earlier rights to independence or resistance. Rights were what the State granted, compatible with the unity of the State and keeping of peace and order within it.

There could be only one power within the community, they urged, which could not be limited, or divided and shared. Bodin’s sovereign was, however, subject to four limitations.

Firstly, as the king did not possess supermundane sovereignty, God was above him.

Secondly, the supreme power of the king over his subjects was “subordinated” to “the law of God and nature,” that is, to the requirements of the moral order.

Thirdly, the French King could not modify the succession or any part of public domain, and, finally, the king could not touch private property. But these limitations, Bodin maintained, did not limit the power of the king over the body-politic.

His assertion that the Prince was the image of God meant that he was a sovereign living person and his authority transcended the whole political community just as God transcended the cosmos.

He said either sovereignty meant nothing or it meant supreme power ruling over the entire body-politic. He thus defined sovereignty as “a power supreme over citizens and subjects, itself not bound by the laws.” It gave orders and received orders from none.

In this way, the concept of sovereignty took a definite form at the moment when absolute monarchy was beginning to make its appearance in Europe. With Thomas Hobbes it reached its perfection when the sovereign power of the king was held to be natural and inalienable. His whole idea was to establish that the king possessed a natural and inalienable right to rule over his subjects.

Once the people had agreed upon the fundamental law of the kingdom, and given the king and his descendant’s power over them, they were deprived of any right to govern them, and the full natural right to rule the body-politic resided in the person of the king whose authority was absolute and indivisible.

Sovereignty and the Modern Democratic State:

Later, people began to realise that the king was a part of the governmental machine and, accordingly, an agent rather than a master, and, as such, he possessed subordinate and delegated authority, which could be revoked at the will of the master, the people.

It was a protest against absolute monarchy. It began with John Locke, an English political philosopher, who justified the Glorious Revolution (1688), and found its fullest expression in the French Revolution.

The French Revolution made the people sovereign, “and not only transferred to it,” as Soltau remarks, “all the attributes of the old monarchy of divine right but removed all limitations, on the ground that the people, when governing itself, had no need to restrict its authority.”

The State, in its corporate capacity, was, thus, endowed with all the attributes of sovereignty which the monarch previously possessed. Two factors reinforced the absolutism of the new democratic State. One was nationalism which added the claims of the nation to those of the sovereign people.

The national State claimed not only unlimited authority at home over its members, but also the right to expand abroad at the expense of others. The second factor was the enormous increase in the province of the State following the Industrial Revolution.

The activities of the State were not only limited to protection, administration and dispensation of justice, but it became “an organiser of economic life, an educator, an agent in practically every aspect of the collective existence.”

This meant an ever-increasing “mass of legislation and a great increase in the importance of the State as supreme law-maker, thus reinforcing the dogma of sovereignty, by giving it a much wider field of application.”

Rousseau. The concept of popular sovereignty and the identification of the people with the State was actually the result of the teachings of Rousseau, which he had propagated thirty years before the French Revolution.

Rousseau made popular sovereignty the doctrine of individual freedom, but the myth of the General Will, which was “always right,” made of it a vindication of much more comprehensive State power than any previous political thinker had offered since Plato. Rousseau injected into the nascent modem democracies a notion of sovereignty which was destructive of democracy and pointed towards the totalitarian State.

People and the State having become one the personality of the individual is merged in the social whole, for it is only the power of the State which makes the freedom of its members. Rousseau asserted that the will of the State is the will of the individual in so far as he has accepted this identification of himself with the community. His real self, his real will becomes part of the common or General Will for the common good.

If he does not agree what the General Will consents for him, he pursues selfish ends and the General Will can compel him to agree and by doing so he is forced to be free. Thus, the mystical operations of the General Will create conditions of unheard absolutism. Rousseau’s State was the Leviathan of Hobbes, crowned with the General Will instead of the crown of absolute monarchs who were described as tyrants.

Hegel. The theory of sovereignty, as initiated by Rousseau, was given its complete and coherent form by Hegel, the German political thinker, who made it more definitely philosophical and metaphysical. “The State,” he said, “is ‘perfected rationality’, the eternal and necessary essence of spirit, the rational in itself and for itself, an absolute fixed end in itself.”

In this way, Hegel completely identifies the State with society and asserts that only in and through the State does the individual receive what makes life worth living, without it he is nothing.

Consequently, the rights of the State are unlimited, legally as a matter of fact and morally as a matter of right, and the individual lives in order to make his contribution to the common life of the State. He must be prepared to enjoy and sacrifice what the good of the common life of the State either grants him or demands from him.

The State being not the agent of society, it does not exist for the performance of some specific purposes and with clearly defined functions. The State, for Hegel, is the supreme community and organised moral life is only possible within the State. It is the source of morality and of all civilised existence.

Austin and the Pluralists:

The legal theory of sovereignty received its logical analysis at the hands of John Austin, an English jurist. Austin’s conclusions formed the basis of the prevailing systems of jurisprudence and they exercised immense influence on political thought in England and the United States of America. Till recently, sovereignty has been viewed as absolute internal sovereignty and complete external independence.

The Pluralists, the recent school of thought, reject outright the concept of absolute authority of the State and plead for division of sovereignty between the State and various other associations present within its territorial limits.

They regard the State as an association like various other associations with a specific purpose to perform. The functions of the State are well-defined and it has no rightful claim to eminence. The Pluralists, in brief, maintain that sovereignty is divisible and the State is not supreme and unlimited in its authority.

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