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What is sovereignty?

We explain what sovereignty is and what are the meanings of the term sovereign according to authors such as Jean Bodin, among others.

  1. What is sovereignty?

The concept of sovereignty was generally associated with the scope of political theory . Authors such as Hobbes, Rousseau, Locke, Bodin, among many others, have dedicated much of their work to it, whether explicitly or not. However, there is no absolute consensus on what is meant by sovereignty.

The main uses of the word sovereignty, either understanding it as a characteristic of the States or referring to the authority that exercises power . However, this distinction corresponds more to historical issues than to conceptual differences. We’ll see why.

The concept of sovereignty has not always existed throughout human history . For example, the Greeks and Egyptians did not know what a “sovereign” or “sovereignty” consisted of. Many historians claim that the concept of sovereignty is linked to the struggles given at the end of the Middle Ages and principles of Modernity.

It is at this time, where we can observe a bid for power between the clergy, the bourgeoisie and the old feudal lords, is where the concept of sovereignty appears, as the independence (absolute or relative) of power , whether to enact laws, govern; in a context of struggle for power .

  1. Who is the sovereign?

Thomas Hobbes - Sovereignty
Thomas Hobbes postulates the sovereign as the only fort of truth and order.

We can understand the sovereign as that person who exercises power through the State . However, this use of the term sovereignty has been neglected, since it refers to a demagogic and rather authoritarian authority.

Within the great theorists about the role of the sovereign , we can find two great characters , although with totally different contexts and purposes:

  • Jean bodin

One of them is Jean Bodin (French intellectual of the fifteenth century), who gives a precise definition of what he regards as sovereignty. In his best known work, The Six Books of the Republic, he defines sovereignty as “that absolute and perpetual power of a Republic . 

It is an antecedent of contractualism, a current that affirms that society is the result of a pact between free men, giving up a part of their rights (such as the use of violence against their fellow citizens, for example) to a sovereign who becomes the guarantor of individual freedoms .

For Bodin this sovereign must have an absolute power, not limited by any control, only the divine and natural laws . Therefore, natural laws were above the sovereign.

  • Thomas Hobbes

Not so in the case of Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher, who postulates the sovereign as the only strongman of truth and order . Men renounce their “state of nature,” of a war of all against all, and make a pact with a sovereign (who is outside the covenant), thus ceasing that state of barbarism. Many see in this theory the basis for despotism and absolute authoritarianism.

In both Bodín and Hobbes, the concept of sovereignty was closely related to the will of the sovereign .

  • Jacques Rousseau

It was only Rousseau who first developed a theory that sovereignty did not depend strictly on the will of a sovereign , but was deposited in the people.

It was this, through participatory assemblies, which should guide the Republic to its fullest expression . It was Jacques Rousseau who laid the foundations of thought for the French Revolution .

Thus, we come to what is understood today as sovereignty. Sovereignty is the domain of a State over itself, over its territory, its ability to legislate , etc. A violation of sovereignty can lead to a warlike conflict , since it is considered a very serious offense between the States.

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