Friday, April 29, 2011

The Family and the Commonwealth


A COMMONWEALTH may be defined as the rightly ordered government of a number of families, and of those things which are their common concern, by a sovereign power...

[Here, Bodin includes three elements in his definition of a commonwealth:  1) families, 2) things of common concern, and 3) sovereign power.  See below for his development of this idea.]

A family may be defined as the right ordering of a group of persons owing obedience to a head of a household, and of those interests which are his proper concern.  The second term of our definition of the commonwealth refers to the family because it is not only the true source and origin of the commonwealth, but also its principal constituent.

Xenophon and Aristotle divorced economy or household management from police or disciplinary power, without good reason to my mind [here the abridgement leaves out Bodin's argument]...

I understand by domestic government the right ordering of family matters, together with the authority which the head of the family has over his dependants, and the obedience due from them to him, things which Aristotle and Xenophon neglect.  Thus the well-ordered family is a true image of the commonwealth, and domestic comparable with sovereign authority.  It follows that the household is the model of right order in the commonwealth.  And just as the whole body enjoys health when every particular member performs its proper function, so all will be well with the commonwealth when families are properly regulated.

The law says that the people never dies, but that after the lapse of a hundred or even a thousand years it is still the same people.  The presumption is that although all individuals alive at any one moment will be dead a century later, the people is immortal by succession of persons, as was Theseus' ship which lasted as long as pains were taken to repair it.  But a ship is no more than a load of timber unless there is a keel to hold together the ribs, the prow, the poop and the tiller.  Similarly a commonwealth without sovereign power to unite all its several members, whether families, colleges, or corporate bodies, is not a true commonwealth.

It is neither the town nor its inhabitants that makes a city state, but their union under a sovereign ruler, even if they are only three households.  Just as the mouse is as much numbered among animals as is the elephant, so the rightly ordered government of only three households, provided they are subject to a sovereign authority, is just as much a commonwealth as a great empire.  The principality of Ragusa, which is one of the smallest in Europe, is no less a commonwealth than the empires of the Turks and the Tartars, which are among the greatest in the world. ...

But besides sovereign power there must also be something enjoyed in common such as the public domain, a public treasury, the buildings used by the whole community, the roads, walls, squares, churches, and markets, as well as the usages, laws, customs, courts, penalties, and rewards which are either shared in common or of public concern.  There is no commonwealth where there is no common interest...

Jean Bodin (1530–1596) was a French jurist and political philosopher, member of the Parlement of Paris and professor of law in Toulouse.  He is best known for his theory of sovereignty.

Bodin lived during the Reformation, writing against the background of religious and civil conflict - particularly that, in his native France, between the (Calvinist) Huguenots and the state-supported Catholic Church.  He remained a Catholic throughout his life but was critical of papal authority in temporal governments and was sometimes accused of crypto-Calvinism.  Towards the end of his life he wrote a dialogue between different religions, including representatives of Judaism, Islam and natural theology, in which all agreed to coexist in concord.

An abridgement of Bodin's most famous work, The Six Books of the Commonwealth, may be downloaded here or read online here.

1 comment:

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