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Jean Bodin: Apex of Absolutist Thought in France

Mises Daily: Thursday, April 29, 2010 by


[This article is excerpted from An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, vol. 1, Economic Thought Before Adam Smith. An audio version of this Mises Daily, read by Jeff Riggenbach, is available as a free download.]

Jean Bodin

While Montaigne paved the way for the dominance of absolutist thought in France, surely the founder or at least the locus classicus of 16th-century French absolutism was Jean Bodin (1530–96). Born in Angers, Bodin studied law at the University of Toulouse, where he taught for 12 years. Bodin later went to Paris to become a jurist, and soon became one of the leading servitors of King Henry III, and one of the leaders of the statist politique party, which upheld the power of the king as against the principled militants among the Huguenots on one side, and the Catholic League on the other.

Bodin's most important work was The Six Books of a Commonwealth (Les Six livres de la republique) (1576). Perhaps the most massive work on political philosophy ever written, the Six Books was certainly the most influential book on political philosophy in the 16th century. In addition to this work, Bodin published books on money, law, the historical method, natural science, religion, and the occult. Central to Bodin's theory of absolutism, written in the face of the challenge of Huguenot rebellion, was the notion of sovereignty: the unchallengeable power of command in the monarch ruling over the rest of society. Characteristically, Bodin defined sovereignty as "the most high, absolute, and perpetual power over the citizens and subjects in a commonwealth." Central to sovereignty in Bodin was the sovereign's function as lawgiver to society, and "the essence of lawmaking was command — in exercise of will with binding force."[1]

Since the sovereign is the maker or creator of the law, he must therefore be above that law, which applies only to his subjects and not to himself. The sovereign, then, is a person whose will creates order out of formlessness and chaos.

The sovereign, furthermore, must be unitary and indivisible, the locus of command in society. Bodin explains that "we see the principal point of sovereign majesty and absolute power to consist in giving laws to subjects in general, without their consent." The sovereign must be above the law that he creates as well as any customary law or institutions. Bodin urged the sovereign prince to follow God's law in framing his edicts, but the important point was that no human action or institution could be employed to see that the prince follows the divine path or to call him to account.

Bodin, however, called upon the prince to rely for advice or counsel on a small number of wise advisers, men who, allegedly lacking motives of self-interest, would be able to aid the king in legislating for the public good of the entire nation. In short, a small elite of wise men would share in the sovereign power behind the scenes, while publicly, the sovereign would hand down decrees as if solely the product of his own will. As Keohane writes, in Bodin's system "the monarch's dependence on his counselors is hidden by the impressive and satisfying fiction that the law is handed down by one benevolent, absolute, superhuman will...."[2]

It is hardly far-fetched to conclude that Bodin, court politician and jurist, saw himself as one of the sages running government from behind the scenes. Plato's ideal of combined philosopher-king had now been transformed into the more realistic and, for Bodin, more self-serving goal of philosopher guiding the king. And all this cloaked in the illusory assumption that such a court philosopher has no self-interest in money or power in his own right.

Bodin also envisaged a broad role for various groups to participate in the government of the commonwealth, as well as a wide scope for bureaucrats and administrators. The crucial point is that all be subordinated to the power of the king.

It is often true that political analysts are at their most acute in revealing the flaws in systems with which they disagree. Accordingly, one of Bodin's keenest insights was his examination of the popular democracies of the past. Bodin points out that "if we rip up all the popular states that ever were," and closely examine their real condition, then we shall find that the alleged rule of the people was always rule by a small oligarchy. Anticipating such perceptive late 19th-century theorists of the power elite or ruling class as Robert Michels, Gaetano Mosca, and Vilfredo Pareto, Bodin pointed out that in reality rule is always exercised by an oligarchy, for whom "the people serves but for a mask."

There is a curious lacuna, however, in the agenda of absolutist power proclaimed by Jean Bodin. That lacuna lies in an area always crucial to the practical exercise of state power: taxation. We have seen that before the 14th century, French monarchs were expected to live off their own seigneurial rents and tolls, and that tax levies were only granted begrudgingly and in emergencies. And while a regular and oppressive system of taxation was in place in France by the early 16th century, even the royal and absolutist theorists hesitated to grant the monarch the unlimited right to tax. In the late 16th century, both the Huguenots and the Catholic Leaguers bitterly condemned the arbitrary power of the king to tax as a crime against society. As a result Bodin and his fellow establishment politiques were reluctant to play into the hands of the king's enemies. Like the French writers before him, then, Bodin inconsistently upheld the rights of private property, as well as the invalidity of the king's taxing his subjects without their consent: "It is not in the power of any prince in the world, at his pleasure to raise taxes upon the people, no more than to take another man's goods upon him..." Bodin's notion of "consent," however, was scarcely a thoroughgoing or radical one; instead, he was content with the existing formal agreement to taxation by the states-general.

Bodin's own actions as a deputy from the Vermandois at the states-general meeting at Blois (1576–77) emphatically stressed the limited taxes aspect of his consistent attitude toward sovereignty. The king had proposed to substitute a graduated income tax on all commoners with no exemptions (what might now be called "a flat tax with bumps") for the myriad of different taxes they then were forced to pay. Curiously enough, this scheme was almost precisely the one which Bodin himself had publicly advocated a short while before. But Bodin's opposition to the king's proposal displayed his shrewdly realistic attitude toward government. He noted "that the king could not be trusted when he said this tax would be substituted for the tailles, aides, and gabelles. Rather, it was much more likely that the king was plotting to make this an additional tax."[3] Bodin also engaged in a perceptive interest-analysis of the reason that the Parisian deputies had taken the lead in support of the new, higher tax. For he showed that the Parisians had not been paid any interest on their government bonds for a long while, and were hoping that the higher taxes would allow the king to resume his payments.

Jean Bodin, anxious to prevent the king from launching an all-out war against the Huguenots, led the estates in blocking not only the single-tax plan, but also other emergency grants to the king. Bodin pointed out that "temporary" grants often became permanent. He also warned the king and his countrymen that "one cannot find more frequent upsets, seditions, and ruins of commonwealths than because of excessive tax burdens and imposts."

Among the absolutist writers following Bodin, the 17th-century servitors of the absolute state, all hesitance or piety to the medieval legacy of strictly limited taxation was destined to disappear. State power, unlimited, was to be glorified.

In the more narrowly economic sphere of the theory of money, Bodin, as we have seen above, has long been credited by historians with pioneering the quantity theory of money (more strictly, the direct influence of the supply of money on prices) in his Response to the Paradoxes of M. de Malestroit (1568). Malestroit had attributed the unusual and chronic price increases in France to debasement, but Bodin pinpointed the cause as the increased supply of specie from the New World. We have seen, however, that the quantity theory had been known since the time of the 14th-century Scholastic Jean Buridan and of Nicolas Copernicus in the early 16th century. The increased specie from the New World was spotted as the cause of price rises a dozen years earlier than Bodin by the eminent Spanish Scholastic Martin de Azpilcueta Navarrus. As a highly learned scholar, Bodin would certainly have read Navarrus's treatise, especially since Navarrus had taught at the University of Toulouse a generation before Bodin came there to study. Bodin's claim of originality in this analysis should therefore be taken with many grains of salt.[4]

 Perspective on the History of Economic Thought
(2-volume set)

Jean Bodin was also one of the first theorists to point out the influence of social leaders on demand for goods, and therefore on their price. People, he points out, "esteem and raise in price everything that the great lords like, though the things in themselves are not worth that valuation." Then, a snob effect takes over, after "the great lords see that their subjects have an abundance of things that they themselves like." The lords then "begin to despise" these products, and their prices then fall.

Despite his numerous keen economic and political insights, however, Bodin was ultraorthodox in his view of usury, ignoring the work of his near-contemporary Du Moulin as well as the Spanish Scholastics. Interest taking was prohibited by God, according to Bodin, and that was that.


[1] Nannerl O. Keohane, Philosophy and the State in France: the Renaissance to the Enlightenment (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980), p. 70.

[2] Ibid., p. 75.

[3] Martin Wolfe, The Fiscal System of Renaissance France (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), p. 162.

[4] In 1907, a descendant of Bodin asserted that the first writer to explain the influence of specie from the New World on prices in Europe was the Frenchman Noel du Fail, in 1548.