26 January 2004

Sovereignty versus pluriformity

This semester I am teaching Modern Political Theory, the second of two courses in the history of political theory. We are reading a succession of primary sources, along with Dante Germino's Machiavelli to Marx: Modern Western Political Thought, our principal secondary source. I do not use many audio-visual materials in my upper-level political theory courses, but a few years ago I created the following illustration to help students get a sense of the character of the period we are studying:

The single black line at the left of the diagram represents the synthesis of Greco-Roman and Christian cultural elements in mediaeval Christendom. Thomas Aquinas' scholastic philosophy stands at the pinnacle of this grand synthetic civilization. Around the year 1500 the line divides into two, with the upper line representing sovereignty and the lower line pluriformity. The sovereignty line is the philosophical mainstream in the modern era, with such figures as Machiavelli, Bodin, Grotius, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Marx setting the tone. As different as they are, they are compelled by their religious commitments to seek the principle of unity within God's creation rather than in God himself.

Those along the lower line, including Luther, Calvin, Althusius and (mais bien sur!) Kuyper, are able to affirm a high degree of societal pluriformity because they recognize, in Oliver O'Donovan's words that "unity is proper to the creator, complexity to the created world." Those recognizing the truth of this dictum are far less likely to fall into the reductionisms characteristic of the modern era. Consequently they are less likely to be attracted to the various manifestations of political absolutism that follow upon these.

Montesquieu is something of a borderline case. In some respects he would appear to be a typical modern, yet in holding that it is possible -- and indeed desirable -- to divide sovereignty among more than one governmental body, he is most atypical. Both Hobbes and Rousseau believed it dangerous, if not ultimately impossible, to divide sovereignty. Montesquieu was an admirer of the English constitution and had an influence on the American founders in the 1780s.

To see the full-size version of this illustration click here.

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