Bodin, Jean (1530–1596)

views updated


Jean Bodin, the French philosopher, statesman, and early writer on economics, is known chiefly for four major systematic works: Method for the Easy Comprehension of History (Methodus ad Facilem Historiarum Cognitionem, Paris, 1566); Six Books of the Republic (Six Livres de la république, Paris, 1576); Universae Naturae Theatrum (The Theater of Nature; Lyons, 1596); and Heptaplomeres Sive Colloquium de Abditus Rerum Sublimium Arcanus (Dialogue of Seven Wise Men; Schwerin, 1857).

Although Bodin's life is only imperfectly known, he was probably born in Anjou into a Catholic family who sought social promotion through service to the king and in clerical charges. Through the help of his bishop, Bodin was admitted at an early age to the Carmelite friars of Angers, who sent him to their school in Paris. While in Paris he probably later studied under the lecteurs royaux instituted by Francis I, who personified for Bodin the ideal sovereign. Bodin was probably imprisoned for some time, but later released, on charges of professing Lutheran views. He later studied in Toulouse and was an assistant in the faculty of law there. He participated enthusiastically in the Renaissance ferment at Toulouse, which at that time was a great center of international learning, in close contact with Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, and the papacy at Avignon. Bodin kept in touch with all foreign publications on religion and history, which benefited his lectures on the Pandects. He envisaged for a short time the career of a humanist historian in the capacity of headmaster of the Collège de l'Esquille, to which idea we owe a superb discourse of 1559, Oratio de Institutenda in Republica Juventate. In addition to a panoramic picture of the French Renaissance inspired by Francis I, the discourse presents a complete humanist pedagogical system.

The failure of his local ambitions and the expectation that the approaching religious wars would engulf Toulouse induced Bodin to leave for Paris, where he found a position as advocate of the Parliament of Paris, a favorable post for receiving any nomination of significance in the king's service. In his work in parliament, Bodin found a type of practical law far superior to the exegesis of ancient texts. He broke with the writers of such exegeses in the preface to his first systematic work, the Method of History. The history of the title is the history of knowledge and is similar in conception to that which René Descartes later presented in the preface to his Principles. For Bodin the three main branches of knowledge are human history, or anthropology; natural history, or physics; and divine historytheology or religion. The Method is a general outline of Bodin's whole system; his other three major works are each devoted to one of the three branches. The Method itself, though it outlines the entire system, covers in detail only Bodin's anthropology and discusses nearly all of the topics of the later Republic.

Social Theory

The Republic itself, though it partly owes its genesis to Bodin's entire scheme, is also an outcome of a serious French political crisis of the period, which engaged Bodin's attention for many years. The book is a defense of the theory of the French monarchy, as Bodin conceived it, against Machiavellians in the Court and against various rebellious groups. The book seeks to demonstrate that monarchy, and the French monarchy in particular, is the best of all possible regimes.

The state, the republic, is a lawful government of the several households comprising it. The state arises when each head of a household, each pater familias, acts in concert with the others. These men are the citizens of the republic. Private property is an inalienable right of the family. At the head of this group of households is the sovereign, the administrator of the republic, whose task is the proper government of the households composing the state.


Bodin's whole political philosophy rests on the doctrine of sovereignty. Sovereignty is defined in the Republic as "the absolute and perpetual power of a Republic, that is to say the active form and personification of the great body of a modern State."

In Bodin's conception of sovereignty two different traditions, that of Roman law and that of French monarchy, converge. The former brought with it the notion of majestas, which gave supreme authority established above all magistrates, however important they might be, to an absolute power of which they were but a reflection. The tradition of French monarchy, in order to demonstrate the autonomy of the French king in relation to the emperor, had been concerned chiefly with cataloguing the privileges acknowledged as the king's by the pope; these were regarded as so many proofs of the king's sovereign authority. Of these insignia pecularia, one list contains no fewer than 208 items.

Bodin reinterprets this twofold juridical trend and attempts to synthesize it. In the Method he therefore retains only five marks of sovereignty: the power of appointing higher magistrates and delineating their offices, the power of promulgating or repealing laws, the power of declaring war and concluding peace, the power of judicial review, and the power of life or death even when the law requires death.

When he wrote the Republic, Bodin had realized that the essential mark of sovereignty was that of making and repealing laws and that the others were dependent on this right. This right of the sovereign cannot be restricted by custom; the sovereign sanctions customary law by allowing it to continue in force. "Thus, all the force of civil laws and custom lies in the power of the Sovereign Prince." All legislative and judicial power is concentrated in the sovereign, but the sovereign is conceived as the incarnation of a principle and cannot be regarded as having a personal will at variance with the interests of the state. Against the medieval theory, reaffirmed in France in Bodin's day, of the Politie a state in which supreme authority was shared among the prince, an aristocracy based on birth and office, and the representatives of the peopleBodin contends that, if sovereignty is absolute, it is therefore indivisible, wherever it resides. There can be monarchies, aristocracies, or democracies, but never a mixed state.

In a given system of government, different modes of rule are possible. An aristocracy may be governed monarchically, as in Germany, or more or less democratically, as in Venice. But a monarchy, in which the king guarantees all liberty, is the best of regimes.

The state that Bodin depictsa complex of families and of corporations, classes, and heterogeneous provincesis enriched by the differences and interactions of its components. They all obey the sovereign, their sole arbiter and the personification of a public weal that is also the weal of its parts. Thus the absolute power of the sovereign transcends that of the paterfamilias, but is conceived in the latter's image. Though the authority of the sovereign is absolute with respect to the other elements of the state, the source of this authority lies in social law, as is clear from the long history of the French state, with its hereditary monarchy subject to a higher law. Though sovereignty is not limited by custom, it is limited by the requirements of justice: Authority is acknowledged as belonging only to a just governmenta regime that gives every person, even the wicked, his chance. Sovereignty is also limited externally through the recognition of the legitimacy of other sovereignties, even of conflicting types. The sovereign is further obliged to collaborate with neighboring countries, so that M. J. Basdevant was enabled to see in Bodin one of the founders of modern international law. Bodin's thought is very close to the concept of peaceful coexistence that today forms one of the norms of international law.

the theory of climates

Besides outlining the structure of his ideal republic, a monarchy, Bodin also examines the diversity of states offered by experience. On the one hand he follows the pattern of the Greek philosophers, tracing historically the degradation of this ideal prototype and the manner in which are successively engendered the various forms, sound and pathological, of political organizationtyranny, democracy, aristocracy, and so on. But Bodin also studies the modes of a state's adaptation to its territory. In this investigation, which is known as the theory of climates from a later similar exposition by Montesquieu, Bodin seeks to define more precisely the ways through which geography influences human societies: "the nature of Northern and Southern peoples as well as that of the Eastern and Western ones, then, the influence of the various places, either mountainous, marshy, windswept or sheltered" (Method of History, Ch. 5). He gives a rather circumstantial account agreeing in many respects with modern human geography and ethnic psychology. He describes northerners as unequaled in wars and industry and southerners as unequaled in the contemplative sciences, but the inhabitants of the median region are in a particularly fit position for the blossoming of arts and laws.

In the Method, Bodin uses anthropogeography as a critical weapon to detect errors committed by outstanding historians in their assessment of facts, and to build a solid framework relating human history to natural history. In the Republic his point of view becomes more dogmatic, though his individual observations are more perspicacious. And he makes the important observation that, whatever the ontological superiority of monarchy over other forms of government may be, for a given state the most appropriate regime is the one that answers best to the people and the geography of the place. "One of the greatest and perhaps the chief foundation of Republics is to adapt the state to the citizens' nature, and the edicts and ordinances to the character of places, persons, and times."

Bodin's defense of the French monarchy in the Method and his vast culture and philosophical wisdom won him the confidence of the royal family, and in 1571 he entered the service of the duke of Alençon, the brother of the future Henri III, who, after his coronation in 1574, befriended Bodin. But in 1576, at a meeting of the States-General, Bodin delivered a speech in which he succeeded in defeating the king's request for the financial means necessary to suppress the French Protestants. By this speech Bodin temporarily diverted the civil war, but lost the king's favor and was relegated to a humble post in Laon, where he took advantage of the relative calm to write in 1578 the Latin version of the Republic (published Paris, 1586) and the Demonomanie des sorciers (Paris, 1580). The latter work, which went through some ten editions, advocates the repression of witchcraft and contains as well a complete demonology, in great part taken from the Bible.

Natural History

Upon his return to Laon from trips to the Court of Queen Elizabeth I and to Belgium on missions with the duke of Alençon, Bodin returned to work on the second part of his system, his physics. The Amphiteatrum Naturae is in the form of a dialogue in which a "mystagogue" expounds to a "theoretician" a complex and obscure philosophy that attempts to reconcile Neoplatonic idealism with Aristotelian naturalism and also with important religious attitudes derived from the Hebrew tradition. Living beings are explained in terms of Platonic forms, but the nature of the explanation and of the forms remains obscure. The soul is corporeal and is the form of the body. It is separable from the body both in life and at death. It possesses unity, and its function is to vivify the extended matter of the body. The powers of the soul, including sensation and appetite, are seen as modeled on the will: They act directly upon the body with no need of an intermediary. Angels, too, are material, and the human soul is inhabited not only by a good angel and a bad angel, but also by a large number of spirits, each in charge of a special gift. But Bodin is constrained from scrutinizing too closely the mysteries of nature by his awareness of the abyss that separates the Creator from the world of creatures. The Amphiteatrum Naturae thus fails, in the end, on a level where Bodin's contemporaries could not question its failure, the religious level.


A similar failure is evident in the Heptaplomeres Sive Colloquium de Abditus Rerum Sublimium Arcanus, a work composed during the last years of Bodin's life and published in part in 1841 and completely in 1857. This work is on the third of Bodin's three branches of knowledge, theology. The seven sages of the title represent three branches of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, natural religion, and skeptical materialism. Despite fertile discussion and a generous courtesy to one another, they cannot arrive at a common foundation for religious matters. In the progress of the discussion, it becomes apparent that in almost every instance the majority agrees with the doctrine of the Jews and that all might accept the Decalogue, looked upon as a spiritualization of the natural law and as embodying such fundamental principles. (Bodin had in an earlier work made a comparative study of the institutions of the most diverse countries, from the ancient empires to the recently discovered nations of Africa and America. From this study he had conceived the idea of replacing Roman law with a synthetic and universal law that allowed for different modes of application depending on the place, the era, and the geographic or economic conditions.)

But from the historical standpoint, which is so significant for Bodin, only the Christian faiths can contend for victory. Among these, the discussion goes badly for the Protestants, who cannot rationally justify their conservatism, their innovations, or their contradictions. The Catholic Church, since it possesses the most elaborate body of doctrine, is subjected to the most criticism; but the fact that the Catholic Church remains the religion of the state, and is relatively stable in the midst of uncertainty, is for Bodin to some degree a vindication of the faith of its partisans. The book proposes, therefore, that the church is to be believed, as the Catholic prelate has held successfully throughout the dialogue.

This justification of the Catholic Church is in line with Bodin's support of the Catholic League during his last years, a support that was not dictated simply by the instinct of self-preservation. But Bodin was not fully trusted by the members of the League and was more or less confined to his house, where he spent most of his time in contemplation and the education of children, for whom he wrote a catechism in the spirit of the Amphiteatrum Naturae. Bodin died as a Christian and was buried in the choir of a church.

Bodin's work enjoyed outstanding renown until the middle of the seventeenth century but was totally disregarded in the eighteenth, and without a famous article in Pierre Bayle's Dictionary, it would never have recovered from this neglect. Bodin's work was restored to favor in 1853 through Henri Baudrillart's Jean Bodin et son temps, and in the twentieth century he resumed his place among the acknowledged great political philosophers of all time. Bodin also merits consideration as one of the most representative spirits of the Renaissance, and one of the first to formulate historical laws in each of the three realmsdivine, natural, and humanthat he considered.

See also Aristotelianism; Bayle, Pierre; Descartes, René; Idealism; Naturalism; Neoplatonism; Philosophy of Law, History of; Renaissance; Sovereignty.


works by bodin

Le théâtre de la nature. Translated by François de Fougerolles. Lyons, 1597.

The Six Books of a Commonweale. Translated by Richard Knolles. London, 1606. Modern edition, edited by K. D. McRae. Cambridge, MA, 1962.

Johannis Bodini Colloquium Heptaplomeres. Edited by L. Noack. Paris and London, 1857.

La réponse à M. de Malestroict, edited by Henri Hauser. Paris, 1932. One of Bodin's economic works.

La méthode de l'histoire. Translated by Pierre Mesnard. Algiers, 1941.

Method for the Easy Comprehension of History. Translated by Beatrice Reynolds. New York: Columbia University Press, 1945.

Oeuvres philosophiquès, edited by Pierre Mesnard. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1951. Vol. I.

On Sovereignty: Four Chapters from "The Six Books of the Commonwealth," edited and translated by Julian H. Franklin. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Selected Writings on Philosophy, Religion, and Politics, edited by Paul L. Rose. Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1980.

works on bodin

Blair, Ann. The Theater of Nature: Jean Bodin and Renaissance Science. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.

Brown, L. S. The Methodus ad Facilem Historiarum Cognitionem. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1939.

Chauvire, R. Jean Bodin l'auteur de la République. Paris, 1914.

Engster, Dan. "Jean Bodin, Scepticism and Absolute Sovereignty" History of Political Thought 17 (4) (1996): 469499.

Franklin, Julian H. "Bodin and Locke on Consent to Taxation: A Note and Observation." History of Political Thought 7 (1986): 8991.

Franklin, Julian H. Jean Bodin and the Rise of Absolutist Theory. London: Cambridge University Press, 1973.

Franklin, Julian H. Jean Bodin and the Sixteenth-Century Revolution in the Methodology of Law and History. New York: Columbia University Press, 1963.

Garosci, A. Jean Bodin. Milan: Corticelli, 1934.

Harding, Alan. "The Origins of the Concept of the State." History of Political Thought 15 (1) (1994): 5772.

King, Preston. The Ideology of Order: A Comparative Analysis of Jean Bodin and Thomas Hobbes. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1974.

Kuntz, Marion D. "Harmony and the Heptaplomeres of Jean Bodin." Journal of the History of Philosophy 12 (1974): 3141

Lloyd, Howell A. "Sovereignty: Bodin, Hobbes, Rousseau." Revue Internationale de Philosophie 45 (179) (1991): 353379.

Mayer, Jacob P., ed. Fundamental Studies on Jean Bodin. New York: Arno Press, 1979.

Mesnard, Pierre. L'essor de la philosophie politique au XVIième siècle. 2nd ed. Paris: Vrin, 1952.

Mesnard, Pierre. Jean Bodin en la historia del pensamiento. Translated by José Antonio Maravall. Madrid: Instituto de Estudios Políticos, 1962.

Mesnard, Pierre. "The Psychology and Pneumatology of Jean Bodin." International Philosophical Quarterly 2 (May 1962).

Parker, David. "Law, Society and the State in the Thought of Jean Bodin." History of Political Thought 2 (1981): 253285.

Reynolds, Beatrice B. Proponents of Limited Monarchy in Sixteenth Century France: Francis Hotman and Jean Bodin. New York: AMS Press, 1968.

Salmon, John Hearsey McMillan. "The Legacy of Jean Bodin: Absolutism, Populism or Constitutionalism?" History of Political Thought 17 (4) (1996): 500522.

Smith, Constance I. "Jean Bodin and Comparative Law." Journal of the History of Ideas 25 (1964): 417422.

Pierre Mesnard (1967)

Bibliography updated by Tamra Frei (2005)