Bodin, Jean

Jean Terrel


1Montesquieu and Bodin ( ~1529-1596) have often been compared: the theoretician of absolute sovereignty is contrasted to the theoretician of powers (Manent, 1986); more often, the relationship is underscored between two defenders of a limited and moderate monarchy, whom different historical situations led to emphasize, one the risk of anarchy, and the other that of despotism (Lavie, 1755; Fournol, 1896 ; Gardot, 1948; Mosher, 2001).

2Montesquieu quotes Bodin little: once about the confiscation of criminals’ property (EL, V, 15); once about the practice of small Swiss cantons (Pensées, no. 1914); twice about monetary questions (Considérations sur les richesses de l’Espagne, sheet attached to f. 2r of the first version, OC, t. VIII, p. 609), to which could be added a crossed-out reference in the manuscript of L’Esprit des lois, in book XIV (OC, t. IV, p. 366). None of these references explicitly concerns the themes privileged by all these comparisons, the analysis of the French monarchy and the theory of climates.

3Analyzing around 1728 the inflation that followed the conquests of Spain in America, Montesquieu writes that “the lands were worth twenty times more than they had been before the conquest of the Indies, as he [the Inca Garcilaso] says in his history after Bodin” and that the ratio of gold to silver was 12:1 “in Bodin’s time” (Considérations sur les richesses de l’Espagne, p. 609). The first reference is an allusion to the Réponse aux paradoxes de Malestroit touchant l’enchérissement de toutes choses [‘Response to the paradoxes of Malestroit on the rising prices of everything’] (1568): in this text, the abundance of gold and silver coming from the Portuguese and the Spanish is “the principal and almost the sole” cause of the rise in prices (Les Six Livres de la République, Lyon, 1593; reissue Paris: Fayard, 1986, VI, p. 421-422. Montesquieu owned the 1579 and 1583 editions [Catalogue nos. 2371 and 2372], which do not contain the Réponse), in particular of the rise in the price of land which, according to the Réponse, had tripled in fifty years (Six Livres de la République, p. 419). Returning to the question in La République (VI, 2, p. 74), Bodin estimates that prices have in general increased in a hundred years by a factor of ten, land a factor of twelve, and several counties, baronies and great seigneuries a factor of twenty. This is the estimation which Montesquieu gives for land in general.

4The text of the Pensées, overtly critical, repeats almost literally a remark of Bodin’s: “when important things are at issue, each Senator is charged with bringing with him to the council two or three persons of his choosing, so that there will be sometimes four or five hundred, some Senators, some not, but they nevertheless have a voice in the discussion” (Six Livres de la République, III, 1, p. 29; the italics represent the words Montesquieu repeats). For Bodin, the senators are “counselors of the state”, and not members of a sovereign assembly: to obtain a “good resolution” and “keep state affairs secret”, it is therefore necessary, contrary to the practice described, to limit their number. Analyzing things in terms of government and not sovereignty, Montesquieu ignores this distinction between sovereignty and counsel. He approves the Swiss when he mentions “the goodness of the People’s mores. Fol. Verso. 315” – probably a reference to folio 314 (Pensées, no. 2017), according to which Switzerland is one of the rare countries where policy allows all citizens to be armed – and the experience of Venice and Rome: with respect to Rome, Montesquieu writes that “a numerous senate is more like democracy” (Pensées, no. 1762). He approves what Bodin criticizes because he admires the republican practice of citizen-soldiers and judges that an aristocracy is all the more perfect the more it resembles a democracy (EL, II, 3).

5In L’Esprit des lois, the only explicit reference to Bodin is in the last paragraph of the development devoted to the laws “relative to the principle of despotic government” (EL, V, 14-15): as that regime perpetrates its injustices through hands that also work for themselves, confiscations are useful without worrying about the fate of heirs, since there is “no family that we wish to preserve”. In other regimes, confiscations are dangerous: there family patrimonies must be preserved, especially in republics where equality among citizens is threatened if one of them is deprived of his patrimony. This last argument might have been suggested by Bodin, who deems that confiscation of property of the convicted would lead to an excessive inequality that would threaten the stability of the state (Six Livres de la Republique, V, 2 and 3, p. 84-85). In his conclusion to chapter 14, Montesquieu introduces for the first time the notion of moderate government; now he opposes “despotic states” to “moderate states”: in support of his thesis, he cites a Roman law limiting confiscations to the case of the most serious crime of lèse-majesté (against the person of the ruler) and approves Bodin, who excluded patrimony owing to legacy from the category of desirable confiscations (Six Livres de la Republique, V, 3, p. 89). With respect to Bodin, there are two significant inflections:
1) Bodin discusses the advantages and disadvantages of Roman law relating to criminal property: there is danger in encouraging evildoers to enrich their children; confiscations make it possible to pay the trial expenses and make restitution to the accusers (Six Livres de la Republique, p. 85-88). Montesquieu retains only the advantages.
2) In this matter, Bodin never brings in the question of the difference between various states (popular, aristocratic or monarchical), in other words between various possible holders of sovereignty. For him sovereignty is not at issue but rather the manner of governing: a tyrant uses confiscations as a source of revenue, whereas a rightful government respects the distinction between public property and family patrimonies. Montesquieu muddles this distinction between the state and the government to the advantage of government alone: to distinguish between regimes is tantamount to distinguishing three governments, and after that moderate and despotic governments.

6With this explicit reference to Bodin we must associate a text in which Montesquieu paraphrases Seneca (De beneficiis, VII, 5, 1): “When in a state all individuals are citizens, each should possess through his domain what the ruler possess through his power […]” (“Lorsque dans un État tous les particuliers sont citoyens, que chacun y possède par son domaine ce que le prince y possède par son Empire […]”, EL, XIII, 7). Seneca’s formula (in which power over all is not possession of all) has so often been used, before and after Bodin, to answer the absolutist interpretations of Roman law, that Montesquieu has no need of the explicit reference which Bodin had used to distinguish royal government from seigniorial government: without openly violating natural law as the tyrant does, the seigniorial monarch does not recognize the distinction between the public domain and the domain of individuals, unlike the king who holds absolute sovereignty (power over all) without owning the domain of individuals (Six Livres de la République, I, 8, p. 157). Distinguishing for his part “countries where part of the people is slave of the glebe” after a conquest (EL, XIII, 3) and states where all individuals are citizens, Montesquieu might be thinking of Bodin, but in a new fiscal context: to protect the domain proper to each family, Bodin made the public domain “inalienable by its very nature” “the surest means of being confident” (Six Livres de la République, VI, 2, p. 36-38), when Montesquieu makes use of the difference between power and domain to authorize the state to appropriate part of the citizens’ property: to the risk of a fiscal and despotic policy, Montesquieu does not answer, as does Bodin, by defending first the inalienability of the public domain, but in identifying by a lapidary formula the power of the city and freedom (EL, XXVI, 15): it is greater freedom, for example that of the English, that allows the power of the city to manifest itself by larger fiscal appropriations (EL, XIII, 12).


Jean-Charles de Lavie, Abrégé de la “République” de Bodin, London: J. Nourse, 1755.

Étienne Fournol, Bodin précurseur de Montesquieu, Paris: Rousseau, 1896 (reprint: Geneva: Slatkine, 2011).

Robert Derathé, “Théorie et pratique en philosophie politique: la monarchie française selon Jean Bodin et Montesquieu”, Theorie and Politics-Theorie. Theorie und Politik. Fetschrift zum 60. Geburstag für Carl Joachim Friedrich, ed. Klauss von Beyme, The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1971.

Pierre Manent, “Les théoriciens de la monarchie: Bodin et Montesquieu”, in Les Monarchies”, ed. Étienne Leroy-Ladurie, Paris: PUF, 1986, p. 91-99.

Michael A. Mosher, “Monarchy’s Paradox: Honor in the Face of Sovereign Power”, Montesquieu’s Science of Politics: Essays on “The Spirit of Laws”, ed. David W. Carrithers, Michael A. Mosher and Paul A. Rahe, Lanham, Boulder, New York, Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001, p. 159-229.

Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, “Sur quelques sources prétendues du livre XIV de L’Esprit des lois”, OC, t. IV, 2008, p. 902-916.