Rousseau, Bodin, and the Medieval Corporatist Origins of Popular Sovereignty

Date01 February 2022
Published date01 February 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Political Theory
2022, Vol. 50(1) 142 –168
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0090591720985452
Rousseau, Bodin, and
the Medieval Corporatist
Origins of Popular
Dan Edelstein1
This essay reconsiders Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s debt to Jean Bodin, on
the basis of Daniel Lee’s recent revision of Bodin as a theorist of popular
sovereignty. It argues that Rousseau took a key feature of his own theory
of democratic sovereignty from Bodin—namely, the dual identity of political
members as both citizens and subjects of the state. It further makes the case
that this dual identity originates in medieval corporatist law, which Bodin was
summarizing. Finally, it demonstrates the lasting impact of corporatist law in
eighteenth-century France, highlighting Rousseau’s direct borrowings from
the corporatist language and logic of contemporary commercial societies.
In this regard, the article revisits and updates Otto von Gierke’s classic
argument about the origins of the state in corporatist thought.
popular sovereignty, democracy, citizenship, corporations, Roman law
From Niccolò Machiavelli to James Madison, early-modern republican the-
orists placed their faith in a well-balanced constitution, drawing on classical
arguments from Aristotle, Polybius, Cicero, and others.1 But there was an
important exception to this trend. Jean-Jacques Rousseau rejected this
1Dept. of French & Italian, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Dan Edelstein, Dept. of French & Italian, Stanford University, 450 Jane Stanford Way,
Stanford, CA 94305-2010, USA.
985452PTXXXX10.1177/0090591720985452Political TheoryEdelstein
Edelstein 143
premise and instead propounded a theory of republican exclusivism based
on a principle of indivisible sovereignty. Rousseau found inspiration for his
theory in unlikely places: Jean Bodin and Thomas Hobbes, the two leading
early-modern theorists of sovereignty. What made these thinkers an unlikely
source for Rousseau was their anti-republican bent: both authors opposed
popular government and are often read as promoting absolutism. Rousseau’s
relation to Bodin and Hobbes is accordingly treated by scholars as a kind of
inversion.2 Instead of tying indivisible sovereignty to the single person of
the sovereign, the standard interpretation goes, Rousseau flipped the script
and entrusted the people with the full exercise of sovereignty: “Rousseau’s
political achievement emerges as a sort of reformation of the République, a
remoulding of Bodin’s theory of sovereignty in a democratic key,” one spe-
cialist recently remarked.3
This standard interpretation rests on well-established readings of Bodin
and Hobbes. But Daniel Lee, in a highly original and erudite monograph, has
challenged this reading of Bodin, questioning his identification as a defender
of absolutism.4 Precisely when this vision of Bodin became consecrated is an
open question; Lee points the finger at Julian Franklin, though interestingly
Bodin has the same reputation in French scholarship.5 Lee challenges this
reading of Bodin in two convincing ways. First, he demonstrates that Bodin
was not an advocate of absolute monarchy but believed instead that a well-
administered monarchy should “govern indirectly through law and through
legally constituted magistrates.”6 Secondly, Lee dispels the common misper-
ception that Bodin did not recognize the possibility of popular sovereignty.7
Not only did Bodin accept popular sovereignty as wholly legitimate (if, in his
view, undesirable), but he defined it in a way that closely resembles, and may
even inform, how we understand it today.8
The shockwaves triggered by Lee’s reassessment will ripple far and wide
across the history of European political thought. What else changes when we
read Bodin without absolutist blinders on? This essay calls attention, first, to
one major ramification for the history of democracy, which comes from
reconsidering Rousseau’s relation to Bodin. Building on Lee’s recovery of
Bodin as a theorist of popular sovereignty, I show how Rousseau in fact took
from Bodin a fundamental aspect of his own theory. This aspect was the dual
identity of the members of a democratic state as both citizens and subjects.
Understanding the importance of subjecthood in Rousseau’s concept of citi-
zenship forces us to question whether his theory of political liberty is best
defined in terms of nondomination.9
But Lee’s revision, secondly, also opens up new connections between
early-modern and medieval political thought. Indeed, Bodin stood at the
receiving end of centuries of civil and canon law theory and practice. As Lee

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