Conservatism and the Medieval Mind

Conservatism and the Medieval Mind

if some of the more extravagant reviews of Bertrand de Jouvenel’s Sovereignty are to be believed, this book is nothing less than a classic. The London Times Literary Supplement proclaimed it “a remarkable achievement . . . a great work in political philosophy.” Even Denis Brogan, who seemed unwilling to go quite this far, asserted in the New York Times that “every page of this brilliant and successful effort . . . is loaded with ore.”

I do not believe that Jouvenel’s book merits these accolades, but I can think of at least three reasons to account for them. The first is that the concept of sovereignty has for a good many years been relegated to the backwater of political theory. Not since the savage assault on sovereignty in the early books of Harold Laski has anyone working within the liberal tradition attempted to make constructive use of this concept. To have the concept explored anew, and by a man working within what he at least conceives to be the liberal or democratic tradition, is an almost startling event. Whether in point of fact Jouvenel contributes to our understanding of sovereingty, whether he advances his own political theory through its use, is a matter on which I will have something to say a little later.

A second reason for the reception given Jouvenel’s book is that it is one of the few attempts at a systematic treatise in the conservative mood. Because conservatives wish to conserve not all things, but only those things that are good, they require above all else what they do not now have—a rational principle or standard by which to distinguish the good from the bad and by which they can come seriously to grips with concrete problems. It serves no real purpose, for example, to agree that we must do good and avoid evil; for however meritorious this moral stance may be, it offers no specific guides to right behavior in a particular situation. Jouvenel’s book is important, therefore, as a sophisticated effort to provide such a principle.

Finally, Jouvenel’s Sovereignty stands in that tradition of political philosophy which is concerned, as he puts it, with the uses rather than the sources of power. What is crucial, in his view, is not the way in which power is gained, nor the principle of consent as a legitimate source of power, but the ends for which power is employed, the idea of justice or the public good. Accordingly, he criticizes democratic theory for relying on the process through which power-holders are chosen rather than on the intrinsic qualities and purposes of the power holders themselves. He indicts democratic theory for looking to public opinion—which in this tradition is identified with the inferior judgments of average, and therefore inferior, men —instead of trusting to the wisdom of superior men, of those who know what is good and how best to achieve it.

In these respects Jouvenel’s book appeals to an important, th...