What did John Locke think


Hans Vorländer

Prof. Dr. Hans Vorländer, born in 1954, has held the chair for political theory and the history of ideas at the Technical University of Dresden since 1993. There he is himself director of the Center for Constitutional and Democracy Research.
His main research interests are: political thinking and comparative political research, political theory and the history of ideas, constitutionalism and the constitution, democracy, liberalism and populism.

Modern democracy emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries as a result of political, cultural and social changes. The developments in England, France and the USA are groundbreaking for their design.

The Reformation freed individuals from their immaturity vis-à-vis the church, the Bible can be read in their mother tongue, and the printing press ensures its mass distribution. Luther Bible from 1534 from Frankfurt / Oder (& copy picture-alliance / ZB / Patrick Pleul)
Modern democracy differs significantly from ancient democracy and the republics of the late Middle Ages. It has been slow to take hold and has arisen in very different ways as a result of revolutions and struggles between different social groups and political forces. Although it was able to tie in with ancient and republican traditions, it also had to adapt to requirements and conditions that had fundamentally changed since the 17th century. In this respect, modern democracy had to be reinvented.

The following historical prerequisites were decisive for the development of modern democracy:
  • While both the Athenian polis democracy and the medieval city republics had been small-scale political orders, large-scale territorial states had now emerged. As a rule, people no longer knew each other, and it was difficult, if not impossible, to attend meetings regularly and take office at any time. That is why the structures of political will and decision-making had to change. Other institutions were needed to ensure the participation of as many citizens as possible, in whatever form.

  • The modern, modern territorial state was created and ruled by princes and kings who claimed undivided sovereignty for their rulership, at least in the era of absolutism. The exercise of power was disconnected from all restrictions and also from all approval requirements. The sovereignty of rule and the absoluteness of violence consisted, as Jean Bodin (1529 - 1596) wrote as theoretician of sovereignty in 1576, namely precisely in enacting laws without the consent of the subjects and not being bound by the laws.

    A democratic revolution alone could not have solved the problem of sovereignty. Because if the demos took the place of the monarch, then the bearer of rule was changed, but the problem of a lack of ties and restrictions remained. However, the exercise of political sovereignty generally had to be restricted in order to prevent it from degenerating into despotism.

  • The Reformation and the subsequent religious and civil wars raised the issue of religious freedom and tolerance. On the one hand, this laid the foundation for a genuinely personal-related understanding of freedom that focused on the individual.

    On the other hand, the Reformation challenged the secular state's claim to power to be able to dispose of this individual freedom of belief and belief. Freedom of belief became a political demand for different religious beliefs. This was one of the roots of the insistence on guaranteeing individual freedom and fundamental rights. The other root sprang from the philosophical movement of the Enlightenment, which between the 16th and the 18th centuries shook the traditional ideas of God, the world and man all over Europe and called for the all-encompassing "liberation of man from his self-inflicted immaturity" (Immanuel Kant) .

  • In addition, with the emergence of a commercial-industrial society, there was a demand for economic freedom of activity and for the safeguarding of property created through work. The social and economic structure of the old, class-based society with its feudalist and guild-like hindrances to free economic activity was no longer sustainable. The rising middle class demanded the end of the privileged domination of the nobility based only on birth.
Hence the need for another justification for the exercise of political power. The conventional old order, which assumed that the ruler was appointed by God, had been shaken in its validity at the latest with the beheading of Charles I in England in 1649. It was therefore a matter of re-establishing the state and rule and aligning them with the "principles of reason" propagated by the Enlightenment. It is no coincidence that the thought figure of a contract between individuals to legitimize a political order comes into play here.

The social contract, based on the consent of the individual, became the new basis of the state. The idea of ​​the social contract was combined with the principles of the inalienability of life, freedom and property of the individual derived from natural law. Every political order was now to be thought of in terms of the individual and his freedom. But this also gave rise to the problem of how to deal with the diversity of interests and values ​​of individuals.

The political, social and economic changes resulted in the demands for a restriction of the ruling power, for the separation of powers and in the conception of the sovereignty of the people. These demands became political reality in various ways: in England via the civil and religious wars of the 17th century; in North America as part of the US Declaration of Independence in 1776 and subsequent constitutions; in France through the revolution of 1789 and in Germany only in the course of the 19th century through the impulses of the revolution of 1848. In Poland, on May 3, 1791, the first written constitution of Europe was passed.

Source text

Indivisibility of sovereignty

The French philosopher and constitutional lawyer Jean Bodin (1529–1596) is considered to be the theoretical founder of state absolutism. Shaped by the wars of religion in France in the 16th century, he tries to place the broken state theoretically on the basis of an absolute concept of sovereignty.

The concept of sovereignty includes the absolute and permanent power of a state [...] Sovereignty means the highest authority. [...] Since there is nothing greater on earth after God than the sovereign princes whom God has appointed as his governors so that they may command the rest of mankind, it is necessary to watch out for their position in order to respect and worship their majesty in submission to be able to think and speak of them with reverence. Whoever turns against the king sins against God, whose image on earth is the prince. [...] The true attributes of sovereignty are only peculiar to the sovereign prince. [...]

The most outstanding feature of princely sovereignty consists in the perfect power to enact laws for everyone and for each individual, and this, as should be added, without anyone - be they higher, equal or of lower rank - having to agree. For if the prince can only enact laws with the consent of someone above him, he is himself a subject; if it can only be done in agreement with one of his equals, the prince shares his powers with someone; if the legislation is subject to the consent of the subjects (the senate or the people), the prince is not sovereign. The names of the great names of a country, which are added to legal texts, do not have the effect of the force of law. Rather, they testify to the process and give it weight so that the law is more likely to be accepted.

Jean Bodin, On the State (Book 1), selection, translation and epilogue by Gottfried Niedhart, Philipp Reclam jun. Verlag Ditzingen 1999, pp. 19, 39, 41 f.