The Idea of Absolutism

  • J. H. Burns
Part of the Problems in Focus Series book series


The term ‘absolutism’ entered the language of politics — in French — during the decade after the Revolution in 1789. Its first appearance in English came more than a generation later, in the radical and liberal literature of the years around 1830. The system or concept to which the term referred was of course much older; and there is a sense in which its emergence may be located in the period with which this book is concerned. It was with absolute monarchy that the revolutionary and radical writers of the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries were contending, seeing it as the most stubborn obstacle to the achievement of their aims. Absolute monarchy had been the preponderant political system of that ancien régime which was overthrown in 1789 only to reappear, it seemed, in the era of the Holy Alliance after 1815. And it had been the seventeenth century that saw the consolidation of the European states system of the ancien régime. The idea of absolutism does indeed have a wider political application: the sovereignty of Parliament, for instance, is, in juridical terms, an absolute sovereignty recognising, as A. V. Dicey pointed out a century ago, no legal limitations. It is, however, in its application to absolute monarchy that the term has had its greatest historical importance, and it is in this sense that the idea will be analysed here.


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  1. Of the primary sources discussed in the essay, Bodin’s Six Books of the Commonwealth is most readily available in the abridged translation by M. J. Tooley (Oxford, n.d.); a new translation (also abridged) is to be edited by J. H. Franklin for the series Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought. Hobbes’s Leviathan is available in several paperback series, including Fontana and Penguin editions. Useful extracts from other English seventeenth-century sources are in D. Wootton, Divine Right and Democracy (1986) see esp. chap. 1, ‘The Divine Right of Kings’, also pp. 175–311 (Philip Hunton’s 1641 Treatise of Monarchy). Filmer is well served by Peter Laslett’s Blackwell’s Political Texts edition (Oxford, 1949). European material, apart from Bodin, is less easily accessible for English readers. A facsimile edition of William Jones’s 1594 translation of Lipsius’s Politics has been published (Amsterdam and New York, 1970). Botero’s Ragion di Stato is available in English in a volume edited for the series Rare Masterpieces of Philosophy and Science by P. J. and D. P. Waley (1956). A critical text of Bossuet’s Politique tiré de l’Écriture Sainte, edited by J. Le Brun was published at Geneva in 1967; and for a selection of texts see J. Truchet (ed.), Politique de Bossuet (Paris, 1966).Google Scholar
  2. In the secondary literature, pride of place may still be given to J. N. Figgis’s classic study, The Divine Right of Kings (first published 1896: see now the edition with introduction by G. R. Elton, New York, 1965). For more recent scholarship, see W. H. Greenleaf, Order, Empiricism and Politics (Oxford, 1964) and F. Oakley, Omnipotence, Covenant and Order (Ithaca, 1984); also Oakley’s ‘Jacobean Political Theology: the Absolute and Ordinary Powers of the King’, Journal of the History of Ideas, XXIX (1968) 323–46. To these should be added J. Daly, Sir Robert Filmer and English Political Thought (Toronto, 1979); G. J. Schochet, Patriarchalism in Political Thought (Oxford, 1975); R. Eccleshall, Order and Reason in Politics: Theories of Absolute and Limited Monarchy in Early Modern England (Oxford, 1978); J. P. Sommerville, Politics and Ideology in England 1603–1640 (1986).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Looking to continental Europe, see, on Bodin, J. H. Franklin, Jean Bodin and the Rise of Absolutist Theory (Cambridge, 1973). On French thought more generally, N. Keohane, Philosophy and the State in France: The Renaissance to the Enlightenment (Princeton, 1980). For ‘Neostoicism’ G. Oestreich, Neostoicism and the Early Modern State (Cambridge, 1982) is indispensable. On Boussuet, see J. P. Plamenatz, Man and Society: A Critical Examination of Some Important Social and Political Theories from Machiavelli to Marx, 2 vols (1963) vol. I, pp. 186–98; the whole of chap. 5, ‘Divine right and absolute monarchy’, pp. 155–208, is useful.Google Scholar

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© J. H. Burns 1990

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