Restraining Leviathan

We have seen previously that individual liberty for Bertrand de Jouvenel involves saying “No.”  If a life of civic liberty potentially involves resistance, then we should be careful lest we resist in vain.  The point of departure for any robust and deep theory of liberty cannot be mere moral outrage or unreflective gainsaying; it must instead flow from a sustained commitment to understanding.  We cannot effectively resist concepts or processes that we choose to ignore or misunderstand.  It is one of the oldest of philosophical tropes: those who choose not to rule themselves by knowledge will in time come to be ruled by someone, or something, else.

What remains, thus, is to understand what is at once Jouvenel’s most renowned and most problematic idea—Power (Pouvoir).


On Power is Jouvenel’s most famous work.  At the same time, it is perhaps the most difficult to understand; it is replete with fantastic images and sweeping speculations, and it purports to construct a “political metaphysic.”  Understandably for so ambitious an effort, its reception was mixed.  Thinkers of the caliber of Hannah Arendt and Eric Voegelin praised it highly, while others, such as Charles Merriam and Hans Morgenthau, rendered decidedly frostier judgments.

The problem begins with the subject matter.  What is the book really about?  At issue is the appropriate level of abstraction; at least half of the book concerns the rise of the French nation state, but it is important to ask whether the development of this concept is the point of the text or whether this is merely a case study, merely an exegetical prolegomenon for a larger, or at any rate, deeper theoretical concept.

A complete argument is beyond our scope.  Here I can only assert rather than demonstrate that Jouvenel’s principal concern, perhaps surprisingly, is neither the French nation state nor the modern state taken more generally.  As Dennis Hale has rightly remarked, “The ‘Power’ of the title is the force that creates the centralized state, but the force itself may be found in a number of settings, from a primitive village to the national offices of a modern trade union.”  Jouvenel himself says this: “Rousseau meant by ‘prince’ the totality of the components of government; it is what in this book I have called Power” (On Power, 42 n37).

As I suggested in the previous essay, what Jouvenel discovered in his subsequent work is that all public authorities, i.e. all Powers, emerge in the role of the rex, the guarantor of order.  So construed, Power’s role is to protect the fixity of the frame and to guard folkways and customs.  The problem is that, over the course of its lifespan, Power is not content to remain a rex; it has a natural tendency to become increasingly dux-like, to become increasingly intrusive.  This outcome tends to occur regardless of the identity of ruler, ruled, or even time and place; Power is a more universal phenomenon than France or even modernity.  And it is an outcome that may not be visible unless one moves beyond a practice of typifying regimes as “democracies” or “tyrannies.”  As Jouvenel puts it, the face of Power changes but its nature does not.

The modern state on such an interpretation is as a result not unique; it is just a particularly vicious and unrestrained political form of Power.  Addressing this problem in its modern guise, then, cannot simply be a return to some prior political form; there is no solution in political form for the instinct of despotism.


An attention to political scale, or at any rate political perspective, is required for a proper appreciation of and response to this danger.  I have suggested that, for Jouvenel, social and political groups are generated through a two-step process: an instigator bidding for compliance in a political enterprise; and the subsequent success (or failure) at soliciting a response from his fellows.  These groups may be additive (short-term) or aggregative (long-term).  Over time, they may attain a robust status such that they become what Jouvenel calls “independent social authorities”, “established sectional interests,” or “makeweights” (contre-pouvoirs).  These corporate bodies—which are in principle all groups formed by initiation and response but which include among their number such notable groups as the family, the church, and even the nobility—act as buffers against the natural tendency of Power’s trajectory.  Though these intermediary institutions can be morally problematic and dysfunctional (as if governments cannot be!), their primary function is protection.

They are not merely protectors, however; they are our homes.  We can be true members of only a limited apparatus; it is only on a small scale that human beings can flourish, can receive lessons in living from family and friend.  Terms like “teams of action” and “aggregates” may ring blandly and academically in the ear, but what Jouvenel ultimately means by them is that they are the schools of moral and political virtue.  It is notable that this idea runs deep in certain strains of American self-understanding, e.g., early American constitutional theory that insisted that federal citizenship be derived only from membership in a smaller body, a state.  It is a recognition that we are primarily shaped by our day-to-day experiences with our fellows rather than by our ideological attachment to abstract propositions or concepts.

But the self-understanding of the participants in a political group or tradition is one thing; the raised, skeptical eyebrow of Power is another.  Insofar as these things impede the progress of Power, these things are problematic; these things, in a word, are factions.  This is why an appeal to the “common good” is insufficient and perhaps even incoherent in such disputes; internally, participants in political enterprises see themselves oriented toward a common good, but externally they appear to Power to be oriented only toward a particular good.

What Jouvenel saw is that the lifeblood of any society springs from individual initiative; that all groups flow from the process of bidding and compliance; that society is what Hayek called a kosmos, i.e., the constant, complex interaction of various individuals and groups.  Theoretically, the state in such a society should only be a rex.  It should protect against external threats and it should uphold the social and moral traditions that have emerged over time as that particular society’s reservoir of self-understanding.  It should allow reasonable individual and corporate goods to be born out.  It should simply attend, in Oakeshott’s language, to the general arrangement of things; it should leave the work of intention to duces.

We have seen previously that this theoretical account is not quite born out by practice.  The question is why.


At the end of the introduction to On Power, Jouvenel insists that he is “not setting up as an enemy of the growth of Power and of the distension of the state.”  It is a shocking revelation at the conclusion of a preliminary account in which he has spoken of Power as a Minotaur that devours men and of future wars that will be unimaginably devastating.  Is On Power, then, a cool and clinical appraisal of impending doom?  Jouvenel’s analysis is framed as an investigation of Power’s extent in society, and he discovers that its tendrils have penetrated everywhere.  Barbarian invasions would be superfluous, Jouvenel laments; we are our own Huns.  As Tacitus remarked of another set of would-be conquerors: they rob, slaughter, and plunder under the false name of empire; they make a desert and they call it peace.

What is important to grasp, however, is that this melancholy is only part of the story.  Jouvenel’s understanding of Power is in fact nuanced or, as he puts it, “stereoscopic.”  He realizes that Power has a natural tendency to transition from rex to dux because of ambition; he realizes that this tendency is amplified as a defensive response to emergent rivals.  Power, he says, is Egoistic.  But Power also extends itself throughout society not only to extract resources but to provide for its people; Power is not only Egoistic but Benevolent.  In lasting, it becomes social, he says, and it must become social to last.

Institutions operate optimally when they operate unreflectively; thus, it is not surprising that political philosophy, which makes it its particular business to question them, should often be seen in such a dubious light.  What Nietzsche calls “the problem of Socrates” speaks to the danger of questioning a society’s foundational values as well as to the typical ways in which societies respond to such interrogation.  However, to be fair to philosophers, it may be that philosophy is not a cause but a symptom; Hegel may be right that the owl of Minerva flies only at twilight.  It might be that philosophical questioning contributes to or even initiates an institution’s collapse—but might it not be the case, too, that when the function of an institution is called into question, the very questioning is a serviceable indicator that something has already gone awry in the institution itself?

One of Jouvenel’s great insights is that Power does not merely usurp the authority of social institutions through acquisitiveness.  Sometimes, it steps in to fill the gap when those institutions are found wanting—when they have in fact failed, either through overextension or through negligence.  This may be true even of the previous political regime itself.  As Jouvenel admits:

I know well the hopes that men have of it [Power], and how their trust in the Power which shall be warms itself at the fire of the sufferings which the Power that was inflicted upon them.

The desire of men’s hearts is social security (On Power), safety and justice (Sovereignty), home and hearth (Pure Theory).  When family, church, sewing circle, trade guild, and aristocracy can no longer provide them, someone must.  Power, on Jouvenel’s account, is not merely an acid that burns its way remorselessly through traditional social structures to menace the individual.  It is also an institution itself, one that feels that it must step in when the traditional social structures have failed.  For it is true that institutions can and do fail; it is true that they can become morally intrusive, odious, and suffocating.

But it is perhaps a mistake to turn over one’s safety wholly to the state; it is perhaps a mistake to ask for the abolition of the family, the church, the aristocracy.  When these things are gone, as Benjamin Constant notes, Power is able to flatten individuals like so much sand.  When these things are gone, there is no one to resist but the individual.  The old buffers have left the scene, and Power was only too glad to hasten their departure at our request.

In the end, only knowledge of the value of intermediary institutions prevents us from asking for their abolition.  And this point can be generalized: only knowledge sets the individual free and allows one to resist tyranny.  Jouvenel helps us to ask the perennial questions of our own time and place by drawing our attention to the nature of Power.  Left to its own devices, Power becomes a parasite on the moral and material consciousness of its citizenry.  But by properly understanding Power’s influence, we are able to transcend or at any rate resist that influence.  By properly understanding the importance of political entrepreneurship and the groups that it generates, we are able to better understand our world and live in it.  And that, as both Jouvenel and Eric Voegelin might say, is the task of philosophy.

Reader Discussion

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on March 22, 2012 at 13:16:10 pm

Thanks Kevin,
This was very helpful and I will be sure to direct students to it . Bobbi

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Bobbi Herzberg
on March 27, 2012 at 12:01:39 pm

Although "On Power" is still on my ready reference shelf, it has been several years now since I read it with analytical interest (and then requested LF to bring out the rest of the series).

What may be missed is the rather subtle picture of how the nature of "Power" as, for example the rather direct, simple "force," and its applications can change as "Power" is transferred to, aggregated into, a more centralized format (from the dispered powers of the nobles to the Monarchy of Louis XIV, e.g.). Thus, that changed format of power required and developed changes in the the means of administering that that new format.

From that, we can consider the existing format of Power, how it is adminstered, ands possibly come to some understanding of what alterations are possible, and what underlying issues have to be dealt with.

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Richard Schweitzer

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