Jean Bodin on Moderation and ‘Race’

This essay is based on a paper given at the conference ‘Centring Race in History‘, held at the European University Institute, Florence in 2020

In his 1962 Letter from Birmingham Jail Martin Luther King railed against “the white moderate… more devoted to “order” that to justice”. For MLK, the liberal appeal to moderation in resisting racial oppression worked to enable racial injustice. The reasonableness of incremental reformism failed to problematize endemic structures of racial discrimination. 

The assumption is that, within the contradictions of liberalism, moderation becomes, tacitly, racialized. There was little tacit about the racial character of moderation praised by the Victorian arch-liberal Walter Bagehot in his Politics and Physics, written almost a hundred years earlier in 1872. For Bagehot ‘animated moderation’ was the supreme civic virtue, “the rule of a polity which works by discussion”. In this it was the preserve of the English, as the pinnacle of western man. It was his ‘animated moderation’ which set him apart from the ‘eastern peoples’, who lived as pre-modern man had always lived, slaves to custom, lacking a desire for progress or innovation. ‘Animated moderation’ informed the civilizational agenda of colonialism, “attempting to put new wine into old bottles – to pour what we can of a civilisation whose spirit is progress into the form of a civilisation whose spirit is fixity”.

Today moderation is still identified as a civilizational concept, lauded by conservatives and liberals keen to preserve ideals of civility, and condemned by radicals and progressives for whom it signifies a cowardly defence of the status quo.

That both parties can appear right points to the tensions contained within the modern idea of moderation. These tensions rise to the surface when moderate attitudes to race are invoked. Early modern history can open a window onto the origins of these tensions.

The appeal to moderation as a political virtue has an ancient and global history. What we today recognise as modern ideals of political moderation, however, began to be developed in sixteenth-century Europe. They took shape in response both to the waning of the moral universe of the Middle Ages and to the confessional ruptures which were shattered Christendom. These developments coalesced in France, where they met with the emergence of the modern state, and modern political thought. We see this nexus in the thought of Jean Bodin, who furnished moderation with a clear civilizational gravity.

In Bodin’s Les Six livres de la Republique (1576) he mapped out his theory of absolute sovereignty, raising the institution of the monarch above confessional interest. This rested upon his theory of ‘harmonic justice’, rooted in concordia discors, or discordant harmony. Harmonic justice represented, for Bodin, a middle way between ‘geometric justice’, which Bodin identifies with aristocracy, and ‘arithmetic justice’, which he identifies with democracy. The discordant harmony of harmonic justice is defined by the managed tension between two extremes:

“Wherefore as of Treble and Base voyces is made a most sweet and melodious Harmonie, so also of vices and virtues, of the different qualities of the elements, of the contrarie motions of the celestiall Spheres, and of the Sympathies and Antipathies of things, by indissoluble meanes bound together is composed the Harmonie of the whole world, and of all the parts thereof: so also a well ordered commonweale is composed of good and bad, of the rich and of the poore, of wisemen and of fools, of the strong and of the weake, allied by them which are in the meane betwixt both: which so by a wonderful disagreeing concord, joyne the highest with the lowest, and so all to all.” (pp. 792-4)

This state reflects the human condition, “betwixt beasts and angels”. But a capacity for ‘harmonic justice’ is not a privilege of all humans. The world’s people are, for Bodin, divided into three sorts: those of the north, who are phlegmatic and govern by force; those of the south, who are melancholic and govern by religion; and those of the middle, between these extremes, who “participate of both their natures and have their affections more moderate” (p. 552). It is these people who rule by ‘harmonic justice’, reason and law, who “negotiate, traffique, judge, plead, command, establish Commonweales; and make lawes and ordinances for other nations” (p. 561).

This middle stratum stretched in a band from Spain in the West to Turkey in the East. It manifests itself culturally best in Italy, which Bodin thought the “most temperate that can be”, and politically in France, exemplified in the nascent modern state Bodin was helping to theorise.

On the surface, Bodin’s climactic taxonomy of peoples is close to those invoked in antiquity and the Middle Ages, as is his identification of moderation with those of the middle. But two features are of note.

Firstly, his explicit inclusion of “Asia the lesser… the mirror of civilitie” (p. 552) into the domain of civilized moderation. This speaks to Bodin’s expansion of the category of acceptable religious belief beyond the limits of his own Catholicism, or even Christianity broadly defined. In his posthumous Colloquium Heptaplomeres Bodin staged an imagined dialogue between members of Christian confessions, a Muslim, a Jew and two philosophers. The Colloquium showcased the possibilities of religious toleration between those subscribing to Abrahamic faiths or natural religion – of pagans and atheists Bodin was more suspect.

Secondly, Bodin’s climactic model of peoples is losing its premodern determinism. In passages he suggests that societies can escape their climate, remarking “what force education, lawes and customes have to change nature” (p. 565). Germany was, for Bodin, an example of what had once been a typical northern nation, but has, in time, learned to be a people of the middle.

Subsequently, for Bodin, the moderation of temperate Europe is no longer the result of climate, nor of confession – though Europeans remained ‘naturally’ inclined to a moderation which remained bound to monotheism. Bodin elevated the function of ‘the political’ in establishing a peoples characteristics. On the one hand, moderation could escape the ethnological categories deployed by pre-modern thinkers. Different peoples could, theoretically, become more moderate through changing their political, legal or educational institutions. On the other hand, and precisely because it rendered the nature of a people as historically rather than providentially determined, Bodin strengthened the association between monotheistic inhabitants of the Mediterranean basin and a species of moderation which was civil, not natural: a political artefact of human invention.

On these terms, Bodin’s civil moderation, constructed upon the logic of concordia discors, could be seen to contain, in germ form, the ‘animated moderation’ which Bagehot would racialize as the genius of liberal English modernity, and which Martin Luther King would see as a racialized expression of a White monopoly of reasonableness. If this is true, it’s also the case that, in contributing to the invention of ‘the political’ as an autonomous domain, and in defining politics as a species of moderation, Bodin was laying the foundations for a civil realm in which differences manifest in ‘the religious’ and, in time, ‘the racial’, could be mediated by the state and civil society.

In short, the incubation of the political technology for managing racial difference was concomitant with the incubation of the ideological technology through which racial difference was established. Such are the contradictions at play in the thought of Bodin, and which nestle at the core of the modern concept of moderation.

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