Biography of Bodin | Page 3

By the time of his visit to England Bodin had published as his Juris universi distributio the analysis of comparative law upon which he had embarked over two decades before. The appearance of this highly technical jurisprudential exercise coincided closely in time with the publication of a very different work, the notorious De la Démonomanie des Sorciers. What prompted this near-diatribe against witches was, by his account, the need to disabuse those who refused to credit the extraordinary increase in their number – and, by extension, the failure of such deniers, magistrates amongst them, to ‘understand the marvels of nature which we see constantly before our eyes’. Those marvels included not only the works of a beneficent deity, but also the capabilities of Satan, denial of which was tantamount to confessing wilful ignorance of the universe’s spiritual complexion. The book with its intemperate tone and exceptional knowledge of satanic practices exposed its author to criticism from all sides. It could none the less be claimed to constitute an oblique contribution to the investigation of natural history which he had long since specified in his Methodus as one of the modes of the ars historica.

But while the Démonomanie may be deemed to fit tolerably into Bodin’s intellectual schema, consistency is less easily discernible in his activities during the last dozen years of his life. His conduct was driven partly by lack of the means needed to provide for a wife, a daughter and two sons. Throughout the 1580s he acted as a man of business for Charles, marquis of Moy (now Moÿ-de-l’Aisne) in relatively close proximity to Laon where Bodin succeeded to the office of king’s proctor upon the death of his brother-in-law in 1587. While he devoted considerable time to the marquis’s affairs, payment proved no more easily obtainable from that quarter than it had been from Alençon. His appointment in September 1587 to an office in Henry of Navarre’s lordship of Marle, again adjacent to Laon, ought to have yielded him a pension; but by April 1589 its payment was already eighteen months in arrears. It would be unwarranted to suppose that money matters had any bearing upon Bodin’s political stance at that time. Yet the fact remains that in March of that same year he aligned himself with the Catholic League, precipitator of civil war and pledged both to challenge the ‘tyrant’ Henry III and to oppose à outrance Navarre’s claim to the French throne. This was now the position of a political philosopher, reputed a political moderate, who in his major work had pronounced firmly against resistance and in favour of hereditary monarchy in accordance with strict laws of succession.

Why did Bodin change sides? The simple explanation is fear for his personal safety, in a town where rumour marched, where violence threatened and repeatedly materialised, where even the king’s proctor’s house was ransacked and books and letters of his taken and burned. But it can also be argued, as he himself argued, that his conduct was shaped by political and religious principle. On the one hand, by the Spring of 1589 revulsion and active opposition towards Henry III were so widespread in France as to constitute a ‘universal rebellion’, a movement so extensive that it ‘ought not to be called a rebellion’ at all. On the other hand, divine judgement could be discerned in the miseries of civil war, a judgement reminiscent of Job’s misfortunes, but especially executed upon the kingdom’s towns which had been given ‘to all kinds of voluptuousness’ and were now greatly reduced. In these circumstances Bodin’s duty lay in doing what he could as representative of law to maintain legal order in the town committed to his charge, and meanwhile to attend the unfolding of divinely-driven events.

Events led from Henry III’s assassination in 1589 to the formal conversion in 1593 of the erstwhile Huguenot leader, Henry of Navarre, to the Catholic faith. With support for the League crumbling, Bodin changed sides once more. But there was to be no resumption of involvement at the centre of affairs. Bodin spent his closing years on scholarly and literary pursuits. In his Paradoxon, published in 1596 though apparently written five years earlier, he reiterated his diagnosis of France’s moral predicament and argued that regeneration depended upon recovery of moral virtue through freely-willed and whole-hearted surrender to the service of God. The position has been interpreted in terms of a natural theology fundamentally different from Christianity’s doctrine of redemption through the bestowal or infusion of divine grace.

Also published in 1596 was a weightier exercise in natural theology, Bodin’s Universae naturae theatrum (Theatre of universal nature), presented, like the Paradoxon in dialogue form. According to its author, it was possible to extract from knowledge of the natural world a rational appreciation of ‘the infinite power of one eternal God’. The result was an encyclopaedic survey not only of the origin and subsequent condition of the world with its geological and biological components, but also of the human soul, of angels and demons, and, finally, of the cosmos at large. Other teachers and philosophers had attempted extensive surveys of natural phenomena in the cause of celebrating the glory of God. What distinguished Bodin’s work was not only the range of learning at his disposal, but above all his persistent aim to discern and to describe the inherent harmony of the divine creation, a quest which had informed his major writings throughout his career.

The third of Bodin’s final works remained unpublished at the time of his death and until the nineteenth century, though numerous copies circulated in manuscript. This was the notorious Colloquium heptaplomeres de rerum sublimium arcanis abditis (Conference of the Seven on the hidden secrets of exalted things). While its authorship has been questioned, the correlation between ideas presented in the Colloquium and in others of Bodin’s works is unmistakable. Here he developed his ideas through a dialogue between representatives of seven different religious and philosophical standpoints, Calvinist, Catholic, Jewish, Islamic, Lutheran, natural-philosophical and sceptical. As in his Methodus, hisJuris universi distributio and elsewhere, Bodin’s aim was syncretic, but now pursued at a different level: to uncover the unity and harmony that must ultimately inform all tenable creeds in a God-created universe. Contemporary subscribers to particular creeds readily denounced this most religiously-inclined of philosophers for having no religion at all. Later commentators welcomed him as an early proponent of religious toleration.

This web-site provides links to editions of Bodin’s works, to a guide to the multiple sources which are used in composing them, and to contemporary and modern materials relevant to study of this most challenging of sixteenth-century thinkers who, with his extraordinary philosophical range, his astonishing store of learning, his soaring ambition to deploy it methodically in the cause of seeking universal truths, exemplifies some of the defining characteristics of Renaissance scholarship.

~Howell A. Lloyd