Sovereignty and Natural Law in the Legal Discourse of the Ancien Régime

Michel Troper


Whenever sovereignty is defined as a supreme, absolute, unfettered and unlimited power, there is an obvious contradiction between two ideas: that states are sovereign and that they can or should be limited. Nevertheless, while many legal texts proclaim sovereignty, there are several signs that states are indeed limited by constitutional or international law. In light of this situation, some authors claim that those texts are mere proclamations and that sovereignty is an obsolete concept, while others argue that states are still sovereign and that there are no real limits, but others still try to conceive of sovereignty as limited by morality or natural law. Professor Benvenisti’s remarkable theory of sovereigns as trustees of humanity is part of a very old tradition going back to the sixteenth century where sovereignty was defined as an absolute power, which is unlimited by positive law, yet based on and limited by natural law. This Article tries to show that this concept of sovereignty has emerged because of the necessity to provide a final point of imputation to the hierarchy of norms, and that the limitation by natural law was part of the original definition. Sovereignty so defined can usefully justify not only the power of kings and lawmakers but also that of courts trying to control kings and lawmakers.

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