The Meaning of Sovereignty

The word "sovereignty" which derives from Latin through the Old French souverainete started off in the 14th century meaning "pre-eminence" or "absolute authority." It was a term applied to feudal situations in which the landholder had dominion over all who lived and worked upon his land. This approach to human relations, in which the holder of lands was subject to no one who lived upon his lands, and who indeed was considered "lord" above them, led to unjust approaches to the concept of authority, such as the droit du seigneur, or the right of the landholder to legally sexually violate a woman of an oppressed class before she consummated her relationship with her new husband at the time of their wedding. Since a woman's virginity (both as physical reality and as a social construct) was and remains a key point of attention in patriarchal cultures, this example serves as a keenly focused lens through which to view the origins of the concept of sovereignty and its problematic nature under continued patriarchy.

In the 17th century, however, the word sovereignty took on a new meaning, in which a state or group of people in a region could claim authority over their own terms of existence apart from the influence of outside sources. By 1800, in feudal and developing democratic situations in both Europe and the US, the word came to mean, according to Thomas Hobbes, a type of social contract between a landholder and his residents that included his protection of their welfare in exchange for their faith in his authority. Under the social contract, if people did not feel that the landholder was doing enough to protect their interests or demonstrating good leadership, they had the right to revolt, ignore him, or overthrow him. This concept is part of why those arriving in America from Europe during that time felt empowered to form their own nation and defy British rule. Note, however, that the sovereignty of what we now call "America" came at the expense of the sovereignty of the existing First Nations peoples who were already here. In order to find our own freedom, we (those of European descent) took theirs.

So, over the course of the past several hundred years, this word has meant BOTH "the right to rule over others" as well as "the right to accept or reject the rule of others, according to the comportment of both the governor and the governed, held in trust by social contracts."  Today, I hear the word sovereignty used with yet a third meaning, something akin to "the power to be myself, as I wish." A sense of personal sovereignty includes the right to define, comport, and rule one's self. It is similar to saying, as Victor Hugo wrote in Les Miserables, "The liberty of one citizen ends where the liberty of another citizen begins." 

 What is missing from this contemporary definition of personal sovereignty, however, is the necessary and robust topic of responsibility. Sure, we all have authority over ourselves and our own identities and comportment...but what about responsibility for ourselves? Who is showing up for that conversation? According to all definitions of sovereignty, authority comes with responsibility. So, when we claim sovereignty, and effectively set ourselves apart from the collective as an independent state of one, we also are claiming ultimate responsibility for ourselves. If we took that to its most literal meaning, it would imply that we build our own personal roads, schools, hospitals, water delivery and garbage services, and the like. It would imply that we grow our own food, raise our own livestock, and save our own seeds from year to year. It would imply a lot of things which are actually not strictly true for most people.

Naturally, we are not each living in a hermetically sealed little vacuum. Our needs and actions spill over onto one another. We are not, most of us, living completely independently of one another, nor free from need for things that happen in the collective. In fact, most of us are much, much more collectivist than sovereign, when we really think about it, using shared water, phone, power, food, transportation, mail, medical, and other crucial services in a big cauldron of community.

Thus, when we loudly and proudly proclaim our personal sovereignty, under these conditions, what are we really saying? Are we really completely independent and responsible for ourselves, entirely? Or is that untrue? Is it just that we wish to distinguish ourselves from others? And what motivates that desire for singularity? What if what we think of as personal sovereignty today is merely self-centeredness born of an illusory separation from the collective, when in fact, for most practical purposes, we are actually one body of humanity, sharing the major resource of this planet?

I used to feel powerful when I declared my personal sovereignty. I used to think it meant something about being free to be myself. I used to describe myself as sovereign in the sense of "free from the interference of others in my personal comportment." But that was really just about my ego and a sort of immature lens through which I was viewing the collective and its main shared resource, the Earth. Because I thought of myself as limitless, I convinced myself that everyone and everything were, also.

Recently, as I think on what is best for me, I realize that what is best for me and what is best for the collective are actually one and the same. Therefore, my need to distinguish myself as separate has lessened, and my desire to be of service to those things that sustain the collective has grown. I have experienced less "me" and more "we" as I have gotten older. I still wish to be the author of my own life, and to be free from interference in my expression of my singular self, but I also wish for that singular self to be as beneficial to the collective as possible.

How about you? Where in your life are you working on issues related to sovereignty, singularity, and collectivity?