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).