State (polity)

The frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan

The term state refers to a form of polity that is typically characterised as a centralized organisation. There is no single, undisputed definition of what constitutes a state.[1][2] A widely-used definition is a state being a polity that, within a given territory, maintains a monopoly on the use of force, but many other widely used definitions exist.[3][4]

Some states are sovereign, while other states are subject to external sovereignty or hegemony, where supreme authority lies in another state.[5] The term "state" also applies to federated states that are members of a federation, in which sovereignty is shared between member states and a federal body.

Speakers of American English often use the terms "state" and "government" as synonyms, with both words referring to an organized political group that exercises authority over a particular territory. In British and Commonwealth English, "state" is the only term that has that meaning, while "the government" instead refers to the ministers and officials who set the political policy for the territory, something that speakers of American English refer to as "the administration".

Many human societies have been governed by states for millennia; however, for most of prehistory people lived in stateless societies. The first states arose about 5,500 years ago in conjunction with rapid growth of cities, invention of writing and codification of new forms of religion. Over time, a variety of different forms developed, employing a variety of justifications for their existence (such as divine right, the theory of the social contract, etc.). Today, the modern nation state is the predominant form of state to which people are subject.

Etymology

The word state and its cognates in some other European languages (stato in Italian, estado in Spanish and Portuguese, état in French, Staat in German) ultimately derive from the Latin word status, meaning "condition, circumstances".

The English noun state in the generic sense "condition, circumstances" predates the political sense. It is introduced to Middle English c. 1200 both from Old French and directly from Latin.

With the revival of the Roman law in 14th-century Europe, the term came to refer to the legal standing of persons (such as the various "estates of the realm" – noble, common, and clerical), and in particular the special status of the king. The highest estates, generally those with the most wealth and social rank, were those that held power. The word also had associations with Roman ideas (dating back to Cicero) about the "status rei publicae", the "condition of public matters". In time, the word lost its reference to particular social groups and became associated with the legal order of the entire society and the apparatus of its enforcement.[6]

The early 16th-century works of Machiavelli (especially The Prince) played a central role in popularizing the use of the word "state" in something similar to its modern sense.[7] The contrasting of church and state still dates to the 16th century. The North American colonies were called "states" as early as the 1630s. The expression L'Etat, c'est moi ("I am the State") attributed to Louis XIV of France is probably apocryphal, recorded in the late 18th century.[8]