J.P.SOMMERVILLE

 

James VI & I

Absolutism and the Divine Right of Kings

 

351-17(2)
Medieval political theorists had seen kings as deriving their authority from God, but as obliged to rule in accordance with law and in consultation with the nobility. Some political philosophers of the Middle Ages wanted to assert the prince's authority against the Pope; most accepted that a prince ruling tyrannically could be removed by his subjects. Marsilius of Padua (c. 1270-1342) went further than most in subjecting the king to the community.
 

The whole body of citizens or its majority alone is the human "legislator".

The "legislator" alone or the one who rules by its authority has the power to dispense with human laws.

The election of any prince or other official, especially one who has the coercive power is determined solely by the expressed will of the "legislator".

No prince, still more, no partial council or single person of any position, has full authority and control over other persons, laymen or clergy, without the authorization of the "legislator". 
Some of the conclusions from Marsilius of Padua, Defensor Pacis (1324).
 

During the sixteenth century, France was torn apart by the Religious Wars between Catholics and Protestants (Huguenots). Some French writers began to argue that only a strong central government could prevent anarchy, and that resistance to the monarch was never legitimate.
The most important French absolutist theorist was Jean Bodin (1530-1596), who e in 1576 published Six livres de la république (Six Books of the Commonwealth). Bodin insisted that sovereignty (i.e. the ultimate supreme power in any state) was absolute and indivisible. In any system of government the power to make, interpret, and enforce laws had to be held by one person or institution. The sovereign could be a single monarch, an aristocratic council or a democratic assembly.
Aristotle had argued that there could also be mixed forms of government with elements of all three, and that the best form of government was one where laws rather than people ruled. Bodin denied that such an arrangement was viable. Disputes were bound to arise between the various ruling bodies (kings, councils, chambers of parliament etc.), and unless one was ultimately supreme, resort to force would be the only way to resolve disagreement. The end result would be civil war.
 

On a Bodinian analysis, the American Constitution is inherently unworkable: President and Congress would disagree on which should be deciding and implementing policies, and the Supreme Court would continually undermine legislation by proclaiming to be unconstitutional every law it disliked.

 

Bodin also argued that the sovereign could not be limited by human laws - since whatever institution had the right to judge if the law were being infringed would itself be the real sovereign.
Jean Bodin's doctrine of sovereignty was adopted by virtually all the absolutist theorists of the seventeenth century.
Absolutism was the dominant mode of French political thought during the seventeenth century. The theories of limited and constitutional government advocated during the Fronde of the parlement were discredited by the disorder and factionalism of the rebellion.
 

Absolutism basics

1. There must be one - and only one - sovereign in every state (although it can be a body consisting of more than one person).
2. The sovereign holds all legitimate power and should never be actively resisted.
3. If the sovereign commands a contravention of God's law, disobey, but accept the punishment (= "passive obedience").

 


The divine right of kings

A particular version of absolutist theory is called the divine right of kings. Divine right theorists insisted that the ruler's authority was from God alone (not from the community). They quoted Scripture in their support.

 
Proverbs 8.15-16:
By me kings reign, and princes decree justice. By me princes rule, and nobles, even all the judges of the earth.
Romans 13.1-2:
Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.
 
 

Most divine right theorists thought that monarchy was the best form of government, but conceded that God also upheld other forms of government. (Old Testament Israel was ruled by kings at some times, by judges at others). Therefore, republics and even democracies could be legitimate, and like monarchs should never be resisted by the people.
A particular defense of the divine right of kings was offered by patriarchalists. Patriarchalism rested on the widely-held belief that husbands had authority over their wives and fathers over their children. This power was held both to be natural (since every society in the world accepted it) and divine (since God endorsed it in the Bible). Some theorists argued that sovereigns as naturally held power over their states as fathers did over their families.
[In the early 18th century, Mary Astell challenged the belief that husbands had a natural right to control their wives.]
Some patriarchal theorists also argued that in the earliest times, fathers had actually been kings. Adam - father of the human race - having lived to be over 900 years old had a very large number of descendants, and the divine right to command them all. Later sovereigns held the same fatherly or patriarchal power, and just like any father's, it was independent of his offsprings' consent. A monarch was no more accountable to his subjects than a father was to his children.
 

 

French absolutist theory


Louis XIV - crowned by Providence, defended by angels, trampling his enemies.
(Charles Lebrun, 1677)
 

Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627-1704) was France's most important exponent of absolutism during the seventeenth century. The foremost orator of his day, he was also tutor to Louis XIV's son, Louis the Dauphin, and an influential Bishop. His Politique tirée (1709) - Politics taken from the very words of Scripture (Politique tirée des propres paroles de l’écriture sainte) - was an attempt to found a system of political ideas purely on Scriptural sources. (Most contemporary thinkers thought that reason also had an important role to play, and in fact Bossuet himself also drew on arguments based on reason). In Bossuet's view, Louis XIV's France greatly resembled Solomon's Israel.

 

Cardin Le Bret (1558-1655) wrote propaganda for Cardinal Richelieu.

His most important work was De la souveraineté (1632).

A follower of Bodin, he argued that the sovereign was not accountable to the people.


Cardin Le Bret with his father

 

Cardin Le Bret did think that the king ought to act justly. However in emergencies (like the Thirty Years War), governments might act in ways that would normally be unacceptable. The expression he used was raison d'état (reason of state).
"Reason of state" was a phrase first popularized by Giovanni Botero (1544-1617) in his Della Ragion di Stato (On reason of state) (1589). Reason of state theory is sometimes seen as having condoned any action necessary to secure the state, but most theorists insisted that some basic rules of religion and morality should never be infringed.
The extremely anti-clerical Louis Machon in his Apologie pour Machiavel (1641) and the erudite libertine Gabriel Naudé in his Considérations politiques sur les coups d'état (1639) came closest to taking reason of state to its logical extreme, and allowing political necessity to justify any immoral act.
 

Absolutist theory in England

France was not the only haven of absolutist ideas. James VI of Scotland, (and I of England and Great Britain) was one of the most famous divine right theorists.
[Read King James on the Divine right of kings]

Sir Robert Filmer (1588-1653) was the most famous theorist of patriarchalism. His Patriarcha was not published until 1680, although written by 1631. It was published as Tory propaganda in the Exclusion Crisis, and John Locke later replied to it in his Two Treaties of Government.
[Read Sir Robert Filmer on patriarchal power].

 

The most important of English absolutists was the philosopher, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) who published two influential works of political thought De cive (1642, 1647) and Leviathan (1651).
 

Thomas Hobbes was a great admirer of Galileo, who had argued for replacing Aristotelian science with a mathematically-accurate and empirically grounded theory. Thomas Hobbes was also a student of geometry; he learnt it late in life and was profoundly impressed by the method of logically deducing propositions from established axioms.
Thomas Hobbes attempted to construct a theory of political thought grounded in the same way on accepted axioms. The most basic axiom of Hobbes' system was that everyone naturally aims at self-preservation. He argued that in "a state of nature" (i.e. where there was no government), life would be completely insecure. Without any protection against aggression, life would be miserable and dangerous.
 

"No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short"
(Hobbes, Leviathan, 1.18).
 

Under such conditions, people would be willing to surrender their own powers to an absolute government that would protect them from everyone else.
Hobbes argued that the sovereign's power was absolute - (s)he made the law, and no other law could limit sovereign power. The only right Hobbes left to subjects was the right to defend themselves against the sovereign's direct attack.

 

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