20 Bishop Jacques-Benigne Bossuet

Week 7

Bishop Jacques-Benigne Bossuet – The Divine Right of Kings, 1709

When Bossuet was chosen to be the tutor of the Dauphin, oldest child of Louis XIV, he wrote several works for the edification of his pupil, one of which was Politics Derived from the Words of Holy Scripture, a discourse on the principles of royal absolutism. The work was published posthumously in 1709. The work consists of several books which are divided into articles and propositions which lay out the nature, characteristics, duties, and resources of royalty. To justify his propositions, Bossuet quotes liberally from the Bible and various psalms.

IT IS GOD who establishes kings. He caused Saul and David to be anointed by Samuel; He vested royalty in the House of David, and ordered him to cause Solomon, his son, to reign in his place. . . Princes thus act as ministers of God and His lieutenants on earth. It is through them that He rules…. This is why we have seen that the royal throne is not the throne of a man, but the throne of God himself. “Jehovah hath chosen Solomon my son to sit upon the throne of the kingdom of Jehovah over Israel.” (I Chronicles 28: 5) And again: “Then Solomon sat on the throne of Jehovah.” (Ibid., 29:33) . . .

It appears from this that the person of kings is sacred, and to move against them is sacrilege.God causes them to be anointed by the prophets with a sacred unction, as He caused the pontiffs and His altars to be anointed. But even without the external application of this unction, they are sacred in their office, as being the representatives of the divine majesty, sent by His providence for the execution of His designs…. There is something religious in the respect which one renders the prince. Service of God and respect for kings are things united.St. Peter groups these two duties together: “Fear God. Honor the king.” (I Peter 2:17)

Thus God has placed in princes something divine. “I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High.” (Psalm LXXXII:6) It is God himself who causes David to speak thus…. It is the spirit of Christianity to cause kings to be revered with a type of religion, which Tertullian aptly calls “the religion of the second majesty.” This second majesty is but a token of the first, the divine, which, for the good of things human, has caused a certain part of its luster to be imparted to kings. Since their power comes from on high, kings should not believe that they are its masters and may use it as they wish; they should exercise it with fear and restraint as a thing which has come to them from God, and for which God will demand an account…. Kings should tremble when using the power that God gives them, and remember how horrible is the sacrilege of using for evil a power that comes from God.

We have seen kings seated on the throne of the Lord, having in hand the sword which God himself placed in their hands. What profanation and audacity of unjust kings to sit in the throne of God in order to publish decrees against His laws and to use the sword which He has placed in their hands to do violence and to massacre His children. Therefore let them respect their power, since it is not theirs but the power of God, and must be used holily and religiously…. That is, they should govern as God governs, in a manner at once noble, disinterested, benevolent, in a word, divine…

God, who created all men from the same earth and equally placed His image and likeness in their souls, did not establish distinctions among them so that some might be proud and others slaves and wretches. He made some great only for the protection of the small; He gave His power to kings only to ensure the public welfare and to be the support of the people…. Thus princes should understand that their true glory is not for themselves, and that the public good which they procure is a sufficiently worthy recompense on earth, while awaiting the eternal rewards which God has reserved for them…. Princes are gods and participate somehow in divine independence…. There is only God who may judge over their judgments and their persons…. The prince may correct himself when he knows that he has done evil, but against his authority there is no remedy other than his own authority….

Thus kings like all others are subject to the equity of the laws because they should be just and because they owe to the people the example of preserving justice, but they are not subject to the penalties of the laws. Or, as in theology, they are subject to the laws not as regards their coactive power but only their directive power…. What is there that a wise prince cannot effect? Under him wars are successful, peace is established, justice reigns, the laws govern, religion flourishes, commerce and navigation enrich the land, and the earth itself seems to bring forth fruit more willingly. Such are the effects of wisdom…

I do not call majesty the pomp which surrounds kings, nor the exterior luster which dazzles the vulgar. This is but the reflection of majesty, not majesty itself. Majesty is the image of the greatness of God in the prince. God is infinite; God is all. The prince as prince is not regarded as an individual; he is a public personage. All the state is in him; the will of the entire people is contained in his. As all perfection and virtue are united in God, all the power of individuals is united in the person of the prince. What greatness that a single man contains so much!

The power of God makes itself felt in an instant from one end of the world to the other; royal power acts similarly through all the realm. It keeps the whole realm in order, as God keeps the world. Let God withdraw His hand, and the world will fall into nothing; let authority cease in the realm, and all will be in confusion.

Consider the king in his council- chamber. From there are sent the orders which unite the efforts of magistrates and captains, citizens and soldiers, provinces and armies on land and sea. It is the image of God, who, seated on His throne in the highest heavens, causes nature to function…. We see a small part, but the essence is impenetrable. Thus it is with the secrets of the prince. The designs of the prince become known only through their execution.Similarly are manifest the counsels of God: to them no man may penetrate except those whom God admits. As the power of God extends everywhere, magnificence accompanies it.There is no part of the universe in which the unmistakable evidences of His goodness do not appear. Behold the order, the justice and the tranquility in all the realm: it is the natural effect of the authority of the prince…

In a word, gather together the great and glorious things which we have said concerning the royal authority. Behold an immense people united in a single person; behold this sacred, paternal and absolute power; behold the secret intelligence which governs all bodies in the state, contained within a single head: you behold the image of God in kings, and you understand the idea of royal majesty…. Something indescribably divine is attached to the prince and inspires fear in the people. However, let not this cause the king to forget his own nature…. You are gods, that is, you have in your authority and you carry on your forehead a divine quality. You are the children of the Most High; it is He who established your power for the good of humanity. But, O gods of flesh and blood, O gods of mud and dust, you will die like men; you will fall like all the great. Greatness divides men but briefly; a common fate finally renders them all equal.

Therefore O kings! Exercise your power boldly, for it is divine and beneficial to humanity, but exercise it with humility. It is given to you from without. Ultimately it leaves you frail; it leaves you mortal; it leaves you sinners and demands from you a greater final reckoning before God…. There is among men a type of government that is called arbitrary, but it is not found among us, nor in properly constituted states. Four characteristics are associated with this type of government. First, its subjects are born slaves, that is, in true bondage, and among them there are no free persons. Second, nothing is possessed as property since all belongs to the prince, and there is no right of inheritance, even from father to son. Third, the prince has the right to dispose freely not only of his subjects’ goods but even of their lives, as would be done with slaves. Finally, there is no law other than his will.

This is what is called arbitrary power. I do not wish to inquire whether it is lawful or unlawful.There are peoples and great empires that are satisfied with it, and it is not for us to disturb them concerning their form of government. It is sufficient for us to say that this type of government is barbarous and odious. These four characteristics are very far removed from our customs, and for this reason arbitrary government does not exist among us.

There is a great difference between a government that is absolute and one that is arbitrary. It is absolute by reason of constraint, there being no power capable of coercing the sovereign who in this sense is independent of all human authority. But it does not follow from this that the government is arbitrary. Because, although anything is permitted to the judgment of God and to a government called arbitrary, it is certain that states have laws against which anything that is done is of no right. And there is always available a means of redress on other occasions and in other times, so that each remains legitimate possessor of his property, no one being able to believe that he may ever possess anything in security contrary to the laws, whose vigilance and action against injustices and violence is immortal… And it is in this that a government called legitimate is opposed by its nature to arbitrary government…

Government is established in order to free all men from every oppression and violence, as has often been stated. And it is this that creates the state of perfect liberty, there being in essence nothing less free than anarchy, which destroys all legitimate rights among men, and knows no law but that of force.


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