Philosophy of Democratic Government / by Yves R. Simon

Divine Right

Let us now turn to the subject so confusedly described as the "theory of divine right." The expression "divine right" is just as confusing as the expression 'sovereignty of the people"; neither should be used except when the context removes all ambiguity.

The so-called "theory of divine right," as it has been known to the Western world ever since the seventeenth century, is related to the history of Christianity in such fashion that it does not seem possible to give an exposition of it except in terms of Christian history. According to Christian faith, God became man, and before he left this world he founded a society designed to maintain his life in men. The first leaders of this society were designated by him. Among them he distinguished one, Peter. Concerning the supremacy of the latter, disagreement came to a showdown early in the sixteenth century; from then on, part of the Christian world ignored the notion of one supreme leader appointed by Christ. Simultaneously, the other part of the Christian world became more and more articulate and firm in its acknowledgment of the supremacy of Peter and his successors. According to the upholders of Peter's supremacy, the head of the church enjoys a power which comes from God directly. The first person to hold this power was, moreover, designated by Christ himself. Here (i.e., in the case of Peter) we can speak of power by divine right with perfect propriety; for this power is in no way from man, it is from God alone, and even its conjunction with the particular person who holds it is effected by God. In the case of Peter's successors, the person is designated by man, the conjunction between power and person is effected by man, but power continues to be from God directly and exclusively. The successor of Peter, as well as Peter himself, is vicar of Christ and in no way whatsoever vicar of the church. Men have nothing to do with his power, except so far as the designation of the person is concerned. In spite of this designation by man, the expression "power by divine right" is perfectly appropriate.

We are considering here a spiritual society, a society which describes itself as not concerned properly and directly with temporal affairs, a society whose main ends are found in another world and in a future life, a society whose proper life and main ends are held to be supernatural. The Gospel states the principle of a distinction between this spiritual or supernatural society and the state or temporal society: There are, according to the Gospel, things that are Caesar's and things that are not Caesar's. But, between these two orders of things, the relation is such that the distinction, though intelligible and clear, cannot always work plainly. In centuries of universal faith as well as in times of widespread disbelief, clashes are frequent between the two powers. One effect of these uncertainties and adventures is that some ascribe to one power peculiarities, features, characteristics, and prerogatives proper to the other power. Not infrequently, people dreamed of a church organized and governed according to the pattern set by the temporal society. And not infrequently, people dreamed of a temporal power enjoying dignities similar to those of the church. We find in the Middle Ages theories implying that the pope is the vicar of the church as well as the vicar of Christ. History also records theories according to which the king is not the vicar of the people but only the vicar of God.{4}

Some extremists went so far as to maintain not only that the power of the king is directly from God but also that the designation of the king is effected divinely. The most paradoxical among these eccentrics was Filmer, who said that kings and governors inherited from the patriarchs an authority received from Noah, from Adam, and ultimately from God.{5} Such a reading of history probably did not convince many people. On the other hand, the notion that great leaders, great makers of history, are singled out by God and taken into governing positions through methods distinct from the ordinary course of providential government is not uncommon. Strikingly, momentous instances of such a belief can be found in times and places where religious faith is not particularly warm or orthodox. We have only to think of Napoleon and Hitler. Of little importance in the history of political philosophies, the theory of divine designation sometimes played a decisive part in political history. Its power is great when it assumes the form of a myth capable of supplying a people, in the midst of exalting emotions, with a practical explanation of its manifest destiny.

The theory implying both (1) that the power of the temporal ruler is directly from God and (2) that God himself designates the person of the temporal ruler deserves to be called the "divine-right theory" in the most proper sense. Next to it comes the theory which, though acknowledging that the designation of the king, as well as that of the pope (with the exception of the first pope), is effected by men, maintains that the power of the king, as well as that of the pope, comes directly from God. This theory could also be described with propriety as a theory of divine right, but the usual expression, "designation theory," is specific and satisfactory. The designation theory is a more moderate, less paradoxical form of the divine-right theory; it holds that in temporal power the only thing traceable, in any sense, to human power is the designation of the ruling person.

{4} See The Political Writings of James I, with an Introduction by C. H. McIlwain (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1918).

{5} Robert Filmer, Patriarcha, published only in 1680.

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