Absolutism

 

Introduction to Bossuet's Work on Kingship

 The famous and popular French Bishop Bossuet (d. 1704) promoted Divine Right Monarchy in his book entitled: Politics Drawn from the Very Words of Holy Scripture. Bossuet noted correctly that monarchy was the government most people lived under throughout history and across the world. He argued that, from every point of view including the religious, absolutism was the best government for all concerned.

Some Questions

     What exactly is Bossuet’s theory of kingship? What is it based on? How does that affect the individual person who is not king -- in terms of relations with other people, and in relation to the state? What is a good absolutism for Bossuet?

    Given Bossuet’s theories of state and of leadership, how would you expect individualism (an Enlightenment Ideal) to fare? Why? Given Enlightenment Ideals, how can an absolutism become what Enlightenment figures themselves called 'Enlightened Despotism'? Is this a contradiction in terms and thought?

 

 

 

The Text:

We have already seen that all power is of God. The ruler, adds St. Paul, "is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil." Rulers then act as the ministers of God and as his lieutenants on earth. It is through them that God exercises his empire.

 

Moreover, that no one may assume that the Israelites were peculiar in having kings over them who were established by God, note what is said in Ecclesiasticus: "God has given to every people its ruler, and Israel is manifestly reserved to him." He therefore governs all peoples and gives them their kings, although he governed Israel in a more intimate and obvious manner.

 

It appears from all this that the person of the king is sacred, and that to attack him in any way is sacrilege. God has the kings anointed by his prophets with the holy unction in like manner as he has bishops and altars anointed. But even without the external application in thus being anointed, they are by their very office the representatives of the divine majesty deputed by Providence for the execution of his purposes. Accordingly God calls Cyrus his anointed. "Thus saith the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden, to subdue nations before him." Kings should be guarded as holy things, and whosoever neglects to protect them is worthy of death....

 

There is something religious in the respect accorded to a prince. The service of God and the respect for kings are bound together. St. Peter unites these two duties when he says, "Fear God. Honour the king."...

But kings, although their power comes from on high, as has been said, should not regard themselves as masters of that power to use it at their pleasure... they must employ it with fear and self-restraint, as a thing coming from God and of which God will demand an account.  

 

The royal power is absolute. With the aim of making this truth hateful and insufferable, many writers have tried to confound absolute government with arbitrary government. But no two things could be more unlike, as we shall show when we come to speak of justice. The prince need render account of his acts to no one. Without this absolute authority the king could neither do good nor repress evil. It is necessary that his power be such that no one can hope to escape him, and, finally, the only protection of individuals against the public authority should be their innocence.

 

I do not call majesty that pomp which surrounds kings or that exterior magnificence which dazzles the vulgar. That is but the reflection of majesty and not majesty itself. Majesty is the image of the grandeur of God in the prince.

 

God is infinite, God is all. The prince, as prince, is not regarded as a private person: he is a public personage, all the state is in him; the will of all the people is included in his. As all perfection and all strength are united in God, so all the power of individuals is united in the person of the prince. What grandeur that a single man should embody so much!

 

The power of God makes itself felt in a moment from one extremity of the earth to another. Royal power works at the same time throughout all the realm. It holds all the realm in position, as God holds the earth. Should God withdraw his hand, the earth would fall to pieces; should the king's authority cease in the realm, all would be in confusion.

 

Finally, let us put together the things so great and so august which we have said about royal authority. Behold an immense people united in a single person; behold this holy power, paternal and absolute; behold the secret cause which governs the whole body of the state, contained in a single head: you see the image of God in the king, and you have the idea of royal majesty.

 

O kings, exercise your power then boldly, for it is divine and salutary for human kind, but exercise it with humility. You are endowed with it from without.

 

 

Bossuet, Politique tiree des propres paroles de l' Ecriture sainte in J.H. Robinson, Readings in European History 2 vols. (Boston: Ginn, 1906), 2:1273-277. Scanned by Brian Cheek, Hanover College. November 12, 1995.