Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The King is dead...

Any student of politics has at one point encountered some who scoffed at the medieval concept of the divine right of kings. Actually, you're more than likely to encounter it every other week, particularly if you are interested in political philosophy and theory. I suppose the reasoning is this: The divine right was a system level, institutional, concept that legitimized the rule of the strong over the weak. So it then follows that when the upstart American colonists, and later the upstart French anti-clerical terrorists, did the world a great favour by smashing the hegemony of monarchical rule.

Now all of this is fair - I wouldn't trade my liberal democracy for a medieval monarchy. But then again, there's more to the divine right of kings than just having the final authority over a realm and its subjects. Kings were also expected to live by a certain code of Christian ethics. If a ruler fell afoul of the Catholic Church, ie. Christ-on-Earth, his opponents and his subjects were able to legitimize rebellion against him. So, for example, if a ruler is heavily taxing subjects, or even terrorizing them, it would be possible for this ruler to be justly deposed.

This legitimization of dissent came to a close during the late Renaissance. Niccolo Machiavelli pointed out that a ruler is responsible to himself, and must work to maximize his gains. There was to be no obstacle to his rule. Suddenly, religion became the instrument of the state. This new reality was compounded during the Reformation, when opposition to a prince instantly associated any dissenting voice with the enemies of the state religion. This fomented a new type of dehumanization - of the ruler, and of the subject.

Once the ability of a dissenter to reference a higher moral authority, the Catholic Church, it was open season. For the new Protestant kings and princes, there was no fear of rebuke from Rome. Likewise, for the Catholic rulers, there was considerable leeway. Civil war atrocities could be rationalized, and ecclesial opposition was muted, if not already in outright support. For the first time since the Roman Empire, religion sought legitimacy from the state, rather than vice versa.
So now in our time, we are faced with a state that now believes itself to the sole purveyor of legitimacy. For the state, nothing is sacred but the state. It almost makes you wish for a king again.

2 comments:

SUZANNE said...

I think you have a little bit of a misunderstanding of the notion of the "Divine Right of Kings".

It wasn't a Medieval notion. You correctly point out that in the medieval conception of kingship, you could justly depose a monarch for grossly oppressive policies. There was a right to dissent, especially when the monarch contradicted basic moral and religious virtues.

However, the notion of the Divine Right of Kings *did away with this*. The idea of the Divine Right of Kings was that the monarch is subject to NO ONE except God directly. The Catholic Church has always opposed this conception of monarchy. The Divine Right of Kings was a concept that accompanied the rise of the state in the Early Modern era. As the crown and the State grew stronger, monarchs asserted the right to be judged by no one. You can see this in the rise of Erastianism (i.e. state-run churches). The idea that King Henry VIII could do whatever he wanted, including separate from Rome and direct the church is an offshoot of the Divine Right of Kings philosophy. Gallicanism was also.

Modern Liberal Democracies no longer believe that their right to rule comes from God, as the monarchs of old once thought. Instead of being answerable to God, they are, in theory, answerable to the people. What is perverse though is that now the people are no longer considered the voice of God-- they are not allowed to bring the voice of God in the public sphere. ("Vox populi, Vox Dei"). In effect, these states are only answerable to people who agree with their militant atheistic stance.

Colm said...

Hi Suzanne,

You're right, and, I have to admit that post was written without much thought. It makes a lot more sense to have in grounded in the early Enlightenment practice of absolutism.

Thanks!