Tuesday, November 24, 2009

On Bossuet and Divine Right

Jason Kuznicki:

Many point to Christianity as the historical force that challenged the ancient world’s inegalitarianism. There is quite a bit of truth to this, but it’s possible to push the case too far. Many ideas that are crucial to the modern political synthesis are nowhere to be found until the seventeenth century at the earliest, and even during that era, the far more typical Christian politics was not John Locke’s, but that of the lesser-known Jacques-Benigne Bossuet, Bishop of Meaux and court preacher to Louis XIV. Bossuet’s Politics Drawn from Holy Scripture made the case that the most natural Christian polity — indeed, the only properly Christian polity — was an absolute monarchy, because the king was an image of God on earth. Christianity certainly taught that there was an inherent dignity to all people, regardless of social station, but it was quite reluctant to challenge the idea of social station itself.

Bossuet is an extraordinarily bad example to hold up as the typical view, because Bossuet's view was anything but typical: he was a Gallicanist, and precisely one of the things that made Gallicanism controversial even among Catholics was that it was widely held to involve an excessive estimate of the sacral importance of the temporal authority (and in particular, French authority). You have to understand that there was no divine right of kings in the Middle Ages; it was held that authority generally had its wellspring in God, but kings in (for instance) the early Middle Ages were not in a position to assert themselves possessors of any sort of divine right: the favor of Heaven was not certain and the Church was for obvious reasons suspicious of any attempt by kings to regard themselves as having any special consideration from heaven simply because they were kings. To begin to get something that can reasonably be called divine right you have to have a strong sovereign with centralized authority capable of asserting such a right and getting away with it; this requires ideas that originally begin to develop in the medieval disputes between the Emperor and the Pope, and in the rise of Philip the Fair (whose reign has the dubious distinction of being perhaps the single worst thing ever to happen to the Catholic Church). In the early modern period these ideas coalesce around the monarchs who have by that point developed strongly centralized nation-states, of which France is the most obvious. And the French were able to get away with this sort of assertion only because France had by that time developed a considerable degree of independence within the Church (once again, going back to Philip the Fair). Thus we get to the rise of Gallicanism, and the view that God had established Louis XIV with a right to rule that not even the Pope could contradict. Obviously this was not going to be universally accepted even among Catholics, and thus the seventeenth century has no views of Christian politics that can be called typical: Protestants and Catholics do not share views on the subject, Protestants tend to support their local governments as legitimate regardless of the kind, and the Catholics are by this time regularly split between parties like the Gallicans (monarchists or nationalists, we might call them) and the Ultra-montanists (papalists, we might call them). Bossuet, far from presenting a typical view of Christian politics in the seventeenth century, cannot even be said to represent the majority of Catholics at that time.

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