The European Enlightenment: Glossary

Divine Right of Kings


Ancient GreeceHellenistic Philosophy: Stoicism

European EnlightenmentMilton
   There were, essentially, two responses to the political chaos of the seventeenth century, as many of the aspects of the Reformation began to be translated into political terms (see the discussion on John Milton). On the one hand, a group of thinkers led initially by Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), believed that natural laws governed states and their relations. Drawing on the thought of Greek and Roman Stoicism, where the idea of "natural law" originates, Grotius and others believed that there were constant and immutable rational laws which should be applied to all governments. In many ways, this concept is very similar to the Roman concept of the Law of Nations, which is also derived from Stoic principles. On the other hand, Jacques-Benigne Bossuet (1627-1704) reinforced medieval notions of kingship in his theory of the Divine Right of Kings, a theory which argued that certain kings ruled because they were chosen by God to do so and that these kings were accountable to no person except God.


General Glossary
Legitimation of Authority
   The origin of this concept extends as far back into European, Middle Eastern, and Northern African history as the practice of monarchy does; as a legitimation of authority, the idea that monarchs are divinely chosen—often carried much further than the assertion that the monarch is divine which leaves little room for argument. The problem for Europe, however, is the fundamentally anti-political nature of early Christianity, this anti-political aspect of foundational Christianity threw the institution of emperorship and kingship into question. If Christ rejects all political actions and institutions, how can one justify having a monarch? Saint Augustine in The City of God set out the theoretical framework for the institution of Christian monarchy in his concept of the Two Cities, the City of God, that is, the body of believers, and the City of Man, that is, the secular world. Although these two cities are in spiritual conflict, the City of Man was instituted by God, according to Augustine, in order to secure the safety and security of the members of the City of God. Therefore, monarchs are placed on their thrones by God for a specific purpose. Although they may be ungodly, to question their authority is in essence to question God's purpose for both the City of Man and the City of God. This, or some form of this, made up the foundation of medieval and Renaissance theories of monarchy.


Enlightenment Glossary
Absolutism
   Bossuet, however, was reacting to an extreme situation and carried this argument to its farthest extent in his doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings. Not only did God bestow power on certain monarchs (and he argued that his king, Louis XIV of France, was one such monarch), but the bestowal of this power legitimated autocracy (rule by one person). The king ruled by virtue of God's authority; therefore he should be obeyed in all things. No group, whether they be nobles, or a parliament, or the people in the street, have a right to participate in this rule; to question or oppose the monarch was to rebel against God's purpose. This doctrine of absolutism would follow a tortured course through the eighteenth century culminating in the French Revolution of 1789-1792 and the beheading of Louis XVI, the king of France.

Richard Hooker



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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 10-8-97