Democracy and Absolutism: Twin Faces of Early Modern Politics

Detail of the frontispiece for Hobbes' "Leviathan"
Detail of the frontispiece for Hobbes’ Leviathan

In college I acquired a rather magnificent reader of English writings during the tumultuous time of the late-16th to early-18th centuries. During this period, England saw the ascendence of its own variety of Continental absolutism; the “divine right of kings” championed by England’s great absolutist James I and his less-successful son Charles I. It also saw the rebellion of the Puritan parliamentarians and the subsequent overtaking of their revolution by the Dissenters and the dictator Oliver Cromwell; and, finally, the restoration of the constitutional monarchy under Charles II. The reader, Divine Right and Democracy, is a collection of political pamphlets and treatises all tending, to one degree or another, to support one of two positions: either that the absolute Monarch is established by God and must have the final word in all matters; or that Divinely-sanctioned government must find its legitimacy in some way through the approval of the people. These views are in many ways each other’s twins, as I will show; for this reason I restrained myself with difficulty from plagiarizing the anthology’s title.

The political history of the late middle ages is the history of the decay of the feudal system and an increasing imbalance of power within nations. Under the feudal system, political sovereignty depended upon land and the people who worked it; thus, greater lords depended on lesser nobles for their prestige; and kings of greater nations such as England or France depended upon a coalition of lords and representatives of the clergy to support the king’s claim to represent the country. This form of legitimation was not, in most cases, expressed through legislatures or votes, but through material support. Kings possessed by hereditary right and long custom the chief rule of a country, but their sovereignty was constrained by the assent of the lesser sovereigns of his domain. Nobles depended upon the king as rex (“King”) to settle disputes and maintain the internal peace; they also depended upon him as dux (“Duke”) to wage war in the case of rebellions or external threats.* Kings, in turn, relied upon the nobles to provide the goods and men necessary to carry out these responsibilities; and the nobles relied in turn upon their barons for military levies and material support. The medieval Church also provided spiritual and financial support.

*Bertrand de Jouvenel proposes this rex/dux duality in Sovereignty. Because he came to conquer Satan, sin, and death, Jesus Christ is given the title of Duke in the medieval carol: “Illuminare Jerusalem / The Duke appeareth in Bedlem.”

The great English crisis which produced the Magna Carta is a fine example of this balance correcting itself. King John, the unpopular heir to his Crusader brother Richard, fought a series of expensive campaigns to retain English holdings in France; eventually, after he had been excommunicated and all of England placed under interdict by the Pope for John’s involvement in ecclesiastical politics, and had failed in his latest campaign against France, rebellious barons seized London. John attempted to conciliate with Magna Carta, although the civil war continued, with French support of the rebels, until after his death. Magna Carta, though, is significant because it acknowledges the legitimacy of the interests with whom John was often at odds: the nobles and the church. Eventually, as a result of this conciliation, the ecclesiastical and aristocratic powers maintained their allegiance to John and his heirs, quashing the rebellion, although the French territories were never permanently recovered. John’s heirs—his son Henry III and grandson Edward I—inherited John’s legacy of conflict with the nobles and the Church, but did a better job of maintaining royal prestige while balancing conflicting interests.

England’s House of Lords continues to reflect these two medieval power centers. The Lords Temporal are the aristocracy; the Lords Spiritual are bishops and represent the other medieval power center, the church. The medieval church possessed large but scattered holdings of land, from which, like the nobles, it drew some of its support. Thus the will of the king was further curtailed by the economic prosperity of the church, and the church could back up its moral influence with religious and economic pressure. When used responsibly, this power was able to curtail international conflicts and corral belligerent monarchs, as in the case of King John.

Toward the end of the Middle Ages, the papacy had acquired a bad habit of waging expensive wars and making excessive financial demands on its bishops, and by extension their ecclesiastical holdings. This reduced the popularity of the Church with nobles and people alike. At the same time, natural and political events combined to diminish the power of the nobility. While England and France were fighting the Hundred Years’ War, their populations were being ravaged by the Black Death. This plague destroyed populations and undermined the economic base of the feudal system—a flourishing agricultural economy. Political unrest also increased with declining prosperity, and overtaxed peasants revolted against nobles and ecclesiastics who were struggling to hold their own against their peers. The excessive and eventually impossible financial demands of various warlike and corrupt Popes ended up undermining the Church’s spiritual influence by the end of the medieval period, when the Protestant Reformation began a shift toward nationalized churches in the northern European countries.

Monarchy filled the power vacuum left by the decline of the nobles and clergy. When the Lord Mayor of London killed Wat Tyler, leader of the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt, King Richard II announced to the rebel mob that “I will be your leader.” This appeal was insincere, but later monarchs presented themselves as champions of the people against the hereditary aristocracy and, in the case of England, the Church hierarchy. The last king of France, Louis XVI, unsuccessfully attempted to do this by granting additional representation to the Third Estate (the people), who deposed him anyway in favor of a Republic. The irony of this is that early modern republicanism began with arguments similar to those of absolute monarchists. They claimed the same kind of absolute authority received from God, but instead of anointing a Monarch, republicans such as John Locke claimed that God granted the authority of self-government to all individuals, and that republican government was in some way the expression of individual consent. This view of the Divine source of governing power sets early modern republicanism apart from the classical republicanism of the ancient Romans. Although classical republicanism influenced the politics of the Italian Renaissance, Italy had never experienced unity; it had remained since the fall of the Roman empire a loose collection of feuding princedoms, papal states, and autonomous cities. By contrast, nations like England and France had long traditions of stable feudalism, kingship, and nationhood. Republicanism and democracy in these countries arose to correct an increasing imbalance of authority in favor of monarchial powers, and England is the clearest example of this early-modern transition.

The difference between feudal kingship and early modern absolutism is striking. Under the medieval system, the king was clearly bound by powers both above and below him. In the absolutist political theory of Thomas Hobbes, the king or governing power might as well be God;  absolutism gave the king supreme and unmitigated authority in every area, including that of religion. This theory of the “Divine Right of Kings” was supported at the time by Protestants looking to break the yoke of Rome. Catholic monarchists also made similar claims after the French revolution, although they acknowledged the ultimate supremacy of the Pope. Nevertheless it is sometimes difficult to see where the monarchism of de Maistre and the absolutism of Hobbes diverge. The last stronghold of Divine Right was imperial Russia, in which the Tsars were anointed by the Russian Church. What sets these examples apart from feudal kingship is not the unction of church authority but the absolute nature of their claim to rule without reliance upon subsidiary authorities.

The idea behind “Divine Right” is at the root of modern political theory. It is that both the governing authority and the ability to enforce that authority are concentrated in one entity. In absolute monarchy, this entity is the king’s person, whose commands cannot be contradicted. In a totalitarian politics, this entity is the State above which there is no higher law. Totalitarian states are often ruled by leaders whose will might as well be the supreme law.

In democracy, this entity in which both authority and power are joined is the fictive expression of the general will. In practice, this general will is often ascertained through popular affirmative vote. In more complex constitutional republics, the general will, through a constitution, establishes governing institutions, which are assumed to act at the behest of the general will. Constitutional republics feature a “balance of powers,” peer institutions set up to check one another in the exercise of power. But the legitimacy of these institutions is understood to proceed from the fiction of the general will. Constitutional republicanism holds great advantages over absolutism or direct democracy. It is much more permanent, and if carefully constituted, much more likely to rule justly. In a sense it mimics the effect of feudal powers holding one another in check. The three branches of the American federal government—legislative, executive, and judicial—exist in a horizontal relationship to prevent one another from exercising unchecked and unaccountable power. But the likeness to feudal subsidiarity is not preserved in the vertical relationships between the Federal government and the states, or between state governments and local authorities, because it is easy for the greater authority to appeal directly to the people, increasing its power at the expense of the subsidiary authority.

The feudal system discovered authority everywhere: at the top with Christ; at the bottom with the peasant and his land; and in the middle with varying degrees of barons, nobles, and kings. Political powers were considered to reside inherently in each of these degrees. The source of this power was often vague and of long antiquity, even mythical origin. By contrast, early modern thought can only see authority traveling in one direction at a time. Either it travels downward from the absolute ruler or upward from the theoretically absolute people. There is no double movement, as there is in Christianity, in which Christ descends to us and at the same time draws us up to Him. Christianity created the basis for the feudal system because authorities recognized that if they had the right to govern, they had no less the responsibility to govern rightly. They were God’s stewards, not little gods. Absolutism makes one man god; democracy makes all men gods. Both systems are for this reason anti-Christ. The error of Hobbes, the absolutist, stems from a Deistic heresy; the idea of God as an outside, utterly transcendent and unknowable power without the balancing consideration of the incarnate God-Man, Jesus Christ, who can be known and whom Christians acknowledge as supreme head of the Church and King of the world. God cannot delegate absolute sovereignty to any monarch, because he has already given it to Christ; an absolute sovereign is antichrist. But Locke, the republican, also fails to recognize the Incarnation. People are God’s workmanship, but also his children by adoption into Christ. We are not merely belongings of God sent into the world for an inscrutable purpose. The purpose is quite clear; to reflect the image of God.

There are various ways to approach this. One way is to view everything as a gift; either given directly by God or through another person emulating God. Children are gifts directly from God; parenting is a gift to children from parents who are emulating God. Another way is to deny that any person has perfect freedom and self-possession in the Lockean sense; instead, every person has inherent responsibilities, and “rights” are just responsibilities looked at backwards. Locke speaks of these sometimes in the limited sense of “duties,” such as those of parents to children, but he cannot justify them other than to claim that they are direct commands from God; he is unable to integrate the idea of duty into his overall theory. Locke actually justifies parenting as a kind of self-interested calculation. We need our children to take care of us in our old age, so we will be kind to our children now so that they will feel dutiful to us later. Duty is a feeling of debt, so parents in a sense accrue the child’s duty toward them by investing their resources in the child. Christian duty, however, denies this aspect; everyone is free from debt but at the same time because of caritas is obliged to render what is just to everyone.

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THOMAS HOLGRAVE is a conservative but not necessarily a hipster. He is the publisher of The Hipster Conservative. He has never read a comic book he liked. He is an occasional theologian who has been known to become quite exercised over questions of Puritan doctrine and practice. Not much else is known about him.

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