Absolutism: Jacques-Benigne Bossuet

Absolutism was a political theory that claimed the monarch had absolute control of his or her realm. It arose in opposition to emerging enlightenment ideals of shared sovereignty between monarchs and nobles or the more extreme idea of power residing in the subjects of a kingdom.

Bossuet (1627-1704) was a French Cardinal and writer who was also tutor to the oldest son of French King Louis XIV. This excerpt is taken from his book Politics Drawn from the Very Words of Holy Scripture, published in 1709 after his death.

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. Think ye “to withstand the kingdom of the Lord in the hand of the sons of David”? Consequently, as we have seen, the royal throne is not the throne of a man, but the throne of God himself. The Lord “hath chosen Solomon my son to sit upon the throne of the kingdom of the Lord over Israel.” And again, “Solomon sat on the throne of the Lord.”

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. “Hear, O kings, and take heed, understand, judges of the earth, lend your ears, ye who hold the peoples under your sway, and delight to see the multitude that surround you. It is God who gives you the power. Your strength comes from the Most High, who will question your works and penetrate the depths of your thoughts, for, being ministers of his kingdom, ye have not given righteous judgments nor have ye walked according to his will. He will straightway appear to you in a terrible manner, for to those who command is the heaviest punishment reserved. The humble and the weak shall receive mercy, but the mighty shall be mightily tormented. For God fears not the power of any one, because he made both great and small and he has care for both.”. . .

Kings should tremble then as they use the power God has granted them; and let them think how horrible is the sacrilege if they use for evil a power which comes from God. We behold kings seated upon the throne of the Lord, bearing in their hand the sword which God himself has given them. What profanation, what arrogance, for the unjust king to sit on God’s throne to render decrees contrary to his laws and to use the sword which God has put in his hand for deeds of violence and to slay his children! . . .

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. “I counsel thee to keep the king’s commandment, and that in regard of the oath of God. Be not hasty to go out of his sight: stand not on an evil thing for he doeth whatsoever pleaseth him. Where the word of a king is, there is power: and who may say unto him, What doest thou? Whoso keepeth the commandment shall feel no evil thing.” 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. This conforms with the teaching of St. Paul: “Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good.”

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.

Look at the prince in his cabinet. Thence go out the orders which cause the magistrates and the captains, the citizens and the soldiers, the provinces and the armies on land and on sea, to work in concert. He is the image of God, who, seated on his throne high in the heavens, makes all nature move. . . .

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. God is holiness itself, goodness itself, and power itself. In these things lies the majesty of God. In the image of these things lies the majesty of the prince.

So great is this majesty that it cannot reside in the prince as in its source; it is borrowed from God, who gives it to him for the good of the people, for whom it is good to be checked by a superior force. Something of divinity itself is attached to princes and inspires fear in the people. The king should not forget this. “I have said,” – it is God who speaks, – “I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the Most High. But ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes.” “I have said, Ye are gods”; that is to say, you have in your authority, and you bear on your forehead, a divine imprint. “You are the children of the Most High. But ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes.” “I have said, Ye are gods”; that is to say, you have in your authority, and you bear on your forehead, a divine imprint. “You are the children of the Most High”; it is he who has established your power for the good of mankind. But, O gods of flesh and blood, gods of clay and dust, “ye shall die like men, and fall like [Page 277] princes.” Grandeur separates men for a little time, but a common fall makes them all equal at the end.

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. At bottom it leaves you feeble, it leaves you mortal, it leaves you sinners, and charges you before God with a very heavy account.

Questions for consideration

  1. How does Bossuet describe the role of a King?
  2. How are subjects to treat the king?
  3. What limits, if any, are placed on the King? Is a King all-powerful? Why or why not?