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The Divine Right of Kings and Majorities
If it were true that society were not naturally organized, if it were true that the laws which govern its motion were to be constantly modified or remade, the legislators would necessarily have to have an immutable, sacred authority. Being the continuators of Providence on earth, they would have to be regarded as almost equal to God. If it were otherwise, would it not be impossible for them to fulfill their mission? Indeed, one cannot intervene in human affairs, one cannot attempt to direct and regulate them, without daily offending a multitude of interests. Unless those in power are believed to have a mandate from a superior entity, the injured interests will resist.
Whence the fiction of divine right.
This fiction was certainly the best imaginable. If you succeed in persuading the multitude that God himself has chosen certain men or certain races to give laws to society and to govern it, no one will dream of revolting against these appointees of Providence, and everything the government does will be accepted. A government based on divine right is imperishable.
On one condition only, namely that divine right is believed in.
If one takes the thought into one’s head that the leaders of the people do not receive their inspirations directly from providence itself, that they obey purely human impulses, the prestige that surrounds them will disappear. One will irreverently resist their sovereign decisions, as one resists anything manmade whose utility has not been clearly demonstrated.
It is accordingly fascinating to see the pains theoreticians of the divine right take to establish the superhumanity of the races in possession of human government.
Let us listen, for example, to Joseph de Maistre:
Man does not make sovereigns. At the very most he can serve as an instrument for dispossessing one sovereign and handing his State over to another sovereign, himself already a prince. Moreover, there has never existed a sovereign family traceable to plebeian origins. If this phenomenon were to appear, it would mark a new epoch on earth.
... It is written: I am the Maker of sovereigns. This is not just a religious slogan, a preacher’s metaphor; it is the literal truth pure and simple. It is a law of the political world. God makes kings, word for word. He prepares royal races, nurtures them at the center of a cloud which hides their origins. Finally they appear, crowned with glory and honor; they take their places.4
According to this system, which embodies the will of Providence in certain men and which invests these chosen ones, these anointed ones with a quasi-divine authority, the subjects evidently have no rights at all. They must submit, without question, to the decrees of the sovereign authority, as if they were the decrees of Providence itself.
According to Plutarch, the body is the instrument of the soul, and the soul is the instrument of God. According to the divine right school, God selects certain souls and uses them as instruments for governing the world.
If men had faith in this theory, surely nothing could unsettle a government based on divine right.
Unfortunately, they have completely lost faith.
Because one fine day they took it into their heads to question and to reason, and in questioning, in reasoning, they discovered that their governors governed them no better than they, simply mortals out of communication with Providence, could have done themselves.
It was free inquiry that demonetized the fiction of divine right, to the point where the subjects of monarchs or of aristocracies based on divine right obey them only insofar as they think it in their own self-interest to obey them.
Has the communist fiction fared any better?
According to the communist theory, of which Rousseau is the high-priest, authority does not descend from on high, but rather comes up from below. The government no longer looks to Providence for its authority, it looks to united mankind, to the one, indivisible, and sovereign nation.
Here is what the communists, the partisans of popular sovereignty, assume. They assume that human reason has the power to discover the best laws and the organization which most perfectly suits society; and that, in practice, these laws reveal themselves at the conclusion of a free debate between conflicting opinions. If there is no unanimity, if there is still dissension after the debate, the majority is in the right, since it comprises the larger number of reasonable individuals. (These individuals are, of course, assumed to be equal, otherwise the whole structure collapses.) Consequently, they insist that the decisions of the majority must become law, and that the minority is obliged to submit to it, even if it is contrary to its most deeply rooted convictions and injures its most precious interests.
That is the theory; but, in practice, does the authority of the decision of the majority really have this irresistible, absolute character as assumed? Is it always, in every instance, respected by the minority? Could it be?
Let us take an example.
Let us suppose that socialism succeeds in propagating itself among the working classes in the countryside as it has already among the working classes in the cities; that it consequently becomes the majority in the country and that, profiting from this situation, it sends a socialist majority to the Legislative Assembly and names a socialist president. Suppose that this majority and this president, invested with sovereign authority, decrees the imposition of a tax on the rich of three billion, in order to organize the labor of the poor, as Proudhon demanded. Is it probable that the minority would submit peacefully to his iniquitous and absurd, yet legal, yet constitutional plunder?
No, without a doubt it would not hesitate to disown the authority of the majority and to defend its property.
Under this regime, as under the preceding, one obeys the custodians of authority only insofar as one thinks it in one’s self-interest to obey them.
This leads us to affirm that the moral foundation of authority is neither as solid nor as wide, under a regime of monopoly or of communism, as it could be under a regime of liberty.
- 4. Du principe générateur des constitutions politiques (On the Generating Principle of Political Constitutions) Preface.