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Bossuet, "The Nature and Properties of Royal Authority"

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Bossuet, "The Nature and Properties of Royal Authority"


Jacques–Benigne Bossuet (1627—1704), bishop of Meaux, was a well–known seventeenth–century peacher who believed that although France had a sizable minority of Protestants, France should have a single religion, Catholicism. At the same time, he was a Gallican, meaning he argued that the French clergy owed primary allegiance to the king rather than the Pope in Rome. His emphasis on religious unity and devotion to the French crown—rather than tolerance—appealed to Louis XIV, who appointed Bossuet tutor to heir, the "Dauphin" or crown prince. In this capacity, Bossuet wrote the following passage setting out the basic ideas of the French monarchy.


J.-B. Bossuet, Politique tiree des propres paroles de l'ecriture sainte (Paris: 1834) vol I, 133 - 149;180 - 188,




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ARTICLE 1. Its essential characteristics can be distinguished.

Proposition 1. Royal authority has four essential characteristics or qualities. First of all, royal authority is sacred; second, it is paternal; third, it is absolute; and fourth, it is subject to reason. These will be established, in order, in the following articles.

ARTICLE 2. Royal authority is sacred.

Proposition 1. God establishes kings as his ministers, and through them reigns over the People.

We have already seen that all power comes from God. (Romans 13:5) As Saint Paul adds, "The King is God's minister to do good. If you do evil, be afraid, for he does not wield the sword in vain. He is God's minister, the avenger of evil deeds." (Romans 13:4) . . . Princes therefore serve as God’s ministers and as His lieutenants on earth. It is through them that He exercises His rule. . . .

Proposition 2. The king’s person is sacred.

It is clear from the foregoing that kings' persons are sacred, and that any attack upon them is sacrilege.

God’s prophets anoint them with a holy unction, as He does with his pontiffs and altars. But even without the outward application of this ointment, kings are sacred due to their office as representatives of the Holy Majesty, and delegated by His providence to execute His commands. Thus God calls even Cyrus his anointed. "Thus spoke the Lord to Cyrus, my anointed, who I have taken by the right hand, so that he may subdue all nations before him." (Isaiah 45:1)

The title of "Christ" is given to kings, and, everywhere we see them called 'Christ,' or 'the Lord's anointed.' With this venerable title even the Prophets revere them and regard them as included in God’s sovereign realm, and whose authority they wield over the People. "Speak boldly of me before the Lord and before his Christ. Tell them whether I have taken any man's ox or ass, whether I have taken a bribe from any man, or whether I have oppressed any man. And they answered 'never.'. And Samuel said, 'the Lord and his Christ thus bear witness that you have no complaint to bring against me.'" (Samuel I, 12:3–5).

It is thus that Samuel, after having judged the People on behalf of the Lord and with absolute power for twenty-one years, accounts for his conduct before God and before Saul, both of whom he calls upon to bear witness and by whose testimony he establishes his innocence.

Kings must be guarded as one would sacred things, and he who neglects to guard them as such deserves death. . .

Proposition 3. The prince must be obeyed on the principles of religion and conscience.

Saint Paul, having said that the prince is God's minister, concludes thusly: "It is therefore necessary that you be subject to him, not only for fear of his wrath, but also for the sake of your conscience." (Romans 13: 5) . . . Even when kings fail to discharge their duty [of praising good deeds and punishing evil], they must be respected for their office and their ministry. "Obey your masters, not only those who are kind and gentle, but also those who are vexatious and unfair." (Peter I, 2:18).

There is therefore a religious element to the respect rendered a prince. Serving God and respecting kings are one and the same, and Saint Peter places these two duties together: "Fear God, and honor the king." (Peter I, 2: 17) . . .

It is therefore in the spirit of Christianity to respect kings with the sort of religion that Tertullian most aptly terms 'the religion of the second majesty.'

This second majesty is but an outgrowth of the first, that is, of the Divine Majesty, who, for the good of humanity, wished to reflect some of His radiance upon the kings.

Proposition 4. Kings must respect their power, and only use it for the public good.

Their power comes from on high, and as has been said, they must not think that they have been given this power to use it as they please. Rather, they must use it with fear and restraint, befitting something which comes from God, and for which God will demand an accounting. . . .

Kings must consequently tremble while using the power that the Lord gives them, reflecting upon how horrible a sacrilege it is to use a power which comes from God for evil purposes.

We have seen kings seated on the throne of God, holding the sword which He Himself put into their hand. What a desecration, and what audacity for unjust kings to sit upon God’s throne, making decrees contrary to His laws, and using the sword He gave them for committing acts of violence and butchering His children!

Let kings therefore respect their might, for it is not theirs but rather the Lord’s, and it must be used in a holy and religious manner. . . .

ARTICLE 3. Royal authority is paternal, and its true characteristic is goodness. . . .

Proposition 1. Goodness is a royal quality, and the true prerogative of greatness.

"Because the Lord your God is God of gods, King of kings, a great God, powerful and formidable, who judges without considering whom He judges nor who accepts bribes. He judges both orphans and widows, He loves strangers and gives them His food and His clothing." (Deuteronomy 10:17–18).

Because God is great and complete in and of Himself, He bends over backwards, as it were, to do good for men, in conformity with these words, "For as is His greatness, so also is His mercy." (Ecclesiastes 2:23).

He imbues kings with an image of His majesty, so that they must imitate his goodness.

He raises them to a level where they no longer desire anything for themselves. . . .

That is why, in the passages where we read that "the kingdom of David was imposed upon the People," the Jew and Greek infer "for the people." This shows that the purpose of greatness is the good of the subjects.

In fact, God, who created the body of all men from the same earth and who also placed His image and His likeness in their souls, did not create so many distinctions among men in order to have the proud be separate from the slaves and the destitute. He created the great only so they could protect the meek. He only gave his power to kings so that they may provide for the public good, and so that they could be the People’s support.

Proposition 2. The prince is born not for himself, but for the public. . . .

Let the princes understand that their true glory lies not in existing for themselves, but rather that the public welfare that they provide is a sufficiently worthy reward on earth while they await the eternal blessings that God has reserved for them.

Proposition 3. The prince must provide for the needs of the People.

The Lord said to David, "Thou shall feed my People of Israel, and shall be their shepherd." (Samuel II, 5:2) . . . .

It is a right of kings to provide for the needs of the People. Whoever else undertakes this function, to the detriment of the prince, infringes upon royalty. The obligation to care for the people is the basis for all the rights that sovereigns have over their subjects, and it was for this reason that royalty was established.

And it is also for this reason that the People, when they have great need, have the right of appeal to their prince. "In their extreme famine, all of Egypt came to the Pharaoh, crying for bread." (Genesis 41:55). . . .

Proposition 4. Of all the People, it is the weak to whom the prince must provide the most.

For it is they who have the greatest need of him who is, by his office, the father and protector of all. This is the reason that God commends widows and orphans mainly to judges and magistrates. . . .


ARTICLE 1. Royal authority is absolute.

In order to make this term odious and unbearable, there are those who pretend to confuse absolute government with arbitrary government. But no two things could be more different, as we will demonstrate when we speak of justice.

Proposition 1. The prince answers to no one for his decrees.

"Observe the commandments that the king utters, and keep the oath that you have taken to him. Do not think about escaping from under him, and do not continue in evil work, for he will do all that pleases him. His word is powerful, and no one can ask him: ‘Why do you do this?’ He who obeys shall not be harmed." (Ecclesiastes 8:2–5).

Without this absolute authority, the prince can neither do good nor repress evil. His power must be such that no one can hope to escape him. And finally, the sole defense of individuals against the public power must be their innocence.

This doctrine conforms to what Saint Paul said: "Do you not wish to fear this power? Be well afraid." (Romans 13:3).

Proposition 2. When the prince has judged, there shall be no other judgment.

The sovereign judgments are attributed to God Himself. . . . The prince can correct himself when he recognizes that he has done wrong, but against his authority the only remedy lies within that authority.

That is why a prince must be very careful about what he decrees. . . .

Proposition 3. There is no coactive force against the prince.

Coactive force is the power to enforce the execution of legitimate orders. Legitimate command belongs to the prince alone. Also to him alone belongs coactive force.

This is also why Saint Paul gave the sword only to the prince. "If you do evil, be afraid, for he does not wield the sword in vain." (Romans 13:4).

In a State, only the prince is armed, otherwise everything is confusion and the State collapses into anarchy.

Whoever makes himself a sovereign prince takes everything into his own hands, the supreme judicial authority as well as all the forces of the State. . . .

To the prince alone belongs the general care of the People. This is the first article and the basis for all the others. To him belong the public works. To him belong the parade grounds and weapons. To him belong the decrees and regulations. To him belong the badges of distinction. All power stems from his power. All assemblies are dependent upon his authority.

Thus, for the good of the State, all force is gathered into a single entity. For power to exist outside of this entity is to divide the state, ruin the public peace, and create two masters in contradiction to the word of the Gospel. "No man can serve two masters." (Matthew 6:24).

By virtue of his office, the prince is father to his people, and by his greatness he is above petty interests. But even more than this, all his majesty and natural interest are directed toward the preservation of the people, since, in short, if there is no People, there is no prince. There is therefore nothing better than to leave all the power of the State to he who has the greatest interest in its preservation and grandeur.

Proposition 4. Kings are thereby not freed from all laws. . . .

Kings are therefore subject, like all others, to the equality of the law, both because laws must be fair, and because they owe the People the example of maintaining justice. But they are not subject to the penalties of the law. In the language of theology, they are subject to the laws, not as a coactive force but as a directive force.

Proposition 5. The People must peacefully remain under the prince’s authority. . . .

Proposition 6. The people must fear the prince; but the prince need only fear doing evil . . . .

Fear is a necessary constraint on the People because of their presumptuousness and their natural resistance. Therefore it is necessary for the People to fear the prince. But should the prince fear the People, all is lost.