Monday Meslier: 144 – Origin of The Most Absurd, The Most Ridiculous, and The Most Odious Usurpation, Called The Divine Right of Kings.


In order to guard themselves against the enterprises of a haughty Pontiff who desired to reign over kings, and in order to protect their persons from the attacks of the credulous people excited by their priests, several princes of Europe pretended to have received their crowns and their rights from God alone, and that they should account to Him only for their actions.

Jean Meslier Portrait

Your host, Jean Meslier

Civil power in its battles against spiritual power, having at length gained the advantage, and the priests being compelled to yield, recognized the Divine right of kings and preached it to the people, reserving to themselves the right to change opinions and to preach revolution, every time that the divine rights of kings did not agree with the divine rights of the clergy. It was always at the expense of the people that peace was restored between the kings and the priests, but the latter maintained their pretensions notwithstanding all treaties.

Many tyrants and wicked princes, whose conscience reproaches them for their negligence or their perversity, far from fearing their God, rather like to bargain with this invisible Judge, who never refuses anything, or with His priests, who are accommodating to the masters of the earth rather than to their subjects. The people, when reduced to despair, consider the divine rights of their chiefs as an abuse. When men become exasperated, the divine rights of tyrants are compelled to yield to the natural rights of their subjects; they have better market with the gods than with men. Kings are responsible for their actions but to God, the priests but to themselves; there is reason to believe that both of them have more faith in the indulgence of Heaven than in that of earth. It is much easier to escape the judgments of the gods, who can be appeased at little expense, than the judgments of men whose patience is exhausted. If you take away from the sovereigns the fear of an invisible power, what restraint will you oppose to their misconduct? Let them learn how to govern, how to be just, how to respect the rights of the people, to recognize the benefactions of the nations from whom they obtain their grandeur and power; let them learn to fear men, to submit to the laws of equity, that no one can violate without danger; let these laws restrain equally the powerful and the weak, the great and the small, the sovereign and the subjects.

The fear of the Gods, religion, the terrors of another life–these are the metaphysical and supernatural barriers which are opposed to the furious passions of princes! Are these barriers sufficient? We leave it to experience to solve the question! To oppose religion to the wickedness of tyrants, is to wish that vague speculations should be more powerful than inclinations which conspire to fortify them in it from day to day.
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Are all political debates ultimately debates about legitimacy?

Enlightenment republicanism helped finally shove the Divine Right of Kings off the stage, but it was replaced with authority under cover of false democracy. I feel like the con-men who run the world have just gotten a little bit smoother, is all. Or – rather – they were a bit smoother until stumble-bum Trump walked out on stage and began his Père Ubu impersonation.

Comments

  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    Are all political debates ultimately debates about legitimacy?

    Obviously not: bastards debate bastards every campaign (viz: 2016).

  2. oldmanbynow says

    Most political debates are about values, although they are disguised as being about policy. There are actually no real political debates about legitimacy outside of constituent assemblies, which only happen at the “Machiavellian Moments.” By the way, there’s a book everyone should read, by Pocock, one of Hopkins’ teeming crowd of extraordinarily, mind-blowingly wise and talented historians of early modern Europe.

    Law was once derived from ethics, which was in turn derived from the shared values of the community as inculcated from childhood onwards: the paideia. (Cartomancer, are you out there?) People obeyed the law, all unknowing, because it reflected their values. Now there is hardly any overlap between values and the law. It is positive law, derived from specific exploitive agendas, and it is a naked tool of coercion and exploitation by the tyranny in charge.

    I got an email today suggesting that I attend a high-level seminar to let me know what the “historic overhaul” of the tax package would “mean for me.” What does it say about our institutions that my so-called representatives are said to be reflecting the voices of their constituents on this tax package, when those constituents could not know “what it meant for them” until after it was passed?

    That was a rhetorical question, of course; we all know the answer. What it suggests is that the institutions are utterly corrupt; that they have long since passed the point where the people have withdrawn their confidence in them; and that they have lost their legitimacy. And rightly so: because no action by the tyrants at the top–oligarchs is too flattering a term for so small a number who rule over so great a number–is done in consultation with anyone’s interests but their own.

    In a parliamentary system, that would mean a crisis. In this system, it means go back to your X-Box, you serf. The question is only how long such a fundamentally illegitimate government can last (probably a very long time, because it has a central bank) and how bad the crack-up will be when it comes (it will be apocalyptic).

  3. oldmanbynow says

    Which is not to say, mind you, that I think Americans would be better off instituting change at this point. I am completely content with the system as it stands; and most Americans should be so, as well, whether they consider the government legitimate or not. We are all doing just fine, much better than almost anybody else in the world outside of Canada and western Europe and Japan (and the rest of the G20); and that is thanks to the federal government as it is currently constituted and managed. No, I think I will be perfectly content if things keep on like this indefinitely, or at least until I die.

  4. says

    @#3

    Most political debates are about values, although they are disguised as being about policy. There are actually no real political debates about legitimacy outside of constituent assemblies, which only happen at the “Machiavellian Moments.”

    Most political debate topics allow people to choose which aspects to discuss. For example, let’s consider the abortion debate. You can discuss:
    A) Values: women’s freedom to choose as a value vs. fetus life as a value.
    B) Legitimacy: is it legitimate for states to interfere with their citizens’ free choices?
    c) Practicalities aka consequences: a ban on abortions would result in abortion tourism, health risks caused by illegally working doctors etc.

    Law was once derived from ethics, which was in turn derived from the shared values of the community as inculcated from childhood onwards: the paideia. (Cartomancer, are you out there?) People obeyed the law, all unknowing, because it reflected their values. Now there is hardly any overlap between values and the law.

    People obeyed the law? Yeah, right, I’d like to see a community where everybody obeys the law. People have a tendency to break the laws even when they consider these laws fair and just. For example, many thieves believe that stealing is wrong, but they do it anyway, because easily obtained wealth increases their personal comfort.

    Nowadays there is plenty of overlap between values and the law. For example, almost all people believe that murder and pedophilia are wrong, and these actions are also against the law. There are multiple valid reasons why the overlap isn’t (and cannot be) complete:
    1) Consensus about values can never be complete. For example, some people consider prostitution and abortions bad, while others are perfectly fine with these actions. Existing laws also reflect this lack of unanimity (in some places these actions are legal, in other places they are banned). The only way how a society could theoretically achieve a consensus about values is by embracing a totalitarian regime where every person is brainwashed starting from early childhood. Once people live in a reasonably free state, they start thinking on their own, which means that a consensus gets impossible.
    2) Some bans are not practical to enforce, therefore certain bad actions remain legal. For example, a husband calls his wife saying, “This evening I have a lot of work to do, I must finish this project, you will have to pick our kid from school.” In reality the husband wants to spend the evening watching a sports game with his friends. Most people will agree that this action is bad, yet it is impractical for police to deal with all those countless little lies people tell during their daily lives. As a result such minor lies remain perfectly legal.
    3) In a free state it is better not to ban harmless actions even when majority of population consider them repulsive. For example, there are some sexual acts that seem disgusting for most of people (golden showers, consensual necrophilia etc.), but since there is no harm done to anybody, it’s better to let people do what they want and allow those with minority tastes to have fun.
    4) Lawmakers sometimes prioritize their personal desires, for example, the desire to use corporate tax loopholes. This ties back to #1: there is no absolute unanimity about tax loopholes being bad, some members of the society consider them good to have.

    I see #4 as a bad thing (rich people who happen to have power outright abuse it). #1, #2 and #3 are good reasons why it’s perfectly fine if values of a society and its laws are different.

    I don’t like the whole idea of “the shared values of the community as inculcated from childhood onwards”. Those generally tend to be pretty shitty. It is thanks to these “values” that minority religions, homosexuals, transsexuals, single unmarried mothers, feminists, people of color etc. were (and sometimes still are) discriminated against. Those “values” tend to be outdated and prolong evils like misogyny, homophobia, racism etc. When people, instead of swallowing whatever values they were taught as kids, finally start thinking and actually put conscious thought into the question “what is it that I value?”, the resulting values are always better, more humane, and more tolerant.

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