The innovation of divine right was one of many "new things" that came out of a rejection of Aristotelian philosophy and Thomism. It was perhaps best stated by Sir Robert Filmer, the chief theologian of James I of England (James VI of Scotland), in Patriarcha, or, The Natural Power of Kings, written sometime in the early 17th century, but not published until 1680. As Filmer proclaimed in the first sentence of his work,
Since the time that school divinity began to flourish there hath been a common opinion maintained, as well by divines as by divers other learned men, which affirms:Filmer then spent the rest of his short work ridiculing the idea of the sovereignty of the individual under God. He also made arguments that later political scientists, such as John Locke and Algernon Sidney, were able to shred, more or less with ease, through the application of a modicum of common sense.
"Mankind is naturally endowed and born with freedom from all subjection, and at liberty to choose what form of government it please, and that the power which any one man hath over others was at first bestowed according to the discretion of the multitude."
This tenet was first hatched in the schools, and hath been fostered by all succeeding Papists.
Locke and Sidney, however, came some time after Filmer's death. During Filmer's lifetime, his chief adversary was a cardinal of the Roman Curia from the obscure Italian mountain village of Montepulciano, Robert Bellarmine, possibly one of the most learned men of his age. (He taught himself Hebrew in a matter of weeks and composed a grammar for that language that was adopted by the Rabbis of Eastern Europe and used for the next couple of centuries.)
Bellarmine was so effective an adversary of the new theories in politics and religion that a rumor spread that "Robert Bellarmine" was actually the pseudonym of a group of highly trained scholars. As John Clement Rager recounts in his book, The Political Philosophy of Blessed Robert Bellarmine (1926),
The learned Englishman Whitaker (d. 1595) said: "Until now we were ignorant of the true position of the Roman Church. Since Bellarmine has come forward we know exactly what that Church teaches upon every article of faith." Some were unwilling to believe that one man could have been the author of so voluminous and powerful a work. They began to suspect that under the name "Robert Bellarmine" was concealed the whole army of Jesuit theologians. Robert, they said, stood for "robur" — strength; Bellarmine, for "belle" — wars, "arma" — weapons, "minae" — threats. (Rager, 14)This sort of accusation is actually far more common than we might suspect. It is certainly easier to blame a secret conspiracy for the fact that you don't have a response to what someone else proposes, than to develop a counter argument. Even this writer, while certainly not in the class of Robert Bellarmine, was once "accused" of being a front for "a large staff of conservative economists" for presenting some of the basics of binary economics and demonstrating the consistency of binary economics with the natural moral law. More to the point, though, how did Bellarmine counter the newly arisen divine right of kings theory of political sovereignty?
Bellarmine wrote extensively on the source, transmission, and application of the civil power, that is, of political sovereignty. In his remarkably short work, De Laicis, or, The Treatise on Civil Government, written to oppose the Protestant doctrine of the "Divine Right of Kings" and defend the legitimacy of civil authority, Bellarmine succinctly presented the case for government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
Taking his arguments and proofs from Scripture, the examples of the saints, from purpose or necessity, from considerations of the efficient cause, and from considerations of the source of secular power, Bellarmine declared that the legitimacy of political power is demonstrated by the fact that it is necessary, man being social. Civil government would thus be legitimate even if the sin of Adam had never occurred: "For even if servile subjection began after the sin of Adam, nevertheless there would have been political government even while man was in the state of innocence. And this is proved, firstly, because even then man would have been by nature a political and social animal, and hence would have had need of a ruler." (De Laicis, Ch. VII.) [Note Bellarmine's distinction between political and social.]
This power is not, according to Bellarmine, vested in a particular ruler or class, but in the people as a whole:
Political power considered in general, not descending in particular to Monarchy, Aristocracy, or Democracy, comes directly from God alone; for this follows of necessity from the nature of man, since that nature comes from Him Who made it; besides, this power derives from the natural law, since it does not depend upon the consent of men; for, willing or unwilling, they must be ruled over by some one, unless they wish the human race to perish. . . .There are those who will protest that this inserts the collective between the government and the individual people — which it does. Whether we posit the existence of the collective, or whether we assume that political power is transmitted directly from God through the individuals who make up the nation makes no essential difference to the point Bellarmine is making: that political power — political sovereignty — comes to the ruler not directly from God, but from God through the people, and that the ruler only governs with their consent.
Note, secondly, that this power resides, as in its subject, immediately in the whole State, for this power is by Divine law, but Divine law gives this power to no particular man, therefore Divine law gives this power to the collected body. Furthermore, in the absence of positive law, there is no good reason why, in a multitude of equals, one rather than another should dominate. Therefore, power belongs to the collected body. (Ibid., Ch. VI)
Still, that leaves us with the dangerous idea of the collective inserted between God and man. As Pope Pius XI reminded the world a few centuries later, "Only man, the human person, and not society in any form, is endowed with reason and a morally free will." (Divini Redemptoris, § 29) In the next posting in this series we will look at how later political scientists, particularly John Locke and Algernon Sidney, tried to get around this problem.