Aristotelian Royalism and Reformation Absolutism: Divine Right Theory

WHETHER Locke and the Whigs, or whether the English Whigs of 1688 and the American Whigs of 1776, spoke with one voice or not, there was surely one thing they were all agreed in—their opposition to the political doctrine of the divine right of kings. Locke’s most important political writing, his Two Treatises of Government, contains a lengthy and detailed commentary cum refutation of one of the leading divine right theorists, and Locke’s was but one of several such large-scale efforts to refute that particular thinker. Even as late as fifty years after the American Declaration of Independence—that is, more than two centuries after the emergence of the divine right position—Thomas Jefferson was still citing divine right as the enemy. He made the point with his usual eloquence in a moving fiftieth-anniversary rumination on the Declaration of Independence: “The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.”1 Opposition to monarchy by divine right formed a stable part of every current of political thought that might be held to flow into the Whig tradition. The divine right theory stood then as probably the clearest element within the context of political thought out of which Locke’s philosophy ultimately emerged.

At the same time, the very depth and breadth of the opposition to divine right monarchy obscures the variety within that context, and contributes to views like John Dunn’s, that Locke, the English Whigs of 1688, and the American Whigs of 1776 all spoke with one voice.

The divine right doctrine, firmly fixed and widely repellant as it was, nonetheless was itself quite new in England in the seventeenth century. When exactly it came to England is highly uncertain, but its emergence and rise to prominence reveals especially well the underlying dynamic at work in the development and ultimate clash of systems of political thought in the seventeenth century. It has been widely noted that this was the era in which the English were engaged in strenuous efforts to discover and implement the “correct” implications of the Protestant Reformation for church organization, governance, and liturgy.2 Having largely postponed that effort for a variety of reasons under Elizabeth, the nation set off on this task in the seventeenth century with an earnestness and intensity that surprised—and ultimately terrified—many of the participants. The transforming pressures to which the Reformation subjected issues of ecclesiology are thus widely recognized; however, the same transforming pressures, with the same disruptive results, were at work in the sphere of political thought. The first half of the seventeenth century was marked not only by the theologico-political conflict which eventuated in the Civil War but by the reworking of inherited modes of political thought, with the result that new doctrines, far more extreme and far more opposed to each other than anything that had prevailed in England to that time, emerged and vied with each other for supremacy. At one extreme lay the full-grown divine right theory as it appeared ultimately in the work of Sir Robert Filmer, at the other a variety of Protestant contractarian doctrines. Some of these doctrines, like that of Philip Hunton, were rather moderate; others, like the one that reached semi-official status in John Milton’s powerful prose, were just as extreme, in a mirror-image sort of way, as Filmer’s. That the development of political thought in the seventeenth century saw the emergence on English soil of these two alternative theories about the origin and nature of political authority, divine right, and contract was striking in itself; what was really remarkable was the fact that both developed as efforts to work out the authentic meaning of the Protestant principle for politics. Both had a plausible claim to having done so, and that, it turned out, was the real problem.

The divine right doctrine proved so antithetical to so many different streams of political thought in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that theorists who would otherwise see each other, and be seen by outside observers, as quite antithetical made common cause against it. Even today, scholars treat as altogether similar such very different thinkers as Richard Hooker, Philip Hunton, Richard Baxter, and John Locke on the basis of their common rejection of divine right doctrines.


Although it is difficult to identify the exact origin of the divine right doctrine, Locke believed he knew “by whom this doctrine came at first to be broach’d, and brought in fashion amongst us.” A contemporary historian seconds his judgment: “Both the theory and practice of absolutism came to England with James I.” A monarch who prided himself on his scholarly talents, James authored and published anonymously his Trew Law of Free Monarchies in 1598, when he was king in Scotland, before being called south to succeed Elizabeth. Soon after his arrival in England, his book was reprinted there. Although he did not originate the doctrine, his sponsorship of it did give it a definite éclat.3 There was always a nice symmetry and even some irony to the careers of the Stuart monarchs—at the head of the line James I, riding in triumphantly from Scotland to succeed Elizabeth, the murderer of his mother; two generations later, his grandson and namesake, James II, skulking off in the dark to France in order to escape the bloody fate of his father, Charles I, and about to be succeeded by his daughter and her husband. It would be not too much of a historical exaggeration to say that the divine right theory arrived in glory with James I and slunk off in shame with James II. The idea remained sufficiently alive for Whig polemicists like Benjamin Hoadley and Cato, and the American Whigs in general, to continue the assault against it until well into the eighteenth century, but after 1688 things were never the same for the divine right of kings.

Jefferson was surely correct to contrast the divine right theory, which he abhorred, with the natural rights philosophy, which he favored; but many of the former doctrine’s advocates would challenge Jefferson’s portrayal of it as an engine of oppression. The divine right theory, tracing the origin of political authority to a divine ordination, did indeed bestow political power “by the grace of God.” But in most if not all versions of the royalist doctrine in the seventeenth century, we do not find an explicit endorsement of the most colorful part of Jefferson’s denunciation—his comparison of divine right rulers and their peoples to riders and horses, respectively. Divine right theorists would deny Jefferson’s implication that the doctrine justified government as entirely for the benefit of the rulers at the expense of the ruled. The power of kings, said an Elizabethan homily, was given lest “all things should come into confusion and utter ruin,” as a protection against “all mischiefs and miseries.”4 Even one of the most extreme of the defenders of the divine right thesis, Roger Manwaring, identified the king as the “protector of [his subjects’] persons, lives and estates,” and, more emphatically, as “the procurer of all the happiness, peace, welfare which they enjoy who are under him.”5 King James devoted the whole of the first part of The Trew Law of Free Monarchies to the duties kings have to their subjects: the king is to “care for his people” as “the head cares for the body.” James pointedly rejected the idea that “the world [was] only ordained for kings.”6 The promoters of the divine right of kings justified it in terms of the common good of the community; this was true even of the most radical of the writers in that tradition, Sir Robert Filmer. Filmer argued, for example, that absolutist monarchies are the only regimes that can keep order and avoid those “mischiefs [that] are unavoidable and of necessity do follow all democratic [i.e., non-monarchic] regiments.” Monarchies, he maintained, even when they degenerate into tyrannies, as sometimes happens, are less bloody than popular governments. “The murders by Tiberius, Caligula, Nero, Domitian and Commodus put all together,” said Filmer, “cannot match that civil tragedy which was acted in that one sedition between Marius and Sulla.”7

Much confusion, both historically and today, has resulted from a failure to make certain key distinctions regarding the divine right doctrine. That theory consisted of propositions about political power at four different levels: propositions regarding (1) the “original of political power”; (2) the ends of political power; (3) the extent of political power; and (4) recourse against the misuse of political power. Along these four dimensions one might construct a paradigm of divine right absolutism by asserting that (1) political power derives directly from God to the king; (2) the end of political power is the glory, or welfare, of the king; (3) political power is absolute and unlimited in extent, and wielded by the monarch alone; and (4) there is no recourse whatever against the misuse of political power, if it even makes sense to speak of misuse.8

Many critics of the theory assume that partisans of divine right automatically took the absolutist position on all four dimensions of political power. As we have seen, however, divine right theorists did not typically affirm the ends of political life solely in terms of the good of the rulers, but did affirm the common good. Moreover, the advocates of divine right did not necessarily invest unlimited power in the ruler, as is often thought: divine right and absolutism are not necessarily identical. On the one side, we can see this in the political philosophy of Hobbes, who put forth an entirely different doctrine of the origin of political power—contract or covenant—but derived from that origin an absolute power. Some of the divine right theorists, again notably Filmer, also affirmed a royal power of this extent, but not all did.9 King James I made the point with extraordinary clarity in a discourse reported to Parliament by the Earl of Salisbury. Although James asserted that “for his kingdom he was beholden to no elective power” but instead “did derive his title from the loins of his ancestors,” he admitted that his powers were by no means unlimited. “He did acknowledge that he had no power to make laws of himself, or to exact any subsidies de jure without the consent of his three estates,” and conceded that the king may not rightfully “command anything directly contrary to Gods word, and tending to subverting of the church.”10 As Harro Höpfl and Martyn Thompson conclude in summarizing their survey of seventeenth-century writings, “Not even the most determined advocate of monarchical absolutism was disposed to deny . . . a reciprocity of rights and duties.”11 Many, if not all, of the advocates of divine right monarchy thus endorsed some version of the traditional constitution, whereby Parliament shared in certain key powers, most notably the legislative and tax powers. And so J. P. Kenyon, a keen student of the seventeenth-century Constitution, could conclude, “With remarkable unanimity early seventeenth century Englishmen believed that they were bound to abide by the ancient Constitution. . . . In the sphere of practical politics the disagreement essentially lay in how to operate a constitution of whose nature few had any doubts.”12

Nonetheless, the limited or constitutionalist character of even the most restrained divine right royalism must not be overestimated. Although “moderates” like King James I theoretically accepted the idea of limits, they insisted that there existed no earthly agent rightly able to enforce these limits. Above all, supporters of divine right denied any right in the people actively to resist, much less to depose, their king: “What shall subjects do then? Shall they obey valiant, stout, wise and good princes, and condemn, disobey, and rebel against . . . indiscreet and evil governors? God forbid.”13 However, as James himself averred, that did not mean that kings are beyond all control:

I [do not] mean that whatsoever errors and intolerable abominations a sovereign prince commits, he ought to escape all punishment, as if thereby the world were only ordained for kings, and they without controlment to turn it upside down at their pleasure. But by the contrary, by remitting them to God (who is their only ordinary judge) I remit them to the sorest and sharpest schoolmaster that can be devised for them.14

Furthermore, that sharp schoolmaster never neglected his corrective task: “Yet does God never leave kings unpunished when they transgress these limits.”15 With all correction in God’s hands, subjects had no recourse against a faithless or wicked ruler and no legitimate means (other than passive resistance) of enforcing constitutional limits upon a ruler bent on disregarding them.

Moreover, those constitutional limits themselves stood on a precarious footing. According to Roger Manwaring, Parliament did not “contribute any right to kings,” but merely aided in “the more equal imposing, and more easy exacting of that which unto kings doth appertain by natural and original law.”16 Parliament shared in power as a matter of convenience, not by virtue of any necessity of right. Thus, according to Manwaring, the king could levy charges against the community without parliamentary approval. In a speech to Parliament in 1628, King Charles I came very close to an outright endorsement of Manwaring’s doctrine. He sought money from Parliament, “judging a Parliament to be the ancient, speediest and best way in this time of common danger, to give such supply as to secure ourselves and to save our friends from imminent ruin.” But, he warned, Parliament was not the only way: “If you should not do your duties in contributing what this state at this time needs I must in discharge of my conscience use those other means which God hath put into my hands.”17

James was more politic and never said such things openly, but he did argue that laws “are properly made by the king only”; so far as the king is limited by law (and thus by the law of the constitution) it is because the king “bound himself by a double oath to the observation of the fundamental laws of his kingdom.” The obligation derives from the king’s “paction made to his people.” A king who “leaves off to rule according to his laws degenerates into a tyrant.”18 This is surely more restrained than Filmer or Hobbes, who saw the laws and constitutional institutions like Parliament as mere creatures of the royal will, to be disregarded by the same will that initially chose to regard them if it so desired. Nonetheless, James came very close to the same conclusion: “A good king will frame all his actions to be according to the law; yet is he not bound thereto but of goodwill, and for good example. . . . The king is above the law, as both the author and giver of strength thereto.” As Charles McIlwain justly concludes, “Such a theory as this leaves no place for the law of the land or the authority of the estates of the Realm when they conflict with the king’s will.”19


By far the most revealing element of divine right theory, both of its fundamental anticonstitutionalism and of its deepest meaning, is the argument made on behalf of its characteristic theses regarding “the original of political power.” It appears to be largely a biblically grounded doctrine.20 The two classic texts of Christian politics, Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2, figure prominently in many of its defenses. According to Paul in the Epistle to the Romans, “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God.” Especially important for the divine right doctrine was Paul’s assurance that “the powers that be are ordained of God.” Peter was hardly less definite: “Subject yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake; whether it be to the king, as supreme; or unto governors.”21

Yet these texts were far from unambiguous in their bearing on the nature of politics. It was often pointed out, for example, that Peter’s letter did not necessarily support the divine right doctrine, because Peter had referred to governments as “ordinance of man,” and not as directly “instituted by God.” Anti–divine right thinkers also challenged the divine right interpretation of Romans by exploiting Paul’s explanation of the reason for divine support of ruling authority: “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. . . . do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: for he 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.”22 From this passage John Milton concluded that “powers that do the contrary [of being a terror to bad conduct] are no powers ordained of God, and by consequence no obligation [is] laid upon us to obey or not to resist them.”23 Thus, from a passage that had been cited to support unconditional obedience, Milton extracted a lesson in the right to resistance!24

That two plausible alternative readings of the central biblical texts were both put forward with utmost assurance suggests that some hermeneutic principle was at work guiding interpreters toward one or another reading. This turns out to be true, in that the divine right theorists grasped the biblical texts in the light of a series of images or metaphors of political life that produced their interpretation rather than Milton’s. King James I expressed those images repeatedly in his analogies, or “similitudes,” of politics: “The king toward his people is rightly compared to a father of children, and to a head of a body composed of diverse members.”25 To these two analogies, he added the even more daring idea that “Kings are justly called gods, for they exercise a manner or resemblance of divine power upon earth.” James identified the first two “similitudes” as “taken out of . . . the grounds of policy and philosophy,”26 which, for him, meant that they were “grounded” in the Aristotelian tradition of political philosophy. By means of these two analogies James conveyed three central, apparently Aristotelian propositions about politics: the naturalness of politics, and particularly of monarchy; the ordination of monarchy to the common good; and the irresistibility of royal authority. James was clear that these were analogies, not identifications. The king is not God; the king is not the father of his people, nor does James explicitly claim that the royal power derived from the power of a father. As Gordon Schochet rightly notes, James “never actually identified regal and paternal power.” James’s version of divine right theory thus has patriarchal elements—it is “replete with fatherly images”—but it differs significantly from Filmer’s full-blown patriarchal absolutism.27

The political community, James implied, is natural in the same sense as the family and the human individual are natural—they are produced by nature, understood as the power of generation.28 The royalist thinker John Maxwell gave in 1644 an especially strong version of the idea of nature as the generative source of polity:

This appetitus universalis and naturalis, this vehement necessary propension and desire to government, is not unlike that act of the understanding by which it assenteth to the first principles of undeniable, uncontrollable truth, which are evident ex vi terminorum, by evident appearance in the essential connection of the terms.29

The polity is natural in the related but further sense that it is a natural whole in which the part, the member, is what it is by virtue of being a part. James had in mind an organismic notion of the polity. As Aristotle said in making a similar point, “for if the whole [body] is destroyed there will not be a foot or a hand, unless in the sense that the term is similar (as when one speaks of a hand made of stone), but the thing itself will be defective,” that is, it will not properly be a hand, for a hand is a hand only by virtue of being a part of a whole human body.30 Moreover, just as nature produces human bodies and families with a guiding element—the head and the father, respectively—so, James concluded, nature has produced political communities with a ruling element of the same sort, the king. Since human individuals, families, and kingdoms are natural organismic wholes, there is no inherent conflict between the ruling element and the ruled.31 They are not separate things, but parts of one whole whose good is genuinely a common good. The common good is not unrelated to the good of the parts (members), but is at bottom different from the sum of the goods or interests of the parts. James drove that point home when he explained the operation of the directive element in the organismic whole:

As the judgment coming from the head may not only employ the members, every one in their own office, as long as they are able for it, but likewise, in case any of them be affected with any infirmity, must care and provide for the remedy, in case it be curable, and if otherwise, gar cut them off for fear of infecting the rest, even so is it betwixt the prince and his people.32

The prince’s “care” for the whole extends both to the ordering of all the parts to the good of the whole, and to “cutting off” any part which might “infect the rest.” This understanding of the common good in terms of whole and part reveals as well as any other single element of divine right theory how far it stands from the natural rights philosophy, which understands the common good in terms of individuals and their rights.33

The similitudes also reveal how absurd and wicked resistance to the prince would be: “It may very well fall out that the head will be forced to gar cut off some rotten members . . . to keep the rest of the body in integrity. But what state the body can be in if the head, for any infirmity that can fall to it, be cut off, I leave to the reader’s judgment.” James actually does not leave it to the reader’s judgment, but makes everything quite explicit: “Whereas a Prince being the Head, cannot bee loosed in the proper jount, not dismounted; like a cannon when the carriage whereof is unlockt, without a sore shaking and a most grievous dislocation of all the members, yea, without subverting the whole bodie of the State, whereby private persons without number are inwrapped together in the same ruine.”34 The viciousness of resistance to the ruler appears further via the analogy of the family:

Consider, I pray you, what duty his children owe to him, and whether, upon any pretext whatsoever, it will not be thought monstrous and unnatural to his sons to rise up against him, to control at their appetite, and when they think good to slay him, or to cut him off and adopt to themselves any other they please in his room.35

Thus the similitudes would appear to settle the question of how to read the ambiguous biblical texts: God has ordained kingly rule in the same way he has ordained nature and the natural process of generation. The development of the Aristotelian doctrine of the naturalness of the polis would seem, therefore, to be more foundational for the divine right doctrine than any strictly biblical or Christian ground; or, perhaps better, divine right theory appears to nestle easily within the synthesis of biblical and Aristotelian themes characteristic of Thomas Aquinas and Richard Hooker. But that impression is misleading, for the Aristotelian foundations were greatly transformed in their migration to the similitudes. A comparison between the Aristotelian original and the similitudes is most useful, however, for pointing toward the true grounds and for making clearer than the explicit teaching does what the real character of the divine right doctrine is.

Aristotle, it is true, did speak of the polity as natural in the way a human individual is natural, and, like James, he also concluded that “the whole must of necessity be prior to the part.”36 Yet Aristotle notably failed to develop the parallel between polity and body in the way James did. According to the latter,

The proper office of a king towards his subjects agrees very well with the office of the head towards the body and all members thereof, for from the head, being the seat of judgment, proceeds the care and foresight of guiding. . . . As the discourse and direction flows from the head, and the execution according thereunto belongs to the rest of the members, every one according to their office, so it is betwixt a wise prince and his people.37

But in Aristotle, the mode of rule that James described is the mode characteristic of master and slave, not of political rule! As Aristotle explained,

There are many kinds both of ruling and ruled. . . . For whatever is constituted out of a number of things—whether continuous or discrete—and becomes a single common thing always displays a ruling and a ruled element; this is something that animate things derive from all of nature. . . . An animal is the first thing constituted out of soul and body, of which the one is the ruling element by nature, the other the ruled.

Thus far, James and Aristotle concur; they are both concerned with composites, wholes made of (dissimilar) parts in which there is perforce a ruling element. But Aristotle parted ways with the divine right argument in his recognition that while all composites require rule, there are different types of rule appropriate to different kinds of wholes, or to different parts within the whole: “There are many kinds both of ruling and ruled,” a proposition he illustrated as follows:

It is then in an animal, as we were saying, that one can first discern both the sort of rule characteristic of a master and political rule. For the soul rules the body with the rule characteristic of a master, while intellect rules appetite with political and kingly rule.

That is, the kind of rule of the head over the members of the body that James affirmed as the model for kingly rule was identified by Aristotle with despotic rule: “For that which can foresee with the mind is the naturally ruling and naturally mastering element, while that which can do these things with the body is the naturally ruled and slave.”38

Aristotle’s “slave by nature” is the one who is appropriately ruled with James’s sort of rule. But, Aristotle said, “it is evident . . . that mastery and political [rule] are not the same thing. . . . For the one sort is over those free by nature, the other over slaves. Political rule is over free and equal persons.”39 It is easy to understand, therefore, how, in a generation well versed in Aristotle’s political philosophy, many might find the divine right doctrine alarming: it amounted to a relegation of the community to the status of natural slaves. The parliamentary leader Henry Parker observed that “if all nations . . . can neither set limits or judge limits set to sovereignty, but must look upon it as a thing merely divine . . . then all nations are equally slaves; and we in England are born no more by the laws of England than the asinine peasants of France are there.”40

James’s other similitude—the family—represents a similar transformation of the Aristotelian doctrine of the naturalness of the polis. The polis, said Aristotle, came into being naturally as part of a series of natural associations, of which the family is one. Aristotle used the family as an example of how nature produces human communities, yet he was also very clear that the political community is different from the family, that it represents the operation of nature in a different way and with a different kind of product. “Rule over children,” Aristotle agreed, “is kingly, for the one who generates is ruler on the basis of both affection and age.”41 But, since the kingly rule over children depends on their age, that is, on the incompleteness in them of the “deliberative faculty,” that rule can only be temporary and surely cannot be the model for rule in the commonwealth. “From the children,” said Aristotle, “come those who are partners in the regime,” that is, citizens. That ultimate fate not only sets a period to their subjection to the paternal kingly rule, but also sets the goal in terms of which the father’s rule is to be exercised: adult freedom and share in rule.42

The divine right theory thus built on, but transformed in altogether decisive ways, the Aristotelian doctrine of nature. Those transformations reveal better than the explicit claims raised by most of the writers themselves the real character of the doctrine they defended—a form of rule that, according to Aristotle at least, was fit only for natural slaves and perpetual children, a form of rule at the opposite extreme from genuine political life. In other words, Jefferson was quite correct in seeing the absolutist implications of the divine right theory.

James I and the other divine right authors made much of the similitudes; they were surely not unique to James but were so common as to be called “a conventional set of comparisons” by one scholar of the era.43 This was, in general, an age of metaphor, analogy, similitude.44 Not only the divine right theorists, but political writers of quite different persuasions, reasoned in terms of similitude. James himself took note of these competing images: “Whether these [i.e., his] similitudes represent better the office of a king, or the offices of masters or deacons of crafts, or doctors in physic (which jolly comparisons are used by such writers as maintain the contrary proposition), I leave it also to the reader’s discretion.”45 These other similitudes—the statesman as physician of the polity or master artisan—are in fact much closer to Aristotle’s conception of politics: witness his discussion of politics as the architectonic science, the master art of the other arts.46 Unfortunately, James did not present his own reasons for judging his set of similitudes superior to the other set, but his challenge to his readers does pose the question of what might make his similitudes so apt. To put it another way: it appeared for a moment that the foundation of the divine right position was Aristotle’s doctrine of nature, but on examination it has become clear that Aristotle was greatly modified in being appropriated by the partisans of divine right. What governed that modification?


God gives not kings the stile of Gods in vaine,

For on his throne his scepter doe they swey:

And as their subjects ought them to obey,

So Kings should feare and serve their God againe

If then ye would enjoy a happie raigne,

Observe the statutes of your heavenly King,

And from his Law, make all your laws to spring:

Since his lieutenant here ye should remain,

Reward the just, be stedfast, true, and plaine,

Represse the proud, maintaining aye the right,

Walke always so, as ever in his sight,

Who guardes the godly, plaguing the prophane:

And so ye shall in Princely virtues shine,

Resembling right your mightie King Divine.

James I to his son Henry47

If the Aristotelian intimations of the first two similitudes have proven inconclusive, then perhaps the key to the grounding of the divine right position is the third similitude: “In the Scriptures,” said James to Parliament in 1609, “kings are called gods, and so their power, after a certain relation compared to the divine power.” In his Basilikon Doron, a treatise of “instruction” to his eldest son, James reminded his supposed heir that God “made you a little God to sit on his Throne, and rule over other men.” Kings, James wrote, represent “the image of God in earth and Gods place.” Kings exercise “a manner or resemblance of divine power upon earth.”48 In his speech to Parliament in 1609, James carried this daring argument very far:

God has power to create, or destroy, make, or unmake at his pleasure, to give life, or send death, to judge all, and to be judged nor accountable to none; to raise low things, and to make high things low at his pleasure, and to God are both soul and body due. And the like power have kings.49

Remarkable as this claim is, it was not entirely uncommon, although not often put forward so blatantly as James did here.50 John Maxwell, for example, had argued that “it proveth the excellency of monarchy above all governments because it approacheth nearest the government of God, and God himself who is the author of all government.” The divine similitude resonated throughout English society in the early seventeenth century. At the opening of Parliament, for example, the Speaker would echo the similitude: “Kings were visible gods and God an invisible king.” Members were heard to say such things as, “Because the king is a God upon earth I would answer him as we should answer God in heaven, that is with a prayer.”51

An early expression of the divine similitude, a homily preached in 1570, helps explain these remarkable claims. According to the anonymous author,

For that similitude that is between the heavenly monarchy and earthly kingdoms well governed, our Saviour Christ in sundry parables says that the kingdom of heaven is resembled unto a man, a king, and as the name of the king is very often attributed and given unto God in the Holy Scriptures, so does God himself in the same scripture sometimes vouchsafe to communicate his name with earthly princes, terming them Gods, doubtless for that similitude of government which they have or should have, not unlike unto God their king. Unto them which similitude of heavenly government, the nearer and nearer that an earthly prince does come in his regiment, the greater blessing of God’s mercy is he unto that country and people over whom he reigns.52

The homily reveals more about the divine similitude than James did because it sets it in an especially enlightening context. The homily opens briskly by identifying the fundamental relationship between God, “the Creator and Lord of all things,” and humanity: “It was his will that man, his chief creature upon the earth, should live under the obedience of his Creator and Lord.” Not only human beings, but the angels too are to live under obedience; obedience is the law of the whole, the chief expression of the creatureliness of all creatures. From the very outset, God put humanity under a law of obedience; the lower creatures, in turn, were to express their obedience to God by being obedient to human beings. Had humans and angels remained in a condition of obedience, they would have remained in a condition of “favor and grace” with God, “which to enjoy is perfect felicity.” Since “perfect felicity” follows from “obedience,” the homilist concludes, “it is evident that obedience is the principal virtue of all virtues, and indeed the very root of all virtues.” Here the homilist indicates a clear break with any Aristotelianism, for Aristotle does not even list obedience (or piety) among the virtues, much less as the chief and root virtue.

As obedience is the root of all virtue, so “rebellion” is “the first and greatest, and the very root of all other sins.” The first great act of rebellion brought much misery on mankind, but changed not at all the fundamental fact—that obedience is the “virtue of all virtues.” After the Fall, “God . . . repaired again the rule and order of obedience.” But now this “rule and order” was multiplied and made earthly; as God withdrew from the direct relationship with humanity that had predated the Fall, he made earthly authorities who were to be the recipients of the obedience that originally went directly to him. Just as at the beginning the lower animals expressed their ordination to obedience by rendering obedience to human beings as intermediaries, so in the postlapsarian world there are intermediaries within the human sphere—husbands, fathers, masters, and, above all, kings. These sets of rulers serve a useful function in this new world in which “confusion and utter ruin” so pressingly threaten, but even more than that, they express the fundamental moral fact that human beings are to live in obedience: God “has ordained and set earthly princes over particular kingdoms . . . [so that] the majesty of heavenly things may by the baseness of earthly things be shadowed and resembled.”53

The grounding element of the divine right theory, which governs the interpretation of the relevant biblical passages and shapes the reinterpretation of Aristotle and the tradition of political philosophy, is, we might say, an attitude—an attitude that the fundamental human stance in existence is, or should be, obedience.54 Human beings stand existentially as beings under obligation to a superior. They are most human when they most surrender to the will of their superior. The Stuart poet George Herbert captured this attitude extraordinarily well in his poem “Discipline”:

Throw away thy rod,

Throw away thy wrath:

O my God,

Take the gentle path.

For my heart’s desire

Unto thine is bent:

I aspire

To a full consent.

Not a word or look

I affect to own,

But by book,

And thy book alone.55

The divine right teaching about obedience owed to the king is an expression of that fundamental attitude. To give expression to the attitude of obedience requires having something to obey. What is required must be specific and knowable, otherwise there can be no certainty of how to render obedience. That which is to be obeyed must arise from a source altogether external to the obedient: it must be a command. That command can take the form of an externally given set of laws or it can be the living will of a ruler. In either case, the authoritative element is the quality of command; otherwise it is not obedience but self-rule. The commendatory quality of the law or command inheres not in its usefulness but in its arbitrariness. If the law or command were binding because it served the interests of the ruled, then the chief quality expressed in conforming would not be obedience.

If God ruled directly, as he did before the Fall, then human beings could express their attitude of obedience through direct obedience to God. Or, if God ruled through his positive laws, as he did the Jews, then human beings could express their attitude of obedience through reverential honoring of the law. The Reformation interpretation of Christianity dwelt upon the abrogation of the laws through Christ; but at the same time, it dwelt upon the majesty and sovereignty of God and the concomitant utter creatureliness of humanity. Human beings are entirely unfree vis-à-vis God, at the same time that they are free from the law.56 How then can they live within the still obligatory stance of obedience? The divine right absolutist king steps into the breach caused by the insistence on the continued requirement of obedience coupled with the insistence (within certain strands of the Reformation) on the unbindingness of the law.

Thus, it appears, divine right absolutism is preeminently a development of the Reformation, or at least of a certain interpretation of human existence within Christianity. That conclusion comports with the claim raised by seventeenth-century thinkers like Sir Robert Filmer and John Maxwell that the divine right doctrine was the appropriate embodiment of the Reformation in the political sphere and that the alternatives to that doctrine were either “papist” in inspiration or, worse yet, pagan or atheistic. In his classic study The Divine Right of Kings, J. N. Figgis endorsed Filmer’s view, as does much recent scholarship.57 Figgis and the others present a somewhat different, but not incompatible, account of the relation between Protestantism and divine right theory. Divine right theory, they say, was an almost necessary response to papal pretensions to power in temporal affairs, whether direct or indirect. As Filmer saw quite clearly, Catholic apologists frequently patronized contractarian accounts of the origins of political authority as a way of lowering the dignity of the political vis-à-vis the directly divine origination of papal power. The divine right doctrine, quite simply, countered with an equal claim to direct derivation of secular authority in the divine will.58

The divine right doctrine was, of course, not the only political doctrine characteristic of the Reformation. There certainly were others, including those most forcibly opposed to divine right monarchy. That fact does not derogate from the connection between divine right and the Reformation, however, but reveals what gave shape to the seventeenth-century struggles in England and elsewhere. These were, in part, contests over the question of what the proper political embodiment of the Protestant principle was.


The most famous and most widely discussed theorist of divine right was not yet out of his teens when James became king, and his chief works were composed during the reign of James’s son, Charles I, and during the Interregnum. Robert Filmer’s doctrine is not identical to that of James and the earlier divine right monarchists, but he has come to be taken as the quintessential spokesman for that point of view. Filmer’s preeminence within the divine rights tradition is only partly deserved. So far as his argument is indeed different from the other jure divino royalists, he is given undue credit for influence or representativeness. Nonetheless, Filmer brings out especially well the underlying thoughts and attitudes in the divine right doctrine. By bringing these to near perfect expression, Filmer exposes himself to certain obvious logical and practical objections, which helped doom his position; yet, for the same reason, he does earn the preeminence he achieved.59

Filmer seems to be a considerably less supple thinker than James; for example, he takes James’s similitudes absolutely literally. The king is not only like a father to his people, he is the father, or the heir of the father. Since royal power is fatherly power, it must have belonged originally to the first father, Adam. Thus Filmer comes to center his doctrine on the account of Adam in Genesis in a way that James surely never did. Filmer transforms the earlier divine right theory until the similitudes disappear, leaving in their place a yet more direct expression of the grounding Reformation attitude that inspired earlier divine right thinking. Nonetheless, the proper context for appreciating his work is precisely the earlier theory he remade.

Ever since Locke’s devastating critique of Filmer, however, it has been difficult to approach the latter in any context other than the one Locke supplied for him. At the same time and for the same reason, it has been difficult to take Filmer seriously enough to grasp the serious core of his position. Locke has disserved Filmer not only in general ways, by wrenching him from his proper context and making him appear utterly ridiculous, but more particularly by bequeathing us a diluted version of his predecessor’s argument. Having set off on a diligent search for Filmer’s “full sense”, Locke informs us, he discovered in Sir Robert’s essay on Hobbes “all those arguments” for his divine right patriarchalism “which in his writings I find him any where to make use of.” The key passage that Locke quotes states:

If God created only Adam, and of a piece of him made the Woman, and if by generation from these two, as parts of them all mankind be propagated: If also God gave to Adam not only the Dominion over the Woman and the children that should issue from them, but also over the whole earth to subdue it, and over all the Creatures on it, so that as long as Adam lived, no Man could claim or enjoy anything but by Donation, Assignation, or permission from him . . .

The most important tactical move in Locke’s assault on Filmer occurs at this moment, in his comments on this Filmerian passage:

Here we have the sum of all his Arguments, for Adam’s Sovereignty, and against natural freedom, which I find up and down in his other Treatises; and they are these following; God’s creation of Adam, the Dominion he gave him over Eve: And the Dominion he had as Father over his children.60

Locke’s restatement is so important because it serves more or less as the program, the table of contents, for his investigation and critique of Filmer’s argument. In a succession of chapters he considers in seriatim the various grounds for Adam’s sovereignty he had extracted from the passage he quoted. But right at the outset, and in this definitive place, Locke has distorted Filmer’s position to such a degree that the latter’s central thought is no longer visible in Locke’s explicit presentation.

Most obviously, Filmer had not identified three separate reasons in support of Adam’s authority, as Locke said, but only two, as even the punctuation makes clear: the two are divided by a colon, and the second is introduced by an “also.” Filmer’s first argument is this: God made only Adam at first, and all others, including Eve and their children, derive from him as their origin and source. From this fact derives Adam’s “dominion” over all other human beings. Filmer’s second argument concerns Adam’s dominion over the nonhuman parts of the world. Adam’s dominion over humans derives from his being their source; his dominion over the rest of the world derives from positive divine grant. Although Filmer does not make his point perfectly explicit, he is clearly echoing and extending the most daring of James’s similitudes. Just as God has dominion over his creation because he is its source, so Adam has dominion over his progeny, because he is their source. Adam is a kind of surrogate begetter of the human world; he is God’s lieutenant on earth not merely by appointment, but through his rib and his loins.

The singular creation of Adam and the derivation of all others from him stands for Filmer as the single most significant fact about humanity. It proves, he concludes, that all human beings are born into a state of subjection, for if they were born free and equal, as Hobbes and the contractarians believe, they would have had quite a different origin:

I cannot understand how this [Hobbesian] right of nature can be conceived without imagining a company of men at the very first to have been all created together without any dependency one of another, or as mushrooms (fungorum more) they all on a sudden were sprung out of the earth without any obligation one to another: the scripture teaches us otherwise, that all men come by succession, and generation from one man: we must not deny the history of the creation.61

Filmer does not mean to trace Adam’s authority to any particular grant or command by God, but rather to the general pattern or plan revealed in creation. God expressed his will in his deed; the authority of Adam results from and constitutes the very point of the version of the origins of humanity in Genesis.

Filmer’s derivation of the authority of kings thus shares much with James’s; the traces of two of the similitudes remain visible, if much metamorphosed. The king is father, and the king is Godlike. Yet all lingering echoes of the Aristotelian doctrine of nature vanish from Filmer’s version. In place of nature is the biblical doctrine of Creation. This is not to say that Filmer did not occasionally cloak himself with the authority of Aristotle, but in the final analysis the Greek philosopher could not be a proper guide in politics: “We cannot much blame Aristotle for the uncertainty and contrariety in him, if one considers him as a heathen; for . . . it is not possible for the wit of man to search out the first grounds or principles of government . . . except he know that at the creation one man alone was made. . . . This point can be learnt only from the scriptures.”62 Filmer makes quite explicit what had lain implicit and partially concealed in the earlier forms of divine right theory: nature, and thus philosophy, no longer played any essential role in its depths.63

Filmer appears to rest everything on his reading of the account of creation in Genesis, but that reading contained at least two difficulties, which Filmer’s Whig critics did not hesitate to emphasize and which pointed to the deep-lying agreement between Filmer and the earlier divine right thinking. In the first place, Filmer’s reading of Genesis was by no means compelling in itself. Does it necessarily follow from the single origin of mankind in one man that kings rule by divine right and possess absolute, illimitable power? The second difficulty with Filmer’s doctrine related not so much to the interpretation of Genesis itself as to the effort to bring it to bear in the present. Even if one accepts the Filmerean interpretation of the creation of Adam, no actual king could trace his lineage, and thus his authority, back to Adam. Far from settling political power more firmly in an already unsettled age, Filmer threatened to unsettle all power by establishing a principle of legitimacy nobody could meet. “The skill used in dressing up power with all the splendor and temptation absoluteness can add to it, without shewing who has a right to have it, will serve only to give a greater edge to man’s natural ambition,” commented Locke. The result, he concluded, can only be a “scramble” leading to “endless contention and disorder” (I 106).

What in Filmer’s system either blinded him to the force of these objections or served as a reply to them was an implicit appeal to the same Reformation attitude of obedience and subjection we have already seen underlying the other divine right theories. Filmer read the story of creation as implying the subordination of humanity to Adam and his heirs because he began with the premise of subjection to God the Creator, to be carried over to the begetter-surrogate, Adam.64 Human beings are not mushrooms, he said; they do not spring up spontaneously and with no forebears. To have a source is to be under obligation to that source; if that were not so, then where would be the obligation to God himself? And human beings have a source: “We must not deny the history of the creation.”

As to the gaping chasm separating Adam and all reigning monarchs over which Filmer’s critics gleefully held him, Sir Robert admitted to it easily enough. “It is true, all kings be not the natural parents of their subjects, yet they all either are, or are to be reputed, as the next heirs of those progenitors who were at first the natural parents of the whole people.”65 Contrary to what one would expect on the basis of a superficial grasp of Filmer’s scheme, he did not believe it made any difference whether the prince actually possesses the Adamic paternal power or is merely “reputed” to do so:

In all kingdoms or commonwealths in the world, whether the Prince be the supreme Father of the people or but the true heir of such a Father, or whether he come to the crown by usurpation, or by election of the nobles or of the people, or by any other way whatsoever, or whether some few or a multitude govern the commonwealth, yet still the authority that is in any one, or in many, or in all of these, is the only right and natural authority of a supreme Father.

In other words, no matter who possesses authority, and no matter how it was acquired, that authority is the authority of the fatherhood, ultimately the authority of Adam. (As Locke, Sidney, and others insisted, there is something quite absurd in such a claim: if the power derives from fatherhood, it surely would appear that only fathers can possess it, and then only over their offspring.) Filmer is even willing to defend the authority of the hardest case, the usurper: “If it please God, for the correction of the Prince or punishment of the people, to suffer Princes to be removed and others to be placed in their rooms . . . in all such cases, the judgment of God, who hath power to give and take away kingdoms, is most just.”66

Filmer is untroubled by the inability of any princes to trace their authority back to Adam, for three reasons. In the first place, he means to say that the Pauline affirmation that all authority is of God finds its explication in Genesis, in the creation of Adam. This is where and how God has “appointed” rule; all rightful authority is nothing but the subjection owed to the original source, God, and derivatively to the derivative source, Adam. God could have provided for human beings to come into being in some other way, but he did not. The most common fact of nature, generation, when understood in light of the revealed creation, proves fathers to have sovereign authority in the human world. The objections of Locke, Sidney, and the others to the contrary, this “fatherly” authority can be transferred, or held by others, for it is the original of all authority. Certainly no authority can arise from individual consent, for no individual is free, no man has the moral authority to subject himself because he is already caught within a web of subjection and lacks the truly creative power of God.

According to Filmer, rulers can exercise the power of fathers and of the heirs of Adam, even if they are usurpers of that power. From the point of view of the subject, it matters much less who possesses the power than that it is recognized and obeyed; the relevant fact is the same whether the ruler he faces is Adam or Richard III: the king is he to whom he can render his obedience. Calvin made more or less the same point: “It belongeth not to us to be inquisitive by what right and title a prince reigneth . . . and whether he have it by God and lawful inheritance. . . . To us it ought to suffice that they do rule. For they have not ascended unto this estate by their own strength, but they are placed by the hand of God.”67 For the subject, it is enough to know he lies under the obligation to obey those he finds in positions of authority. The subject is concerned only with his own duties, not with the duties of the authorities to God. What is common to all such authority relations is precisely the obligation of obedience. For Filmer, this is the decisive matter, and it makes possible his acceptance of the apparent absurdities his Whig critics denounced. Filmer’s doctrine derives coherence, in other words, precisely from the way the Reformation attitude toward obedience radiates through every part of it.

It is indeed possible, Filmer concludes, that the true heir to Adam no longer exercises power, or even that great criminals do so, but this is thoroughly compatible with God’s ways. God is not bound even by his own ordinations. If he chooses to use evil men to rebuke Princes or peoples, that “is most just.” “God doth but use and turn men’s unrighteous acts to the performance of His righteous decrees.”68 Not only is the power that rulers possess an embodiment or reflection of God’s creative power, but so is their loss of power. The other side of human subjection is the supervening sovereignty of God, uncontained and uncontainable. The authority of the usurper does not contradict Filmer’s system but completes it.

The surpassingly sovereign God lying in the background of Filmer’s royalism is also a part of the Reformation dispensation. As Calvin, for example, insisted, God’s Providence is no lazy thing. The Reformation God is active and assertive, not leaving the world to run on its own. He is no divine watchmaker.69

The divine right doctrine, extreme and even absurd as it may have been in some respects, nonetheless derived its power from its derivation from and connections to some of the deepest strains of the Reformation. On the surface, the natural rights philosophy of Locke and the American Declaration of Independence differ so much from the divine right doctrine that nothing at all needs to be said at that level; yet, since the natural rights philosophy is also sometimes treated as a version of Reformation political thought, a comparison at a somewhat deeper level is worthwhile. The natural rights philosophy is very far from embodying or endorsing the fundamental attitude of obedience. The original condition is not one calling for obedience, but a situation of “no-rule”; human beings enter a status where obedience becomes important only through an act of their own reason and will, deployed in their own self-interest. And, according to the natural rights philosophy, human beings never enter a sphere of unconditional obedience, but always retain the right to disobey in a pinch, or in situations they judge may turn into a pinch—that is, in circumstances where their rights become insecure. Lacking a fundamental commitment to the attitude of obedience, the natural rights doctrine has no resonance with the “similitudes”; the family is distinctly not the model of political life, and the political good is not conceived in such a way that the political whole is ontologically and morally prior to the individual. The fundamental attitude expressed or endorsed in the natural rights philosophy is, in a word, almost the reverse of that in the divine right doctrine—not quite self-assertion or rebelliousness, but far closer to these than to obedience.70 If the natural rights philosophy expresses something in Reformation Christianity, it is something quite different from what found expression in the doctrine of divine right of kings.

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