This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

Divine sovereignty

“[P]opular sovereignty may give birth to a more formidable despotism than divine sovereignty. For a tyrant, whether he be one or many, who has, by hypothesis, successfully usurped one or the other sovereignty, cannot avail himself of the Divine Will, which shows itself to men under the forms of a Law Eternal, to command whatever he pleases. Whereas the popular will has no natural stability but is changeable; so far from being tied to a law, its voice may be heard in laws which change and succeed each other. So that a usurping Power has, in such a case, more elbow-room; it enjoys more liberty, and its liberty is the name of arbitrary power.”

~ Bertrand de Jouvenel[1]

The stock argument has been that divine sovereignty has the effect of fueling the growth of arbitrary power. Yet in its place today’s popular governments, if indeed we accept for a moment that they really are popular, make the law follow the “general will,” and the general will is the very definition of arbitrariness.

In trying to escape the limited arbitrariness of the king—limited because answerable to a transcendent standard—the modern world has enshrined a sort of collective arbitrariness that is far more powerful since the collective, unlike the king under divine sovereignty, answers to no higher law than the consensus it finds among its members. This, according to Jouvenel, is the weakness of popular sovereignty—that is answers to nothing but itself and is therefore absolute:

For a Power which lays down the good and the just is, whatever form it takes, absolute in a quite different way from one which takes the good and the just as it finds them already laid down by a supernatural authority. A Power which regulates human behaviour according to its own notions of social utility is absolute in a quite different way from one whose subjects have had their actions prescribed for them by God. And here we glimpse the fact that the denial of a divine lawgiving and the establishment of a human lawgiving are the most prodigious strides which society can take towards a truly absolute Power. So long as a supernatural origin was ascribed to law, this step remained untaken…All the great civilizations were formed in the framework of a divine law given to society, a law which even the strongest will of all, that of the wielders of Power, was powerless to shatter or replace.[2]

[1] Jouvenel, On Power, p. 47.

[2] Jouvenel, On Power, pp. 220-221.

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