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Diderot on the nature of political authority (1751)

The editor of the great 18th century French Encyclopedia, Denis Diderot (1713-1784), opened the project with an essay challenging the very nature of Kingly political authority in mid-18th century France:

No man has received from nature the right to command others. Liberty is a gift from heaven, and each individual of the same species has the right to enjoy it as soon as he enjoys the use of reason. If nature has established any authority, it is paternal control; but paternal control has its limits, and in the state of nature, it would terminate when the children could take care of themselves. Any other authority comes from another origin than nature. If one seriously considers this matter, one will always go back to one of these two sources: either the force and violence of an individual who has seized it, or the consent of those who have submitted to it by a contract made or assumed between them and the individual on whom they have bestowed authority.

No man has received from nature the right to command others. Liberty is a gift from heaven, and each individual of the same species has the right to enjoy it as soon as he enjoys the use of reason. If nature has established any authority, it is paternal control; but paternal control has its limits, and in the state of nature, it would terminate when the children could take care of themselves. Any other authority comes from another origin than nature. If one seriously considers this matter, one will always go back to one of these two sources: either the force and violence of an individual who has seized it, or the consent of those who have submitted to it by a contract made or assumed between them and the individual on whom they have bestowed authority.

Power that is acquired by violence is only usurpation and only lasts as long as the force of the individual who commands can prevail over the force of those who obey; in such a way that if the latter become in their turn the strongest party and then shake off the yoke, they do it with as much right and justice as the other who had imposed it upon them. The same law that made authority can then destroy it; for this is the law of might. Sometimes authority that is established by violence changes its nature; this occurs when it continues and is maintained with the express consent of those who have been brought into subjection, but in this case it reverts to the second case about which I am going to speak; and the individual who had arrogated it then becomes a prince, ceasing to be a tyrant.

Power that comes from the consent of the people necessarily presupposes certain conditions that make its use legitimate, useful to society, advantageous to the republic, and that set and restrict it between limits: for man must not and cannot give himself entirely and without reserve to another man, because he has a master superior to everything, to whom he alone belongs in his entire being. It is God, whose power always has a direct bearing on each creature, a master as jealous as absolute, who never loses [14] his rights and does not transfer them.3 He permits for the common good and for the maintenance of society that men establish among themselves an order of subordination, that they obey one of them, but he wishes that it be done with reason and proportion and not by blindness and without reservation, so that the creature does not arrogate the rights of the creator. Any other submission is the veritable crime of idolatry. To bend one’s knee before a man or an image is merely an external ceremony about which the true God, who demands the heart and the mind, hardly cares and which he leaves to the institution of men to do with as they please the tokens of civil and political devotion or of religious worship. Thus it is not these ceremonies in themselves, but the spirit of their establishment that makes their observance innocent or criminal. An Englishman has no scruples about serving the king on one knee; the ceremonial only signifies what people wanted it to signify. But to deliver one’s heart, spirit, and conduct without any reservation to the will and caprice of a mere creature, making him the unique and final reason for one’s actions, is assuredly a crime of divine lèse-majesté of the highest degree. Otherwise this power of God about which one speaks so much would only be empty noise that human politics would use out of pure fantasy and which the spirit of irreligion could play with in its turn; so that all ideas concerning power and subordination coming to the point of merging, the prince would trifle with God, and the subject with the prince.

About this Quotation:

Diderot walked a tight rope between the authoritarian censors of his day who supported the doctrine of the divine right of kings, and his liberal supporters among the aristocrats and some members of the government who supported the reform program of the Encyclopedists. One way to avoid the censors was to sneak in political criticism of the régime in innocuous articles about geography such as on “Switzerland” where they could praise the actions of William Tell who killed his oppressors with his famous bow and arrow. Now and again he was more direct, as in this essay on “Political Authority” in which he defended the idea of “the consent of the governed” (a basic demand of democrats) as well as denouncing the idea that “might makes right.” He thought that most European governments had acquired their power by means of violence, which he called “usurpation,” and that the oppressed would one day “shake off their yoke” and that they would be justified in doing so. Diderot died 5 years before the French people would do that very thing in their revolution of 1789. He would not have been surprised, and probably would have supported them, given what he said in this article.

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