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Philosophy in the 17th century – The conception of human nature: authority and absolutism

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Never has a century, less than the seventeenth century, had confidence in the spontaneous forces of a nature abandoned to itself: the natural man, the one who is delivered without rule to the conflict of passions, where can one find a more miserable painting than among the politicians and moralists of the century? Hobbes agrees on this with La Rochefoucauld, and La Rochefoucauld with the Jansenist Nicole; for Hobbes, the sinister beasts of prey that are men in the state of nature can only be subdued by an absolute sovereign; and the Jansenists cannot admit that any movement of charity and love comes from anywhere other than divine grace in man delivered, by sin, to concupiscence.

Also, the 17th century was that of the counter-reformation and royal absolutism. The counter-reformation put an end to the paganism of the Renaissance; it is the flourishing of a Catholicism which sees a necessary task in the direction of intelligences and souls; the Jesuit order provides educators, directors of conscience, missionaries; he has more than two hundred schools in France; Thomism, in the form it takes with the Jesuit Suarez, is taught everywhere and manages to supplant, even in the universities of Protestant countries, the doctrine of Melanchthon. The counter-reformation is a movement that comes from Rome, and whose success is assured by private initiatives: royalty is, in France, Gallican, in England, Anglican. Yet it was the royal power itself which, in France, did not shy away from violent means to ensure religious unity, until the revocation of the Edict of Nantes purely and simply suppressed Protestantism.

The absolutism of the king is not the power of a strong individual, capable, by his personal prestige or by violent means, of retaining his subjects in obedience; it is a social function, independent of the person who exercises it, and which persists, even though for minorities, all-powerful ministers exercise power in the name of the prince; this social function, of divine origin, imposes duties even more than rights; and the absolute king by divine right, but first enslaved to his task by the election of God, is the antipodes of the tyrant of the Renaissance.

So these disciplines, religious or political, are accepted, agreed upon disciplines, the necessity of which is understood as much as the benefits. The rigidity of the rule is not slavery, but a framework, without which man falls, disjointed and uncertain like the Montaigne of the Essays. The monial ceremonial guides him in social relations, such as ritual in church.

There is resistance, however, and numerous; in England, absolutism by divine right twice clashes with the common will, and it succumbs; in France religious unity is only established at the cost of persecution; Holland, throughout the 17th century, served as a shelter for the persecuted from all countries, the Jews of Spain and Portugal, the Socinians of Poland, later the Protestants of France; precarious shelter elsewhere where they are often threatened; the Catholic religion itself was undermined, in its chosen country, France, by the quarrel between Jansenism and Molinism, and, at the end of the century, by the affair of Madame Guyon’s mysticism. Behind these facts, which come to light, lies a work of thought which results in thousands of incidents, thousands of books or libels now forgotten. Claims for freedom and tolerance did not begin in the 18th century; they continued to be heard throughout the 17th century, especially in England and Holland, and the century ended with the bitter discussion between Bossuet, who supported the divine right of kings, and the Protestant minister Jurieu who defends the sovereignty of the people.

Source: Émile Bréhier(1951). Histoire de la philosophie, Presses Universitaires de France. Translation and adaptation by © 2024 Nicolae Sfetcu

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