De Laicis — Saint Robert Bellarmine’s Treatise on Civil Government

Chapter X

First proposition: Now against these errors this will be our first thesis: It is lawful for a Christian ruler to make laws. It is proved; for the primary duty of a ruler is to make laws, according to the words, “By Me kings reign, and law-givers decree just things.” 121 And, “The Lord is our King, the Lord is our Law-giver.” 122 For the duty of a king is to give orders, and to direct affairs by commanding. Besides, law itself is command and rule, therefore, if Christians can be rulers, they can certainly make laws, and this is confirmed by St. Augustine: “The heavenly city,” says he, “leads, as it were, a captive life of exile while on earth, and having accepted the promise of redemption and the spiritual gift as a pledge, does not hesitate to obey the laws of the earthly city, by which those things are carried on which are necessary for sustaining earthly life.” 123 And below, “Therefore, this heavenly city, while it wanders in exile on earth, calls its citizens from all nations, and summons its wandering band in every tongue, not caring how those by whom the earthly peace is established and maintained differ in customs, laws and institutions, not annulling or destroying any, but preserving and following them.”

Secondly, our thesis is proved by the necessity of civil laws, for Christians, by the mere fact that they are Christians, do not cease to be men and citizens, and hence members of a temporal State, therefore they should have for their human acts some rule by which they may be guided in their business relations and customary intercourse with other men; moreover, the natural law is not sufficient, for it gives only general principles, and does not come down to particular cases; even the law of the Church is not sufficient, since it is concerned only with Divine and heavenly things, as is known, while the Divine political law of the Old Testament has now been abrogated, since it was suitable only for that one people, the Jews, and for their condition; therefore, some other human rule is necessary, the will, surely, of the ruler, or some law drawn up by the authority of the ruler. And although the will of the ruler suffices to some degree when the ruler is wise and the nation is small, yet it is absolutely necessary that the nation, if it is to be ruled rightly, must be ruled by laws, not merely by the will of the ruler. It is clear that in the meantime the will of the ruler suffices, since kingdoms are older than laws. Justinus says that formerly it was customary for the people to be governed by the will of the ruler, without any laws; 124 and from Livy, it is plain that the Republic of Rome was governed for three hundred without any laws. 125

Finally, the first law-giver is either Moses, as Josephus claims 126 against Appio, or certainly Pharoneus, who lived three hundred years before Moses, as Eusebius, 127 and St. Augustine 128 teach. But before the time of Pharoneus, the Kingdoms of Assyria, of Greece, of Egypt, and others, were founded. Moreover, Aristotle states 129 that it is better for a people to be ruled by laws than solely by the will of the ruler, and, indeed, that this is to a certain extent necessary. And this is proved, first, because it is easier to find one or two good and wise men, than to find many. If the State is to be ruled by the will of a wise prince, this would require an infinite number of good princes, one in succession to the other, but if it is ruled by laws, it is sufficient that there should have been at some time a few wise men, or even one wise man, to make the law.

Secondly, those who make laws are many, and they consider the laws carefully; but the ruler is only one, and frequently has to judge without due consideration.

Thirdly, those who made the laws did so without love or hatred, for they passed judgment concerning things remote from themselves. A ruler judges of present matters in which friends, relations, gifts, fears, etc., have an influence. Hence, judgment by law is the judgment of reason alone; the judgment of a man is a judgment of reason and passion, that is, of the man and of the beast.

Fourthly, even if the decision of a ruler be most upright, it is scarcely ever free from suspicion, envy, complaints, and abusive words; but decision by law is free from all these, because, indeed, it is known that the law cannot be corrupted by bribes.

Fifthly, legal decisions can remain the same for a long time, but the judgments of men are often changed.

Sixthly, government by law can be reduced to a system and the more easily carried out; not so with government according to the will of a man.

Seventhly, it is better for a ruler to govern personally than by deputies, but government without laws necessarily requires many deputies, who are all to judge according to the will of the ruler; but when a nation is governed by laws, the ruler is held to judge all cases personally, since judgments are given according to his laws.

The third thesis is proved. For if it were not lawful for a Christian ruler to bind the people by law, it would be because of Christian liberty. But this cannot be said, for so far is law from opposing Christian liberty that it rather opposes the slavery contrary to that liberty, as may be shown from the very nature of Christian liberty; for Christian liberty is opposed to the servitude of sin. “Amen, amen, I say unto you: that whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin. Now the servant abideth not in the house forever; but the son abideth forever. If, therefore, the son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed.” 130 And, “Being then freed from sin, we have been made servants of justice.” 131 But this justification from sin is said to be a certain liberty, for he who is in sin cannot, until he is freed by grace, will that good which is ordained for eternal life; he has, indeed, free will, since he can choose one evil from among many, and he can even choose moral good, but he cannot choose salutary good unless he at least begins to be freed by the preventing grace of God, since he is held captive by the Devil according to his will, as it is written. 132 But free will liberated by grace can both will and accomplish salutary good. But this liberty was greater in the state of innocence, since then man could not will any evil, which now even just men cannot do; but it will be greatest in heaven, where we shall not be able to will any evil.

And so there is a triple gradation of liberty, just as there is a triple gradation of bodily life. The first is that of the Blessed, who, as they will be able so to live that they cannot die, they will be able so to act that they cannot sin.

The second was the liberty of Adam and Eve in the state of innocence, who, as they were able so to live that they could never die, so they also were able to act so well that they also could never sin.

The third is our own liberty, and we are not able so to live that we can never die, and we are not able to act so uprightly that we are capable of refraining from sin, at least from venial sin. Below these three grades there is no fourth, except not to live, and not to act rightly, which state is that of the damned. 133 Since, therefore, liberty consists in this, that we can choose good and reject evil, it is plain that law is not opposed to liberty; for it is no hindrance that we cannot so easily choose good and reject evil, but, on the contrary, this rather aids, since it affords opportunity for exercising liberty. But the law may be properly said to be opposed to slavery, since it cannot be fulfilled by the slave of sin. Hence, St. Paul says, “Do we, then, destroy the law through faith? God forbid: but we establish the law.” 134

This same thesis may be proved in a second way. Divine law is not opposed to liberty, therefore neither is human law. The antecedent is clear, for Adam was created free, and yet a law was imposed on him that he should not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. 135 The consequent is proved, for the Divine law and the human law, as far as the obligation of obeying them is concerned, are in every respect equal, as will be explained in the next chapter.

121 Prov. VIII., 15.

122 Isaias XXXIII., 22.

123 City of God, Book XIX., ch. 17.

124 History, Book I.

125 Book III.

126 Book II.

127 Chron.

128 City of God, Book XVIII., c. 3.

129 Book III., ch. 11.

130 John VIII., 34-36.

131 Rom. VI., 18.

132 Tim. II.

133 See St. Augustine, De Correptione et Gratia, ch. 2.

134 Rom. III., 31.

135 Gen. III.