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

Chapter 4

The second argument is derived from examples; for if authority were evil, never would good men have exercised it; but we have in the Scriptures many examples of holy princes, as Melchisedech, the King of Salem, the Patriarch Joseph, who ruled most beneficently over all Egypt, Moses, Josue, almost all the Judges, David, Solomon, Ezechias, Josaphat, Josias, Daniel, Mardochai, Nehemias, the Maccabees, and others.

In the New Testament we see 45 that a ruler believed in Christ, nevertheless he was not ordered to renounce his authority; and in like manner, 46 the pro-consul converted by St. Paul did not therefore lay aside his jurisdiction. Next, we see that Philip was acknowledged Emperor by St. Fabian, Pope and Martyr, and by the whole Church, nor was he commanded to lay aside his authority, as may be learned in the history of Eusebius. 47

Moreover, the reason why a greater abundance of examples is not found in the New Testament is because God willed His Church to begin from poor and humble men, 48 in order that the growth of the Church might not be considered the work of man, as might have happened had it grown by the favor of princes. Nay, on the contrary, God willed that for the first three hundred years the Church should be attacked by the Emperors of the whole world with all their powers, that by this very thing He might show that the Church was His work, and could accomplish more by suffering than they (the Emperors) could accomplish by inflicting torture.

Hence St. Augustine says 49 that God willed that in the first age of the Church should be fulfilled that passage, 50 “The kings of the earth stood up, etc.” Then He willed that in the following age should be fulfilled that passage, “And now, ye kings, understand,” 51 as we see truly fulfilled in Constantine and his successors; inasmuch as we see Constantine Divinely instructed and called by God by a wonderful miracle, as Eusebius relates. 52 But if rulership were evil, why did Christ Himself call Constantine into the Church? Note in passing a discrepancy in this story. For in the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius, translated by Ruffinus, 53 it is related that Constantine, while sleeping, saw the sign of the Cross in the sky, and then angels said to him, “Conquer in this sign.” But Eusebius relates 54 that while on a journey Constantine, with his bodily eyes, saw above the sun the sign of the Cross with this inscription, “Conquer in this sign,” and the same sign was seen by his whole army. The following night Christ appeared to him and explained the mystery. And he (Eusebius) heard all these things directly from Constantine himself. And it is most likely that what is related in the History was added by Ruffinus.

Many other examples could be added of Justinian, Gratian, Theodosius, father and son, Charlemagne, Louis the Pious, Otho I., St. Henry the Emperor, St. Louis, King of France, and many others who, whether in Britain, or in Hungary, or in Bohemia, or in other places, reigned most holily.

In answer to the contrary argument, I say: Firstly, it is false to state that most rulers are evil, for here we are not speaking of royalty in particular, but of political power in general; such a prince was Abraham, and others; if, therefore, there were wicked rulers, Cain, Nimrod, Ninus, Pharaoh, Saul, Jeroboam, and other Kings of Israel, so, on the other hand, there were good rulers, Adam, Noe, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Josue, almost all the Judges, and many kings of Juda.

Secondly, I say that the examples of evil rulers do not prove that authority is evil, for evil men frequently abuse good things, but the examples of good rulers rightly prove that authority is good, since good men do not make use of evil things. Besides, even evil rulers often do more good than harm, as is evident in the cases of Saul, of Solomon, and of others. Finally, it is better for a State to have an evil ruler than none at all, for where there is no ruler the State cannot long endure, as Solomon says, 55 “Where there is no governor, the people shall fall,” and where there is a ruler, though he be evil, the unity of the nation is preserved. 56

Thirdly, I say that the fact that not one of the Kings of Israel was good pertains to the wonderful Providence of God, for God willed to permit this, since that revolt of the Israelites against the tribe of Juda signifies the breaking away of heretics from the Church, as Eucherius teaches. 57 For just as among Catholics there are good and bad, but among heretics no one can be good, so also among the Kings of Juda there were many good, also many bad. But among the Kings of Israel not a single good man was found.

45 John IV., 46, seq.

46 Acts XIII., 6.

47 Book VI., ch. 25.

48 1 Cor., I., 27, 28.

49 Epistle 50.

50 Ps. 2.

51 Ibid., 10.

52 Life of Constantine, Book I.

53 Book IX., ch. 9.

54 Ibid.

55 Prov. II.

56 St. Thomas, opusc. 20, Book I., ch. 6.

57 On the Book of Kings, Book III.