In our own time and country the controversy has almost come to an end, unless it happens to be revived by some dispute about the loyalty of Roman Catholics, but it is an exceedingly common topic amongst a certain school of Continental writers. Many eminent Frenchmen take every opportunity of asserting the absolute necessity of the division of the two powers. They will say that the independence of the spiritual power in its own province is the great safeguard of society, against the State-worship which would otherwise overspread every department of life, that the Pope and the Church are the great protectors of the rights and freedom of the conscience, and that if the two powers got into the same hands, the result would be the most crushing and most ignominious of all forms of tyranny.
These principles are often supported by reference to history. It is said that, as a matter of fact, the division of the two powers was one of the great foundations of the liberties of modern Europe; that Hildebrand and Innocent III. and Thomas à Becket asserted the rights of conscience against brute force; and that in the present day, if we could only see and know it, the organisation of the Roman Catholic Church is one of the principal bulwarks existing in Europe against a degrading and heartless form of despotism.
This, and much more to the same purpose, is continually to be read in newspapers, in reviews, and in speeches and addresses proceeding from eminent men, and sometimes not only from Roman Catholics but from Protestants also. No doubt, however, it is the distinctive language of that interesting though not very powerful party which tries to unite Romanism and Liberalism.
In order to form a just opinion as to its truth, it will be necessary to have a clear notion of the meaning and relation to each other of the principal terms which the discussion in question contains. These are law, power, and liberty. Without aiming at any affected precision, it will be enough to say that power is the ability to issue commands, that laws are commands enforced by sanctions, and that liberty is a negative word meaning the absence of restraint.
Setting out with these three simple definitions, the following propositions become at once obvious: First, power may be limited either by the nature of the persons to whom, or the subjects on which, the commands can be issued, or by the nature of the sanctions by which they can be enforced. For instance, it may apply only to acts done by Englishmen or Frenchmen, or to acts done in relation to war, or to public education; and it may consist in the ability to inflict imprisonment, or in the ability to inflict whipping, in case of transgression of the commands of the person who holds it. But these, or some combination of these, limitations are the only ones which the nature of the case admits; for power is nothing else than an ability to inflict some evil, or give some good to some person for some actions.
Secondly, it follows from the definitions given above that laws of whatever kinds are the contradictory of liberty, so that whatever multiplies laws of whatever sort must, by the very nature of the case, abridge liberty. This gives a short answer to those who suppose that by increasing the number of legislators you increase that which every act of legislation must by its nature diminish.
We have next to apply these considerations to the question, What is the nature of the distinction between temporal and spiritual power? But what do temporal and spiritual mean? They mean that which belongs respectively to the clergy and to the laity as such. Therefore, temporal and spiritual power mean the ability of the clergy and laity respectively to issue commands. Hence the distinction between temporal and spiritual power; and the boundary line drawn between the two may be pointed out by solving the question, What commands can be issued by the clergy and what by the laity respectively? and these commands, as shown already, must differ either in respect of the persons to whom, or the subjects on which, the commands are issued, or in respect of the sanctions by which they are enforced.
It is generally admitted that the difference is not in the persons to whom the commands are issued. The distinction between spiritual and temporal is common to all nations and all times. The difference, therefore, must relate either to the subjects on which the command is to be given, or the sanctions by which they are to be enforced, or both. The common opinion is that there is a distinction as to both—that temporal and spiritual matters belong to different provinces of things, and that the comrnands issued respecting them are enforced by different sanctions. That the temporal and spiritual sanctions differ is self-evident. The only real question, therefore, is whether the things themselves, the subject-matter of legislation, can be classified as temporal or spiritual.
Of course such a classification could be made, if all parties agreed to it. In the eleventh century Hildebrand and Henry IV. might perhaps have drawn the line amicably between their respective spheres. 'Do you regulate such and such matters by punishing men in their persons, their property, and their lives. I will regulate such others by excommunications and interdicts.' There is no reason why such an arrangement should be impossible now in the abstract. A country might be imagined in which laws respecting marriage and education, for instance, should be made by a clerical assembly, while other matters were regulated by a lay legislature. In such a case there would be a real division between the temporal and spiritual powers—that is to say, the clerical and the lay body would each possess real power over particular classes of actions. Whether such an arrangement exists in any particular place or not is of course a question of fact, but it is only as an inconsiderable and antiquated exception that it exists in the present day, if at all. Moreover, such a division would not apply to the relations between the possessors of the two classes of power.
As a rule, the two powers are distinguished, not by the actions to which they apply, but by the sanctions on which they depend. All things have both a spiritual and a temporal aspect, and the duties arising out of those aspects respectively, are enforced by spiritual or temporal sanctions, as the case may be.
Thus almost every crime is also a sin. The duty of abstaining from the sin is enforced by the fear of punishment in another life. The duty of abstaining from the crime is enforced by the punishments inflicted by the law of the land. Every church is also a building. The duty of worshipping in it on certain occasions is a religious duty. The power of going into and remaining in the building is a legal right. The elements of the sacrament are, according to the Roman Catholic view, transubstantiated by the words of consecration. They are also bread and wine, the subjects of property, and liable to all its incidents in a court of law. Thus the distinction between temporal and spiritual power consists, not in the province over which it extends, but in the character of the sanction by which it is supported.
Starting with this view of the nature of the distinction between temporal and spiritual power, some observations may be made on several questions connected with the subject of considerable general interest, and often discussed at the present time. We will try to say something on a few of these questions—that is to say, first, on the nature and respective properties of the two powers; secondly, on the alleged advantages of dividing them; and thirdly, on the true nature of the process inaccurately described by that expression.
First, then, as to the nature and respective properties of the two powers. It is clear that all power, whether temporal or spiritual, depends on opinion. Your temporal power over me depends upon my present opinion that, in certain cases, you can and will hang me. Your spiritual power over me depends upon my present opinion that, in certain cases, you can and will cause God to damn me. Temporal commands are conditional threats to hang. Spiritual commands are conditional threats to cause to be damned. If I am of opinion that you can hang me, or cause me to be damned, for any reason whatever which appears sufficient to you, then your power over me is exactly measured by my reluctance to be hanged or damned, and such power extends to every action of my life. I may be hanged for going to mass or for reading the Bible. I may be damned for voting for the wrong candidate at an election, or for or against a particular measure in Parliament. So far the two powers are precisely similar, but there are several important distinctions between them.
In the first place, there is no room, or hardly any room, for mistake as to the character of temporal power. In all civilised communities the evidence as to the person in whom the power to hang is vested is conclusive. Every one in England knows who bears the temporal sword, and in general upon what terms he holds it; but it is by no means equally clear who holds the spiritual sword, or what, if any, are the terms on which it is held. Hence the opinion on which temporal power is founded is always right, the opinion on which spiritual power is founded is always contested.
On the other hand, the terms on which temporal power can be used are as well ascertained as the fact that it resides in such and such hands, and this draws a definite outline round its terrors. No one fears to be hanged for walking down the street. The terms on which spiritual power can be used are altogether indefinite. Many people are afraid of being damned for having been born.
Another important observation on spiritual power is that it consists, not in the power of damning, but in the power of causing to be damned. This distinction is real and important, as it shows that very few persons possess spiritual power in the full and proper sense of the words. Those alone are its real possessors whom other people believe to be invested with a personal power of giving, or withholding, something either necessary or at least highly useful to their salvation. Such persons, for instance, as suppose a priest's absolution to be of this character are really and fully under the spiritual power of the clergy. Over those who look upon the priest merely as an adviser, he has, strictly speaking, no power. He cannot cause them to be damned. He can only tell them, with more or less authority, what are the conditions of damnation. In the one case, the priest is a true ruler armed with a coercive authority. In the other, he is but an adviser.
This is the cardinal distinction between spiritual power in Roman Catholic and in Protestant countries. In Scotland the clergy had at one time immense temporal power, and unlimited spiritual credit; but they had, properly speaking, no spiritual power in their palmiest days. In Roman Catholic countries there are, and always have been, many persons over whom the clergy have vast spiritual power, even when their general influence has been at the lowest ebb, and when they were totally deprived of temporal power.
Such being the provinces and such the nature of the two powers, let us now consider the commonplaces about the importance of dividing them. Speaking generally, they will be arranged on some such principles as the following: Human nature will be conceived as composed of two distinct parts, one of which consists of all the ordinary desires for common objects of enjoyment, and the other of moral and religious principles. Organise each set of principles separately, and the State corresponds to the one, and the Church to the other. The separation and independence of the two bodies will, on the one hand, secure to the common secular faculties a legitimate sphere of action; and, on the other, will secure the spiritual faculties from secular oppression. This theory, or something like this, lies at the bottom of many of the most popular of modern commonplaces. In particular, it is in constant use amongst that class of distinguished French writers who, by a curious eddy in the current of thought, have come to regard the Pope as a champion of human freedom. Let us consider the theory with reference to the principles already stated.
The first observation that occurs upon it is, that the separation suggested is impossible, and that the notion that it can be made proceeds upon a false theory of human nature. Human life cannot be cut into halves, though human actions may be considered in many relations. To say that trade belongs to one section, and prayer to another, is to misunderstand both trade and prayer. Honesty, amongst other things, is essential to each. Precisely the same moral defects lead men to sand their sugar, and to use insincere language in their prayers; and the same reason—namely, that it is good to be honest— forbids fraud in the one case, and hypocrisy in the other.
But not only is the theory that life can be thus divided untrue, but the suggestion that the priest and the statesman should be each provided with his own province is impossible. If a man can cause you to be damned, how are you to hem him into any particular province? How can you say, 'You shall not cause people to be damned except for certain things?' Suppose he replies, 'I shall, and I will begin by causing you to be damned for trying to limit my power'—what is to prevent him?
In order to make a partition between temporal and spiritual power, you want some third power superior to both to enforce your partition. What keeps the French out of England, and the English out of France? Nothing but the fact that each Power is strong enough to hold its own against the other. If one were very much stronger than the other, and if there were no other Powers to help the weaker, the stronger would give it laws, and the weaker would hold what was left to it only at the will of the stronger. So it must always be when hard comes to hard in the ultimate analysis of things.
The possessor of temporal power, if he thinks himself liable to damnation, is, to the extent of his belief, subordinate to the holder of spiritual power; just as the priest, in his turn, being liable to death, is in the power of the temporal ruler. The two fears may be balanced, or the one may overweigh the other; but to attempt to get those who have the power of exciting them to agree that they shall never clash, but each operate in a province of its own, is to misunderstand their very nature.
The fear of being damned must override everything, and may apply to every action of human life. If, therefore, any one really possesses this power, or is believed to possess it, he is by that very fact the ruler of the world, and his power can no more be limited by imaginary compacts, or partitions of territory, than a powerful man can make himself weak by agreeing not to use his strength.
Power is power, and the man who has it is the master of the man who has it not. Whether he happens to make him feel his inferiority at a given moment or not, is a mere question of inclination or policy. Hence the attempt to draw a line between temporal and spiritual power, is like an attempt to make a law altering the specific gravity of lead and iron. Unless you put other weights into the scale, the lead will always overweigh the iron; and, by the same principle, he who can threaten highest, will be able to define the limit within which he will threaten, and to govern all those who are exposed to his threats.
From all this it follows that, so long as the opinions on which each are founded remain unshaken, temporal power is by its nature subordinate to spiritual power, and spiritual power must draw the line between them; that is, the province of the temporal power is just what the spiritual power chooses to assign to it. In other words, if and in so far as A is supposed to be able to cause his neighbours to be damned—including, amongst others, B, who is able to cause him and them to be hanged—A will govern B and all those whom B governs.
A further inference from the same principles is one which we have already indicated shortly in the earlier part of this article. It is that the existence of spiritual power must diminish, and cannot in any conceivable event increase, the extent of liberty in the world.
Four states of things are possible with regard to any given act as to which a person is capable of being restrained by the operation of either power. Both powers may leave him alone, in which case he is free; but in this case he would be equally free if one only existed. Both powers may forbid the act. In this case he is under two penalties instead of one. One only may forbid it. In this case the existence of the other does not affect the question. One may forbid and the other command. In this case he is between the devil and the gallows. If you do it you shall be damned, if you do not do it you shall be hanged. This is double slavery, instead of freedom.
It may be said that if the two powers turn against each other, instead of turning against each other's subjects, the one which happened to be stronger at the time and place might restrain the other from particular acts of tyranny against their common subjects, and that in this way the existence of the two might favour freedom, for it might prevent the imposition of penalties which, if imposed, would abridge it. Here, however, it is not the separation of the two powers which favours freedom, but the will of the stronger prevailing over that of the weaker. If the stronger existed alone, the result would be just the same.
A robber about to murder me abstains for fear of legal punishment. It is not the division of power between the law and the robber which protects me, but the supremacy of the law over the robber. If each had a sphere of its own in which they were respectively independent, I should have nothing to hope from the law in the robber's sphere, and nothing to fear from the robber in the law's. In certain states of society the lay power has been able to curb the clerical, to the advantage of the public. In others, the converse has been the case, with the same results; but in each instance the good done has been effected, not by the separation of the two, but by the superiority or supremacy of the one which happened to be most benevolent.
Are we then to conclude that there is no meaning at all in the commonplaces on this subject, and that the spiritual power must always be superior to the temporal power? By no means. The real conclusion is, that the commonplaces are not accurately expressed. They all alike involve a confusion between power and counsel, and, when modified so as to meet that distinction, they are perfectly true, and show the real way to ascertain the true sphere of liberty, and secure it from invasion.
Spiritual power, as above defined, is ability to cause to be damned. This is a totally different thing from ability to announce the fact that such and such conduct does in fact tend to damnation. The physician has no power when he tells you that certain habits will lead to sickness or death; he is merely an adviser, and not a ruler. Where the clergy are recognised as advisers merely who tell people what, as a matter of fact, will be the result of particular courses of conduct, they possess no power in the true sense of the word; they can inflict no penalty if their advice is not taken, and they do not profess to do so.
If the influence which their special knowledge gives them is called spiritual power, it will then be perfectly true to say that it is of the highest importance that spiritual and temporal power should be distinct; that the advisers of mankind on the one hand, and their rulers on the other, should act independently, the one using their power and the other giving their advice without encroaching on each other's province. But this is true, not of the clergy alone, but of all advisers—of men of science, of the members of liberal professions, and of authors and journalists.
This also answers the question as to the relative precedency of temporal and spiritual power. Between the two powers, in the proper sense of the word, there must always be this relation. The spiritual power threatens highest, but the temporal power threatens most surely. As people get to doubt— as in process of time they always do—whether their priests can cause them to be damned, they come more and more under the control of the man who beyond all doubt whatever can cause them to be hanged; and so long as the question is one of mere power, the whole history of Europe for eight hundred years, shows that the temporal power rises, and the spiritual falls, and that the attempt to bolster up the latter, is the attempt to bolster up a shadow.
On the other hand, the force of counsel in general, as against power in general, has, during the same period, been gradually rising. Whoever in the present day can show men, not by threats of causing them to be damned, but by appeals to their own consciences and to the general constitution of things, that such and such courses lead to all good or all evil here and hereafter, will assuredly bring mere power round to his side, or will cause men to set it at defiance, in the more civilised parts of the world. And this shows that the true course is not to try to set power against power, and to hope to find freedom in serving two masters, but as far as possible to substitute counsel for power, in all relations of life, to secure the independence of our counsellors, and to adjust power to what appears, on the whole, to be the result of the wisest counsel that can be discovered.
Saturday Review, April 14, 1866.