Human beings are plagued with a desire to be put on one side of a thing. It could be war or an ideology — the Union or the Confederacy, the Sunnis or the Shiites — or it could be something more peaceful and healthy — the Eagles or the Giants, the Americans or the Russians in the space race. People seem to have a tendency to want to fall into one category or the other, and we can see this happening everyday; to describe it, we don’t dress it up and seemed to have embraced the nature of our “sides.” Of course, I’m talking about the right and the left.

Charlottesville, Va., Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017. | AP Photo/Steve Helber

Ascribe whatever words you may — Republican versus Democrat, red states versus blue states, conservatives versus liberals — semantics aside, it’s all roughly describing the same thing. In our world, this is big news. This is a conflict that is groping at the foundations of our nation, threatening serious instability that some even think is inevitable, and others seem to look forward to.

And yet, our current ideological conflict is quite small when measured up with the other ideological conflicts throughout history. If you are to flip through the pages of just about any century of British literature, you’ll find one very common conflict: the divine right of kings.

The divine right of kings basically says that a king is beholden to no one but God, because their will and God’s will are one in the same. No one can question them, and no one can hold them accountable for what they do, lest they presume to also hold God accountable.

Just like they always do, people felt that they must come out on one of two sides of the thing: either you wholeheartedly believed that the leader of your country was ordained by God himself, or you believed he was just a man like everyone else.

You can see how the one ideology — the one that has since died out in recent centuries — is a dangerous one. A man who is not beholden to his people is not fit to rule, not as far as most modern people would be concerned. But this was a real point of contention for far longer than any squabbles we’ll likely have in the U.S., and a lot of people died fighting for and against it. Many honestly believed that acting against a king meant acting against God (the person who would scoff and laugh at such a belief is likely the same person who does not understand their own capacity to believe the same, and therefore will not learn from history — ironically dooming himself to the same mistakes as the subject of his laughter).

This conflict has started more wars and claimed more lives than we realize. For us in the modern age, it’s a non-issue. Of course presidents and prime ministers aren’t unquestionable and purely from God — even the most devoutly religious folk don’t tend to believe these kinds of things. It’s difficult for us to realize how big of an issue this really has been, especially in Britain. The concept that “All men are created equal” is a very, very new one, and one we take for granted.

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Illustration for John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” by Gustave Doré | Wikimedia Commons

On a side note, if you want an interesting study on the divine right of kings, read John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” You could interpret it in several ways: the Satan character rebels against God and loses — this could seem like it would defend God’s infallibility as a ruler, thereby defending the right of kings. However, anyone who knows Milton and who has read “The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates” knows that Milton was not of this belief. In “Paradise Lost,” do not think of God as the king, rather, think of Satan as the metaphor for the earthly king who had the audacity to presume to be divine at all. This grave sin is shared by any who claim the divine right of kings, according to Milton.

 

Featured image: the Emperor of Japan depicted as a divine instrument of the sun goddess, Amaterasu | Wikimedia Commons