On the Subject of Civil Authority, and On Resistance of Tyranny

by Henri Grenier

The Québécois priest, theologian, and philosopher, Henri Grenier (1899-1980), was the author of a popular Cursus Philosophiae that was translated into both French and English. He was a major Thomistic opponent of personalism, and is thought to have been an influence on the great Laval School Thomist, Charles De Koninck. The following passages are taken from Thomistic Philosophy, Vol 3: Moral Philosophy, trans. J.P.E. O’Hanley (Charlottetown: St. Dunstan’s University, 1949). A scan of the relevant pages (including sections omitted below) can be found here. The overall context is a discussion of the causes of civil (or political) society. Grenier’s reflections on the ‘subject’ of civil authority, and on resisting tyrants are highly relevant to the problem of legitimacy discussed by Daniel Lendman, Felix de St. Vincent, and E. M. Milco. — The Editors

Subject Of Civil Authority

1116. Statement of the question

1° The question of the subject of civil authority is entirely distinct from the question of the origin of civil society. The former question is concerned with the material cause of civil society, and the latter with its efficient cause.

2° In this article, we shall consider civil authority as such and not parental or ecclesiastical authority.

3° Subject is defined: a principle which is capable of receiving a form.

4° Authority is a power, and therefore it appertains to the order of operation. Hence, in order to attain an accurate notion of the subject of civil authority, we must consider the order of operation of the organic world. Now, in the organic world, there are two kinds of subject, i.e., of principle, capable of receiving an organic faculty:

a) the first subject from which an organic faculty results by natural emanation, or, as it is called, the total subject: this subject is a complete supposit, i.e., a plant or an animal;

b) the immediate subject into which an organic faculty is received and by which the first subject exercises its operations, or, as it is called, the subject quo, the subject of inherence: it is a part of a total subject or an organ, as the eye, but sometimes can be coextensive with the total subject; v.g., the power of assimilation is diffused throughout the whole of the plant.

Similarly, in dealing with civil authority, we must make a distinction between the first subject from which civil authority naturally results and the immediate subject by which it is exercised. Hence we find ourselves confronted with two questions in regard to the subject of civil authority:

first, what, according to natural law, is the first subject from which civil authority results by natural emanation ?

secondly, granted that this subject is a complete multitude politically united, i.e., a people, what, according to natural law, is the immediate subject of civil authority?

1117. Opinions

1° The people, according to Rousseau, is the efficient cause of civil authority, and therefore civil authority does not derive immediately from God. The people, moreover, is in an inalienable manner the immediate subject of civil authority, and consequently rulers and deputies are merely delegates or mandataries of the people.

2° According to the Sillonists (école du Sillon), civil authority derives from God, but the proximate subject in which it is inalienably vested is the people, and therefore rulers and deputies are nothing more than delegates or mandataries of the people. This is the opinion held by Marc Sangnier and others.

3° Many, especially the Monarchists, hold that the political power of kings derives immediately from God; in other words, they hold that a king is immediately constituted in the regal office by God. Hence they deny that the proximate subject of civil authority is determined by the will of man. This was the opinion held by King James I of England,[1] against whom St. Robert Bellarmine[2] and Suarez wrote. This opinion was held also by Luther, Melanchton, Calvin King Louis XIV,[3] probably by Bossuet,[4] and, in general, by all Gallicans.

4° Many of the older philosophers, as Hugh of St Victor (d. 1141) and Alexander of Hales (d. 1245), held that the supreme civil authority derives from God through the Church.

5° Scholastics commonly hold that the people, i.e., the whole community politically united, is the first subject from which civil authority results by natural emanation.[5]

But they do not agree on what is civil authority’s immediate subject.

a) Some, as Liberatore, Schiffini, Meyer, Cathrein, Zigliara, and Lortie simply state, against Rousseau, that the people cannot be the subject of authority.

b) Others hold that the first immediate subject of civil authority is the people, and therefore that the people transfer it to the person of their ruler. This is the opinion held by Costa-Rossetti,[6] Castelein[7], Marcellus of the Child Jesus,[8] and others, who attempt to defend the opinion of Cajetan, Bellarmine, Suarez, etc.

c) But, in our opinion, this is not exactly the teaching of Suarez, who, as all agree, gives the best presentation of scholastic tradition in this matter.

First, he maintains that, according to the order of nature, the people are the first subject from which civil authority derives.

Secondly, he holds that nature is negatively related to the proximate subject by which authority is exercised, and therefore that this subject is determined by the will and institution of men. Gredt holds almost the same opinion. This is the opinion which we follow.

1118. Statement of the thesis

Thesis: According to the order of nature, the people is the first subject from which civil authority naturally results; and its immediate subject is determined by human institution.

First part: According to the order of nature, the people is the first subject from which civil authority naturally results. This is evident, because civil authority necessarily derives from the nature of the people, i.e., of the community politically united, as its property.

Second part: The immediate subject of civil authority is determined by human institution. The immediate subject of civil authority is determined either by the natural law or by human institution. But it is not determined by the natural law. Therefore the immediate subject of civil authority is determined by human institution.

Minor.— According to the natural law, there is no reason why civil authority is vested in one part of a community rather than in another, that is to say, not only is there no reason why it is vested in this particular person rather than in another, but also no reason why it is vested in one person rather than in senate or legislative body, and vice versa; in one ruler rather than in deputies, and vice versa, as is evident from practice: for peoples adopt different forms of government, and, in doing so, they do not act in violation of the natural law.

1119. Scholion

Since civil authority results from the nature of the people, it does not derive from the will of the people, nor is it the will of the people, as Rousseau contended, but it is derived immediately from nature, i.e., from God, the author of nature. Hence civil authority as civil or political, whether vested in the people as a whole, or in a ruler, or in a legislative body, is immediately derived from God. But the proximate subject in which it is vested, as a ruler, a legislative body, etc. is determined by human institution.

In other words, authority as civil is immediately derived from God, but civil authority becomes, for example, regal by human institution, as Suarez wrote in condemnation of the teaching of James I; but yet authority as regal is derived from God as from its first cause.


1122. Resistance of tyranny

1° Preliminaries:

a) Tyrant originally meant a governor who had full power over bis subjects. Nowadays, however, tyrant signifies a governor who imposes his own will on a people by force, or oppresses a people by unjust laws.

b) Resistance, in general, is opposition to another’s activ- ity. It is to two kinds: active and passive.

Passive resistance is morally the same as disobedience.

Active resistance is of two kinds: peaceful or non-violent, which is opposition to unjust laws and the violence of governors by means of writings, peaceful demonstrations, etc.; armed or violent, which is opposition by physical force for the overthrow of tyranny.

c) Both passive resistance and peaceful active resistance to manifestly unjust laws are certainly lawful; moreover, at least passive resistance is obligatory in the case of laws which are manifestly opposed to divine or natural good. But what must be said of violent active resistance?

d) To answer this question, we must make a distinction between tyrant by usurpation and tyrant by oppression.

A tyrant by usurpation or title is one who attains supreme authority by the use of illegal means of any kind whatsoever.

A tyrant by oppression is one who has a just title to supreme authority, but governs his subjects by manifestly unjust laws.

2 ° In the light of the foregoing observations, we may now set forth our teaching on the violent active resistance of tyrants in the propositions which follow.

1) At the time of the act of usurpation, both the rightful ruler and people have the right of defending themselves against a tyrant by usurpation: This is evident, for, if an individual man may use violence in self-defence against an unjust aggressor in the act of aggression, the people and the person in whom is vested the care of the people have a fortiori a similar right.

Therefore, while war is actually being waged, the rightful ruler may, and the people not only may, but should resist an unjust aggressor, and, if necessary, put him to death, provided that the moderation of a blameless defense is observed.

A private citizen may do the same, provided that he acts not on his private authority, but on the express or tacit authority of his ruler [Cajetanus, in II-II, q. 64, a. 3.].

2) After the usurper has established his rule, both the rightful ruler and the people have, absolutely speaking, the right to dethrone a tyrant by usurpation.— This is evident, for no one may lawfully become a ruler by the use of violence [In II Sent., d. 44, q. 2, a. 2, ad 5].

We say absolutely speaking, for if the people would suffer greater evils as a result of war against the tyrant, and there is no probable hope of overthrowing him, the exercise of rights should be suspended and submission made to the tyrant: for in this case, the public safety of the people, which is the supreme law, is at stake.

Therefore, after a usurper has established himself in power citizens are bound to submit to his decrees if they are in the interest of the common good, for otherwise there would be no legislator, and the State would perish.

3) A tyrant by usurpation can become the lawful ruler. It is not in virtue of violence, as is evident, but because of the necessity of peace and public security that a usurper can become the lawful ruler. For, if the rule of the usurper is looked upon as unlawful, public peace will be endangered as long as the people regard him as a usurper and question the lawfulness of his authority.

4) In the case of the tyrant by oppression, we should be guided by the following principles:

a) When the tyranny is not excessive, it is more advantageous to tolerate the tyrant for a time than to oppose him and thereby become victimized by evils worse than his tyrannous rule.

Public security or the common good, indeed, requires that we suffer small evils, in order that greater ones may be avoided [De Reg. Princ., 1. I, c. 6].

b) In the case of tyranny which is intolerable, there are four possible remedies:

First, if there exists a superior authority in whom is vested the right of providing for the government of the people, appeal may be made to him for redress against the tyranny.

Secondly, if the people have the right of making provision for their own government, they may either depose the tyrant, or limit his power, if he is guilty of abuse in its exercise.

Thirdly, if the ruler is not determined by the vote of the people, nor by a higher authority, and if tyranny is evident and excessive, the people very probably have, because of the common good, the right of deposing the tyrant: for the safety of the country as a whole is the supreme law.

Fourthly, if no human help can be found to restrain the tyrant, recourse must be had to Almighty God, the King of Kings, Who ever comes at the opportune moment to the aid of those who are suffering tribulation, and Who, moreover, is able to change the cruelty of the tyrant’s heart into clemency.

But, in order to obtain this divine favor, the people must give up the sinfulness of their lives, because it is in punishment of sin that Almighty God permits the rule of the people to pass into impious hands [Ibid.].


[1] Basilicon Doron. 1599.

[2] King James I, who embraced Anglicanism, imposed an oath of allegiance on all Catholics. On 22 Sept., 1606, this oath was condemned by Pope Paul V as containing many things contrary to the Catholic faith and to the salvation of souls. King James published an anonymous reply entitled: Triplici nodo triplex cuneus, sive apologia pro juramento fidelitatis adversus duo brevia Pauli PP. Quinti et Epistularn Cardinalis Bellarmini ad G. Blackwellum archipresbyterum nuper scriptam. London, 1607.

Bellarmine, under the name of his chaplain, wrote a response entitled: Matthaei Torti responsio ad librum inscriptum: Triplici modo triplex cuneus.

It is to be observed that in the Middle Ages a distinction was made between civil power and imperial dignity. For, granted the unity of Christendom, the rule of the world was an ideal and free subordination of Christian peoples (who retained their supremacy) in respect to the emperor who, under the Pope, was concerned with the common good of the entire Christian world and protected the Church, its Head, and ecclesiastical dignitaries. Hence an emperor was already constituted in his regal office, i.e., in his civil power in regard to his own people, before he received the office of emperor.

[3] Mémoires, vol. 2, p. 285.

[4] (2) Politique tiree de l’Ecriture Sainte, 1. 2, a. 4, prop. 1. Avertissements aux Protestants, c. 49.

[5] […] Taparelli, Essai théorique de droit naturel, vol. I, nn. 484-485.

[6] Moral., p. IV, sect. 2.

[7] Phil. Moral, et Soc, Thes. 31.

[8] Phil. Moral, et Soc, Disp. III, q. 2, a. V, & 2.