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Donoso Cortés and the Meaning of Political Power

The study of politics demands a mind which is eminently practical. Intuiting the crisis in our own civilization, sensing—often obscurely—that something comparable to a second fall of man must be responsible for the moral decay which rots the hull of our own culture, the student of politics seeks the causes of this decline because he knows that the medicine of restoration depends upon a true diagnosis of the disease affecting the body politic. If the student of politics is wise, he will not reduce these causes to the purely philosophical order. He will be aware that factors both superior and inferior to the philosophical have contributed to the illness of the West, but he will never surrender to the materialist temptation to mesmerize away the role that ideas have played within history, even materialist ideas. What follows here is an exercise in both philosophical detection and political restoration. We address ourselves to the following questions: What happened to political Power in the past four centuries, enabling it to expand so enormously that it threatens to engulf every dimension of human existence? How can we come to know the true meaning of Power so that we may domesticate it to work for the good of man?


Were we to illustrate the history of modern political theory and practice, we might well follow the example of Aristotle and use the analogy of the domestic household. The master of the modern political house is the creation of the genius of Machiavelli. Hobbes fashioned the servant. Jean Bodin supplied the roof, which we have known ever since as the “State”.

Neither Machiavelli nor Hobbes conceived of political existence as though it were an entity, a Thing. Even Hobbes’s Leviathan is an aggregate and not a being in itself. The concept of the State as something sovereign unto itself and hence constituting a fusion of both authority and power was the Invention of Bodin. Although there are analogies to the modern State in both the Greek polis and the late Roman Empire, it is not correct to refer to “The State” as having existed in any strict sense before Bodin and the centralized absolute French monarchy whose theoretician he came to be.

Jurisprudence in the early centuries of the Roman Republic vested authority in the wisdom and prudence of the judges. But the judges themselves remained silent until society itself asked them to render an opinion on some concrete case. It follows that Roman Law, before its transformation and corruption at the hands of the Hellenic mind, was constituted by an act of judging which was always an act of answering, a respondere.[1]This response was simply the answer given to the questions put to wise men by the community, Thus it was that Roman law clearly distinguished between the concepts of Authority and Power. Public Power, whose concrete expression is government, waited upon the voice of the repositories of the law. It followed that the Authority of the judges was sharply differentiated from the Power of the magistrates. We can even assert that not only was the Roman judiciary independent of the power of the executive but that Power itself was subordinate to an Authority that was respected so highly it could stand without any buttressing it might have received from the executive. We have trouble today even articulating the distinction because we live within a political order that has accepted Bodin’s State as though it were as natural as the rise and fall of the tides, a political order in which Authority is identified with public Power and in which Power is Sovereign.

Classical thought recognized very early in the game that there was a link between the authoritative and the personal, between judgments and judges, but it did so only in an obscure way. We refer, of course, to Plato’s elaboration of the doctrine about the Philosopher-King. Although tyranny is government in defiance of the Laws, the rule of the Philosopher-King is government which transcends the Laws, Because his intervention in time is a quasi-providential event whose mystery is heightened by the rareness of the occurrence and by the impossibility of even preparing for its advent, government by law issuperior to rule by men in the normal course of history.[2] The absolute superiority of the politics of the Philosopher-King is located within the Laws’ necessity to legislate in the universal and intheir occasional failure to reach complexities which are consubstantial with individuality. It follows, according to Plato, that the very universality of the Law frequently misses the particular and thus does violence to the justice due particular men. Nonetheless, the marginality of this possibility justifies government by the impersonal majesty of the Law.

Historically, the theory of the natural law grew out of and perfected the previously elaborated philosophy of natural justice. Natural justice, conceived by Plato and Aristotle, was expanded into the natural law philosophy of the Stoics and Cicero. According to Stoic theory, “law” is an intelligible or rational measure or standard because it would indeed be insane to postulate the existence of reason within a supposedly irrational cosmos. It would be even more irrational, continues Stoic theory, to deny to man’s own nature that measured harmony already found within the physical cosmos. Because man’s nature is self-consciously rational, human nature isnot led blindly by the law but is developed accordingly to both deliberation and freedom. Insofar as man can know the law proper to himself, man can embrace it and thus will his own perfection, and affirm the excellence inscribed in his nature as a promise and a hope. Far from involving a kind of ethical totalitarianism that would bind man to a set of imperatives understood as though they were dei ex machina, the natural law—as understood first in the classical and later within the Christian tradition—is a liberating force which leads men towards their own end, aforce involving a discipline at times harsh in its commands but nonetheless an always civilizing and humane force. Natural law theory, as expanded by Thomas Aquinas,[3] involves: a) a moment of reflection in which a man meditates upon the exigencies of his own nature, be they prohibitions or commands, be these exigencies indemonstrable first principles consubstantial with the ontological nature of humanity itself or “secondary” precepts deduced from these first principles; b) a moment of decision in which he embraces or rejects, in the fullness of his freedom, the demands he has discovered within himself.

Although, according to natural law theory, natural law is nothing other than nature itself, man’s articulation of the law—a slow and laborious business which depends upon both ethical maturity and intellectual sophistication—is an attempt to fuse within consciousness that which is (already fused) in reality. Given that law must legislate in broad and very often properly universal terms; given that law as understood within the human mind can never totally reach the concrete complexities of existence, it follows that the law as theory can never identify itself completely with reality. Law as known and formulated must remain a mere map of reality and is never a perfect one with the road it charts. Aristotle’s virtue of prudence was a bridge between universal law and its concrete application.4 The prudent man, according to Aristotle, knows how to read the map. Something similar happened in the early flowering of Roman Law under the Republic. Authority belonged to the Law but only to the Law as interpreted and rendered concrete in cases by the judges. Thus the relation between Authority and the personal, reserved by Plato to the mythological reign of the Philosopher-King, inserted itself more modestly if more effectively in the theory underlying Roman jurisprudence.

The medieval experience made its own the teaching of the early Roman jurists but it did so according to a radically new political situation introduced by the new configuration given society by Christianity. The break-up of the Roman Empire in the West gave birth to a new civilization which was highly decentralized in government, which rested upon a feudal basis, which abandoned any attempt to identify ultimate authority and sovereignty within itself because it located both within a transcendent God; a civilization which was marked by the autonomy of religious orders, by the virtual independence of towns and cities from royal or imperial power and by “parliaments” in France and “Cortés” in Spain which held the power to grant or to withhold subsidies from the national government. Authority in medieval Christendom was broadened beyond the authority proper to the judges until it was diffused throughout a whole host of institutions that marked the medieval world and made it the unique political thing that it was. Authority was as pluralistic as life itself. Public Power, government in the plain sense of the term, grew out of a society whose complexity exceeded the experience of classical politics. Sovereignty was reserved to God.


The medieval checking of political power by authority—more exactly, by a host of authorities—resident within the very tissue of the community, is crucially pertinent to any theory of power. Suffice it to say here that the theoretical problem posed by Plato in this connection found its solution within what might be called, with some reservations, the Christian politics of transcendence. Plato’s complaint that the wise and the good are without Power and that Power is more often the perquisite of the evil or the stupid, his insistence that an absolutely good political order depends upon the identification of Power and Wisdom, and his pessimism about the possibility of this union being found in history were theoretically solved by the Christian identification of Power and Authority in God. The subsequent scholastic teaching concerning the Power of God as ordained by His Goodness and His Wisdom simply pointed to the Divine Government of creation by the Lord of History. But the Christian dispensation heightened rather than diminished the distinction between Authority and Power written into early Roman jurisprudence. If Sovereignty pertains to the fullness of Authority, then only God is sovereign because only He speaks with an underived Authority. The political order for medieval man was even less “sovereign” than it wasfor classical antiquity. Authority, wheresoever it might be found, was thought to be a participation in a Divine Attribute and in no sense a property belonging essentially and restrictively to the public power of the political order, the medieval kingdom or regnum. Expressing the issue more exactly, we must say that if Power or its representatives did possess Authority in medieval times their Authority did not accrue to Power simply because of Power itself. The Two Swords, although symbolically valuable, inadequately expressed the relations between Church and Empire. What theologians were wont to call Peter’s indirect “Power” in things secular wasnot Power at all but simply Authority.[5] Medieval man saw clearly, as did the Roman jurists, that all authority is moral! A breakdown of Authority is always a breakdown in the moral order. A papal interdict, for instance, worked just as long as men respected Rome’s Authority. As soon as men and nations ceased to respect that authority, it became ridiculous for Rome to hurl its thunderbolts. In a word, Authority can do nothing other than speak. The execution of its commands depends upon a Power humble enough to listen. Moralists will find here a deep paradox which strikes at the heart of hierarchy and which suggests, to this author at least, the parable of the humble being exalted and the lords of this world being laid low. In any event, medieval man neither respected nor obeyed any authority that could not trace its origins to, and legitimize them in, the Authority of God. This no doubt irritated kings, for they proclaimed their sovereignty all the more because they really had so little of it.

The same cannot be said of the national French monarchy at the time Jean Bodin was reflecting upon the meaning of Political Power. France by then was already a highly centralized political unit and all Europe was following in its footsteps. The old medieval order was in full decay. Sovereignty was made immanent by Bodin, who located it within terrestrial existence, within politics as such. The res publica cameto be the thing that we understand today under the rubric of the State. According to Bodin, that grouping of families which forms the basisof society is governed by a highest political power, a summum potestas. This power is both absolute and perpetual: “power—One, Absolute, and Perpetual”.[6] This Power is also Sovereign.[7] Should Power lose Sovereignty, the republic would cease to exist.[8]


The politics of Absolute Power and the politics of the modem Statedepend, as do all politics, upon metaphysical presuppositions. Medieval man never had to face the problem of an absolute power in politics because he could never have conceived of its possibility. The arbitrary use of power was discussed only within the classical context of tyranny. But tyranny as such has nothing to do with the absoluteness of power but with its unlawful use. (It can even be argued that the classical Platonic and Aristotelian tyrant can never exercise absolute power because such an exercise would involve satisfying the tyrant’s passions which are assumed to be necessarily incapable of being gratified. It isfor this reason that the classical tyrant is always unhappy.) The unlawful use of power might be good accidentally because occasionally the Law might violate the concrete good in the existential order. A tyrant can at times get good things done that the Laws prohibit. In any event, the term “absolute” as applied to Power means, within medieval presuppositions, the following: Power is totally unconditioned either from within itself or from any extraneous factors upon which Power might exercise itself; in this sense only God’s Power is Absolute because only He can make things bealtogether without fashioning anew some pre-existent subject.9 Medieval thought tended, therefore, to locate the treatise on Power within the context of the treatise on creation as did Thomas Aquinas in his De Potentia Dei. Absolute as applied to Power could also mean a Power absolved or divorced from any other dimension of the real. This is suggested by the very term, absolvers. Medieval speculation tended to talk about a naked and lonely Power stripped of every other consideration in terms of the possibility or impossibility of God’s annihilating the human soul once He had created it.10

Some theologians settled the problem by distinguishing between God’s Absolute Power and that same Power as ordained by His Wisdom and Goodness. Absolutely speaking, according to this theory, God could annihilate the human soul because it depends totally on Him for being. Given, however, the truth that God’s Power always harmonizes with His Wisdom and Goodness, God would not do so. Probably the distinction between could and would breaks down in this case because of the Unity of Power, Wisdom, and Goodness in the Being of God. In any case we have grasped the point at issue when we see that medieval Christian thought was so suspicious of any absolute Power that it felt constrained even to hedge that Power when found within God Himself, hedge it around with these attributes which precisely make God sovereign: His Wisdom and His Goodness. The issue has enormous political consequences, as we hope to demonstrate, but it suffices to note here that Bodin’s elevation of the political order to the status of an absolute of Perpetual Power was another step along the road in the divinization of political existence.

Although Bodin’s understanding of his own religion was defective, he was a Christian and he did hope that the sovereign would exercise his power in harmony with the moral and divine low.11 But this hope could only have been, and in fact was, little more than a pious exhortation. If political Power is absolute—it behooves us to take Bodin’s use of language as seriously as he took it himself—it cannot be conditioned by extraneous considerations drawn from the moral order. Such a conditioning would limit Power and strip it of its supposed absoluteness. Any harmonizing of Power and the Wisdom from which comes Authority is possible only under two conditions: 1) either Power is identically Wisdom (and, a fortiori, Goodness) as the theologians had taught; or 2) Power is limited from outside itself.Power can remain absolute and good only when it is Divine. If Power is to act other than in a merely powerful way, if Power is to act wisely and prudently in harmony with justice and truth, then Power must be specified or limited by dimensions of being that are not formally identified with Power as such. Medieval political experience found these dimensions of reality within the community, which was regarded as the repository of an analogical incarnation of authorities themselves derived from God.12 But Bodin’s public Power is really absolute. No matter how much he might speak of the sweet reasonableness of a sovereign Power as exercised by a Christian prince he cannot square this reasonableness with his insistence upon the absolute character of the sovereign. That Bodin is serious in what he says we know because he not only revindicates for the res publica the imperium of the Hellenized Empire; he not only preaches a sovereignty which is one and indivisible and hence superior to any other Authority either religious or social, but he also teaches that the State is the substantial form of civil society, its animating principle.


We here witness the birth of the modem State. The comparison of political sovereignty with the Aristotelian substantial form is decisive, so decisive that modern men often find it difficult to understand what the politics of Christendom were all about because Bodin is a wall separating that age from our own. Medieval Christendom was so firmly structured through a series of self-governing institutions, each of which claimed an analogous participation in Authority, that Public Power—the Power of the Crown—was usually restricted to leading the political community that it crowned or to fighting with it in an effort to reduce its pretensions. The king could put his sword at the service of his kingdom or turn it against the kingdom, but he could not absorb that kingdom within himself by his own power. No one phrase better sums up the limitations placed on royal power by the medieval political community than the warning read Spanish kings in Castille upon the occasion of their coronation: “Thou shalt be King if thou workest justice and if Thou dost not do so, thou shalt not be King.”13 The medieval public Power, incarnated in the person of the king (more accurately, in his family), did not constitute the res publics christiana but crowned it in the temporal order so that the society in question might act corporately within history.14 The legitimate power of the king was the fruit of a hundred pacts solemnly entered upon by princes and subjects, themselves represented by a thicket of institutions which were the work of generations and even centuries of common experience.

When Bodin published his Six Books of the Commonwealth in 1576 the medieval kingdom was just about dead in France and in plain agony in most of Europe. A new Thing had come into being: the State. Most of the old medieval institutions still gave an appearance of life but the heart had gone out of them. Townships and guilds, provincial parliaments, regional charters and the rest were being reduced to so many quaint relics from a past age, preserved as facades because they were still dear to men who had grown up among them and who looked upon them as the flesh of corporate life.

Bodin’s use of the symbol of substantial form to define the role of the State within civil society is not without interest. Aristotle’s substantial form was understood by the intellectual community of Bodin’s time to mean more or less what Aristotle himself intended it to mean: i.e. the substantial form is that interior principle of growth and specification (dynamis) which quickens a reality from within and makes it to be what it is. It follows that hylomorphism could never have been used in any properly symbolic sense to describe medieval politics. The articulation of public power into government in the older Christendom grew out of the community in the sense of crowning that community, as indicated, or of serving as the community’s representative for secular ends. Public Power or government, conceived as an active harmonizing of an already heavily differentiated and institutionalized society; understood as being enjoined by the community with the specific function of seeing that justice was done or the law fulfilled as well as repelling Invaders and securing the peace of the realm; public Power, limited to these crucial but still moderate roles, would not be spoken of by serious men in terms of an Aristotelian substantial form. Medieval man preferred to draw analogies from human anatomy. Thus Sir John Fortescue—as Voegelin reminds us—in articulating the meaning of political representation, compared the res publica to a body which could not function without a head.15 Public Power became absolute only when ittruly did become the substantial form of the republic. The community, reduced to an amorphous dough without any institutions with significant political representative functions, was shaped this way and that by Power which absorbed all Authority within itself and proclaimed itself Sovereign. In this fashion the modern State—conceived in France, suckled in Germany, and matured in Russia—replaced the res publicum christianum.


The theoretical problem of Power from Montesquieu to our day has been that of the possibility and desirability of setting limits to itstendency toward absolutism. Montesquieu deduced the desirability of limiting Power from man’s imperative to be free.16 He tried to find freedom within the context of the State he knew: i.e., Bodin’s. His dilemma was: how can we avoid tyranny within a political situation in which the republic has become sovereign and the sovereign has been identified with perpetual and absolute power? Unless we understand the factors which went into the drama of freedom as seen by Montesquieu, by Sieyés, by the Encyclopedists and by the European Liberal tradition that grew from them we cannot understand either Montesquieu’s solution or the theoretical weaknesses found therein by European Traditionalism in the person of its most eloquent and profound spokesman, Donoso Cortés.

We can provisionally define European Liberalism as the continental system of political thought and practice which grew out of the French Revolution and dominated the entire nineteenth century excepting the time of the short White Reaction in France (1814–30) and in Germany (1814–48). Dedicated to the doctrine of national sovereignty, buttressed by the religion of progress, and bent upon the secularization of society, European Liberalism’s preferred form of government was a highly centralized parliamentary democracy based upon the “party system” and tempered by an allegiance to commercial and industrial interests. While linked to the Jacobin tradition of the previous century, nineteenth-century liberalism was more comfortable than crusading, more oligarchic than egalitarian. In all cases, however, European Liberals firmly opposed any restoration of the authority of either Church or Crown.

Montesquieu and the liberalism that looked to him for guidance never questioned the presuppositions of the sovereign State endowed with absolute Power, even though liberalism wished to use that Power sparingly in the service of a wider distribution of liberty. If we assume that Power is sovereign, if we assume further that Authority has lost its independence and has been absorbed within Power, if we postulate the national State as the substantial form of the republic, it follows that any limitation of Power must come from within Power itself. Society could not limit Power because society, on the assumptions in question, would not possess the independent institutions with the requisite Authority to speak in the name of Wisdom and Truth and thus demand that they be heard. Montesquieu wanted the sovereign to listen carefully to the people and to govern in accordance with prevailing customs. But custom in Montesquieu and liberalism had already lost the force of law that it possessed in the medieval world.17

Neither custom nor what Willmoore Kendall and this writer like to call “the public orthodoxy” exercised any political role within the liberal commonwealth. They are not authoritative voices in the liberal republic. Although the liberal commonwealth must listen to society, it is under no obligation to heed am Authority society may claim to enflesh within itself. It follows that public Power, be it democratic, aristocratic, or monarchical, can offend the liberty of the subject and most probably will do so unless we can discover within Power some possible principle of limitation.

Montesquieu’s solution is so famous and has influenced both politics and history so profoundly that it suffices here merely to state again in capsule form a teaching that can be found in any manual of politics published in the Western world in modern times, a teaching which history has honored by permitting it to pass into folklore. Liberty is assured a permanent role within the commonwealth when Power is limited through its “separation” into legislature, executive, and judiciary. A built-in system of “checks and balances” assures the citizenry that any tendency towards tyranny will be curbed. But let us permit Montesquieu to speak for himself:

The political liberty of the subject is a tranquility of mind arising from the opinion each person has of its safety. In order to have this liberty, it is requisite the government be so constituted as one man need not be afraid of another.
When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same body of magistrates, there can be no liberty; because apprehensions may arise, lest the same monarch or senate should enact tyrannical laws, to execute them in a tyrannical manner.Again, there is no liberty, if the judiciary power be not separated from the legislative and executive. Were it joined with the legislative, the life and liberty of the subject would be exposed to arbitrary control; for the judge would be then the legislator. Were it joined to the executive power, the judge might behave with violence and oppression.
There would be an end of everything, were the same man or the same body, whether of the nobles or of the people, to exercise those three powers, that of enacting laws, that of executing the public resolutions, and of trying the causes of individuals.18

The theory has its antecedents in Polybius’s analysis of the constitution of the Roman Republic, but Polybius was less concerned with the problem of the liberty of the subject than with the impossibility of fitting the Roman constitution into the Greek tripartite division of governments.19 Montesquieu, however, found in his ideal constitution, the English, an explanation for the freedom of the English subject. The English Crown, according to the French Anglophile, functions as executor of the law and as commander in chief of the armed forces; parliament legislates; and the judiciary is in the hands of the people because juries are drawn from the populace at large and at random. Most historians of polities agree that Montesquieu would not have approved of some of the subsequent developments within English constitutional law because the executive today has virtually lost its independence except in moments of crisis. Nor can we imagine Montesquieu’s approving of a ceremonial monarch whose functions are reduced to opening Parliament and presiding over Derby Day. But notwithstanding these vicissitudes of history Montesquieu would recognize in contemporary England substantially the same division of Power he praised when he wrote The Spirit of the Laws in 1748.

The doctrine of the separation of powers was more descriptive in Montesquieu than prescriptive, but European Liberalism seized upon “checks and balances” and “separation of powers” as a theoretical justification of the majoritarian parliamentarianism that ever since has been looked upon as the conditio sine qua non of democratic liberty.20 This conviction was substantial with the dominant mood of the liberalism that occupied the continent in 1848. The identification of free government with the “separation of powers” had by then become a settled conviction within the galaxy of judgments forming the liberalism of the times. This conviction was written into the French Constitution of 1830, which gave the throne to Louis-Philippe (who agreed to be the policeman of the Revolution, thus proving himself a true heir to the traditions of his house). The separation of powers was behind that apeing of British institutions indulged in by the heirs of Napoleon and it is among the ironies of modern history that continental liberalism found a model for its political institutions in the very country and tradition that brought to heel the first soldier of the Revolution.

It was in Opposition to this spirit that Don Juan Donoso Cortés wrote his famous letter to the editor of the Revue des Deux Mendes, November 15, 1852, in answer to an attack made upon him by the liberal (Orleanist) royalist, M. Albert de Broglie.21 His answer contains a theory of Power which is the most serious challenge to the presuppositions of liberalism as we have inherited them from the nineteenth century. That this theory has hitherto not been studied dispassionately and with philosophical detachment is due largely to the calumny heaped upon the head of its author by the entire liberal tradition.

The student of political philosophy, upon approaching the text of Donoso Cortés, must keep in mind that he is about to be instructed by the finest intelligence that placed itself at the service of what we tend to call today “The Counter-Revolution” in contradistinction to English conservatism. Donoso belongs, therefore, to what continental political thought simply calls “Traditionalism,”22 The student ought to make an effort to locate Donoso Cortés within the context of his times: Donoso, an architect of the Spanish Pragmatic Succession; an early pillar of the liberal monarchy of Isabel II; an opponent of the claims of Don Carlos Isidro of the principal of legitimacy and of a nation at arms against the imposition of the centralizing radicalism of Madrid; in short, a man who owed everything, his title of Marqués de Valdegamas as well as his own career in diplomacy, to the liberalism he came to loathe in the last brilliant years of his short life. The reader newly come to Donoso will also want to know that he is about to meet the man most hated by the European Left and most especially by the Catholic Left, hated with a venom that so puzzled Carl Schmitt that he concluded that its intensity was “not normal and proper to political opposition,” that it must spring from “motives which are deeper, metaphysical”23 and which cause his contemporary Spanish biographer, Don Federico Suarez, to wonder why it was that the enemies of Donoso—they are legion—would have preferred him to have been a “romantic or a primitive”24 rather than an elegant diplomat who graced with equal ease the salons of Europe from Madrid to St. Petersburg. The reader must also set aside any propensities he might entertain about academic and scientific departmentalism. To the theologian, Donoso looks like a political theorist; to the political philosopher, he seems a theologian; to the man of action, a theoretician; to the academician, a politician. In truth he was all of these things and yet were we to seek a formula capable of defining the man we could do worse than call him the absolute negation of the Revolution in all its forms.

Broglie had accused Donoso of worshipping the Middle Ages and of urging upon the Church “an absolute and universal domination” in European affairs, of “inculcating in the minds of men the need for a restoration of the Middle Ages”. It was this last accusation that Donoso considered to have been the most significant of them all and it was the spur moving him to write The Letter of 1852. Donoso begins by candidly pleading guilty to the charges as far as political principle and not historical form is concerned. The Middle Ages, he begins, were set in motion by a tendency which sought to “constitute Power in accord with the principles making up the public law of Christian nations”.25 Modern Europe, however, is engaged presently upon the task of shaping Power according to “certain theories and conceptions . . . foreign to Catholic norms,”26 As a consequence we in Europe will soon come to know, in a future not distant, a “Power infallibly . . . demagogic, pagan in its structure and satanic in its grandeur.”27 So that this prophecy may be intelligible to his readers, Donoso proposes to develop rapidly in his reply to Broglie a theory about the nature of Power itself.

He advises us that “God has imposed upon the world a sovereign law in virtue of which it is necessary that the very unity and variety found in God Himself be found in all things.”28 Although not articulated in The Letter, it is clear that Donoso here refers to the orthodox Christian doctrine of the Trinity of Persons and Unity of Nature of the Christian God. In his famous Essay on Catholicism, Liberalism, and Socialism, published one year earlier in 1851, Donoso had explored a paradox that recalls the mind of the Patristic Age and that would not be emphasized again in modem times until Chesterton wrote his Orthodoxy:

The same God who is author and governor of political society is author and governor of all domestic society. In the most hidden depths and in the highest places, in the most serene and luminous of the heavens there resides a Tabernacle inaccessible even to the choir of the angels: in that inaccessible Tabernacle there is worked perpetually the prodigy of all prodigies and the Mystery of all Mysteries. There is the Catholic God, One and Triune: unity expanding itself, engendering an eternal variety as well as variety condensing itself and resolving itself into an eternal unity . . . because He is One, He is God; because He is God, He is perfect; because He is perfect, He is most fecund; because He is most fecund, He is Variety and because He is Variety, He is family. In His Essence are contained, in an unerring and incomprehensive way, the laws of creation . . . All has been made in His Image and because of this, creation is one and varied.29

This law of unity found in variety and variety in unity, the metaphysical character of which Donoso does not leave in doubt, works within the heart of the family where the unity of the child is born of the variety of the parents in acircularity which prohibits our affirming that variety is prior to unity or unity to variety.30 This last clearly cuts Donoso away from that kind of individualism which at bottom denies all reality to social relations and separates him from Hegelian “organicism,” which sees the individual as growing out of, and as constituted by, society considered as a preexistent whole. We might be tempted to seek Donoso’sLaw of Variety and Unity in the Thomistic analogy of Being were it not that a reading of the Donosian texts fails to reveal any systematic dependence upon St. Thomas.31 Furthermore, we must remember that the intellectual climate of the early nineteenth century, even when Catholic, was not dominated by Thomism. Thomistic studies were revived some four decades after Donoso’s death. Donoso’s conviction represents, perhaps, an obscure awareness that ifBeing is not ultimately pluralistic in structure the West would have to embrace the lonely God of Islam.

“Who does not see in this law,” insists Donoso in The Essay, “a high and hidden mystery: unity engendering variety perpetually and variety perpetually constituting unity?”32 Not content with stating his law, Donoso is constrained to explore it further: this is “the hidden law presiding over the generation of the One and the Many which ought to be considered the most high, the most excellent and the most mysterious of all laws since God has subjected all things to it, human as well as divine, created as well as uncreated, visible as well as invisible”33 Nor must this lawbe thought of as though it were a univocal formula which applied to all things in the same way as do mathematical proportions. The Law of Variety and Unity is, paradoxically enough, subjected to itself:

being one in its essence, it is infinite in ifs manifestations; all timings that exist would seem not to be at all except to manifest the same law; and each and all of the things that are manifest this law in a different fashion: in one way it is in God, in another way it is in God made Man; now in a new way it is in His Church, in the family, and then in another way the law is in the universe; but it is in all things and in every part of the whole; here in one place it is invisible and an incomprehensible mystery and there in another place it is a visible phenomenon, and a palpable fact.34

The “sovereign law” of Unity and Variety appealed to in The Letter, therefore, is understood by Donoso to be a philosophical principle in the most rigorous sense of the term, a law he had explored with the most exquisite care in the early chapter of The Essay. This law must, however, remain unintelligible to any reader who approaches it with the prejudices modernity has inherited from the rationalist tradition. We are not concerned here with a law either intuited by the intelligence or deduced from undemonstrable first principles. Donoso’s Law of Variety and Unity is a consequence of his own acceptance of the Christian doctrine concerning the Trinitarian God. It depends formally upon an act of faith. On this point at least Donoso is closer to the Augustinian than to the Thomistic tradition because his episteme or political “knowledge” is the fruit of his meditation upon a Truth which transcends the naked capacity of the human mind. Once the Christian teaching on God is accepted, however, it becomes capable of illuminating a whole area of experience far more intelligibly than would a purely immanentist political philosophy.35 All things partake of unity and variety but man is able to see this truth clearly only in the light of a doctrine, a dogma, which he does not “see” but believes. Donoso is clearly in the credo ut intelligam tradition of St. Augustine.

With so much said we can proceed to affirm that whereas uniformity and univocity govern the rationalist and liberal universe, variety and unity rule the Christian traditionalist world of Donoso Cortés. Donoso finds his supreme principle of being working within political existence in the following fashion: “in society unity manifests itself through Power, and Variety manifests itself through hierarchies.”36 Both are inviolable and sacred. “Their co-existence is simultaneously the fulfillment of the will of God and the assurance of the liberty of the people,”37 The burden of the argument of The Letter is Donoso’s demonstration that political sanity involves an essential unity of Power on the one hand and the essential variety of “hierarchies” on the other hand. The marriage between Power and Hierarchy (our principle of “Authority”, as shall be seen) is the conditio sine qua non for a Christian political and social order.

The careful reader will note that Donoso insists that unity is found within Power. Although of itself this does not constitute an anti-liberal and anti-Montesquian position it does suggest the tack Donoso actually will take. The suggestion is heightened by Donoso’s distinction between the medieval and the absolute monarchy. The former reflected proper relations that ought to exist between Power and “the hierarchies.” “Power was one, perpetual, and limited: it was one in the person of the king; it was perpetual in his family; it was limited because it was forever checked by a material resistance encountered in an organized hierarchy,”38 Donoso denies flatly that medieval assemblies such as the Spanish Cortés or the English Parliament formed part of the public Power. When monarchy was strong without being absolute, representative assemblies were a dike to the tendency of Power to expand itself indefinitely; when monarchy was weak, these assemblies were a “field of battle” which reflected a society in chaos. He insists that those historians who see in medieval representative institutions the source of modern parliamentarianism are “ignorant of what a parliamentary government is and they know nothing of its origin.”39 Donoso thus denies any strict continuity in the experience of Western man between the autonomous political institutions of the Middle Ages and the liberal parliamentary system of nineteenth century Europe. Historically it seems difficult to gainsay the Spanish thinker despite the fact that the revolt against absolutism was often mounted by men who used medieval limited-government rhetoric as a cloak for their own revolutionary goals. Modern civilization—returning to our analysis of the text—owes its decadence in the moral, political, and religious orders to its failure to obey the tensions that ought to exist between Power and Hierarchy, between—reverting to our earlier discussion—Power and Authority.


The absolute monarchy had the good fortune, according to Donoso, of having conserved the unity and perpetuity of Power in the person of the king and the dynastic family. Absolute monarchy, however, sinned in that “it despised and suppressed all resistances” to Power by destroying those corporate hierarchies in which these resistances had grown up and which incarnated them. Absolutism thus “violated the law of God”. In so doing it violated the Law of Variety and Unity. What follows in the text is an eloquent defense of freedom foreign to the rhetoric of liberalism:

A Power without limits is an essentially; Anti-Christian Power and it is simultaneously an outrage done the majesty of God and the dignity of man. A Power without limits can never be a ministry or a service and political Power under the imperatives of Christian civilization can never be anything less. Unlimited Power is also an idolatry lodged within both subject and king: idolatry in the subiect because he adores the king; idolatry in the king because he worships himself.40

But if Donoso finds much to condemn in the absolutism that culminated in the Enlightenment, he finds even more to attack in the political system that grew out of the French Revolution. The absolute monarchy, “although negating the Christian monarchy” in one fundamental aspect, did affirm it in two other fundamentals: Power remained one and perpetual and thus obeyed the metaphysics of political power as understood by our author. Parliamentarianism, however, violated the structure of Power in all of its essential notes and hence in their consequences. Liberalism, writes Donoso:

denies power’s unity because it converts into three through the division of powers that which really is one; liberalism denies this principle in its perpetuity because it grounds the principle itself in a contract and no power is inviolable if its foundation is variable; Liberalism denies Power’s limitation; this is so because this political trinity in which Power resides either cannot function due to is impotency, an organic sickness itself the result of Power’s division or Power acts tyranically not recognizing outside of itself, or discovering around itself, any legitimate resistance. It thus follows that the parliamentary system which denies the Christian monarchy in all of the conditions of its unity also denies that institution in its variety and in all the conditions producing variety because the parliamentary system suppresses the “social hierarchies”.41

Wherever the liberal system has taken root all “corporations” tend to disappear along with the hierarchical order within society that they establish. By “corporations” Donoso does not mean any specific kind of institution but that analogous whole which includes an aristocracy; free guilds (themselves heavily attacked and ultimately destroyed by liberalism); self-governing townships; regional assemblies representing regional interests ( what we in this country call the principle of “States’ Rights”); free universities belonging to ecclesiastical or other private interests and not extensions of the State ( the State University was the creation of the Continental European system of liberalism); a strong free peasantry whose concrete rights rest upon customary law; in a word—that whole complex of autonomous institutions that disappeared upon the continent due to both Absolutism and liberalism and that has survived, if only in a truncated way, within the Anglo-Saxon world. Free institutions naturally group themselves within a hierarchy and their destruction involves a leveling of the whole community and the disappearance of the very principle of hierarchy from the political order. The theory of parliamentary supremacy, involving as it does the concentration of political power within a body which claims to be sovereign, admits of no dialogue between the executive and deliberative assemblies except one carried out through cabinet ministers who are themselves nothing other then ambassadors of parliament and extensions of its will. Donoso insists that no discussion can be found between the Liberal parliament and the people that is continuous. The lone exception admitted is of course, the “dialogue” expressed by free elections, but these elections are exercised at limited concrete moments of time. The brief corporate cohesion which society finds at election time falls back—Donoso believes—into either the indifference of men who have lost their role within the political order or into that chaos which follows upon the refusal of the defeated to accept the decision of the polls.

Donoso isthinking concretely and historically when he attacks the Revolution; the drying up of the last vestiges of medieval liberties at the hands of the centralizers: i.e. the abolition of what little still remained, especially in France, of regional liberties; the division of France into administrative units dependent totally upon Paris; the abolition of the last of the guilds in both Spain and France and the subsequent reduction of artisans and laborers to a Lumpenproletariat without any political or economic voice in the land; the confiscation and forced sale of municipal and church properties under the government of Mendizábol in Spain which saw a quarter of Spain’s land under the auctioneer’s block in less than a year, thus creating a new liberal middle class “which was less a political party,” in the words of Menendez y Pelayo, “than a bad conscience;” the steady war of attrition against religious orders; the flattening of Latin Europe into a grey field administered as though it were occupied territory by ever-increasingly centralized governments dominated by party ideologues. Donoso adds that those who see any significant difference between liberalism and Socialism err. Whereas the former violates the nature of Power in the political order, the latter does so in the social.


Let us be very careful that we understand what Donoso is saying. He is not denying the existence or value of political contracts. He could hardly have done so in the light of the history of his own country. The supremacy of the Crown of Castile gained legitimacy in the eyes of Spain because it was the product of an intricate network of pacts contracted by Castile and the other Spanish kingdoms, counties, and lordships. This legitimacy was written into the very law of the land and it lingers even today in the Province of Navarre which enjoys a number of “state rights”(fueros) that are a thousand years old and that have been respected by the centralist Madrid government to some extent at least, because Navarre’s contract with Castile involved the sanctity of these ancient laws and customs, of a juridical corpus as venerable and as complex as any in the civilized world.42 Donoso’s contention is not, therefore, a denial of the juridical validity and existentiality of contracts but rather a denial that political Power can be understood philosophically to be constituted by a contract.

Power can always be seized from the “ins” by the “outs” but political Power itself—understood as a dimension of human existence—persists in being perpetual except in moments of total breakdown within a society. The absence of Power is anarchy. In a word: wherever there exists a political society wefind there a Power that is just as perpetual as is that society itself. Donoso’s note of perpetuity as belonging to Power does not mean eternity nor doesit exclude an ethic of revolution. The issue really is self-evident. There can be many public Powers successively in time, many governments, the one following the other due to the disappearance and appearance of new political societies produced by invasion, revolution, decay of the old public orthodoxy, or any other cause capable of altering the fabric of an existent community. Power itself, however, must be conceived as being co-terminal with any given political society. Behind Donoso’s contention lies his own reiterated conviction that Power is simply a necessary expression and representation of a living historical community. An admission that Power is non-perpetual within some existent community involves a denial that political society is a temporal and psychic continuum. Nineteenth-century liberalism did just this, however. In its excessive reaction against that Absolutism whose ape it was, liberalism so shattered the unity of Power that it reduced society to a battleground or a boxing ring. It follows that liberal theory not only denies the limitation of Power which is the fruit of hierarchical variety but it shatters society from within, fragmenting it, denying it the coherence which is the product of what I have called here and elsewhere a “public orthodoxy.”43

Let it be noted clearly that Donoso is elaborating here a metaphysics of Power in total opposition to that prevalent in the rhetoric which fills the literature of liberalism, a rhetoric which drew—as indicated earlier—on its own understanding of what Montesquieu had written about the British Constitution. We have already seen that the liberal insistence that the subject or citizen finds freedom only when Power is divided into three was deeply ingrained in the European mentality at the time Donoso composed The Letter. We have noted that the political model buttressing the theory was thought to be England. It followed, therefore, that Donoso had to face the imposing fact of the English Constitution, come to terms with it theoretically in the light of his own teaching on Power, or abandon the field.

Donoso was keenly aware of the fact that his political theory on the issue at hand stood or fell with his own analysis of the British experience. He begins his attack by pointing out that these men who “attend only to appearance and to forms” will conclude that parliamentarianism has existed “in all times and places.”44 These forms can be found “in England where the nation is governed by the Crown and the two Houses of Parliament; and they can be found in past times in All the nations of Europe where clergy, nobility, and cities were called together to deliberate over affairs of a public nature.”45 But, he insists, if we suppress appearances and attend to “the spirit” animating them, we must conclude that the medieval parliaments as well as the modern British Constitution have nothing to do with European Liberal parliamentarianism.46 His words are better than any gloss:

If, beginning with the British Constitution, we set ourselves the task of examining not only its external organization but also and principally its internal organism before the late reforms, we shall discover that the division of Power was altogether lacking in reality, being nothing other than a vain appearance. The Crown was not a Power nor did it even form part of Power: it was a symbol and the image of the nation; to be a king there in England was neither to rule nor to govern: it was, purely and simply, to be adored. This passive attitude of the Crown excludes by its very nature the meaning itself of Power and the idea of government which is incompatible with the idea of a perpetual inaction and an eternal repose. The House of Commons in both its composition and its spirit was a younger brother of the House of Lords. Its voice was not a voice but an echo. The House of Lords under this modest title was the only true Power in the State. England was not a monarchy but an aristocracy and this aristocracy was a Power which was one, perpetual and limited: one, because it resided in a moral person, quickened by a single spirit; perpetual, because this moral person was a class endowed by legislation with the necessary means to endure perpetually; unlimited, because the Constitution and the traditions and the customs obliged the House of Lords to behave in accordance with the modesty of its title.47


The British Constitution that emerged from the Protestant Succession and the defeat of the Stuart cause in no sense broke with the essential structure of Power found within medieval Christendom: if medieval political Power was one in the king, perpetual in his family, and limited by a hierarchical variety of institutions, modern Great Britain possessed a similar structure, the unity of Power reposing in the aristocracy, perpetuity belonging to the hereditary nature of that aristocracy, and limitation to the traditions, customs, and laws guaranteeing Englishmen their rights. These rights had—we must admit—decayed considerably since the High Middle Ages under the pressure of Tudor centralization and the loss of independence by the Church. Guild principles were in full decay by the time Donoso commented upon England. Nonetheless the rights of Englishmen, as the Burkeans quite properly insist, were largely guaranteed and respected. So far as the Crown is concerned, we need only note that its illusions of Power were unmasked as hollow when the Stuarts tried to take them seriously. What Hilaire Belloc was fond of calling “the popular monarchy” was dead before Charles I raised the royal standard at Nottingham.48 The Restoration politics of Charles II were a series of brilliant delaying tactics by a Crown already fighting a hopeless battle against a new aristocracy that was the repository of the Reformation Settlement, that was the “representative “ (in the Voegelinian sense of the term) of a new public orthodoxy, that was the Power in the land.

The apparent division of Power in the English Constitution was simply a division of labor in the business of government, a division called for by the complexity of the tasks at hand and by the highly desirable need for the agents of Power to debate among themselves and with society at large before exercising their mandate as corporate representatives—as a moral person in the words of Donoso—of a regime or a public orthodoxy. Donoso’s nervous fingering of the essential Unity of political Power made him contemptuous of the forms of debate and of dialogue. In this he may have erred but he can he forgiven his error for having struck at the heart of the affair: i.e. the British Constitution was the representative of anation led by an aristocracy whose rule was accepted as proper and just by the people at large. This Power, unlimited from within itself, was limited or checked from without by the Common Law, by custom, and by a thicket of traditional rights and duties which were inherited by the American colonies and thus incorporated into the American tradition. Donoso’s contribution here was strikingly original: i.e. there simply is no organic link whatsoever between the Anglo-Saxon tradition and the Revolution. If the Anglo-American tradition has any link whatsoever with the political thought of modern Europe, that link has to be with the Counter-Revolutionary philosophy of the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

The French experience illustrates Donoso’s insights by contrast, The Bourbons of the eighteenth century had attempted to limit their own power from within by appealing to Parlements for an impartial reading of the legality of royal actions. This attempt was frustrated at its inception because the supposed limitation was either false, in no sense serious due to its having come out of a royal sovereignty which itself accepted no source of law beyond itself except a vague appeal to the Christian conscience of the king; or because, when serious, the “limitation” tended to identify itself with the class interests and doctrinal predilections of the lawyers who interpreted the law, thus creating a special interest lobby, so to speak, within the total machinery of government which was bent on securing its own advancement to the detriment of the impartial majesty of the law. Had the French Crown been led consistently by the lawyers instead of only by fits and starts, Power in France would have shifted to the new bourgeoisie before the Revolution instead of afterwards. The Crown would thus have become the agent of a new liberalism some one century or more before it actually did so in the reign of Louis Philippe from 1830 to 1848.

Donoso’s metaphysics of Power is thus buttressed by an historical phenomenology which brushes away any illusions about Power’s effective limitation from within its own structure. If we link Donoso’s insight with Voegelin’s insistence that representation cannot be understood on the superficial level of institutional forms but only in the light of Sir John Fortescue’s “articulation” of a “head” to serve and govern a society in its action within history, we shall be well on the road in political philosophy to a theory of Power which does justice to both the internal metaphysics of Power and to historical phenomena themselves.49

We have already mentioned that, according to The Letter,medieval assemblies must not be understood as though they were political Powers. They represented the principle of Authority and not Power and hence kings had to dialogue with them and had to listen to their desires and complaints. These assemblies crystalized the natural resistance to Power found out in the community itself and hence they chastened kings and humbled crowns. When the purse strings depended on society itself, Power was given an additional motive for heeding the Authority incarnated in society and Power was forced to come to terms with that Authority. Medieval parliaments were, says Donoso, a “social force . . . an organic resistance and a natural limit to the indefinite expansion of Power.”50 Liberal parliamentarianism, on the contrary, developed according to the theory that Power must be perpetually divided, thus placing it—according to Donoso—at the mercy “of a hundred parties.” The resultant chaos turned the parliaments of the last century and of this one into battlefields which:

by suppressing the hierarchies which are the natural and hence divine form of variety and denying to Power its indivisibility which is the divine, natural, and necessary condition of its unity, produced an open insurrection against God as far as He is the creator, the legislator, and the conserver of human societies.51

In the grim, steely world of political and social unrest produced by liberalism, God permits the combat but He “denies the victory.”52 Donoso here pushes his philosophy of Power to its final consequences. If the Law of Unity and Variety is true to the ultimate order of Being it follows that any attempt at violating its structure must be self-defeating. We would miss the significance of Donoso’s critique were we to reduce his study to an analysis of political institutions, some of which he approved of and some of which he disliked. Donoso’s preference for the traditional Catholic monarchy of the Middle Ages can be read this way and political philosophers ought not to deny to their fellow practitioners existential and historical preferences.53 Nonetheless, behind Donoso’s institutional predilections there lies a philosophy which transcends it as well because it purports to teach us something about Power itself, no matter where or in what historical moment in time, or under whatever form it might exist, including—of course—under the form of democracy. The division of Power and the centralization of society are twin ontological monstrosities for Donoso. The decentralized political community that diffuses Authority through it variety of autonomous institutions is a dictate of the law of political existence itself. In our time, Professor Alvaro D’Ors has found this law at work in the early Roman distinction between Power and Authority as indicated earlier in this essay. “In general terms, authority is the truth recognized by society and it is set off against potestas which is force or power recognized by society”.54 Both grew out of and represent the same political order or “regime” but they ought “to remain permanently separated because if authority resides in the same organ that possesses potestas it follows that authority could never serve as a limit or brake.”55


The alarming collapse of Christianity today in a society bent upon secularizing itself so profoundly that it even makes of Christianity itself a tool ill the desacralizing of political existence,56 has left the West without an effective representative of the Authority of God and of the Moral Law. Institutional tinkering with the instruments of Power in some vain attempt to play them off one against another is no effective scalpel for ridding the body politic of the diseases of tyranny and chaos.

Politics which sin against the laws of Being do so at their own peril. They fall into either a tyrannical Power which violates the body politic or into a chaos within whose vortex every faction within the community vies with all comers for the palm of a Power possessed by none. Donoso’s phenomenology of Power today works out its tragic destiny in the new African and Asiatic countries where the disintegration of tribal loyalties follows the centralizing of Power and its identification with Sovereign Authority. Authority, no longer centrifugal, diffused throughout the community by way of a plurality of institutions that repose ultimately upon some final Representative of Divine Truth, some last Voice which speaks with the Wisdom and even the Thunder of God, loses itself in the insane pretensions of the Tyrannical Soul or gives itself over to gnostic or totalitarian dreams in the na


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