When we stand up to question false authority we should first make our footing firm by showing we understand true authority and uphold it. Let us be clear then as to the meaning of the word law. It may be defined; an ordinance of reason, the aim of which is the public good and promulgated by the ruling power. Let us cite a few authorities. “A human law bears the character of law so far as it is in conformity with right reason; and in that point of view it is manifestly derived from the Eternal Law.” (Aquinas Ethicus, Vol. 1, p. 276.) Writing of laws that are unjust either in respect to end, author or form, St. Thomas says: “Such proceedings are rather acts of violence than laws; because St. Augustine says: ‘A law that is not just goes for no law at all.'” (Aquinas Ethicus, Vol. 1, p. 292.) “The fundamental idea of all law,” writes Balmez, “is that it be in accordance with reason, that it be an emanation from reason, an application of reason to society” (European Civilisation, Chap. 53). In the same chapter Balmez quotes St. Thomas with approval: “The kingdom is not made for the king, but the king for the kingdom”; and he goes on to the natural inference: “That all governments have been established for the good of society, and that this alone should be the compass to guide those who are in command, whatever be the form of government.” It is likewise the view of Mill, in Representative Government, that the well-being of the governed is the sole object of government. It was the view of Plato before the Christian era: his ideal city should be established, “that the whole City might be in the happiest condition.” (The Republic, Book 4.) Calderwood writes: “Political Government can be legitimately constructed only on condition of the acknowledgment of natural obligations and rights as inviolable.” (Handbook of Modern Philosophy, Applied Ethics, Sec. 4.) Here all schools and all times are in agreement. Till these conditions are fulfilled for us we are at war. When an independent and genuine Irish Government is established we shall yield it a full and hearty allegiance: the law shall then be in repute. We do not stand now to deny the idea of authority, but to say that the wrong people are in authority, the wrong flag is over us.
“We must overthrow the arguments that might be employed against us by the advocates of blind submission to any power that happens to be established,” writes Balmez, on resistance to De Facto Governments. (European Civilisation, Chap. 55.) We could not be more explicit than the famous Spanish theologian. To such arguments let the following stand out from his long and emphatic reply:—”Illegitimate authority is no authority at all; the idea of power involves the idea of right, without which it is mere physical power, that is force.” He writes further: “The conqueror, who, by mere force of arms, has subdued a nation, does not thereby acquire a right to its possession; the government, which by gross iniquities has despoiled entire classes of citizens, exacted undue contributions, abolished legitimate rights, cannot justify its acts by the simple fact of its having sufficient strength to execute these iniquities.” There is much that is equally clear and definite. What extravagant things can be said on the other side by people in high places we know too well. Balmez in the same book and chapter gives an excellent example and an excellent reply: “Don Felix Amat, Archbishop of Palmyra, in the posthumous work entitled Idea of the Church Militant, makes use of these words: ‘Jesus Christ, by His plain and expressive answer, Render to Cæsar the things that are Cæsar’s, has sufficiently established that the mere fact of a government’s existence is sufficient for enforcing the obedience of subjects to it….’ His work was forbidden at Rome,” is Balmez’ expressive comment, and he continues, “and whatever may have been the motives for such a prohibition, we may rest assured that, in the case of a book advocating such doctrines, every man who is jealous of his rights might acquiesce in the decree of the Sacred Congregation.” So much for De Facto Government. It is usurpation; by being consummated it does not become legitimate. When its decrees are not resisted, it does not mean we accept them in principle—nor can we even pretend to accept them—but that the hour to resist has not yet come. It is the strategy of war.
We stand on the ground that the English Government in Ireland is founded in usurpation and as such deny its authority. But if it be argued, assuming it as Ireland’s case, that a usurped authority, gradually acquiesced in by the people, ultimately becomes the same as legitimate, the reply is still clear. For ourselves we meet the assumption with a simple denial, appealing to Irish History for evidence that we never acquiesced in the English Usurpation. But to those who are not satisfied with this simple denial, we can point out that even an authority, originally founded legitimately, may be resisted when abusing its power to the ruin of the Commonwealth. We still stand on the ground that the English government is founded in usurpation, but we can dispose of all objections by proving the extremer case. This is the case Dr. Murray, already quoted, discusses. “The question,” he writes, “is about resistance to an established and legitimate government which abuses its power.” (Essays, Chiefly Theological, Vol. 4.) He continues: “The common opinion of a large number of our theologians, then, is that it is lawful to resist by force, and if necessary to depose, the sovereign ruler or rulers, in the extreme—the very extreme—case wherein the following conditions are found united:
“1. The tyranny must be excessive—intolerable.
“2. The tyranny must be manifest, manifest to men of good sense and right feeling.
“3. The evils inflicted by the tyrant must be greater than those which would ensue from resisting and deposing him.
“4. There must be no other available way of getting rid of the tyranny except by recurring to the extreme course.
“5. There must be a moral certainty of success.
“6. The revolution must be one conducted or approved by the community at large … the refusal of a small party in the State to join with the overwhelming mass of their countrymen would not render the resistance of the latter unlawful.” (Essays, Chiefly Theological; see also Rickaby, Moral Philosophy, Chap. 8, Sec. 7.)
Some of these conditions are drawn out at much length by Dr. Murray. I give what is outstanding. How easily they could fit Irish conditions must strike anyone. I think it might fairly be said that our leaders generally would, if asked to lay down conditions for a rising, have framed some more stringent than these. It might be said, in truth, of some of them that they seem to wait for more than a moral certainty of success, an absolute certainty, that can never be looked for in war.
When a government through its own iniquity ceases to exist, we must, to establish a new government on a true and just basis, go back to the origin of Civil Authority. No one argues now for the Divine Right of Kings, but in studying the old controversy we get light on the subject of government that is of all time. To the conception that kings held their power immediately from God, “Suarez boldly opposed the thesis of the initial sovereignty of the people; from whose consent, therefore, all civil authority immediately sprang. So also, in opposition to Melanchthon’s theory of governmental omnipotence, Suarez a fortiori admitted the right of the people to depose those princes who would have shown themselves unworthy of the trust reposed in them.” (De Wulf, History of Medieval Philosophy, Third Edition, p. 495.) Suarez’ refutation of the Anglican theory, described by Hallam as clear, brief, and dispassionate, has won general admiration. Hallam quotes him to the discredit of the English divines: “For this power, by its very nature, belongs to no one man but to a multitude of men. This is a certain conclusion, being common to all our authorities, as we find by St. Thomas, by the Civil laws, and by the great canonists and casuists; all of whom agree that the prince has that power of law-giving which the people have given him. And the reason is evident, since all men are born equal, and consequently no one has a political jurisdiction over another, nor any dominion; nor can we give any reason from the nature of the thing why one man should govern another rather than the contrary.” (Hallam—Literature of Europe, Vol. 3, Chap. 4.) Dr. Murray, in the essay already quoted, speaks of Sir James Mackintosh as the ablest Protestant writer who refuted the Anglican theory, which Mackintosh speaks of as “The extravagance of thus representing obedience as the only duty without an exception.” Dr. Murray concludes his own essay on Resistance to the Supreme Civil Power by a long passage from Mackintosh, the weight and wisdom of which he praises. The greater part of the passage is devoted to the difficulties even of success and emphasising the terrible evils of failure. In what has already been written here I have been at pains rather to lay bare all possible evils than to hide them. But when revolt has become necessary and inevitable, then the conclusion of the passage Dr. Murray quotes should be endorsed by all: “An insurrection rendered necessary by oppression, and warranted by a reasonable probability of a happy termination, is an act of public virtue, always environed with so much peril as to merit admiration.” Yes, and given the happy termination, the right and responsibility of establishing a new government rest with the body of the people.
We come, then, to this conclusion, that government is just only when rightfully established and for the public good; that usurpation not only may but ought to be resisted; that an authority originally legitimate once it becomes habitually tyrannical may be resisted and deposed; and that when from abuse or tyranny a particular government ceases to exist, we have to re-establish a true one. It is sometimes carelessly said, “Liberty comes from anarchy,” but this is a very dangerous doctrine. It would be nearer truth to say from anarchy inevitably comes tyranny. Men receive a despot to quell a mob. But when a people, determined and disciplined, resolve to have neither despotism nor anarchy but freedom, then they act in the light of the Natural Law. It is well put in the doctrine of St. Thomas, as given by Turner in his History of Philosophy (Chap. 38): “The redress to which the subjects of a tyrant have a just right must be sought, not by an individual, but by an authority temporarily constituted by the people and acting according to law.” Yes, and when wild and foolish people talk hysterically of our defiance of all authority, let us calmly show we best understand the basis of Authority—which is Truth, and most highly reverence its presiding spirit—which is Liberty.