Kings and queens and

Norman Cantor argues that, for 5000 years, the typical mode of governance was by god-kings. By “god-king” he means a ruler that is not simply a monarch, but a monarch seen in what Catholics might call a sacramental light, sc. as God’s representative among human beings. He was not a citizen who was  elevated to executive office, but rather a person on whom divine favor had descended or who in one way or another was seen as descending to the people to rule them. A king is not just a prime minister or president with a crown, and the fact that a king could be born into his office was not seen as election by chance. Nature itself was bringing forth the one who was fit to rule. Cantor says this run of god-kings lasted “until the end of the eighteenth century”, although this was probably just because he didn’t want to labor the precision we can give to the moment when the Monarchies ended: January 21, 1793, 10:20 AM, with the execution of Louis XVI. 220 years ago tomorrow.

Within the overall 5000 year run of god-kings, France had been ruled by them for a thousand years by the time they killed Louis, and given that this was only 220 years ago it’s not clear that any of us have had the time to adjust to the change yet. If one crushes five millenia down to a single year, our 220 years since the end of god-kings only puts the end of that year about two weeks ago. I doubt we’ve had enough time to figure out if the change is going to last. But it seems permanent: who can imagine himself giving obeisance to a king? Who could believe that birth could give one a just claim to political primacy? I don’t know anyone who looks at persons or at birth in that way.

“All men are created equal” is more controversial than it sounds. The negative way of saying the same thing is “No man is a king” – at least no man is a king by right. The divine favor does not descend on one man, who in turn descends to his people to rule them. That said, we also curiously see our own political order as divine: we are created equal and endowed by the Creator with inalienable (and thus divine) rights. So maybe we actually believe every man’s a king. But it’s just this sort of problem that leaves it as an open question whether this state of affairs can continue. To say that God chooses a king to rule at least gives us a given political structure and rule that we can say is God-ordained, but to make God create all men equal does not. The responsibility for the political structure depends on human beings in a way that it did not before, and this early on one can’t be sure that we’re up for it.

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4 Comments

  1. Mike Flynn said,

    January 21, 2013 at 1:42 pm

    It seems to me that the absolute, divine-right monarch was an invention of the 17th century. The medievals preferred their kings light. And many of them were elected, including the Emperor. They might be king “by the grace of God,” but not by divine right. But power is the appetite that grows on its feeding and the desire of kings to become monarchs, i.e., ruling alone, was always there. And so one by one they subordinated the polycentric institutions of western life: free towns, guilds, universities, professional societies, the baronage, until by the time of England’s Henry VIII, even a company of theatrical performers needed royal permission and a patron at Court. Last of all, the monarchs broke the Church, and formed domesticated “established churches,” one for each king or prince. They used Sponsor-a-Heretic, as in Saxony; Concordats arrogating the right to name bishops and approve encyclicals for their realm, as in France and Spain; or outright Nationalization, as in England or Sweden.

    • January 21, 2013 at 2:21 pm

      I’m not in any position to give a vigorous defense of Cantor’s claim, but he is distinguishing this from James II’s idea of ius regis divinum. Still, kingship does seem to include the idea that a successor arises by right from a natural act of generation, and there also seems to be a clear sense that rights in large part are the dispensation of the king i.e. he is more the source of the law than under it (though there have always been both practical and theoretical checks on this power.) This is the clearest sense I have of explaining what Cantor is calling a god-king.

      But even then, I don’t know that it is so much a matter of power as a matter of seeing a king as existing on a higher ontological level. For all I know, the housing inspector in Trenton has more far-reaching control over the lives of more persons than any Medieval monarch, but for all that the housing inspector is still seen as just another citizen. We don’t do him homage or assume that his act of generation will be supernaturally empowered to generate the one who by right should be the next housing inspector. I don’t say this as a critique of either: it is very difficult for me to decide between the monarch and the Leviathan-Bureaucrat.

      The Medievals may have had weak kings, and I’m pretty sure that they had far less centralized power than we have, but they seemed okay with the idea that men are born in discernible hierarchies of ruler and ruled (Dante is interesting to consider on this point, though). This is, I think, at the heart of what Cantor is calling the god-king.

    • thenyssan said,

      January 22, 2013 at 8:27 am

      How’s about this: precisely because medieval man saw the king as ontologically superior, he preferred his kings lite. It’s interesting to synthesize your point with James’s. Dropping the hierarchical differentiation seems like it should prevent the abuses of monarchy that “anyone” can see coming, but it doesn’t. Once “he’s just like us,” we drop our guard against what can go wrong and we all go into the mud for the power grab. After all, we know everyone else will be going for as well.

  2. May 12, 2014 at 8:39 pm

    In the free market, the consumer is king. Modern politics is an attempt to extend capitalism to the conduct of government.


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