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.