Yearly reflection on the Execution of Louis

Fr. Neuhaus thought that, as a Protestant, one of the central questions he had to ask himself as a Protestant was “Why am I not Catholic?” The sense was, presumably, that his existence consisted in an act of separation, and that to lose sight of the reasons for this separation is literally to lose all sense of oneself. For the same reasons, an American has to ask himself “Why am I not a monarchist?” Our defining act is a defiance, a negation, and contradiction of monarchy, and to lose sight of the reasons for this leaves us with a fundamental blindness over who we are and what we are doing.

The rejection of all kings is the first sense of All men are created equal. There is no reason to cast about for what grounds or establishes this equality, as many have tried and still try to do, since the equality of all is not a positive state but the rejection of any hierarchies given in advance as structures of political justice. As Jefferson put it, enlightenment politics consists in seeing that some men are not born with saddles on their backs, and others born ready to ride them by the grace of God. Human beings are not born like bees, that is, into a political structure given in advance. All political structure has to be made from the raw materials of nature, which produces leaders by chance, if at all – it certainly doesn’t produce them in a way that can be clearly identified, like a leader always begetting a leader. To assume that rulers and ruled are given like this is, so the reasoning goes, a fundamentally lazy, essentially incompetent and ultimately unjust arrangement. To assume that God provides for political order by making executives sire only executives is a phony doctrine of providence.

The equality of all persons is an act of defiance that immediately raises an urgent question. In our defiance, we see ourselves as awaking to the fact that the king is just another man. All his demands for obeisance, ring-kissing, bows, etc. along with all of his claims to a special competence (or at least mandate) to rule are so much phony pretense. But the thrill of throwing him down leaves us with nothing given in advance. God and nature no longer provide for us, except in the sense of arbitrarily producing leaders that we can’t identify (if they do). But then we get the question: so what do we do now?

Again, the doctrine of the equality of all men takes all of its thrill from its initial act of defiance, not from our recognition that God has given us some single trait or characteristic in equal measure. It’s not as if Jefferson looked around in 1776 and saw, for the first time ever, that everyone was equal some relevant feature of political power. But can’t we just read the Declaration and see just these positive traits? Aren’t they life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which are fleshed out more fully in Lincoln’s Ottawa speech? True, Jefferson mentions equality of rights to not be killed, enslaved or imprisoned (i.e. “life” and “liberty”), but all he can mean by this is the equal right of all not to suffer unjustly in these ways. These lofty “rights” are “equal” in the sense that justice must be equally applied, but this is implicit in the very idea of justice, whether applied by a King or not. The King has no more right to kill or enslave someone unjustly than an elected assembly does, and to recognize this isn’t based on some profound insight into the nature of rights but is simply a statement of the first principle of political reason: justice must be done and injustice avoided. The principle is true, to be sure, but it’s nothing that could separate you from your King – it’s not even something the King disagrees with. The only cash value of these equal rights to life and liberty is in the determination of what is just and what isn’t, and one can’t defy kings by claiming they are making such a determination. Rather, the equal right that Jefferson is speaking about consists in the claim that neither God nor nature has given us a clear indication of the one fit to rule or be ruled, and our “equality” consists in nothing except the absence of this greater or less.

We should thus be very suspicious of any sort of political piety directed at or based on the Declaration. The equality of all men is a certain denial of the work of providence. It is not a total denial, but it is inseparable from one. Equality means God does not provide in advance those who are greate rand less in political power – therefore we must throw down all who claim to rule by divine right* and take care of ourselves in a world that has no interest in providing us with political rulers. Reason must act alone on the raw material of nature with an aim to making a political order out of things blindly thrown forth. For all we know, nature might provide us with the perfect raw material for a monarchy in one generation, for a republic in another, and for nothing at all in the next.

The equality of all men is thus a denial of Kings, or more broadly the denial of the justice of hereditary rule. Any just political order has to be made by reason, which by its nature cannot claim to speak with the voice of God. This can be read as a great advance of secular and even atheist politics, but it need not be read this way.

—-

This is NOT the same thing as the much more narrow doctrine of the divine right of kings. Not everyone anointed to rule, for example, pretends to the sort of right James of Scotland spoke of.

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1 Comment

  1. January 21, 2015 at 9:51 pm

    Hereditary monarchy might just as easily prove a vehicle for non-providential politics. If Jefferson so understood is right, and one is not more fit to rule than another, why should the crown not fall on someone’s head by accident? Satisfy the demands of reason for political order by furnishing him with an education and a charter, and for the sake of social order, allow whatever popular traditions to surround him and his family or chosen successor – or his Pomeranian, for that matter. It isn’t for nothing so many enlightenment thinkers were monarchists.

    In any case, is our claim to equality still the same? It would seem not. Having at length replaced Jefferson’s mixed-polity-cum-elective-monarchy with a universal franchise, we recognize all in fact share one politically relevant quality: all are countable. And we do thrill to watch men endowed by nature and nature’s god (and their donors) with suasive virtuousity (and gobs of airtime) rally the countable against one another. One hardly needs to explain why this is not a fundamentally lazy, essentially incompetent and ultimately unjust arrangement, so I don’t see the point of asking the question.


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