Louis XVI was executed today at 10 AM. Norman Malcolm describes the significance of the event by pointing out that at the time of the execution the civilized world had accepted hereditary monarchy for five thousand years. For the last few years I’ve spent the day taking stock of my opinions of the hereditary monarchs* of the ancien régime and the modern/liberal order that replaced them.

I first unearthed my opinion about kings accidentally. I was trying to understand Dawkins’s opinions on God, which are a peculiar mix of utter apathy that turn out to be grounded on contempt, and I hit on the thought that this was more or less how I felt about kings. I’m physically incapable of seeing political authority as conferred by the normal course of birth, which makes me a-monarchist in the same way that Dawkins protests he is atheist – it’s not that he hates or rejects God but that he simply has no feelings about him one way or another. This apathy-which-is-not-contempt is unstable since everyone sees his dispositions to the world as rational, and so unless the other guy insists that his love of God or monarchs is a personality quirk or a sheer matter of taste both Dawkins and I have no choice but to see him as irrational. The more earnestly such a person insists on his reasons, the harder it gets for us to avoid contempt. This is before raising the possibility that the other guy might want us to bow to our King.

Our self-descriptions can be more or less coherently imagined as counter-factual. I have very little trouble imagining what it would be like to work as a store manager or to come from a larger family or even be a protestant, but when I try to imagine what it would be like to be female or extraverted I hit a conceptual wall. What I have to deny is so close to the core of my personality that I can’t conceptualize the sort of self that could transition from one way to another. It’s easier for me to imagine taking the blue pill and waking up in the Matrix than to imagine myself finding it natural to bow to hereditary ruler.

But that doesn’t make me right. I’m suspicious of any opinion that commits me to seeing myself as living on a small island of political rationality, and so I either have to adopt historical relativism about political order or search around for some basis in my self for the rational belief in the justice of hereditary rule. If there is something wrong with it, it is a far more subtle error than I’m taking it to be.

* I stress that it’s precisely as hereditary that the kings fascinate/repulse me. It’s the denial of the justice of hereditary rule that I take as the fundamental sense of the political equality of persons. Only fools think that no one is born more fit to rule than any other – the dispute is over whether the rulers can be justly identified by birth alone, or whether they must be empowered by a process that human beings have set up themselves: a lottery, an election, a rational test of ability, etc. This seems like a small dispute but is of tremendous consequence – it will ultimately determine whether we see nature as a co-partner in human life or not. But if it has no partnership with us, what is it? A sublime and indifferent object we can merely look at? A heap of mere material to be dominated and worked into our schemes? A faceless monster with no intentions at all, much less ones that might incorporate our existence into itself? Perhaps a foolish or delicate creature in need of our protection and oversight? The king is the nexus of nature/birth and human affairs. The equality of modernity is the explicit rejection of just such a nexus, and we have yet to come to terms with what this modernity entails.


  1. simonjkyte said,

    January 21, 2016 at 11:08 am

    Kingship used to be about better things. Beowulf is a good example.

  2. Coëmgenus said,

    January 21, 2016 at 1:32 pm

    I’m not sure that the idea that nature does not produce a clearly identifiable king is tantamount to modernity.

    Granted, hereditary rule is very old, and hereditary elements have emerged in all kinds of system (even our thoroughly modern polity has Bushes and Clintons and Kennedies), but there are plenty of counterexamples—Venice, Poland, indeed even the Vatican—in which the monarch was not identified passively based on birth, but was chosen through some method of political deliberation on the part of the community or its representatives.

    I’d say rather that modernity in politics is not a matter of the selection mechanism, but of the logic of authorization. To what end does the ruler rule? We moderns would say, to represent the political will of those who selected him. In an hereditary monarchy, this obviously impossible, since there is no mechanism of selection, but even in non-hereditary constitutions this principle was not present before modernity. The Doge of Venice ruled not as the agent of his Forty-One Electors, but as the embodiment of the republic before God.

    We can imagine this elective structure shading into political modernity more easily than we could imagine the same of an hereditary monarchy, and if our only aim were to keep modern political thought away, a monarchy would no doubt be the safer bet. But even if an hereditary monarchy is a bulwark against modernity, other kinds of constitution don’t commit us to modernity.

    • January 21, 2016 at 2:07 pm

      But there are plenty of counterexamples— Venice, Poland, indeed even the Vatican—in which the monarch was not identified passively based on birth.

      Norms are going to have counter-examples. There are clear counter-examples to monarchy too (Rome, some of Athens, Venetian Republic) and clear counter-examples the norms of representative democracy or Socialism in the Postwar West (like, again, the Vatican) but we can still call these the norms.

      In an hereditary monarchy… there is no mechanism of selection,

      There is no rational system put into place to make him the result of human will, but the monarch wasn’t viewed as “just happening” by nature. Nature itself was the one selecting the monarch in a way similar to, but more significant than how this happens in a beehive or a termite colony. All men were no more equal in the ancien regime than the queen bee and the drone are political equals. I don’t disagree with your claim about the differing ends of government modern and AR regimes, but see the modern as based on a prior and more significant negation of the longstanding belief that men are politically comparable to hive animals.

      • Coëmgenus said,

        January 21, 2016 at 2:34 pm

        I suppose it depends on the why in which you think the nomination of a king is “more significant” than the emergence of a queen among bees or ants. For me it’s a huge difference that these processes happen without any exercise of reason on the part of the insects, whereas it seems to me that even pre-modern political thought treats submission to rule as a rational activity.

        Now I could show this, with arguments that I think would have convinced even a pre-modern thinker that a bee or an ant is not the right model for a human citizen, but I think this demonstration would be pointless for you— it would look the same as if I were merely recapitulating the triumph of modernity over what you suppose premodernity to have been. And I don’t have the knowledge or the authority to demonstrate that the ant-colony model is not in fact that of the tradition’s political thought.

  3. January 21, 2016 at 11:44 pm

    My strong intuition is that the “ancien regime” model of monarchy is not, in fact, remotely the norm throughout those five-thousand years. The Medieval model quite often saw the King as more of one knight among many–one of many similar authorities, most fairly small-scale, in a system built upon personal oaths of allegiance, chartered agreements between classes and groups, and some sort of authorization from the Church/God. The area I know the most about, the Roman Empire, was never really based on a hereditary system conceived of as a natural choice. It was initially rooted in the Roman concept of clan-loyalty (which included the idea of adoption, by which a totally unrelated adult man could be made the heir of a powerful family for the purposes of inheritance), but even that didn’t necessarily last long. By the third century, it had essentially become a military dictatorship, based entirely on the support of the Roman soldiery, and buttressed by ideas about victory or rule as signs of divine favor or pseudo-divinity. This was itself drawing on Near-Eastern idea of kingship, by which the King is semi-divine, with some kind of divine kinship or favor displayed through his victories and successes. This is also sort of the Homeric idea–kings are in some sense “Zeus-reared,” but they hold their positions (like the gods themselves) through violence, craft, and luck seen as indicative of strength and divine favor, not some kind of selection by nature.

    The ancien regime idea of kingship was a profoundly powerful ideology, and it certainly embodied certain pre-modern ideas about society very powerfully, but my perception is that in many respects it represents a pretty major innovation of the Renaissance and early modern period. In fact, I would be fairly confident that the entire idea of “nature” and “naturalness” that the ancien regimes were founded on is itself an early modern innovation. It certainly strikes me as highly antithetical to the ancient or classical view of the world, and I find it difficult to square it with what I know of Medieval political theory as well.

    My intuition is also that the commonness of hereditary methods of selection has more to do (as in the Roman Empire) with the idea of inheritance (my family shares my honors and privileges, and I pass them as much as possible, along with my property, to my children) than with any idea that the son of the Emperor is fitted or disposed “by nature” to rule better than others. Indeed, the Roman system frequently allowed and even encouraged people to disinherit their “natural” children in favor of random strangers.

    I’m not sure if this directly deals with your questions, but I do think that when taken as a whole, historical politics is not as far out there as it might at first appear.

  4. Alex Marsh said,

    January 22, 2016 at 3:24 pm

    Perhaps this is just because I am English, but the notion of hereditary rule seems perfectly natural to me. I can quite easily appreciate the instinct to bow to a monarch. On the other hand, I would happily recognise this as (1) not a great political philosophy, and (2) obviously a matter of personal taste.

  5. King Richard said,

    January 23, 2016 at 2:19 pm

    Monarchy was very fluid (as Captain Peabody pointed out) with the concept of an Absolute Monarch rather… odd through most of history (and arguably never actually happening).
    At heart hereditary monarchy is a simple concept – a man with the virtues of a ruler is well-prepared to raise children with the virtues of a ruler. Princes were often fostered with other ruling families for a few years at a time to learn virtues and humility. Hereditary rule also meant that the various rulers of various power were, in the long term, bound by ties of family through marriage. The nexus of political power was bound about by a web of obligations ranging from philosophical to blood.

  6. Zippy said,

    January 24, 2016 at 7:38 am

    Pre-modern politics was modeled after the family. Modern politics is modeled after the daycare.

  7. Zippy said,

    January 24, 2016 at 7:42 am

    Or if you prefer, premodern politics was a family fractal. Modern politics is a daycare fractal. (To avoid the multivocity of the phrase “is modeled after”).

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