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.