The Divine Right of Kings and Secular Politicians

In a comment to an earlier post of mine, Jor, one of the great commentators to this blog, expressed the view that modern cops and politicians felt they had the same divine right to rule as medieval kings. I was sceptical of this, as although politicians and the police do consider that they have an automatic right to rule and enforce those rules, this is almost exclusively based on secular political theory, rather than theology. Nevertheless, the great architectural historian, Lewis Mumford, held a similar view that the state’s claim to power over its subjects and their property was based on the divine right of kings, and traced this conception of the state’s right to sovereignty to the very origins of kingship and civilisation itself in ancient mesopotamia.

In his classic book, The City in History, Mumford states that

‘Private property begins, not as Proudhon thought with robbery, but with the treatment of all common property as the private possession of the king, whose life and welfare were identified with that of the community. Property was an extension and enlargement of his own personality, as the unique representative of the collective whole. But once this claim was accepted, property could for the first time be alienated, that is, removed from the community by the individual gift of the king.

This conception of the royal possessions remained in its original form well past the time of Louis XIV. That Sun King, a little uneasy over the heavy taxes he desired to impose, called together the learned Doctors of Paris to decide if his exactions were morally justifiable. Their theology was equal to the occasion. They explained that the entire realm was his by divine right: hence in laying on these new taxes he was only taxing himself. This prerogative was passed on, undefiled, to the ‘sovereign state’, which in emergencies falls back, without scruple, on ancient myth and magic.’ 1

Now while this was probably true of Louis XIV’s government, the situation was rather different for his successor, Louis XIV. His reign ended and the French Revolution broke out partly because of the monarchy’s inability to the raise the taxes it needed to run the country through the obstruction of the Parlement of Paris and other, regional parlements that ruled the new taxes unconstitutional, while the vast wealth of the nobility and church was unavailable as they were exempt from taxation. For example, when Louis XVI’s Controleur-General, Turgot, attempted to reform the French agricultural system according to Physiocratic ideas of free trade, the reforms were vehemently attacked by the Parlement of Paris. In his Six Edicts of 1776, Turgot attempted to free the internal grain trade, abolish the guilds and convert the corvee – the labour service performed by the rural peasantry – into a money tax paid by all landlords. The Parlement of Paris, the assembly of French lawyers which examined royal legislation to see if it was constitutional before it could be passed, rejected it as an intolerable attack on privilege. Their comments demanding its rejection denounced it as a ‘project produced by an inadmissible system of equality, whose first effect would be to confound all orders in the state by imposing on them the uniform burden of a land tax’. 2 Confronted with this opposition, Louis backed down and dismissed Turgot.

Mumford himself had a negative view of the social effects of the rise of civilisation. He viewed the development of the city and the settled state as a process by which the earliest, egalitarian communities, ruled by a council of elders and characterised by little difference in social roles and comparative wealth between its members, was destroyed and replaced by absolute states, characterised by a social stratefication that reduced many of their citizens to slavery, forced individuals into specialised social and economic roles, and ruled by military aristocracies. These early states were totalitarian and belligerent, with power eventually becoming centralised in the person of the king, and maintained by warfare against rival states. It’s a view of the origins of the state that, in looking back to a more egalitarian, democratic state before the rise of civilisation, has much in common with the contemporary distrust of civilisation as a whole and a very positive view of indigenous, tribal societies who are believed to be more noble and egalitarian than industrial, technological cultures. Given this awareness of the oppressive consequences of the development of the autocratic state in antiquity, it’s possibly not surprising that Mumford was similarly critical of the tendencies towards centralisation and authoritarianism in modern, industrial states.

It’s probably safe to say that most people would reject the idea that the aristocratic, centralised monarchies of the ancient world had anything in common with contemporary secular, democratic politics, beyond the fact that many of the problems and issues that occupied the early kings, such as their statements that they intended to support justice, maintain or create prosperity and defend their nation against invaders are the same issues that face just about every politician and statesman. However, Mumford’s comment here, like JOR’s, does pose the interesting problem of how much of the modern conception of the state is due not to the rational analysis of its nature and powers, but derived from the idea of the state as it was constructed in remote antiquity, and passed down since then as a fundamental assumption that is simply accepted as automatically true and rational, rather than analysed and debated. This is not to say that the state is necessarily oppressive or coercive, as even in antiquity there were debates about the nature of the state and how it could be organised to give the greatest freedom and justice. Nevertheless, modern politics after the horrors of the totalitarian regimes of left and right in the 20th century is acutely aware of how oppressive the power of the state can be in the hands of those determined to destroy its citizens’ freedom. An awareness of the authoritarian nature of some ancient states, and the process by which their citizens attempted to reform it and check the power of monarchies and oppressive governments, such as in democratic Athens or ancient Rome, clearly have important lessons for contemporary, democratic states, despite the immense differences in time, culture and the nature of the ancient civilisations.

Notes

1. Lewis Mumford, The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations and Its Prospects (Harmondsworth, Penguin 1961), p. 129.

2. E.N. Williams, The Ancien Regime in Europe: Government and Society in the Major States 1648-1789 (London, Penguin 1970), p. 239.

9 Responses to “The Divine Right of Kings and Secular Politicians”

  1. manasclerk Says:

    If it were our conception of the state the has led to coercive practices, contemporary pre-industrial and non-western ancient civilisations should not have the problem. Yet pre-industrial societies live brutal, violent existences, their men much more likely to die in warfare, and coercion and autocratic power exist in all major ancient cultural centres, including the Americas. It is a base animal behaviour: a chimpanzee tribe will war on another one, exterminating it completely. The divine right of kings looks unlikely to be the root of the problem. It seems more likely that our enjoyment of violence and the use of coercive force is simply a fundamental part of human nature that the rise of associative social institutions curbs, as Wilfred Brown always argued. We then create various justifications for our animalistic behaviours.

  2. Feyd Says:

    Most anthropologists agree with Mumford there are indeed negative social consequences associated with the rise of civilisation. Studies have shown that nomadic hunter –gatherer tribes are invariably very egalitarian . There’s widely accepted evidence that they tend to be healthier, have more leisure time, and even are apparently less stressed and happier than most civilised people. As the Holy Bible tells us (Rom 1:19-20) God makes Himself known to uncivilised people through the wordless language of nature.
    There’s some interesting articles to be found at http://www.primitivism.com/anthropology.htm

    Once civilisation arises organised religion becomes important to relive some of the stresses and strains society causes and for guiding us according to God’s will. Equally strong authority is needed to prevents anarchy and excessive conflict. While there’s clearly dangers in uncritical acceptance of the divine right of Kings, IMO we’d be foolish to further erode the authority of our monarch or the house of Lords. Pure democracy equates to the unfettered dictatorship of money!

  3. Beastrabban Says:

    Hi Manasclerk! Thanks for your comment. I’m afraid I haven’t come across Wilfred Brown, so that’s a very interesting comment. Now there certainly is archaeological evidence that does contradict the notion that primitive society is peaceful. Mass graves containing the remains of the victims of what were probably tribal massacres have been found in Neolithic monuments in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. However, anthropologists studying the warfare of indigenous peoples, such as those of Papua New Guinea, have noted that while there are mass battles, they’re not quite like those of modern, technological civilisations. They’re more like a series of skirmishes, and while there is a lot of aggression, most of it is display, and while there certainly is real, violent combat, compared there’s comparatively little death.

    As for chimpanzee warfare, yes, that does seem to suggest that there is a primal aggressive trait deep within us. However, while fallen human nature will attempt to twist or devise any ideology to justify aggression or exploitation, it’s also been the case that human behaviour isn’t purely dictated by its genes, and that ideologies and religions, such as Christianity , have acted to control human aggressive instincts, if only partially.

    Thanks for the comment and the link, Ilion – that’s really interesting. I was aware that graves from Pre-Dynastic Egypt don’t show great variations in wealth or social status, but I don’t know much about Hunter-Gatherer culture, and so wasn’t really aware that they were comparatively healthier and happier than we are.

  4. JOR Says:

    I don’t think the modern state’s claim to rule is rooted, historically or philosophiocally, in the divine right of kings. Rather, I think late modern/contemporary nationalism and Enlightenment/early modern absolutism are expressions of a common error, and yes, one that has been expressed countless times in countless forms throughout history.

    Call it meta-ethical authoritarianism. Or if we’re going to be irreverent, the Clown-Suit Defense: wearing the teflon Clown Suit, be it a funny hat or a police uniform or whatever, makes you effectively -and often explicitly- unaccountable for your actions. The defense may be utilitarian, or propertarian, or theological in nature, but in all of these case it mistakes the nature of morality.

  5. JOR Says:

    And for the record, while I am most certainly an anarchist, I am no kind of primitivist.

  6. Beastrabban Says:

    Hi JOR – thanks for the reply.

    Regarding the use of the ‘clown suit’ defence by authoritarian elites and groups to avoid accountability for their actions, I certainly agree with you that membership in an elite group possessing power or authority can itself lead individuals within that group to assume that they are morally unaccountable, or personally above criticism through their membership of that group. You can see that in the attitude of some politicians who will become terribly affronted and indignant when their attitudes towards those they govern is criticised.

    My own fear is that politicians in Britain, and elsewhere in the west, are becoming increasingly out of touch with the social realities around them, and that there is an assumed ‘right to rule’ by the political elites that makes them oblivious to the detrimental effects of their policies. Some of them even seem so out of touch that when confronted with public opposition to their policies, that instead of questioning the wisdom of their proposed course of action they seem instead to be quite unable to understand how anyone could possibly not agree absolutely with what they’re doing.

    I’ve a real fear that there’s a distinct political class developing in the West that assumes that it – and only it – has the right attitudes for leadership, regardless of whether these actually correspond to reality outside of the network of political societies and conferences that form the backbone of organised party politics. And I think this elitist attitude transcends party lines, and is not confined to any one political party.

  7. Beastrabban Says:

    Thanks also for clearing up the fact that you’re not a Primitivist. I didn’t mean to imply that you were.

    However, on a general point I suspect that a fascination with the primitive is as old as civilisation, and that the Noble Savage of the Enlightenment was, in many ways, merely an 18th century version of the ancient Roman idea of the pre-technological Golden Age, when humanity lived in a state of natural goodness before the rise of civilisation.

  8. JOR Says:

    I’m not so sure politicians are getting worse. I think they’ve always been this bad, it’s just that people are getting more “cynical” (realistic) in evaluating them.

  9. Beastrabban Says:

    According to an article in the British Financial Times about a decade ago, quoting American journalists covering national politics, politics in America has become definitely cleaner. The FT concluded that this was partly due to the lack of deference that the press and media had given politicians and authority generally in past generations. People were more cynical about politicians, and so believed that politics was more corrupt when actually the opposite was true.

    My guess is that the public’s cynicism towards political corruption is probably one of the most potent factors in making politics cleaner. People are more suspicious of politicians, and so less likely to ignore cases where they’re seen to abuse their position and power. Authority no longer commands the automatic respect previous generations were accustomed to give it, and the various political scandals that have damaged or destroyed many people’s faith in their elected representatives, of which the greatest was certainly Watergate and Nixon’s impeachment, means that people generally expect politicians’ conduct to be carefully examined, with abuses exposed and those responsible to be removed from office. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen. There have been a number of politicians over this side of the Atlantic who have somehow managed to retain their power and influence despite revelations of less than honest conduct. I don’t think politics will ever be free of corruption, not so long as politicians have the same failings as the rest of humanity and the profession offers so many opportunities for abuse, but at least things have improved, even if it appears otherwise.

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