Brandon Riederer is an Adjunct Professor of English at Bryant & Stratton College. He has a M.A. in English from National University.
Perspectives on Kingship
Some of the questions philosophers throughout history have struggled with consistently concern the establishment of government, the best way to rule a state, who is fit to rule, the origins of authority, and what is considered just or unjust. The oldest complex societies such as the ancient Egyptians and Sumerians resorted to appointing kingship to those who rule. In other words, these ancient societies ran their government by the rule of one single authority with absolute power. Astonishingly, the tradition of kingship as the dominant political form among Western civilization lasted into the 18th century. Few Western societies deviated far from kingship as the means to run a government. Ultimately, to understand kingship fully, several perspectives must be considered to comprehend what characteristics make a king good and what justifications there are for kings to assume absolute power. In any case, however, it seems as though there is only one conclusion to make about kingship: all kings are tyrants that must be overthrown.
The Good King: Plato, Aristotle, and Rushid
The philosophies on kingship can be best understood through chronological order because each support or refute pervious ideas. Thus, Plato’s political ideas set forth in his Republic shall mark the foundation of political commentary on kingship. For Plato, the ideal society is one which is only governed by philosophers or lovers of wisdom (Kessler, pg. 133). For him, justice, which is the aim for all rulers, is achieved when each of the classes of society in his ideal state do what they are best suited to do: justice shall reign when rulers rule wisely, the guardians protect courageously, and the producers produce and consume goods moderately (Kessler, pg. 133). Plato’s vision of a just society was widely influential and required kings with wisdom.
Wisdom is a difficult term to accurately describe without being too broad or too focused. Aristotle, Plato’s pupil, set forth in his Nicomachean Ethics a moral code that determined virtue as the principle of moral action (Ross, 1925). In other words, for Aristotle, wisdom was the awareness to determine the “mean between the extremes” in temperament. Thus, for Aristotle, the moral entitlement to rule derives from whether those in power have interests in all segments of society (Kessler, pg. 133). A good king, according to Aristotle, promotes the common good of all people and the state through his virtuousness.
The Eastern philosopher Ibn Rushid agreed with both Plato and Aristotle and his efforts in political philosophy attempted to reconcile Platonist and Neo-Platonist views with theocracy. Rushid’s claim that only God has the right to rule ultimately set the foundation for medieval theologians and philosophers to develop the divine right theory (Khadduri, 1984). He claimed that God does not rule human society directly; thus, humans must devise governments that strive to realize, as nearly as humans can, the divine ideal of justice (Khadduri, 1984). Justice, for Rushid, can be achieved in a similar fashion as Aristotle’s theory of virtue ethics. The difference is in Rushid’s terminology. For Rushid, the law of God speaks three ways for humans to discover truth and interpret scripture: demonstrative, dialectical, and rhetorical; demonstrative is the best because it represents natural justice performed by natural forces without social hindrances (Kessler, pg. 135). Thus, according to Rushid, not only must a king be virtuous by example, but he must also be appointed by God through his royal bloodline.
Justifications for Absolutism: Bossuet and Hobbes
By the 17th century, Western monarchs mostly turned away from morality in favor of Machiavellian politics. For these despots, nothing was more paramount than the success of the state and the securing of personal glory (Buckingham et al., 2011). Even so, these kings preferred a “higher” justification for their authority, namely the divine right theory. Medievalism divine right theory is characterized by a belief that authority to rule was sent straight from heaven; furthermore, authority was also believed to be distributed and limited in certain cases (Greer T., Lewis, G., pg. 408). The divine right theory of early modern Europe, however, sought to reconcile absolutist concepts and practices with traditional Christian doctrine.
The most notable argument presented in favor of absolutism was by King Louis XIV’s theologian, Bossuet. Bossuet’s metaphysical and Christian-based argument began with premises: the bible is the ultimate truth, and royal authority is sacred, fatherly, and absolute (Greer T., Lewis, G., pg. 408). Since the king is a direct descendent from heaven, his judgment is subject to no appeal on earth, and his authority had to be obeyed for religious and conscientious reasons. Ultimately, through Bossuet’s perspective on kingship, to deny the king’s command was actually to deny God Himself!
Bossuet’s English contemporary, Thomas Hobbes, also proclaimed an argument in favor of the divine right theory during the reign of the Stuarts. Even so, Hobbes’ claims are far less metaphysical and religious in comparison to Bossuet. Instead, Hobbes reverted back to the secular politics of Machiavelli. Hobbes identified human beings more or less as machines rather than free spirits, and he believed that the physiology and psychology of human beings are the true bases of political organization (not God). Furthermore, through Hobbes’ evolutionary approach to understanding the relationship between the government and the governed, he concluded that people must surrender their personal strength to higher authorities because without the guidance of laws and rules to follow, the general condition of humankind would be akin to a constant “war of every man against every man” (Craig et al., pg. 522-523). Thus, through Hobbes’ secular perspective on kingship, it is in the people’s best interest to appoint an absolute ruler because law triumphs over anarchy.
All Kings are Tyrants: Locke and Rousseau
Even though monarchies had been the relatively undisputed and favored form of government in the Western hemisphere for hundreds of years, with the advent of John Locke’s political ideas in the 17th century and Rousseau’s in the 18th century, the shaky foundations holding up European royalty began to crack. For instance, Locke’s philosophical masterpiece, “Two Treatises of Government” argued heavily against divine right theory and absolutism. Locke claimed that rulers could not be absolute because their power is limited to the laws of nature, which for Locke is the voice of reason (Craig et al., pg. 522-523). The voice of reason is what enlightens humans with the knowledge that all humans are equal and independent; all persons are the images and property of God. Thus, to enter the social contract that separates the governing from the governed, people ought not abandon their political power to a despotism, rather they must use the contract to preserve their natural born rights—life, liberty, and the right to own land (Craig et al., pg. 522-523). Furthermore, a ruler that violates the trust between he and the people, exploits them, or otherwise is a “bad” king should be overthrown by a political revolution.
The Enlightenment thinker, Jean-Jacques Rousseau effectively contradicted Hobbes’ argument for divine right theory with a single premise: man in the state of nature is fundamentally good. If mankind is good in the absence of a ruling state, then less government is better for the individual. Rousseau claimed that when the idea of private property developed, people had to devise a system to protect it; however, this system was evolved over time by those whom held property and power such as kings, nobility, and aristocrats in such a way to bar out those whom did not have land (Buckingham et al., pgs. 156-157). Obviously these laws constrained common folk in unjust ways that limited individual freedom; thus, for Rousseau, it is the existence of a government, especially a king, which provokes inequalities and injustices in society. In other words, all kings are tyrants.
Overthrowing Absolutism: a Look at Political Upheavals
Disposing of a bad king is not an easy task. Looking back on history at three major political revolutions in the Western world—the English, American, and French Revolutions—all three resulted in war, two resulted in the mass execution of nobles and royalty, and one of them reestablished a brand new nation founded on the principles of liberty and equality. Kings in power are arrogant. They want more power, they want to maintain power, and history has shown us that they do not go down without physical conflict. Even during the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, which was implemented to limit the power of the monarch, the English nobility had to hold King John at sword point to make him comply. As Otto Van Bismarck, the 19th century German Chancellor said to his nation, major political decisions— especially upheavals—are usually committed through “blood and iron.”
Buckingham, W., Burnham, D., Hill, C., King, P., Marenbon, J., Weeks, M. (2011). In The philosophy book: Big ideas simply explained (1 ed.). New York, NY: DK Publishing.
Craig et al. (2006). The heritage of world civilization. (9 ed., Vol. 1). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Greer, T., Lewis, G. (1992) A brief history of the western world. (ed. 6). Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers.
Khadduri, M. (1984). The Islamic conception of justice. In Voices of wisdom: a multicultural philosophy reader. New York, NY: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Kessler, G. (2004). Voices of wisdom: A multicultural philosophy reader (ed. 5). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.
Ross, W. (1925). Nicomachean ethics: translated. In Voices of wisdom: a multicultural philosophy reader. London, UK: Oxford University Press.
© 2019 Instructor Riederer