Servile monarchists

Liberals never seem to notice the irony of their positions, how they always beg every question against their opponents in a way exactly contrary to their professed principles.  Liberalism means only public reason in the public square; John Rawls says so himself.  Thus, no criticisms of liberalism or arguments for nonliberal principles can be allowed.  Being nonliberal, they would not meet the bar of public reason, because we’ve already established that liberalism has a monopoly on reason by definition.  Alternatively, liberalism means tolerance.  The only thing tolerance cannot tolerate is intolerance, which–again, by definition–turns out to mean anything other than liberalism.  Most recently, John C. Wright claims that republicans have a monopoly on debate–to debate the common good is republicanism’s distinctive characteristic–so therefore they should refuse to listen to the arguments of their critics.  The arrogance of the man is truly breathtaking.  Sure, people like Dante, Bossuet, Hume, Samuel Johnson, and for that matter most of his pre-revolutionary ancestors might have had reasons for accepting or promoting monarchy, but we needn’t consider them, because these were all men of inferior spiritual quality to Mr. Wright, childishly servile men lacking Mr. Wright’s exalted interior freedom.

The challenge at least is made in the right place.  The question Wright raises is not whether republicanism or monarchy produces better laws or more stable or prosperous societies.  The question is which system promotes full human excellence.

Are there virtues that flourish only under monarchy?  Certainly:  the virtue of loyalty.  Cardinal Newman defined Toryism as “loyalty to persons”, and we do indeed regard a subject’s loyalty to his lord as highly as republicans regard a citizen’s suspicion of his government.  Loyalty is a splendid and manly virtue.  (“Traitors to the crown?  That crown belongs to King Richard.  Long live King Richard!”)

Are there virtues that flourish only in a republic?  Certainly humility doesn’t, as Wright’s treatment of his commenters illustrates.  We monarchists needn’t consider ourselves more elevated than the subjects of medieval or oriental monarchies, or even of tribal chiefs.  Monarchy is, after all, the rule, and republicanism the anomaly.  Republicans seem compelled to bestow the homage they would have given their king on themselves.

The best argument for a republic is that it makes everyone responsible for the commonwealth, which instills a sense of civic responsibility in the people that wouldn’t be present in a monarchy, where the common good is mostly the king’s business.  The easy rejoinder is that the infinitesimal influence of each individual citizen over national affairs (voting, perhaps supporting a party) is too small to give the average citizen any real sense of responsibility.  But let’s consider the ideal case, and let’s grant that this is the distinctive property of republics, that everyone is supposed to be involved in decisions about the general common good.

Does this slice of power, with its accompanying responsibility, promote human excellence?  Does it do so sufficiently to outweigh the loss of loyalty and humility?  First remember what political authority is there for in the first place.  For this, I appeal to Yves Simon’s book A General Theory of Authority.  Simon was a democrat but also a Thomist, making him the ideal mediator in this dispute.  Simon poses the question of whether individuals and small associations should devote themselves to the general common good, and given the importance he gives to the general common good, readers are surprised when he answers “no”.  His reason is the value he places on subsidiarity and pluralism.  Associations other than the state should generally focus on their own particular goods; otherwise the entire social order would be homogenized.  My family is ordered to the good of my children; my college department is ordered to the good of our students; my research group is ordered to particular lines of inquiry; my parish is ordered to the holiness of its members (and glorifying God).  If these thing had to instead focus on the overall good of the USA, they would cease to exist as the things they are.  It’s not that they are irresponsible toward the common good, but their responsibility to the common good is mediated through obedience to the general authority whose special function is to look over the general common good.  Now, being a democrat, Simon thought this authority could be exercised by the citizenry as a whole, but even so, citizens must compartmentalize this role, so that they are not always operating as nuggets of the political sovereign, but as fathers, neighbors, bosses, or whatever.

Monarchy supports responsibility in these other roles.  I would even say it does so more surely than republicanism.  A monarch rules by tradition, that is by divine right indicated by established customs, not by personal charisma or general approval.  Traditional authority is pluralist.  The authority of parents and the authority of the Church also proceed directly from God.  These proceed directly from natural or revealed divine law and are thus nonnegotiable from a traditional (but not a democratic) viewpoint.  Custom also supports aristocratic privileges, benefits of clergy, autonomy of trade guilds, communes, religious confraternities, and universities.  A king might attempt to renegotiate these customary rights, but he does so at his own peril, because he’s sawing off the branch on which he sits.  Note that I’m not talking about constitutional monarchies such as those favored by 19th century liberals, but the pluralism intrinsically built into the traditionalist monarchical system.  The fact that it’s not based on popular consent is the key to this positive feature.

So even in a monarchy, perhaps especially in a monarchy, a man can have a great deal of responsibility in his family, his neighborhood, and his profession.  Would he be a more responsible person if he also took an interest in public affairs?  Well, let’s consider the sorts of things he would be asked to form an opinion upon.  I can imagine four scenarios.  First, he may live in a time of ideological fracture, in which first principles are being debated.  This is a non-ideal scenario, because people should know and agree on the good, or else there is no republic in Cicero’s and Augustine’s definition.  In this case, a man is obliged to support the side consistent with the Catholic Faith and supportive of the Church.  There is no room for debate, and the virtue required–faith–is also found in monarchies.  Second, there may be an ideological consensus in favor of wickedness.  This is our current scenario, and no one should soil himself voting in it, because his only choices are candidates with heinous beliefs.  Third, there may be complete consensus, and the only question is who is most competent for the job.  To me, forming an opinion on government personnel decisions, even those at the highest level, is just a chore.  Fourth, there may be consensus on general principles, but disagreement on questions of fact or on optimal means to a desired end.  I think the republican’s case is strongest for this scenario, so let’s consider it further.

An ideal citizen in our republic is supposed to be well informed and independent-minded, so that he draws his own conclusions on matters of public import from his personal researches.  Thus, a citizen today should form an opinion about whether the minimum wage is too low, which of the many sides of the Syrian civil war deserves our support, and whether the effects of anthropogenic global warming are sufficiently severe to warrant drastic fossil fuel reductions, among other things.  I agree that a man who did sufficient independent research to form his own opinion about all of these would indeed be a marvel.  If republics made most of their citizens to be such men, I would reconsider my opinion of republics.  That’s clearly not what happens though.  It’s silly to expect an average citizen who probably wouldn’t recognize the Stefan-Boltzmann law to form an independent opinion on global warming, for example.  Of course, republican debate is not spurring people to study climatology in any serious way.  The only way to have an opinion on a subject far outside one’s training and experience is to take it on faith from an authority.  One can cheer all the things the Guardian cheers and jeer the things the Guardian jeers, or if you prefer another flavor you can cheer all the things National Review cheers and jeer the things National Review jeers.  That’s basically the choice for most people faced with these issues far outside their experience.  It’s all the mental servility that republicans fear of authority without the redeeming virtue of loyalty.  I myself, a monarchist living in a republic, avail myself of the monarchical freedom not to have an opinion on many issues of public import.  I’m not an expert on everything, and I don’t like other people telling me what to think.

24 Responses

  1. Hear hear. I generally like Wright’s fiction, but unfortunately the best fictions we all make are the excuses we give for bad ideas.

  2. I read through the comment thread on Wright’s Non Serviam “Thus be it to tyrants” post.

    His behavior there really demonstrates that the problem with Americanism is the same problem with Freemasonry. They both assert that enlightenment comes, not through Jesus Christ, but through a human invention, the American Revolution in Wright’s case. Indeed, if his absurd soterology were taken to its logical conclusion, it would even mean that Wright must be spiritually superior to Christ himself, since Jesus submitted to earthly rulers. And of course, his claim that Jesus died to abolish monarchy would be laughable if he wasn’t serious about it.

  3. Pascal’s argument for monarchy is well known.

    “The most unreasonable things in the world become most reasonable, because of the unruliness of men. What is less reasonable than to choose the eldest son of a queen to rule a State? We do not choose as captain of a ship the passenger who is of the best family.
    This law would be absurd and unjust; but, because men are so themselves and always will be so, it becomes reasonable and just. For whom will men choose, as the most virtuous and able? We at once come to blows, as each claims to be the most virtuous and able. Let us then attach this quality to something indisputable. This is the king’s eldest son. That is clear, and there is no dispute. Reason can do no better, for civil war is the greatest of evils.”

    More generally, “How rightly do we distinguish men by external appearances rather than by internal qualities! Which of us two shall have precedence? Who will give place to the other? The least clever? But I am as clever as he. We should have to fight over this. He has four lackeys, and I have only one. This can be seen; we have only to count. It falls to me to yield, and I am a fool if I contest the matter. By this means we are at peace, which is the greatest of boons.”

  4. If one questions the value of general education in public, one will always be told that it is necessary to produce “informed voters.” This alone is enough to indite general education. Even if general education produced “informed voters,” which it rarely does, and if a vote made a difference, which it doesn’t, it would be sad to think that the telos of man was reached at the ballot box. For millennia sages have asked, what is man? and it turns out the answer is that he is a voter. And what does that mean? It means that man is a creature who makes ill-informed decisions, about matters he does not understand, with consequences that will be born by others, on the basis of low and selfish motives, always in strict secrecy.

  5. […] position on the exercise of authority.  In this sense a liberal republic is basically the same as monarchy, with subjects petitioning the sovereign through the formal process of voting. The main difference […]

  6. The natural experiment of the USA versus Canada shows what a difference a republic versus a monarchy made: i.e almost none at all (two more similar nations would be hard to find).

    I favour monarchy – but it all depends on how it is done. It has to be a Christian monarchy in a Christian nation – where everyone believes and acts that they believe the Monarch is serving God.

    (What we have now in the UK does more harm than good. However abolishing it would probably be even worse.)

    A monarchy doesn’t need to be hereditary – the Byzantine emire lasted about 1000 years without any single principle of succession – they believed that God would arrange that the right person would emerge for the needs of the Empire.

    Sometimes they believed that these needs were for punishment – when they would get an evil Emperor, for a while, because they deserved it.

    The point is that this (non-) system worked – in the context of one of the most devoutly Christian societies ever; and allowed the longest lasting Christian polity (so far).

  7. […] Both monarchy and liberal republics are structures of governance: particular arrangements of political authority with subjects, that is, people subject to that governing authority.  Liberals tend to be obsessed with the precise structure of governance, because to the extent structure obscures authority liberals can pretend that authority doesn’t exist.  In liberal republics, subjects petition the sovereign through the formal process of voting. […]

  8. > USA versus Canada

    That’s true. Also, the much vaunted difference between Anglo-America and continental Europe didn’t amount to much. The latter had a bumpier ride but ended up at the same destination at the same rate.

  9. I grew up about sixty miles from the Canadian border (Niagara River), so we would cross over fairly often. There was a very different “feel” on the Canadian side, which I recognized as English after I’d lived in England. That was almost fifty years ago, though, and the differences are much reduced.

    I don’t know if you have heard this old joke about Canadian football. “You know the thing about those Canadian football players? They’re smaller, but they’re slower.”

    I like Canadians (in fact, on my father’s side, I’m descended from Loyalists who returned to the U.S. only in the 1920s), but they have a irritating tendency to preach to Americans, much as Europeans do. Not all Canadians (or Europeans), of course, but enough that one notices.

  10. Principles are held by individual men. In a republic you need many more principled men to hold it together- not only to serve in government, but to vote for the principled men, rather than what is observable now.
    In a monarchy, you don’t need as many principled men. You still need many, but not as many as is required with a republic.

  11. Canada: monarchy

  12. The incomparable Walter Bagehot explains why despotic government (dictatorship or monarchy, which for the purpose of his argument are the same) is very often popular, as well as effective – and it has nothing to do with servility; quite the contrary.

    “The best reason why Monarchy is a strong government is that it is an intelligible government. The mass of mankind understand it, and they hardly anywhere in the world understand any other. It is often said that men are ruled by their imaginations; but it would be truer to say they are governed by the weakness of their imaginations. The nature of a constitution, the action of an assembly, the play of parties, the unseen formation of a guiding opinion, are complex facts, difficult to know and easy to mistake. But the action of a single will, the fiat of a single mind, are easy ideas: anybody can make them out, and no one can ever forget them. When you put before the mass of mankind the question, “Will you be governed by a king, or will you be governed by a constitution?” the inquiry comes out thus—”Will you be governed in a way you understand, or will you be governed in a way you do not understand?” The issue was put to the French people; they were asked, “Will you be governed by Louis Napoleon, or will you be governed by an assembly?” The French people said, “We will be governed by the one man we can imagine, and not by the many people we cannot imagine.””

  13. For those arguing that the difference between Canada and the United States prove what little difference monarchy makes, I hardly think these are good examples. Sure, two more similar countries could hardly be found in the annals of human history, but the reason it’s a bad example is because Canada has hardly ever been the type of monarchy a monarchist would support. By the time the American Revolution came about and Canada became the loyalist version of America, Great Britain was already well on the way to modern liberalism. The Crown had more power than it does today, but Parliament was already where the buck stopped. It would be only around 60 years later (in the 1830’s) that the last time a monarch would have a say in who was Prime Minister occurred, and even that didn’t go over so well.

    I still think Constitutional Monarchy is superior to Constitutional Republicanism, but only marginally so.

  14. The last time a British monarch had a say in the appointment of a Prime Minister was on 18 October 1963 when, following Mr Macmillan’s resignation, the Queen invited Sir Alec Douglas-Home to form a government, without waiting for the Conservative Party to choose a new leader.

    It occasioed some surprise at the time; it was widely expected she would call on Mr R A Butler.

    This led the Conservative Party for the first time to adopt a formal process for appointing a leader.

  15. OK, slight correction: The last time a monarch attempted to force a Prime Minister on the House of Commons was 1834. It appears that there have been a couple of occasions since where the Sovereign has chosen the Prime Ministers, but always from a selection of the majority party in the House of Commons and usually in exigent circumstances (i.e., there is no Prime Minister and it will take a while for the Commons to get together and decide a successor). Still, they hardly have any say in how the country is actually run, or even the direction the country ought to head.

  16. This is just a quibble, it is perfectly accurate to say that the British monarch has a negligible role in government – but don’t forget the Australian constitutional crisis of 1975. The Queen’s representative removed the elected Australian Prime Minister and installed the opposition leader (perfectly justified – as well as constitutional, IMHO).

  17. Yes, that is one reason I think Constitutional Monarchy is marginally better than Constitutional Republicanism. In exigencies, the monarch can act. And, maybe, they could dare to be more than a Constitutional Monarch and protect their people for a change. Maybe. These benefits are marginal, however, and hardly worth agitating about under the present degenerate circumstances. Christ is likely to come sooner than the British Sovereign is likely to get around to actually upholding their oath.

  18. So then the Common Good is maintained by the vast majority of people not concerning themselves overly much with the Common Good, but with their own particular goods, and leaving the Common Good to a divinely appointed sovereign who is widely trusted to leave particulars alone.

    Or… one way to destroy the Common Good is by giving out roughly equal shares of responsibility to its maintenance to all men, who will, if they take that duty seriously, will likely neglect seeing after their own particular goods.

  19. As Lord Acton said, “Men who sought only the general good must wound every distinct and separate interest of class.” An enlightened despot (Peter the Great, Frederick the Great) can do this, where a ruler dependent on “the working of opinion and the feeling of masses” could not.

    “[O]ne way to destroy the Common Good is by giving out roughly equal shares of responsibility to its maintenance to all men, who will, if they take that duty seriously, will likely neglect seeing after their own particular goods.”

    This danger was foreseen in Antiquity, which is why all the gainful occupations and professions were regarded as unworthy of a free man. “Most of the arts,” says Xenophon, “weaken the body; those who practice them must sit in the shade or by the fire; they have time neither for their friends nor for the republic.” It was only with the corruption of certain democracies that artisans attained the status of citizens. This is what Aristotle teaches us, and he maintains that a good republic will never grant them civil rights. Hence, Plato wants the laws to punish any citizen who engages in commerce. Amongst the Romans, the most honourable as well as the most lucrative trades were those of the soldier, the statesman and the jurist.

    Similar ideas were current in France during the Revolution and the First Empire; “Trade ill becomes the true citizen,” declared Saint-Just, “The hand of man was made only to till the soil and to bear arms.”

  20. @MPS

    Quite Lofty ideas by Plato and the Romans, but their empires, too, passed. Better ideas are needed.

  21. Re: slumlord
    Better ideas? If you repent of your sins and make use of the sacraments provided by Christ to his Church, well then maybe you’ll get to be part of an eternal empire.

    On this side of eternity, though, last I checked there hadn’t been an empire yet that hadn’t passed, and Rome lasted a fair sight longer than most of them. Not saying Plato and the Romans were necessarily right (don’t have a terribly strong opinion on the subject, myself), but you’ll have to do better than that.

  22. “Rome lasted a fair sight longer than most of them”

    If one includes the Eastern Empire, then from 21 April 753 BC to 29 May 1453 AD, some 2,206 years

  23. […] from Bonald: Servile monarchists—in which he takes John C. Wright rather severely to task for his whiggish republicanism. On […]

  24. Public general education for over a decade by the state is madness.It is my firm belief that the church take responsibility for providing a short, perhaps 3 year education on theology, history, geography, and maybe basic skills.

    After this, children should begin education from their parents (different for boys and girls obviously) in craft. Mothers teach their daughters how to be good mothers and wives, and fathers pass the skills of their trade to their sons. For some technical trades and operations, children may attend private guild-run academies to enhance their education focused on the specific field they will be working in.

    Through these Traditional modes of education, we will have a nation of diverse masters of crafts, rather than a soup of people with universally similar skills and knowledge sets with minimal specialization in given fields.

    Children should be cultivated from a young age to be experts in one field, and the sovereign should have virtually nothing to do with it. The cultivation of future workers should be the concern of guilds containing industries.

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