03 July 2014

Defending monarchy against revolutions (a fourth of July meditation)

Ikon of the Holy Prophet Samuel

The political question, the question of what form of government is the most suitable to human needs, would appear in the modern age to be settled. The majority of Americans would say that of course, liberal democracy or representative government must be the correct way to govern, and to best represent human needs, no? Only a few stubborn holdouts around the world refuse to be guided by the wisdom of democratic rule, and are governed either by retrograde dictators or unenlightened tribal governments – and even these are forced by the necessity of world opinion to appear to have democratic mandates to rule (by holding sham elections and plebiscites). Many in the United States, though they don’t know it themselves, still cling to the ‘end of history’ thesis first propagated (but then forsaken) by Francis Fukuyama: after the Cold War, democracy won the struggle for world history, and it is all but a matter of time before every nation casts off its shackles in a fit of revolutionary fervour and bows its head to the liberal order.

Well, that’s one way of looking at it. It is, in point of fact, a very American way of looking at the political question. But: it is not a way which is consonant with the faith most Americans profess.

Democracy was not unknown in the classical world. The ancient Greeks, indeed, practiced it fervently – particularly those of Athens and of the Ionian coast. Certainly the authors of Holy Scripture were aware of the idea. But what concerned them – and what ultimately should concern us – is whether a system of government is just, whether it is stable and whether it is properly aligned to the ends of human flourishing. And the conclusion they came to, as did the Ancient Greek philosophers beginning with Socrates (and continuing with Plato and Aristotle), is that democracy, the self-rule of the citizenry, just doesn’t make the cut. Israel went through its period under the Judges, when ‘there was no king in Israel’ and when ‘every man did that which was right in his own eyes’. Reading the Book of Judges, it wasn’t a particularly rosy time – indeed, it was downright grim. The people Moses had led out of Egypt turned to idolatry, theft and deceit at every turn (the phrase ‘and the children of Israel did evil in the eyes of the Lord’ appears with depressing frequency), culminating finally in the rape and murder of a Levite’s concubine by the Benjaminites of Gibeah, for which the tribe of Benjamin was nearly destroyed outright in vengeance. It was just after this time that the Israelites under Holy Prophet Samuel began to plead for a king to lead them.

It unfortunately took the Israelites quite a long time of very hard learning (to say the least!) to figure out that ‘every man [doing] that which [is] right in his own eyes’ isn’t particularly conducive to real human flourishing when human wants and judgement are so disordered and driven by what modern Jewish scholars call the yetzer hara, the ‘evil impulse’. Human beings unfortunately need restraint in law, to counteract the yetzer hara, and they need a form of public guidance in virtue to help develop their yetzer tov, the ‘good impulse’ that forms as part of a child’s upbringing and maturity.

As they have developed, modern liberal democracies have failed to place any substantive constraints upon the human impulse to do evil; though the laws of modern liberal democracies tend to accept the harm principle as axiomatic, they vanishingly see the protection of children from negative external influences (female objectification or violence in media in public spaces, for example) as a necessity. Likewise, democratic leaders – presidents, prime ministers – though they must put forward a display of personal virtue for the sake of getting elected, clearly feel themselves above the need for such displays once they have taken power. Likewise, political partisanship creates a need for parties to defend their own even when they do egregious wrongs: Bill Clinton’s public adultery and perjury on the Democratic side, and the rank duplicity and treason of Ronald Reagan in the Iran-Contra deal on the Republican side (to give but two small examples) have both been defended by their parties as irrelevant to their governance.

This is intrinsic to the logic of democracy. Our elected officials are not expected to lead us by an exalted example. If anyone makes such a suggestion they are shouted down as ‘elitist’. Instead, as they lead they are expected to embody us, including our yetzer hara. Yet at the same time, even we Americans have a contradictory impulse, a desire for an embodied and incarnate example by the dedication to and contemplation of which our yetzer tov, our better natures, may be nourished. To this end we have constructed an elaborate (though fragile) mythology surrounding the Founding Fathers – in particular George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Even our national sculptures have this tendency to portray Washington and Jefferson in a stately, regal and charismatic fashion. Though on the surface our national mythology demands an utter renunciation and abhorrence of monarchical ideas, at the same time, in a very perverse way, it seeks to quench the monarchical desire for just such an exemplar by offering the images of dead revolutionaries in its stead. C. S. Lewis put it best:
Where men are forbidden to honour a king they honour millionaires, athletes or film-stars instead: even famous prostitutes or gangsters. For spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served; deny it food and it will gobble poison.
The problem is that we are a revolutionary state – indeed, along with France we are one of the two revolutionary states from which all other revolutions take their example. It makes being Christian more difficult, for we profess loyalty at once to our people (народ), to our state, and to our God. And the way our revolutionary state is structured creates competing and contradictory demands, one of which I have just illustrated. Revolutions themselves wind up mired in self-contradiction, for they naturally seek an authority for themselves yet derive all of their energy by negating the search for authority.

Of this contradiction no clearer example can be given than Thomas Paine, the pamphleteer who more than any other man helped to gin up revolutionary sentiment in the colonies. In Common Sense he appealed to the ‘will of the Almighty’ against government by kings, and subsequently declared against that will in The Age of Reason with the assertion that ‘my own mind is my own church’. After over two hundred years since his death, given the monstrosities in the name of such ‘common sense’ that have occurred since, one is led to the conclusion that better it would have been for the world, had he kept his worship of his own mind well and safely inside it, and left the rest of us in peace!

Just as Christ Our Lord and King, the true monarch of creation, is the only balm for our wounded and wayward souls in eternity, so in the darkened mirror of this world only monarchy actually sates to some degree the demands of the human spirit for a visible and incarnate exemplar, whereas revolutionary republics and democracies only pretend to do as much. God grant us wisdom to guide us out of the quagmire we have placed ourselves in.

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