Monarchy: Overview

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Monarchy: Overview

Monarchy derives from a Greek term that refers literally to rule by one person (as distinct from oligarchy, rule by the few, or democracy, rule by the people). Among political systems of a post-tribal nature, monarchy is certainly the most common form of human governance globally throughout human history. While the modern Western world tends to venerate nonmonarchic constitutions of the pastsuch as the city empires of Athens and early Rome, and, to a lesser extent, Babyloniathis elides the near-ubiquity of one-man rule. And while modern authoritarian or despotic regimes are not usually considered to be monarchies, they nevertheless contain elements associated with monarchic rule. The persisting appeal of monarchic governments may stem largely from the perception that, in contrast to populist and self-governing systems, they are more stable and more successful at maintaining peace and order. (This is perhaps encapsulated in Benito Mussolini's [18831945] famous declaration that in fascist Italy, under his quasi-monarchic leadership, the trains run on time.) Regardless of whether such a position is empirically true, it has been central to the ideology of monarchy.

The nearly universal acceptance of monarchic rule, at least until recent times, obscures important differences in the ways in which such regimes have been classified and legitimated. Monarchies are by no means of a piece in either their theory or their practice. Important questions remain open to dispute, including: whether the king should be dynastic or elected, and if the latter, by whom; whether in dynastic systems, women should be admitted to succession or men only, or indeed whether succession may even pass through a female line; and whether (and under what circumstances) a king may be removed from power, and if so, in what way. When viewed from this perspective, monarchy ought hardly to be treated as a singular phenomenon at all. Rather, examination of the diverging conceptions of the foundation and source of monarchic power yields recognition of the highly diverse principles upon which ideas about the nature of monarchy have rested over time and across cultural and geographical divides.


Assessed from a global perspective, perhaps the most common justification given for the rule of a single person is religious. Even in this category, however, many different approaches are available. The ancient Egyptians regarded their kings to be deities, albeit lesser gods in the pantheon. By virtue of his divinity, the Egyptian monarch was qualitatively superior to and at a remove from those over whom he reigned, and his powers were "absolutely absolute," to use Samuel Finer's phrase. Consequently, the king of Egypt was the undisputed owner of all the territories under his control and the master of his subjects, who were all equally inferior to him. The surviving cultural artifacts from three millennia of Egyptian monarchy, such as architecture, paintings, and written treatises, all reinforce this absolutistic image of royal divinity.

The Romans also deified their emperors in the later stages of their empire, proclaiming them to be dominus et deus ("lord and god"). This has sometimes been considered to be a result of the influence of so-called oriental or Eastern monarchic ideas. But it is difficult to gauge how seriously this deification (and attendant absolutist language) ought to be taken, given the persistence of earlier Roman ideas of citizenship and legality. The ideological structure supporting the Chinese dynasties of antiquity, by contrast, approached the Egyptian model more closely. Confucius (c. 551479? b.c.e.) lent philosophical credence to the long-standing doctrine that while emperors were not themselves deities, they enjoyed the "Mandate of Heaven" in their occupation of the imperial throne. Of course, this mandate did not ensure that the emperors would not be overthrown in a palace coup (any more than the divinity of Egyptian kings protected them against dynastic replacement). Rather, the mandate was an ever-shifting imprimatur that depended upon the emperor's conformity with the fundamental dictates of virtue and equity, in particular the practice of benevolence, according to Confucius.

The monotheistic Abrahamic religions all subscribed to the notion of the divine ordination of kings to some extent. Although the earliest government of the Israelites was a sort of proto-republican federated constitution, the shift to a monarchic regime described in Jewish scripture arose from God's assent to a popular plea for a king so that Israel might resemble the other nations of the region. Israelite monarchy thus emerged as a divine appointment, and kings remained subject to the judgment of God. Once Christianity reached an accommodation with the Roman Empire in the early fourth century, the emperor came to be viewed as a divine agentfree to sin, of course, but a servant of the Heavenly Lord even when he went astray. Christian authors often deployed a microcosmic argument to bolster monarchy: just as God was the king of His creation, so the monarch resembled the supreme master of the universe. Islam also involved religion in the defense of monarchy. In the early history of Islam, the caliph was held to be the agent of God insofar as his conquests facilitated the spread of the Muslim religion and he enforced adherence to the rites of the faith. During a later era, the caliphate was charged in theory, if not in practice, with the imposition of the punishments for violations of shari'a (the vast body of Islamic law).


More mundane explanations of a monarch's authority emerge out of images and analogies drawn from nature. In many cultural traditions, the ruling position of the head (or sometimes the heart) in the human body is regarded as an analogue of the monarch. Royal dominion is thus licensed by or in accordance with the observable natural world. One finds this position evinced in East and South Asian writings, such as the Arthashastra of Kautilya (fl. late 300s b.c.e.), as well as in Western thought from antiquity through modern times. Alternatively, the supposed dominance of a single leader in the nonhuman organic world (such as among bees or other social creatures) has often been taken as a sign of a natural order subordinate to monarchy. Even the arrangement of the cosmos and the movements of the stars and planets are found to support the monarchic principle.

Perhaps the most widespread naturalistic justification for monarchy, however, is its supposed imitation of the organization of the family. Monarchic government is directly authorized by the presence in the typical family of a father or other male head whose responsibility is to care and provide for all the other members of the household. The rest of the family is expected in turn to submit without question to the superior authority of the father. Confucius insisted that filial piety constituted the quintessential basis of all forms of social relationships, extending as far as the people's obedience to the king. This view enjoyed considerable currency through East Asia well into modern times. Likewise, European authors such as Jean Bodin (1530?1596) and Sir Robert Filmer (d. 1653) advanced one or another form of the patriarchal thesis.

Modes of Virtue

An alternative to a naturalistic justification of royal rule derives from the view that the monarch should be obeyed on account of the personal qualities that inhere in him, whether these characteristics are physical or psychological or both. Hence many cultures accepted the principle that, in effect, might makes right, in the sense that the warrior who demonstrates the greatest prowess and courage in battle deserves to be revered and obeyed in matters of government. The Greek concept of aretē ("excellence" or "virtue"), as espoused in the Homeric epics, epitomized this martial conception of rulership; those who fought gloriously were accorded the greatest deference concerning all political decisions. Similar views can be found in many societies with strong chivalric traditions, such as Japan during the era of the Shogunate or feudal Western Europe during the Middle Ages.

Monarchy might also be justified by the intellectual or moral qualities acquired and refined by a leader. The Republic of Plato (427?347 b.c.e.) speaks of a "philosopher-king" whose competence to govern a city (and even over other philosophers) stems from his preeminence in the exercise of his speculative reason as well as the fully just ordering of his soul. Likewise, Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.) believed that kingship, as that species of monarchy in which a superlatively virtuous man rules, constituted the ideally best political system, even if he was skeptical that it could be attained in practice. The Roman Marcus Tullius Cicero (10643 b.c.e.) also believed that among "simple" constitutions, kingship was optimal, as long as the occupant of the royal office remained morally upstanding. Cicero also identified kingship as the chronologically earliest form of human government, since it involves power without a formalized system of laws. But Cicero believed (as did Aristotle) that kingship could readily degenerate into a form of arbitrary rule in the interest of the incumbent, and so he preferred a law-based republican regime.

Niccolò Machiavelli (14691527) combined the martial and the psychological elements of monarchy in his Prince (written c. 15131514 but not published until 1532). Machiavelli stated explicitly that he was addressing a particular sort of monarch: one who came to power not as the result of heredity or divinity but solely on the basis of his own ability (which Machiavelli called, somewhat perversely, virtù ). On the one hand Machiavelli claimed that military prowess constituted the salient quality of an effective prince; good "arms" must precede good laws. Yet Machiavelli also held that virtù had a psychological dimension, insofar as the prince who succeeds in gaining and retaining his state must shun conventional personal morality and adjust to the circumstances of his position in whatever way is required. Hence, while the "self-made" monarch should try to adhere to the precepts of everyday virtue when he can, he must be prepared to contradict the moral teachings of religion and philosophy at those times when following them would lead to political ruin.

Limited Monarchy?

Most ideas of monarchy assumed or even pronounced the absolute power of the ruler, so that despotism was readily licensed. Yet some attempts were made, especially in Western thought, to constrain the reach of royal office. Religion provided one source of limitation. A monarch who engaged in tyrannical actions could be threatened with divine judgment unless he mended his ways. In its most extreme form, as in the Polycraticus (completed 1159) by John of Salisbury (c. 1115/201180), God's hand might even reach out to an earthly source (human or otherwise) to punish the evil ruler, permitting tyrannicide as a remedy. Alternatively, thinkers looked to election or other mechanisms of consent to hold the monarch in check. During the Latin Middle Ages, scholastic authors widely debated whether monarchy should be elective or inherited, and in a later era, liberals such as John Locke (16321704) sought to confine the authority of monarchs by basing their powers on a preexisting social contract.

The attempt to balance constitutional and absolutist dimensions of monarchy produced some interesting, if not always entirely convincing, theories. In his Six Books of the Commonwealth (1576), Bodin insisted upon the unfettered power of the monarch but also claimed that the ruler was strictly limited by natural law in the extent to which he could exercise his royal office. G. W. F. Hegel (17701831), in the Philosophy of Right (1821), posited a system of constitutional government in which the king possessed a single yet still indispensable function: placing the final stamp of his unique, indivisible will on all legislation and thus rendering a bill into statutory force. Hegel believed that short of such an ultimate declaration of will, members of civil society and their legislative representatives would continue to debate the validity of laws and thus undermine the respect due to legal structures.

One might imagine that monarchy is an outmoded idea in the modern world, given the widespread ideology of democracy. In fact, however, numerous countries are still ruled by monarchic regimes, even in Europe. Allegiance to a monarch in countries such as the members of the Commonwealth, comprising former colonies of the British Empire, remains popular. In the same vein, the public and ongoing expression of grief following the death of Princess Diana of the United Kingdom suggests that royal identity, even if only by marriage, remains a very compelling reason for public attention. It seems unlikely that the monarchic principle is likely to disappear entirely any time soon.

See also Democracy ; Republicanism: Republic ; State, The .


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Cary J. Nederman