Untimely Observations

Thinking About Monarchy

Modern democratic leaders, in general, are either charismatic buffoons (Barack Obama, Tony Blair) or mediocrities whose main virtue consists in not rocking the boat (Angela Merkel, Gordon Brown). Interestingly, this dichotomy also applies to modern authoritarian leaders. Benito Mussolini and Hugo Chavez, for instance, go into the former camp, while Erich Honecker and Hu Jintao go into the latter. (Totalitarian as opposed to authoritarian leaders is a different matter: a Stalin, a Mao, or a Hitler is always charismatic, but not a buffoon so much as a psychopath.) When, sometime in the future, a comprehensive history of the 20th century is written, I doubt whether more than a handful of the century’s political leaders will be remembered fondly, or, indeed, remembered at all. Since at least World War I, Western governments have been run largely by men who would have been completely unremarkable had they not stumbled into power.

Not so for the pre-modern West. In almost every society between antiquity and modernity, there was a large if not perfect correlation between a man’s erudition and his power, as a study of the kings, queens, emperors, and empresses of yore will quickly confirm. Frederick the Great played the flute and wrote music. Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations occupy an important position in the history of Roman literature and philosophy, as do Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars. Ludwig II of Bavaria was a patron of Richard Wagner and commissioned grandiose castles. These facts constitute a stumbling block for the leftist historian, who imagines that every pre-democratic leader was a sadistic brute who enriched himself at the expense of the peasants. Once in a while, granted, there would be a monarch who was either feeble-minded (Charles II of Spain) or psychopathic (Caligula)--but these were rare, and the damage they did was usually minimized by their advisers and servants.

Philosopher-kings tend to disappear when democracy, "meritocracy," and bureaucracy--all designed to enable wiser government--gain power in a society. For contrary to what we now believe, the King must not become King because he is wise: rather, he must become wise because he is the King.