Efficacy of Monarchy

I once had a Greek professor who insisted that the very best form of government was monarchy. We were discussing the Greek tyranny and how the hoi polli tended to favor the king in political matters rather than the oligarchy which was constantly wrestling with the king for supremacy. My professor pointed to the fact that society is more just under a strong central power like a monarch because, though people still remain divided by class, all citizens are basically equal under the law since they are all subjects of the king. There is less favoritism under monarchs, greater stability. One’s role in the society is foregone and protected. Oligarchic rule is usually disadvantageous for common people, he said, because law is enforced capriciously and leadership is constantly disputed. Without a king to serve, oligarchs are free to pursue their own interests exclusively. To thrive in an oligarchy one must split his loyalties between competing magnates and hope he carries the favor of the right one at the right time. Rule is constantly exchanged between victors and the vanquished. Interestingly, my professor characterized the democratic republic in the United States as an oligarchy. His reasoning being, I suppose, that one can buy influence in government with money and clout. So called democratic pluralism, as practiced today, is just another manifestation of oligarchic interests competing for dominance. The argument has some merit, but it fails to take into account that rule of law is still quite potent in the United States. The superiority of the judiciary and its relative independence from the other branches of government are vestiges in the Anglo-American legal system of regal authority and, ostensibly, countermeasures against oligarchy.

There is only one draw back to monarchy, according to my professor. He asked if we knew what it was. I guessed it was that the state is entirely dependant on the talent and leadership of a single individual, or the lack there of. He said this was true, but only insomuch as the monarch needed to be considered formidable enough to rebuff challenges to his authority. With social order, it matters less what the central authority does with its power and more that it is obeyed by others in the society and deferred to. A rogue king will always harm the commonwealth less than a civil war fought on behalf of competing oligarchs. The real problem of monarchy, he said, is that transition of power from one regime to the next had to be determined by lineage and inheritance. Every time a king dies the government must be rebuilt from the ground up for a new monarch. This is the case even when rules of dynastic inheritance are firmly in place and respected. And during the period of interregnum, the governments power is always vulnerable. Claims to the throne can be numerous and matters of succession often resolved through warfare.

The final ingredient of European feudalism and the precipitating event that resulted in oligarchic rule by the nobility for almost a half a millennium to come was the weakening and eventual dissolution of the Frankish crown. The Carolinian Empire collapsed just three generations after Charlemagne, and similar to the Merovingian kings before them, their fall was brought about by ineffectual leadership and disputes over succession. When Charlemagne died, he divided his realms between his sons, who then further subdivided their lands between their sons. Technically, rule was supposed to be shared between the brothers jointly, but after Charlemagne’s death, they almost immediately began fighting to take territory from one another. The Frankish custom of dividing inheritance between siblings insured that state power would always dissipate between generations and rulers would always have an impetus to betray one another to satisfy their ambitions. And as the empire’s strength steadily declined, threats from outside the kingdom became more menacing. The 9th and 10th centuries CE saw the beginning of the great Viking raids. What the Franks called the Great Heathen Army pillaged the coastal regions of the northern empire. They conquered the Low Lands and Normandy and settled them for their own. When the Viking king Sigfred sailed up the Seine and seized Paris and Charles the Fat’s only riposte was to pay them silver to leave, the Emperor of the Romans was deemed unfit to defend the realm and was forced to capitulate. After that the duchies exercised complete autonomy. The era of European feudalism was inaugurated.

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