Edmund Griffiths  

E d m u n d   G r i f f i t h s

Rough notes towards The Modern Discorsi

The transition from elective monarchy to hereditary monarchy

[...] political power comes also to be considered as an object of private hereditary ownership. In the political field, as everywhere else, the paternal instinct to transmit this species of property to the son has been always strongly manifest throughout historic time. This has always been one of the principal causes of the replacement of elective monarchy by hereditary monarchy.
  — Robert Michels, Political Parties. A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy (trans. Eden and Cedar Paul), New York: The Free Press and London: Collier-Macmillan, 1968, p. 52

Our author ascribes this transition to the wishes, or ‘instincts’, of the kings or dictators themselves; but I suspect he is wrong. There are quite compelling reasons why both subjects and the subordinate members of the leadership might themselves want a hereditary system at the top. Some of these reasons relate to beliefs about kings, about families, etc., and will need to be dealt with elsewhere—but some are, so to speak, purely this-worldly and organizational.

In any political system where a single person exercises power for an indefinite period or for life, a smooth succession assumes vital importance. Botching it can have catastrophic consequences, for the ruling group not less than for the masses: civil war, permanent division into splinter groups ruled by diadochs, etc. Rival candidates cannot be satisfied with being members of a collective leadership, because there is none—we are deliberately talking about systems based on a single leader. Nor can they look forward to trying again in a few years’ time: the new leader (who may well be of a similar age to them) will rule for life.

As Michels correctly observes, many hereditary monarchies were originally elective: the leader was chosen—perhaps from some restricted pool of candidates—by a group of electors. Even the primordial Roman monarchy, of which very little is known with any certainty, is said to have been ruled by kings who were elected for a life term (hat-tip to the first ten books of Titus Livy). But this system is not brilliantly designed to avoid the dangers of a contested succession. It does nothing to dissuade ambitious oligarchs from aspiring to the crown. And the choice must be made by people who have little experience taking major decisions: they are at best advisers to the leader and lobbyists for particular regions or sectors, and (assuming leaders tend to die in bed) it is only about once a generation that they are called upon to do more.

The logical solution would seem to be to allow outgoing leaders to designate their own successors. The whole premise of the system, after all, is that this one person is qualified to take the important decisions alone: and what decision could be more important than this? It is no surprise to see an energetic, modernizing monarch like Peter the Great introducing just this arrangement (Ukase on the Succession to the Throne, 1722); and the legislators of the English Republic came to the same conclusion when they empowered the Lord Protector to name his successor (Humble Petition and Advice, 1657). But the Petrine and Cromwellian solution risks creating even greater instability than the elective solution. A successor, once designated, has no little incentive to remove the incumbent from the picture before the autocratic mind has a chance to be changed. And the sovereign has an equally strong incentive to delay the decision, to keep several candidates dangling, etc. There may even be no publicly appointed successor at the monarch’s death.

The hereditary system averts these dangers. When it is working as intended, there is an unambiguously identified successor who enjoys a secure claim and has no incentive to be other than a loyal supporter of the throne. The potential rival who could replace the current successor, meanwhile, is that successor’s own heir, and can expect eventually to inherit without needing to indulge in assassination and parricide. Palace coups are not prevented absolutely: but only a small number of people are in a position to carry them out, and once they have happened they are irreversible.

True, there are some disadvantages. A hereditary ruler may be incompetent, or may (despite the best efforts of the palace tutors) entertain eccentric and disruptive ideas in matters of policy or religion. More serious, probably, is the risk of a minority: from time to time the rules of succession will mean an infant ascending the throne, with the attendant complications. This is, however, usually less damaging than a disputed succession would be; and it is at any rate less frequent in hereditary régimes than in those where the monarch is an ‘incarnation’ or sprul sku. In these latter, every reign begins with a lengthy minority; and if the life expectancy for monarchs is not high (of the eleven Dalai Lamas who exercised temporal sovereignty in old Tibet, only two lived past the age of fifty and only another three even reached thirty) then the result is something approaching a perpetual regency. This may be thought by some to be convenient and desirable,—a revered but usually underage king as a focus of popular loyalty, while a regency council gets on with the business of government;—but it can no longer be described as a system based on rule by a single leader.

Thus, a solidly established system of hereditary succession is one of the best ways of stabilizing a political organization based on a single leader who rules for life. Those of us who object to hereditary monarchy would do well to concentrate on opposing monarchy tout court—unless, that is, we are prepared to follow the Papacy’s example and ensure that our elective monarchs remain childless.

Monday, 13 February 2017