Monarchy in Western Civilization: Guizot’s Ninth Lecture
Guizot surveys the variegated, complex, and indispensible history of monarchy in the creation of western civilization.
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
In his ninth lecture on civilization in modern Europe, Francois Guizot returns to a subject he left in its ancient origins: the institutional monarchy. In his interpretation, the monarchy was the natural combination of leftover Roman imperial authority and the “barbarian” chieftains’ attempts to either reclaim or replace that legacy through a variety of national and trans‐national projects in statecraft. Over the next millennium, monarchs became the embodiment of the nation just as they once proclaimed to be the embodiment of God’s temporal authority. Modern nationalism and statism, therefore, have their roots in Guizot’s long story of cultural and institutional fusion in the late‐Roman and early‐feudal eras. The Roman sense of imperium, the Germanic notion of the chieftain, the Christian concept of divine right all combined over the centuries to produce the variety of monarchies and nationalisms found throughout Europe in Guizot’s own age.
During the course of discussing the examples and ideas surrounding the history of monarchy in Europe, our author confesses his own sympathies for kingship. Guizot’s reading of European history accorded the monarchy an important and natural position in western political life. Because the king did in fact represent very real and important interest groups, his influence was a necessary balancing force in political life. Because of his important role as the chieftain of the nation, the people looked to him as their representative in a government dominated by aristocratic leeches of many sorts. And because experience had shown that individuals and societies were often so unable to restrain their actions to the realm of virtue, sometimes only a strong and beneficent ruler could protect the weak from the predations of the powerful.
Guizot concludes that European monarchy’s greatest strength was its ability to adapt to fit local conditions. Over many centuries and across many contexts, great swathes of the European population embraced a form of monarchy well suited to their local needs. Centuries magnified the local into the national, and chief‐like kings flowered into great national representatives, uniting the disparate interests and perspectives of their people into a single personage. Our author writes of monarchy, “It is, I repeat, as depositary and protector of public order, of general justice, and of the common interest,—it is under the aspect of a chief magistracy, the center and bond of society, that modern monarchy has presented itself to the people, and, in obtaining their adhesion, has made their strength its own.” While we may sympathize with Guizot’s naturalistic, historicist view of monarchy, we may wonder whether our author would still consider the institution a force for stabilization with the hindsight of two world wars and a small handful of chief executives in command of nuclear arsenals which could destroy the species many times over. Or, perhaps, he would rejoin–What, would you rather Congress have the nukes?
By Francois Pierre Guillaume Guizot
The History of Civilization in Europe (Excerpts)
New York: D. Appleton and Company. 1896.
LECTURE IX.: OF MONARCHY.
…Instead of finding, in the capacity of ruling forces and chief agents in history, the clergy, kings, burghers, husbandmen, and serfs, we now find in modern Europe, only two great objects which occupy the historical stage—the government and the nation…
About the same period, and almost at the very time when the crusades broke out, that institution began to increase, which has perhaps chiefly contributed to the formation of modern society, and to the fusion of all the social elements into two forces, the government and the people. This institution is monarchy.
It is evident that monarchy has played a vast part in the history of European civilization. Of this we may convince ourselves by a single glance. We see the development of monarchy proceed…so that, when the work was consummated—when there remained, in the great states of Europe, little or no important and decisive influence but that of the government and the public—it was monarchy that became the government.
It was not only in France, where the fact is evident, that this happened, but in most of the countries of Europe. A little sooner or later, and under forms somewhat different, the history of society in England, Spain, and Germany, offers us the same result. In England, for example, it was under the Tudors that the old particular and local elements of English society were dissolved and mingled, and gave way to the system of public authorities; this, also, was the period when monarchy had the greatest influence. It was the same thing in Germany, Spain, and all the great European states.
If we leave Europe, and cast our eyes over the rest of the world, we shall be struck with an analogous fact. Everywhere we shall find monarchy holding a great place, and appearing as the most general and permanent, perhaps, of all institutions; as that which is the most difficult to exclude where it does not exist, and, where it does exist, the most difficult to extirpate…It has established itself not only in the midst of the system of castes, in countries whose social economy exhibits the most rigorous distinction of ranks, but also in the midst of a system of equality, in countries where society is most remote from every kind of legal and permanent classification. In some places despotic and oppressive; in others favorable to the progress of civilization and even of liberty; it is like a head that may be placed on many different bodies, a fruit that may grow from many different buds.
In this fact we might discover many important and curious consequences. I shall take only two; the first is, that such a result cannot possibly be the offspring of mere chance, of force or usurpation only; that there must necessarily be, between the nature of monarchy considered as an institution, and the nature either of man as an individual or of human society, a strong and intimate analogy. Force, no doubt, has had its share, in both the origin and progress of the institution…Force performs a great and daily part in human affairs; but it is not the principle which governs their movements: there is always, superior to force, and the part which it performs, a moral cause which governs the general course of events…We may unhesitatingly declare that it was to a cause of this nature, and not to mere force, that monarchy was indebted for its success.
A second fact of almost equal importance is the flexibility of monarchy, and its faculty of modifying itself and adapting itself to a variety of different circumstances. Observe the contrast which it presents; its form reveals unity, permanence, simplicity. It does not exhibit that variety of combinations which are found in other institutions; yet it accommodates itself to the most dissimilar states of society. It becomes evident then that it is susceptible of great diversity, and capable of being attached to many different elements and principles, both in man as an individual and in society…
There is no doubt that the strength of monarchy, that moral power which is its true principle, does not reside in the personal will of the man who for the time happens to be king; there is no doubt that the people in accepting it as an institution, that philosophers in maintaining it as a system, have not meant to accept the empire of the will of an individual—a will essentially arbitrary, capricious, and ignorant.
Monarchy is something quite different from the will of an individual, though it presents itself under that form. It is the personification of legitimate sovereignty—of the collective will and aggregate wisdom of a people—of that will which is essentially reasonable, enlightened, just, impartial,—which knows naught of individual wills, but by the title of legitimate monarchy, earned by these conditions, has the right to govern them. Such is the meaning of monarchy as understood by the people, and such is the motive of their adhesion to it.
Is it true that there is a legitimate sovereignty, a will which has a right to govern mankind? They certainly believe that there is; for they endeavor, have always endeavored, and cannot avoid endeavoring, to place themselves under its empire. Conceive, I shall not say a people, but the smallest community of men; conceive it in subjection to a sovereign who is such only de facto, to a power which has no other right but that of force, which does not govern by the title of reason and justice; human nature instantly revolts against a sovereignty such as this. Human nature, therefore, must believe in legitimate sovereignty. It is this sovereignty alone, the sovereignty de jure, which man seeks for, and which alone he consents to obey. What is history but a demonstration of this universal fact?…Take theocracy, monarchy, aristocracy, democracy; they all boast of having discovered the seat of legitimate sovereignty; they all promise to place society under the authority of its rightful master. This, I repeat, is the object of all the labor of philosophers, as well as of all the efforts of nations…
I affirm, and the plainest common sense must admit, that legitimate sovereignty, in its complete and permanent form, cannot belong to any one; and that every attribution of legitimate sovereignty to any human power whatever is radically false and dangerous. Hence arises the necessity of the limitation of every power, whatever may be its name or form; hence arises the radical illegitimacy of every sort of absolute power, whatever may be its origin, whether conquest, inheritance, or election. We may differ as to the best means of finding the legitimate sovereignty; they vary according to the diversities of place and time; but there is no place or time at which any power can legitimately be the independent possessor of this sovereignty.
This principle being laid down, it is equally certain that monarchy, under whatever system we consider it, presents itself as the personification of the legitimate sovereignty. Listen to the supporters of theocracy; they will tell you that kings are the image of God upon earth, which means nothing more than that they are the personification of supreme justice, truth, and goodness. Turn to the jurists; they will tell you that the king is the living law; which means, again, that the king is the personification of the legitimate sovereignty, of that law of justice which is entitled to govern society. Interrogate monarchy itself in its pure and unmixed form; it will tell you that it is the personification of the state, of the commonwealth. In whatever combination, in whatever situation, monarchy is considered, you will find that it is always held out as representing this legitimate sovereignty, this power, which alone is capable of lawfully governing society.
We need not be surprised at this. What are the characteristics of this legitimate sovereignty, and which are derived from its very nature? In the first place, it is single; since there is but one truth, one justice, so there can be but one legitimate sovereignty. It is, moreover, permanent, and always the same, for truth is unchangeable. It stands on a high vantage‐ground, beyond the reach of the vicissitudes and chances of this world, with which it is only connected in the character, as it were, of a spectator and a judge. Well, then, these being the rational and natural characteristics of the legitimate sovereignty, it is monarchy which exhibits them under the most palpable form, and seems to be their most faithful image. Consult the work in which M. Benjamin Constant has so ingeniously represented monarchy, as a neutral and moderating power, raised far above the struggles and casualties of society, and never interfering but in great and critical conjunctures. Is not this, so to speak, the attitude of the legitimate sovereignty, in the government of human affairs? There must be something in this idea peculiarly calculated to strike the mind, for it has passed, with singular rapidity, from books into the actual conduct of affairs. A sovereign has made it, in the constitution of Brazil, the very basis of his throne. In that constitution, monarchy is represented as a moderating power, elevated above the active powers of the state, like their spectator and their judge.
Under whatever point of view you consider monarchy, when you compare it with the legitimate sovereignty, you will find a great outward resemblance between them—a resemblance with which the human mind must necessarily have been struck. Whenever the reflection or the imagination of men has especially turned towards the contemplation or study of legitimate sovereignty, and of its essential qualities, it has inclined towards monarchy. Thus in the times when religious ideas preponderated, the habitual contemplation of the nature of God impelled mankind towards the monarchical system. In the same manner, when the influence of jurists prevailed in society, the habit of studying, under the name of law, the nature of the legitimate sovereignty, was favorable to the dogma of its personification in the institution of monarchy. The attentive application of the human mind to the contemplation of the nature and qualities of the legitimate sovereignty, when there were no other causes to destroy its effect, has always given strength and consideration to monarchy, as being its image.
There are, too, certain junctures, which are particularly favorable to this personification; such, for example, as when individual forces display themselves in the world with all their uncertainties; all their waywardness; when selfishness predominates in individuals, either through ignorance and brutality, or through corruption. At such times, society, distracted by the conflict of individual wills, and unable to attain, by their free concurrence, to a general will, which might hold them in subjection, feels an ardent desire for a sovereign power, to which all individuals must submit; and, as soon as any institution presents itself which bears any of the characteristics of legitimate sovereignty, society rallies round it with eagerness; as people, under proscription, take refuge in the sanctuary of a church. This is what has taken place in the wild and disorderly youth of nations, such as those we have passed through. Monarchy is wonderfully suited to those times of strong and fruitful anarchy, if I may so speak, in which society is striving to form and regulate itself, but is unable to do so by the free concurrence of individual wills. There are other times when monarchy, though from a contrary cause, has the same merit. Why did the Roman world, so near dissolution at the end of the republic, still subsist for more than fifteen centuries, under the name of an empire, which, after all, was nothing but a lingering decay, a protracted death‐struggle? Monarchy, alone, could produce such an effect; monarchy, alone, could maintain a state of society which the spirit of selfishness incessantly tended to destroy. The imperial power contended for fifteen centuries against the ruin of the Roman world.
It thus appears that there are times when monarchy, alone, can retard the dissolution, and times when it, alone, can accelerate the formation of society. And it is, in both cases, because it represents, more clearly than any other form of government can do, the legitimate sovereignty, that it exercises this power over the course of events.
Under whatever point of view you consider this institution, and at whatever period you take it, you will find, therefore, that its essential character, its moral principle, its true meaning, the cause of its strength, is, its being the image, the personification, the presumed interpreter, of that single, superior, and essentially legitimate will, which alone has a right to govern society.
Let us now consider monarchy under the second point of view, that is to say, in its flexibility, the variety of parts it has performed and of effects it has produced. Let us endeavor to account for this character, and ascertain its causes.
Here we have an advantage; we can at once return to history, and to the history of our own country. By a concurrence of singular circumstances, monarchy in modern Europe has put on every character which it has ever exhibited in the history of the world. European monarchy has been, in some sort, the result of all the possible kinds of monarchy. In running over its history, from the fifth to the twelfth century, you will see the variety of aspects under which it appears, and the extent to which we everywhere find that variety, complication, and contention, which characterize the whole course of European civilization.
In the fifth century, at the time of the great invasion of the Germans, two monarchies were in existence—the barbarian monarchy of Clovis, and the imperial monarchy of Constantine. They were very different from each other in principles and effects.
The barbarian monarchy was essentially elective. The German kings were elected, though their election did not take place in the form to which we are accustomed to attach that idea. They were military chiefs, whose power was freely accepted by a great number of their companions, by whom they were obeyed as being the bravest and most competent to rule. Election was the true source of this barbarian monarchy, its primitive and essential character.
It is true that this character, in the fifth century, was already somewhat modified, and that different elements were introduced into monarchy. Different tribes had possessed their chiefs for a certain space of time; families had arisen, more considerable and wealthier than the rest. This produced the beginning of hereditary succession; the chief being almost always chosen from these families. This was the first principle of a different nature which became associated with the leading principle of election.
Another element had already entered into the institution of barbarian monarchy—I mean the element of religion. We find among some of the barbarian tribes—the Goths, for example—the conviction that the families of their kings were descended from the families of their gods or of their deified heroes, such as Odin. This, too, was the case with Homer’s monarchs who were the issue of gods or demi‐gods, and, by this title, objects of religious veneration, notwithstanding the limited extent of their power.
Such was the barbarian monarchy of the fifth century, whose primitive principle still predominated, though it had itself grown diversified and wavering.
I now take the monarchy of the Roman empire, the principle of which was totally different. It was the personification of the state, the heir of the sovereignty and majesty of the Roman people. Consider the monarchy of Augustus or Tiberius: the emperor was the representative of the senate, of the assemblies of the people, of the whole republic…
But, in the system of religious monarchy, there is almost always another element introduced besides monarchy itself. A new power takes its place by its side; a power nearer to God, the source whence monarchy emanates, than monarchy itself. This is the clergy, the ecclesiastical power which interposes between God and kings, and between kings and people, in such sort, that monarchy, though the image of the Divinity, runs the hazard of falling to the rank of an instrument in the hands of the human interpreters of the Divine will. This is a new cause of diversity in the destinies and effects of the institution.
The different kinds of monarchy, then, which, in the fifth century, made their appearance on the ruins of the Roman empire, were, the barbarian monarchy, the imperial monarchy, and religious monarchy in its infancy.
Their fortunes were as different as their principles.
In France, under the first race, barbarian monarchy prevailed. There were, indeed, some attempts on the part of the clergy to impress upon it the imperial or religious character; but the system of election, in the royal family, with some mixture of inheritance and of religious notions, remained predominant.
In Italy, among the Ostrogoths, the imperial monarchy overcame the barbarous customs. Theodoric considered himself as successor of the emperors. It is sufficient to read Cassiodorus to perceive that this was the character of his government.
In Spain, monarchy appeared more religious than elsewhere. As the councils of Toledo, though I shall not call them absolute, were the influencing power, the religious character predominated, if not in the government, properly so called, of the Visigothic kings, at least in the laws which the clergy suggested to them, and the language they made them speak.
In England, among the Saxons, manners remained almost wholly barbarous. The kingdoms of the heptarchy were little else than the territories of different bands, every one having its chief. Military election appears more evidently among them than anywhere else. The Anglo‐Saxon monarchy is the most faithful type of the barbarian monarchy.
Thus, from the fifth to the seventh century, at the same time that all these three sorts of monarchy manifested themselves in general facts, one or other of them prevailed, according to circumstances, in the different states of Europe.
Such was the prevailing confusion at this period, that nothing of a general or permanent nature could be established; and, from vicissitude to vicissitude, we arrive at the eighth century without finding that monarchy has anywhere assumed a definitive character.
Towards the middle of the eighth century, and with the triumph of the second race of the Frank kings, events assume a more general character, and become clearer; as they were transacted on a larger scale, they can be better understood and have more evident results. The different kinds of monarchy were shortly destined to succeed and combine with one another in a very striking manner…
Such was the character which monarchy began to assume under Louis the Fat, and under the administration of Suger. Now, for the first time, seems to have entered the minds of men the idea, though very incomplete, confused, and feeble, of a public power, unconnected with the local powers which had possession of society, called upon to render justice to those who could not obtain it by ordinary means, and capable of producing, or at least commanding, order;—the idea of a great magistracy, whose essential character was to maintain or re‐establish the peace of society, to protect the weak, and to decide differences which could not be otherwise settled. Such was the entirely new character, in which, reckoning from the twelfth century, monarchy appeared in Europe, and especially in France. It was neither as barbarian monarchy, as religious monarchy, nor as imperial monarchy, that the royal power was exercised; this kind of monarchy possessed only a limited, incomplete, and fortuitous power;—a power which I cannot more precisely describe than by saying that it was, in some sort, that of the chief conservator of the public peace.
This is the true origin of modern monarchy; this is its vital principle, if I may so speak; it is this which has been developed in the course of its career, and, I have no hesitation in saying, has ensured its success. At different periods of history we observe the reappearance of the various characters of monarchy; we see the different kinds of monarchy which I have described, endeavoring, by turns, to recover the preponderance. Thus, the clergy have always preached religious monarchy; the civilians have labored to revive the principle of imperial monarchy; the nobility would sometimes have wished to renew elective monarchy, or maintain feudal monarchy. And not only have the clergy, the civilians, and the nobility, attempted each to give their own principle a predominance in the monarchy, but monarchy itself has made them all contribute towards the aggrandizement of its own power. Kings have represented themselves sometimes as the delegates of God, sometimes as the heirs of the emperors, or as the first noblemen of the land, according to the occasion or public wish of the moment; they have illegitimately availed themselves of these various titles, but none of them has been the real title of modern monarchy, or the source of its preponderating influence. It is, I repeat, as depositary and protector of public order, of general justice, and of the common interest,—it is under the aspect of a chief magistracy, the center and bond of society, that modern monarchy has presented itself to the people, and, in obtaining their adhesion, has made their strength its own…