Monday, March 8, 2010

How Theocratic Rulers Can Sometimes Help the Cause of Freedom

Robert K. Massie, in his biography of Peter the Great of Russia, notes about the Hapsburg emperors of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century were far more interested in being good Catholics and pleasing God then running their kingdom:

At heart, Leopold [I] and after him his two sons, the Emperors Joseph I and Charles VI, did not believe that a chaotic administration was a fundamental defect. The three of them, over almost a century, shared the view that the administration of government was a minor matter, infinitely less important not only for their own souls but for the future of the Hapsburg House than belief in God and support of the Catholic Church. If God was satisfied with them, He would ensure that the House continued and prospered. This, then, was the basis of their political theory and their practice of government. (Peter the Great: His Life and World pg. 222.)

This is not the usual model we associate with this period. This is the age of absolute monarchy and of Louis XIV, where monarchs at the head of centralized States, backed by formal bureaucracies, gained power at the expense of traditional aristocracies. In truth, the Hapsburgs were undergoing the truly critical political evolution of the period, the empowerment of middle-class bureaucrats, just like the rest of Europe. What particularly interests me here is the extent that this does goes contrary to the Whig model where religious piety is supposed to lead to increased autocratic behavior. The monarch rules by grace of God and is not answerable to any mortal being. Limits on monarchial political power are not only bad policy but in fact heresy. In this particular case, the theocratic view of monarchy led to less autocratic views of power. There is something to be said for having a pious king to pray on behalf of the country and leave the running of it to others.

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