Cloaking the State's Dagger

The history of political thought is a history of one euphemism after another to disguise the naked power of the state.

What we call political philosophy is so overladen in the West with euphemism, panegyric, and idealization that anyone might be forgiven for occasionally failing to remember just what this philosophy's true subject is: the political state, unique among major institutions in its claim of absolute power over human lives. Euphemisms for the state drawn from kinship, religion, nature, reason, mechanics, biology, the people, and other essentially nonpolitical sources have been ascendant for so long in Western history that it is downright difficult to keep in mind that the state's origin and essential function is, as philosopher David Hume pointed out in the 18th century, in and of force-above all, military force. What procreation is to kinship and propitiation of gods is to religion, monopolization of power is to the state.

There is no political order known to us in history, from ancient Egypt to contemporary Israel, that has not originated in war, its claimed sovereignty but an extension and ramification of what the Romans called the imperium, absolute military command. War is the origin of the state and, in Randolph Bourne's familiar phrasing, is the health of the state. Modern war, grounded as it usually is in the kinds of political and moral ideals, or claimed ideals, which can justify almost limitless expansion of the state at the expense of society, is very healthful indeed to any form of state.

The essence of the state, then, is its unique possession of sovereignty-absolute and unconditional power over all individuals and their associations and possessions within a given area. And at the basis of the state's sovereignty is the contingent power to use the military to compel obedience to its rule. This is as true of democratic as of despotic states.

The most democratic of contemporary states claims a monopoly of power within its borders, exclusive possession of and control over the military and police, and the right to declare war and peace, to conscript life and appropriate income and property, to levy taxes, to supervise the family and even, when necessary, the church, to grant selective entitlements, to administer justice, and to define crime and set punishment. The political state is the only association whose freedom to act cannot be limited by the state. With all respect to differences among types of government, there is not, in strict theory, any difference between the powers available to the democratic and to the totalitarian state. We may pride ourselves in the democracies on bills or other expressions of individual rights against the state, but in fact they are rights against a given government and in history and practice have been obliterated or sharply diminished when deemed necessary, as in the United States and other Western-democratic powers in the two world wars.

It is not strange, then, that the history of the state should be accompanied by the rich embroidery of euphemism. Any institution born of war, that thrives in war, and that claims unique absoluteness of power over all individuals within its borders requires all the symbolic assistance it can get. Such assistance has for a very long time been the offering of the political clerisy. Like the church, the state must have its defenders, rationalizers, and justifiers, its scribes and prophets. Also like the church, the state must have its dogmas and rituals, its feast days, its saints and martyrs, and its sacred objects.

Family

The oldest of euphemisms for the state's distinctive military power is drawn from the realm of kinship, which is natural, given the age and universality of family, clan, and kindred in mankind's history. Thus early kings or chiefs might claim themselves patriarchs. Recurrently in history, kings have been rulers of peoples rather than territories; they were this in the early Middle Ages. King is a derivative of Old English cyng, meaning kinship.

The patriarchal image of the state was nourished by a good deal of theology during the Middle Ages; and feudalism itself, as we find it at its height, was an ingenious fusion of military substance and kinship symbol. Patriarchalism survived the decline of medieval society, its enduring appeal well illustrated in the modern world by the popularity everywhere of such words and phrases as fatherland, mother country, sister-nations, and the like. Mario Cuomo, the keynote speaker at the 1984 Democratic convention, used the word family to describe the American nation just under two dozen times. It was with a keen sense of the antiquity of kinship metaphors in politics that George Orwell chose to give his horrifying totalitarian government the label of Big Brother. But in many ways the most telling example of the power of a euphemism in thought is the argument in political and social philosophy-extending from Aristotle to modern political ethnology-that the state is but the natural development through time of kinship. It assuredly is not, but the myth appears to be ineradicable by now.

Religion

Religion is second only to family in its fecundity of euphemism for the war-born state. Prepolitical man was as saturated by religious as by kinship influences upon his thinking. Almost as hoary as the patriarch is the prophet in mankind's annals. How better to give root to a military conqueror's acceptance by the conquered than to sanctify, even deify, him; to make him at worst an indispensable voice of the gods, at best one of the gods himself. Egyptian kings were addressed in rescript and inscription as Aton, Horus, Re, and so on in order to give expression to their claimed identities as sun-gods.

The speed with which passage from the human to the divine could occur, and much later than the age of Egyptian pharoahs, is well illustrated by the careers of Alexander in the Hellenistic world and of Octavian, conqueror of Mark Antony at Actium, in the Roman. The latter was obliged by still-respected republican tradition to be more subtle than had been Alexander, but even so not a great deal of time passed before Octavian became officially Imperator Caesar divi filus Augustus, a title that artfully fused military, divine, and kinship.

Christianity was born in a setting of emperor-worship, and from the beginning its teachers and missionaries sought to nullify as far as possible the influence of the imperial religion upon Christian minds. But taking the long history of Christianity into account, it is impossible to overlook the readiness with which Christian faith and dogma could include acceptance of the sacredness of royal office if not personage. The crowning of Charlemagne by the Pope as holy Roman emperor suggests first the claim of suzerainty by church over state, including power of investiture of king, but second the allowance by church of sacred character into the kingship. Even the most powerful and assertive of popes in the Middle Ages did not deny to kingships their holy, if derivative, status.

It was, however, in the Reformation that the unqualified divinity of kings was once again proclaimed in the West. As Luther, Calvin, and others saw the matter, elevation of kings to divine status in their rule-directly divine status, unmediated by church-was as powerful a blow as could be struck at the hated and feared papacy. We tend to associate James I of England most prominently with the Divine Right of Kings because of his early-manifest fascination with the theology of the subject. It was under Charles I, though, in 1640, that what must be the all-time high in English belief in royal divinity was expressed. The statement begins: "The most high and sacred order of kings is of Divine Right, being the ordinance of God Himself, founded in the Prime laws of nature, and clearly established by express texts both of the Old and New Testaments."

Despite the numerous rationalist criticisms to which the divine-right panegyric was subjected in the next two centuries, it survived healthily. It was the influential German philosopher Hegel who declared the state-with the Prussian state foremost in mind-"the march of God on earth." And even when the German political idealists chose to retreat God to the background, obvious surrogates for God abounded: Dialectic, World-Spirit, and so on.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Progressive Puritans: From e-cigs to sex classifieds, the once transgressive left wants to criminalize fun.
  • Port Authoritarians: Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal
  • The Menace of Secret Government: Obama’s proposed intelligence reforms don’t safeguard civil liberties

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement