The other day Her Majesty turned 96, and she has been on the throne for 70 years.
This is a perfect occasion to ponder the nature of the state, both traditional and modern. Or, as I prefer to call them, organic and contrived.
The first term accurately describes all European monarchies, including our own. Now, many different adjectives have been attached to the type of state emerging towards the end of the feudal order. Historians have called it monarchic, absolutist, theocratic, autocratic, tyrannical, primitive and many other things, except the one that really matters: organic.
Rather than being a contrivance resting on abstract (and typically wrong) principles, it was an organic development of the Christian ethos as refracted onto secular life. There were no savants getting their heads together to sort out an elaborate constitution with all its riders, provisos and amendments.
The organic state appeared so seamlessly, and without any visible involvement of any human agency, that it was tempting to take a cue from St Paul and believe it was indeed willed by God. In fact, both Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre interpreted it that way. According to Burke, the same God “who gave our nature to be perfected by our virtue, willed also the necessary means of its perfection. – He willed therefore the state.”
This sounds like a rhetorical flourish on the philosophy of natural law going back to Aquinas and other scholastics, or Aristotle before them. It shows, among other things, the dangers inherent in any attempt to apply theology to politics directly.
From there it’s an easy transition to the idea of theocracy: after all, ‘perfecting human nature’ for future salvation is the institutional domain of the church, not of the state. If, as Burke suggested, the state has the same purpose, then it’s either redundant or else can act only as an adjunct to the church.
Rather than merely keeping an eye on the state’s behaviour and judging it on the basis of Christian tenets, the church would then in effect have to run it. That is neither its natural function nor even its doctrine: salvation is personal, not collective. It is as individuals, not as citizens, that people can be saved.
To what extent the state of any type can be seen as God’s tool of perfecting human nature is thus open to debate. So it will remain because few of us have a two-way line of communication to God, and only He would be able to clarify the matter.
Until then we can safely assume that it’s not the state’s function to create paradise on earth. Its purpose is only to prevent hell on earth.
De Maistre was perhaps more accurate than Burke in his phrasing when he argued that traditional institutions go so far back that they disappear in the haze of time – we can’t trace them back to their precise historical origin. Therefore, we might as well assume they come from God.
Looking at Western states in their present form, we see some that are more or less organic and some that are more or less contrived. None has retained the same form it had centuries ago, all have developed.
But while some are to a large extent evolutionary, some others are primarily revolutionary. Most had their organic development violently interrupted in the past; but some more than others.
To see which is which we can apply a simple test that will work in most cases: unlike the origin of a contrived state, the origin of an organic one can’t be pinpointed to a single historical event or any precise date.
We can say with certainty that the American republic started in 1776, the French one in 1789, the unified German state in 1871, the Soviet one in 1917 (or more accurately in 1922, when the Soviet Union officially came into being), post-Soviet Russia in 1991, Israel in 1948 and so forth.
But when did the English state begin? We can’t be sure.
All we can do is suggest any number of milestones on the road to its present form, such as its baptism, the Roman and Norman conquests, Magna Carta, the Civil War, the Restoration, the Glorious Revolution – take your pick.
Advocates of the primacy of any such event will present their arguments; we may agree with some and dismiss others. But the very fact that there are many such events vying for the honour, and that they are scattered all over the historical continuum, points at the organic nature of the English state.
The same can be said, mutatis mutandis, about the states of Holland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway and to a large extent Spain. They have all developed organically over the turbulent, meandering, violently swerving pathways of history, and where exactly those pathways began is not much clearer than where they will end.
Aware of this continuity, the people of all those organic realms have preserved their monarchies (with minor hiatuses here and there), even though they may have divested them of any executive power.
However, they understand intuitively that dispensing with even the seemingly powerless monarchs would represent an irreplaceable loss. Contrary to what Walter Bagehot thought, they know that monarchy is so much more than just “the decorative aspect” of the constitution.
As all those countries are now enthusiastically secular and ideologically democratic, few people there would be able to identify what it is that they’d be reluctant to lose. If pressed, they are likely to refer obliquely to ‘tradition’, without fully realising what that means.
Many would resent the thought that monarchies link their secular present with their Christian past, yet this is precisely what monarchies do. They are Christendom’s envoys to modernity, and even those people who would throw up their arms in horror at this suggestion will still hear vague, intuitive echoes in their souls.
Royal families remind them of the origin of their own families – kings and queens are their link to the past they ostensibly no longer cherish, and to God in whom they ostensibly no longer believe. This is whence they derive their sense of organic continuity, something they desperately, if often unwittingly, crave – and something that’s denied to nations where monarchies no longer exist or have never existed.
Those nations may not know exactly what they are missing, but rest assured that deep down they all know they are missing something vital, something they won’t get from any secular creed. Secular creeds may be liked, respected and praised. But they can hardly ever be loved.
This points at the principal function of traditional monarchies in a modern world. It isn’t to rule, pass laws, declare wars and send criminals to the Tower or Tyburn Hill. It’s to be loved.
However, to paraphrase Burke, for a monarchy to be loved, it has to be lovely – and it can only be as lovely as the person on the throne. This brings us to the Queen, who merits that modifier more than any politician I can think of, and most monarchs.
Even the most rabid republicans tend to exempt our monarch from their diatribes against our monarchy. The Queen exudes so much dignity, fortitude, good cheer and commitment to service that, paradoxically, one has to fear for the future of the dynasty.
For sometimes one gets the impression that most Britons love not so much the throne as the person occupying it. Looking at the upcoming generations of the reigning dynasty, one can look forward to the future with more hope than expectation that they will merit the same affection. And if they don’t, the monarchy may lose its raison d’être.
The Queen can be succeeded, but it’s far from certain that she can be replaced. So much more fervent should be our prayers that she should continue to reign over us for years to come.
Happy birthday, Your Majesty! Many happy returns – please.