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What If Everything Neoreaction Knows About Monarchy Is Wrong?

In his blog Unqualified Reservations, Mencius Moldbug set forth in an erudite and entertaining fashion a political opinion that had not been articulated for a long time. The Modern world had taken a wrong turn in the 18th century when the burgeoning representative republics began to topple kings. Democracy was the problem. In making this case, Moldbug was doing so as a libertarian atheist who accepted the basic thrust of Modernity. This acceptance in many ways was a source of the moniker “neo” in Neo-Reaction.

A characteristic exploration is an essay entitled “Divine-right monarchy for the modern secular intellectual.” In that piece, Moldbug understands divine-right monarchy as the absolutist monarchy of Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha (“Once you've read Maine, perhaps you are ready for Filmer”). In Moldbug’s view, while hereditary monarchy cannot be justified by appeals to the Deity and is therefore arbitrary, the institution can be justified rationally:

To an atheist, the King's authority must be absolute, not because he is appointed by God, but because he is appointed by no one. If someone appoints him, that man is King. . . . Thus the modern divine-right monarchist says, not that God has chosen any person or family to rule, but that sovereignty exists and someone must hold it.

But what is sovereignty? All indications are that Moldbug’s understanding of “sovereignty” is sovereignty as conventionally understood in contemporary political theory: sovereignty is the crown’s monopoly on violence. And, in Moldbug’s view, democracy is misguided because sovereignty cannot be exercised by the people and sovereignty is always conserved. He would certainly agree with Carl Schmitt that “he who decides the exceptions is sovereign.” Is this understanding of “sovereignty” a necessary part of hereditary monarchy in the West?

A recent book on the relationship between King Saint Louis IX and Pope Clement IV sheds light on this question. Before Church and State: A Study of Social Order in the Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX by Andrew Willard Jones is getting much attention in Traditionalist Catholic circles. While it covers a lot of ground, perhaps its most important and controversial thesis is that our concept of “sovereignty” is itself a product of the early Modern period. “Sovereignty” as currently understood is alien to the High Middle Ages that are the focus of Jones’s work, and necessarily so because “sovereignty” is dependent on a separation between “church” and “state” that is a creature of the Protestant Reformation. The 13th century France of Louis and Clement neither had these concepts nor did their society conduct itself in a way that would make these concepts a meaningful and useful way of understanding it.

Jones summarizes:

It seems to me that almost all modern political thought, from theories of the divine right of kings to theories of representative republics, are ultimately about who is sovereign and how their monopoly on violence can be realized most effectively. Because this scenario operates at the level of an assumption, history is seen as the struggle over sovereignty: who is going to have it and how are they going to enforce it? The right answer ideologically, of course, is the secular, democratic State—which becomes the telos of history and the perfect manifestation of sovereignty.

This is a very apt summary of the subject matter of Moldbuggian Neo-Reaction, albeit with a different conclusion about whether the path from monarchy to democracy is progress or degeneration. Moldbug would certainly agree with the following summary from Jones:

I contend that it is an assumption of modern politics that sovereignty exists someplace, even if it is obscured by constitutional arrangements, opaque structures of power, or certain rhetorical constructions.

Jones has come to his iconoclastic conclusion via the study of primary source documents. These include records of court cases and inquisitions, correspondence, encyclicals, regal pronouncements and ordinances, and other records from the period. They document the management and resolution of numerous conflicts, foreign and domestic, including:

-The Albigensian Crusade

-Return from the Ninth Crusade and the Grand Ordonnance

-The English Second Baron’s War and the Mise of Amiens

-Manfred, King of Sicily and the Battle of Benevento

-The Tenth Crusade and the Papal Legates

These documents present a society that thought of itself as a Kingdom that was part of the Catholic Church, or as Jones describes it in his subtitle, a Sacramental Kingdom. Central to its self-conception was the idea that, as a society within the Church, peace was the natural state of affairs, in contrast to the Modern view (derived from Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan) that war is Man’s natural state. Like Saint Augustine, Louis and Clement believed that peace was the tranquility that came from order. As Jones explains:

We must abandon the assumptions of modern politics ultimately because France was a Christian kingdom and, within Christianity, peace is the primordial condition and violence is sin, an aberration, a corruption, and ultimately something that does not even have real being—it is an absence. This is a key theme of St. Augustine’s thought.

Thirteenth century French society was actually organized through networks of consilium et auxilium, “counsel and aid,” which were networks of friends, chief among these being the friendship between King Louis and Pope Clement. Rather than struggle over power, the King and the Pope were actually working together to achieve the same ends. Let us briefly outline what Jones understands we are able to learn about 13th century France from each of these incidents.

The first was the Albigensian Crusade. The Albigensians or Cathars were a strange gnostic cult that had taken root in the Languedoc in the south of France over the previous two centuries. In 1209, Pope

Innocent III called a crusade against the Cathars after the murder of the Papal legate the previous year. This was the beginning of a twenty year campaign that ebbed and flowed with periods of open conflict and retrenchment. Gui Faucois (later Pope Clement IV) came of age in the South of France during this period, while King Louis was a generation younger than his advisor and magistrate. Much of their work during the early years of his reign was focused on the aftermath of this conflict.

How should we understand what they were doing? In a contemporary context, their activities were something like pacification after the end of an insurgency. The Cathar heresy had both “political” and “religious” dimensions. In the latter sphere, Catharism was gnostic and dualistic and quite heretical. Less well known is that the secular society that built up in the Languedoc around Catharism was anarchic and ground in the vendetta. Worse, the ruling nobles, Count Raymond and his son, operated as war lords, oppressing the populace with a mercenary army and extracting protection money. In the dialectic of High Medieval social theory, Cathar society was based upon a natural state of war, rather than the peace of Christ. The negotium or “business” of both King Louis and the Papal inquisitors was pulling this society up root and branch over several decades.

In the 13th century, heresy was seen as having both a “religious” and “secular” dimension. We cannot here enter into any debates over contemporary political theory about individual rights and religious freedom. It is obvious that all of our regime elites, including the current occupant of the See of St. Peter, would vociferously condemn the use of force in matters of religion. But it is obvious that applying these standards to our protagonists would be an anachronism.

The main tactic used in the “secular” sphere was the confiscation of all of the goods of an established heretic by the King as enforcement of the sanction of excommunication. Concrete examples presented by Jones all deal with the resolution of disputes engendered by royal confiscations as reflected in the recorded decisions of enqueteurs (judges in a civil law inquisitorial judicial system). Gui Faucois’s first career was his secular life as one of these magistrates. Only after the death of his wife did he take Holy Orders and pursue his second career in the Church, ultimately culminated in his accession as Pope Clement IV.

To modern readers, the court records in these forfeiture cases appear positively baroque when compared to the relatively simple rules in contemporary commercial litigation. Rather than an abstract rule of decision (“first in time is first in right”), the main concern in these decisions is longstanding usage, which may vary greater among superficially similar litigants. As Jones argues, this reflects the belief of Louis and his contemporaries that the peace was a preexistent thing that was protected by the King, not imposed by him.

Since peace, the fruit of justice, was the objective of the secular power, only the fracturing of this “peaceful” status quo could justify intervention; otherwise, the secular power itself fractured the peace and was criminal. What this meant was that the activity of the secular power was ultimately prohibited from being “proactive.” It had to be justified as a reaction to prior violence. A “new” custom was basically synonymous with a “bad” custom, both of them subjecting victims to an arbitrary will and so reducing them to servitude.

The social technology of enqueteurs was also put to work after King Louis returned from the Ninth Crusade in what would look to a contemporary audience like a campaign against corruption and for government reform. In the mind of King Louis and his magistrate Gui Faucois, this was about holding the ministers of the King, his Parlement, to the standards of Davidic Kingship, where the King was a minister of God and accountable to Him. Since royal power operated by forfeiture, this was a remedy that could obviously be abused by rapacious ministers or prelates. Both had temporal power and both could abuse that power.

Because the fracturing of the peace was hardly rare (it was a fallen world, after all), the potential scope of royal action was great; there were no “constitutional” limits. But this is not absolutism: royal power was not the “ordering principle,” the source of all legitimacy; it was, rather, force countering force.

Louis’s judges would not enforce forfeitures stemming from excommunication without first investigating whether this was warranted. Jones emphasizes how this is consistent with narrative of the King and the Church concerning themselves with the negotium (business) of the peace and faith as a single enterprise. Neither “church” nor “state” was subservient to the other.

Part of this campaign of reform was the promulgation of the Grande Ordonnance, which “forbid all gambling, prostitution, and frequenting taverns (by any except travelers) in the king’s domains.” The prohibition in the Grande Ordonnance against “dueling” was not so much about dueling in a conventional sense (say Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton), but trial by combat. Therefore, it was less a Modern regulation than an attempt to restrict and govern the situations where and how the King’s men were permitted to decide controversies, favoring evidence and argument over force. More broadly, the King’s ministers were to dispense justice and not use their positions for personal gain. In many ways, they were acting in a role similarly to that of the clergy and therefore would be expected to conduct themselves with the moral rigor appropriate to their station.

King Louis’s support of King Henry III of England in the Second Barons’ War with the Mise of Amien demonstrates the Capetian conception of monarchy in the 13th century. The monarch was entitled to choose his own ministers, his Parlement. Simon de Montfort, leader of the rebellious barons and de facto military dictator, had proposed as a settlement of the conflict that three electors be chosen who would appoint a council of nine men to act as a de facto cabinet with portfolio. Through Gui Fauciois, King Louis opposed this proposal to make Henry a “sham king.” As Jones explains:

Without the liberty to choose his own council, the king is no king at all and real dominion would rest with three little kings and nine sub-kings. As stated in the Mise of Amiens and in the complaints of Henry against his barons, the essence of royal power is found in the liberty to choose one’s council and ministers, to rule through one’s friends.

The similarity to Moldbug’s arguments about the nature of power is obvious. However, the distinction is the absence of a free floating concept of sovereignty.

Likewise, the king had fullness of power because he was not bound by positive law, but was the source of this law. This is not to say that the king wielded arbitrary power to do as he pleased. As we saw in previous chapters, positive law, prescribed force, was not understood as the principle of order, as it is in modern political theory. Rather, the assumption was that a peace existed primordially and that human law rightly intervened only when some violence had upset that peace—otherwise, it itself was violence

Both King Louis and the Papal legate, Gui Faucois, sought Henry III’s friendship for its own sake and because they saw him as a potential champion against the King of Sicily. Manfred was the illegitimate son of Frederick Hohenstaufen, the deceased Holy Roman Emperor. Rather than yield to legitimist claim of his nephew, Manfred had himself crowned King and was promptly excommunicated by Pope Urban IV. Manfred’s rule was an ongoing problem for both King Louis and the Holy See and served to frustrate their other projects, in particular to launch a new and successful expedition in the Holy Land. But Manfred’s reign was also seen as destructive to the Church, as Frederick’s had been. Ultimately, Louis’s brother, Charles, Count of Anjou, defeated Manfred at the Battle of Beneveto and became King of Sicily.

However, as Jones observes:

In the historiography, one frequently finds a certain narrative that the papacy of the 1260s had a single-minded obsession with Manfred and viewed Louis’s obsession with the Holy Land as a hindrance to their Italian ambitions. . . . [T]here is no support in the sources for the sometimes asserted narrative of these years that sees Louis as an idealist, even quaint, crusader, clinging to an outmoded and futile dream of success in the Holy Land, even while the papacy had shifted its focus to the cynical and calculating issues of power politics in Italy.

When planning what became the Tenth Crusade, the Crusader states in the Holy Land, known as Outremer, had existed for two centuries. Over the course of his reign, King Louis had worked with various Papal legates, including Gui Faucois, to coordinate a unified ecclesial and secular response to the various crises of his reign. The possibility of a Papal legate passing from France to Outremer presented the issue of the legal scope of the legate’s delegated authority. In ordinary times, upon the death of the reigning Pontiff, existing legates would be called and reappointed. However, the reign of King Louis was a time when a developing historical trend was for long vacancies of months or years between the death of one Pope and the election of another.

This raised the practical question of whether a legate’s delegated authority would lapse upon the death of the Pope who had made the appointment. This, of course, led to the theoretical question of how one should understand the nature of the delegated authority, whether personal or institutional. In part because of Gui Faucois’s own thinking and writing on this issue, the consensus developed that the legate had been delegated an authority that belonged to the Holy See as an institution, so that the appointment of legates would survive the death of the reigning Pontiff. However, there was always the possibility of exception, if the Cardinals believed the good of the Church required the recall of the legate.

Given that Saint Thomas Aquinas is a figure of this period, in the last section of the book, Jones turns to the question of how Thomas’s ideas fit with the picture of Capetian France we have discovered in the primary sources. Without delving into the endless complications of intra-Scholastic Thomistic debates, Jones sees in the Angelic Doctor a man of the period who saw monarchy in a Davidic and Augustinian way. Rather than the caricature of natural law serving as independent ground for a “state” separate from the “church,” Thomas saw human society just as much in need of grace and salvation, and just as much a part of the Catholic Church, as the individual sinner. Not only the natural law, but the Old Law (the Ten Commandments) and the New Law (the Sermon on the Mount), were necessary to create a Christian society and to form Christian government, a most Christian Kingdom, so that the benefits of Christ’s dispensation would be enjoyed by all of the faithful.

With the Renaissance and the Reformation, the belief in the transformative power of grace went into decline and with it the notion that Christ was to reign in every area of human endeavor through His chosen ministers.

Can we not perhaps see that the growth of the assumption of primordial violence in political theory is really a part of the same historical movement as that of the development of the doctrine of the total depravity of man, of simul justus et peccator, and of the denial of transformative grace? Is it not really the denial of the possibility of the “upper tier” of the New Law, the denial of the possibility of true peace in Charity, and the assertion that the best that can be hoped for is a type of concord, some sort of social contract? This reading can offer an account, it seems to me, of Marsilius of Padua’s elevation of the secular power over the spiritual in his quest for peace, of the nominalists’ move toward an arbitrary law, of Machiavelli’s contention that the prince must be amoral in order for “peace” to reign, of the congruency between Luther’s doctrines of sola fide and the two kingdoms, as well as the rise of the absolutist monarchs, Catholic and otherwise.

Jones’s work is a powerful presentation that should be read by all Reactionaries. But his thesis wasn’t entirely unknown previously. Interestingly, one interlocutor in the comments section to Moldbug’s essay on divine-right monarchy already made the point that absolutism was a Modern innovation that broke from the Medieval order: “The divine right of kings advocated in an extreme form by Filmer was an anti-papal innovation.” The same commentator also noted: “Democracy gave us Hitler; Augustus' line gave us Tiberius, Caligula, Nero.” Now Christianity has a special relationship with Nero, who is the “beast” of the Book of the Apocalypse. The visions of Saint John give the Church its clearest canonical warrant to oppose tyranny.

Of course, democracy brings its own problems, for when the people stop looking to a King for guidance and leadership, they also stop looking to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords to provide a similar headship in the own lives, in their families and in their communities. The American republic at first flourished in the soil of Low Church Protestantism, but the intervening two centuries have seen the weakening of both institutions. It is not a leap of imagination to see a causal connection between the two phenomenon.

The upshot of Jones’s path breaking work can be stated simply. For Christian Reactionaries, the Orthosphere, the problem is not just democracy so much as it is the Leviathan state. To be faithful to King Saint Louis IX, we are obliged to support champion sacral kingship but not absolutist monarchy. Our model is always to be King David.

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