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Should Political Leaders Declare Themselves Gods To Keep Power?—The Facts From Antiquity

What if recently deposed Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick had announced himself a god? Would this have kept him from losing his post? Is declaring himself a god an option to save the career of politically troubled Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich? (above)

Let’s review the record from antiquity.  

In his History of Government from the Earliest Times–Volume I, Ancient Monarchies and Empires, the late Oxford political scientist S.E. Finer addressed the subject of rulers as gods or as chosen by heaven.

In ancient Egypt, the Pharaoh asserted divinity. Professor Finer wrote that these claims held the most weight in the early years of the Egyptian kingdom. But in time, as Pharaohs lasted for only brief stretches before dying or being usurped, the claim to divininty must have been nearly impossible for anyone to really believe.

In this era of 24 hour cable news and irreverent coverage by political blogs, it would seem, at best, that only some of the public would believe a claim by a leader that he or she was a god. If rulers had a hard time maintaining the fiction back in ancient Egypt, imagine convincing people today.

Professor Finer also wrote that the Egyptians responded to the diminished stature of the Pharaoh’s person by giving the throne divinity more so than the individaul holding the throne.

From Finer—

 “In my view…originally the (pharaohs) person was a sacred person, because, in accordance with certain rules or portents, he was, uniquely, indicated as the rightful possessor of the throne. But later it was the throne that made the king..irrespective of a particular individuals personal history or qualities.”

By this logic, the holder of the office of Speaker of the Texas House or the Governorship of Illinois would be a god by definition. It would not make any difference if  Mr. Craddick or Mr. Blagojevich were gods because their successors would be gods as well.  This, in my view, would limit the value of declaring yourself a god.  No matter what, you’re going to get a god in the position.

In ancient China, the Emperor had the “Mandate of Heaven.”

From Finer—

“…the Chinese emperorship…was irreducibly ritualistic:  ying-yang and the perfect harmony of Earth, Man ans Heaven turned exclusively upon the emperor’s actions….so the emperor, the Son of Heaven, was sacred because he alone could offer to Heaven the supreme sacrifices and maintain the harmony between the terrestrial order and the cosmos.”

Reading this you’d think a politician looking for a firm hold on power would try to establish himself as holding such importance. But the power of the Chinese emperor came with a catch not unlike what we have already seen in Egypt. The presumption was that if you challenged the emperor and prevailed, that you then had the Mandate of Heaven. 

The verdict here, informed by history, is that declaring yourself to be god or as heaven-sent is not a viable strategy to keep political power. Though it sure would be fun if someone would try. It does seem possible that Governor Blagojevich has at least considered this idea.  

(Below—Ancient Egypt)

January 9, 2009 Posted by | Books, History, Political History, Politics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Defining Characteristics Of A Political State

It would be an act of vanity to tell you I’ve read all three volumes of Oxford scholar S.E. Finer’s The History of Government From Earliest Times.

However, since blogging is an act of vanity, I will indeed tell you that I have in fact read all three volumes.

Samuel Finer was a student of government at Oxford who lived between 1915 and 1993. Earliest Times was published after his death. He had finished all but two of the 36 chapters. The Economist saw Earliest Times as a work of political science equal to Aristotle’s Politics.

Below are Professor Finer’s five defining characteristics of a political state—

1. They are territorially defined populations each recognizing a common paramount organ of government.

2. This organ is served by specialized personnel; a civil service, to carry out decisions and a military service to back these by force where necessary and to protect the association from similarly constituted associations.

3. The state so characterized is recognized by other similarly constituted states as independent on its territorially defined—and hence confined—population, that is, on its subjects. This recognition constitutes what we would today call its international sovereignty.   

4. Ideally at least, but to a large extent in practice also, the population forms a community of feeling—A gemeinschaft based on self-consciousness of a common nationality.

5.  Ideally at least, and again to a large extent in practice, the population forms a community in the sense that its members mutually participate in distributing and sharing duties and benefits.

Consider your own personal favorite nation and ponder if it meets these tests.

If it were an independent state, I’m not sure my home city of Houston, Texas would pass the fourth and fifth standards.

Here is some of the 1997 review of this title from The Economist

IF THERE were a Nobel prize for political science, Sammy Finer would deserve to win one for this extraordinary trilogy—a work of scholarship so broad in its sympathies, so ambitious in its scope and so elegantly crafted that it leaves the reader gasping, literally, with astonishment and delight. To read it is like seeing the pyramids or the Taj Mahal for the first time. Sadly, Finer—who taught politics at Manchester, Keele and Oxford before retiring—died four years ago. Happily, before he died he had completed all but two of his projected 36 chapters.

The task he set himself was nothing less than to describe and account for the principal forms of government that have existed on this planet since “the first unambiguously attested states yet known emerged round about 3200 BCin the Nile Valley and southern Mesopotamia.” The sweep of his reading and research encompassed—but was far from exhausted by—the ancient states of Sumer, Egypt, Persia and Assyria, the classical states of Greece and Rome, the Byzantine and Caliphate empires of the near east, the Han, Tang and Ming regimes of China, Tokugawa Japan and the emergence of the so-called “modern” states of Europe and North America.

Earliest Times must be bought used now. I hope it is reissued. It’s well worth the effort and money to track down and buy all three volumes.

December 20, 2007 Posted by | Books, Political History, Politics | , , , , , | Leave a comment