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Mirror of Princes
Queen Elizabeth’s rule shows us not only the political wisdom of the past, but guidance for a better political future
Beloved of her subjects, untouched by scandal, faultless in public demeanor, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II has passed to her eternal reward. She has already been mourned as the last link to a world that now seems distant and faded—a lone bridge between the last empires and what is now a tattered, post-democratic world. Lest this sentiment fade into nostalgia, however, it is important to name the specific quality that marked the queen’s rule and comprised her other virtues.
Prudence, elegance, graciousness, aplomb, patience, benignity, justice, temperance, charity, religion, modesty and fidelity were all among the jewels in her crown. But what knit them together and set them in their place was the practice, fading and now faded, of duty of state.
In the concept of duty of state, the prince or princess, and as well the magistrate or statesman, does not merely exhibit qualities worthy of personal sympathy. The queen’s elegance, for example, is not merely a memorial to a time when statesmen attended dignified parties rather than, say, rave parties in Helsinki. Instead, a different nature of rule occasioned a different sort of virtue. The queen’s virtues were not simply extraordinary forms of ordinary virtues. Rather, they were excellent forms of virtues proper to her office—virtues she was specifically taught and had the opportunity to practice.
How were those specific virtues produced in the queen, and why are they so far from us today? The answer gets to the heart of much contemporary malaise. What has caused duty of state to fade, in turn, is the fading away of rule.
The notion of duties proper to office lies at the core of the classical legal and political tradition to which Postliberal Order (along with Ius et Iustitium) is dedicated—so much so that the Latin word for duty, officium, eventually came to be used for “office” itself. In book 3, chapter 4 of his Politics, Aristotle raises the question whether the virtues of an excellent citizen and a good man are identical. In the course of his answer, Aristotle observes that the virtues take different forms among rulers and ruled. Citizens can become rulers and vice versa, but rulers, as rulers, have one overriding and specific virtue—prudence:
But prudence is the only virtue peculiar to the ruler. The others, it would seem, must necessarily be common to both rulers and ruled, but prudence is not a virtue of one ruled, but rather true opinion; for the one ruled is like a flute maker, while the ruler is like a flute player, the user. (trans. Lord)
Prudence is proper to political rulers because it is their office or duty to have care of the whole community. Officeholders have specific cares as well as a perspective and responsibility distinct from ordinary citizens; it is for this reason that, under the classical understanding, they are owed deference in their prudential decisions. By the same token and on account of this responsibility, throughout the subsequent centuries down to modern times, the education of a prince or ruler in their specific virtues was considered essential to good government. Indeed, for much of Western history attention to the ruler’s virtues was the primary concern of and locus of “political theory.”
In the Middle Ages, Giles of Rome’s On the Rule of Princes was written for the education of Philip IV of France (r. 1285–1314). In it, Giles begins by emphasizing that a prince’s happiness is not to be found in pleasures, riches, honors, glory, fame, civil power, bodily strength or beauty, but in the love of God and the practice of prudence. (My colleague Chad Pecknold discussed Augustine’s mirror of princes here.)
Cicero’s On Offices had long since become a primary text of this tradition by holding up to princes, as in a mirror, the virtues that they would need for the performance of their official tasks.
In general those who are about to take charge of public affairs should hold fast to Plato’s two pieces of advice: first to fix their gaze so firmly on what is beneficial to the citizens that whatever they do, they do with that in mind, forgetful of their own advantage. Secondly, let them care for the whole body of the republic rather than protect one part and neglect the rest. The management of the republic is like a guardianship, and must be conducted in the light of what is beneficial not to the guardians, but to those who are put in their charge. (De officiis 1.85, trans. Griffin & Atkins)
Nearly two thousand years later, the different elements of this tradition come together in a striking way in then princess Elizabeth’s message on her twenty-first birthday, delivered in 1947 by radio broadcast from Cape Town:
To accomplish that [viz., preserving and improving the commonwealth] we must give nothing less than the whole of ourselves. There is a motto which has been borne by many of my ancestors—a noble motto, “I serve.” Those words were an inspiration to many bygone heirs to the Throne when they made their knightly dedication as they came to manhood. I cannot do quite as they did.
But through the inventions of science I can do what was not possible for any of them. I can make my solemn act of dedication with a whole Empire listening. I should like to make that dedication now. It is very simple.
I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong. (my emphasis; source: The Royal Household)
As Princess Elizabeth explained, the notion of service—complete dedication of one’s personality to one’s office—lay at the heart of the classical conception that the knightly tradition incarnated. This dedication was not supposed to culminate in exhaustion through ambition, or “being a climber.”
For those of us living under liberal democratic systems, this conception has gradually become difficult to grasp. The virtues of a great ruler are not merely personal accomplishments. The queen did not occupy her office as a reward for good behavior, or because she took leadership classes in middle school, went on to win a Rhodes Scholarship, do consulting and private equity, and then run for office. The scheme is almost exactly reversed.
Where Have All the Virtues Gone?
Recovering the possibility of duty of state is not as simple as it may seem. Queen Elizabeth could learn her “duties of state” because her state in life was predetermined: she was already a princess and would soon become queen. But monarchy is also not the sole precondition for developing such virtues. Instead, such virtues come from the concept of “office.” In order to have the virtues corresponding to one’s duties of state, the corresponding office has to exist. In the American context, this concept has sometimes been preserved in the nexus of qualities called “presidential”—not surprisingly, since it is a quasi-monarchical office.
Paradoxically, investing political offices with a sense of duty of state requires making them more fully what they are rather than seeking to limit them solely through external constraints. Once political life came to be viewed, under an early form of liberalism, as the clash of irreconcilable interests, the role of the statesman and his virtues became correspondingly diminished. As Madison famously put it, “enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.”
Liberalism has long advertised itself as putting an end to the personal, direct politics of ages past. In liberal democracy, we need not pray for an enlightened monarch to rise and set everything in order. Instead of being subjected to the whims of royalty or, even worse, of the clergy, liberalism would establish a smooth-functioning, rational public square, within which free individuals would be able to contribute to the public good through rational activity in economy, state and society.
Ironically but predictably, as the powers of state offices became more restricted those occupying them came to have less prudence. The raw skills that could be shaped into prudence—Giles of Rome named them as memory, foresight, intellect, reason, cleverness, docility, experience and precaution—were instead drawn toward and rewarded by the market, gradually turning them toward private gain.
At the same time, the personal traits of officeholders in liberal democracy have become only more glaring. Insistence on telling one’s “personal story” in campaigning has shifted the qualification for office ever further toward bathos. As the system has produced ever more dysfunctional results—enervated economies, defenseless and discouraged countries, disaffected populations—the remaining political elite have maintained the external trappings of virtue while failing every test of political prudence.
With bad leaders and, as Ed Feser put it, “perfect world disorder” before us, the temptation is strong to respond by limiting political power yet further. Sadly, such efforts will only recreate the negative feedback loop that has brought us to the present point. Slowly but surely, postliberal thinking has begun to orient the Right toward educating and fostering the qualities for good rulers—and for reconceiving political power as in the service of the common good.
“Those who are equipped by nature to administer affairs,” wrote Cicero, “must abandon hesitation over winning office and engage in public life. For only in this way can either the city be ruled or greatness of spirit be displayed.”
Queen Elizabeth exhibited a lifelong dedication to office that is almost impossible to find today. But with the inspiration of her example, it can be recreated—through having offices that call forth the virtues of good rule, and through educating the young to fill them in dedication to the common good. To restore good rule, we must dare to rule.