The Reversal of the Trend toward Freedom
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
From the 17th century on, philosophers in dealing with the essential content of history began to stress the problems of liberty and bondage. Their concepts of both were rather vague, borrowed from the political philosophy of ancient Greece and influenced by the prevailing interpretation of the conditions of the Germanic tribes whose invasions had destroyed Rome’s Western empire. As these thinkers saw it, freedom was the original state of mankind and the rule of kings emerged only in the course of later history. In the scriptural relation of the inauguration of the kingship of Saul they found confirmation of their doctrine as well as a rather unsympathetic description of the characteristic marks of royal government. Historical evolution, they concluded, had deprived man of his inalienable right of freedom.
The philosophers of the Enlightenment were almost unanimous in rejecting the claims of hereditary royalty and in recommending the republican form of government. The royal police forced them to be cautious in the expression of their ideas, but the public could read between the lines. On the eve of the American and the French revolutions monarchy had lost its age-old hold on men’s minds. The enormous prestige enjoyed by England, then the world’s richest and most powerful nation, suggested the compromise between the two incompatible principles of government which had worked rather satisfactorily in the United Kingdom. But the old indigenous dynasties of continental Europe were not prepared to acquiesce in their reduction to a merely ceremonial position such as the alien dynasty of Great Britain had finally accepted, though only after some resistance. They lost their crowns because they disdained the role of what the Count of Chambord had called “the legitimate king of the revolution.”