Sacral Kingship and After: Preliminary Reflections

Sacral kingship is the political commonsense of humankind, according to historian Francis Oakley. In his Kingship: The Politics of Enchantment, and elsewhere, Oakley explores the virtual omnipresence (and great diversity) of sacral kingship, noting that the republican and democratic periods in ancient Greece and Rome, much less our own contemporary democracies, could reasonably be seen as anomalies. What makes kingship sacral is the investment in the king of the maintenance of global harmony—in other words, the king is responsible not only for peace in the community but peace between humans and the world—quite literally, the king is responsible for the growth of crops, the mildness of the weather, the fertility of livestock and game, and more generally maintaining harmony between the various levels of existence. Thinking in originary anthropological terms, we can recognize here the human appropriation of the sacred center, executed first of all by the Big Man but then institutionalized in ritual terms. The Big Man is like the founding genius or entrepreneur, while the sacred king is the inheritor of the Big Man’s labors, enabled and hedged in by myriad rules and expectations. The Big Man, we can assume, could still be replaced by a more effective Big Man, within the gift economy and tribal polity. Once the center has been humanly occupied, it must remain humanly occupied, while ongoing clarification regarding the mode of occupation would be determined by the needs of deferring new forms of potential violence.

One effect of the shift from the more informal Big Man mode of rule to sacral kingship would be the elimination of the constant struggle between prospective Big Men and their respective bands. But at least as important is the possibility of uploading a far more burdensome ritual weight upon the individual occupying the center. And if the sacral king is the nodal point of the community’s hopes he is equally the scapegoat of its resentments. Sacral kings are liable for the benefits they are supposed to bring, and the ritual slaughter of sacral kings is quite common, in some cases apparently ritually prescribed. It’s easy to imagine this being a common practice, since not only does the king, in fact, have no power over the weather, a king elevated through ritual means will not necessarily be more capable in carrying out the normal duties of a ruler better than anyone else. Indeed, some societies separated out the ritual from the executive duties of kingship, delegating the latter to some commander, and thereby instituting an early form of division of power—but these seem to have been more complex and advanced social orders, capable of living with some tension between the fictions and realities of power (medieval to modern Japan is exemplary here).

It seems obvious that sacral kings, especially the more capable among them, must have considered ways of improving their position within this set of arrangements. The most obvious way of doing so would be to conquer enough territories, introduce enough differentiations into the social order, and establish enough of a bureaucracy to neutralize any hope on the part of rivals to replace oneself. (No doubt, the “failures” of sacral kings to ensure fertility or a good rainy season were often framed and broadcast by such rivals, even if the necessity of carrying out such power struggles in the ritualistic language of the community would make it hard to discern their precise interplay at a distance.) Once this has been accomplished, we have a genuine “God Emperor” who can rule over vast territories and bequeath his rule to millennia of descendants. The Chinese, ancient Near East and Egyptian monarchies fit this model and the king is still sacred, still divine, still ensuring the happiness of marriages, the abundance of offspring, and so on. If it’s stable, unified government we want, it’s hard to argue with models that remained more or less intact in some cases for a couple of thousand years. Do we want to argue with it?

The arguments came first of all from the ancient Israelites, who revealed a God incompatible with the sacralization of a human ruler. The foundational story of the Israelites is, of course, that of a small, originally nomadic, then enslaved, people, escaping from and them inflicting a devastating defeat upon, the mightiest empire in the world. The exodus has nourished liberatory and egalitarian narratives ever since. Furthermore, even a cursory, untutored reading of the history of ancient Israel as recorded in the Hebrew Bible can see the constant, ultimately unresolved tension regarding the nature and even legitimacy of kingship, either for the Israelite polity itself or those who took over the task of writing (revising? Inventing?) its history. On the simplest level, if God is king, then no human can be put in that role; insofar as we are to have a human king, he must be no more than a mere functionary of God’s word (which itself is relayed more reliably by priests, judges and prophets). At the very least, the assumption that the king is subjected to some external measure that could justify his restraint or removal now seems to be a permanent part of the human condition. Even more, if the Israelite God is the God of all humankind, with the Israelites His chosen priests and witnesses, the history of that people takes on an unprecedented meaning. Under conditions of “normal” sacral kingship, the conquest and replacement of one king by another merely changes the occupant, not the nature, of the center. Strictly speaking, the entire history (or mythology) of the community pre-conquest is cancelled and can be, and probably usually is, forgotten—or, at least, aggressively translated into the terms of the new ritual and mythic order. Not for the Israelites—their history is that of a kind of agon between the Israelites and, by extension, humanity, with God—the defeats and near obliteration of the Jews are manifestations of divine judgment, punishing the Jews for failing to keep faith with God’s law. Implicit in this historical logic is the assumption that a return to obedience to God’s will is to issue in redemption, making the continued existence of this particular people especially vital to human history as a whole, but just as significantly providing a model for history as such.

At the same time, Judaic thought never really imagines a form of government other than kingship. As has often been noted, the very discourse used to describe God in the Scriptures, and to this day in Jewish prayer, is highly monarchical—God is king, the king of kings, the honor due to God is very explicitly modeled on the kind of honor due to kings and the kind of benefits to result from doing God’s will follow very closely those expected from the sacral king. The covenant between the Israelites and God (the language of which determines that used by the prophets in their vituperations against the sinning community) is very similar to covenants between kings and their people common in the ancient Near East. And, of course, throughout the history of the diaspora, Jewish hopes resided in the coming of the Messiah, very clearly a king, even descended from the House of David—so deeply rooted are these hopes that many Jews prior to the founding of the State of Israel, and a tenacious minority still today, refuse to admit its legitimacy because it fails to fit the Messianic model. All of this testifies to the truth of Oakley’s point—so powerful and intuitive is the political commonsense of humankind that even the most radical revolutions in understandings of the divine ultimately resolve themselves into a somewhat revised version of the original model. Of course, slight revisions can contain vast and unpredictable consequences.

So, why not simply reject this odd Jewish notion and stick with what works, an undiluted divine imperium? For one thing, we know that kings can’t control the weather. But how did we come to know this? If in the more local sacral kingships, the “failure” of the king would lead to the sacrificial killing of that king (on the assumption that some ritual infelicity on the part of the king must have caused the disaster), what happens once the God Emperor is beyond such ritual punishment? Something else, lots of other things, get sacrificed. The regime of human sacrifice maintained by the Aztec monarchs was just the most vivid and gruesome example of what was the case in all such kingdoms—human sacrifice on behalf of the king. One of Eric Gans’s most interesting discussions in his The End of Culture concerns the emergence of human sacrifice at a later, more civilized level of cultural development—it’s not the hunter and gatherer aboriginals who offer up their first born to the gods, but those in more highly differentiated and hierarchical social orders. If your god-ancestor is an antelope, you can offer up a portion of your antelope meal in tribute; if your god is a human king, you offer up your heir, or your slave, because that is what he has provided you with. This can take on many forms, including the conquest, enslavement and extermination of other people, in order to provide such tribute. What the Judaic revelation reveals is that such sacrifice is untenable. What accounts for this revelation? (It’s so hard for us to see this as a revelation because is hard for us to imagine believing that the king, for example, provides for the orderly movements of heavenly bodies. But “we” believed then, just like “we” believe now, in everything conducive, as far as we can tell, which is to say as far as we are told by those we have no choice but to trust, to the deferral of communal violence.) The more distant the sacred center, the more all these subjects’ symmetrical relation to the center outweighs their differences, and the more it becomes possible to imagine that anyone could be liable to be sacrificed. And if anyone could be liable to be sacrificed, anyone can put themselves forward as a sacrifice, or at least demonstrate a willingness to be sacrificed, if necessary. One might do this for the salvation of the community, but this more conscious self-sacrifice would involve some study of the “traits” and actions that make one a more likely sacrifice; i.e., one must become a little bit of a generative anthropologist. The Jewish notion of “chosenness” is really a notion of putting oneself forward as a sacrifice. And, of course, this notion is completed and universalized by the self-sacrifice of Jesus of Nazareth who, as Girard argued, discredited sacrifice by showing its roots in nothing more than mimetic contagion. (What Jesus revealed, according to Gans, is that anyone preaching the doctrine of universal reciprocity will generate the resentment of all, because all thereby stand accused of resentment.) No one can, any more, carry out human sacrifices in good faith; hence, there is no return to the order of sacral kingship—and, as a side effect, other modes of human and natural causality can be explored.

Oakley follows the tentative and ultimately unresolved attempts of Christianity to come to terms with this same problem—the incompatibility of a transcendent God with sacralized kingships. There is much to be discussed here, and much of the struggle between Papacy and the medieval European kings took ideological form in the arguments over the appropriateness of “worldly” kings exercising power that included sacerdotal power. But I’m going to leave this aside for now, in part because I still have a bit of Oakley to read, but also because I want to see what is involved in speaking about power in the terms I am laying out here. Here’s the problem: sacral kingship is the “political commonsense of humankind,” and indeed continues to inform our relation to even the most “secular” leaders, and yet is impossible; meanwhile, we haven’t come up with anything to replace it with—not even close. (One thing worth pointing out is that if, since the spread of Christianity, human beings have been embarked upon the task of constructing a credible replacement for sacral kingship, we can all be a lot more forgiving of our political enemies, present and past, because this must be the most difficult thing humans have ever had to do.)

Power, for originary thinking, ultimately lies in deferral and discipline, a view that I think is consistent with de Jouvenal’s attribution of power to “credit,” i.e., faith in someone’s proven ability to step into some “gap” where leadership is required. To take an example I’ve used before, in a group of hungry men, the one who can abstain from suddenly available food in order to remain dedicated to some urgent task would appear and therefore be extremely powerful in relation to his fellows. The more disciplined you are, the more you want such discipline displayed in the exercise of power, whether that exercise is yours or another’s. We can see, in sacral kingship, absolute credit being given to the king. Why does he deserve such credit? Well, who are you to ask the question—in doing so, don’t you give yourself a bit too much credit? As long as any failures in the social order can be repaired by more or better sacrifices, such credit can continue to flow, and if necessary redirected. But if sacrifice is not the cure, it’s not clear what is. If the king puts himself forward as a self-sacrifice on behalf of the community in post-sacrificial terms, well so can others—shaping yourself as a potential sacrifice, in your own practices and your relation to your community, is itself a capability, one that marks you as elite, i.e., powerful—especially if you inherit the other markers of potential rulership, such as property and bloodline (themselves markers of credit advanced by previous generations). Unsecure or divided power really points to an unresolved anthropological and historical dilemma. If the arguments about Church and Throne in the middle ages mask struggles for power, those struggles for power also advance a kind of difficult anthropological inquiry, upon which we are still engaged. There’s no reason to assume that the lord who put together an army to overthrow the king didn’t genuinely believe he was God’s “real” regent on earth. It’s a good idea to figure out what good faith reasons he might have had for believing this.

Now, Renaissance and Reformation thinkers had what they thought would be a viable replacement for sacral kingship (one drawn from ancient philosophy): “Nature.” If we can understand the laws of nature, both physical and human nature, we can order society rightly. This would draw together the new sciences with a rational political order unindebted to “irrational” hierarchies and rituals. I want to suggest one thing about this attempt (which has reshaped social and political life so thoroughly that we can’t even see how deeply embedded “Nature” is in our thinking about everything): “Nature” is really an attempt to create a more indirect system of sacrifice. The possibility of talking about modern society as a system of sacrifice is by now a well-established tradition, referencing the modern genocides and wars along with far more mundane economic practices. Indeed, it’s very easy to see the valorization of “the market” as an indirect method of sacrifice: we know that if certain restrictions on trade, capital mobility, ownership, labor-capital relations, etc., are overturned, a certain amount of resources will be destroyed and a certain number of lives ruined. All in the name of “the Economy.” We know it will happen, and we can participate in the purging of the antiquated and inefficient, but no one is actually doing it—no one is responsible for singling out another to be sacrificed for the sake of the Economy. The indirectness is not just evasiveness, though—it does allow for the actual causes of social events to be examined and discussed. It’s just that they must be discussed in a framework that ensures that some power center will preside over the destruction of constituents of another. One could imagine justifying the “natural” sacrifices of a Darwinian social order if it served as a viable, post-Christian replacement of a no longer acceptable sacrificial order—except that it no longer seems to be working. We can think, for example, about Affirmative Action as a sacrificial policy: we place a certain number of less qualified members of “protected classes” into positions with the predictable result that a certain number of lives and certain amount of wealth will be lost, and we do this to appease the furies of racial hatred that have led to civil war in the past. But the fact that the policy is sacrificial, and not “rational,” is proven by the lack of any limits to the policy. No one can say when the policy will end, even hypothetically, nor can anyone say what forms of “inequality” or past “sins” it can’t be used to remedy. All this is to be determined by the anointed priests and priestesses of the victimary order. We can just as readily talk about Western immigration policies as an enormous sacrifice of “whiteness,” for the disappearance of which no one now feels they must hide their enthusiasm. The modern social sciences are for the most part elaborate justifications of indirect sacrifices.

So, the problem of absolutism is then a problem of establishing a post-sacrificial order. This may be very difficult but also rather simple. Absolutism privileges the more disciplined over the less disciplined, in every community, every profession, every human activity, every individual, including, of course, sovereignty itself. We can no longer see the king as the fount of spring showers, but we can see him as the font of the discipline that makes us human and members of a particular order. We could say that such a disciplinary order has a lot in common with modern penology, with its shift in emphasis from purely punitive to rehabilitative measures; it may even sound somewhat “therapeutic.” But one difference is that we apply disciplinary terms to ourselves, not just the other—we’re all in training. Another difference is a greater affinity with a traditional view that sees indiscipline as a result of unrestrained desire—lust, envy, resentment, etc., rather than (as modern therapeutic approaches insist) the repression of those desires. (Strictly speaking, therapeutic approaches see discipline itself as the problem.) But we may have a lot to learn from Foucault here, and I take his growing appreciation of the various “technologies of the self” that he studied, moving a great distance from his initial seething resentment of the disciplinary order, as a grudging acknowledge of that order’s civilizing nature. Absolutism might be thought of as a more precise panopticon: not every single subject needs to be constant view, just those on an immediately inferior level of authority. Discipline, in its preliminary forms, involves a kind of “self-sacrifice” (learning to forego certain desires), and a willingness to step into the breach when some kind of mimetically driven panic or paralysis is evident can also be described in self-sacrificial terms—in its more advanced forms, though, discipline means being able to found and adhere to disciplines, that is, constraint based forms of shared practice and inquiry. Then, discipline becomes less self-sacrificial than generative of models for living—and, therefore, for ruling and being ruled.

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