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Limited Monarchy?

Most ideas of monarchy assumed or even pronounced the absolute power of the ruler, so that despotism was readily licensed. Yet some attempts were made, especially in Western thought, to constrain the reach of royal office. Religion provided one source of limitation. A monarch who engaged in tyrannical actions could be threatened with divine judgment unless he mended his ways. In its most extreme form, as in the Polycraticus (completed 1159) by John of Salisbury (c. 1115/20–1180), God's hand might even reach out to an earthly source (human or otherwise) to punish the evil ruler, permitting tyrannicide as a remedy. Alternatively, thinkers looked to election or other mechanisms of consent to hold the monarch in check. During the Latin Middle Ages, scholastic authors widely debated whether monarchy should be elective or inherited, and in a later era, liberals such as John Locke (1632–1704) sought to confine the authority of monarchs by basing their powers on a preexisting social contract.

The attempt to balance constitutional and absolutist dimensions of monarchy produced some interesting, if not always entirely convincing, theories. In his Six Books of the Commonwealth (1576), Bodin insisted upon the unfettered power of the monarch but also claimed that the ruler was strictly limited by natural law in the extent to which he could exercise his royal office. G. W. F. Hegel (1770–1831), in the Philosophy of Right (1821), posited a system of constitutional government in which the king possessed a single yet still indispensable function: placing the final stamp of his unique, indivisible will on all legislation and thus rendering a bill into statutory force. Hegel believed that short of such an ultimate declaration of will, members of civil society and their legislative representatives would continue to debate the validity of laws and thus undermine the respect due to legal structures.

One might imagine that monarchy is an outmoded idea in the modern world, given the widespread ideology of democracy. In fact, however, numerous countries are still ruled by monarchic regimes, even in Europe. Allegiance to a monarch in countries such as the members of the Commonwealth, comprising former colonies of the British Empire, remains popular. In the same vein, the public and ongoing expression of grief following the death of Princess Diana of the United Kingdom suggests that royal identity, even if only by marriage, remains a very compelling reason for public attention. It seems unlikely that the monarchic principle is likely to disappear entirely any time soon.


Boesche, Roger. Theories of Tyranny, from Plato to Arendt. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996.

Brock, Roger, and Stephen Hodkinson, eds. Alternatives to Athens: Varieties of Political Organization and Community in Ancient Greece. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Currid, John D. Ancient Egypt and the Old Testament. Foreword by Kenneth A. Kitchen. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1997.

Eisenstadt, S. N. The Political Systems of Empires. New York: Free Press, 1963.

Finer, S. E. The History of Government from the Earliest Times. 3 vols. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Loewe, Michael. Divination, Mythology and Monarchy in Han China. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Mastnak, Tomaz. Crusading Peace: Christendom, the Muslim World, and Western Political Order. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Cary J. Nederman

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Molecular distillation to My station and its duties:Monarchy - Religion, Naturalism, Modes Of Virtue, Limited Monarchy?, Bibliography