Chief among G.K. Chesterton’s startling literary talents was the knack of demonstrating, with a few strokes of his pen, that the conventional wisdom is exactly wrong. (For instance, in The Everlasting Man, he offers a convincing defense of the intelligence of the caveman that is too fascinating to miss.) I came across the following passage on the subject of monarchy last night in his Heretics, the latest in a long line of now-favorite Chesterton books. History majors can attest to the fact that we are taught to almost admire the enlightened despots throughout history, so I think this is interesting counterpoint:
“Next to a genuine republic, the most democratic thing in the world is a hereditary despotism. I mean a despotism in which there is absolutely no trace whatever of any nonsense about intellect or special fitness for the post. Rational despotism — that is, selective despotism — is always a curse to mankind, because with that you have the ordinary man misunderstood and misgoverned by some prig who has no brotherly respect for him at all. But irrational despotism is always democratic, because it is the ordinary man enthroned. The worst form of slavery is that which is called Caesarism, or the choice of some bold or brilliant man as despot because he is suitable. For that means that men choose a representative, not because he represents them, but because he does not. Men trust an ordinary man like George III or William IV because they are themselves ordinary men and understand him. Men trust an ordinary man because they trust themselves. But men trust a great man because they do not trust themselves. And hence the worship of great men always appears in times of weakness and cowardice; we never hear of great men until the time when all other men are small.
Hereditary despotism is, then, in essence and sentiment democratic because it chooses from mankind at random. If it does not declare that every man may rule, it declares the next most democratic thing; it declares that any man may rule.”