Kings by Blood, Governors by Ability by Isaac McPheeters The early modern utopias portrayed a world very different from reality. In early modern Europe, rulers were elected in a monarchy where the eldest son would succeed the father to the throne. This succession by blood was rarely questioned and was conducted no matter how incapable that person was. The difference between reality and the worlds More, Campanella, and Beaumarchais presented was that the people who ended up in control were there because of their capabilities. In Moreâ€™s Utopia, a craftsman would learn to be educated and could then rise to become an ambassador, priest, or the prince (139). In Campanellaâ€™s world, the men that would become nobles would do so because of their knowledge in the arts (53). Even in the fictional world Beaumarchais presented, the one who really has the most control of the situation is the cunning and intelligent Figaro, not the count (159; act. 3). All of these worlds portrayed their realities so that a person from the early modern era might be able to see what life would be like in a system where the capable ruled as opposed to the privileged. In order to properly understand what persuaded these authors to write what they did, it is imperative that the times themselves be understood. During the age of early modern Europe, one of the predominating themes was the divine right of kings. The French phrase Dieu et mon droit (God is my right) is the motto on the British royal arms (Merriam-Webster Online). This was the belief that whoever succeeded the king was there by the will of God. For this reason, his will must be Godâ€™s will and therefore is not to be questioned. As a result of this belief, all manner of men assumed the throne in Europe. King Edward II of England is known as one of the worst kings that England ever had. It was during his rule that Robert de Bruce successfully lead the
McPheeters 2 Scots to independence from England. Edward was eventually unseated in 1327 by Roger Mortimer, one of his disaffected barons. (Britannia, sec. Monarchs). Unfortunately for England, there was no law or requirement that guarded against a king like Edward assuming the throne. This line of thinking continued into the 18th century with the Age of Absolutism. According to Merriman, Jean Bodin wrote in Six Books of the Republic “Seeing that nothing upon earth is greater or higher, next to God, than the majesty of kings or sovereign princes, principal point of sovereign majesty and absolute power [is] to consist principally in giving laws unto the subjects in general, without their consent.” (263). The belief that the right to rule came by ancestry was still prevalent at this time. During the early renaissance, Sir Thomas More wrote Utopia, a story of a perfect society. The narrative tells how this “paradise” continues to survive and how it came to be. However, there are several differences between the institutions in Utopia and those European society at the time, many of them extreme. One of these was how the magistrates (or princes) were chosen. In contrast with England at the time when Henry VIII was attempting to produce a male heir to the throne, Thomas More proposed a procedure in Utopia which was closer to a vote. Four candidates are decided upon, and then 200 officers are gathered together and are charged to “choose him whom they think most meet and expedient” (More, 134). This suggestion by More that a ruler should be chosen by a vote is unorthodox enough. The presumption that this procedure contributes towards a perfect society would be even more startling in this day and age. The second aspect in More’s book that contrasts the idea of “Divine right of kings” is that limits are placed on a prince when he is in power. The prince’s term is life-long “unless he be deposed or put down for suspicion of tyranny” (More, 135). In Utopia, the prince is accountable
3 to the people and what is more, there are provisions against him acting any way he chooses. More’s story goes on to say “It is death to have any consultation for the commonwealth out of the council or the place of the common election” (135). Here the importance of councils and orders or educated men electing who is best suited for a position far outweighs any kind of right by blood. It is important to remember that More was not necessarily advocating all of these ideas he put forward in his book. At that time, a book that openly criticized the king or even suggested a king being chosen by any means other than “divine right” would have been banned. In this case, More put his ideas into a fictional narrative where one of his imaginary characters proposes these changes to society. Thus, it should be said that More was probably toying with ideas that were different than the ones today in order to satisfy his own imagination on what might happen if things were done differently. He was not necessarily advocating that the king be elected by council, but in that day and age where nearly every ruler was elected because of background, More created a setting where an individual could at least look at a place where things were done differently. Nevertheless, More’s Utopia presents a perfect society which is supported not by divine right of kings but in contrast by electing rulers based on competence as well as accountability to the people. Tomasso Campanella, born almost thirty years after More passed on, also presented a utopian-like society called Solaris in his work The City of the Sun. Both his work and More’s address similar issues including the topic of how magistrates came to power. While there are differences, there are some striking similarities. In The City of the Sun, the way that a person gains favor and prestige in the eyes of the people is through knowledge and hard work. “And they consider him the more noble and renowned who has dictated himself to the study of the most arts
McPheeters 4 and knows how to practice them wisely” (Campanella, 53). Again, this is a contrast to Renaissance Europe where a person’s heritage coupled with their money often dictated where they stood in society. The electoral process is also similar to that of Utopia. The candidates are chosen based on their capabilities and knowledge of their respective field (Campanella, 53). The most rigorous of these processes is that of their chief leader, the Hoh. In order for a man to be qualified for this position, he must be versed in nearly all fields. These include mechanical arts, physical sciences, astrology, mathematics, linguistics, metaphysics, theology, and philosophy (Campanella 53-54). These requirements that the ruler be a philosopher king, that is a man who is versed in all the sciences, is another stark contrast to the requirements for a king in Europe at the time of the writings. It is sometimes difficult for people today to look at these ideas and see them as outrageous or as being all that different from reality. But again, the situations in these books showed something very different from the way things had been done for hundreds of years. Whenever a concept or idea is presented that goes against what has been the predominating line of thought for centuries, it gets noticed. One possible example is the mechanics of courtship and marriage in Campanella’s work. Marriages were usually arranged by the parents of the bride and groom. If a king desired an alliance with the neighboring country, one of the most secure ways was for his son or daughter to marry into that country’s royal family. Thus they combined wealth and prestige, and often times the offspring of the newly married couple would inherit the kingship of both countries. This was the case with King James VI of Scotland. Due to various royal families marrying, he became heir to the thrones of England, Ireland, and France (http://www.reference.com).
5 In Campanella’s story, the people of Solaris don’t value background and heritage as much as the health and possibilities of the offspring. For this reason, marriages are arranged not for monetary or social gain, but for health of the offspring. The most healthy, athletic individuals are allowed to marry and reproduce while the sickly or lame are not. When thinking about how outrageous this seems today, we must again consider the alternative that the writers could see was being used at the time. What Campanella and More were pointing out was not necessarily their solution to the problem but merely a possible alternative to the current way things worked in their day. These men could look at their history and could see how the current system was working. They were not necessarily acting under the assumption that they were absolutely right, but they could see that if England for instance had adopted a system of electing rulers like the ones in their books, then they would have never had a king like Edward II. The final utopian setting that will be covered is that of Beaumarchais’ play, The Marriage of Figaro. Beaumarchais’ setting is not a supposal for a perfect society but is instead a portrayal of a world very similar to ours with a classical hierarchical structure with a more subtle structure underlying it. In this play, there is the count and countess who have their servants just like in real life. The sub-level structure, however, is based on what happens as a result to whom. In the play, the servant, Figaro, is the one who plots against the count along with his fiancée Suzanne and the countess. Even though they are not the ones with the money and the title, they are the ones who are in control of the situation. The ones who have influence and freedom are the ones with intelligence and wit while the count has merely fooled himself and allowed his money to make him think that he is in control. Even Figaro is fooled by the women for a short time because of their wit and cunning. In this play, being of a higher class does not equal merit or quality. Figaro
McPheeters 6 points out to the count that he could have just as easily been where he is when he says “Had Heaven so willed I should have been the son of a princely house” (Beaumarchais, 169). Figaro points out in his monologue from the fifth act that the only amount of work the count did to get his title was being born. Because you are a great nobleman you think you are a great genius... Nobility, fortune, rank, position! How proud they make a man feel! What have you done to deserve such advantages? Put yourself to the trouble of being born - nothing more! For the rest - a very ordinary man! Whereas I, lost among the obscure crowd, have had to deploy more knowledge, more calculation and skill merely to survive than has sufficed to rule all the provinces of Spain for a century! (Beaumarchais, 199) Whether or not Beaumarchais meant to say that this was the way things really are or not is debatable. Regardless, the ending turns out for the better as a result of Figaro’s insubordination. Even the count who has been fooled is happier at the end and joins the rest in a dance. The mere fact that the result of the intelligent ordering things instead of the wealthy or favored is a happy ending suggests that this is the way things should be. Like the cities of Utopia and Solaris, this fictional setting has things working much better with the intelligent and cunning deciding the order of things rather than the rich. Much of what we see in the worlds of More, Campanella, and Beaumarchais seems extreme, odd, or even silly. But we must examine them not with eyes of twenty-first century observers but with eyes of the people from the times in which they were written. In those days, people’s social status was based on who their father was, not on what they did. People married for financial and political gain, thus guaranteeing themselves a position of influence or power. The authors of these times saw the results of these arrangements. At the time of their writings, it probably seemed ludicrous to anoint someone the ruler of a country regardless of his pedigree.
7 Whatever the reaction of the times or the motives of the writers, these men put forth the possibility of an age in which citizens of countries would be governed by officials who were not kings by blood, but governors by ability.
Works Cited Beaumarchais, Pierre-Augustin Caron de. The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro. 1964. London: Penguin Books, 2004. Bacon, Francis, and Tomasso Campanella. The New Atlantis & The City of the Sun. New York: Dover Publications, 2003. “Dieu et mon droit” Merriam-Webster Online <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/dieu%20et%20mon%20droit> “Edward II (1307-27 AD)” Britannia Publishers: Rod Hampton and Seth Fox. 22 Nov. 2006 <http://www.britannia.com/history/monarchs/mon31.html> "James_I_of_England." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 03 Dec. 2006. <Reference.com http://www.reference.com/browse/wiki/James_I_of_England> Merriman, John. A History of Modern Europe from the Renaissance to the Age of Napoleon. 1995. London: Norton & Company Inc., 2004. More, Sir Thomas. Utopia. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999.