If you have read some of my previous posts you may be aware that I rarely write about foreign radical thinkers. Even when I do they are mainly in the Anglophone tradition such as American Thomas Jefferson, the major exception being Niccolo Machiavelli. There are two reasons for this bias. Firstly, other countries such as France with a less moribund and self-protective establishment than Britain tend to be more open about radical proponents of the past and are better known as a consequence. Secondly, possessing woefully poor foreign language skills I am dependent upon published translations of major works. Where nuance and opinion are all important, the subtleties of language are vital and easily lost or distorted as they cross language barriers.
Voltaire: Some Good ideas, Some Not so Good
I am making an exception in this post to make a couple of observations about François-Marie Arouet, better known to us as Voltaire. Even more unusual for me, Voltaire was essentially a constitutional monarchist who also toyed with absolutism! But it is rare to find a radical thinker with whom I am in complete agreement, partly because of drastic changes in society over the past century. For example, many 17th Century English Republicans such as Algernon Sidney actually argued for a form of aristocratic rule, tempered by democracy. On the other hand, Chartist Ernest Jones was a constitutional monarchist. To dismiss every thinker who holds one or two contrary opinions would simply lead to an impoverished and shrivelled view of how society may be improved. In few other individuals, however, is the sense of contrariness in such sharp relief than in Voltaire. But I want to see how one of his ideas stacks up to contemporary reality in the shape of the present heir to the United Kingdom throne, Charles Windsor.
A hazard when considering Voltaire’s work is the polemical and satirical style he adopted. Voltaire actually lived in Britain between 1726 and 1729 and formed a favourable view of the British Constitutional Monarchy in comparison with France’s pre-revolutionary autocratic ancien régime. As I mentioned in this openDemocracy article, Voltaire was a prominent figure during the Age of Enlightenment and a leading figure in the associated Republic of Letters network.
Voltaire’s early ideas on monarchy stemmed not from a theoretical concept of how society worked but from a hard empirical viewpoint. He saw French aristocrats as parasitic and corrupt, the Catholic Church as an archaic and oppressive agent useful only to occasionally check the greed of monarchs. In common with the late 19th Century British constitutional theorist Walter Bagehot, Voltaire viewed the lower social orders as largely ignorant and lacking intelligence. As such, he distrusted democracy, which he saw as propagating the stupidity of the masses. Voltaire’s solution was that only an enlightened monarch could bring about change, given the social structures of the time and the extremely high rates of illiteracy. So what constituted an enlightened monarch? Essentially one who adhered to enlightenment principles including freedom of speech, freedom of religious worship (including a disestablished church) and a respect for civil rights. But the problem which Voltaire ignored was that this form of enlightened absolutism depended upon the individual monarch, rather than being am intrinsic characteristic of monarchy as a system of government. Thus, as Tom Paine pointed out in the Rights of Man, it is a mistake to confuse support for a particular monarch with support for monarchy since it is possible that an enlightened monarch may be followed by a tyrannical one with no constitutional means of restraint.
An Unenlightened Heir
So to Charles Windsor. Many people today are positively disposed to monarchy since they are positively disposed towards the person of the monarch, Elizabeth Windsor, who has generally maintained a self-interested reticence about political and social matters. Charles, however, openly claimed that he felt ‘rather proud’ to be called the enemy of the enlightenment! This passage was telling:
It might be time to think again and review it [The Enlightenment] and question whether it is really effective in today’s conditions, faced as we are with huge challenges all over the world. ‘It must be apparent to people deep down that…we cannot go on like this, just imagining that the principles of Enlightenment laid down in the 18th century still apply.
Presumably Charles believes that it is his own unchalleged and possibly unreasoned word which should be law! Is there evidence that Charles wishes to subvert essential enlightenment tenets such as freedom of speech? Yes. Charles actually avoids placing himself in a situation where he could be openly challenged by contrary arguments. These include speeches to members of his own charities, speaking to conferences where he is an ‘honoured guest’ with strictly limited question and answer sessions and secretive communications with politicians. Furthermore any broadcaster who wishes to interview Charles must sign a 15 page contract demanding control of every aspect of the interview and ceding de facto editorial oversight to Clarence house. Dubbed ‘North Korean’ style by The Independent newspaper, it led to the cancellation of a Channel 4 News interview with Jon Snow ahead of the 2015 climate change talks in Paris. Moreover, Charles enjoys almost unfettered and unaccountable access to Government Ministers both in writing (via the notorious black spider memos) and in person.
The monarchist hope that he would modify his behaviour when (if?) he becomes King has largely been scotched by Charles himself who has made it clear that he intends to carry on in the same vein. Now the 21st Century UK is clearly not 18th Century France or Prussia and the possibility of an increasingly autocratic ruler exercising extensive real power is remote. The issue is that with our ridiculously antique and vague constitution the remedies at our disposal almost all entail some sort of constitutional crises. It would be far preferable to deal with the problem now than experience some version of an establishment coup (as happened to Edward VIII) with potentially uncontrollable consequences.
Maybe Voltaire himself ultimately became aware of such issues. As I mentioned it is always dangerous to use Voltaire in an argument and it proves true in a limited sense in this case. While living in Geneva he actually came around to embracing republican views in his work Idées Républicaines, although this was to be regarded as only relevant to a local Swiss situation. There are many ideas of Voltaire regarding tolerance and equality which remain relevant and vital today. But the concept of enlightened absolutism is most definitely not one of them!