King Charles Wore White: Some Aristotelian Reflections on Absolute Monarchy

After discussing certain varieties of citizenship, Aristotle identifies the six categories of good and perverted governments in Bk. III, Ch. 7. Throughout the rest of this book Aristotle considers the common government of monarchy. Aristotle lists four sorts of monarchy with some containment by law: (1) Spartan generalship/religious headship, (2) a barbaric kingship over “natural slaves, (3) the sort of elected tyranny present in Athens, or (4) the sort of heroic kingship present in the days of old when kings conquered land for their people (Bk. III Ch. 14). The kind of kingship that interests me most, however, is Aristotle’s fifth type of kingship, which rules the nation as a household is ruled (1284b 29). I would like to dwell on Aristotle’s analogy here in comparing the authority in the largest unit of society (i.e. the polis) to the smallest (i.e. the family).

The Philosopher states that the only forms of monarchy worth considering are the Lacedaemonian and the “absolute” kingship (i.e. kingship as “control of the household” 1285b 31). This type of kingship corresponds to the rule of the family, so Bk. I should provide some illustrations of its appearance. There Aristotle explains “there is one rule exercised over subjects who are by nature free, another over subjects who are by nature slaves.” (1255b 17-18.) Additionally, “[t]he master is not called a master because he has a science, but because he is of a certain character [i.e. a virtuous one], and the same remark applies to the slave and the freeman.” (1255b 20-22). By analogy, then, this absolute monarch rules over free men, as well as of slaves, as the king has “disposal of all.” (See 1285b 29, see also 1253b 1-14 for the various elements of household rule.) The four preceding types of kings fail to attain complete authority as the head has over a household.

Lacedaemonian kingship has stripped the king of all his power so he only leads the people into battle and offers sacrifice; this would, by analogy, be a purely representative father who only represents his family outside the home and says (some of) the prayers inside the home. The king of the barbarians rules over his people as slaves, though he has the love and support of his people (See 1285a 26, the barbarian king’s bodyguard is composed “of citizens”). The relationship between the barbarian king and the fifth type of kingship is analogous not to the head of the household and the household, but to a master and his slaves. Athens’ elected dictatorship (a “presidential” kingship) cannot coincide with this fifth type, as no child can elect his father. The heroic kingship is almost a kingship of utility: the king brings glory to his people, so his people allow his rule until “at a later date [the kings] relinquished several of those privileges, and others the people took from them, until in some states nothing was left to them but the sacrifices.” (1285b 15-17.) (Athens provides an excellent example of the eroded powers of this kingship in the archon basileus.)

After providing his readers with examples of the four “mixed” kingships, Aristotle fails to provide his readers with an example of what his fifth kingship looks like. What is fascinating about this kingship, though, is its relation between the king as head of household and the people, as drawing the analogy out would appear to make the king husband of the polis and father of his people. Thankfully, examples exist outside of Ancient Greece.

The Christian West, inheriting a great deal of pagan baggage of kings with priestly duties, frequently equated coronation to the appointing of bishops. This priest king, though, is not congruent with this fifth type of kingship. The fifth kind of kingship demands the king be husband to the polis and father to his people, not the divine interlocutor of the nation. We have at least one episode of a king treating the office of kingship as such a marital duty:

If it is desired to make a comparison between [coronation] and any other rite of the Church, it is the marriage rite which is really the closest to it. So King Charles I felt, of whom we are told that” His Majesty on that day was cloathed [sic] in white contrary to the custom of his predecessors who were on that day clad in purple. And this he did . . . at his own choice only, to declare that Virgin Purity with which he came to be espoused unto his kingdom.” In marriage a covenant is made with vows between the two contracting parties. To the covenant so made the Church adds her benediction.

(Maxwell Reginald Woolley 197-198.) Putting aside the many other virtues and vices of Charles I, his actions treating his coronation as a marriage illustrate this fifth type of kingship: kingship as husband and father. This kingship has great authority, but the vows made at the coronation limit the kingship within certain contractual bounds.


There is a great deal more that can be said about Aristotle’s subsequent thoughts on the difficulties of a monarchy “with the disposal of all,” though this poignant analogy between the king and a husband and father should provide a basis for further thought, particularly as we work through Bk. IV on revolutions. For, if the king is in position as a father, how much the more unnatural to throw him off?

There is still much to talk about in this book, including the potentially somewhat narrow line to be drawn between the kingship of the barbarians and the kingship “with disposal of all.”

For the source of the block quote, see:

Woolley, Reginald Maxwell. Coronation Rites. Cabridge: University Press, 1915.


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