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Mandate of Heaven Print E-mail
By David Warren   
Saturday, 31 May 2014

Though perhaps not here, I have elsewhere made clear that I have no plan to overthrow the elected government, or at least, no plan I could characterize as “viable.” This is important to say up front. I wouldn’t want to be mistaken for an incendiary.

Perhaps the qualification “elected” was unnecessary. It is a little-understood truth, in our democratic age, that all contemporary governments are elected. Someone has chosen the caudillo, even if it was only himself. I was raised in the notion that self-selection is bad form, but have since observed that good form is not binding.

I see people electing themselves to various offices every day. Down the pub, or on television, I hear innumerable persons whose authority I would not myself be inclined to recognize, boldly speaking on behalf of “the people.” It is no wonder politicians do it.

But let us, for the sake of having an argument, imagine I came up with a viable plan. As I am Canadian, that wouldn’t be impossible. So far as I can see, the only place properly defended in Ottawa is the Department of National Defence, and that mostly by uniformed soldiers who appear preponderantly female, and short.

We lure them away with chocolates, and flowers, then send one tank up Parliament Hill. Piece of cake, really. Even in Bangkok, the coups require more detail.

In that case – the case in Ottawa, after the Sergeant-at-Arms surrenders to our tank – it could be fairly said that we have “elected” a new government. “We” would be my fellow conspirators. Whether there were two, three, or four of us is a matter of no significance. That is just a numbers game.

“Democracies,” as currently understood, strike me as just numbers games; and “the people,” as currently understood, merely a plurality in numbers. Call me old-fashioned, but the suggestion that a government’s legitimacy could come of that puts me in mind of the old Beatles lyric: “Now we know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall.”

The Chinese, whose ancient civilization I have often admired, conceived the more sensible idea of a “mandate of heaven.” When the Empire is at peace, with factions not contending for power, the government must be legitimate. It enjoys the mandate of heaven.

Our mediaeval political thinkers were much like the Chinese in this respect. They were interested in results, not in processes. (The modern liberal democratic mind is obsessed with processes.)

The mandate of heaven may be lost, however. Observers will have to wait patiently, in such “interesting times,” to see on whom the mandate next falls. This cannot be reduced to any sort of head count, nor other numerical calculation. The mandate of heaven is something hardly noticed when it is present. It is a condition analogous to not having a migraine headache. It is only exhilarating just after the headache has gone away.


       Q Confucius by Zhang Huan (b. 1965)

“God is in His heaven and all is right with the world.” For several decades now, I haven’t heard that expression used, except “ironically,” as we say, by which we mean sarcastically.

There are, to my increasingly certain knowledge, no instructions in the Bible on how to run a government. For some reason, God left us to figure that out for ourselves. There are general suggestions on what justice might require, but the ten-point plan pertained only to men and women.

There is, in Christianity, a “mandate of heaven,” but the “peace” it projects is that “which passeth all understanding.” This is not “peace” in any narrow worldly sense, rather an apprehension of the divine order, and a natural order flowing from the divine. It is less an end, than a beginning of something, Infinite. We begin in stillness.

Were I scholarly, or long-winded enough, I would allege that something of that peace may be found, quite explicitly as a purpose of human life, in Confucian and other Chinese classics I have read in translation. The wise man, the “sage,” is at peace, regardless of who is in government. When the times are right, his peace becomes contagious.

This peace is absent from our contemporary life, in politics and society. Looking around me, I see no prospect whatever of escape from the rat race in everyday urban and suburban arrangements (and even rural life today has become effectively suburbanized).

The definition of “peace” in our common usage, as in our politics, has been narrowed to the absence of armed conflict. This is extremely suggestive, of an order in which peace, as any good, must be humanly imposed. Peace, to the mind that has taken the transcendental claims of democracy for granted, is a question of law enforcement. It is thus paradoxically the product of contention.

Likewise, we consider ourselves free, because a plurality has (arguably) voted for what is to be imposed on us. The Nanny State, of which I sometimes complain, has arisen in 100 percent of democratic polities, along with the systematic replacement of customary with legislated order.

If I may slightly amend Sir Winston Churchill, “Democracy is the worst form of totalitarianism, except for all the others.” Which is to say, I do actually prefer it to Communism, Nazism, Islamism, or other forms of totalitarian statism, in which the central government also regulates every aspect of human life, but without submitting to the occasional poll.

What we do not have, and will never recover by democratic means, is an order in which, if you leave the government alone, it leaves you alone; wherein, you can go through life without ever thinking of the government, focusing instead on questions such as the requirements of God and the requirements of your (actual) neighbor.

By the wanton and sophistical confusion of what is voluntary with what is involuntary, the “mandate of heaven” has been reduced to obedient cooperation with increasingly godless bureaucratic agencies. And this has been done, not in spite of democracy, but by means of democracy.

 

David Warren
 is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist with the Ottawa Citizen. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: 
http://davidwarrenonline.com/
 
 
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (18)Add Comment
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written by Carlos Caso-Rosendi, May 30, 2014
Friday's Mass reading comes to mind:

"Jesus said to his disciples: “Amen, amen, I say to you, you will weep and mourn, while the world rejoices; you will grieve, but your grief will become joy. When a woman is in labor, she is in anguish because her hour has arrived;
but when she has given birth to a child, she no longer remembers the pain because of her joy that a child has been born into the world. So you also are now in anguish. But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you. On that day you will not question me about anything. Amen, amen, I say to you,
whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you."

What the world is going through is nothing less than the end of an era. Something is about to be born, few would deny that everything seems to be changing rapidly. The very pulse of the world seems to be accelerating but what we expect is not the Apocalypse but spring. The only purpose left for this old world is to give way to something new, something none of us can even imagine.
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written by RP, May 31, 2014
Kierkegaard: “People hardly ever make use of the freedom which they have, for instance, freedom of thought; instead they demand freedom of speech as compensation.”
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written by Nick Palmer, May 31, 2014
David, I think you have it right. Beyond the surface totalitarianism evidenced in those elected by persons largely ignorant of 1) the issues, 2) the actual position of the candidate, and 3) of the actual levers that the elected office would afford to the candidate (i.e., what he would in fact be able to influence or decide once in office), there is another issue. The detritus left behind by the "democratically elected." This comprises bureaucrats, functionaries, and workers (i.e., people whom we pay to do a job the elected, or others, decided the government ought to do. This detritus has a relatively permanent nature, an echo that lives on and on and on and... You get it. Bureaucrats are people who know better than others how the world should run. And who love to tell those others what to do. Hayek wrote masterfully of this caste in Road to Serfdom. Functionaries are largely non-humans obsessed that all forms and process be met, humans be damned. And workers are paid to do jobs that are poorly designed (lacking adult supervision as the private sector has), lacking in incentives for good performance or even an understanding of good performance, and well aware of those shortcomings. Cynics often, idealists sometime, and almost always worn down over time.
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written by grump, May 31, 2014
"Democracy" is a myth, especially in hypocritical America where the majority vote for laws that are struck down by one judge on "constitutional" grounds. (homosexual marriage bans, i.e.)
Instead, Plato's model appeals: A wise philosopher king. I would add, wielding a sharp axe.
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written by Rich in MN, May 31, 2014
About 20 years ago, the late William F Buckley Jr whacked the proverbial hornet's nest when he suggested that voting should not be an automatic right of citizenship. Instead, people should demonstrate some rudimentary level of competence and grasp of the issues -- analogous to the way driving a car is not an automatic right of citizenship. This will prevent a situation where the ignorant and feeble minded become mere pawns, mere proxy votes, for disingenuous campaigners and special interest groups. Of course, the cries of "Elitist Oligarchy!" rose from the rafters of academia and the media. Now, the tables have turned. As Grump has made reference above, the will of the people is being struck down by a handful of "experts" in the law -- the judicial branch of government. When I listen for the cries of "Elitist Oligarchy" from academia and the media, well... in the words of Liza Minnelli from obscure film, Lucky Lady, "It is so quiet, you could hear a fish fart."
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written by Mack Hall, HSG, May 31, 2014
Well said.
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written by Chris in Maryland, May 31, 2014
How I love every other Saturday with David Warren!

One of my favorite totalitarians is Joe Biden, especially because of the crazy smile he wears when he is regurgitating his double-plus good-speak, after he gets his script from the ministry of information. He was in top totalitarian form when he was reprimanding the totalitarians in the "Peoples' Republic of China" about their 4-2-1 program. He told them he understood why they were doing it, but that it was unsustainable, suggesting that they needed to pivot to the next "double-plus-good" program - solving the problem created by their previous d-p-g program.

TMI. A brief glimpse into Joe B's mind (ick), telling us what our govt will soon be doing if his clan stay in power: they will be trotting out the "SFA" - the "Sustainable Families Act" - telling the "breeders" just how many children they are to produce for the state machine. "This November, the bus taking you all to the voting booth will be showing HBO for free, and handing out hot dogs."

Q: "What is the difference between genius and stupidity?"

A: "Genius has its limits."
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written by Tony, May 31, 2014
The absurdity of democracy-as-process, rather than as a set of powerful customs, can be demonstrated by a simple thought experiment. Suppose the earth were absorbed into an interplanetary federation, made up of some six trillion rational beings, a few billion lawyers, a billion or so actors and actresses, and so forth. Suppose then that we all got to vote for who our representatives would be on the fifth planet revolving about a star seven thousand light years away. Wouldn't that just be peachy! Self-government!
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written by Myshkin, May 31, 2014
Why don't I see more of David Warren here at TCT? He is among the top three writers I know of on the Web.

Confucius, despite calling it "the mandate of heaven," really offers a vision of a this-worldly peace, as does Aristotle (recall that Aristotle said that democracy as he knew it was the second worst form of government, before tyranny). Their visions of a just human polity were based on clearly defined social roles of the ancient Western or Chinese Zhou periods, and as such won't work today without an enormous amount of tom-jiggery. Both are simply operating in a totally different sphere from Hayek's dynamic capitalism. As Hayek noted, the facilitation of capitalism's creative-destruction requires a free people who can make decisions based on their own best interests. Neither the Eastern Zhou Empire (in which Confucius lived) nor 4th Century Greece had such free people. One may prefer Confucius or Aristotle to Hayek, but let's not foolishly make them impossible bedfellows.

One thing to recall, is that Democracy and Capitalism, in today's sense are linked in the history of the West. And from this linkage, Hayek deduced that the greater the freedom of a people, the greater their economic strength. China is a good example of this: under the vicious tyranny of Mao, China was desperately poor; it too only the lifting of economic restrictions, especially on foreign investment under Deng, to propel China to the second largest economy. I should add that Adam Smith had noted something of this, but did not develop it as thoroughly as Hayek.
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written by pgepps, May 31, 2014
Good column. One thing, though. The reason you haven't heard "God's in his heaven, all's right with the world" unironically for years is that it wasn't written that way. Browning's Pippa Passes is a study in the irony of "innocent" words turned loose in a depraved world.
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written by Paul, May 31, 2014
You should only get to vote if your a tax payer. If you are living off of a tax payer no vote for you.
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written by Seanachie, May 31, 2014
If things are so wrong with the U.S. system of governance, why are people by the millions, legally and illegally, risking their lives to enter and live here? Moreover, for anyone living here who finds our system of governance onerous and burdensome, stop whining and LEAVE...find some other place to live. In short, love the U.S., or leave it...and, make sure not to let the door hit your behind on the way out!
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written by John, June 01, 2014
Seanachie,

Are you aware of some sufficiently large plot of land not claimed by an onerous government where I can be left in peace? If you are, then I'll consider leaving.

John
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written by David Warren, June 01, 2014
I did rather jumble Browning, as "pgepps" has noticed, in the course of radically contracting a paragraph whose point was meant to be the loss of the sort of innocence which Pippa represented, as an influence for the good in our culture, now that "irony" has been reduced to sarcasm. The point should have been foregone, because it requires a whole 'nother column. ...
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written by Seanachie, June 01, 2014
@ John...I avoid doing other's gratuitous personal research...sounds like you have already left in spirit...now just take your body.
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written by Bruno, June 01, 2014
Seanachie, I suppose that leaving is what one does out of indiference or spite, not love.
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written by Howard, June 07, 2014
You should only get to vote if you know the difference between "your" and "you're". :P
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written by Howard, June 07, 2014
Carlos said, "The very pulse of the world seems to be accelerating but what we expect is not the Apocalypse but spring."

We have much suffering to go through before the Easter of spring. In his biography of St. Francis, Chesterton talks about how the Dark Ages were a necessary period of penance needed to purify the imagination enough to achieve the High Middle Ages. This new Dark Age won't be a simple repeat, but we can't go on the way we are. You can call it spring, I'll call it Lent; it's the same season.

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