Mandate of Heaven

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 in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: