While in hospital, recently, being “rehabilitated,” I happened to ask a nurse what got her into her profession. I ask this question often, of people in all professions or none, but this nurse seemed an especially appropriate target for my inquiry.
She had proved herself, in my opinion, by answering all my questions honestly and frankly. I could hardly believe she had lasted in medicine so long.
“I like pushing people around, and telling them what to do. It’s a power thing,” she said.
“Why didn’t you get into politics, then?”
“Because you have to compromise. And besides, you might lose.”
Fair enough. I have long despised politicians as a species, but here was a fairly new reason to despise them.
For as this lady went on (and on, for I was trying to avoid her exercises): Compromise is as unsatisfactory as losing. In her job, she said, there is a right way to do things and a wrong way. You don’t vote on it. And you don’t listen to a superior who tells you something that cannot be true; you make a fuss, instead.
And sometimes you don’t know the answer, so you admit this openly, and make clear that you will proceed cautiously, according to what seems most likely. Even the caution is uniquely your own; it is the product of your “professional experience.”
My rehab nurse came from Ottawa, of all towns; it’s a miracle she learned not to take politics seriously, coming from this center of (Canadian) political neurosis. But she did learn, however, and she does not vote. She no longer “believes” in voting.
What, a Canadian reader might ask, has this got to do with Elizabeth, our late Queen? Her Majesty was after all not a politician, either. She occupied her throne for seventy years, was openly Christian, and profoundly modest in her attitudes. Too, she was unfamiliar with rehab, except perhaps for Corgi dogs and riding ponies. My nurse admired her.
As King Charles must now learn, in succession, the greatest trick of monarchy, as well as diplomacy and some other disciplines, is to keep your mouth shut. The temptations to open it are substantial. In moments, you must say what cannot be avoided: with confidence and authority. Your job is to respect everyone, including those who (in antiquity) you decided to hang. Otherwise, perhaps you just shake hands, and wave.
I’m not an expert in rulership, I admit. I’ve never been the Queen. But while watching her several million subjects walking past her casket, or attending the religious ceremonies, I thought of the wisdom of my rehab nurse.
Queen Elizabeth was not a politician, in fact quite free of the habit. Her way of conducting herself, “never missing a step,” through the social and political events of seven decades in the several dozen countries she ruled, was to my mind a model of gentility – or ascendancy as I might also say.
She was needed by her peoples, for as much as they could get of her; but for the rest they had to make do with politicians. While I am no idealist or utopian, and am always expecting things to go south, I long for a good and harmonious public life, and thus, to be governed by royalty.
This, curiously enough, is also the view of the saints and scholars. Our modern demand for “democracy” is a function of the people who can benefit from it. Politicians, for instance, find opportunity in corruption, etc. For “the people” it means a free vote, that, like everything free, is meaningless – and costly. Calculating bureaucrats will rule, regardless of the election results.
Augustine explains this, to all who can reason. In the City of God he shows that a society will not be governed fittingly, for long, if it is ruled by competing candidates, who seek to rule it themselves. They will be proud and unjust, in the excess of their self-esteem. Their very seeking of office is a departure from obedience to God’s judgment. It is a moral failure.
Princes, queens, and kings, by heredity, owe their appointments to birth, or what we call “chance.” The Greeks tried to get around this by filling offices by lot, or sortition. Well, it was worth a try.
Thomas Aquinas cites the Epistle to the Hebrews (5:4): that no man may “take the honor to himself, but he that is called by God, as Aaron was.”
Christ himself was not elected by anyone. He was the Son of God.
Our election system, of which we are so proud, is designed to elevate the arrogant. Through elections, as Augustine and Aquinas agree, the voter also shows himself proud, unjust, and sinful.
The art of ruling, like the art of being ruled, is to stand clear of one’s own presumption. In practice, the good ruler will do nothing that is not necessary, or obvious; he will appoint only agents who defend the status quo.
Such a ruler is, like my rehab nurse, or the late Queen, the exact opposite of a revolutionary. He has nothing he wishes to achieve on his own. He has no ambition for fame or “success”; only to be acceptable in the Eye of God. In private, he seeks forgiveness, and offers thanksgiving, on behalf of himself and his “nation.” He is not kidding about this.
As perhaps none of my readers, or at least very few, have come into high office by inheritance, we need none of us worry about exercising power. We are not called. Let those who are called, accept our support, as the millions did in the one realm of Britain.
They were united under Elizabeth, as they were not united even under Churchill. For as the scholastics also say, democracy inevitably divides a population into factions.
My rehab nurse is meanwhile satisfied, simply by exercising me.
*Image: Queen Elizabeth II by Jane Brown, 2006 [Royal Collection, London] This was the official portrait of the queen taken in celebration of her 80th birthday in 2006.
You may also enjoy:
Brad Miner’s Hail, Holy Queen
Michael Pakaluk’s Of Feasts and Families