Locke says “the king is a thing”

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which we just recently finished reading, the eponymous protagonist declares that “the body is with the king, but the king is not with the body. The king is a thing.” John Locke’s Second Essay Concerning Civil Government, our most recent read in the Great Books of the Western World reading project, might, without a great stretch of the imagination, be seen as a sort of extended commentary upon this assertion of Hamlet.

Hamlet’s assertion is that the king and the State or body politic need not be seen as identical, especially in the case, as it was with Claudius, of a usurper. The State is an abstraction, where as “the king is a thing.” If Hamlet exacts vengeance for the murder of his father by killing Claudius, then, the attack is not upon Denmark or the people thereof nor upon the ostensibly divinely instituted reign of kings. It is, rather, an attack only upon one individual who unjustly holds the title of king.

While I’m not sure that Locke had Shakespeare in mind as he wrote, his Second Essay is written to make much the same point. Here, Locke argues that “the king is a thing.” That is, while holding certain prerogatives and responsibilities, the king is subject to restrictions of the same kind that bind other members of society. The king is not entitled, any more than the private person, says Locke, to take lives, liberties, and properties away from his subjects. He may deprive those under his rule of these rights while fulfilling his duty to enforce the laws, but he may not do so in an arbitrary manner and for his own benefit.

The result of Locke’s thought, of course, like that of other similarly minded thinkers of the Enlightenment, is the modern proliferation of constitutional monarchies and kingless republics. Of course, Locke’s thought did not arise in a vacuum. The historical antecedents in British and wider Western thought are clear and worthy of acknowledgement. The monumental significance of Locke, though, is not be ignored. As such, it was both fascinating and joyful to dig into this particular Great Book.

The Beginning of Rome (Introduction to Western Civilization 4.2)

Like most ancient civilizations, the Romans did not remember how their civilization had started. Instead, they told a legend about twin brothers named Romulus and Remus. According to the Roman legend, Romulus and Remus were the sons of a princess and Mars, the god of war. Because the king, the father of the princess, feared that the two brothers, who were half-god and half-human, would try to take his power from him, he ordered them to be drowned in the Tiber River. The brothers were saved by a she-wolf, however, who took care of the babies until they were old enough to take care of themselves. When they became adults, they decided to found a new city. They disagreed, however, on where to found the city. As a result of their disagreement, they fought each other and Romulus murdered his brother Remus. Romulus then founded and became the first king of the city of Rome.

After the death of Romulus, a man named Numa Pompilius was selected by the Romans as their new king. Numa reigned for 43 years.. Numa spent much of his reign as king building large and beautiful buildings in Rome, such as a temple dedicated to the god Janus. During his time as king, the tradition developed of closing the doors to the temple during times of peace and keeping them open during times of war. Numa was able to keep the doors closed for almost his entire time as king by keeping peace with Rome’s neighbors.

A total of seven kings would reign over the Roman Kingdom. Unfortunately, not all of them were as wise and peaceful as Numa Pompilius. The seventh and final king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, for example, came to power by assassinating the king before him. Once he became king, he engaged Rome in wars with its neighbors and mistreated his own people. He was a tyrant who used violence and intimidation to make the Roman people obey his orders. He also showed disrespect to Roman customs and treated the leading men of Rome badly. The result was a revolution in 509 BC.

Although not everything always went well during the reigns of the seven kings, it was during this time that much of Roman culture took shape. Much of Roman culture came from an imitation of the Etruscans, a tribe who lived just north of Rome on the Italian peninsula. The Etruscans had a close relationship with the Greeks and resembled them in many ways, including their clothing styles, their art, and their religion. The Romans then adopted these parts of Greek culture from the Etruscans. It was during this period that Romans began to worship the Greek gods, though with different names, began to wear togas, and began to make statues and other art like the Greeks.

Rome eventually decided to put an end to its monarchy. The stories of its kings, though, continued to inspire the Roman people for many generations to come. The culture that the Romans had absorbed and developed during this period also became important to their way of life. It was when Rome became a republic, however, that their greatest success began.


Review Questions

 1. What are the names of the legendary founders of Rome? What is their relationship to each other?

2. What kind of government did Rome have at first? How many rulers did it have during this time?


Vocabulary Words

 Monarchy – rule by a king; in a monarchy, just one person has all of the power

Republic – rule by the people; in a republic, people vote for their leaders

Tyrant – a leader who uses his power for his own good and mistreats the people he rules over

Diplomacy and International Relations in the 20th Century

 Diplomacy and international relations dominated the daily lives of average people more in the 20th century than in perhaps any previous century. Whereas it had been possible for earlier generations to live their lives free of such concerns, escaping the state of international relations in the 20th century was a near impossibility for the majority of the world’s population. The state of international relations and diplomacy was instead their ever-present concern and interest. This heightened importance for diplomacy and international relations to nearly all people in the 20th century is largely attributable to two phenomena that arose essentially side-by-side, namely the rise of modern republican and democratic nation-states in which every citizen plays a part in determining the policies of the government and the increase in technology, especially the technology used for warfare, that, in a sense, made the world simultaneously a “smaller” place as well as a more dangerous one.

Earlier generations of people had had the ability to live lives largely independent of any concern with diplomacy, international relations, or even politics in a more general sense. This was true of the ancient and medieval worlds as well as of the early modern period, essentially right up to the beginning of the 19th century. Although, of course, warfare has existed throughout human history and various peoples have no doubt been subject to the vicissitudes of politics, the whims of rulers, war, and diplomacy, any change was generally gradual and, given the limitations in communication and travel, generations could pass their lives with little or no knowledge of the political situation of the kingdom of which they were ostensibly subjects. Historian William Chester Jordan notes in his history of Europe in the High Middle Ages, for instance, that in that time period few in France outside of Paris would have considered themselves “French.”1

The change from this situation to the one that predominated in the 20th century largely occurred in the 19th century. As with so much that distinguishes the 20th century from previous eras in history, the 19th century was the transition point. It was during this period, under the influence of such events as the American Revolution and the French Revolution, both of which occurred near the close of the 18th century, that the subjects of the various kingdoms of the world began the transition to becoming citizens of the nations of the world, a very important difference in terminology. Individuals of all ranks, races, and economic statuses had a greater say in the policies of their governments than ever before in history. As a result, politics became a greater concern for the average person than it had been at any previous point in history. Political decisions were now in the hands of the people as a whole rather than in being the purview of only kings and the various aristocrats and nobles who surrounded these monarchs. As a result, politics was a greater concern for the private individual than it had ever been before in history.

The 19th century was also in large part the transition point for the second and equally affective major change that brought about the differences in regards to diplomacy and international relations in the 20th century in contrast with previous centuries, namely the advent of a great deal of new technology, especially travel, communications, and military technology.

New technology in travel that arose in the 19th century and advanced significantly in the 20th century includes trains, airplanes, and motor vehicles. Railroad travel enabled materials and men to travel greater distances at greater speeds than ever before. Airplanes also increased the ability to move people and materials quickly and effectively, as well as to bring the war behind enemy lines in combat and reconnaissance. The reconnaissance balloons of the American Civil War in the 1860s led to the stealth craft used by the opposing powers of the Cold War to spy on each other and also led to the omnipresent danger of bombs falling suddenly and unexpectedly from the sky in any given place, making the matters of diplomacy an ever-present reality for all people.2 Similarly, motor vehicles made people all over the world more mobile than ever before.

In addition to these abilities to move people and things faster than ever before over great distances, messages also moved with greater speed than ever before. The telegraph changed the nature of warfare in the 19th century and in the 20th century the advent of telephones, radios, and, later, computers and the internet made it possible to communicate around the world in a matter of seconds. Allied radio messages sent behind Nazi lines during World War II demonstrate the effectiveness of these new communication tools in shaping ideas, diplomacy, and warfare.3

Military technology is perhaps the greatest inventive force in shaping the realities of diplomacy and international relations in the 20th century and bringing these subjects into the homes of otherwise average people all over the world. The Cold War was largely the product of a mutual fear between the Soviet Union and the United States that the other would use nuclear weapons to advance their side in the conflict of ideas. Even after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the threat of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of Islamic terrorist groups or rogue nations with bizarre ideologies such as Iran and North Korea continued to shape diplomacy at the highest levels as well as to bring the concerns of international relations to the minds of average people.

As a result of these two factors, the rise of individual concern in politics and the increase in technology that brought the realities of international relations into homes all over the world, a further element that defined diplomacy in the 20th century emerged, specifically the focus on nearly all-encompassing conflicts in ideology between large blocs of nations. Though it may seem ironic at first glance, the reality is that individual participation in politics, through spreading the concern in these issues wider than ever before, forced a situation in which international relations took on larger proportions than ever before. This can be seen in cases like World War I, World War II, and the Cold War, three conflicts which arguably defined international relations in the 20th century and all of which involved formations of alliances by dozens of nations arranged against an “equal and opposite” alliance of other nations, and all nations participating ostensibly out of a conflict of ideology coupled with a perceived existential threat from the other side.

The defining feature of diplomacy and international relations in the 20th century, as with so much of what makes the 20th century distinctive, is ultimately the allegorical shrinking of the world. The concerns of the government became the concerns of the average person. Simultaneously, the realities and concerns of far off lands came into the purview of people far away. These new advances in the political participation of individuals and technology created the unique diplomatic situation of the 20th century.

1 William Chester Jordan, Europe in the High Middle Ages (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), 229.
2 Amrom H. Katz, Some Notes on the History of Aerial Reconnaissance (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 1966).

3 Robert Rowen, “Gray and Black Radio Propaganda against Nazi Germany,” New York Military Affairs Symposium, 18 April 2003 (accessed 2 December 2012), http://bobrowen.com/nymas/radioproppaper.htm.

Persians talk politics

When the tumult had subsided and more than five days had elapsed, those who had risen against the Magians began to take counsel about the general state, and there were spoken speeches which some of the Hellenes do not believe were really uttered, but spoken they were nevertheless. On the one hand Otanes urged that they should resign the government into the hands of the whole body of the Persians, and his words were as follows: “To me it seems best that no single one of us should henceforth be ruler, for that is neither pleasant nor profitable. Ye saw the insolent temper of Cambyses, to what lengths it went, and ye have had experience also of the insolence of the Magian: and how should the rule of one alone be a well-ordered thing, seeing that the monarch may do what he desires without rendering any account of his acts? Even the best of all men, if he were placed in this disposition, would be caused by it to change from his wonted disposition: for insolence is engendered in him by the good things which he possesses, and envy is implanted in man from the beginning; and having these two things, he has all vice: for he does many deeds of reckless wrong, partly moved by insolence proceeding from satiety, and partly by envy. And yet a despot at least ought to have been free from envy, seeing that he has all manner of good things. He is however naturally in just the opposite temper towards his subjects; for he grudges to the nobles that they should survive and live, but delights in the basest of citizens, and he is more ready than any other man to receive calumnies. Then of all things he is the most inconsistent; for if you express admiration of him moderately, he is offended that no very great court is paid to him, whereas if you pay court to him extravagantly, he is offended with you for being a flatterer. And the most important matter of all is that which I am about to say:–he disturbs the customs handed down from our fathers, he is a ravisher of women, and he puts men to death without trial. On the other hand the rule of many has first a name attaching to it which is the fairest of all names, that is to say ‘Equality’; next, the multitude does none of those things which the monarch does: offices of state are exercised by lot, and the magistrates are compelled to render account of their action: and finally all matters of deliberation are referred to the public assembly. I therefore give as my opinion that we let monarchy go and increase the power of the multitude; for in the many is contained everything.”

This was the opinion expressed by Otanes; but Megabyzos urged that they should entrust matters to the rule of a few, saying these words: “That which Otanes said in opposition to a tyranny, let it be counted as said for me also, but in that which he said urging that we should make over the power to the multitude, he has missed the best counsel: for nothing is more senseless or insolent than a worthless crowd; and for men flying from the insolence of a despot to fall into that of unrestrained popular power, is by no means to be endured: for he, if he does anything, does it knowing what he does, but the people cannot even know; for how can that know which has neither been taught anything noble by others nor perceived anything of itself, but pushes on matters with violent impulse and without understanding, like a torrent stream? Rule of the people then let them adopt who are foes to the Persians; but let us choose a company of the best men, and to them attach the chief power; for in the number of these we shall ourselves also be, and it is likely that the resolutions taken by the best men will be the best.”

This was the opinion expressed by Megabyzos; and thirdly Dareios proceeded to declare his opinion, saying: “To me it seems that in those things which Megabyzos said with regard to the multitude he spoke rightly, but in those which he said with regard to the rule of a few, not rightly: for whereas there are three things set before us, and each is supposed to be the best in its own kind, that is to say a good popular government, and the rule of a few, and thirdly the rule of one, I say that this last is by far superior to the others; for nothing better can be found than the rule of an individual man of the best kind; seeing that using the best judgment he would be guardian of the multitude without reproach; and resolutions directed against enemies would so best be kept secret. In an oligarchy however it happens often that many, while practising virtue with regard to the commonwealth, have strong private enmities arising among themselves; for as each man desires to be himself the leader and to prevail in counsels, they come to great enmities with one another, whence arise factions among them, and out of the factions comes murder, and from murder results the rule of one man; and thus it is shown in this instance by how much that is the best. Again, when the people rules, it is impossible that corruption should not arise, and when corruption arises in the commonwealth, there arise among the corrupt men not enmities but strong ties of friendship: for they who are acting corruptly to the injury of the commonwealth put their heads together secretly to do so. And this continues so until at last some one takes the leadership of the people and stops the course of such men. By reason of this the man of whom I speak is admired by the people, and being so admired he suddenly appears as monarch. Thus he too furnishes herein an example to prove that the rule of one is the best thing. Finally, to sum up all in a single word, whence arose the liberty which we possess, and who gave it to us? Was it a gift of the people or of an oligarchy or of a monarch? I therefore am of opinion that we, having been set free by one man, should preserve that form of rule, and in other respects also that we should not annul the customs of our fathers which are ordered well; for that is not the better way.”

Herodotus, The History, Book III, 80-3