It’s Advent again, overlaid with the sediments of Christmas, and so I return again to familiar themes—Jesus, Mary, Joseph the builder, Herod, and yes, the slaughtered children. But as evil as he was, Herod was a king and not a despot. Before King Herod made his annual appearance on my calendar, I had been thinking a lot about despots in the past few months (maybe you have too). In spite of our present confusions and controversies, there really are differences between kings and despots, both then and now. Centuries before Herod, Aristotle gave us the classical Greek understanding of a despot. The despot was the master of a household. All the members of the household—women, boys, and slaves—were subordinate to his absolute control. His mind, his will, and his desires controlled them like a mind controls a body. Despots are the natural form of rule for people who, by nature, as the Greeks believed, are servile, especially the children.
Therefore, despotism in government is rule by one who treats the whole community as his household and his citizens as ignorant children. Despotism does not recognize any distinction between the private and public spheres. They are collapsed together under the unlimited rule of the despot. This differs from kingship, our usual image of monarchy, because kingship is rule within traditional constraints, including legal ones. The king is “kin” to his subjects but they have a degree of independent dignity apart from the king. The despot, however, absorbs everyone’s life and welfare into his own.
Over against despotism, a republic, as it emerged in Greco-Roman thought, sets aside a certain sphere of life as a public in which people engage as equals, as free persons, to govern themselves according to mutually agreed understandings of order and the common good. Because of their equality, they have to govern through persuasion according to common reason rather than through fear and force. This is the tradition in which our own American republic was founded. The founders recognized that the passions of a mob would always want to throw up a despot who would seek to obliterate the constitution of the public in order to rule the people as his private household, turning them into slaves to his wishes, whether through fear or abject dependence. This is what informed their elaborate covenant of public order, our Constitution.
Our republic has now found its despot and we are wondering whether our public officials and public-spirited citizens will defend the integrity of the republic or, like frightened children or slaves, submit to its dissolution into the despot’s household. What wars have not been able to extinguish can be snuffed out through the people’s loss of the virtue necessary to sustain public life and republican governance within a constitutional order.
And the children? Even as we are all tempted to act like infantile servants of the despot’s will, so are real children caged at our borders, deprived of adequate health care, and thrown before the fury of our impending climate cataclysm. But in their midst, the Gretas of the world begin to stand up and create a free space of love for this earth, for its people, and for the public life through which we can come to our senses in service of the common good. When we are reduced to the whimpering fear of the little child we become the people who “by nature” must be ruled by a despot. But when we recover the awe of the child, the longing for the mother’s face, the readiness to touch one another in goodness, then perhaps we may be able to recover our dignity as citizens engaged in the great work of restoring our wounded earth. That is what I hope is coming even as our current despots seek to swallow up our public love in his private rage. Let’s anchor in Advent, leaning into the dawn of Christmas. For the sake of the children.