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The King is our eternal everyman | John Milbank


Oak Apple Day celebrates the inevitable return of the primordial and the perennial

Today is Oak Apple Day when we celebrate the restoration of the British Crown in 1660. In memory of Charles II’s hiding in an oak-tree from Roundhead troopers, favours of the oak-gall are worn by all loyal subjects, on pain of being scourged by nettles or pelted with birds’ eggs. 

Except that of course we don’t any longer, since we now know that kingship itself is a gall: a bizarre excrescence sprouting from our modern, rational, democratic politics. A survival from a feudal, aristocratic past, whose ceremonies are relics of superstition, meant to cow subjects into submission and to forget their woes, rights and inequalities. 

Or do we? Is there really anything anomalous about monarchy? Isn’t the king in fact the sacred tree of human lineage and culture itself? Ever since there were humans there have been divine beings in one form or and another. And their representatives, by which they are known, have always been human beings. These figures have themselves always been worshipped and have been taken as the source of all order, which is indissolubly religious and political. 

Without this channelling, in fact, there would have been no ritual or organised culture whatsoever. Kings are exceptional, yet they are also archetypal. We have only ever been human through their symbolic conveyancing. Therefore, in a crucial sense, the king is everyman, as so many of Shakespeare’s plays assume.

This ethnographic truth, as once insisted upon by the eccentric empire-trotting anthropologist A.M. Hocart, is indeed irrational and incomprehensible. But then so are trees and their excrescences, and so is human culture as such. All are unnecessary outgrowths that arise for their own unfathomable reasons, incapable of much further explication. 

The king stands terrifyingly alone before the ultimate

It is for this reason that the king always returns. Oak Apple Day is not the reverse of Bastille Day, the suppression of modern revolution, but the inevitable return of the primordial and the perennial, which cannot seriously be denied. Any human order is the seemingly arbitrary assertion of ultimately personal power and it always involves a hierarchy, however hypocritically this may be denied. In France also, and everywhere, the king has returned, whether as President, or Caesar or Dictator or whatever. In the end, rule is will and imposition and command.

If it is more than that, then its only legitimation (other than the necessary but insufficient condition of claiming to represent the massed will of the people) is inevitably divine right. Clearly every theory of objective justice that is neither utilitarianism nor an exaltation of mere freedom to choose, tracks justice back to participation in the eternal will and reason (they are at one) of God.

Hence the king, or any ruler, stands terrifyingly alone with his conscience before the ultimate. This is another reason why his existential situation is really the most typical and exemplary, as with Lear and Hamlet. 

His rule is indeed arbitrary, but the enlightened reason which points this out can be readily trumped by the more searching reason of counter-enlightenment which points out that all human government is equally so. Who gets to exercise power is always a matter of contingency and indeed of genetic inheritance. The advantage of open monarchy is its honesty: it admits that we never escape from ancestry and the bio-cultural legacy of the relatively stronger and hopefully more virtuous. 

A pox on the joyless and the middle-brow rationalists

Of course, the consent of the people and their dispersed discernment also matter, as does the more cultivated virtue of the wise, the genuine aristocracy, although that is also and inevitably somewhat linked to descent. 

But within this constitutional mixture, which we only pretend ever to escape (and so do it badly) it is often the returning King as Shakespeare recognises in Julius Caesar, and Tolkien in The Return of the King who insists more upon justice for all the people and for their need of pleasure and festivity besides ethical training. The King comes back to his own: open the flagons, strike up the dance, strew the dusty streets with Maytime flowers, relax Puritanical rigidity! 

Yet this is also the return of a deep seriousness which bourgeois solemnity always misses. The interests of the King or of our Queen are ultimately tied to no class, much less the feudal which it has often resisted: instead, it is one with eternity, with nature and natality, with dynastic continuity, with the whole nation and its entire past and future. Where such objectivity is neither symbolised nor empowered, then all justice will be lost in the course of time. 

Just for this reason the emergent and paradoxical Jacobite agenda was more substantively egalitarian than that of the liberal, pantheistic, property-obsessed Levellers and Diggers had been.

So a pox on the joyless and the middle-brow rationalists, heirs to the rationalist “Thinker’s Library” that once digested Hocart for the masses, oblivious to the counter-subversive implications of his researches. And may all republican rebels be once more scourged with nettles by every loyal subject of Her Majesty.



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