Fear The People?
In response to the French Revolution, Edmund Burke makes a pointed claim to how a ruler can prevent a popular uprising. According to Burke, a ruler can only be successful if he relates to his subjects with a certain level of fear. Directly, “To secure any degree of sobriety in the propositions made by the leaders in any public assembly, they ought to respect, in some degree perhaps to fear, those whom they conduct”. Essentially, Burke suggests a paradox; a ruler, who is supreme in nature, must nonetheless fear the capacity of his subjects to revolt if he is going to be successful.
A ruler who is arrogant in his absolute power puts himself at significant risk. Such a ruler may be incredibly self-centered and out of touch with the majority of the population. This idea exists today in the United States, as many politicians have been accused of only serving themselves and their friends. Thankfully for the safety of these politicians and the stability of our country, we have a system of elections that allow for these ineffective leaders to be ousted from office. The same luxury, however, does not exist during the time period which Burke addresses. In these systems of government, an out of touch ruler continues to rule until the population takes drastic and often violent action.
At the same time, a leader who is known to fear his subjects also puts himself at a considerable risk. An overly appeasing leader does not have tangible power. If a leader gets into the habit of giving into demands of his subjects, he will always have to differ to his subjects. This in itself is a sign of weakness. As soon as a leader presents himself as weak, he sets an irreversible precedent that he will buckle if pressured. This not only relates to the rulers relationship with the people, but also his relationship with dignitaries and other members of the government. If a ruler is perceived as weak, he opens himself up to being manipulated by power-hungry members of the government claiming to represent the interests of the people.
So if Burke’s suggestion is an inherent paradox, is a balance actually possible? Can a ruler fear his subject without appearing weak? For this question there is no answer, only opinion. And in my opinion, it is impossible for a monarchial ruler to maintain supremacy if he fears his subjects. Although the French Revolution is a storied example of a popular uprising motivated by a rulers ignorance, history has shown that more rulers have failed because they are perceived as weak.