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Fear The People?

November 8, 2010

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.

5 Comments
  1. arichnerjr permalink
    November 8, 2010 10:13 PM

    Interesting questions, but Burke didn’t endorse absolute monarchy or autocracy. He actually agreed with the premise of the French Revolution in its earliest stages, believing it beneficial to legally and peacefully limit the power of the monarch. He likewise supported the (bloodless) Glorious Revolution of 1688, which symbolized a Parliamentary victory over the throne. If anything, Burke is criticizing the supporters of the French Revolution within the French aristocracy, who provided the ultimate catalyst for the Revolution and its transformation into a blood bath.

  2. November 8, 2010 10:52 PM

    A ruler will not appear or be weak if he has a level of fear of the people he governs. This provides somewhat of a checks and balances type of system, in which the fear restrains the ruler. However, the point of weakness is crossed when the ruler allows this fear to inhibit his entire decision making process. There has to be a certain extent to which the ruler allows his fear to control him. I also thinkk it would be a good idea not to make this fear known to the people, so that they do not take advantage of the situation. Maybe a ruler could fear the people in private.

  3. emilywiho permalink
    November 8, 2010 11:09 PM

    I think you make an interesting point on the paradox and the question on whether there can truly be a perfect balance for rulers. It is certainly important for a ruler to fear the people, as a completely fearless ruler might govern by desires and became overly selfish. On the other hand, a completely fearful ruler will not make the necessary risks for his own state and there be ineffective.

    Although I can’t say for sure what the perfect balance may be, as there does not seem to be a ruler in history who has mastered the balance of the two sides, I can say my personal opinion on which side I believe a ruler should lean on more. From my personal opinion, I would prefer a ruler who was more fearless than fearful, as I believe that a ruler who is slightly more fearful than fearless would be able to make the risks often necessary to drive a state forward and protect the state’s interests.

  4. adamkornbluh permalink
    November 9, 2010 2:57 PM

    I really enjoyed this blog post and the paradox that it points out. Immediately, I related this paradox of the ruler and his subjects to President Barack Obama and the United States’ citizens. Although Burke was originally writing about a monarch’s relationship to his people, I do feel that it can be applied to a democracy without much trouble.

    Through the first two years of Obama’s presidency, our commander-in-chief has been leading the country with a careful ear to the country, especially the Republican opposition. I would argue he has feared this opposition and has acted cautiously when supporting certain legislation, most notably health-care. While a candidate, Obama argued for a public health insurance option to compete with private insurers. For the country he was campaigning to lead, he expressed his belief that it would best help the majority of Americans if this program was enacted.

    Now fast forward to after the election. Facing criticism and opposition, Obama folded and did not pursue the public option. Because of this fear, he was incapable of enacting the plan that he felt was best for his country and its people. This trepidation highlights an example where fear prevented a leader of doing what he thought was best for the country.

  5. xiaoyzhang permalink
    November 9, 2010 3:57 PM

    Rulers should never fear the people. Smart rulers know how to keep their power. Look at Stalin for example. He instilled fear in the people he ruled over. He killed many of high ranking Russian government officials. He had a secret police that helped him kill people he didn’t like. And he was in control of the military. He used a combination of ruthless tactics to keep his country under control, preventing an uprising to dethrone him from his position. Rulers who fear the people he or she rules over are weak, and shouldn’t be in the position to rule in the first place.

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