Why do we love royalty?

When most of us live in democracies or at least come from the western tradition of the equality and empowerment of the individual person, why do we consistently elevate and idealise kings and queens?

Children’s stories, Hollywood films, the press – are full of princes, princesses, royal families! Even countries that supposedly don’t have monarchies, idolise their sporting heroes, their actors or elected presidents and their spouses.

disney princess

Why do we do it when it so clearly subjects ourselves to inferior status? Why do we seek to elevate humans and grant them almost immortal heights?

Kings and queens are truly no different to ourselves, except that they descend via legal birthright from wealthy and powerful individuals, some of whom took power by force and not by merit. 

Celebrity kings and queens hold power simply because of the combination of genetic prowess, beauty, great timing and the power of marketing.

brangelina

Historically, the tradition of royal lineage became enshrined as a birthright to the oldest child or oldest male child, simply to preserve peace. Leaders arose from within a tribe, usually a meritocracy of the strongest and smartest. When this leader died, the tribe suffered instability, even risked a bloodbath as the people decided on the next leader. Each man or woman feeling they had the “merit” to rule sought the seat of power, often by the sword if necessary.

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Rules of legitimacy settled the debate – the power, wealth, land and title went to the oldest child, whether they were fit to rule or not, whether they were of age or not. This ensured peace in the land for generations. A result of the Magna Carta and later Reformation and the ensuing religious wars, was to increasingly separate church  from state, and remove absolute power from monarchs, delegating decision making rights to the populace. 

Kings and queens of history have been a mixed representative of good and bad leadership – and yet we still idealise and idolise? Why? 

Nowadays, many royal famillies retain titles and land but no real political power. Their existence is maintained by incredible wealth, posterity, charitable work, and attractive young people.

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So why do we cling to royalty and continuously elevate them? What purpose do they serve in the landscape of our imagination?

I would like to posit a few reasons:

  1. We are social creatures and always seek to rank ourselves within our community. In any school group, workplace, team or tribe, a pecking order will emerge. Despite our intrinsic belief that all humans are created equal, we still settle into this rank and file almost intuitively. Looking to those of wealth and status is an involuntary obsession. 
  2. We are always looking for mentors or guides. Within our community, those older or more powerful are natural guides. The pecking order of point #1 above, becomes a natural source of mentor relationships and so we seek to immitate and fashion our lives around these guides.

What is interesting about the narrative use of princes, princesses, kings and queens is that it becomes clear we seek to identify with and BECOME royalty. So while we both rank ourselves and look to mentors and guides, what emerges from the psychological landscape of stories and narrative is the primal human desire to BE royalty.

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Arguably, democracy takes royal privilege and gives it to the common man and woman. A person in command of their own potential, someone part of a free-market economy can become anyone they wish. They hold the power to their own lives and owe no-one anything. In many ways, we ARE kings and queens.

And yet we remain imprisoned by our perception of rank and idolisation of those yet more powerful, more talented, more beautiful, wealthier and better connected.

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What narratives do is they propel us momentarily into who we could be or could become. We become the hero of the tale, the prince or princess who discovers their true royalty, their true status. Their struggles and crisis, followed ulitmately by their ascendency to a throne of influence becomes our own journey.

Ozymandias

Next in a series on romantic literature, this poem Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley is a classic. Published in 1818, it is one of Shelley’s most famous works.

The romantic poets were lovers of antiquities and their writings dwelt on themes such as fate and the supremacy of nature over human efforts.

 

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Ozymandias

Written a year after the British Museum acquired a fragment of the statue of Rameses II from the 13th century BC. The poem explores the nature of the impermanence of even the greatest of civilizations; even their legacies fade into obscurity and oblivion.

How Power Makes You Selfish

Power tends to corrupt and ultimate power corrupts ultimately.

So goes the famous quote of British historian, politican and writer Lord John Dalberg-Acton.

In this recent video, UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner explains that the frontal cortex of the brain is the area in which we detect other people’s pain. He shows how damage to the frontal lobe, limits empathy which in turn incites impulsivity, anger and disconnectedness.

In short, one can acquire sociopathy.

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The interesting twist is that giving people a little bit of power, creates the same affect on the brain as trauma. People doused with sudden power, lose touch, begin to act on whims and imulses and to fail to understand what others care and think.

It gives clarity to the story that a high proportion of CEOs show sociopathic tendencies.

______

So what do we do?

The story cuts close to home when similar group studies show that the power differential created by socio-economic status will will create negative behaviour – dominance, entitlement and disregard.

What is curious, is that similar groups may champion a story or film about a disabled, foreign or poor protagonist.

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Why are we so schizophrenic?

Why do we marginalise those different to us at a party or in the workplace, but love and adore stories about mentally ill patients, artists suffering alzheimers, poor migrants and so forth?


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Is it simply a matter of stories and art, building neural pathways for us that need acting on?

A recent post, Mean Tweets, observed how bullying phrases can be turned into comedy gold by the simple act of reframing. The act of retelling creates space for objectivity and in turn humour, which builds empathy. This is art.

So art is redemptive and healing ? Art therapist believe so. I concur.

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If power negatively affects the frontal cortex in the same way that brain trauma does, stories and art can rebuild neural pathways and strengthen empathy.

I belive we all need more stories.

The King and the Maiden

Suppose there was a king who loved a humble maiden,

Thus beings a story by Danish philsopher,  Soren Kierkegaard [Philosophical Fragments, 31-42].

The king was like no other king. Every statesman trembled before his power. No one dared breathe a word against him, for he had the strength to crush all opponents. And yet this mighty king was melted by love for a humble maiden.

How could he declare his love for her?  In an odd sort of way, his very kingliness tied his hands. If he brought her to the palace and crowned her head with jewels and clothed her body in royal robes, she would surely not resist – no one dared resist him. But would she love him?

soren_kierkegaard_drawing_niels_christian_kierkegaard

She would say she loved him, of course, but would she truly? Or would she live with him in fear, nursing a private grief for the life she had left behind. Would she be happy at his side? How could he know?

If he ever rode to her forest cottage in his royal carriage, with an armed escort waving royal banners, that too would overwhelm her. He did not want a cringing subject. He wanted a lover, an equal. He wanted her to forget that he was king and she a humble maiden and to let shared love cross over the gulf between them.

For it is only in love that the unequal can be made equal.

beggar and the maiden

The king convinced he could not elevate the maiden without crushing her freedom, resolved to descend. He clothed himself as a beggar and approached her cottage incognito, with a worn cloak fluttering loosely around him. It was no mere disguise but a new identity he took on. He renounced the throne to win her hand.

With this parable, Kierkegaard illustrates the truth that Paul expresses about Jesus Christ:

Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,

but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance like a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient – even to death on a cross.

Jesus

Happy Easter everybody.

Why Little People?

Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay… small acts of kindness and love. – Gandalf, “The Hobbit, An Unexpected Journey”.

 

In continuation from yesterday’s post “Why Archaeologists”, I want to follow the “hero journey” one step further to examine the quality of smallness in the hero. Not only is the main character often an ordinary, but the hero is often the underdog.

Think of the orphans, outcasts, children, or ‘nobodies from nowhere’ who are suddenly in possession of a magical item, granted a mysterious power or discover and fantastic destiny. These characters are sent out on the “hero journey” quite beyond their own wishes, but in the process find courage and wit beyond their expectation, timely help and return home, much transformed.

Just as the “scientist” hero is an avator to our dreams, to carry us into mystery safely, the “underdog” hero is our avatar to carry us to greatness. If the smallest of chracters can face the giants, wizards, beasts or evil empire, so can we. Moreover, the truth that victory over darkness comes through “the everyday deeds of ordinary folk….. small acts of kindness and love” is a profound truth we need constant reminder of.

In an earlier post “Ubermensch and what stories teach about power” [Dec 5, 2014], I reflected on the irony that as power grows, power controls.  Power creates puppets. Narratives with a small hero, remind us that history is turned by the “small acts of kindness and love,” by the deeds of “everyday people”.

‘Ubermensch’ and what story teaches me about power

I have noticed as I get older, I become more empowered. This comes from multiple sources – as I age I become more comfortable with myself and less doubtful and self conscious. As I gain years, I learn more about the world and understand how things sit and how science works. I gain a certain perspective and acquire a certain cynicism, and all of this gives me a vantage point from which to approach life.

It’s curious to me that many people equate this personal journey with the turn of history. I hear, “we are so much more enlightened these days”.  Does this evolution within myself truly mirror social and historical cycles. Indeed, Europe emerged from the dark and middle ages into a scientific, artistic and cultural renaissance around the 14th c AD. The religious wars that ensued endowed Europe with caution and cynicism of the validity of religious beliefs, finding peace in humanism, rationalism, education. Growing scientific awareness, improved human conditions and greater peace in the land during this period instilled Europe with the supreme confidence of the 18th and 19th Century. In this time Darwin published his treatise on Natural Selection, artisans approached ever more impressive and realistic renditions, education and literacy levels spread throughout Europe with the rise of capitalism and democratic governments. Mechanisation brought about factories, cars, aeroplanes and weapons of war. Human confidence was at an all time high. By the end of this period we find the advent of a certain kind of confidence embodied in Friedrich Nietzsche and his work “Ubermensch” [the Super Man] and his catch-phrases “will to power” and “God is dead.”

ubermensch

 

However, what is often missed from these comments is that this rise and fall in confidence has existed as long as humanity has existed and in fact is cyclic or parabolic. The turn of the 20th century, wars, genocide, global warming etc. have all contributed to a plummeting sense of confidence in humanity and pure scientific rationalism, and a rising tide of interest in spirituality.

Our journeys are unique, yet curiously alike. We can all relate to the feeling that God is disinterested in the suffering of humanity and the fate of the planet. God does not deliver a destiny to us on a plate; it is ours to create. The tools are within our hands and if life is running stale it is only my fault. My decisions matter and my struggles make me.  As for who I marry, what career I choose, whether I suffer or gain, God does not really care. God is not there. The world is a mass of science and matter. As we emerge from youthful faith, we can feel along with Marx that “religion is the opiate of the masses” and a fairy story to fright good people into compliance. Life is wilder, stranger, meaner and more unpredictable than religion and religious people would have us believe.

Such belief brings a melancholy and loneliness, but also a sense of power. ‘I am not beholden to a mystical destiny. I hold the future in my hands. It’s me or no one that decides. I bear my suffering and also my future success or failure in my hands, alone’. The sense of power that this independence brings is curiously liberating.

In all of this tide of change,  fairy story itself remains constant in its messages to us of the bigger picture.

When Frodo, the smallest of all creatures, the humblest of beings in the epic narrative, Lord of the Rings, takes the ultimate weapon of power, he has one duty –  to destroy it. The ring can control and corrupt any of it’s holders but the little Hobbit has resisted it longer than normal. Even he struggles and falters in the delivery of the ring to its doom. Once destroyed however, the world can rebalance. As though discharging an intense voltage, the power can run back into all the nooks and crannies of life where it can nourish instead of consume.

harry2

When Harry attains the wand of ultimate power, the one to wield dominance over all creatures, he does the only thing good and just, he breaks the wand and drops it into a crevasse. Harry’s struggle with the wicked Voldemort has shown him the amassing of power brings death and consumption. The small acts of good people make the world a good place and power dispersed is the only way to foster this goodness.

From these tales I learn that:

  1. In my journey I gain power. Either by age, learning or decision. However, increased power does not make me free. It simply makes me more a puppet to power. The illusion of freedom is in fact veiled control. I become an element moved about in the waves of history. Soon I’m surrendered to a imprisonment of power and require deliverance.
  2. True heroic acts and true history is moved forward by the smallest of characters and the smallest of acts. The good and true is brought about by everyday people and their faith in love and good deeds. Therefore, the power I attain as I grow is only to in turn give away to those who would use it to generate more life. To amass power in the belief I’m alone in the universe is simply to be consumed and controlled by this power.
  3. Those who believe in God might well be like children who believe in fairy tales. But God works through the little ones and their small faith.

When I consider a baby born in a barn, a carpenter in a backwater of the middle east, a man broken and dying between two criminals – I see how God works. Through the small, the humble and the good – power is broken and returned into the nooks and crannies of life where it can nourish instead of consume.