Saturday, 24 March 2012

Rulers and Leaders

By Adam Hincks, S.J.

Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it. (Williams, in Henry V)



There is an brief observation in C. S. Lewis’s English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama which has remained with me ever since I read it years ago. (The introduction to this work, though contentious—he proposes that there was no such thing as a Renaissance in England—is delightful and worth reading. He spent almost a decade toiling on the volume, which is part of the Oxford History of English Literature. Eventually, he began referring to it among his friends by the series’ acronym, O.H.E.L., which he would pronounce phonetically).

At any rate, the observation of Lewis’s that I am recalling now is the following: in the early modern age a change occurred such that ‘those who were once called a nation’s rulers are now almost universally called its leaders’.

This is a salient point, if we think about what the difference between a ruler and a leader is. A ruler is responsible for applying a standard—a ‘rule’—for his subjects. A leader simply leads. Doubtless, a good ruler is also a good leader, but a good leader might not be a ruler at all: it is very possible that he has no standard for his leadership beyond his own will.

So, are we right in calling our heads of government today ‘leaders’? In a sense, they are also rulers: there is, after all, a constitution. On the other hand, parliament is, in this country at least, above the constitution in certain cases. Then by what, ultimately, do they rule?

Lewis was making the point that the change in language came with a corresponding change in the conception of where our laws come from. A ruler recognises a law higher than himself; a leader does not necessarily do so. This is something that could be reflected upon at great length.

But for now, we can make the brief observation that rulers have subjects and leaders have followers. When is it appropriate to be a subject, and when a follower? After all, if all citizens were mere followers, King Harry could not have made his sobering response to Williams’s challenge: ‘Every subject’s duty is the king’s; but every subject’s soul is his own.’

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