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  • Writer's pictureEsmé L. K. Partridge

In Defense of the Philosopher King

Published in First Things.

He’s a sponsor of esoteric philosophy, a patron of traditional arts, and an ardent layer of hedgerows. He seeks to restore harmony in the natural world and between the faiths, often meeting religious leaders from around the world and even welcoming them into his court. It may come as a surprise to learn that this is not a portrait of Charles III—despite the many resemblances—but Rudolf II (1552–1612), Holy Roman Emperor and philosopher king of Prague. Although perhaps better remembered as the subject of Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s Vertumnus, he was also a devoted ecumenist who reigned during a time of unprecedented pluralism and conflict. He too believed that strife could be overcome with recourse to universal principles that he saw as underlying all of creation.

The fact is, the idea of a monarch who engages with other faiths is not as novel as it may seem, and has precedence within the Christian tradition. Yet when it comes to King Charles III, soon to be crowned in Westminster Abbey, this is often overlooked: Among conservatives in Britain, his praise of other religions is viewed as merely an appeal to multiculturalism, or even as a sign that he has succumbed to the relativizing forces of a postmodern world that render all beliefs equally valid. His suggestion that he might become defender of “faith” as opposed to “the faith,” along with his praise of Islam and use of a supposedly pagan symbol on his coronation invitations, have been taken as assaults on tradition and a compromise of Christianity at a time when the faith is declining in Britain.

If we look more closely, however, we find that His Majesty’s worldview is somewhat more nuanced than this. One need only consider that he has, throughout his life, sponsored traditional architecture, art, and philosophy, and personally spoken against the profanity of the modern world: “Modernism,” he once remarked, “by its unrelenting emphasis on the quantitative view of reality, limits and distorts the true nature of the Real and our perception of it.” His description of such a “quantitative” view of reality is, of course, an allusion to the perennialist philosopher René Guénon, who saw liberalism, relativism, and even religious syncretism as severing humanity from the transcendent. In light of his apparent sympathy toward such a view, Charles is hardly the modernist his critics make him out to be.

Paradoxical as it may seem, it is Charles’s perennialist critique of modernity—and not postmodern relativism—that informs his religious pluralism. The central tenet of perennialism is that different religions are particular expressions of one universal truth. For Guénon, the ills of secular society could be remedied by the insights of “Tradition”; a term he used not to denote any one set of rites, but the spiritually oriented way of life that he believed had characterized all civilizations before the European Enlightenment. Charles, who has himself said that “in the pre-modern world all civilizations were marked by the presence of the sacred,” seems to share this view. Though this may at first seem theologically unorthodox, it in fact has origins in a much older paradigm of religious pluralism that emerged within Christendom itself, and was the inspiration behind Rudolf II; namely, Renaissance Neoplatonism.

In contrast to a secular, relativistic approach that rejects the existence of any absolute truth, the Renaissance offered a profoundly theological vision of pluralism that saw different religious traditions as pointing to one true faith. Among the first to articulate this proto-perennialist philosophy was Nicholas of Cusa, who held that “all diversity of religions will be led to one orthodox faith” and that dialogue between them could help to illuminate the universal truths they ultimately shared. Similarly, Marsilio Ficino believed that woven into all religions was a thread of divine wisdom, which he called the prisca theologia. Both professed Christianity as the clearest path to salvation, yet recognized points of convergence with Judaism, Islam, and ancient paganism.

Writing during the wars of religion in the sixteenth century, the French Catholic philosopher Jean Bodin drew on these Renaissance ideas in his theory of sovereignty. Transposing a Neoplatonic conception of unity and multiplicity onto the monarchy, Bodin proposed that the function of the king should be to represent the One above the Many, including the many sects within his polity. Though the king must commit to one faith, Bodin believed he should establish harmony with others by emphasizing what they had in common. There was also a pragmatic dimension to this: Attempts to coerce all subjects into following the same sect, he thought, would—by way of suppressing the deeply-held beliefs and traditions of minorities—cause them to lose faith altogether, which he saw to be the greater evil. Thus, Bodin’s acceptance of religious diversity was ultimately a means of preserving the sacred in times of strife; exclusion, he believed, would only lead to social and spiritual disharmony.

It was Bodin’s ideal of harmony as the realization of unity among a multiplicity of faiths that inspired the ecumenism of Rudolf II. At the time of his reign, Bohemia was both culturally and religiously heterogeneous and, subsequently, a site of conflict. The king’s solution was to seek out a philosophy that unified all his subjects, in pursuit of which he studied other religions and welcomed their leaders, including prominent rabbis, into his court for discussion. His search for unity among multiplicity was not simply an act of political pragmatism, but an attempt to create harmony that would in turn mirror that of the natural world itself; this he sought to cultivate in his palace gardens through perfectly proportioned and symmetrical hedgerows that reflected a Neoplatonic, Christian cosmos.

It is no coincidence that harmony is one of King Charles’s guiding principles. His book, aptly titled Harmony: A New Way of Looking at Our World, speaks—in a passage that mentions both Plato and Ficino—of the “inner need to maintain harmony in the world and within ourselves,” revealing how Renaissance Christian theories of religious pluralism, and indeed monarchy, have influenced his thought. Like Bodin, Charles believes it is through ensuring harmony between religions that society as a whole can maintain a sense of the sacred. Thus, his pluralism is an attempt not to subvert but to defend faith, by affirming the shared spiritual aspirations of all traditions; something lucidly conveyed in the prayer, written by the king himself, that will be read during the coronation:

Grant that I may be a blessing to all thy children, of every faith and conviction, that together we may discover the ways of gentleness and be led into the paths of peace.

Though Charles’s generosity toward other faiths will no doubt remain controversial, we can at least be sure that it is not an empty gesture of “inclusivity” but a continuation of a rich philosophical tradition that, though being primarily associated with perennialism, has roots within Christianity itself. This alone ought to be commended: Now, when metaphysical questions have been exiled from public life, there could surely be no better time for a philosopher king. Long may he reign.


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