Written by Vladimir Moss



     Ideally, the people of God should be ruled only by God, or by a man directly appointed by God, that is, the Orthodox Autocrat. A true autocrat is a man who is appointed by God and who strives to rule in obedience to the Church and the commandments of God.[1] Under these conditions God blesses one-man rule unfettered by oligarchical or democratic institutions.

     Contrary to the generally held view, autocracy is not a form of absolutism or despotism. Indeed, as D.A. Khomiakov writes, “the tsar is ‘the denial of absolutism’ precisely because it is bound by the confines of the people’s understanding and world-view, which serve as that framework within which the power can and must consider itself to be free.”[2] The true Autocrat is unfettered by oligarchical or democratic institutions, but is bound to fulfill the Law of God, and is an obedient son of God’s Kingdom on earth, the Church.

     The questions arise: What if there is no autocrat appointed by God?  How are we to relate to despotic or democratic regimes? Is it permissible to obey a ruler who does not worship the God of Israel?

     In the Old Testament the loss of autocracy, and its replacement by foreign despotic rule, was a sign of the wrath of God. The classic example was the Babylonian captivity. However, God’s ultimate purpose in subjecting His people to foreign rule was always positive – to draw the people back to Him through repentance. The sign of the remission of God’s wrath and the manifestation of His mercy and forgiveness is His return of true, autocratic rule, as when the Jews returned from Babylon to Jerusalem under Zerubbabel.

     It is possible for the people of God to serve a foreign despot with a good conscience – as Joseph served Pharaoh, and Daniel - Darius. Indeed, it may be sinful to rebel against such rule, as was the case with King Zedekiah’s rebellion against Nebuchadnezzar. In the first century there was a Jewish sect called the Essenes who did not use money that had the image of Caesar and did not recognize any ruler except God Himself.[3] Christ rejected this position in His famous words about giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s (money, military service) and to God what is God’s. And the Church affirmed that “all authority is of God” (Romans 13.1).

     However, the word “authority” here does not apply to rulers who compel the people of God to worship false gods. If they do this, then resistance – at any rate of the passive kind - becomes obligatory, as when the Three Holy Children refused to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s golden idol. And in certain circumstances even armed rebellion may be blessed by God, as when the Maccabees rebelled against Antiochus Epiphanes. Even if the ruler was originally a true autocrat, if he later turns against the God of Israel, becoming a despot,  he must be resisted, as when the Prophet Elijah rebelled against Ahab and Jezabel, and when the Prophet Elisha anointed Jehu as king in their stead. Similarly, in Christian times the Christian people rebelled against Julian the Apostate, the Spanish prince St. Hermenegild against his Arian father, and the English Orthodox rebelled against the Catholic King William I.

     The Christian people can survive under other systems of government than autocracy, but not prosper. Thus Bishop Dionysius writes: “The Church can live for some time even in conditions of persecution, just as a dying man can remain among the living for a certain period of time. But just as the latter desires deliverance from his illness, so the Church has always wished for such a situation in which there will be flocks, not individuals, of those being saved – and this can be attained only if she is fenced around by the power of ‘him who restraineth’”[4] – that is, the Autocracy.

     The autocrat is distinguished from the absolutist despot in two ways. First, having been appointed by God and being in obedience to Him, he will never ascribe divine honours to himself; whereas the despot either commands that he be worshipped as a god, or acts as if he were God by rejecting any criticism of his actions based on the law of God. Secondly, the autocrat will always respect the priesthood and will yield it authority in the sphere of Divine worship and the spiritual life, whereas the despot will attempt to subject the priesthood to himself, sometimes even by making himself high priest.

     Although the relationship between the autocracy and the priesthood is not clearly defined in the Old Testament, the embryo of the Christian symphony of powers is already to be seen in the relationships between Moses and Aaron, David and Abiathar, and Zerubbabel and Joshua. And encroachment by the autocrat on the priestly prerogatives is already severely punished, as when King Saul was removed from the kingship for taking it upon himself to offer sacrifices. It was the Hasmonean combination of the roles of king and high-priest that finally ushered in the end of the Israelite autocracy.

     The autocrat can sin in either of two directions: by becoming a despot on the Near Eastern pagan model, or by becoming a democrat on the Classical Greek model. For, on the one hand, truly autocratic power is not arbitrary, but subject to a higher power, that of God – as Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow puts it, the king “freely limits his unlimited autocracy by the will of the Heavenly King”. And on the other hand, it neither derives from the people nor can it be abolished by the people.

     In the period of the Byzantine Autocracy, the main temptation was despotism. This took two forms: “caesaropapism” in the East and “papocaesarism” in the West. “Caesaropapism” signifies the intrusion of State power into the realm of the Church, and “papocaesarism” – the intrusion of the Church power into the realm of the State, by the transformation of the Church’s first-hierarch into a secular despot.

     Orthodoxy stands for the Chalcedonian unity-in-diversity of Church and State, priesthood and kingship. The two powers are unconfused but undivided under the One King of kings and Chief High Priest, the Lord Jesus Christ. The eventual fall of Byzantium was preceded by the gradual decay of this symphonic, Chalcedonian principle of Church-State relations, making its conquest by anti-Chalcedonian, absolutist principles easier.

     The decay of the symphonic principle began already with the Arian emperors in the mid-fourth century, revived with the Monothelite and Iconoclast emperors in the seventh, eighth and ninth centuries, and became firmly entrenched with the Angeli emperors before the first Fall of Constantinople in 1204. If anything, the “Orthodox” absolutism of the Angeli, supported by canonists such as Balsamon, proved to be a more dangerous temptation than the heretical absolutism of the Arians and Iconoclasts. In any case, with its revival in a still stronger form under the later Palaeologi in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Byzantium was doomed.

     The final Fall of Constantinople in 1453 was caused by three absolutisms: the internal absolutism of the last Palaeologi emperors, and the external absolutisms of the Latins and the Turks. Both Papism and Islam, in imitation of the absolutist pagan empires, tended to conflate Church and State, religion and politics, kingship and priesthood, into a single institution or activity, in contrast to the duality of the two spheres which is the norm in Orthodoxy. Both could therefore be called ecclesiological analogues of the Monophysite-Monothelite group of heresies in Christology; and, perhaps not coincidentally, the beginnings of the papist and Islamist heresies coincide with the beginnings of the Monophysite and Monothelite heresies.

     In the West, the last Orthodox autocracies of England and Germany fell to the “papocaesarist” version of the absolutist heresy, Papism. But in the West, by contrast with the East, the ideal of the Orthodox autocracy did not survive in the hearts of the people. Here not only the flesh, Christian Statehood, died: the spirit, the Christian Faith and Church, was also radically corrupted. So in the West, in contrast to the East, there could be no transfer of the ideal to another soil, no renovatio imperii, no Third Rome to succeed the First and Second Romes…

     Not that there were no attempts to pretend that the old ideal was still alive and well. The “Holy Roman Empire” of the Hohenstaufens (and later, of the Habsburgs) claimed to be the continuation and revival of the Roman and Constantinian Empires. But where was the “symphony of powers” between the Roman Church and Empire when one of the powers, the Church, was itself a State that sometimes waged war – physical war – against the Empire?

     Indeed, the continual wars between the Roman papacy and the “Holy Roman Empire” in the later Middle Ages cannot be compared to the conflicts between Church and State in Byzantium because they were not in fact wars between Church and State, but between State and State. For ever since Pope Leo IX rode on horseback into battle against the Normans in 1053, the very difference between Church and the State, between the other-worldly spirit of Christian society and its this-worldly flesh, had been obscured in the Western mind…

     It is time to define more precisely the religio-political heresy of absolutism, which, as we have seen, destroyed the flesh of New Rome in the East, and both the flesh and the spirit of Old Rome in the West.

     L.A. Tikhomirov writes: “Absolutism… signifies a power that is not created by anything, that depends on nothing except itself and that is qualified by nothing except itself. As a tendency, absolutism can in fact appear under any principle of power, but only through a misunderstanding or abuse. But according to its spirit, its nature, absolutism is characteristic only of democracy, for the will of the people, qualified by nothing but itself, creates an absolute power, so that if the people merges with the State, the power of the latter becomes absolute.”[5]

     “Absolutism is characteristic of democracy”?! This is the height of paradox to the modern Western (and Classical Greek) mind, for which absolutism and democracy are polar opposites, and for which the ideal of Statehood (even Christian Statehood) must consist in the complete extermination of absolutism and the fullest possible installation of democracy. And yet the paradox is true, as we shall demonstrate.

     The absolutist despot, be he emperor or king, pope or patriarch, believes that all power on earth, in all matters, is given to him alone – even if, as in pagan Rome, this power was supposedly transferred to him from the people. In pagan times, such a belief would be expressed in the idea that the ruler was also a god. In Christian times, such open self-deification was no longer expedient, so the phrase “vicar of God” or “deputy of God” was used instead. In theory, such a title is compatible with a certain self-limitation, insofar as the vicar or deputy of God is obliged to submit his will to the will of God; and some rulers have succeeded in doing just that, becoming saints and “equals-to-the-apostles” in the process. But if the ruler dispenses with an independent priesthood, and is seen as the highest interpreter of the will of God, the path is open to arbitrariness and tyranny on a vast scale, which is precisely what we see in absolutist rulers throughout history, whether pagan or Christian, religious, secular or atheist.

     However, the arbitrariness and tyranny of the single unchecked will inevitably elicits, sooner or later, the appearance of other wills determined to check or completely subdue it. This, in its turn, is inevitably accompanied by the process of the debunking or desacralising of kingship: since the authority of the ruler is hedged around with an aura of divinity, the first task of the reformers or revolutionaries is to strip away this aura, to reveal the ruler to be an ordinary man. Then they will strive either to place one of themselves in the place of the former ruler, endowing him with the same aura of divinity as he had, or will put forward a general theory of the ordinariness – or kingliness - of all men. But this is a sign of God’s wrath. For “because of the transgression of a land, many are its princes” (Proverbs 28.2).

     We have seen how medieval western history developed in this direction: first in the struggle between the popes and the “Holy Roman Emperors” for absolute power, and then in the emergence of the doctrines of natural law, conciliarism and democratism. The second, democratic path would appear to be radically different from the first, absolutist one insofar as it abolishes the idea of sacred persons altogether. But in fact it simply endows all men with the same absolutism and sacredness as was formerly attributed to pope or emperor. Thus the old personal gods of pope or emperor make way for the new collective god of the people in accordance with the often-cited but completely erroneous saying: vox populi – vox Dei. And yet, as Deacon Alcuin of York said to the Emperor Charlemagne: “The people should be led, not followed, as God has ordained… Those who say, ‘The voice of the people is the voice of God,’ are not to be listened to, for the unruliness of the mob is always close to madness.”[6]

     And so absolutism is characteristic of democracy insofar as the demos is an absolute power, free from any restraint in heaven or on earth. In a democracy the will of the people is the final arbiter. Before it neither the will of the (constitutional) monarch, nor the decrees of the Church, neither the age-old traditions of men, nor the eternal and unchanging law of God, can prevail. This arbiter is in the highest degree arbitrary: what is right in the eyes of the people on one day will be wrong in the next. But consistency is not required of the infallible people, just as it is not required of infallible popes. For democracy is based on the Heraclitan principle that everything changes, even the demos itself. As such, it does not have to justify itself on the basis of any unchanging criteria of truth or falsehood, right or wrong: its will is truth and justice, and if its will changes, then truth and justice must change with it…

     The famed tolerance or freedom of religion in democratic states is only apparent. Or rather, it can be real only for a time, until the State works out its own ruling ideology and applies it consistently. For, as Tikhomirov writes, “if a state, as law and power, removes itself from being linked with a determinate confession, that is, from the influence of a religious confession on its own religious politics, it becomes the common judge of all confessions and subjects religion to itself. All relations between the various confessions and the rights of them all must, evidently, be decided by the state that is set outside them, which is governed exclusively by its own ideas on justice and the good of the state and society. In this situation it evidently has the complete right and opportunity to carry out repressions whenever, in its opinion, the interests of a confession contradict civil and political interests.”[7]

     In many ways the collective absolutism of democracy is a more absolute and destructive absolutism than the personal absolutisms of popes and emperors. In the period that we have studied in this book, although many absolutist rulers appeared in both East and West, fundamental changes in society were slow to appear. Whatever absolutist rulers may have thought or said about their own unfettered power, in practice they conformed to tradition in most spheres, for they knew that the masses of the people believed in a higher truth in defence of which many of them were prepared to die. Hence the failure of most absolutist rulers to establish a firm tradition of absolutism: Julian the Apostate was replaced by Jovian the Pious, Pope Nicolas I by Pope John VIII, Michael Palaeologus by Andronicus II. Even the more enduring absolutism of the post-schism popes was bitterly contested for centuries, and became weaker over time.

     But the triumph of democracy in the modern period has been accompanied by the most radical and ever-accelerating change: the demos that overthrew the monarchy in the English revolution, even the demos that obtained universal suffrage in the early twentieth century, would not recognise, and most certainly would not approve of, what the demos has created in twenty-first-century England…

     Democracy considers itself to be at the opposite pole from absolutism, and justifies itself on the grounds that its system of checks and balances, and the frequent opportunity to remove the ruler at the ballot-box, preclude the possibility of absolutism. However, as the old traditions grow weaker, the leaders that the democracy votes for become more radical and anti-traditional. And if democracy has always had the tendency to elect vainglorious and dishonest demagogues, in modern times these demagogues have often also turned out to be absolutist tyrants. For, as Plato noted, there is a persistent tendency for democracy to pave the way for absolutism.

     Thus the democracy of the English Long Parliament paved the way for Cromwell; the democracy of the French Estates General - for Robespierre and Napoleon; the democracy of the Russian Provisional Government - for Lenin and Stalin; the democracy of the German Weimar Government - for Hitler; the democracy of Chiang Kai Shek – for Mao; and the democracy of Yeltsin – for Putin.

     It is possible to interpret the whole of world history as a struggle between God-pleasing autocracy and God-pleasing despotism and democracy, whose main feature is the gradual weakening of autocracy, and strengthening of despotism, in and through the triumph of democracy…


May 31 / June 13, 2016.


[1] As such, he first of all rules himself, his spirit being the autocratic ruler of the rest of his nature. As Bishop Theophan the Recluse writes: “when determination and a readiness to live according to God is formed in the spirit, the grace of the Holy Spirit in the sacraments enters into the spirit, and from this time man’s inner life begins before God; his psychosomatic needs not only cease to rule him, on the contrary, he himself begins to rule them, following the indications of the Spirit. In this way our spirit, with the cooperation of the Holy Spirit, again becomes autocratic, both within and without.” (Tolkovanie Poslanij sv. Apostola Pavla (An Interpretation of the Epistles of the Holy Apostle Paul), St. Petersburg, 2002, pp. 446-447.

[2] Khomiakov, Pravoslavie, samoderzhavie, narodnost’ (Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality),Minsk, 1997, p. 103.

[3] Josephus Flavius, Jewish Antiquities, 18, 23; St. Hippolytus of Rome, Philosophoumen, 18-28.

[4] Hieromonk Dionysius, Priest Timothy Alferov, O Tserkvi, Pravoslavnom Tsarstve i Poslednem Vremeni (On the Church, the Orthodox Kingdom and the Last Time), Moscow, 1998, pp. 61-62.

[5] Tikhomirov, Monarkhicheskaia Gosudarstvennost’ (Monarchical Statehood), St. Petersburg, 1992, p. 92.

[6] Alcuin of York, Letter to Charlemagne, M.G.H., 4, letter 132.

[7] Tikhomirov, Religiozno-philosophskie osnovy istorii (The Religio-Philosophical Foundations of History), Moscow, 1997, p. 269.

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