Kingship—A Book Review

| January 15, 2010 | 0 Comments

by Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA
Dr. Meymandi is in private practice as a psychiatrist and neurologist and serves as an adjunct professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is a noted physician, editor, and philanthropist who frequently speaks and writes on diverse topics that relate to his interests in medicine, the arts, religion, and philanthropy. He lives in Raleigh with his wife Emily.

Psychiatry (Edgemont) 2010;7(1):38-39

The August and knowledgeable author of the slender appearing but profoundly evocative and scholarly volume, Kingship, ought to know a thing or two about kingship. After all, the sons of the late Shah of Iran went to Williams College on his watch, when the author of the book, Francis Oakley, was president of the college. Oakley’s Kingship starts with the ancient notion that “kings are sacred,” a trick all the kings as far back as back as the Pharaohs, the “Sun King” Louis XIV, and the late Shah of Iran pulled on their people—that they are representative of God on earth and are not to be questioned. The scholarly dimensions of the book expose the reader not only to the history of the concept of kinghsip, which denotes the office and dignity of a king, but takes an etymological scalpel and dissects words such as monocracy (government by a single person), autocracy, and monarchy (the undivided rule by a single person).

The book, published by Blackwell Publishing in 2006, contains six chapters covering topics of archaic and cosmic kingship spanning to Hellenistic, Roman, Biblical, and Islamic views of kingship. Additional discourse on Byzantine, Carolingian, Christian, Papal, Germanic, and modern forms of kingship are also offered in meticulous and exhaustive detail, providing an impressive smorgasbord of rich food for the starved students of history.
The book was a delight to me because I grew up in Persia, a country with a six-thousand-year history of kingship. The names of Darius and Cyrus the Great fill pages of the Bible (Esdras, Maccabees I, and Maccabees II). Epic poets, such as Hakim Abol Qhasem Ferdowsi Tusi (935–1020), wrote volumes of Homeric proportion about the Shahs of Persia, the largest one is named Shahnameh (Book of King).

The world continually changes, and autocracies have diminished. In 1970, according to Oakley, “there were probably no more than 30 democracies worldwide. By 2001, however, that number may have even quadrupled…”

The chapter titled, “Royal Saviors and Shepherds,” closely examines the history of kingship in Islam. It elaborates that in the Islamic system of government, theocracy knows no difference between religious and secular activities. The ultimate authority in Islam is Shari’a, a set of rules and cannons that dominate jurisprudence in Islamic nations. The ruler is either a khalif (caliphate) or imam. The governments of Iran and Saudi Arabia are examples of these forms of theocracy. The book would provide very useful instruction for the United States diplomats and representatives who plan to work in the countries of the Middle East, such as Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. It offers solid background information about the these countries’ cultures and ethos of life.

Among other forms of theocracies, the author tackles papacy, papal ascendancy, and other systems of “kingship,” such as the one in Japan under Emperor Hirohito, who was enthroned in 1928, and his successors. The emperors of Japan are the closest kings to the notion of “cosmic” deity and are examples of how humans can morph into “God-like” entities.

The book is full of subtle and intriguing concepts that poke their heads out of obscurity here and there and provide delightful, intellectual morsels of information. For example, rulers of the past, such as Louis XIV, Queen Elizabeth, and the late Shah of Iran, through their constant and persuasive propaganda machines, created the notion that monotheism goes hand in hand with monarchy. As stated by Oakley, “God is the king of the universe, and the king is the God of the country (or region or empire).” Other delicious morsels include the concepts of “Rulership is a gift of God…The king’s high priestly functions…to use the Logos of God…” The King or Queen could never go wrong if he or she is part God!

As a student of history, when I held this fairly small book and read it, I felt as if I was holding the whole world in my hands. I have a roomful of books tracing Neolithic man’s efforts all the way back to the Sumerian, creators of language and communication; Mesopotamians, subsuming Akkadians, Assyrians, Syrians (code of Hammurabi), Palestinians, and Turks (Asia Minor); Egyptians (the pyramids), givers of civilization, arts, and architecture; Greeks and Romans, lovers of wisdom as well as grandiosity; Persians, authors of human rights and democracy; Arabs and Islam, contributors of discipline and faith; to the modern day appearance of the Magna Carta. It takes years to read these books compared to Oakley’s dense, compact volume that uses kingship as a thread to connect present day mankind to its roots and a vehicle to teach and enlighten.

I fully agree with the statement on the back cover, “In this book, Francis Oakley argues that kingship may be the most common form of government known to humankind. He traces its history from the time of Neolithic revolution and spread of agrarian modes of subsistence around the eastern Mediterranean (c.8000–5000 BCE) down to its wide spread loss of legitimacy in the modern industrial world…”

I have written of synesthesia, a phenomenon where exposure to one set of stimuli evokes other senses. While my eyes were reading the written words of Francis Oakley, my ears heard the most elevating and technically complex Olivier Messiaen’s symphony, Turangalila, depicting the Tristan and Isolde, the love affair between seekers, lovers, and learners of history and the historian who provides and facilitates the love feast. The book also brought me the cosmic, seamless, boundryless, amorphous, and impressionistic music of Claude Debussy and the rugged rhythm of Howard Hanson. And to my eyes, it brought the palimpsest of insight, wisdom, and facts layered over the complex template of humanity. And to my taste, well, savoring sips of 1924 Mouton Rothchild in a moon-drenched evening on a porch by the ocean. Thank you, Francis, for transforming the study of history into a delicious love affair!

Category: Commentary, Meymandi at Large, Past Articles, Psychiatry

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