Legitimacy vs. Success


December 2014
Ivan Obolensky


In 331 BC, Alexander the Great, having conquered the Persians, moved down the coast of Palestine, and invaded Egypt. He then marched from the capital to the mouth of the Nile River and founded the most famous city that bears his name, Alexandria. Shortly thereafter, he journeyed 220 miles to the West into the Libyan Desert to visit the tiny oasis of Siwa to consult one of the age’s greatest oracles, the oracle at Amon.

Alexander was met there by a priest who greeted him in Greek, with what the priest thought were the words: “Oh, my son.”  Instead he mispronounced his greeting and said, “Oh, son of Zeus”, which was reported to have pleased Alexander greatly.

We do not know what he asked the oracle only that he was pleased by the answer.

The chief librarian of Alexandria gave us a hint. He said that Aristotle, Alexander’s early tutor, had told the young king to treat all Greeks as brothers and Persians as barbarians. Alexander, after consulting the oracle, embraced instead a larger concept: all men are brothers and that there should be only one ruler: Alexander.

One can conquer if one has the resources and the inclination, but should one? With the oracle’s response, he had received divine sanction. In addition he was able to articulate a concept that would not only legitimize his own conquests, but the rule of monarchs in Western culture for years to come.

It was called the Divine Right of Kings.1

“Political legitimacy” has always been a basic condition for governing. It can be defined as the recognition and acceptance of a political system by a population.

In Chinese political philosophy, legitimacy was derived by the Mandate of Heaven. This concept started with the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BC).The sovereign’s validity was predicated on the ability of the ruler to govern appropriately and well. Poverty and disasters were considered signs that Heaven no longer sanctioned the ruler, and that he needed to be replaced. The Mandate of Heaven linked the ruled with the ruler, and the ruler with the ruled.2

As populations and economies grew, the concept of political legitimacy expanded as well.

Max Weber (1864-1920), a highly influential German sociologist and political economist, described political legitimacy as a mixture of three ideas:

  1. Traditional legitimacy: This is legitimacy based on tradition and custom. The longer the government exists, the more likely it will be viewed as legitimate by its population as well as other nations. A hereditary monarchy might take this form.
  2. Charismatic legitimacy: Here legitimacy rests on the charisma and leadership skills of the ruler. The leader can compel acceptance by brilliance and force of personality. Those who follow such a leader do so because he stands head and shoulders above the average. Napoleon was such a man.
  3. Rational-legal legitimacy: Political power is derived from the system of government such as a constitution that people trust and believe in.3

While charismatic, Alexander’s idea of legitimacy was one-sided. He barely acknowledged those he ruled other than that they should acknowledge him politically as a deity. He took to heart the Egyptian belief that he was descended from the sun god, Amon-Ra, and just like the sun he would shine and rule on all men equally and therefore legitimately. Whether he was motivated by simple lust for power, or the desire to see animosities between peoples stripped away is unknown; yet from all accounts, he was an extraordinary leader who was almost universally loved by both his subjects and his followers. That he managed to foster a reputation of invincibility in battle no doubt helped further his case for legitimacy simply because acceptance was a more expedient solution than resistance.4

Might can always dictate its own legitimacy, at least for one generation, but for a lasting legacy more is required.

It is ironic that political legitimacy derived from Heaven would be replaced in years to come by an idea where power was derived from the ground. It was called “democracy”, and it had a rocky beginning years before Alexander burst on the scene like some warlike god.

Democracy started its development in Athens in the 6th century BC. It grew as a result of prolonged economic inequality. Aristocratic families owned the best land. They grew rich and were able to withstand bad years while those with small holdings mortgaged their property to survive. In many cases debt led to slavery. In addition, grain fetched higher prices in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). The commodity was traded abroad leaving little to feed those in the lowest economic strata.

Social and economic pressures created rifts and tears in the social fabric of Athens that threatened to destroy it.  It was Solon, considered even at that time one of the wisest men of Greece, who was able to avert almost certain disaster. He was given full powers (ca. 594 BC) to reform the laws of the city. In this he demonstrated moderation and restraint.

He cancelled mortgages, returned those sent abroad as slaves, and forgave sums owed to the state. In addition he restructured who could vote and how so that voting based on clan affiliation was curtailed. In addition, he forbade the export of grain while allowing the export of olive oil, which helped turn Athens into a trading powerhouse.5

Solon’s reforms ultimately lessened the concentration of wealth, made the poor less poor, and laid the foundation for the eventual founding of Athenian democracy 100 years later in 508 BC. It was a near thing even then. Questions of the legitimacy of the experiment plagued its implementation, particularly since wealthy aristocratic families felt that tradition gave them the right to rule.

Legitimacy was also put into question by the social beliefs and economic realities that still remained.

There was the loyalty to family versus that of loyalty to a state that had no such affiliations and whose voting criteria reduced family influence.

There was also the power of custom and tradition, such as an eye for an eye, which was opposed by state laws that forbade the seeking of vengeance.

More fundamentally still was the concept of religion and fate versus the ability of a man to shape his own destiny.

How were these opposites to be understood and assimilated into the new society without fracturing the city anew? Who was to say that this new artificial political creation (democracy) was more or less legitimate than previous forms of government such as rule by tyrant or king?

The answering of such questions had a brief interruption with the invasion by Persia before finally being given free rein to be explored. This was done in a unique forum that was at once religious and secular. It was called the theater and we know from the plays that have survived that such questions were seriously examined.

Greek tragedy in particular introduces us to the concept that possession of political power can quickly turn into tyranny and that it is man, not the gods, which can give political legitimacy to government.6

Whether democracy as a concept would have continued if Greece had not been subdued by Alexander is debatable. Monarchy became the preferred method of government.

Regimes, even unpopular ones, can remain in power if they are held in place by a small but powerful elite. Up through Medieval times the education level, production, and income of the average citizen was barely above subsistence level. It was not until the 18th century and the rise of a prosperous middle class that the many began to question the legitimacy of the few, and that fundamental political change became possible. The revolutions in America and particularly in France announced that the world had changed irrevocably, and that political legitimacy was no longer permanent even for a king.

Today political legitimacy is understood not as a simply yes or no, but to be one of degrees. It is changeable and continuity is not guaranteed.

Democracy or representational government has one particular advantage over other forms of government: citizens can hate the politician while loving the system. Politicians can be ousted while the system continues to function but even then there are limits.

Just like the Mandate of Heaven, legitimacy rests on the prosperity and health of the people. Economic stress due to inept economic policies, profligate spending on endless wars, and general awareness that opportunity for a better life is no longer possible, reduce the idea of legitimacy in the minds of those who must ultimately support the system.7

The rise of separatist movements today are indications of economic difficulties and are, at their heart, indications of popular distrust and growing questions of political legitimacy. Even democracy can be eroded by apparent incompetence.

There is only one rule of leadership and everyone who leads, or has ever led knows it: Nothing succeeds like success.



  1. Fuller, J.F.C., (1987) A Military History of the Western World, Volume I. New York, NY: Da Capo Press
  2. Durant, W. (1963) Our Oriental Heritage, New York, NY: Simon & Schuster
  3. Peer, F. (2010) Political Legitimacy. Retrieved December 8, 2014 from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/legitimacy/
  4. Arrian (1971) Campaigns of Alexander. New York, NY: Penguin Books
  5. Durant, W. (1939) The Life of Greece. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster
  6. Sophocles (1998) Oxford World Classics, Antigone, Oedipus the King, Electra. Great Britain, UK: Oxford University Press
  7. Aragón, J. (N.D.) Political Legitimacy and Democracy. Retrieved December 8, 2014 from http://www.luc.edu/media/lucedu/dccirp/pdfs/articlesforresourc/Article_-_Aragon_Trelles,_Jorge_2.pdf



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© 2014 Ivan Obolensky. All rights reserved. No part of this publication can be reproduced without the written permission from the author.


  1. craig houchin
    craig houchin12-24-2014

    Thanks for the wonderful article and the historical context. I learn a little something new with every one you write.

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