The Mandate of Heaven philosophy states that if a ruler was overthrown by the people, it was Heaven executing its will - with respect to an ineffective ruler.

The Duke of Zhou created the idea in the 11th century BC. Secularism was certainly rare in the world, so expecting an absence of the religious element in any idea would be being pedantic.

The cause of a ruler's fall within the theory is metaphysical (Heaven), the effect is physical (human revolution).

Given an assumption that a 'pre-enlightenment' idea had to tie in worldly action with some metaphysical driver, is this a pre-modern philosophy of direct democracy - or at least a philosophy of directly democratic revolution?


I'm not sure whether direct democracy is really the correct term to use - but I see the point you're making. This idea was touched on by David Stasavage in his article Representation and Consent: Why They Arose in Europe and Not Elsewhere in the Annual Review of Political Science 2016. Stasavage describes the political philosophy that developed in Western Europe was that:

whether one was in an autonomous city republic or a territorial monarchy, those who governed ought to somehow obtain the consent of citizens or subjects.

He mentions the Latin phrase 'Quod omnes tangit ab omnibus tractari et approbari debet' (Q. ot ) which is drawn from ancient Roman civil law, and means "What touches all should be considered and approved by all.". He notes that around the same time that the Duke of Zhou created this idea, so Q. ot was being applied to government in Europe. Most importantly, he notes the distinction between the two philosophies in that:

This statement [regarding the Mandate of Heaven] clearly reflects a theory of government in which those who rule have obligations to those they govern. The principle of the Mandate of Heaven had been invoked by emperors of prior dynasties and would continue to be invoked subsequently. However, the concept of a Mandate of Heaven never extended to obtaining consent, nor did it involve assembling representatives to achieve this goal.

I'm not sure whether the term 'democracy', direct or otherwise, can be used to classify a political theory which only obtains implied consent by the virtue of not having been overthrown yet.

  • From that article then, I would say The Mandate of Heaven is lost when the people take away consent with respect to their government, but representation does not feature. The article talks about Greek democracy being based on participation over representation though, so along the lines the author wrote, would the Mandate then be closer to the Ancient Greek model of democracy, instead of the Roman Law one that he argues arose in Europe? Apr 6 '20 at 16:46
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    @IlyaGrushevskiy I think it would be more accurate to say that the Ancient Greek model of Athenian democracy is closer to the philosophy of direct democracy - all male citizens had a voice in decisions. I don't think that this compares with the Mandate of Heaven philosophy really - although you could say that technically the whole population had a say in politics, this is only insofar as they had the potential to overthrow the ruler.
    – CDJB
    Apr 6 '20 at 16:57

In general, democracy, direct or otherwise is usually assumed to follow the peaceful will of the majority of 'the people' (although the collection of beings recognized as actually people may happen to be relatively small to be compared to the general populace). Revolts, uprisings and revolution have generally involved the violent action of extremely small groups of people, not always in the majority among their peers.

As such the mandate of Heaven (and the western version of the divine right of kings) were much more about jusifying the continued rule of whichever leader happened to be in power, and explaining how they had happened to replace their predecessor. History has tended to be written by the winners.

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