What Forms Does Government Take? Merchant, Soldier, Sage

Haley Kynefin
Mar 1, 2019 · 9 min read
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Last time we examined common oppositions to the idea of direct democracy, and where those oppositions come from. Later on, we’ll ask ourselves: Are these objections well-founded? Is it possible, with advances in technology, to create a true direct democracy in America (or elsewhere)?

But right now, instead, we’re going to zoom out to take a look at the overall concept of government. What is government, and what forms does it take? This will help provide a philosophical foundation for some of the other discussions we’re going to have throughout this series.

David Priestland, a professor of History at Oxford University, believes that governments throughout time fall into three main categories: what he calls “merchant”, “soldier”, and “sage”. Priestland argues that these social “castes” are archetypes, persisting throughout history, despite assuming a variety of possible forms.

I think his power categorizations are interesting, because they acknowledge that power can come from a variety of different sources, and they map well to a diverse array of historical classifications.¹ This does not mean that Priestland’s schema is the one-and-only “right” way of viewing power — and indeed, we’ll examine others — but I want to start with his conceptualization, because I think it is both innovative and extremely useful.

First, we’re going to look at what these caste names mean — how does he define “merchants”, “soldiers” and “sages”, and the respective governments they run? Next, we’ll take a look at some of the research his classifications are based on — the reasoning behind the schema.

Who Are Priestland’s Social Castes?

1. The Soldier/Warrior/Aristocrat

“In most premodern societies, the warrior aristocracy was the dominant caste. Rulers were expected to combine two closely connected roles: the heroic, fame-seeking warrior and the paternalistic ‘father of the people,’ and this caste created intensely hierarchical societies at home and empires abroad.” ²

Warrior governments often center around a charismatic and paternalistic figure, someone who exemplifies bravery, leadership and glory. This leader is typically entitled to the lion’s share of wealth, land, food, and resources; the idea is that they have the right to rule, provided they serve their people. Thus, warrior leaders were historically expected to expend a huge proportion of their income on feasts and festivals. The warrior chief provides for the band of fighters who surround him like a brotherhood, pledging to fight and die for each other. Moreover, “brotherhood” — both symbolic and literal — are extremely important concepts. While a warrior leader’s band prides themselves on symbolic fraternity, kinship and direct bloodline are typically valued highly as well.

As conquering warrior bands merged increasingly with urban civilization centers, the “warrior” government style often took the form of a landed aristocracy. These landowners, like their barbarian predecessors, demanded taxes and labor in exchange for paternalistic protection and support. Aristocracies historically have valued bloodline and kinship, courageous exploits and glory, and if they were not fighters themselves they frequently allied with warrior forces. In ancient times, Priestland argues that landed aristocracies emerged more or less directly from conquering warrior groups, and throughout history remained analogues of the original “warrior” chieftainship.

As late as the early 20th century, much of the world was still dominated by governments that Priestland labels “warrior”-style — including Qing China, Romanov Russia, Hapsburg Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Middle East in 1923. These were primarily agrarian empires ruled by a warrior aristocracy. But even “modern”, non-agrarian governments can fall into the warrior category. For Priestland, some of these warrior governments include Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and Japan in the 1930s, as well as Gamal Nasser of Egypt, Palestinian nationalist Yasser Arafat, and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. While not all of these government leaders were actually military men themselves, many of them nonetheless idolized the military, used their charisma to secure weaponized support forces, or promoted warrior values such as a focus on bloodline, nationalist brotherhood, pursuit of glory, and individual heroism. So as we can see, Priestland’s “warrior” caste refers more to a set of “warrior” values and attitudes, rather than simply to a military-based background or profession.

2. The Sage/Priest/Bureaucrat

“Sages — the literate manipulators of ideas — also originally had two functions: as ‘clerics,’ or religious figures, and as ‘clerks,’ or officials. The sage-priest’s role as ideological defender or reformer of the prevailing order has been adopted by a range of modern types, from speechwriters, journalists, and academics to latter-day ‘holy men’ […] But it is the other form of sage-priest — the clerk, or expert ‘sage-technocrat’ — who is more dominant, and in much of the world his culture of both expert professionalism and bureaucracy has increasingly eclipsed aristocratic forms of rule.”

While Priestland’s “sages” generally ally themselves as a secondary power to other ruling castes (namely, warriors and later, merchants), there have indeed existed “sage” governments. In the premodern world, the Confucian bureaucracy of China is an example. Governors were required to be highly educated, and study of philosophy and literature were crucial to obtaining grants and respect. Even landowning aristocrats in Chinese society (a class of people typically arising from the “warrior” caste) needed to be educated, a sign that sage-like values had deeply penetrated the culture.

Modern examples of sage/bureaucrat and technocrat rule include Communist China in the 1950s and India under Jawaharlal Nehru.

The sage caste is a complicated one, throughout history having encompassed priests and church leaders, magicians and wizards, bureaucrats, court advisors, scientists and technologists, engineers, intellectuals, artists, writers, and anyone who manipulates mythology or ideas. The power of the sage is largely ideological power, in the many forms it takes.

3. The Merchant/Capitalist

“The third ethos — the merchant’s — has penetrated most areas of life today, but, unsurprisingly, it can be seen in its purest form in trade and finance. The merchant is often Janus-faced: with his flexibility, love of networking, and willingness to trade with all, regardless of class, ethnicity, or religion, he shows his ‘soft,’ tolerant, and cosmopolitan face […] But he also has a much ‘harder,’ more moralistic, hierarchical, and authoritarian aspect that can become apparent when in conflict with others […] For while his love of efficiency and innovation has undoubtedly helped to promote higher living standards for many, his tendency to pursue the highest profit in the quickest time is often difficult to align with the interests of particular communities…”

Priestland traces the beginning of a mercantile order back to the 1500s. He names three main factors that were important in Europe for the ascendance of the merchant caste: 1) imperialist expansion in the New World, which funneled new resources into Europe for trade; 2) the Reformation, which placed more land in the hands of private, capitalistic individuals among the gentry; and 3) rising taxes in most European states, leading to rebellion. For a couple hundred years, beginning with Dutch partnerships like the Hanseatic Union, the merchant caste in Europe forged an alliance with the warrior aristocracy for protection.

London followed suit, sending gunboats to Latin America in the 1830s, fighting the Chinese Opium Wars, and coercing indentured servants on plantations into working for capitalist gain. British economic interests abroad were frequently enforced with military might; and even domestically, landlords privatized rural communal lands “at the barrel of a gun”.

Later, in the 1980s, the “soft” merchant caste around the world increasingly struck alliances with the sage, in the form of a liberal, “creative” middle class. While Priestland’s “hard merchant” enforces profit margins with guns, austerity, and coercion — usually in alliance with the warrior — “soft merchants” play on romantic and liberal tendencies, marketing consumption as self-expression and pushing free markets under the banners of culture and education.

“Prizing individual autonomy and cultural freedoms over economic equality,” Priestland writes, “the romantic sage-creatives found they had more in common with the cosmopolitan soft merchant than with the egalitarian worker”.

Which brings us to Priestland’s fourth caste, historically so dispossessed of power they don’t even figure into the title of his book:

4. The Worker/Peasant: The Forgotten Caste

This fourth caste, corresponding to the worker or laborer, historically has not held power in a significant way. There has never really been a truly worker-based government, although Priestland discusses Democratic Socialist governments as examples of states that have lent more power to the worker. He does not overlook the importance of the worker/peasant class’ influence on the dynamics of history, and devotes a solid portion of his book to its analysis. At some point, I plan to return to some of his thoughts on the worker caste and its place in history, when we discuss the relationship of the worker/peasant to the state. However, for now, I am primarily concerned with the “government” side of the power equation, so we will leave that for another time.

Foundations of Priestland’s Schema

Priestland’s work is founded on “the classical sociological tradition of Marx and Weber, the historical sociology of Michael Mann and Charles Tilly, the French cultural sociology of Pierre Bourdieu and Luc Boltanski, and the political sociology of the German American Herbert Kitschelt and others”. For a detailed account of the schema’s academic basis, see the Appendix of Merchant, Soldier, Sage.

Marx provided some invaluable insights into economic power struggles, but he had a tendency to simplify every power dynamic to economics — lacking multi-dimensionality. Weber added a few other dimensions to the sociological story of power, describing three sources of influence: economic, ideological, and political. According to Priestland, this is the division used by most modern sociologists. Michael Mann, however, divides political power into both military and political power, arguing that military force is often used by groups who have no official political standing — such as guerilla fighters, criminal organizations, and rebel factions.³ Thus, he comes up with four main sources of social power. Others also tack on “associational” power, which is used to refer to modes of collective organization, frequently used by the working class.

Priestland believes his caste categories map well onto the combination of these theories — and that the theories themselves map well onto a trove of historical attempts to analyze society:

“Merchants wield economic power; soldiers, military power; sage-priests and sage-holy men, ideological power (the former often justifying the political status quo and the latter often taking a more critical view that transcends political structures). Associational power can be exercised by many groups but is often used by non-elites — that is, peasants and workers — who are weak in hierarchical societies. Meanwhile, political power is wielded at different times by landowner aristocrats and sage-technocrats.”

Additional Notes/Conclusion

Priestland doesn’t claim that any of the castes are inherently bad for society; rather, he argues, problems arise when caste power struggles become unbalanced. It’s important to note, also, that governments are complex organizations, and usually contain aspects of multiple (if not all) power castes to varying degrees. So while one caste might achieve dominance for a period of time, this does not mean that other castes can’t still wield considerable influence within a state or government.

As archetypes, these caste attitudes can be applied to individuals within government, entire governments themselves, or loose, abstract groups of people within society — on a more or less symbolic level and with more or less precision. They become useful tools for looking at fluid social elements throughout history, and when we experiment with applying them in different ways, we can gain varied insights from them.

As we deepen our examination into states and the history of power, Priestland’s caste system will act as a helpful schematic. While there are definitely other ways of categorizing governments and social groups, this system does a really good job of summarizing multi-dimensional dynamics. Priestland’s categories take into account economic class, individual belief and value systems, lifestyle factors that arise from occupation, and broader societal and worldwide trends. They are also symbolically vivid and rich. Adding these new conceptual tools to our arsenal, we will now zoom out even further — and ask about the origins of government itself.


  1. In a future article, we’ll explore some of these classifications more.
  2. All references used in this article come from Priestland’s book, Merchant, Soldier, Sage, cited below.
  3. We’ll come back to Mann later. His extensive, four-volume history of world power, The Sources of Social Power, is one of the most comprehensively researched works of its kind, and is built on a strong academic foundation.


1. Priestland, David (2012). Merchant, Soldier, Sage. The Penguin Press: New York.

Power Lines

An accessible, scholarly analysis at the intersection…

Haley Kynefin

Written by

I study myth, power and social structures. Particularly: How do states gain power through narrative? How do individuals & groups dare to resist that power?

Power Lines

An accessible, scholarly analysis at the intersection between power and narrative. Particularly: How do states gain power through narrative? How do individuals & groups dare to resist that power? What are the mechanisms by which myth and power are connected?

Haley Kynefin

Written by

I study myth, power and social structures. Particularly: How do states gain power through narrative? How do individuals & groups dare to resist that power?

Power Lines

An accessible, scholarly analysis at the intersection between power and narrative. Particularly: How do states gain power through narrative? How do individuals & groups dare to resist that power? What are the mechanisms by which myth and power are connected?

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