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There're been many kings and emperors in history that passed their thrones to their children. Often this doesn't work well because although the king can be very capable, the child may not be. I'm wondering if there has ever been a civilization in which the leader passed authority to the most capable instead.

The closest example I know comes from the Three Kingdoms period in China. Shu founding emperor Liu Bei appointed Zhuge Liang as regent. Liu Bei's son, Liu Shan, remained the nominal emperor, but Zhuge Liang was effectively the ruler.

Just before Zhuge Liang died in 234, Liu Shan asked him who could replace him as regent. Zhuge Liang recommended Jiang Wan and Fei Yi. After he died, Jiang Wan became regent; after Jiang Wan died, Fei Yi became regent. There the chain seems to have stopped: after Fei Yi died, Jiang Wei became regent, but he apparently wasn't recommended by Fei Yi. Shu was conquered while Jiang Wei was regent. The chain lasted from 234 (year of Zhuge Liang's death) to 253 (year in which Fei Yi died), or less than 20 years.

Has there ever been a longer-lasting civilization which followed this chain of succession

I'm looking for examples that do not include elections, which after all need not lead to the most capable candidate becoming the ruler (see e.g. various countries in the modern world). The ruler simply designates a (non-family member) person to take over.

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    Whose opinion of "most capable"? Under any reasonable and objective definition I can imagine all democracies immediately and trivially qualify. – Pieter Geerkens Nov 27 '19 at 6:18
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    @PieterGeerkens the previous ruler's. – Allure Nov 27 '19 at 6:30
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    Wouldn't any example of a non-hereditary monarchy qualify? – Denis de Bernardy Nov 27 '19 at 6:58
  • @DenisdeBernardy do you know of any? – Allure Nov 27 '19 at 7:15
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    Most of the Roman Emperors would qualify -they adopted the person they felt most capable and passed the Empire down. Sometimes they were tragically wrong. In my opinion, this question is subjective. – Mark C. Wallace Nov 27 '19 at 12:45
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It seems strange to start such a list not with Alexander the Great. According to Krateros his last words were answering the question of who shall go command then he answered "to the strongest". Not arguing over the veracity of this nice excuse for his generals to find out what that means via fighting…

The big list for this is presented by things like the Holy Roman Empire or the Polish Kingdom. Generally: things called "elective monarchies." These constructs look like those who used them were apparently aware that reliance on genetic familiarity is not reliable in any way. An early example of the nature nurture debate influencing politics?

That makes the list on Wikipedia (which I would start with the Papacy):

Macedon, Rome / Byzantium, Holy Roman Empire, Kingdom of Jerusalem, Scandinavia, Poland-Lithuania, Bohemia, Venice, Dutch Republic, Sovereign Military Order of Malta

Most republics, democracies, Soviets would qualify as well. Stalin's son could not be king.

Of course the list is long, and there are exceptions. North Korean Kims come as easily to mind as North-American Bushes…

Examples without elections would then be phalangist Franco giving way to king Juan Carlos of Spain, Hitler designating Dönitz and Schwerin von Krosigk, Kemal to Inonu, Dollfuß to Schuschnigg, and Pilsudki to Smigly-Rydz, and for a change the good tyrant Agathocles of Syracuse, who called a popular assembly before his death and gave back democarcy to the people (well, at least in wording, it was compllicated and we lack proper sources to evaluate intentions and real effect (Berve, 1957 (PDF))

No dictatorship, so one believed, would continue beyond the death of the "tyrant," unless he managed to turn his rule into hereditary monarchy. Against this, however, it has been suggested recently that modern, totalitarian dictatorship, with its lieutenants and the help of the organized machinery of its party, has found the means to overcome the old dilemma. Where the totalitarian movement is effectively organized its existence provides for the mass interest in, as well as the leadership reservoir for, successorship into the office of the defunct leader. Continuation of dictatorial regimes in Russia after Lenin's death, in Turkey after the death of Kemal, in Austria after the assassination of Dollfuss, in Poland after the death of Pilsudski, are referred to as evidence of an improved technique and a changed situation.
–– John H. Herz: "The Problem of Successorship in Dictatorial Régimes; A Study in Comparative Law and Institutions", The Journal of Politics, Vol. 14, No. 1, 1952, pp. 19-40.

But apart from these examples, there is a fundamental problem here. The question seeks to ascertain a pattern of rulership that is violation of a certain framework: legitimacy of rule.

A hereditary monarch gives his seat to his son. An elected leader is replaced by another elected leader. Since both types are excluded by the questions definition we are left with charismatic leadership.

As Max Weber already explained in The Three Types of Legitimate Rule, such a scheme is the most difficult to achieve and as we have seen in cases like Cromwell and Napoleon, transformation of this type of rule is the much preferred option. Real examples for Charismatic authority – Designation by original leader are extraordinarily hard to find,

Because the authority is concentrated in one leader, the death of the charismatic leader would constitute the destruction of the government unless prior arrangements were made. A society that faces the end of their charismatic leader can choose to move to another format of leadership or to have a transference of charismatic authority to another leader by means of succession.

And a designation of a successor already undermines the original leader's uniqueness to a large degree – if it doesn't present a real sword of Damocles again for the 'original'. This designation may be kept under wraps to avoid the problems of that (North Korea as example again), but the successor is then forced into a much weaker position with less inherited charisma.

If people start to believe in hereditary 'gentilic' qualities, a hereditary charisma becomes automatically some form of traditional legitimate rule.

After such types of Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Alexander, Caesar, Napoleon, Hitler, any potential successors will inherit one thing for sure: a difficult time building their own charisma and basing their own rule on that alone, while still being able to transfer this model to a chosen successor of their own while maintaining some stability. Rivals and ordinary people are too quickly dissatisfied.

Thus, given the premise of "longer-lasting civilisation based on designated successors" that wants to exclude any form of election and models like adoptive Roman emperors will need to be rather short-lived? As a principle, it just doesn't work very well.

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    Alexander the Great may not be the best example, as he actually had a blood heir. It was his generals who collectively decided between themselves that they'd make better successors. – T.E.D. Nov 27 '19 at 22:21
  • Yo, it was complicated. Not arguing even about the veracity of 'last words', that's the story told (as asked in Q) over knowing that a male heir was perhaps due in some time: both options were objectively a problem. That is the point of the answer. Aftermath of Alex's death illustrates it perfectally? – LаngLаngС Nov 28 '19 at 1:07
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Yes, the period of the five good emperors in Rome, for example.

However, they didn't do that because they thought it the very best solution. They did it because they didn't have any children that could inherit. The period ended when Marcus Aurelius made Commodus heir to the throne. That wasn't on a whim, and Marcus Aurelius didn't want the empire to return to a republic. That's what the movies tell us. Commodus was groomed as his successor from an early age. He wasn't suited for the job, but that is a different story.

The most important reason to pick close a family member, even a bad one, is continuity. You, as a person, are alone. The high ranking officers of government, the army and the court want to continue doing what they did. A new ruler, however enlightened he might be, can change that completely over night. Fire the old guard and replace them at will with his cronies. A family member makes that less likely to happen. The family must make arrangements with the powers that are to remain in place and vice versa.

The Romans firmly believed in heredity. If an ancestor did something great, it was likely, expected or at least assumed his great-great grandson would do that too. That was one of the reasons Brutus was asked/joined the plot to kill Caesar. His ancestor killed the last Roman king, it was expected he would do likewise.

However, this question is far more general, not specific to the Roman empire. In general terms those who rule would like to continue ruling. The best chance for them to do so is when a close family member takes over the top job.

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    re "The most important reason to pick close a family member, even a bad one, is continuity" No - the most important reason is genetics. Good traits run in families even if they occasionally skip a generation. – Pieter Geerkens Nov 27 '19 at 7:36
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The Rashidun Caliphate — Abu Bakr as-Siddeeq appoints ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab as his successor. May Allāh be pleased with both of them.

Conquers Mesopotamia the Levant and it’s surrounding areas, Egypt, Jerusalem etc. Finishes off the Persian Empire and the Roman Empire.

An effective statesman, proportioned his vast territories at an administrative level unlike what was common during his time. Brought upon great economic reform in favor of those without wealth. And was a highly competent legal jurist in his own right.

Not a single name, or body or group,...even a dynasty itself...can compare to just the frayed threads of this man’s garment.

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