Democracy Without Reservations

The other day, I had a written exchange with a Korean student about the problems of modern education, and specifically the narrow agenda-driven nature of modern teaching content and methods. Along the way, as one example of the problem, my student noted the gulf between political theory as presented at school and the lessons in political philosophy that she and I had discussed privately. 

I was shocked when I first learned from you that Socrates and Plato opposed Democracy, because I learned Democracy was the most advanced and one of the best systems at school. Since I learned it is best for every person to have a right and ideal to elect a president through democratic participation, I thought only tyrants would oppose the system.

I replied as follows:

Naturally, since we grew up in democratic countries, and since our modern world (I would say the “Westernized” world, actually) has made a new religion out of the idea of rights and equality, we were raised to believe that democracy is good without qualification, and anyone who questions this must be regarded as evil and tyrannical. That’s why even the most tyrannical governments in the world today call themselves “true democracies” — like The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or the People’s Republic of China. They know that one cannot defend a political view today if one admits to its being “undemocratic.” 

Democracy itself is an idea with many forms, and it was invented and developed by great philosophers. On the other hand, many great philosophers were strongly opposed to democracy, for various reasons related to human nature and the dangers of majority rule (which we are seeing unfold around us these days). As for Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, although they had slightly different views, they all had a deeply suspicious attitude toward democracy, and they all believed that even the most lovely and charming promises of democratic societies will finally lead to the destruction of those societies. At the very least, they offered a firm warning against putting too much faith in democratic government, or giving all authority to “the people,” without limits. They saw where this would inevitably lead, given the basic ignorance and emotionalism of most human beings. The point is not so much that there are other systems much better than democracy, but rather that it would be foolish to put much faith in a system that requires the majority of human beings to act rationally and to limit their own desires for power over others. As we can see, their concern has turned out to be justified.

Socrates says that democracy is the most beautiful of all political systems. He also says it is the natural gateway to tyranny. I think that is the properly philosophical view of the problem. There is no perfect solution to human things, because the material world cannot be perfected. The greatest danger in politics is any view that seeks to perfect humanity or that believes we can make everything correct so there will no longer be injustice or hardship. That is exactly the road to tyranny.

To those initial comments, I will add only the following. As soon as any form of regime becomes entrenched in the public imagination as an ideal beyond question or reproach, it begins to assume the aura of a religious object, and hence becomes increasingly open to corruption and abuse, as matters of blind faith so often do. When the very word “democracy” sends a shiver of reverence through the soul, or any mention of “democracy threatened” incites unreflective outrage, one can be sure that mankind has abandoned its political rationality yet again — the very sin that the greatest democratic theorists were hoping to purge from men’s souls.

Today, the universe shakes its head in disbelief at the absurdity of the old divine right of kings, even while it has embraced the (at least) equally absurd concept of the divine right of majorities. The proper aim is to stop altogether with this weakness for identifying practical political arrangements with divinity, which is to say with Absolute and Unquestionable Truth. There are certainly better and worse among political arrangements, but there is just as certainly no perfection. History more than amply demonstrates this — but who notices history anymore, except as a series of excuses to congratulate ourselves on our moral superiority? 

Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, a love letter to a beautiful national idea, inevitably contains a warning, or rather a dire prediction, that even the constitutional republic that represented the most admirable achievement in modern political foundations would finally destroy itself through the spiritual shortcomings engendered by the trajectory of its own virtues. 

You may also like...