Notes On Saving Democracy

We are told in a thousand ways today that we are engaged in a global struggle to save democracy. Perhaps we are. If so, it would do us well to take a moment to ask what it is that we are trying to save, exactly, and furthermore, whether or in what sense it deserves to be saved.

Democracy, we like to say, was born in antiquity, the first flower of freedom blooming in classical Athens. Or was democracy the invasive weed of immoderate materialism and spiritual randomness that led to the downfall of classical Greece, as Plato and Aristotle, who lived through Athenian democracy’s zenith, believed it would be?

It is interesting in the extreme that the one major Greek philosopher, in the range from Thales to Aristotle, who was an avowed defender of democracy, was Democritus of Abdera, the most famous Greek adherent of atomism. How significant is the physics of atomism — the belief in the ultimate reality of materially equal and essentially indistinguishable indivisibles — in philosophy’s historical battle over the legitimacy and desirability of democratic politics? Even Bertrand Russell notes this peculiar correspondence between atomistic empiricism in physics and democratic egalitarianism in politics as a point of similarity between Democritus and eighteenth century thought. Is democracy as a political philosophy the special province or predilection of theorists, and subsequently of peoples, who are wedded to the metaphysical reduction of soul to body, of body to matter, and of matter to the equality of randomness?

Plato regarded democracy as the penultimate stage of mankind’s political descent from true justice, a stage which predictably, and perhaps inevitably, would devolve by way of demaguogery into tyranny. Aristotle, less cosmic and more practical in his analysis, described democracy simply as the corruption or perversion of the regime he dubbed polity. It is, to paraphrase his summary, the rule of the majority for its own advantage. That is, democracy is the intentional suppression of the minority for the advantage of those who do not know where their true advantage lies. Both Plato and Aristotle indicate or imply that democracy, properly understood, has its moral sources in the dangerous marriage of irrationalism and envy. In this regard, the greatest ancient critiques of democracy foreshadow Nietzsche’s critique of modern democracy’s inevitable fulfillment, socialism.

Socialism — as the logical conclusion of the tyranny of the least and the dumbest, i.e., those who are superficial, envious, and three-quarters actors — is indeed entailed by “modern ideas” and their latent anarchism; but in the tepid air of democratic well-being the capacity to reach conclusions, or to finish, weakens. One follows — but one no longer sees what follows. Therefore socialism is on the whole a hopeless and sour affair; and nothing offers a more amusing spectacle than the contrast between the poisonous and desperate faces cut by today’s socialists — and to what wretched and pinched feelings their style bears witness! — and the harmless lambs’ happiness of their hopes and desiderata. (Will To Power, translated by Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale, New York: Random House, 1967, ยง125.)

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