The Great Conversation:

By Matt McKeown

Almost every nation in the world today calls itself a democracy, and almost none agree on how to define the term.

Democracy is a tricky word. It comes, as everyone knows, from the Greek words δῆμος (dēmos), meaning “people,” and κρατία (kratia), meaning “force” or “power,” thus coming out to something like “popular rule” (or even “power to the people”), and this term was used of the Athenian system of government in the classical period. But this definition is misleading; for one thing, δῆμος doesn’t really mean “people” as we think of today. A better translation might be “citizenry”—bearing in mind that in fifth-century BC Athens, the citizens were a small minority of the population, since it excluded women, slaves, and the foreign-born. The δῆμος that held real power in this primitive “democracy” may have been as small as ten percent of all Athenians.

Not many people today would consider that a democracy; it seems quite well suited to be called an oligarchy, which we have discussed here. The modern idea of democracy normally prioritizes equality (which can itself mean a lot of things). A common expression of the sentiment we now call “democracy” is the Latin phrase vox populi vox Dei, “the voice of the people is the voice of God,” meaning that political sovereignty inherently rests with the people—however exactly they are defined—and that no autocrat has the right to defy that voice. Ironically enough, our earliest record of the proverb seems to come from Alcuin, a prominent scholar of the court of Charlemagne, in a letter written to that emperor advising him to ignore those who repeated the proverb, suggesting that the sentiment was at least popular enough for Alcuin to bother trying to dismiss it.

Despite the reputation of the Middle Ages in the popular imagination, this vaguely-defined but real attitude to popular political power is noticeable in many of the traditions and documents of the era. St. Thomas Aquinas says the following:

A law, properly speaking, regards first and foremost the order to the common good. Now to order anything to the common good, belongs either to the whole people, or to someone who is the viceregent of the whole people. And therefore the making of a law belongs either to the whole people or to a public personage who has care of the whole people: since in all other matters the directing of anything to the end concerns him to whom the end belongs. (Summa Theologiæ II.i.90.3)

Nor, though he was something of an intellectual revolutionary, is St. Thomas unusual among the Medievals here. Magna Carta, promulgated in 1215, posed itself as protecting traditional liberties against encroachments from the crown, and in 1327 the Archbishop of Canterbury actually used vox populi vox Dei as the title of a sermon preached in rebuke of King Edward II. Like England, northern Italy was another locus of popular political power, consisting (with exceptions) in a patchwork of mercantile republics that owed some allegiance to either the Holy Roman Empire or the Papal States, but which were largely self-governing in practice. The tension between the Guelf and Ghibelline parties in the region, so formative to the work of Dante, was effectively a tension between those who wished to maintain constitutional, republican rule and those who wanted a more aristocratic regime.

Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

But speaking of Italian republics, another contrast we sometimes forget is that between democracy and republic as ideals. The origin of the term “republic” is Latin rather than Greek: the phrase res publica literally translates to “public affairs,” but was more specifically applied to the Roman system of government between the abolition of the monarchy and the rise of the empire (dominated by the Senate, with certain official concessions to popular influence). The usual distinction drawn between democracy and republicanism—except when we are talking about US political parties—is that between government by popular decision, or “direct democracy,” and government by popular representatives who are free to use their own judgment, sometimes called “indirect democracy” or “democratic republicanism.” Neither term entirely aligns with its original history: in ancient democracies, elections were mostly avoided due to their tendency to promote factionalism and civic conflict, and officials were chosen by lottery, while in the Roman republic, the Senate and most officials were predominantly hereditary institutions open only to the propertied class. For most of western history, political theorists who promoted what they called “republic” were quite consciously and explicitly opposed to popular sovereignty, preferring rule to be restricted by some additional qualification—often wealth, land, or education. A favorite talking point of many such “small r” republicans is how democracies, direct democracies particularly, easily slide into various forms of tyranny; mob rule is the most obvious degeneration of democracy, but one neglected fact about dictators (both ancient and modern) is that they very frequently rise to power on the strength of widespread popular support.

The political and, so to speak, spiritual dimensions of democracy seem clear enough. The former means government by “the people,” whether defined as all residents or as citizens alone, with whatever restrictions that implies; the latter is a general sense that all human beings have an equal dignity that ought to be recognized by the law. Whether either of these ideas implies that elections are the only (or best) just way of governing is a separate question, though the conventional answer in our day and age is “yes.”

However, in much of history and especially since the nineteenth century, applying democracy to other realms than civics has grown more and more common. Perhaps under the influence of the American founding fathers, many of whom advocated universal education as an aid or even a prerequisite for the system they set forth, John Stuart Mill wrote that it is “almost a self-evident axiom that the State should require and compel the education, up to a certain standard, of every human being who is born its citizen.” On different but related lines, the Marxist schools (and the broader tradition of socialism to which they belong) have argued that democracy belongs in the economic as well as the political sphere: both in the sense that massive class inequalities are unjust, and in the sense that workers should be able to collectively control their work and workplaces, rather than being under the thumb of managers. The disproportionate political influence that the wealthy are able to have on politics, through both the media and direct lobbying, is a byword in our own day—even if we usually only have the moral courage to point it out when it is our enemies doing it. Whether and how far to extend democracy from politics into the rest of culture remains a contentious question.

Suggested reading:
Aristotle, Politics
Dante Alighieri, On Monarchy
John Locke, Second Treatise of Human Government
W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk
Emma Goldman, Anarchism and Other Essays
William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich


If you enjoyed this piece, take a look at some of our other installments on “the Great Conversation,” on subjects ranging from happiness to mathematics to ideas themselves. And don’t miss tonight’s Journey Through the Author Bank seminar, in which Dr. Christine Basil of Belmont Abbey College will be covering Aristotle.

Page image of The Acropolis at Athens by Leo von Klenze, 1846.

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