Democracy and Despotism



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Euripides, “Democracy and Despotism”

This brief dialogue taken from the Greek playwright Euripides is one of the earliest known defenses of the democratic ideal in Western political theory. Taken from his playThe Suppliants, the excerpt envisions an exchange between an envoy from Thebes, ruled by the tyrant Creon, and one of the leaders of Athenian democracy, Theseus. The Theban Messenger makes several criticisms of Athenian democracy, all of which would be echoed later by the “founder” of Western political philosophy, Plato, in his most famous dialogue, the Republic. The Theban Messenger decries the democratic masses as “gullible” and easily taken in and manipulated by a self-serving politician, precisely because they are incapable of judging right from wrong. So, too, the Messenger claims that most people lack the time and talent necessary to understand the intricacies of political issues, which are too complex for their feeble and uneducated minds. Theseus responds that nothing is worse than the rule of one man who places himself above the law and is not subject to it. Moreover, he claims that real freedom means that anyone capable of giving sound advice should be able to do so, by contributing directly to the process of defining the common good through active political participation and deliberation.



Pericles, “Funeral Oration”

Given at a burial ceremony to commemorate fallen warriors during the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, Pericles’s funeral oration is regarded as the classic defense of Athenian democracy. Before praising the dead, Pericles describes the democratic way of life for which they died. According to his account, the definitional markers of Athenian democracy were equal justice under the law, and the preferential recognition of excellence among its citizenry, which took the form of making public service the reward of merit. So, too, the Athenians insisted that poverty not act as barrier to public service, recognizing full well that talented people are sometimes born to poor and obscure circumstances. Crucially, Pericles insists that the Athenians “alone regard a man who takes no interest in public affairs, not as a harmless, but as a useless character.” Athenian democracy thus put a profound emphasis on public participation and deliberation in politics, believing, according to Pericles, that, “The great impediment to action is, in our opinion, not discussion, but the want of that knowledge which is gained by discussion preparatory to action” (p. 18). Against this backdrop, Pericles maintains that honorable death in war is the highest form of public service; it is a form of sacrifice for an ideal way of life. By making it, the individuals who perish demonstrate by their behavior an ability to transcend their narrowly defined private interests on behalf of something greater than themselves. Pericles concludes that their sacrifice is worthy of a form of admiration that words can never express.



Aristotle, “Democratic Judgment and the ‘Middling’ Constitution”

In this reading, the Greek political philosopher Aristotle offers a qualified endorsement of the capacity of democratic citizens to make good political judgments. Aristotle himself was no defender of democracy: In his six-part taxonomy of political regimes, he classified democracy as a corrupt or perverted form of government; a kind of class rule by the many poor who think only of their own interests, and not of the good of the community as a whole. Indeed, Aristotle believed that democracy often led directly to the worst form of government, tyrannical rule by one man who dupes the demosby pretending to be their friend and savior. Nevertheless, Aristotle also argued that democratic majorities are often capable of making very good political judgments. This is because “Each individual among the many has a share of virtue and prudence, and when they meet together, they become in a manner of speaking one man, who has many feet and hands and senses” (p. 22). In this way, the aggregated assessments and decisions made by the multitude are frequently as good as, or better than, those made by any one single individual. Moreover, this matters a great deal for Aristotle because he firmly believe that his ideal form of government, rule by “the best” (or aristocracy), was highly unlikely, given the real existing conditions of most states and most people most of the time. Thus, Aristotle came to advocate a form of “mixed government” which he called “polity” as the most practicable alternative to the ideal of aristocracy. “Polity” combined elements of rule by the few with rule by the many, was marked by the predominance of a large and thriving middle class, and aimed at achieving not the good of any one class, but rather the entire community.



Niccolò Machiavelli, “What’s Wrong with Princely Rule?”

While best known as the author of The Prince, the Italian Renaissance thinker Machiavelli’s greatest contribution to the history of political ideas was his defense of republicanism. The republican vision of “mixed government” (a combination of rule by one, few, and many), rather than princely rule, was Machiavelli’s ideal form of government. Republicanism, a classical idea that can be traced from Aristotle through Polybius to Roman authors, was in the process of being reborn during Machiavelli’s time. Machiavelli regarded Roman republicanism as particularly worthy of theoretical defense, and this is what he set out to do in his book, The Discourses, which is a commentary on the work of the Roman historian Titus Livy. In this extract from The Discourses, Machiavelli defends a mixed form of government with a broad popular base (the many) over the simple rule of a prince (the one), on the grounds that the people’s judgment is better than the prince’s. First, he insists that the proper grounds for making this assessment is when both forms of government are under the rule of law, which is paramount for avoiding the chief political vice of corruption. With reference to Roman history, Machiavelli then argues that rule by the many was more prudent, stable, predicted the future better, led to more social progress, and produced better choices on the whole than the rule of one man. He maintains, further, that when the rule of law is in place, “we shall find more virtue in the people that in the prince” (p. 28), and that the people’s errors will be consequently smaller and more easily checked than the prince’s.



John Adams, “Thoughts on Government”

In 1776, one of America’s most important Founding Fathers and the eventual second President of the United States, John Adams, set forth some of the basic tenets of republicanism in his Thoughts on Government. In this extract, Adams begins with the famous declaration that a republic is best defined as “an empire of law, and not of men.” He then goes on to consider what the best institutional arrangements for self-government would be, given this goal of creating a society in which impartial law, rather than self-interested individuals, holds sway. His argument here is a modification of the much older ideal of “mixed government” that can be traced back from Aristotle, through Rome, to the Italian Renaissance. On this view, the elements of the monarchical one, the aristocratic few, and the popular many must be carefully balanced in one government in order to stave off corruption. Adams maintains that the first task in any large society will be to choose “a few of the most wise and good” as representatives of the people (p. 821). He insists further that, due largely to the negative propensities of human nature; a simple unicameral legislature is undesirable. Instead, Adams argues for a bicameral legislature and an executive vested with veto power, in order for the people’s representatives to be able to check one another, and thus to prevent the slide into corrupt rule. Similarly, Adams advocates an independent judicial branch that is “distinct from both the legislative and executive,” in order for it to “be a check upon both, as both should be checks upon that” (pp. 33-34).

Bill of Rights of the United States”

While the Framers of the Constitution originally believed that the system of separation of powers and checks and balances outlined in the document would be sufficient both to ward off the danger of corrupt rule from the national government and protect individual rights, many others were not so convinced. Largely due to criticism from these “Antifederalists,” a Bill of Rights was drafted to make certain guarantees to individuals and states explicit and inviolable. This document was adopted as the first ten amendments to the Constitution in 1791. The Bill of Rights is an admixture of old republican concerns about domination by a corrupt government and fears that the national government was not sufficiently democratic, with the language of liberal individualism.



Alexis de Tocqueville, “Democracy and Equality”

Alexis de Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America after a nine-month visit to the United States in the early 1830s. It is one of the most profound interpretations of the potential implications of the democratic ideal ever written. While born into the French aristocracy, Tocqueville came to see democracy as an irresistible force that was definitional of political modernity, one destined to sweep away societies like those in Europe which were predicated on feudal orders, ranks, and aristocratic privileges. Democracy, in short, was on Tocqueville’s account historically inevitable, and not a matter of choice. Given this, he sought to understand democracy’s tendencies—both positive and negative—and to accentuate the former, while mitigating if not eliminating the latter. In this regard, Tocqueville is probably best known for his analysis of democracy’s shortcomings, particularly its tendency to produce mediocrity and conformism. By celebrating equality, democracy pressures people to think and act in similar ways, especially in the mindless pursuit of material wealth. Tocqueville called this psychological pressure towards blind conformity “the tyranny of the majority,” and argued that it threatened to lead either to rule by the dull and mediocre (because no great individuals would enter politics), or old fashioned despotism, as demagogues tricked the people into believing in them while pursuing their own power. He added that democracy might also lead to a new form of tyranny, which he called “soft despotism,” or the threat that individuals would gradually cede more and more of their liberties to an increasingly powerful state, which they expected to dole out material benefits and privileges. To counter these tendencies, Tocqueville argued for a range of intermediary institutions within the context of democracy, like those which had existed in the European Old Regime, where the aristocracy had served as a buffer to the emergence of despotism by guarding its privileges and property, and inculcated values like honor which were contrary to materialism and conformity. The trick, of course, was that these intermediary bodies could not actually recreate an aristocracy, which was a conceptual non-starter for a democratic society. Consequently, Tocqueville would turn to such remedies as organized religion, lawyers and the judicial branch as a whole, and the educational system, to act as bulwarks against the tyranny of the majority and despotism. He also famously advocated local self-governance and active participation (such as the New England town hall meeting and jury duty), to attach people to their locality, to develop “habits of the heart” that lead to communal over self-interest, and thereby to stem the flow of power to the center of large political associations.



In this reading, drawn from the introduction to Democracy in America,Tocqueville focuses on the inevitability of democracy, a phrase which he makes synonymous with “equality of conditions.” For Tocqueville: “The gradual development of the equality of conditions is…a providential fact, and it possesses all the characteristics of a divine decree” (p. 40). Tocqueville notes that this process has effectively destroyed the aristocracy in France, and substituted political democracy, the necessary concomitant of it, in its place. The problem, however, is that this new democracy is untutored and uneducated. The consequence, he tells his French countrymen, is that they have destroyed all of the intermediary bodies that could act as a counterweight to democracy’s negative tendencies, but replaced them with nothing. “Having destroyed and aristocracy, we seem inclined to survey its ruins with complacency.” The consequence is that the “lawless” government he calls the “democracy of France…has overthrown whatever crossed its path, and has shaken all that it has not destroyed” (p. 43). In order to find out what should be done in France, then, Tocqueville traveled to America, to look at a country where there had never been anything but equality of condition, on his view, and which therefore afforded the perfect opportunity to contemplate the positive and negative tendencies of democratic principles in all their purity. His goal was to discover what the Americans did poorly, and what they did well, in order to learn how to “educate the democracy” which was inevitable in France, and throughout Europe. What was needed, in short was to “a new science of politics” in order to confront a “new world’ that would be inescapably democratic for better and worse.

John Stuart Mill, “Democratic Participation and Political Education”

In this extract, taken from his Considerations on Representative Government,the great English philosopher and political theorist John Stuart Mill makes a case for representative democracy as the ideal form of government. Mill’s argument rests on two broad claims. The first is that such a government alone is truly “self-protecting”; that is, only a representative democracy in which individuals are directly involved in choosing those who will govern them can truly express their interests and prevent “evil at the hands of others” (p. 49). This is consistent with Mill’s lifelong commitment to the philosophy of Utilitarianism, which sought to promote “the greatest good for the greatest number.” Utilitarians believed that democracy provided a mechanism for individuals to express their conception of self-interest, principally through the mechanism of casting votes that could be aggregated to discern which policies were most desirable for the community as a whole. However, the bulk of Mill’s essay focuses on his second argument in favor of democracy, which pertains to its educative effects on the moral and civic character of individuals, as well as the tremendous benefits that such citizens provide for the community writ large. With reference back to participatory Athenian democracy, but also like his friend Tocqueville, Mill insists that a citizen, while actively engaged in politics, even if only at the local level, is called upon, while so engaged, to weigh interests not his own; to be guided, in case of conflicting claims, by another rule than his private partialities; to apply, at every turn, principles and maxims which have for reason of existence the common good…Where this school of public spirit does not exist, scarcely any sense is entertained that private persons, in no eminent social situation, owe any duties to society, except to obey the laws and submit to the government. There is no unselfish sentiment of identification with the public (p. 52).


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