Democracy: The voice of God or the madness of the mob?

by Rebecca Bratten

Why is it that today it is so hard for us to endure distinctions of any kind? To the American sensibility any assertion that there exist fundamental inequalities among persons smells suspiciously of feudalism and bigotry—things primitive and unenlightened. We associate distinctness with inequality and inequality with injustice, adjusting our belief to the rhetoric of our egalitarian age. We have become so intoxicated with the wine of democracy that it is hard for us to see things clearly anymore.

As Catholics, it is our duty to treat all with charity and justice and to shun pride in all its forms. But we must not confuse charity or justice with their counterfeits, nor dismiss as prideful something which may in fact be legitimate.

Although I might like to do so, I do not here intend to instigate an “aristocratic revolution.” However, I do want to put forward several criticisms of the democratic ideal—or at least of certain ideologies which are closely associated with that ideal. By “democratic ideal” I mean that set of notions underlying much of our talk about equality, justice and “government by the people.”

The first of these notions which I wish to challenge is that of the absolute equality of all men. I am neither alone nor revolutionary in this position; it was put forward by Aristotle more than 2,000 years ago: “Democracy,” he said, “arose in the strength of opinion that those who were equal in any one respect were equal absolutely, and in all respects. Men are prone to think that the fact of their all being equally free-born means that they are all absolutely equal.” This could very well be a description of contemporary America, in which it is assumed that because all men have certain equal rights, and because all men have a fundamental personal dignity, they are therefore on all levels equal—in ability, intelligence, personal development, moral virtue and even in that ineffable, indefinable, Hellenic thing called nobility.

While we are right to affirm the equal rights of all men when the fundamental rights of some (because they are unborn, because they are weak and sick, because of their race) are being denied, we must not get carried away and say that all rights belong to all men. Certainly government leaders have certain rights which others do not; parents have rights which their children are not capable of dealing with; as Catholics we must admit that in the church hierarchy there are certain rights reserved only for the few.

Moreover, we must remember that there are different kinds of value, and while there is a basic personal value common to all men, it does not from this follow that we possess an equal amount of all values. Moral values may be found in some which are not present in others—this is not only because of upbringing or environment, but is also due to inherent strengths and weaknesses in different persons. Is claiming this the equivalent to claiming that God is unfair? Perhaps. Fairness is not the same as justice, and it has not yet been proven that egalitarianism is one of the attributes of God.

We can hold such a position as this and still believe that among the saints are numbered not only the great scholar Aquinas and the great king Louis, but also the humble shepherdess Germaine and the poor farmer Isidore. We can admire a Beethoven for his genius and a Goethe for his wealth of character without giving them thrones higher than those of the saints. It is a matter of giving each value its due.

I have heard arguments to the effect that differences in ability are due only to differences in opportunity. This is clearly false. Give the majority of the population the best of education and upbringing: how many of them will ever be able to write poetry like that of the young Keats, or compose operas as did the boy Mozart? I know very well that even if I spent all my days conversing with the muse of tragedy I would not even begin to rival Shakespeare or Sophocles.

Even if Democracy is inevitably the most practicable structure for a particular time and people, it must always be weakened by a flaw inherent to its form: the notion that “vox populi, vox Dei.” This idea rests upon the fallacy that a vast accumulation of zeros will eventually yield a positive number. As Alcuin wrote to Charlemagne, “the turbulence of the mob is always close to insanity.” This has been demonstrated in the past few decades, during which the all-sovereign American people have done a good job of choosing mediocrity over excellence, and even vice over virtue.

Of course an evil ruler who inherits his power can do as much—and generally more—harm than can an evil ruler who is given his power by the people. But, contrariwise, a just king can do more good than can a just president. We can not, unless we be denizens of heaven or Utopia, dispense with rulers all together. But consider this: in a society which accepted certain objective and absolute standards for its rulers, rather than merely accepting the standards in vogue, there would at least be some final determining factor regarding who did and did not deserve the throne. Who is to decide upon these standards? Why not the philosopher, whose business it is to search for truth? This would not be very different from what our founding fathers did. Unfortunately, not all of their foundational tenets were perfectly true and complete—but it remains with those who are as educated and far-sighted as they to correct these errors, not with the common man.

By “common man” I do not necessarily mean the poor or uneducated. The term is used to refer to the sort of person who, though he may possess a beautiful character and even heroic virtue, remains forever within the bounds of his own environment. His horizon is small; his perception is crude. Educate him if you like, but he will always be a peasant in spirit. He may get to heaven before many of the kings and wise men, but while on earth it is not within his capacity to rule well. To make him king would be to make him miserable, and would possibly mar the sweet simplicity of his soul. Likewise, there exist among the poor and the lowbrow some who are aristocrats in spirit; their vision is vast and coherent, and, if given even the smallest opportunity, they will develop into the leaders, artists and geniuses of the age. If I am arguing for an aristocracy, it is an aristocracy of spirit, not of blood.

Why is it that this seems so repugnant? Perhaps the answer lies in the most unlikely of places: with the atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who, for all his failings, still saw some things more clearly than did those more reverent but less radical. He it was who first diagnosed the sickness of society and gave it a name: ressentiment, the “slave revolt in morality.” Ressentiment arises out of the envy of the weak towards the strong; it disguises revenge as justice and fear as meekness. It is the desire to make all things level, so that the failures of some may not appear too glaring beside the accomplishments of others. It is the antithesis of all generosity of heart, all love and respect for value, all true virtue. “Together with the fear of man,” says Nietzsche, “we have also lost the love of man, reverence for man…what is nihilism today if not that?”

It is agreed among most perceptive Catholics that we live in a sick society. One of the diseases of spirit from which we suffer is ressentiment, and this disease is at the root of much that we revere under the name of democracy. While reactionism will do us no good, and we cannot turn back the clock, at least we can see things as they are and do our best to choose wisely for the future. We must not confuse values with their counterfeits, and we must not confuse the voice of the people with the voice of God.

Rebecca Bratten is a Contributing Editor of the Concourse about to complete her MA degree in Philosophy at FUS.