The goodness of Democracy & the aristocratic response

by Jim Fox

The term democracy usually refers to a government “of the people, by the people and for the people.” Generally such a government is a republic, meaning a representative government with frequent elections. If this is what Rebecca Bratten had in mind in her April 10 article (in which she blames democracy for producing egalitarianism, mediocrity and vice) then I claim it is not simply “the most practical structure for a particular time and place,” but the only intrinsically good form of government for all times and in all places, because only in a democracy are we free to govern ourselves.

In the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas writes that “all should play a responsible part in the governing,”1 and adds that a mixed form of government is the best polity.2 St. Robert Bellarmine, in opposing the Divine Right of Kings theory,3 wrote that authority to rule comes from God through the people.4 Before God all men are equal, in the only thing that matters: They are all loved equally by God and therefore have an equal dignity before God and the laws of God. Thus, Bellarmine wrote, “there is no good reason why, in a multitude of equals, one rather than another should dominate. Therefore, power belongs to the collected body.”5 And this view has been echoed by innumerable great statesmen and thinkers since.

Miss Bratten asks why we should find her idea of an aristocracy of spirit repugnant. Here’s why: History indicates that aristocrats have a habit of thinking they alone are capable of ruling, which then naturally lends itself to the idea that one among them is best to rule. So, before you know it, you have a monarchy. And monarchs inevitably start thinking that they are superiors, not servants, and hence they start believing that the people should serve them (or their ideology) rather than God. A brief review of the practical evils—tyranny, instability, machinations, murders and so on—attendant upon the historical aristocracies and monarchies of Greece, Rome, Egypt, China, Russia, France, Spain and England is enough to repulse even the casual reader. In our own time, Hitler and Stalin—both archetypal monarchs-turned-tyrants—provide stark reminders of the evil of corrupt elites.

Of course, I do not suppose that Miss Bratten means to end our freedom. But the aristocracy of learning she advocates is the kind of thing that could cost us not only our freedom, but our very lives. One need only look at Supreme Court decisions to see how easily a few elites can gain unprecedented power and, in the name of some spurious virtue, decide that some human beings are not persons and thus may be denied even their right to life.

Well intentioned paternalistic governments tend inexorably to take on more and more power, in the mistaken belief that they are doing good on behalf of people not wise enough to govern themselves. And this inevitably leads to tyranny. Even if good men are at the helm, rule by the most ruthless and powerful among them invariably follows. “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” noted Catholic historian, Lord Acton.

Miss Bratten says she wants “society” to accept certain standards determined by philosophers whose “business is truth,” who, by virtue of both their inborn talent and their education, are equipped to correct “certain foundational tenets” of America’s founding fathers. One wonders just which tenets she has in mind. One also wonders just which philosophers she has in mind. The twentieth century has hardly been inundated with philosophers steeped in reality. Most seem bent on denying even the concept of reality. Her plan might be tolerable if, say, Dean Healy were the philosopher she had in mind. But I shudder to think what would happen if America were to adopt the principles promulgated by the leading philosophical circles of our day.

If the common man can choose right from wrong without a stellar IQ or an advanced degree or some special gift of spirit if God really entrusts every one with liberty over his most valuable possession, his very self; if every one of us can make personal choices with everlasting consequence, then surely it is a small matter for us to participate in decisions about matters of prudential politics.

The Church has never officially endorsed either democracy or monarchy, but Pope John Paul II seems to lean as I do, as can be seen by his frequent recommendation of democracy in various speeches and encyclicals. For example, in his recent address to the United

Nations he reaffirmed the necessity of the “exercise of the self-determination of the peoples.”6 And in Centesimus Annus we read that “The Church values the democratic system inasmuch as it ensures the participation of citizens in making political choices, guarantees to the governed the possibility both of electing and holding accountable those who govern them, and of replacing them through peaceful means when appropriate.”7

It has been said that “a just king can do more good than a just president.” But does a king really have any more opportunity to be a Saint than a president? And what about the people, who are the real issue here? One need only look at people under communist rule, or in our own welfare enclaves to see the debilitating effect of state paternalism on the life and virtue of a people. What virtue is there in a monarch’s subjects being forced, for example, to pay taxes so the king might do some good with the money, such as redistribute it to the poor? How have the people grown in virtue under such a man? Yes, for the poor soul there is virtue in the obedience and in the hard work required to provide for the king, but this poor soul has been denied the greatest good, that of freely choosing virtue.

There can be no virtue where there is no freedom, and no freedom where there is no choice over one’s government.

James Fox, Executive Director of University Relations

Mr. Fox is also an adjunct instructor of political science at FUS. He has a Masters degree in American Government from Georgetown University.

The aristocratic response

I would like to thank Mr. Fox for voicing his concerns regarding my article on democracy. I have found some of his criticisms helpful in inducing me to think more deeply about and to clarify aspects of my position; however, I believe that certain other of his criticisms are based upon a misinterpretation of what I wrote.

I did not define democracy in my article; I settled for a very broad and even vague designation, hoping that the content would make apparent just what particulars were under scrutiny. Definitions are dangerous, but I will at least here venture to say that what I intended by Democracy was very much what Mr. Fox has in mind—a system of government “by the people,”8 and that by “democratic ideal” I meant the presuppositions which are intended to justify such a system.

Mr. Fox criticizes the notion of an “aristocracy of the spirit” on the grounds that it tends towards a monarchy. It is for this same reason that I approve artistocracy, as one of the foundational ideas upon which a sound monarchical system must be based: it is out of the ranks of this aristocracy of the spirit—not, I repeat, out of a particular social strata based on wealth, family, or even formal education—that the good and wise monarch is to be chosen. Mr. Fox’s observation on this point is insightful, but it cuts both ways: I would not be likely to discard my view of man, because it tends towards monarchy; on the contrary, I am very happy to hear that this is the case.

What Mr. Fox is criticizing here is not a limited monarchy, such as I put forward, but a tyranny. Interestingly enough, tyranny is a form which has been traditionally viewed as growing, not out of monarchy, but out of an extreme democracy. Plato writes that “tyranny naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated forms of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme form of liberty.”9 Aristotle also held that tyranny was likely to grow out of “the headiest kind of democracy,”10 and even that notorious American statesman Alexander Hamilton claimed that the check which would prevent both the tyranny of the many and the tyranny of the few is the monarch.11 History also attests to this; note that the quintessential tyrants of the twentieth century—Mr. Fox appropriately mentions Hitler and Stalin—have arisen not out of monarchies, but out of states in which the pretense was “government by the people.”12

Perhaps I did not make it clear that I was not advocating an absolute monarchy. I did mention that certain standards determined by philosophers should be set for the rulers. Moreover, should ever a monarch grievously fail to live up to those standards—misuse his power, neglect his duties, allow gross injustice—it is of course the right of the people to depose him. But if the main standards by which to determine whether or not a man is fit to rule are set by the whim of the moment, the result is often ludicrous—as the present world situation makes clear.

Mr. Fox wonders which philosophers I have in mind to set the standards. I do not know precisely what he means by philosophers “steeped in reality,” but it should be quite clear that as a student in the FUS MA Philosophy program I am not proposing that we set up a Sartre or an Ayer as Lord Chancellor; there have been a myriad of good philosophers to choose from, not only in previous ages but in the twentieth century as well.

I might also add that I at no point denied that all men are created fundamentally equal before God, with certain fundamental rights; I merely stated—and only a Marxist could disagree—that all men are not on all levels equal, and that some have other, less fundamental rights which are not shared by all. This is a fact which cannot be ignored, and which has much bearing on questions of vocation and ability.

Regarding Mr. Fox’s assertion that “there is no freedom where there is no choice over one’s government,” it seems he is confusing two different kinds of freedom. Of course personal freedom consists in part of a kind of governing of one’s own powers and passions, but this is not at all the same thing as political freedom. It is in no way evident that a person is restricted in his political freedom merely because he lacks political power, much less that he has no personal freedom.

Many of the criticisms which have been leveled against monarchy are based on a mistaken notion that kings are generally bad men—indeed, tyrants. But there have been examples down through history of eminently worthy monarchs: David, Constantine, Charlemagne, Richard the Lion-hearted, St. Louis of France, St. Henry of Germany, and so on. The Arthurian legend presents a type of the wise and virtuous ruler, guiding his country according to the dictates of the Church, and according to the advice of the sage, Merlin. Likewise, many bad and even disastrous things have been brought about in the name of government by the people—here I speak of something very general, not of any particular system. Consider the French Revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution, and the anti-life decisions which are being made in the branches of our present-day government. These atrocities came about not because a few elitists became power-hungry, but rather because the masses rose up in scorn and derision of anything absolute, anything above them.

On the matter of the Church—with her usual wisdom and prudence, she gives us certain standards to live by, but recognizes the freedom of man to work out the details himself. Mr. Fox believes that democracy is the ideal form for living according to the Church’s standards; I believe that monarchy is better; the beauty of the matter is that the Church has room for both of us.

Finally, I do not think there is such a thing as an “intrinsically good government,” all such things being an unpleasant but seemingly necessary consequence of the fall. In heaven—if I get there despite my elitist tendencies—I do not expect to live under any system of government, except that in which the King of Kings rules over all.

Rebecca Bratten

Rebecca Bratten, Contributing Editor of the Concourse this semester, will be leaving Steubenville in the Fall to pursue doctoral degrees in philosophy and literature. The other editors thank her for her help and friendship and wish her Godspeed.

  1. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 1a-2ae. cv. I, in St. Thomas Aquinas: Philosophical Texts, The Labyrinth Press, 1982, p. 382. ↑
  2. Ibid. ↑
  3. The Divine Right of Kings theory was first elucidated by William Tyndale in The Obedience of a Christian Man, and first put into practice by Henry the VIII, who cut off St. Thomas More’s head. ↑
  4. St. Robert Bellarmine, De Laicis, Chapter VI ↑
  5. Ibid. ↑
  6. Address to the UN, Oct. 5, 1995 ↑
  7. Centesimus Annus, 46 ↑
  8. I do not include the appropriate “of the people,” and “for the people” because I do not see these marks as a necessary condition of democracy—there can be democratic systems which lack them—or as a sufficient condition—other forms of government could also be of and for the people. ↑
  9. Plato, The Republic, Book VIII, p. 257, trans. B. Jowett, Doubleday 1989 ↑
  10. Aristotle, Politics, Book IV, p. 182, trans. Ernest Barker, Oxford University Press, 1958 ↑
  11. Letter to Robert Morris ↑
  12. For the record, I am not asserting that they arose out of democracies; the point is that these states were a far cry from monarchies. ↑