Plato

Some Disjointed Thoughts on Democracy, Plato, and the Christian Roots of Liberalism

Yesterday I was inspired by someone dear to me to write out these thoughts. In a rather uncomfortable disagreement, this person, after I had complained about the direction society was moving (a common aghast of the postgraduate), they simply retorted, “that’s democracy.” My first impulse was to aggressively and disdainfully disagree. But I knew this person had a healthy, I think, ambiguity about their beliefs, in regards to society, politics, and even religion.  So I held my tongue. But the more I thought about this brief, impromptu, and somewhat trite conversation, the more I felt obliged to give it greater scrutiny.

Do we, in fact, live in a democracy? A related question, and perhaps more important, is whether democracy happens to be the best form of government? My interlocutor had made, at least in my mind, some uncomfortable assumptions.

This is the stuff of Philosophy 101. My immediate thoughts, upon reflection (and during a sleepless night), turned to Plato and his Republic. Plato, most of us fondly remember, had proposed that there were at least five forms of government: Aristocracy, Timocracy, Oligarchy, Democracy, and Tyranny. Now, it seems clear to me that we most certainly do not live in a democracy. Rather, our system of government, and what seems to me what most nations aspire to, wittingly or unwittingly, is a “multarchy”—a term coined by University of Notre Dame professor of philosophy Gary Gutting. And as Gutting himself put it in an article he published for the New York Times in 2011, America is a “complex interweaving of many forms of government.” That seems to me to be right. Emphatically, then, we do not and never have lived in a pure democracy. In fact, not only does this seem impossible, it also seems undesirable.

According Gutting, our bureaucracy corresponds to Plato’s aristocracy, our military to timocracy, the oligarchy to the super wealthy, and so on. In other words, America’s form of government, in some very particular and peculiar ways, corresponds to all five forms of Plato’s list. What Gutting leaves out in his analysis, however, is that Plato listed these five forms of government in his dialogue in descending order. Thus democracy is just shy of tyranny, and is ultimately a mob-like beast. According to Plato, it is only in an aristocracy, led by the unwilling philosopher-king (a constant theme, I was reminded the other day, in C.L. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, which recently aired on Australian television) that comprises the best form of government. Do we really need any reminders that so-called “democracy” has led to all kinds of atrocities?

But of course other systems of government have as well. But here I am reminded particularly by one of the Founding Fathers of American independence. In a long letter to John Taylor (1753-1824), John Adams (1735-1826) wrote:

Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. It is not true, in fact, and nowhere appears in history. Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty. When clear prospects are opened before vanity, pride, avarice, or ambition, for their easy gratification, it is hard for the most considerate philosophers and the most conscientious moralists to resist the temptation. Individuals have conquered themselves. Nations and large bodies of men, never.

But suppose for a moment we do indeed live in a democracy, and that such a form of government is just—then it seems to me that we have to assume that people in general are good, and, in turn, that they make good decisions. That seems to me to be utterly false. We are a broken people. Angry, greedy and self-centered, ugly and spiteful, our politicians and polity alike constantly make poor decisions. Thus it seems that any idea of a successful democracy was built on the dream of a morally upright society, or, at least, on the idea of a morally upright governing body.

This has finally led me, curiously enough, to Samuel Moyn’s recent articles on Christianity and liberalism on the Immanent Frame. I have mentioned Moyn in another context, in his biting critique of Jonathan Israel’s radical Enlightenment project. But here, and in several other recent works, Moyn has taken up the task of tracing the origins of modern day conceptions of “human rights.” In an earlier post, Moyn argued that

…the original context of the European embrace of human rights—in which they were linked to the conservative defense of human dignity and attached to the figure of the human person—was in Christianity’s last golden age on the Continent…The ‘death of Christian Europe,’ as one might call it, forced…a complete reinvention of the meaning of the human rights embedded in European identity both formally and really since the war. The only serious thread of persistence was, ironically, in Eastern Europe, and especially in Poland, not coincidentally the main exception of Christian collapse…[in time, however,] Human rights had become a secular doctrine of the left; how that happened is another story.

More recently, Moyn argues that such notions as “human dignity” and “human rights” can be traced to Pope Pius XII in his Christmas Message of 1942. Pius XII’s “Five Points for Ordering Society” begins thus:

1. Dignity of the Human Person. He who would have the Star of Peace shine out and stand over society should cooperate, for his part, in giving back to the human person the dignity given to it by God from the very beginning; should oppose the excessive herding of men, as if they were a mass without a soul; their economic, social, political, intellectual and moral inconsistency; their dearth of solid principles and strong convictions, their surfeit of instinctive sensible excitement and their fickleness.

He should favor, by every lawful means, in every sphere of life, social institutions in which a full personal responsibility is assured and guaranteed both in the early and the eternal order of things. He should uphold respect for and the practical realization of the following fundamental personal rights; the right to maintain and develop one’s corporal, intellectual and moral life and especially the right to religious formation and education; the right to worship God in private and public and to carry on religious works of charity; the right to marry and to achieve the aim of married life; the right to conjugal and domestic society; the right to work, as the indispensable means towards the maintenance of family life; the right to free choice of state of life, and hence, too, of the priesthood or religious life; the right to the use of material goods; in keeping with his duties and social limitations.

According to Moyn, this formulation (or, perhaps, reformulation) of human rights and dignity was novel for the time. And although he does admit that others have claimed the fundamental Christian origins of human rights (here, e.g., he cites John Witte, Jr. and Nicholas Wolsterstorff), his concern is the “novel communion between Christianity and human rights, on the 1940s and shortly before.”

That’s all well and good. Moyn is certainly entitled to his delimitation. But what struck me most this morning, upon reading Moyn’s piece, was his supposedly radical claim that “without Christianity, our commitment to the moral equality of human beings is unlikely to have come about…”

To be sure, Moyn’s outlook, as far as I can tell, is entirely secular, in the sense that he is not offering some Christian apologia. Rather, he is simply trying to get the history right. Here his mention of John Witte, Jr.’s The Reformation of Rights: Law, Religion, and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism (2008) is particularly interesting. Witte argues that “Calvin and his followers developed a distinct theology and jurisprudence of human rights and gradually cast these rights teachings into enduring institutional and constitutional forms in early modern Europe and America.” This is essentially a counterargument against those who still claim that “human rights” was an offspring of Enlightenment thought (à la mode de Jonathan Israel). This argument is not entirely new. W. Stanford Reid back in 1986 published a short article in Christian History arguing that the Genevan reformer “not only set forth ideas which exercised a powerful influence for democracy in his own day, but also that his ideas had a broad influence on subsequent political thinking in the western world. Although the theological connection which he made between politics and Christianity has largely disappeared, he can still be regarded as one of the fathers of modern democracy.”

This emphasis on modern politics in continuity with traditional Christian ideas, and Calvinism in particular, is also seen in other areas of scholarship. Some have argued, for example, that Reformation theology played a particularly important role in the development of modern science. R. Hooykaas’ Religion and the Rise of Modern Science (1972), of course, is an oft-cited example. More recent work by Susan Schreiner in The Theater of His Glory: Nature and Natural Order in the Thought of John Calvin (1991), Peter Harrison in The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science (1998), Kenneth J. Howell in God’s Two Books: Copernican and Biblical Interpretation in Early Modern Science (2002), L.S. Koetsier in Natural Law and Calvinist Political Theory (2003), and most recently Jason Foster in his essay, “The Ecology of John Calvin,” published in Reformed Perspectives Magazine (2005), also attest to this trend. Even a completely “secular” (or, at least, thought to be completely secular) and obscure concept like “transhumanism” turns out to have roots in the Apostle Paul (!), as Peter Harrison and Joseph Wolyniak have recently pointed out in the latest issue of Notes and Queries.

So where does that leave me? The idea of a pure democracy is, of course, an illusion. It is rooted, like most of our modern concepts, on particularly theological ideas. Plato had rejected democracy because he saw the masses as credulous and uninformed, subject to their emotions and generally blind to critical thought. In short, the masses cannot govern themselves. John Adams seems to have had a little more hope, but not much more. Democracy always ends up committing suicide. His hope, however, if Moyn, Witte, Reid, and others are correct, was rooted in a Christian theology (Calvinist or Thomist, depending on who you ask) of human dignity and rights.

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