Listers, the current modern regimes of the West tout democracy as an end all to tyranny and political strife. While democracy is arguably one of the most practical and successful regimes, it is not a magical balm that automatically assuages injustice. Democracy must be understood according to its internal guiding principles – principles that have been observed and questioned since the ancient Greeks.
An SPL Introduction:
Democracy is only as good as its citizens, and the quality of those citizens demands certain constant factors. In 2011, the globe saw a major push for democracy in the Middle East. It is not uncommon for wartorn nations to turn to democracy after surviving years of tyranny, but the global jubilation over the Middle Eastern embrace of democracy has been severely tempered by watching those same counties democratically select oppressive religious laws that subjugate minorities and women.
The West is certainly not free from popular uprisings either, and the downturn of the economy in 2008 has since precipitated much frustration. However, whether democracy is trying to be imported or survive, there are guiding principles and ancient chains of causality that determine its success. Classical political philosophy held certain reservations about democratic regimes, and those hesitations are still valid today.
The following is certainly not anti-democracy, but rather it is displaying certain principles that must be acknowledge and adhered to if the modern democratic regimes are going to endure.
1. Freedom Is an Ambiguous Goal
Classical political philosophy – as demonstrated by such thinkers as Aristotle – held virtue to be the guiding goal of the state. Men are political animals, the state or polis is a natural institution, and they are both guided by “good habits” or the natural virtues. While perfecting natural law by the light of the Incarnate God, the Catholic Church still holds to natural law as the basis of human societies.
Regardless of what the Church or the ancients advocate, modern democracy’s obsession with freedom is fragile in its own right. The most obvious critique is that unlike virtue or any other objective goal, freedom is a means, not an end.
Freedom as a goal is ambiguous, because it is freedom for evil as well as for good.
Due to the focus on freedom, democratic regimes are inherently concerned with the quality of their citizens.1
2. The Link: Education, Leisure, & Wealth
The virtues are nothing more than “good habits,” but those acts that habituate individuals to the good are not subjective nor are they completely innate. Consequently, the formation of a citizen’s character requires education, and education requires leisure. If survival requires children to work the land or tend the animals, the lack of leisure equates to a lack of time for proper education.
If education is tied to leisure, then leisure is tied to one’s standard of living or general wealth. Philosophy was not born of humanity until the race had reached an age where society’s survival had become sufficient enough to allow for some leisure. However, for the children not to be able to work the land or tend the animals – and thus have the leisure to study – a certain amount of wealth is required.
3. The Problem of the Poor
The direct link between virtue, education, and wealth imports an immediate problem when considering the poor. Those who are unable to secure leisure in their life due to a lack of wealth are left primarily uneducated. There will always be “a minority of well-to-do people and a majority of the poor, and this strange coincidence will last forever because there is a kind of natural scarcity.” In this vein of thought, Aristotle states:
For the poor shall never cease out of the land.
Christ makes a similar claim in the New Testament:2
You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.
The link between education, leisure and wealth will always have to contend with the poor.
4. Democracy: The Rule of the Uneducated
The problem with democracy is immediately apparent: a democracy becomes a rule of the uneducated. Since democracy as it is currently known is the favored child of modernity, many modernist have attempted to solve this dilemma.
Jean-Jacque Rousseau addressed the issue by stating that all men needed to “live virtuously” was “supplied by their conscience.” While it is true that the conscience is supplied with certain natural dispositions toward the good, the conscience must be formed by virtue; thus, undergo education. Rousseau’s argument never found mainstream belief.
The most logical answer and the most attempted method is universal education. If a democracy is to function, it must be a government of the educated.
5. The Link Between the Economy & Universal Education
Universal education cannot escape the basic relationship between the formation of citizens, education, leisure, and wealth. In fact, the universal education project only complicates the causality. Individual citizens require leisure which requires wealth. Universal Education requires an “economy of plenty” in order to supply the necessary universal leisure for education.
6. The Cost of Universal Education
An economy of plenty is necessary for a successful democracy, and without it, a scarcity of leisure leads to a dip in education and quality which degrades the overall democracy; thus, this causality within democratic regimes has led to an intense drive to boost and sustain economic growth and success. The modern engine behind an economy of plenty is technology.
And economy of plenty presupposes the emancipation of technology from moral and political control.
The focus on technology imports a primary difference in ancient and modern political thought: “a different estimate of the virtues of technology.” It is important to remember that this discussion over democracy and technology is one issue amongst the entire ancient and modern’s dialogue. However, democracy’s innate need to sustain a strong economy has led to a strong economic devotion and the mitigation of other concerns.
[The ancient's] implicit prophecy that the emancipation of technology, of the arts, from moral and political control would lead to a disaster or to the dehumanization of man has not yet been refuted.
It would be difficult to deny that the ancient’s tacit concerns of dehumanization in the elevation of technology has not been observed in the historical struggles between workers and the industry – or any number of rising anthropic economic tensions. The need to have a strong economy within a democracy has lend to an emancipation of technology from most external factors, which in turn presents a democracy constantly flirting with and overlooking dehumanization.
7. A Final Concern Over Modern Education
Modernity has offered universal education as the solution to the implicit chain of cause and effect within democratic regimes. And while there are legitimate concerns over the unhindered rise of technology within these regimes, there are also red flags raised over the type of universal education widely submitted.
The role of education within a regime should be the formation of character or virtue, and this is especially true of democratic regimes that offer political power to all citizens and citizenship to all peoples. Citizens are asked to vote and sit on juries and participate in a political manner that presupposes a certain level of education.
In the first place, what is today called education very frequently does not mean education proper, i.e., the formation of character, but rather instructions and training.
The inflated power of technology is economically drive, and economics has similarly reformed the very education on which it relies. Primarily, education – as the formation of character – has been reduced to occupational training. Educational systems within modern democracies train individuals to excel in certain fields, but then also ask them to participate in the politics. Overall, modern democracies are training people to work, but then neglecting the very principles that form their character into quality citizens.3
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- The Polis & Virtue: A Theocracy?
The term virtue should not disturb non-Catholics or non-Christians. While the natural virtues are set standards and the theological virtues are certainly founded in God’s self-revelation, the following critique of democracy can take virtue at its most reduced basic level of “character formation.” Even the atheist politician must admit that a certain level of “character formation” is necessary for a citizen to properly participate in duties of citizenship, e.g., the wisdom and prudence necessary for jury duty, the power of electing representatives, and the basic right to vote. When the ancients spoke of virtue – especially the pre-Christian Greek philosophers – they were speaking proper education, especially in relation to political life. [↩]
- St John 12:8 [↩]
- All Quotes save Scripture Verses: An Introduction to Political Philosophy, Leo Strauss. 35-36. [↩]