A quick theological thought about Democracy

“Democracy means government by the uneducated while aristocracy means government by the badly educated.”
~G.K. Chesterton

How, if democracy is a good form of government, can it be the case that democracy so easily makes legal the killing of the unborn, the killing of innocents of other kinds, the euthanization of some members of the human community, the promotion of contraceptives which continues to be a chief cause of divorce and marital, and by extension social, difficulties? The answer is, it seems to me, that democracy is not government by the uneducated, but rather by the common person whose education depends on those institutions of learning which are most influential in the life of society; in first place among which stands the popular media. Music, television, and the arts are the principle vehicle of education. In our society we have come to a point where we find that our democratic governments are bringing about as many and as serious evils as those we intended by democracy to avoid.

Since “man is free to the extent that man is rational” (Aquinas), and since man is less rational when he chooses to be moved not by the light of reason to follow the natural law and order of creation, but by some other force of natural gravity, it seems to follow that man will be less free the worse his education is. The obvious problem of democracy, then, seems to be that it, as easily as other forms of government, fosters and promotes repression of man’s freedom insofar as it fails to supply him with a rational framework in accord with his nature.

Chesterton does offer the following defence of democracy:

“I was brought up a Liberal, and have always believed in democracy, in the elementary liberal doctrine of a self-governing humanity. If any one finds the phrase vague or threadbare, I can only pause for a moment to explain that the principle of democracy, as I mean it, can be stated in two propositions. The first is this: that the things common to all men are more important than the things peculiar to any men…

And the second principle is merely this: that the political instinct or desire is one of these things which they hold in common…  In short, the democratic faith is this: that the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves — the mating of the sexes, the rearing of the young, the laws of the state. This is democracy; and in this I have always believed…

But there is one thing that I have never from my youth up been able to understand. I have never been able to understand where people got the idea that democracy was in some way opposed to tradition. It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time. It is trusting to a consensus of common human voices rather than to some isolated or arbitrary record. The man who quotes some German historian against the tradition of the Catholic Church, for instance, is strictly appealing to aristocracy. He is appealing to the superiority of one expert against the awful authority of a mob. It is quite easy to see why a legend is treated, and ought to be treated, more respectfully than a book of history. The legend is generally made by the majority of people in the village, who are sane. The book is generally written by the one man in the village who is mad. Those who urge against tradition that men in the past were ignorant may go and urge it at the Carlton Club, along with the statement that voters in the slums are ignorant. It will not do for us. If we attach great importance to the opinion of ordinary men in great unanimity when we are dealing with daily matters, there is no reason why we should disregard it when we are dealing with history or fable. Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.”
~G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Thus, Chesterton probably has in mind a form of democracy which does not promote a false view of freedom as freedom from law, but rather a freedom which is only possible with a rational order of natural law. He intends that our democracy be informed by Tradition as much as it is informed by society at present, and in that way it may be guarded against the errors of modern novelty.

This sounds well and good, but it seems to me that democracies require more than this to be guaranteed against the corruption of society – a constitution. Indeed, they require, at some point, the recognition of authority as an informative element. Interestingly there is a passage in the encyclical Libertas of Pope Leo XIII which goes as follows:

What naturalists or rationalists aim at in philosophy, that the supporters of liberalism, carrying out the principles laid down by naturalism, are attempting in the domain of morality and politics. The fundamental doctrine of rationalism is the supremacy of the human reason, which, refusing due submission to the divine and eternal reason, proclaims its own independence, and constitutes itself the supreme principle and source and judge of truth. Hence, these followers of liberalism deny the existence of any divine authority to which obedience is due, and proclaim that every man is the law to himself; from which arises that ethical system which they style independent morality, and which, under the guise of liberty, exonerates man from any obedience to the commands of God, and substitutes a boundless license. The end of all this it is not difficult to foresee, especially when society is in question. For, when once man is firmly persuaded that he is subject to no one, it follows that the efficient cause of the unity of civil society is not to be sought in any principle external to man, or superior to him, but simply in the free will of individuals; that the authority in the State comes from the people only; and that, just as every man’s individual reason is his only rule of life, so the collective reason of the community should be the supreme guide in the management of all public affairs. Hence the doctrine of the supremacy of the greater number, and that all right and all duty reside in the majority. But, from what has been said, it is clear that all this is in contradiction to reason. To refuse any bond of union between man and civil society, on the one hand, and God the Creator and consequently the supreme Law-giver, on the other, is plainly repugnant to the nature, not only of man, but of all created things; for, of necessity, all effects must in some proper way be connected with their cause; and it belongs to the perfection of every nature to contain itself within that sphere and grade which the order of nature has assigned to it, namely, that the lower should be subject and obedient to the higher.”
~Pope Leo XIII, Libertas

In considering what this implies about democracy, I think it does not say that democracy is not preferable to other forms of government necessarily, but only that democracy which is informed by secular humanism is bound to be dangerously out of tune with the function of law, which is to direct man in society towards true freedom.

Notice that this kind of democracy would not have to be informed by Catholicism or any religion, but at least it must be informed by what the natural light of reason obviates to all men, including that there is a moral law, a natural law, which it is the function of government to direct man to obey. Democracy may need in some sense to be theocratic. Indeed, this whole theory of government is technically a part of natural theology.


About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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