Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Course of History

Conservative Critics of Modernity: Can They Turn Back the Clock?

Consider the status of democracy. Is it really the best form of government or the one toward which all nations are converging? Every serious conservative must wrestle with these questions because the deepest prejudice of our age is the belief that democracy based on human rights (liberal democracy) is the best, indeed the only legitimate form of government. Thomas Jefferson said the idea was “self-evident” to all enlightened minds and therewith shut down discussion of the issue. He made it seem un-patriotic to question this view, although patriots like Alexander Hamilton did entertain the possibility that monarchy was better. One should also remember that most of the great political thinkers of the classical and Christian tradition were at odds with present thinking. Despite the differences among Plato, Aristotle, Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and the early American Puritans, all agreed that democracy is not the best form of government and that monarchy, aristocracy, or some kind of mixed constitution is the best regime in most cases. It would be a major step in liberating our minds if we could recover their reasoning and take it seriously once again.

Their argument, in a nutshell, is that democracy is not the best regime because it tends to level distinctions between high and low in society and in the souls of citizens; and this leveling tendency undermines the quest for virtue or human excellence. Instead of judging life by the peaks of humanity—the philosophers, saints, and heroes—democracy glorifies the tastes and opinions of the average man, producing a popular culture or mass society that weakens the highest impulses of the soul. In extreme forms of mass democracy, the people as well as the educated elites become ashamed of the moral superiority implied in true virtue and tear it down by treating it with indifference or contempt. This leads to “democratic tyranny,” something we have witnessed in violent forms under socialism or communism and in softer forms in the debased mass culture of America and the social democracies of Europe.

Because democracy tends to level distinctions between high and low, the classical and early Christian thinkers favored more hierarchical regimes than democracy. Following Plato’s maxim that the “regime in the city shapes the regime in the soul,” they favored monarchy or aristocracy in order to perfect the minds and characters of citizens; or they defended mixed regimes that combined wisdom and virtue in rulers with the demands of the people for consent. Of the various models proposed, the one that makes the most sense to me is Saint Thomas Aquinas’s idea of mixed or constitutional monarchy—a regime that combines elements of kingship, aristocracy, and democracy in a balanced order. This was the order of the English Constitution for centuries, a balance of King, Lords, and Commons. It was also the order of the Spartan regime, which combined kingship (actually two kings) with an aristocratic body of venerable elders (the gerousia) and the elected representatives of the people (the ephors). The mixed constitution was also the political order endorsed by the great conservative, Edmund Burke, and by Plato in his Laws and Cicero in his Republic. It is the basis of the Catholic Church, which I would describe as an elective constitutional monarchy in which the supreme Pontiff is elected by the College of Cardinals and governs in communion with the bishops, the ordained priesthood, and the people. It is the regime underlying most corporate hierarchies in business, the military, and tribal life where one boss or chief governs by consensus in partnership with qualified elites and the broad mass of people.


Aquilifer said...

Maybe we need to distinguish, as did the Founders, between "democracy" and a republic.

G.E. Hoostal said...

The Orthodox Christian hierarchy is also. (I am an Orthodox Christian myself.) However, I think it’s more like several grand duchies than a kingdom, since the bishops of the highest ranks are equal.