(an essay from my 2008 Democracy and its Critics class at Columbia University)
In this paper I will examine three arguments against democracy: (1) that it is volatile to tyranny by the majority; (2) that it weakens a state’s defenses; and (3) that it creates a society without moderation, as well as put forth the best counter argument for each. I will formulate my arguments by invoking such prominent philosophers as Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, and Herodotus, then conclude the paper with why I believe a continuous critique of democracy is necessary.
It has long been argued that democracy inevitably leads to a tyranny of the majority. The basic argument is as follows: because all are equal and all have a say in the governmental process the class with the largest population, which is never the rich, will create laws beneficial only to their class, and at the same time, unjust to all class minorities, primarily the rich. Aristotle is the first on record to put forth such an argument in depth. He argues:
… [because] democratic justice is based on numerical equality, not merit. …then of necessity the multitude must be in authority, and whatever seems right to the majority, this is what is final, and this is what is just, since they say that each of the citizens should have an equal share. The result is that the poor have more authority than the rich in democracies.
Megabyzus puts forth a similar argument in Herodotus’ The Histories, but goes into greater detail as to why the majority, whom in Herodotus’ time were always the poor, would create such unjust laws towards the rich. The bases for his argument are that (1) they (the poor majority) are ignorant, and (2) they are tyrannical by nature because they are subject to caprice. Thus, they cannot be trusted to rule themselves or others.
Tenably the best counter argument to this classic criticism is that of the social contract put forth by Rousseau, which is realized today in the form of the written constitution. In essence Rousseau argues that this social contract, a contract between the government and the citizens of the state, keeps both in check and balance by means of virtue , which is a product of society and one’s need to live outside of the state of nature. It is precisely because of this need to live outside of the state of nature that virtue is upheld in a democracy, and thus, the majority does not breach its end of the contract by creating unjust laws upon the minority. If they do, however, the government, in upholding its end of the contract, has the right – and indeed the responsibility – to step in and protect any group or person subject to unjust persecution. Thus, through the social contract freedom and equality is assured to all and tyranny is stymied.
A second good argument against democracy is that it hinders national defense. This argument is grounded in the notion that a certain amount of secrecy is pertinent for successful foreign relations and military defense. The argument attacks transparency in a democracy, which is the result of equality and subsequently open debate. The argument goes, that by a state sharing with its citizens its reasoning for a particular foreign policy, be it for debate, justification, or fulfillment of right, a state is also potentially sharing it with its enemies, and hence, undermining the policy. Herodotus alludes to this criticism briefly in The Histories when Darius states that one reason monarchy is the best form of government is because “[the king’s] measures against enemies and traitors will be kept secret more easily than other forms of government.” Indeed, this criticism is often cited, and is still salient to democracies of today.
A sound counter argument to this criticism is one by Thucydides who argues that democratic peoples esteem for their freedom induces them to fight that much harder to protect it than citizens of states without such freedom. This augment is exemplified in The Peloponnesian War when Pericles, in defense of Athenian democracy, states, “The people who have most excuse for despising death are not the wretched and unfortunate, who have no hope of doing well for themselves, but those who run the risk of a complete reversal in their lives, and would feel the difference most intensely, if things went wrong for them.” It is important to note that Pericles’ argument does not disagree that democratic freedoms hinder secrecy within the realm of foreign relations , only that the utility of those freedoms outweigh their hindrance.
The third and final criticism of democracy put forth in this paper is one by Plato, who believes democracy creates societies without moderation. He argues that because people of a democracy are free to do and say what they please they are beholden to impulse, and hence, lack any kind of discipline, which, as Plato claims, leads to a society of mediocrity at best. He exacts that citizens of a democracy are subject “to the liberation and release of useless and unnecessary pleasures,” and goes on to say:
… [the citizen of a democracy] lives on, yielding day by day to the desire at hand. Sometimes he drinks heavily while listening to the flute; at other times, he drinks only water and is on a diet; sometimes he goes in for physical training; at other times, he’s idle and neglects everything; and sometimes he even occupies himself with what he takes to be philosophy… There’s neither order nor necessity in his life, but he calls it pleasant, free, and blessedly happy, and he follows it for as long as he lives.
Perhaps the best counter argument to this criticism is not necessarily that Plato’s observation is not on-key (as it is rather striking how his critique can be applied to many modern democracies), but that economic and societal incentives within a democracy preponderate the inclination to satisfy those “useless and unnecessary pleasures.” Indeed, it may very well be that one’s desire to satisfy those pleasures only reinforces one’s incentive to excel beyond mediocrity. Or simply put, the greater the work effort the greater the means of indulgence.
Thucydides seems to defend this notion in Pericles’ Funeral Oration when stating, “Our love of what is beautiful does not lead to extravagance; our love of the things of the mind does not make us soft.” But Pericles takes the argument yet a step further and conveys that it is not only a democratic peoples’ love of freedom that makes them great but also their love of the pleasures associated with freedom. “The man who can most truly be accounted brave,” declares Pericles, “is he who best knows the meaning of what is sweet in life and of what is terrible, and then goes out undeterred to meet what is to come.” Thus, if liberty compels us to greatness it is because of our love of the pleasures afforded by that liberty, and our fear of their loss, that we become great.
To conclude, the arguments put forth in this paper were chosen because they are some of the most classic and often sited arguments for and against democracy. I do not believe that any of these arguments are truly irrelevant, simply that some are more salient to contemporary democracy. For instance, from a modern perspective, I agree more with the counter argument to the tyranny of the majority thesis, but at the same time I do not disagree with the second and third arguments, only that the counter argument to each has found a way to reconcile democracy’s virtue with its flaws. I do believe, however, that democracy’s critics are more responsible for its advancement than those who find no flaw in it at all. I believe this to be so because democracy is not concrete, rather it is a process of becoming – it is constantly evolving through change and adaptation, just like the human race, and just like the human race democracy is by no means perfect. Thus, when we critique democracy perhaps we are also critiquing ourselves. This is why I believe a constant review of democracy’s meaning and relevance is essential not only to its success, but to our advancement as well. This concludes my paper on democracy and its critics.
Class notes: 09-16-08.
Aristotle. Politics. Ed. C.D.C. Reeve. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1998. 176-177.
In his argument against democracy Megabyzus states, “The masses are a feckless lot – nowhere will you find more ignorance or irresponsibility or violence… A king does at least act consciously and deliberately; but the mob does not.” Herodotus. The Histories. Ed. Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Books, 1972. 239. See also class notes: 09-03-08.
It should also be noted that although still relevant today the tyranny of the majority argument was probably more germane in Aristotle and Herodotus’ time when fewer people were educated, and there was typically no middle class to check such behavior (at least not one large enough), as there is in most established democracies today.
For why virtue is essential to popular government see: Montesquieu. “The Principals of Three Kinds of Government.” The Spirit of the Laws. Ed. David Wallace Carrithers. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1977. 117-118.
See: Plato. “Protagoras.” Protagoras and Meno. Ed. W.K.C. Guthrie. New York: Penguin Books, 19--. 55, 58, 59.
Rousseau. “On the Social Compact.” Basic Political Writings. Ed. David A. Cress. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1988. 147-148.
Protagoras argues, “…it is to our advantage that our neighbor should be just and virtuous, and therefore everyone gladly talks about it to everyone else and instructs them in justice and the law.” Plato. Protagoras.” Protagoras and Meno. Ed. W.K.C. Guthrie. New York: Penguin Books, 1987. 59.
In explaining this social contract Rousseau states, “Find a form of association which defends and protects with all common forces the person and goods of each associate, and by means of which each one, while uniting with all, nevertheless obeys only himself and remains as free as before.” This is the fundamental problem for which the social contract provides the solution. Rousseau. “On the Social Compact.” Basic Political Writings. Ed. David A. Cress. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1988. 148.
See also: Locke. “Of Paternal, Political, And Despotical Power Considered Together.” Second Treaties of Government.
In support of Rousseau’s thesis, Pericles proclaims, “…We [Athenians] keep to the law. This is because it demands our deep respect. We give our obedience to those whom we put in authority, and we obey the laws themselves, especially those which are for the protection of the oppressed, and those unwritten laws which it is an acknowledged shame to break. Thucydides. “Pericles’ Funeral Oration.” The Peloponnesian War. Ed. Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Books, 1983. 145.
For further elaboration on how the social contract operates by way of virtue, Montesquieu states, “Honor [i.e. virtue] sets all the parts of the body politic in motion; by its very action it connects them, and thus each individual advances the public good, while he only thinks of promoting his own public interest.” Montesquieu. “The Principals of Three Kinds of Government.” The Spirit of the Laws. 122.
In regards to Megabyzus’ argument that the masses are tyrannical and subject to caprice, Machiavelli refutes that they are no more tyrannical or capricious than a king, and more likely than not they are less subject to whim and tyranny than is a king because they reason as a group, not as one. Machiavelli. The Discourses of Niccolo Machiavelli: Volume One. Ed. Dr. W. Stark. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950. 341-345.
Herodotus. The Histories. Ed. Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Books, 1972. 240.
Thucydides. “Pericles’ Funeral Oration.” The Peloponnesian War. Ed. Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Books, 1983. 150.
To add credence to such a claim Pericles points out that “In this land of ours there have always been the same people living from generation to generation up till now, and they, by their courage and their virtues, have handed it on to us a free country,” hence conveying that a democracy is “able to look after itself both in peace and in war.” Thucydides. “Pericles’ Funeral Oration.” The Peloponnesian War. Ed. Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Books, 1983. 144.
“Our city is open to the world, and we have no periodical deportations to prevent people observing or finding out secrets which might be of military advantage to the enemy. This is because we rely not on secret weapons, but on our own real courage and loyalty.” Thucydides. “Pericles’ Funeral Oration.” The Peloponnesian War. Ed. Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Books, 1983. 146.
In defense of this argument Pericles states, “I have spoken at such length about our city, because I wanted to make it clear that for us there is more at stake than there is for others who lack our advantages.” Thucydides. “Pericles’ Funeral Oration.” The Peloponnesian War. Ed. Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Books, 1983. 148.
He goes on to state, “Make up your minds that happiness depends on being free, and that freedom depends on being courageous.” Thucydides. “Pericles’ Funeral Oration.” The Peloponnesian War. Ed. Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Books, 1983. 149-150.
Plato. Republic. Ed. C.D.C. Reeve. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992. 228-241.
Plato. Republic. Ed. C.D.C. Reeve. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992. 231.
Plato. Republic. Ed. C.D.C. Reeve. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992. 232.
Aristotle elaborates further on Plato’s thesis stating that one mark of democracy “is to live as one likes. This, they say, is the result of freedom, since that of slavery is not to live as one likes.” Aristotle. Politics. Ed. C.D.C. Reeve. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1998. 177.
Thucydides. “Pericles’ Funeral Oration.” The Peloponnesian War. Ed. Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Books, 1983. 147.
Class notes: 09-16-08.
Class notes: 09-08-08.