The Divinization of Democracy and the Question of Human Rights
(Mut zur Ethik , 1997, pp. 311-312)
Any serious discussion of democracy in the West in modern times is an extremely difficult matter, one to be approached in fear and trembling, because it involves treatment of a subject which has taken on a distinctly religious character. The very word “democracy” has become a sacred word in our civilization, the thinker or politician who uses it often demonstrating by his whole demeanor that he believes himself to be elevated by this use into the realm of things divine. Indeed, for many people, democracy and divinity seem to have merged together, so that the victory of the former entails, by definition, the triumph of everything eternally true, eternally good, and eternally beautiful: in short, the triumph of God. Democracy has become the Christ—the Way, the Truth, and the Life—for a large portion of western mankind. Doubts about this divine role, which have gradually been fading away over the course of the last two hundred years, appear to have been almost entirely dispelled at the time of the Second World War, when democracy was equated with the struggle against Hitler, and the opponent of democracy treated as a Nazi or a fascist fellow-traveler.
I should like to call attention to three exceedingly unfortunate consequences of this divinization of democracy.
First of all, political systems and institutions, precisely because they deal with the realm of mutable, diverse historical realities, ought to be open to critical examination. But democracy’s justice and value are accepted as unquestioned dogmas, and serious treatment of its foundations and supposed fruits have been lifted out of the sphere of rational public debate. One ought not to be exhorted to have faith in a political system, bur, rather, to be shown rationally why that system merits trust. Yet the religion of democracy does not allow the use of reason to confirm it. One must adore or perish. Yes, one can complain that “true democracy” is endangered in some confessedly democratic society, but he cannot critically question the value of democracy as such, lest he find himself thrust into the political wilderness. This means that if there are problems with democracy, even with true democracy, no one will be allowed to hear of them. Such silence is hardly a victory for the human intelligence, though, ironically, the mythology of democracy associates democratic victory with an expansion of open, tolerant, rational discussion.
Secondly, the dogma of the central importance of democracy as the work of God is so deeply implanted in the consciousness and subconsciousness of the age that the democratic system has ceased to be viewed merely as a practical means to a substantive end. It has become a substantive and higher end itself. Anyone seeking to promote or defend a given cause finds that he is constrained to express his goal in the context of a still greater concern for democracy as the price of gaining a public hearing. Knowing that an opponent can win the advantage over him in open debate by the simple suggestion that he is not sufficiently committed to democracy, he sees that he had best begin his struggle for whatever end he has in mind by showing the world just how democratic that goal really is. Hence, all ends are subordinated to the supreme goal of achieving democracy. One lives, as a result, in an enormous “outcome-based” society in which everyone is educated and all causes are judged in relation to their ability to aid the victory of democracy—the triumph of a machine which ought to be a tool rather than a master.
Thirdly, and most importantly, given the practical concerns of Mut zur Ethik, this turning of democracy into the supreme, unquestioned end of human action opens the door to endless misunderstanding and self-deception, as well as to oppression by well-organized ideological or criminally-ambitious men and movements. Let us pause for a moment to examine this third point in some greater detail, with reference to the dilemma of conservative-minded people.
All current mainstream western political discussions presume the necessity of democracy. But conservatives are likely to argue that democracy means something much more limited for them than what I have outlined above. They will often claim that for them it means the triumph of some specific goods—like patriotism or the family—which they call a traditional value, and which they believe to be supported by a silent majority that would certainly win out if only “true democracy” were to dominate.
My argument is that modern democracy has been developed and promoted, in theory and in practice, by people who define it in ways that are inimical to values of the sort that conservatives often support; values that have grown out of a specific tradition of classical and Christian roots. For the people who really define its meaning in modern times, democracy is tied together with one or another idea stemming from eighteenth-century enlightenment or romantic visions of the meaning of life. Thus, they may stipulate democracy to be anything whatsoever that the popular will desires, regardless of whether its utterances are moral in the classical-Christian sense or not, because that will is itself considered to be the voice of God. More likely still, they may mean by democracy the victory of a popular will whose consciousness has been raised to overthrow the oppression of centuries of darkness; i.e., the evils of the classical-Christian tradition. In this case, the popular will may not be expressed by a numerical majority, but by a small, enlightened vanguard of the people, speaking in the name of that people’s future purified wishes. Such democrats have been aided enthusiastically by the criminally-ambitious, who have understood that democracy, operating in tandem with the eighteenth-century attack on corporate authority, offers them enhanced opportunities for pillage. For the criminally-ambitious have seen that making everyone equally free allows the strong and the vicious few the chance to assert their will over the weak and the mild many who desperately need the protection of social authorities to give their supposed equality with the more brutal any serious practical meaning. Moreover, it allows them to do so in the very name of the majority whom they are manipulating.
Thus, when conservatives hinge the battle for traditional values of the classical-Christian variety on the need to secure democracy they are riding on the back of a monster. Conservatives did not create the modern democratic system or the language by which modern democracy promotes itself. They are obliged by the circumstances of history to fight for “true democracy” with presuppositions and battle cries and weapons and on battlefields designed by those who wish to crush the classical-Christian tradition, with its concern for objective truth, goodness, and beauty. It is impossible under such circumstances to escape the influence of one’s enemies and to defend what one wants to defend properly. One ends by accepting and defending at least part of what it is that the enemy is proposing. And, in fact, what has repeatedly happened through the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is that groups of conservatives, honestly outraged by certain specific revolutionary developments, have raised the banners of defense of traditional values while accepting many of the axioms of the anti-traditional democratic system which is engaged in overthrowing them. Conservatives have thereby baptized the underlying principles of the assault on traditional values, and simply chosen not to recognize the logic that leads from these principles to the outrage that they are fighting at the moment. Certainly this is what has happened to many people in the conservative movement in the United States. Horrified by one or the other evil which is encouraged around them, they nevertheless continue to glorify the revolutionary concepts underlying the American system, and reject the idea that they themselves may be responsible for current nightmares. They do so partly because those ideas and that system have now over two hundred years of history behind them, and, therefore, might also be considered something “traditional”. Defense of traditional values is said to be a matter of obvious common sense, and since this is the case, the potential conflict between American traditional values and those of classical-Christian origin is not rigorously investigated. Such an investigation might shake faith in America and divert energy from the struggle for the victory of “true democracy”, which would, of course, set everything back on the right path. The result of this mentality is that the steamroller of revolutionary American democracy moves forward relentlessly, and the conservative, in effect, does not understand what runs him over when he is crushed by it yet again.
Think of the problems posed by the divinization of democracy for the question of human rights. Where democracy is lacking, its worshippers argue, human rights also unavoidably suffer. Where human rights are infringed, one can be certain that democracy has been thwarted as well. He who would work for democracy must inevitably promote the cause of human rights, and he would seek the victory of human rights is obliged, perforce, to join the crusade for democracy.
I do not believe that any such claims are accurate. If the value of democracy is accepted as an article of faith, one cannot critically examine whether it does, in practice, what it claims in theory to do. Again, if democracy is made the prior end in life anyway, human rights will, by definition, mean whatever democracy declares them to be. This then entails following one or another of the different directions that victorious eighteenth century thought has taken, so that human rights, in practice, might mean a plethora of things: whatever a majority decrees them to be; diverse things to different nations or races or sexes; whatever one individual desires; one thing today and another tomorrow. All of these visions of human rights have been proclaimed by democratic thinkers and democracies, and they have been the outlooks that have shaped the battle over the concept of freedom in the lands ruled by the democratic god.
When conservatives hinge the battle for human rights on democracy, they are, therefore, once again riding on the back of a monster. They are pressed by the immense power of the spirit of the times to accept a definition of human rights that actually destroys everything that is both traditionally and objectively good in a classical-Christian sense. And, once more, what has repeatedly happened through the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is that conservatives have tried to parry assaults on traditional values while defending theories regarding human rights which must erode them. Thus, returning to the United States for an example, conservatives in my country are generally outraged by the claim that one has a right to publish pornography. At the same time, they often consider it necessary to support a tradition of American commitment to an atomistic, anti-authoritarian vision of human rights. This vision has consequences that many of them like when applied to individual economic freedom, but, unfortunately, it is the same concept of rights which logically leads to the demand for the individual freedom to produce pornography. Many American conservatives simply choose not to allow the validity of this logical development, announcing that common sense dictates rejecting pornographic freedoms. They thereby abandon a more serious investigation of the intellectual roots of the problem, and continue to talk of rights in an atomistic, anti-authoritarian way in realms that please them. Their more logical enemies appeal to the same notion of rights, and continue to pursue the breaking down of barriers and taboos in areas that do not please them. Within a few years, the definition of common sense will expand to include the right to pornography that conservatives deny today. By that time, the battle for traditional values will center around another, still more serious issue, and many people will accept the freedom of pornography they once rejected. In fact, after a reasonable period of time, the right to produce pornography will have itself become a tradition. How would one know whether it was a good tradition, a traditional value, and something thereby worthy of defense? By an appeal to theology, philosophy, and history? That would involve appealing to a judge other than common sense, a judge other than democracy. Surely Hitler would be lying right around the corner ready to pounce if one did so!
What, then, would be the best manner of defending democracy if what one understands by democracy in a civilization where everything must be presented in a democratic package is actually the defense of some real objective truth or eternal good in a classical-Christian sense? It is, after all, such things which I believe most conservatives truly want to defend. The best thing to do would be to demythologize democracy, to free oneself mentally and spiritually from enslavement to the overbearing democratic god, to reduce democracy once again to the level of a means as opposed to an end, and to subject that means to examination and criticism by reason. If one does so, two remarkable things happen.
To begin with, history is reopened to the observer of society in all its fullness. With history’s reopening comes access to the thoughts of millennia regarding the relationship of the essentially mutable world of politics to the unchangeable world of truth, goodness, and beauty. An entire army of Hebrews, Greeks, Romans, Medievals, critics of the Enlightenment, and teachers of Catholic social doctrine come on to center stage. Through their writings, one starts to realize that all political systems have their benefits and detriments, all have their rises and falls, due to the virtues and vices of their leaders and their peoples, as well as due to the mere circumstances of history; that given the peculiarities of time and place, all can be helpful or unhelpful in achieving the good. One sees that the manipulation of democratic systems by small factions who themselves define the popular will and oppress true majorities has been one of the constant problems of democracy, not an occasional abuse, and that this has been exacerbated by its tie-in with the revolutionary ideologies of the “tradition” of the past few centuries. One learns that it has often been precisely non-democratic governments which have better protected the traditional and good desires of the population, and that, in point of fact, the first time that the silent majority argument was used in recent history was in defense of the legitimate French Monarchy against the Jacobin Democracy of the 1790’s.
Secondly, demythologizing democracy enables one to rediscover the true focus needed to secure the proper functioning of the political order and the protection of the individual. That focus cannot be on undying commitment to some mutable institution, to a democracy or to a monarchy, to local government or to world government, since historical needs regularly change what is required in practical terms to do the good. That focus has to be upon the question of what the objective order of things itself demands; what the law of God and of nature necessitates, and what virtues one needs to fulfill it. It is concern for obedience to divine and natural law, with their emphasis upon what the individual owes to others that has been the real source of western excellence in building order and promoting the perfection of the human person, and not repeated reiteration of the need for popular sovereignty and human rights, with their emphasis upon what is owed to individuals. This is especially true in the modern world, where individuals are defined as grasping bundles of insatiable desires incapable of respecting anything and anybody anyway. Learning what the law is and how to fulfill it is a task that opens up the jewel box of the whole of the glorious tradition of the West, and pinpoints the dangers of working with the flawed vision of the two hundred fifty year tradition of the Enlightenment.
If one argues that acceptance of my premise would reopen all the acrimonious debates about God and man which the Enlightenment correctly noted have left blood stains throughout the ages, I would still have to insist that we have no choice. If we do not reopen that debate, we will be engaged in an enormous, elf-deceptive waste of time. One cannot defeat evil by making believe that the great problem of identifying objective truth and the whole drama of trying to live by that truth on the earth do not exist, or that they can be ignored by means of democratic consensus. The peace that this denial purchases is a peace which cheats the human mind and spirit in their thirst for the highest perfection. It is a peace that has historically been administered by the consciousness-raiser and the criminal. If troubles have arisen in dealing with correctly understanding reality and living in charity with one another in the past, then these troubles can be overcome only in one way: by the painstaking work of trying to understand reality still better, and by trying to live still more charitably, personally, every waking moment of every day. They cannot be overcome through the mechanical functioning of some democratic apparatus which is worshipped as a god and which has generally run out of fuel to boot.
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