Classic Essays

Democracy is a Kind of Death, part 2

by William Gayley Simpson

ONE MAY well doubt whether there is anything I can add concerning the respective merits of democracy and aristocracy that has not already been said by Aristotle, Plato, and Confucius — by Lecky, Arnold, Stephen, Maine, Carlyle, Ruskin, Burke, and Nietzsche; by Mairet, Cram, Irving Babbitt, Ortega y Gasset, and — not least — by Ludovici. Indeed, I shall hardly attempt to add anything new. It will be enough for me if I can hold up their arms in the struggle for a nobler man, if I can faithfully pass on the lighted torch that I have received at their hands. Aristotle remarked in the third century B.C. that “almost all things have already been found out.” But he added that “some have been neglected, and others which have been known have not been put in practice.” And verily it will suffice me if I, a man facing modern conditions, until near the middle of his life steeped in the democratic tradition and still as before devoted to the truest good of his fellows, may but bring again to light some of those ancient truths. They are truths that we democratic moderns, with our conceit of our superiority to all bygone ages, have looked down upon because they belonged to the past, and have neglected until we have lost memory of their existence and have almost lost power to comprehend and to apply them. We have slighted and ignored those truths to our great loss and to our exceeding bitter woe. Verily, it will suffice me well if I can but help to light again in the lighthouses of my kind the flame of that ancient wisdom, fueled from the deepest and oldest human experience, on which the greatest peoples in all parts of the world have ever placed their supreme reliance, to guide them safely past the rocks and shoals of life and bring them into port.

From this, let it be understood from the outset that I do not propose to take my readers on any spin through romantic heavens on the wings of high-flown theory. I have less and less respect for what can be woven only on the warp of idealism with the shuttle of speculation. All our efforts need to be guided by the lessons of actual human experience, the record of which we find in history. I have thus learned that any new institution, if it is to accomplish its end, must be mostly old. I cannot escape the conclusion that if any institution works well, it is because it was founded on sound principles and serves its purpose. Thousands of years ago, Confucius noted that “if those in authority have not the confidence of the people, government of the people is impossible.” And all history proves that no people will bear indefinitely a yoke that severely galls them. From which it would seem fair to conclude that the mere longevity of any society, the mere fact that it lasted a long time, is evidence that on the whole it met satisfactorily the basic needs of the people who lived in it. A necessary preliminary, therefore, for any approach to a just evaluation of the comparative merits and defects of democracy and aristocracy is a long perspective of historical knowledge. Those especially who have merely inherited their political philosophy as most people inherit their religious bias, have need to acquaint themselves not only with the thought of its outstanding critics, but with those arrangements by which the longest-lasting and culturally most significant societies have undertaken, in the period of their greatest health and creativeness, to meet those fundamental needs of men that are as old as time and as unalterable as the Earth we live on. For while it is true that history never repeats itself, “it is about equally true,” as Irving Babbitt reminds us, “that history is always repeating itself.” And from a study of history, we may discover that among the great peoples certain fundamental patterns of social organization consistently reappear. The reason for this becomes apparent as close and honest observation of ourselves and others, and a searching study of history and of psychology, lead us to a knowledge of human nature. It is on this, ultimately — on the texture, reaches, and limits of human nature — that I would found my entire position.

This is not, I say again, to be any gush of pretty theory. Least of all is it to be another “blueprint of an ideal society,” such as many people like to play with. I see too clearly that no sound society comes into existence that way. It is not at all like a prefabricated house, which is made in a factory and put together by mechanics where and when you will. Rather, it grows out of the blood and nature of a particular people, rooted in a particular piece of ground, and perhaps reflecting the very climate that prevails there. To a degree, every society is unique. To a given people at a given time there is probably only one kind possible. Professor Edward A. Freeman said well that “neither the Greeks in any other land nor any other people in Greece could have been what the Greeks in Greece actually were.” Neither race alone, nor its setting alone, can account for the outcome, but the two together in their interactions. And yet, running through the life of all the peoples who have left a great mark behind them, one finds certain perduring all-determining principles, which formed the scaffolding from which they worked to complete their tower, and without which no people can be expected to reach a like height of greatness. In this chapter, I wish to keep these principles, founded on human nature and confirmed in historical record, clearly before us.

Before any judgment can be rendered between the respective claims of democracy and aristocracy, it is necessary to settle in our minds what is the primary object of social organization, what are the primary responsibilities that any government must undertake to meet.

The primary end for which any people creates a government and social forms is to meet the needs of its life. It wills to preserve itself, and, like every healthy organism, to develop, to grow, and to expand. These are necessities inseparable from any living thing. But a people’s will is not toward the preservation and increase of any abstract “existence,” but rather of themselves, of their own kind, of the peculiar character and values by which they are distinguished from other peoples, and apart from which they could not be aware of themselves as an entity or come into existence as a people. It is a will not only to live and to live more fully and largely, but to live in a particular way, their own way, the way that through long ages has proven itself the means best suited to their nature for attaining their ends. Their whole effort will be shot through with a determination to embody and to establish these characteristic ways of facing the universe, of maintaining and advancing themselves against their enemies, in social forms that will not only last long but be satisfying to their taste and instinct. Mere stability is often said to be the primary object of any people’s social organization. But it seems to me this can never be enough. A healthy people wills not only to last long, but to be itself a long time. In Ludovici’s phrase, it wills to preserve its identity.

It is as a result of this attitude that we witness the well-attested and intense conservatism of the great majority of men. Every healthy people has hated, and feared, and resisted the constant readjustment necessitated by continual change. When change goes beyond a certain point it causes what has been well called “cultural shock.” Even though it be sanctified as “progress,” a people can no more thrive under it than can a tree that is planted one place today only to find itself dug up and planted somewhere else tomorrow. And since every people’s distinctive character is rooted in its hereditary factors (that is, as we say, in its blood) as well as in its tradition, its resistance to change will inevitably erect barriers against the indiscriminate mixture of its blood with that of aliens. Yet will it encourage such controlled and well-considered change as may be required for the increase of its strength, provided always such change be kept within the limits set by its need to preserve its identity. For a people’s sense of identity, the distinguishing something by which it knows itself as an entity apart from other peoples, is the secret inner spring of its existence, which at once gives that people its characteristic shape, and direction, and drive. Let it lose this, and, everything else regardless, it must fall to pieces. No people is left any choice about it. Either it must preserve its distinctive character, or it must cease to be a people.

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Source: Which Way, Western Man?

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