Classic Essays

Democracy is a Kind of Death, part 4

by William Gayley Simpson

LET US BEGIN by looking at democracy’s record. The examples most commonly and confidently adduced are those of ancient Greece, and modern England, France, and the United States.

Yet the record need not detain us very long. In the case of Greece, it may be questioned whether the government of Athens, even in the days of Pericles, can justly be called a democracy at all. To be sure, enthusiasts make large and not unimpressive claims. T. R. Glover, for instance, in his Democracy In The Ancient World, says:

“It was a government of citizens met in an assembly, where, without Presidents, ministers, ambassadors or representatives, they themselves governed. They created a beautiful city and a law-abiding people; they united the Greek world or a large part of it; they defeated the Persian Empire in all its greatness and drove the Persian from the sea. They made an atmosphere where genius could grow, where it could be as happy as genius ever can, and where it flowered and bore the strange fruit that has enriched the world forever.”

Elsewhere, he points out that the citizenry who did all this were a widely varied lot, of all kinds and grades; and yet that they carried democratic practice so far as to discard election in favor of choice by lot, and threw open the highest public office to all citizens alike excepting only quite unpropertied laborers; and the offices of lawmaker and judge, even to these.

To any sage statesman experienced in the ways of the multitude, such an achievement, as is here claimed for democracy, seems to border on the miraculous. But before we can render judgment we must look at the other side of the picture. All historians of the period, and even special pleaders like Glover and Agard, have to recognize that the entire democratic superstructure was built upon a huge substratum of slavery; “Perhaps one-tenth of the total population had political rights,” says Agard. And Glotz, an authority on the economic life of the period, concludes, “Greek democracy cannot dispense with slaves, and is never anything but a wider aristocracy.” (This, though said justly enough as regards Athens and its slavery, reveals what, to my mind, is a gross misconception of aristocracy.) Moreover, the wealth to provide its citizens with leisure and to adorn its Acropolis with monuments of art, was largely drawn, after a method so contrary to democratic theory but so typical of democratic record, from the imperialism it established over the subject cities of the Aegean islands and the nearby Asiatic mainland. Yet for all this, the resulting democracy was so unstable, marked by such excesses and errors of judgment, that it was saved for a while from the disintegration and disaster that early overtook it, only by the fact that for over a generation it was guided by the statesman Pericles, who did not come from the common people but from an old family of the Athenian nobility. This was clear even to Thucydides, a contemporary, who remarked that “although in name a democracy” Athens “was virtually a government by its greatest citizen.” Even with the help of Pericles’ genius, its life was very brief — well under one hundred years. Its final ignominious failure was the precursor of the like failure of every similar attempt in the ancient world. The age closed with democracy completely discredited.

Such was the status of democracy in the eyes of thoughtful men on the eve of the French Revolution. For at least seventeen centuries there had been an all but universal movement toward kingship. Says Henry Sumner Maine, whose title to speak with authority could hardly be surpassed,

“. . . the opinion that Democracy was irresistible and inevitable, and probably perpetual, would . . . have appeared (in the late eighteenth century) a wild paradox. There had been more than 2,000 years of tolerably well-ascertained political history, and at its outset, Monarchy, Aristocracy, and Democracy, were all plainly discernible. The result of a long experience was, that some Monarchies and some Aristocracies had shown themselves extremely tenacious of life . . . But the democracies which had risen and perished, or had fallen into extreme insignificance, seemed to show that this form of government was of rare occurrence in political history, and was characterized by an extreme fragility. . . Whenever government of the Many has been tried, it has ultimately produced monstrous and morbid forms of government by the One, or of government by the Few.”

And even of the period that has followed the French Revolution, while he is not a little impressed by the United States as the single exception to an almost unbroken record of democratic failure, he says that since the days when the Roman Empire began to break down, “there has never been such insecurity of government as the world has seen since rulers became delegates of the community.”

There is one feature of Democracy’s record that, in view of the modern situation, calls for more attention. It is commonly assumed that democracy is opposed to dictatorship. But nothing is farther from the facts. The history of democracy makes it unmistakable that some form of one-man tyranny is the end to which popular government has usually led. Athenian democracy is followed by Alexander; the French Republic, by Napoleon. As Christopher Dawson remarked, “The truth is, unpalatable though it may be to modern ‘progressive’ thought, that democracy and dictatorship are not opposites or mortal enemies, but twin children of the great Revolution.” Democracy’s very ineptitude, its very failure to solve the host of problems that always pile up under its uncertain and wobbly hand, finally brings a nation, as our own U.S. in this 1973, to the point where it is threatened with a breakdown of all law and order and seems to stand on the very verge of dissolution. In such a fearsome extremity, a man on horseback is seen by the mass of the people, and welcomed, as the only means left of saving the country from disaster. Precisely this explains the rise of Hitler. I do not see how anyone can read such a book as Arthur Bryant’s Unfinished Victory, with its sympathetic apprehension of the German people’s really desperate plight, and not come to recognize that some strong man or other, such as Adolf Hitler, was the only salvation left to her. One may not like totalitarianism — I myself hate it, but if one can put oneself in another’s place and imagine what it means to have to find some way to keep afloat or die, then one is forced to face the stark fact that when it really is a matter of life or death, be it for a man or for a nation, almost any means will be seized upon if it promises life. Nevertheless, this has little to do with aristocracy as I conceive it. To become an acceptable dictator a man must bear upon him too many of the marks of populace. But I will allow that, after democracy, the emergence of a dictator may, in the end, prove to have been at least a step toward conditions in which the seeds of a genuine aristocracy could germinate and grow.

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Source: Which Way, Western Man?

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