The OF Blog: Two passages which have troubled me lately

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Two passages which have troubled me lately

From Plato's The Republic, Book VIII:

And democracy has her own good, of which the insatiable desire brings her to dissolution?

What good?

Freedom, I replied; which, as they tell you in a democracy, is the glory of the State - and that therefore in a democracy alone will the freeman of nature deign to dwell.

Yes; the saying is in everybody's mouth.

I was going to observe, that the insatiable desire of this and the neglect of other things introduces the change in democracy, which occasions a demand for tyranny.

How so?

When a democracy which is thirsting for freedom has evil cupbearers presiding over the feast, and has drunk too deeply of the strong wine of freedom, then, unless her rulers are very amenable and give a plentiful draught, she calls them to account and punishes them, and says that they are cursed oligarchs.

Yes, he replied, a very common occurrence.

Yes, I said; and loyal citizens are insultingly termed by her slaves who hug their chains and men of naught; she would have subjects who are like rulers, and rulers who are like subjects:  these are men after her own heart, whom she praises and honors both in private and public.  Now, in such a State, can liberty have any limit?

Certainly not.

By degrees the anarchy finds a way into private houses and ends by getting among the animals and infecting them.

From John Stuart Mill's Considerations on Representative Government:

If we ask ourselves on what causes and conditions good government in all its senses, from the humblest to the most exalted, depends, we find that the principal of them, the one which transcends all others, is the qualities of the human beings composing the society over which the government is exercised.

We may take, as a first instance, the administration of justice; with the more propriety, since there is no part of public business in which the mere machinery, the rules and contrivances for conducting the details of ther operation, are of such vital consequence.  Yet even these yield in importance to the qualities of the human agents employed.  Of what efficacy are rules of procedure in securing the ends of justice, if the moral condition of the people is such that the witnesses generally lie, and the judges and their subordinates take bribes?  Again, how can institutions provide a good municipal administration if there exists such indifference to the subject that those who would administer honestly and capably cannot be induced to serve, and the duties are left to those who undertake them because they have some private interest to be promoted?  Of what avail is the most broadly popular representative system if the electors do not care to choose the best member of parliament, but choose him who will spend most money to be elected?  How can a representative assembly work for good if its members can be bought, or if their excitability of temperament, uncorrected by public discipline or private self-control, makes them incapable of calm deliberation, and they resort to manual violence on the floor of the House, or shoot at one another with rifles?  How, again, can government, or any join concern, be carried on in a tolerable manner by people so envious that, if one among them seems likely to succeed in anything, those who ought to cooperate with him form a tacit combination to make him fail?  Whenever the general disposition of the people is such that each individual regards those only of his interests which are selfish, and does not dwell on, or concern himself for, his share of the general interest, in such a state of things good government is impossible.  The influence of defects of intelligence in obstructing all the elements of good government requires no illustration.  Government consists of acts done by human beings; and if the agents, or those who choose the agents, or those to whom the agents are responsible, or the lookers-on whose opinion ought to influence and check all these, are mere masses of ignorance, stupidity, and baleful prejudice, every operation of government will go wrong; while, in proportion as the men rise above this standard, so will the government improve in quality; up to the point of excellence, attainable but nowhere attained, where the officers of government, themselves persons of superior virtue and intellect, are surrounded by the atmosphere of a virtuous and enlightened public opinion.

Sometimes I worry that democratic government can devolve to the point of placing more emphasis on texting in votes on reality TV shows than on an active and educated participation in the governance of nations.  From reading all of Plato's book and half of Mill's, it seems this concern has been around for millennia.  The recent news from North Africa is both exciting and troubling to me; I hope for radical change, yet I fear what might emerge from that radical change as well.  Are there wiser, moderate voices that will take charge and think more of the yearnings of the people for liberty without using freedom from autocratic regimes as an excuse to drown out dissenters whose voices ought to be considered as well?

The same question applies here to my own country.  Who best represents my own voice when those voted in focus more on appeasing "their bases" than they do on providing what is necessary even for those citizens with whom they have a philosophical disagreement? 

That likely will be a question to haunt me for years to come.


Hélène said...

Tocqueville too is a troublesome author when you are thinking about democracy

Larry Nolen said...

Very true. I need to re-read that particular work of his in the near future.

Amy said...

Great quotes and so relevant to the times for sure. It's sobering to think how long these issues have been around isn't it.

Add to Technorati Favorites