The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

March 29, 2017

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Last Things: Democracy, or “Whatever the Majority Approves”
James V. Schall, S.J. - 10/27/08

Last Things is the regular column of James V. Schall, S. J.

row of corinthian columns on black and white sky
“The basis of a democratic state is liberty; which, according to the common opinion of men, can only be enjoyed in such a state;—this they affirm to be the great end of every democracy. One principle of liberty is for all to rule and be ruled in turn, and indeed democratic justice is the application of numerical not proportionate equality, whence it follows that the majority must be supreme, and that whatever the majority approve must be the end and the just.
—Aristotle, Politics, (1317a1–6).


The most difficult political act of citizenship is properly to identify the true nature of the regime in which one lives not in terms of what it says it is, but in terms of what it is by standards that are not subjective or self-serving. In the relatively recent phase of modernity, democracy has come to be identified with the “best regime” of classical speculation. “Democracy,” along with rights and free markets, is said to be one of the essential elements of the best regime. By comparison, all other regimes are bad regimes.

The only trouble with this development is that today all regimes claim, in spirit at least, to be “democratic” and to define what they mean by “rights.” Each regime is thus the “best” regime for those under it. No one is allowed to say otherwise. Democracy thus becomes relativistic. Multi-culturalism becomes a form of relativism. Whatever is done in a given regime is approved because no outside standard exists by which we can tell the difference in terms of good and evil between one regime and another.

The once universal usefulness of Hitler or Stalin as clear examples of the worst regime has almost run its course. What each proposed in not a few areas is also often practiced in democracies. The world has been made “safe” for democracy at the very moment that democracy means most anything. It was no accident that Socrates was executed in a democracy. This was the world’s most sober lesson that turned the mind away from the city in its search for the truth of things. . . .

The democratic form means that the people are responsible for the selection of their own rulers who are to rule in accordance with a constitution, written or unwritten, and the laws made under it. But an ambiguity arises. On the principle, “Whatever the majority approves is just,” no real and binding constitution can exist. The majority is never stable in terms of principle.

The worst regimes, as Aristotle already noted, do everything they can to keep control by making all private things public. They infiltrate all potential sources of opposition from friendship to clubs. Fear of violent death, as Hobbes would come to say, controls philosophy and religion. The most dangerous man, as Socrates said, is the one who does not fear death, but does fear to do wrong. The Socratic “it is never right to do wrong” is the heart of civilized living, itself open to the transcendent.

It is dangerous in most countries in the world today, if we find ourselves within their jurisdiction, to describe in public their actual forms of rule. “Hate language” laws replace discourse about what is. We must simply approve what the city enforces or keep silence. The trials of Darkness at Noon were designed to prevent even the escape of silence.

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