The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

January 21, 2019

Western Political Models and Their Metaphysics, Part II: On the Differences between a Republic and a Democracy
Claude Polin - 05/26/10

This is Part II of a two-part series. To read Part I, click here.

From these two basic philosophical outlooks stem two basic political systems, usually mistaken for one and the same, though with two different names.


What is indeed a republic, properly speaking? To refer to a human association as a republic obviously (and not so obviously) means that it is organized in the shape of two concentric spheres, one being that of what all citizens have in common, which is the res publica, and the other being that of the same citizens, but considered as men who have a life apart from their public one, apart from their membership in the public sphere—that is, men who are not only citizens but also private individuals. In other words, a republic is the unity of a diversity, a unity which would not be a true one if it weren’t that of a diversity (a sand pile is a real unity only by accident), and a diversity which would never be really a body politic unless some unifying principles were at work within each diverse part. A republic is a city in which there is a balance between the private and public spheres, the local and the central ones.

Now this balance, I believe, cannot be attained but by the deep belief in the souls of all citizens that they have something in common, which is or may become more important to each of them than their own private welfare. There can be no republic when everyone does not assume that there is a common good.

The notion is a delicate one, since it implies neither an exclusive worship of the whole, leading to the nullification of each citizen’s personal identity, nor a devotion to oneself, to one’s private individuality, which would reduce the bond between the citizens to a mere convenience, to be discarded upon becoming too costly to the individual. The common good is a good which, being common to all citizens, both is somehow the particular good of each and at the same time happens to be the particular good of all the other citizens. Neither is the common good to be confused with a mere general interest, be it unanimous: if men are all bonded only by the coincidence of their own private interests, they cease to be citizens and become mere shareholders, willing to sell their shares the instant they can invest more profitably somewhere else: sheer interests vary and are never conducive to a stable unity. The common good of a community is no mere commodity; it is something that one must love as an object worthy of love in itself and not simply because it is useful.

Therefore this question: whence may arise the proper social bond between free men, which may be defined as the love of the bond that ties them together—even though they are independent of one another—which in common language is simply the love of one’s country?

A classical question if any, to which my answer would be the following. Obviously no man—an animal who is not an ant but endowed with free will and thought—will be happy to be tied to a considerable number of fellow men, unless there is inscribed in his very nature a spontaneous propensity to think of himself as an animal whose independence cannot be total or whose independence is naturally limited by his being by nature only a part, be it a somewhat independent one, of a larger whole or of a series of concentric wholes of increasing diameter starting with the family circle and ending with the entire universe. But this is precisely, I think, the essence of a truly religious attitude. To be religious is to feel tied to something beyond oneself (religio = religare), and to be so not by accident but because one feels one belongs to something beyond oneself, but not beside oneself. All religion is a communion, the sense of a community which proceeds from the conviction that no man is a self-contained entity. Therefore what I mean is simply this: there is no real substance to a bond between men unless it partakes somehow of that quintessential one, woven by a religious commitment, the only one which, not being man-made, cannot be unmade by men. In other words, a republic is by nature a city which cannot attain its own perfection unless its citizens are inclined to religion: men are social animals in direct proportion to their being religious animals. It is no accident that Plato’s republic had philosopher-priests as rulers over all, nor is the classical reference to a Christian republic haphazard wording. Now of course it remains to be carefully considered whether or not there are many religions that really deserve the name, and whether or not the religion needs to be established. Skipping over these questions, suffice it to say that superstitions may tie men by addressing their passions, fear, lust, or whatever, whereas religion bonds them because its voice comes as if from outside and above all of them, but resounds inside each as if it were the voice of their own souls.

Hence a few standard characteristics of a republican city.

In order for the citizens to be allowed to be meaningful parts of the whole, and not mere grains in a sand pile, they must be given the very means of some independence, a true independence but one which at the same time does not sever their ties to their fellow citizens, which does not prevent them from loving the whole of which they are only parts, a real freedom, but one they love no more than they love their membership in the community. This is a very delicate independence indeed, and this tricky balance has not always been achieved in traditional societies, but I think it has always lived in the minds of the wise men of the past as the ideal to be pursued. It has but one natural basis: the average citizen must enjoy some kind of personal property that allows him not to be dependent for his very survival on the good will and the support of the others. And this means another balance between an excessive wealth that induces the illusion of an ability to live alone, and a wretchedness that turns everyone into beggars at the mercy of the others (Rome ceased to be a republic when the average Roman started demanding bread and circuses, like a slave at the hands of his masters). In other words, the chances for a city to be a republic are directly proportional to its being what has been called since Aristotle a middle-class society. Which points to a society with a sturdy rural agrarian foundation (“our governments,” warned Jefferson, “will remain virtuous for many centuries, as long as they are chiefly agricultural”). Of course, most of our contemporaries look with contempt on such a backward society, but that is only because they are blind to the evidence of common sense that society obtains between men only when one’s living is not achieved at the expense of the other.

There is another evidence, not only acknowledged but extolled in classical societies: beyond a certain size a city cannot be a republic. There comes a point when the difference between individuals and the whole of which they are part becomes so great that it becomes impossible for them to feel like a member of that whole, to feel they are citizens. The natural birthplace and habitat of a republic is a local community. Which means the only way for a republic to grow in size is the very one that was used for the individuals to gather into a society: a large republic is by nature a confederation of smaller ones. But again, even a confederation runs the risk of growing to a point beyond which there is too great a disproportion between the constituent communities and the whole that they are supposed to form. Rome ceased to become a republic when it became an empire.

Let me add a third basic feature: the core of the common good is actually acted upon when all are left to their own particular callings while having at heart to contribute something to the common wealth; when all are willing to go about their own affairs and even promote their own interests, but unwilling to do anything that would bring harm to the community; when all strive not to be a burden to the community, not to be dependent on the others, but also look forward to contributing something to it, not asking what their country can do for them, but what they can do for their country. I’m fully aware there may be something utopian in the idea that everyone can contribute something significant—that is, meaning something to the community. But I think nevertheless it is definitely realistic to maintain that there is no republic when all citizens do not aim as much as possible at doing just that, however minute it may be.

And finally I would like to allude to a fourth basic feature of a republic. It is of the essence of a republic to admit only a minimum of government, whose limited activities are moreover subjected to the consent of the people. The reason why seems to me to be the following one. If there is no republic in which the average citizen is not a man who enjoys the freedom to order his private life according to his best judgment, while feeling a propensity to play to his best his role in the functioning of the whole—that is, to serve the community—then it is obvious that a republican city is one whose organization is essentially natural and spontaneous. Its laws stem not from the imagination of some providential man but from the natural talents and vocations of its citizens, who naturally tend to organize themselves into a viable entity—that is, to resemble an organism whose organs tend to complement one another, each doing his own thing, but at the same time serving the others. Then two things are obvious. First, the government is to the republican city what the head is to the body: a particular organ whose function is crucial but essentially limited. Crucial because its main object is to ensure the smooth working of the whole, to make sure that no cell grows at the expense of the others, as well as to protect the body against external aggressions. But limited because this does not entail interfering with the natural way each part performs its particular role. That is to say, a republican government is limited to warranting justice and providing defense (and possibly helping a stricken organ to recover its health). This essential limitation has one essential consequence: since what is the common good has nothing to do with the decree of a Rousseauist general will; and since on the contrary its management requires mainly wisdom, sedate judgment, equity, and experience, there must be some propensity to entrust it to men of good intellectual standing and moral repute. At this rate what then makes a republic is not so much the actual participation of all the citizens in the performance of the governing function as their consent to their being governed, and therefore the existence of channels through which they can express their possible grievances (principibus nolite semper confidere). Which is why, all in all, the best regime in which the republican idea may bloom is probably the famous mixed one that all classical philosophers have always hailed, up to and including, I believe, the Founding Fathers of the American Republic.


Now I think a democracy is be understood as the exact opposite of a republic.


What was democracy supposed to be when, what with the enlightenment of the European intellect, the democratic creed began to spread? What indeed if not essentially the revolt of the masses against the tyranny of some men daring to claim they were made of better stuff than their fellow men, and therefore entitled to rule them? At first, though, the ghost of the aristocrat still prevailed: by electing their representatives, the people were expected to be given the natural right to select among themselves the more competent to rule them. But the logic of the democratic idea could not but conquer: democracy is complete only when every citizen is deemed to be equal to every other—one man, one vote. Now who could seriously claim democracy to be a “sum of intelligences”? (Even Tocqueville, ever a demagogue, who unashamedly forged this phrase, shows elsewhere he was under no illusion.) This would be simply illogical: If no citizen is any wiser than any other, what is the reason for the one man, one vote obsession? How on earth could a crowd of “no wisers” be any wiser than any particular individual, and why not resort to a lottery to designate the rulers? Hence the conclusion: democracy cannot—and actually does not—claim to be the regime in which wisdom reigns supreme. But this is precisely why it does claim to be the only one in which the popular will is sovereign (this is its very definition). For this famous phrase (popular sovereignty) must be understood properly: the citizen is not concerned with the wisest decision to be made; he is concerned with his will (which needn’t be wise to be his will) being considered by all citizens to be as important as the will of any other citizen. One gets to the root of democracy when one understands that the will of the people is in everyone’s eyes the supreme will not because it is the will of the collectivity as such but because it is somehow the particular will of each of the citizens; if one wants to use Rousseauist words, the general will is somehow actually the private will of every individual citizen (the practical difficulty lies, of course, with the “somehow”). Democracy is popular because the arbitrary will of a tyrant has been replaced not by the wise will of the collectivity but by the will, whatever its qualifications, of each private individual: “each citizen,” wrote Rousseau, “while he deposits his vote, is thinking only of himself.” Hail to Rousseau, the only lucid democrat! But of course, better forget such formulas: well elucidated, they mean that such a thing as a common good does not exist in the eyes of a democratic constituency, and therefore it is pure happenstance if a particular democratic policy happens to coincide with the common good of the city (and miracles are by definition rare). The fact is basic, though of course nonexplicit or hidden behind noble words: who has ever heard of a political party that does not claim to embody the general interest?

The good to be satisfied in a democracy, not the common good but the private one, has two faces: vanity and greed, the two breasts upon which democracy feeds. The self-centered individual is hard-put to suffer superiority of any kind, and loves nothing better than a star who is like an exalted image of himself, something that shines but is not beyond his reach, be it only in his imagination. And take a being who does not and cannot feel any moral or social compulsion, any urge to be other than what he is, since he is a sovereign and does not have to stoop to anyone or anything: what may be of interest to such a being if not his whims, his desires, his passions, and therefore the possession of the means to satisfy them?

Perfect democracy being the perfect embodiment of the cardinal sin for a man to love himself above and beyond anything else, can there be any other religion in a democratic system than that of the system itself—that is, a system that legitimizes so obviously the love of oneself? This is why a democracy cannot be but an entirely artificial society. It does not satisfy any instinct for society, it is a society nobody enters unless he sees his private advantage in entering it. It is no heaven; it is a necessary evil: at some point men decided that the disadvantages of not being entirely their own masters were more than matched by the benefits of others’ company. That makes their society by nature a very fragile artifact. Logically no citizen can be devoted to the community beyond the point at which this community ceases to be useful to him. A democratic society is a constantly revocable society—it looks and sounds like a society, but it is properly speaking just a momentary association.

And from this basic fact stem the basic and eternal problems of democracy. Somehow, as has been said, the will of all is not first of all the will of all; it is primarily my will. In other words, democracy rests on a fiction, but it is precisely this fiction that lends strength to the system. Now this fiction must be given some reality. Hence the two fundamental faces of the democratic regime. For the fiction may be given flesh by making individuals uniform and fusing their will in a sort of explosion of individualistic anti-individualism, or again by a policy of systematic egalitarianism (which may take the form of a mixing of races and classes), which is the Jacobin way. Or the fiction may be fraudulently sustained, which is the liberal way: everyone, a clique, a party, a faction, may be allowed to compete to embody the so-called will of the people—that is, to actually conquer, and, once the faction has won the competition, confiscate and enjoy the spoils (the collective product of the collectivity) while at the same time claiming, of course, to act for the good of the citizens. (Democracy, Bastiat used to say,

is the system in which everyone tries to live at the expense of everyone else.) Which is why democracy’s best breeding ground is the town: the place where exchanges take place, where the opportunities to take advantage of the others are easiest.

In either case, one outcome remains the same: inasmuch as every individual sees his own will in the so-called popular will, or sees an opportunity to use the latter to his own benefit (whether by redistribution if he is poor or by business deregulation if he is wealthy), all citizens have a vested interest in ever increasing the power of the general will, which for all practical purposes means that of the state. Unlike what happens in a republic, the propensity of a democratic society is to unleash ad infinitum the natural tendency of power not only to grow but to concentrate, to become more and more centralized—which means the emergence of individuals actually in charge of enforcing the supposed will of the people, and who have a natural tendency to use the powers vested in their hands to their personal benefit. (Democracies are a natural haven for graft and corruption.) After all, why should they be the only ones to nurture some concern for a common good that is the least of the concerns of the average citizen? A democracy is a society in which there are privileges that really deserve this denomination, because they are fringe benefits not even matched by corresponding obligations. This is why democracies flow towards tyranny as rivers to the sea.


The words “republic” and “democracy” are constantly used indiscriminately as synonyms, which they are not. They actually embody two different and contradictory conceptions of man and his relationships to himself, his fellow man, and the world around him. These are not only two types of society but also two mentalities reflecting two philosophies between which there is hardly any continuity. Nor is there any convergence as if there were two roads to the same town. If it is so important to distinguish between them, it is not only because one allows men to become sociable animals and not the other; it is also because one is the means for men to become better men, and the other to revert to the animal instinct that lurks deep in the soul of every man.

Claude Polin is professor emeritus at the University of Paris–Sorbonne.

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