Saturday, 26 July 2008

The Meaning of Democracy

A reflection on Kierkegaard's journal entry "This is a fine world!" reproduced from "The Last Years: The Kierkegard Journals 1853-1855" edited and translated by Ronald Gregor Smith.

"Imagine a prison, with all the prisoners gathered together - and a man steps forward and addresses them thus: 'My right honourable gentlemen, I request the favour of this respectable assembly's attention and lenient judgement' and so on, then is it not true that all the prisoners would burst out laughing and regard the man as mad for calling them a respectable assembly?

The ludicrous element lies in the contradiction between prisoners and 'this respectable assembly'.

So they laugh at the ludicrous side of it, and they will have their fun with this speaker; but they will not think of anything else.

And why not? Because as prisoners they are surrounded by a much more numerous world which posesses the power to tell them, You are thieves, etc.

But now imagine the gathering of prisoners as a world for itself, where there was therefore no world round about it which enforced upon them the truth that they were thieves - imagine this gathering of prisoners as a world for itself: do you believe that they would still burst out laughing if someone stepped forward and addressed them and used the words 'this honourable assembly'? No, not in the least. On the contrary, they would understand it thus: it is quite true, we are the world, so we have the power to impose the idea that we are fine, respectable, virtuous men. How should it occur to us to laugh when we are called honourable? No, this is just what we want: to describe us in this way shows that the speaker himself is a serious and honourable man, and to speak in any other way would be ridiculous and foolish.

So also with the world: if this world were surrounded by another world, if it were a little world within a world which compelled us by overwhelming power to see the truth about what we are, namely, rogues, then we would all laugh every time a man stepped forward and addressed us as this honourable assembly and so on. But this world is itself the overwhelming power, and that is why we are not mad enough to laugh; no, we have it in our power to impose the view that we are a fine world."

But that was in 1853, when the failure of the revolutions of 1848 had left so many of the autocrats of Europe firmly seated upon their thrones. How much more have we magnified this madness in the years since then, as the convulsions of history have spread our so-called 'democracy' over so much more of the mass of mankind? A democracy so-called because it was never truly understood by classical liberalism. The framers of the American constitution, the parliamentarians of England, the architects of the French Republic and its many posthumous resuscitations, all sought only that very cozy sort of democracy. They wanted that manner of democracy in which we find the Good by reasoning from numbers; did not Rousseau say that to hear the voice of the people was to hear the voice of God?

Alas, this is to have missed the point! We then find ourselves as Abraham pleading for Sodom and Gomorrah. Are sixty men enough to know the Good? Six hundred? Six thousand? Six and a half billion? No, if the mass of men could find the Good by virtue of their being a mass, we would be forced to conclude that drinking oneself blind ranks quite highly in the eyes of God!

Only the Communists truly understood democracy. It is not, it cannot be, a means of finding the Good. Democracy, properly practiced, is a process of deliberation whereby the mass of men are helped to find the Good, which exists with or without their consent. It is a reminder to overzealous elites who think they can save men merely by compelling them to right action, that none of us are permitted to move forward without the rest. No stable, healthy social order can be brought about except that it regenerate each of us spiritually. If the least of us does not transcend himself, even the best of us can know no peace. It is this self-overcoming which is the challenge of true democracy. Let us not delude ourselves that we have achieved our goal when we pat ourselves on the back, and call it an oracle.

No comments: