Monday, June 15, 2009

Does Democracy Rot Your Soul?

When I was a secretary for an academic department a few years ago, the professors were a little surprised to learn that I—apparently unlike many other secretaries they’d had—was perfectly willing to bend my will to theirs. My anti-authoritarian streak began early, it’s true, but by the end of my undergraduate years, it had to a large extent died out. This happens, I suppose, as a person grows up. Or at least it’s supposed to.

“Some people,” said one of the professors, “take ‘All men are created equal’ to mean that we’re all on the same level in a practical sense.”

“Well, of course not,” I replied. “We’re all created in equal in terms of ontological value, but obviously your job is higher than mine and I shouldn’t pretend we’re on the same social level.” The problem, as I saw it then and as I continue to see it, is that somehow we’ve equated who we are as people with what we do—deep down, I think Americans believe that if you have a better job you’re worth more as a human being. That, for obvious reasons, leads to the attitude “You can’t tell me what to do.”

One thing that surprised me when I first started reading Plato was that he’s no friend of democracy. The ancient Greeks, after all, invented the form. I learned this fact in middle school, and I can’t remember if my teacher bothered to tell us that the most notable of them hated it with the depth of their beings.

In The Republic, Plato places it at the very bottom of his analysis of political systems, warning that if people aren’t careful, their societies will slide into it. “Democracy,” he says, “originates when the poor win, kill or exile their opponents, and give the rest equal civil rights and opportunities of office, appointment to office being as a rule by lot” (557a). This is a nightmare for him because poverty makes a person incapable of choosing correctly. Democracy becomes an exercise in smoke and mirrors, and if people like it, they like it in the way that “women and children [like] gaily coloured things” (557c).

His language here makes it easy for us to dismiss him. The poor are human beings like everyone else, and they’re not in all cases or completely responsible for their poverty. Marx has told us the ways in which the system creates its own caste system and that the dream of social mobility is to a large extent a lottery rather than a meritocracy. And the sexism of the ancient Greeks (way worse than the sexism either of the Hebrew Bible or of the New Testament) just doesn’t work in a modern world. But we should still take his remarks on democracy seriously, especially when he talks about its effects on the soul.

Before we look at those remarks, though, I should say a word about Greek opinions on the nature of the soul. The common opinion, best I can gleam from reading Plato and Aristotle, is that the soul is composed of two elements, the reason and the will. The reason sits in natural authority over the will—the rational over the emotional. Aristotle uses this schema to justify any number of things, including the rule of men (rational) over women (emotional), but we need not accept that implication to recognize the wisdom of a natural hierarchy of character traits.

So under a political system of democracy, the individual character begins to become democratic, which is to say that the emotional elements of the soul begin to rebel against the rational elements:
For the rest of his life he spends as much money, time and trouble on the unnecessary desires as on the necessary. If he’s lucky and doesn’t get carried to extremes, the tumult will subside as he gets older, some of the exiles will be received back, and the invaders won’t have it all their own way. He’ll establish a kind of equality of pleasures, and will give the pleasure of the moments its turn of complete control till it is satisfied, and then move on to another, so that none is underprivileged and all have their fair share of encouragement. (561b)
It’s hard to ignore this warning given the current economic crisis, which is built from people of all levels of society allowing their pleasures, their unnecessary desires, to rule over their rational minds. Why should a CEO who’s completely trashed his company receive bonuses of millions of dollars? On the other end of society, why should someone who makes $6 an hour—or worse, who lives off of Welfare—own two or three televisions and a satellite dish?

The answer is the same: We’re to a large part controlled by our pleasures. Poor Jimmy Carter tried to tell the country this in the late 1970s and was crucified it: Living with your means requires sacrifice; it requires allowing the rational element of your soul to rule over the emotional element. Unfortunately for Carter, democratic people naturally rebel against this instruction.

Additionally, we begin to believe that no one can rule over us. “Every man is a king,” claimed Huey Long, the populist Louisiana senator, and Lord knows this is what Americans believe at the core of their beings. If it’s true, though, we need to start worrying, lest we end up with one of the two kings given in Aristophanes’ The Knights: the vicious, wicked Cleon, and Agoracritus, the idiot sausage-seller. (It’s true that in Aristophanes’ play, Agoracritus ends up being a pretty good ruler. I think most of us will agree it wouldn’t happen that way in real life.)

Besides, even if it were a good thing for every man to be king, it’s simply not plausible. Long devised the slogan and its accompanying song not to elevate every man into his own ruler but to become their ruler. Americans are told from childhood that anyone can become president—we’ve heard this a million times over—but it’s simply not true. By the time you finish college (and possibly even by the time you enter it), you know if you have a shot of being president—and the overwhelming majority of people don’t. And it’s a good thing.

But there’s a tendency to hold onto this myth, to believe that it’s some stroke of luck and not your native ability that keeps you from ruling the world. And that’s where the anti-authoritarianism comes in. That’s where democracy begins to rot your soul—there’s no reason to listen to the people in charge, since we’re all capable of doing it. You may as well secede.

I’m just kicking this idea around, so I’ll present a few caveats before people start to think I’m advocating some kind of dictatorship or suggesting that there’s never a time to overthrow oppression:

(a) I’m a Protestant, which means my Catholic and Eastern Orthodox friends have every right to point out my hypocrisy here. Protestantism is built upon the notion that we can all be our own priests, and in some of its forms, it completely negates Church hierarchy. Presbyterianism happens not to be one of those forms, but it does suggest a sort of hermeneutic self-rule: Anyone can read the Bible and come up with the correct meaning, and we’re not dependent upon the Church to tell us if we’re right or wrong. The Orthodox are fond of saying that the Protestant Reformation removed the Pope and created billions of little popes.

(b) Plato is unable to come up with a political system that’s more appealing or realistic than the ones he condemns. He essentially advocates the society in Brave New World, with a small group of Guardians ruling over everyone else. No one owns anything, not even his family; women and children are shared equally by all. He somehow believes that the Guardians won’t take advantage of their situation and grow rich off of the fat of the land.

Aristotle rightly condemns aspects of Plato’s republic and advocates instead his typical Golden Mean—not too much tyranny, not too much democracy. I am not far enough into the Politics to evaluate this system.

(c) There’s no doubt that there are leaders, democratically elected and otherwise, who are just plain bad, who drive their societies into the ground and who oppress their people. I have little problem with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s plot to kill Hitler, for example. (Of course, Hitler was democratically elected and for the most part did what he did with the approval of the masses.) So I have not yet worked out what we should do with tyrants, that is, when submission should stop and self-rule should begin.

(d) Finally, I recognize that I’m as much a product of democratic thought as the rest of us and that our political system is not going to go away any time soon. Further, I don’t particularly think that’s a bad thing. I wouldn’t like going back to a monarchy or an oligarchy or (God forbid) Plato’s republic.

What I’m interested in, I guess, is finding a way to have the political advantages of democracy without its corrosive effects on the individual. What do you guys think? Does political democracy necessarily lead to the democracy of the soul and to the selfish and lazy citizens that believe it’s all owed to them? Is there any way out?


Joel said...

You beat my first couple comments to the punch already in your post, so here's what's left.
Believe it or not, I actually give this same situation a lot of thought these days. My current running opinion is that any and all systems are essentially theories and ideas that will always be painfully flawed to the extent that humans themselves are painfully flawed, and that any system will reflect both the worst and the best of any given culture, group, or individual. We could list off numerous examples of how "the masses" can't be trusted, and indeed the U.S. founders essentially believed that a select group of white male landowners/businessmen should essentially hold control over government. The idea of a select intelligent group holding rule actually does appeal to me, yet I know that members of that group can't be trusted (individually or corporately) to serve the best interest of all or adhere to their own established moral and civic standards, even flexible ones. We're all capable of good and evil even all at once, and those elements will always both come out in any system. It's interesting that you mention Huey P. Long -- the novel "All the King's Men" really strikes at some of these same ideas in a really fascinating way.

Michial said...

The problem with the Founders' idea of citizenship is that it was restricted not by intellectual or moral merit but by class and race. Aristotle and Plato, of course, do the same thing.

But I'd be fine with a civics test being required for citizenship and a basic test on your candidate's political beliefs being required before you vote for someone. I realize this idea reeks of Jim Crow, but I don't see why it has to.

Joel said...

Yeah, I don't hold much stock by the founders' ways, anyway -- your point is one issue, for sure, and that's why I made sure to use the term "intelligent" rather than any of their criteria. I do like your idea, though. A poor black homeless woman SHOULD be able to vote (though many Republicans would disagree with me) provided she knows what she's doing.

Michial said...

I wonder what social groups this test would exclude more than others. It'd be easy to protest that it would exclude poor minorities, but I'm not sure it'd keep them out any more than rich white kids. One former girlfriend of mine had no idea how many branches of government we had and couldn't name a single U.S. Congressman. I'd feel better about the world if people like her couldn't vote.