Philosophy of Democratic Government / by Yves R. Simon

Chapter II

Democratic Freedom

ABUSES in government are such a frequent and serious disorder that protection against them is a problem of major importance for every society. Solutions are conceivably two: misgovernment can be forestalled by the wisdom and justice of those who govern, and it can be held in check by the resistance of those who are governed. These methods of course, are not exclusive of each other. But there are societies in which the resistance of the people to bad government is institutionally organized and societies in which it is not. Let the first situation be called a "political" system, the latter a "despotic" one.{1}

In spite of most uncongenial connotations, a despotic system is not necessarily iniquitous. The idea of enlightened despotism, popular among eighteenth-century intellectuals, is not absurd, it is only disquieting and suspicious. One feels suspicious about whoever claims to know better than the people the ways and means to make the people happy. Yet, so far as vaccination was concerned, Catherine the Great was right; cases of smallpox would have been more numerous if an ignorant people had been provided with adequate means of resisting the will of its sovereign. Almost inevitably, institutions calculated to prevent government from misgoverning or overgoverning happen also to hamper good government. Consequently, many constitutions provide for the suspension of regular means of resistance when circumstances call for drastic efficiency.{2}

By calling "political" the system which gives the governed a legal power of resistance, Aristotle implies that a community governed despotically is not in a genuine sense a state or a city. The citizen is a free man.{3} Now his freedom is twofold, and a man can fall short of it in two ways. So far as the ends of action are concerned, the free man is not subject to authority, except for his own good and for the common good; the slave, on the contrary, is governed in view of the private good of another man;{4} he falls short of freedom by being subjected to alienation or exploitation. So far as the cause of action is concerned, the free man retains, in his relation to authority, the character of an autonomous agent; the subject of despotism (as well as the slave) falls short of freedom by being passive and instrumental.

In order to understand the distinctive features of democratic freedom, it is important to realize that a political regime may be thoroughly nondemocratic. Consider the relation of the old aristocracies to their kings: prior to the era of absolutism, aristocracies possessed such powers of resistance that the authority of the king often became merely nominal; even at the height of absolutism the nobility retained a number of privileges and liberties that the despotisms of our time would not grant to anybody. Clearly, there is no democratic relation between the hereditary king and the hereditary aristocracy. A still more striking example is supplied by the organization of the church: it is a typical case of political system in the sense defined above; yet it is not, by any means, a democratic organization. Such democratic features as can be found in it -- e.g., a high degree of equality of opportunity -- can be found in despotic regimes as well. Substantially, the "political" character of the church government is assured by an elaborate system of legal formulas which define with precision the boundaries of all rights and faculties. By virtue of these formulas the autonomy of the inferior is as much of an institution as the authority of the superior. At all levels, autonomy is guaranteed. by statutes.{5}

Democracy has ways of its own, distinct from the statute, though by no means incompatible with it, of procuring the political condition. This it does or attempts to do by either of two methods or by a combination of the two. In direct democracy there is no distinct governing personnel; the people governs by majority rule. In representative or indirect democracy the governing personnel is subjected to the control of the people through the procedure of periodical elections. The first method is the more unqualifiedly democratic, but it requires exceptional circumstances. In terms of historical reality, "democracy" almost always designates a system in which the representative method predominates.

Let us carefully refrain from begging any question concerning the efficacy of these methods. Let us, in particular, put out of our minds the notion that a society provided with democratic guaranties should or could discard the guaranties of nondemocratic description which other societies value. All that is meant, at this point, is that, concerning resistance to abusive government, democracy has methods of its own.

True, the ambition of democracy, from the very start, goes beyond the establishment of a political regime. For government to be political, it suffices that the governed be possessed of a legally guaranteed right of resistance; now, democracy cannot undertake to accomplish that much without pledging itself to accomplish much more. Political organization circumscribes government activities and procures freedom from abuse, but it does not imply that the people should step into the field defined as that of the government. When the political idea assumes the democratic form, the people asserts, over and above its freedom from abusive power, its freedom to govern itself. Keeping the goverment confined within a definite field is no longer held sufficient; the government has been taken over by the people. Such is democratic freedom, the defining feature of democracy.

In the formulas just used, one term calls for elaboration. What is meant by "people" when it is said that in a democracy the people either governs directly or exercises control over the governing personnel? The discussion of this question will be divided into three parts, the first relative to the franchise, the second to the role of the majority, the third to parties.

{1} Aristotle Pol. 1. 5. 1254b2, trans. Ernest Barker: "Whatever may be said of inanimate things, it is certainly possible, as we have said, to observe in animate things --and to observe there first [with any certainty] the presence of a ruling authority, both of the sort exercised by a master over slaves [despotikê] and of the sort exercised by a statesman over fellow citizens [politikê]. The soul rules the body with the sort of authority of a master: mind rules the appetite with the sort of authority of a statesman or a monarch." Also 1. 7. 1255b15; 12. 1259a37; 13. 1260a7; 3. 4. 1277a33; 14. 1285-a22; 4. 4. 1292a4 (on democracy ruling despotically); 7. 2. 1324a35; 3. 1325a25. Thomas Aquinas Com. on Pol. 1, les. 3; Sum. theol. i. 81. 3, ad 2um, trans. A. C. Pegis: "As the Philosopher says [1254b2] We observe in an animal a despotic and a politic principle; for the soul dominates the body by a despotic rule, but the intellect dominates the appetite by a politic and royal rule. For that rule is called despotic whereby a man rules his slaves, who have not the means to resist in any way the orders of the one that commands them, since they have nothing of their own. But that rule is called politic and royal by which a man rules over free subjects, who, though subject to the government of the ruler, have nevertheless something of their own, by reason of which they can resist the orders of him who commands. And so, the soul is said to rule the body by a despotic rule, because the members of the body cannot in any way resist the sway of the soul, but at the soul's command both hand and foot, and whatever member is naturally moved by voluntary movement, are at once moved. But the intellect or reason is said to govern the irascible and concupiscible by a politic rule because the sensitive appetite has something of its own, by virtue whereof it can resist the commands of reason."

We are using the division of government into political and despotic in a sense somewhat different from Aristotle's. As can be seen from the above-quoted text, Aristotle's division is tripartite, viz., into despotic or, as Barker puts it "of the sort exercised by a master over slaves," political or "of the sort exercised by a statesman over fellow citizens," and royal [basilikê]. The difference between the despotic and the royal seems to be this: the despotic rule is exercised (1) over an agent without any power of resistance, (2) for the sake of the master (Pol. 7. 2. 1324a35; 1324b2); the royal rule is exercised over an agent without any power of resistance, but for the sake of the governed rather than for the sake of the king (Pol. 1. 12. 1259b10, trans. Jowett: "The rule of a father over his children is royal, for he rules by virtue both of love and of the respect due to age, exercising a kind of royal power"). Thus the notion of despotic rule, in Aristotle, concerns both a certain way of acting (order of efficient causality) and a certain end. This twofold reference is probably implied by the usual sense of the word despotês, which means primarily not "despot" but "master (of slaves)." The meaning of "despot" in modern languages, especially since the theory of enlightened despotism, suggests that the teleological reference should be left out. A despot is a man who rules over subjects devoid of means of resistance; his rule may be for his own sake or for the sake of the governed -- in the latter case government is royal in the sense of Aristotle.

Jowett and most translators render politikê archê by "constitutional rule." If we prefer the word "political," it is mostly because a constitutional regime is generally understood to include democratic, or at least representative, institutions; in fact, it seems that a political regime, in the theory of Aristotle, is necessarily democratic to a degree. There would be no term in Aristotle to designate the abstract concept of a regime which, through methods which may or may not be democratic, gives the governed a legally defined power of resistance to arbitrary government. Such a term is precisely what we need. "Political" is the best available.

{2} See Clinton L. Rossiter, Constitutional Dictatorship (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1948).

{3} Pol. 3. 1. 1275a22; 6. 1279a21, trans. Jowett: ". . . the state is a community of freemen [he de polis koinônia ton eleutherôn estin].

{4} Pol. 3. 6. 1278b33, trans. Jowett: "The rule of a master, although the slave by nature and the master by nature have in reality the same interests, is nevertheless exercised primarily with a view to the interest of the master, but accidentally considers the slave, since, if the slave perish, the rule of the master perishes with him. On the other hand, the government of a wife and children and of a household, which we have called household management, is exercised in the first instance for the good of the governed or for the common good of both parties, but essentially for the good of the governed, as we see to be the case in medicine, gymnastic, and the arts in general, which are only accidentally concerned with the good of the artists themselves." Thomas Aquinas Sum. theol. i. 96. 4, trans. A. C. Pegis: "Mastership has a twofold meaning. First, it is opposed to slavery, in which sense a master means one to whom another is subject as a slave. In another sense, mastership is referred in a general way to any kind of subject; and in this sense even he who has the office of governing and directing free men can be called a master. In the state of innocence [i.e., the state endowed with supernatural and preternatural privileges in which man found himself prior to the original sin] man could have been a master of men, not in the former, but in the latter sense. The distinction is founded on the reason that a slave differs from a free man in that the latter has the disposal of himself, as is stated in the beginning of the Metaphysics, whereas a slave is ordered to another. And so, that man is master of another as his slave when he assigns the one, whose master he is, to his own -- namely, the master's use. And since every man's proper good is desirable to himself, and consequently it is a grievous matter to anyone to yield to another what ought to be one's own, therefore such dominion implies of necessity a pain inflicted on the subject; and consequently in the state of innocence such a mastership would not have existed between man and man."

{5} J. E. Acton, The History of Freedom and Other Essays (London: Macmillan & Co., Ltd., 1907), p. 192: "No human laws were ever devised which could so thoroughly succeed in making the arbitrary exercise of power impossible, as that prodigious system of canon law which is the ripe fruit of the experience and the inspiration of eighteen hundred years."

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