Many great minds have plenty of bad things to say about democracy, but what about the people who think it is great?
We have explained before that some of the greatest thinkers in history found reasons to reject democracy. Their critiques were many, and often very well thought out. Even for the most ardent supporter of democratic ideals, their arguments must give us pause and lead us to reflect on our notions of government and society.
Socrates had several issues with democracy, most of them stemming from events that took place during his lifetime in Athens. Some of the decisions made by the Athenian democracy were rather insane and made by a body politic that had no business trying to determine foreign policy. Socrates is depicted in Plato's Republic as favoring a totalitarian regime managed by iron-fisted philosopher kings, in which all citizens are raised to fit a particular role, the state regulates bedtime stories, and harmony between individual and society reigns supreme.
His objections to democracy are countered in the works of John Stuart Mill, whose love of democracy is as great as Socrates' hatred of it.
John Stuart Mill was an English philosopher in the 19th century who is best known for his work on utilitarianism, though his writings span an incredible range of topics. His ideas on democracy, liberty, and the benefits of both are laid out in two of his works; On Liberty, and Considerations on Representative Government.
What does he have to tell us?
While Mill agrees that the unwashed masses should not have absolute power, in Considerations on Representative Government he argues for a giving the votes of the educated more weight than anybody else’s; he counters Socrates' idea of the philosopher king with an observation on what happens to the citizens of a "good" despotism. Seeing the society they would rule as being:
"One man of superhuman mental activity managing the entire affairs of a mentally passive people. Their passivity is implied in the very idea of absolute power. The nation as a whole, and every individual composing it, are without any potential voice in their own destiny. They exercise no will in respect to their collective interests. All is decided for them by a will not their own, which it is legally a crime for them to disobey. What sort of human beings can be formed under such a regimen? What development can either their thinking or their active faculties attain under it?"
The population living in a despotic society would be reduced to unthinking drones who need only enough mental capacity to get their daily chores done. Only a democracy can produce citizens capable of enough cognitive power to maintain a democracy, argues Mill, by requiring them to use that mental ability. He notes with envy that while the typical English voter only had to be prepared to vote and serve on a jury, the typical Athenian had to be ready to serve in nearly any office that existed. Mill sees this as a mostly good thing, as it requires the Athenian to be more fully developed as a person in order to fill those roles.
Could a Socrates have been produced in Sparta? Mill thinks not, despite Socrates' praise for the Spartan government.
Democracy is great and all, but why is freedom good?
In On Liberty, Mill argues that we all need the freedom to choose our lifestyles. This is vital, as without this liberty people will be stifled and unable to explore new ideas, make discoveries, and fully develop as people. In a society where we must all follow the same religion, value the same things, and enjoy the same hobbies, individualism can never flourish. Mill sees this as a horrible situation, explaining that:
"It is only the cultivation of individuality which produces, or can produce, well developed human beings." and "In proportion to the development of his individuality, each person becomes more valuable to himself, and therefore capable of being more valuable to others."*
In Considerations on Representative Government, he notes that the best defense of liberty is an active population working inside of a democratic system. Mill allows us to connect the dots. Only a democratic government can safeguard freedom, and only a free society can hope to promote the development of the individual. The development of the individual is both good by itself and as a means to other ends. We, therefore, need democracy to help individualism and self-development to flourish and the world to progress.
But democracy can lead to such dangerous outcomes! Look to Athens and their mob!
Mill understands that people might make bad choices when they vote. However, he points out that the United Kingdom and the United States of the 19th century were doing rather well compared to the authoritarian states of Eastern Europe and Asia. He also reminded us that Athens, even with occasional lapses in judgment, produced much greater men than did any of the other Greek city-states. Liberty gives positive results, so it seems.
So, was Socrates just wrong about everything?
It is important to remember, however, that Mill was a progressive. He saw the march of history as moving ever forward and the ideal society as one that understood this progress was possible and promoted it. The ancient Greeks were interested in harmony, and in the Republic Plato built a utopia that would remain harmonious for the longest time possible. They even went so far as to define justice as harmony between parts of the whole, both for people and cities. The goals of Mill and Socrates differ considerably, and this must be remembered when comparing their worldviews.
Socrates offers us some excellent critiques of democracy. The problem of properly educating the voters, the threats of demagoguery, and the insistence that the people with direct power should be enlightened are all valuable insights. However, Mill shows us how democracy, flawed as it may be, offers us the best opportunity for growth as individuals and as a society. If, of course, we are willing to do what it takes to make democracy work.
*Mill was a utilitarian. He firmly believed that democracy and freedom lead to better outcomes and more happiness than tyranny. A common objection to utilitarian endorsements to democracy is that if it could be proven that oppression leads to better results, we would be morally obligated to institute that instead. Mill does dodge this problem, somewhat, by placing a high value on individualism. A high enough value, perhaps, to always make the math come down on the side of liberty. If this solves the problem or not is another issue.
Why is Machiavelli's The Prince still relevant today?
When you think of classic books, you probably think of books that are two hundred years old at most. Hugo, Dickens, Austen, Twain, Shelly, and so on. The great works of Shakespeare being the oldest literature that most people ever really read, outside of religious texts. But one work of Renaissance literature in Italy still stands out as one of the most important books ever written, and still strikes us with an uncanny feeling of understanding and dread when we think of it; The Prince, by Machiavelli.
Few books have garnered as much controversy during their existence as The Prince. It has been banned by the Catholic Church, seen as cynical by many, and was the basis for the naming of one of the worst psychological traits a person can have-Machiavellianism. This is the book that gave us such quotes as “It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot have both”, and “The ends justify the means”. History’s greatest how-to-rule guide has also been one of the most widely reviled books of all time.
And the worst part? This book is still incredibly relevant to us today.
The book begins by telling us that it is about how to run (specifically) an Italian renaissance autocracy in the same way that the (irony alert) ever relevant Art of War pertains to iron age warfare. While several portions of the book, such as the section discussing the proper ratio of local troops and mercenaries to build an army with are relics of times past, The Prince still offers us practical lessons in politics today.
While some of the best ideas in the book can seem obvious, like that a council of advisers should be wise men rather than flatterers; many people still don’t follow the advice. Before Machiavelli, many of the big ideas he wrote about weren’t even well agreed to.
Here are a few of the ideas that can be used, for good or evil, laid out by Machiavelli.
“A prudent man should always follow in the path trodden by great men and imitate those who are most excellent.”
“It is essential therefore for a prince to have learnt how to be other than good and to use, or not to use, his goodness as necessity requires.”
“All courses of action are risky, so prudence is not in avoiding danger (it's impossible), but calculating risk and acting decisively. Make mistakes of ambition and not mistakes of sloth. Develop the strength to do bold things, not the strength to suffer.”
“Be it known, then, that there are two ways of contending, one in accordance with the laws, the other by force; the first of which is proper to men, the second to beasts. But since the first method is often ineffectual, it becomes necessary to resort to the second.”
“And here we must observe that men must either be flattered or crushed; for they will revenge themselves for slight wrongs, whilst for grave ones they cannot. The injury therefore that you do to a man should be such that you need not fear his revenge.”
As you can see, many of the pieces of advice in the book are benign or even admirable. Most of them, however, suggest that a wise leader tend to healthy doses of brutality, suppression, and nighttime raids as needed. An idea that offends those of us who suppose that a righteous leader will always prevail in the end. It is that very idealism we love that The Prince warns us against.
While we might want our leaders to be Christlike or be the kind of guy we would want to have a beer with, Machiavelli points out that what we really need is effectiveness. The things that make a person nice are rarely the things that make a politician effective. A detail which is relevant not only to the petty tyrant, but also to the voter.
Machiavelli had written extensively on republics before writing The Prince, and was held by many Enlightenment philosophers to be a closet republican. Rousseau went so far as to suppose The Prince was a satire on how brutal autocracy can be. In all likelihood, however, The Prince is a sincere how to guide on bringing wealth, glory, and stability to the state, by any means necessary. No matter what the author truly felt about the best way to run a country.
But, if it has all these useful tips, why do we dislike it so much?
Victor Hugo may have summed up our distaste for The Prince best in Les Miserables:
“Machiavelli is not an evil genius, nor a demon, nor a miserable and cowardly writer; he is nothing but the fact. And he is not only the Italian fact; he is the European fact, the fact of the sixteenth century.”
We dislike him because he told us that our politicians cannot all be saints, if any of them can be. We know that Richard Nixon was both unscrupulous and effective, while our sense of justice tells us it shouldn’t be so. Machiavelli’s The Prince reminds us to focus on the real, understand that the virtuous politician is not the same as a saint by any measure, and that it is better to be feared than loved not only for kings, but also for political books.