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.
Science fiction author David Brin analyses the moral within the Star Wars films – and it might not be one that you like.
Star Wars is one of the most successful film franchises in history. With millions of fans, and several spin off films coming into production, the series seems destined to continue for years to come. An excellent example of the Hero’s Journey, the films are great fun, and are a decent way to spend a few hours.
But, in watching the movies, have you ever considered what the moral might be? Is there a message?
Science fiction author David Brin – author of The Postman, Startide Rising, and an astronomer who works with NASA – thinks he knows what the moral is, and it might not be one that you like.
He suggests that Star Wars “belongs to our dark past. A long, tyrannical epoch of fear, illogic, despotism and demagoguery that our ancestors struggled desperately to overcome, and that we are at last starting to emerge from, aided by the scientific and egalitarian spirit that [George] Lucas openly despises.”
Oh, and he notes who he thinks the most evil character is… Yoda. As he put it:
“I do hope folks will notice, for example, that Yoda, in Attack of the Clones, orders the Jedi into a suicide charge that kills most of them, then conveniently shows up with the new clone army that he ordered. An act of treachery and betrayal so stunning that I had to watch the movie twice.”
“I have defied folks to name one time when he says or does anything that is indisputably wise. The trail of destruction that follows him and every decision that he makes is inarguable and overwhelming.”
The face of a tyrant.
If we look at it from Brin’s perspective, the story reads like this:
In a galaxy where people are biologically disposed to being able to use magic, a group of those chosen few are asked to protect democracy and liberty. Not only do they fowl it up horribly, but their leader orders most of them into suicide missions and the one person who comes close to doing his job only manages it by means of a coup attempt, which is foiled by a poorly trained member of his own cult.
After that the dysfunctional republic, which never does anything, collapses. The empire, which seems much more on top of things, takes over. Billions are killed, but the story shows us that the main villain is redeemed merely by saving another chosen individual. No mention is made of the possibility of Darth Vader still being rather evil, or having more to do to redeem himself at this point.
In the most recent film, the new Republic is never shown doing anything but being destroyed – it is the First Order and a dictatorship that manages to build an impossibly large space station, using the energy of an entire star. An impressive level of technical achievement.
Oh, and all the people responsible for half of this are related, because you need to be biologically disposed to use the force. These Mutant Demigods are the cause of, solution to, and focus of all the problems that kill billions of people. People who are not mentioned again after the plot point passes.
He does note, however, that the first film had egalitarian, democratic messages. In that film, the ways of the force can be learned, Obi Wan even offers to train Han Solo in the force; but these messages are largely gone by the sixth film, as is the ability to learn the use of the force.
Maybe Dr. Brin is just looking too far into it. After all, it’s just a story!
Yes it is, but stories are important. Mythology allows us to make sense of the world, it is how we send messages across generations. Shared myths can give us a sense of community, in the science fiction genre especially.
And of course, the argument that something is “just a story” belittles it. If we are to take something seriously as a work of art, a great movie, or a strong narrative, we must analyze it. Saying that it is “just a story” as a way to get out of that analysis makes the film less substantial.
Dr. Brin does offer a lesson to potential writers on how not to fall into the pitfalls that Star Wars did. To him, most of it comes down to lazy writing.
“Why do almost no films ever show civilization functioning, institutions doing their jobs, democracy working? The answer is simple: laziness. A storyteller’s job is to keep his or her characters in pulse-pounding jeopardy for 90 minutes of film, or 600 pages of a novel. It’s hard to do that if they can dial 911 and get skilled professionals to come to their aid. So you see a panoply of tricks used by directors and authors to deny their characters useful aid. That’s fine, but when the trick is to simply spread the assumption that there are no decent civil servants, there are no smart cops, there are no loyal first responders out there, then that spreads a propaganda message that such things are impossible in our real world. It takes real writing to come up with a way of keeping your characters in jeopardy, despite there being skilled professionals who want to help them…
How much better would it be if they showed the Republic sending its fleet to help and it was kept at bay by the First Order’s fleet? Then you have a chance for three minutes of rollicking space battle that gives the Rebellion just enough of a gap to get through and attack the super mega granddaddy Death Star. It would be more exhilarating, and it would also say you know the Republic isn’t useless. It’s not going to save the day—that’s going to be our heroes—but it could help them, and then you would come away with a notion that civilization isn’t futile. It can help the heroes even if just a little bit.”
So there you have it. Does Star Wars offer us a tyrannical, elitist message? Perhaps, but then again, some elements of the story were clearly not planned in advance: as pointed out in The Secret History of Star Wars. Luke wasn’t related to Darth Vader until the last draft of the script for the second film. Perhaps this message is an error?
Then again, even if this message was planned, maybe that's alright. After all, in the West the idea of having several points of view in the public discourse is held as ideal. Maybe Star Wars is the voice arguing for dictatorships?
Or maybe, it is just a kids movie.