The following are my desperate, last-minute notes for a short talk on the subject of democracy for the Philosophical Society of Bond University here in Australia next Monday:
I was frankly humbled to consider speaking in the context of “philosophy” until I remembered that it means merely “love of wisdom” and that’s reassuring; though wisdom, like “common sense,” can seem a bit thin on the ground sometimes. I tend to credit them about equally and admire both where they are found.
Our notions of democracy, I’ve observed, are often entangled and circumscribed by our notions of our “rights;” the right of assembly, the right of habeas corpus, the right of free speech and the right of equitable and honest election of our representatives to the democratic state institutions we have created. This is fair and reasonable.
But rights are clearly a “just claim or title” to provisions of a contract between parties, in this case the individual and the state. It resembles a matter of tort law and while that is not the ideological frame of reference we usually reserve for these notions the parallels are worth considering.
How are we doing so far?
Still with me?
In spite of our traditional academic preference for the aesthetics of the Acropolis, our system of politics, like our law, is derived directly from that of republican Rome. And it is worth noting that the Athenians’ monumental architecture was fashioned from marble while the Romans built exclusively with brick. The idea that a state functioned most smoothly with an engaged middle class, if not proletariat, is not novel. The Romans understood this and leveraged it into an empire. Of course the Roman model went pear-shaped later with the apotheosis of the Caesars but that’s merely another historical footnote we might keep in the back of our collective citizen minds for future reference.
The right of citizenship was codified and extended by aggrandizing Rome to reward twenty-years unblemished record by loyal non-Latin veterans of the Roman legions. The contract was framed in specific terms as it has been, de facto or de jure, ever since. The revival of constitutional monarchies and democracies in recent centuries drew heavily on this precedent and sought to clearly identify or obfuscate these “rights” on a case-by-case basis. We are the descendants of Rome in this respect and their elites always drove a hard bargain.
Heh. Can you see where we are headed now?
Democracy as we know it is clearly the child of an optimistic Enlightenment drawing on that part of the corpus of classical thinking which seemed useful and met contemporary needs. Suffice it to say we left behind, more or less, various conditions that only males with children could vote and that citizens with property outside the city walls were excluded from deliberations on matters of war. Not to mention ostracism. As a response to outspoken power brokers and rabble-rousers, not unlike our contemporary political zoology in many respects, it was a persuasive laxative in ancient Athens. Can you imagine political patronage or media licenses rescinded and ten years exile imposed based on a threshold of anonymous votes in an ad hoc, insecure Internet poll; on the charge of making a nuisance of yourself to the general public? The Athenians did. And it was the law. Now that was social media.
But our system of politics, like law, is not concerned with the individual, or the “justice” meted out to him or her, per se, the judgement is framed rather towards the whole of the commonwealth; the aggregation of individuals, their confidence, security and prosperity. The guarantee of the law is the smooth running of the state in consideration of the apprehensions and concerns of the majorities. The merits of any particular case are arguably irrelevant, often in direct inverse proportion to the celebrity of the trial or the perceived principle at stake.
And, in law, we still acknowledge that only living judges can negotiate these eddies and currents of contemporary cultural and social values to rule for the “greater good” of the polity, and by extension, the state, in this respect. Anatole France noted the limitations of our “justice” with the timeless socialist observation:
“The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”
Not much wriggle room there for our Victorian pangs over “justice;” the law is merely the law. And democracy is merely democracy, another contract between the individual and the state with similar caveats for the “greater good” implied. It is a contract that must be regularly reviewed and renegotiated in this context.
Hopefully that sets me up for the big pitch but I’m still establishing the base camp. That’s all I’ve got so far. I think it still needs a bit of work and that’s just the first third. Sigh. I’ll post the rest as it comes unless asked politely to desist. Thanks for the quote, John, it speaks volumes, doesn’t it?