Thursday, October 7, 2010

Democracy and Culture

Earlier this week we looked at some issues surrounding democracy and government. Our look at some popular music also tended in the direction of looking at democracy but in the context of culture, a vantage from which Sven Wilson of Pileus [1] and Damon Linker of The New Republic have looked today. Before we begin we ought to make the distinction that we're looking at not just democracy but a specific blend of liberalism and democracy. By democratic we mean that the law is determined predominately by the will of the people and by liberal we mean that the law tends to favor liberty over other goals like stability, security, et cetera.

Let us begin with Mr. Linker's essay, which itself begins with a fine summary of liberalism and what is perhaps its most important feature: that it excludes certain discussions from the law. That is, there is no consensus on certain issues. For example, in the United States everyone is bound to an accord on, say, "the right to be free from unreasonable searches," but not on what is moral. Linker's example is perhaps even clearer: that we agree on a right to happiness, but not what that happiness is. There is no accord as to whether a commercial or contemplative life is best. Yet undoubtedly people have their own answers, of some sort, to those questions. Mr. Linker has neatly addressed the crucial point that liberalism considers liberty to be the greatest good. It sounds obvious of course but such has great implications: what you consider good is somehow or potentially subordinated to liberty. Of course you are free to pursue that good for yourself and are free to encourage others to follow your view too, but you cannot ensure the good. Of course liberalism by virtue of protecting one's life and property goes a long way toward promoting what most people consider the good, for example the right to your life. Nonetheless the problem is ineluctable as questions of morality and law continue to generate conflict because of lack of consensus on a metaphysical issue.

Now Mr. Wilson addresses a unique feature of democracy: the great variety of ideas. Plato called democracy a "bazaar of constitutions" (παντοπώλιον πολιτειῶν) [3] Now in the absence of consensus on certain things (a feature of liberalism, as we just noted) some of that variety is bound to be considered bad (let us permit this vague word in this instance.) Now Plato considered [4] there to be an anarchic element to democracy and also to the democratic man: that the proper (good) element in society and in him is not what holds sway. Where then does the good come from in a liberal democratic society?

Undoubtedly there will be some idea and ideas considered good or better than others, and those ideas will be consolidated into two places: institutions and idealized individuals. To preserve those two elements, and thus the good, what is needed? To preserve an institution some kind of conservative element must prevail, and since it is conserving what is thought to be the good we may call it aristocratic. We do not here inquire here about means, i.e. how the proper people are found and brought to perform the necessary conserving.

In this group we may class institutions of education, connected with holding public office, and of religion. All of these institutions affect what is thought to be good and try to bring about that good. What Aristotle said of education[5] implies in some respect to all of these institutions: they attempt to make a plurality into unity. Yet Aristotle also says that like a harmony passing into unison, a state may be too unified. This is an inquiry of its own: to what extent does a plurality and a atmosphere of challenging ideas promote the good? What ought to ground society: what it firmly believes to be good or a spirit of inquiry toward the truth? Such inquiry would inherently challenge the status quo at all times and be damaging to stability. Would it turn all truth into a potential provisional truth? Speaking of inquiry specifically philosophy, Nietzsche wrote, "if philosophy ever manifested itself as helpful, redeeming, or prophylactic, it was in a healthy culture. The sick, it made ever sicker." [6]

This is perplexing. We need both plurality and unity, we need stable institutions but the potential to correct potential mistakes. (Aristotle questioned the wisdom of fixing even bad laws, because what you gain in justice you may lose in stability because such changes weaken confidence in the constitution. [7])

Of institutions then we see that balance is the most prudent course, between extreme rigidity which may harbor injustice and extreme laxness which commands no authority. Of the people we see a need for a balance there too, between an aristocracy which may corrupt to on oligarchy and a populism which may devolve into extreme democracy.

Yet what of the "idealized individual" we spoke of? Of course in any society some people are thought well of. Aristotle wisely made the connection that "to praise a man is akin to urging a course of action" and which people a society chooses to praise, be they real or fiction, modern or ancient, is akin to extolling particular virtues and action. We may then say that leading a public and good life is necessary in a liberal democracy. It is not sufficient simply to extol virtues but people must see that they can be lived. Thus to retreat from public life is damaging for at least two reasons. First, what is bad is most often well-known if not outright sensationalized. I say well-known because it is not necessarily qualified. Thus not to make the good known is to give what is bad full or fuller sway. Second, it makes one question as to whether what is good is plausible to do. Even if someone thinks a particular trait is a virtue, if he doesn't know anyone who lives that way, is he likely to emulate that behavior? It is doubtful.

Of course we must realize that any society short of a tyranny, either a tyranny by one or by many, will permit some diversity. In any non-tyrannical society some things will be common and some private. Forcing the good on some will gradually lead to tyranny and not acknowledging the good will lead to a relativist anarchy. Promoting the good, then, relies in some measure on strictly cultural forces, what we might most generally call the varieties of expression. Those expressions will demonstrate the bounds, and values, of the society.

All of these features, though, tie tightly into the individual. It is with thoughts and questions about the nature of the citizen and individual with which we ought to end our considerations. The question of whether the good individual and the good citizen may be one and the same was too perceived by Aristotle. In Book III of the Politics [10] Aristotle said the virtue of the citizen was relative to the constitution of which he is a member. Thus unless all men of the state share in perfect goodness, i.e. if they agree in all respects what the good is, then the good citizen and good individual cannot perfectly coincide. Yet Aristotle also says the purpose of the state is twofold, not just to fit him for the good life but to do so satisfy his social instinct. So if man's social instinct is liberal in nature our paradox makes more sense. It is then understandable that, totalitarianism and tyranny being unnatural, the type of government we attempted to describe and whose features we tried to balance is not unfitting.

Lest we be thought too tidily to have solved this timeless problem, one ought to concede a difficulty: that of tying action to cause. Aristotle stated [112 that actions are due to seven causes: chance, nature, compulsion, habit, reasoning, nature, appetite. How a society chooses to determine what action is caused by which of those causes will determine much.

[3] Republic VIII. 557d.
[4] Republic VIII. 558c.
[5] Politics II. 12263b.
[6] Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks. s. 27
[8] Politics I. 1269a.
[9] Rhetoric II. 1367b.
[10] Politics III. 1276b.
[11] Politics III. 1278b
[12] Rhetoric III.1369a

No comments:

Post a Comment