Saturday 31 January 2009


In that famous slogan that fell from the demagogic lips of Abraham Lincoln — “government of the people, by the people, for the people” [1] — the democratic ideal is best expressed. It appears to mean that government of the people should be held by the whole of that people solely in its own interests; but then not only is it an ideal not fulfilled, but one that is impossible to fulfil, at least as regards individual-sentient persons, to whom it is furthermore a great threat. So as to be fulfilled, firstly, the people must be an entity of one mind such that its interests are individual on all matters; and secondly, the whole of the people must constitute the government itself. Yet doubtless it is the case, that, firstly, even persons who are long subject to popular government have not yet all been brought to have the same thoughts or trained to have the same interests; and, secondly, that government is composed of very few persons in relation to those governed by it. If, however, the slogan were meant to express merely that government of the people is to be held by a few persons upon whose entry into government are placed no restrictions of birth, that is to say, that it is in principle open to any of the people, and that such government, though ostensibly performed in the public interest, is in fact performed for all manner of diverse interests, not least for the interests of those in government and of those who have the power to petition it, then it may very well be said that it describes our governments to some extent, but then it is not the democratic ideal — and surely that is not what anyone means by it. When the slogan is taken literally, without twisting the words to fit reality, it describes an ideal that one might call mystical, the perfect fulfilment of which is, as I say, impossible, though I make no such claim as to its near-fulfilment by technological means. It is the occultured ideal of pure and total democracy.
.....Popular government has taken the democratic ideal as the integral strength of its foundation, and, since all popular governors know that their power depends upon its spirit, they are little willing to weaken it. If they try to appease it, by praising it, so they encourage it, and its spirit becomes more a vital element of their governments: concessions and sacrifices must be made to it. Some governors earnestly reckon themselves true servants of this spirit, but naturally they cannot be entirely, at least not unless and insofar as they renounce their personhood to become passive media; for their very personhood and their status as governors of the people — all beliefs and deceptions of being servants thereof aside — means that their own personal and oligarchic interests are immediate. To strengthen their rule, to make it safe, whether or not by an earnest desire to make it safe for democracy, the governors must temper their oligarchy with the democratic spirit. So it is that they become more democratic.
.....For him who doubts the power of the spirit of this ideal, let him contemplate the ghastly aspect under which all political matters must appear; let him think of a political party that does not proclaim itself democratic. Whilst the democratic spirit predominates, oligarchy cannot stand without also being the herald of that opposing spirit.
To-day, all the factors of public life speak and struggle in the name of the people, of the community at large. The government and rebels against the government, kings and party-leaders, tyrants by the grace of God and usurpers, rabid idealists and calculating self-seekers, all are ‘the people’, and all declare that in their actions they merely fulfil the will of the nation. [2]
Under the jealous eye of a people spoiled by the ideal of democracy — a people, that is to say, made jealous of inequalities of power and antipathetic to authority — governors must become “ordinary” men, embodiments of an abstraction by which they might appear no different from the governed who are likewise becoming embodiments thereof. They’re just like you and me — if you and me happen to be just like them. This process — the governors and the governed each becoming like the other — is the process of democratisation. It is the melding-together of popular and governmental interests which occurs even as an oligarchic process against the ideal of democracy. The governors know that a tremour in the foundation can cast them down, they understand that their edifice is built also of other substances from that of its foundation, and they understand, even if only dimly, that democracy is ultimately the enemy of all such edifices, that it would shake everything to its foundation; and that is why, of course, the governors of the modern state seek to secure that foundation by a melding of the substances of edifice and foundation, a measure which, if perfectly realized, would make foundation and edifice one and the same. Thus the ideal of democracy can work itself out by means opposed to it, by the very means designed to stabilise and control it. In other words, the actions that secure the edifice from the instability of the foundations are the very actions that change the substantial character of both until they tend to become one. [3]
.....Purely and strictly conceived, democracy is not, never has been, and never will be a form of government, though we may loosely speak of such. [4] Insofar as it is expressed in government, it is one side of a relation between public opinion and government, the latter of which is oligarchic by its very nature. If, however, the essential ideal of pure democracy — total equality of political influence — were ever to be expressed utterly, democracy thus conceived would entail no government at all, as Marx rightly understood. It is nothing more than the commune.
.....The Marxist claims that, with the victory of his democratic-libertarian ideal [5], not only will the government of the state wither away, but democracy too. In this latter point, however, there is a misunderstanding which is part of the Marxist’s failure to envisage the democratic ideal in its purest form. [6] Under the condition of the ideal, democracy does not wither away; on the contrary, it stands as total fulfilment. Only the politicking and striving of democracy, along with the government of the state, become logically superfluous; for, in the total victory of pure democracy, each unit of the whole is exactly equal in influence to every other: there are no governors and governed, and no striving after equality, and thus no need for democratic politics. If this utopia is to be fulfilled for all time, and not just for five seconds, there must be no individual differences from which any advantage or domination can arise. There must be pure selflessness, and the whole must be of one mind. In other words, pure democracy is the death of the person. It strikes me, however, that in the very strictest sense, this ideal is not only nomologically impossible, according to the iron-law of oligarchy, but logically impossible too; for it seems that a world in which all individuals are exactly the same in political influence must be a world in which they are exactly the same in terms of spatial and causal relations too, which means that they cannot exist as separate, individual bodies at all. Still, the tendency thereto is most destructive.
.....The logical consequences of the pure democratic ideal were envisaged only dimly by Marx. One need not be a Marxist, however, to be a pure democrat. Marxism is but one historical means towards the ideal, a means that was once remarkably successful in gaining acceptance as the truest path, especially amongst intellectuals, even such that those who now speak against it often do so on its terms without realising it; but Marxism now bears a bad name, associated in most people’s minds with the opposite of democracy. As things stand, therefore, Marxism is an unpopular host for the ideal. Indeed it seems that empty heads are the best repository, wherein stands no clear vision of an end, but rather the thoughtless echo of the call for more democracy. A freer, less doctrinaire approach is now being taken in striving after the destruction of personhood.

[1] Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address, 19th November 1863. (See the first chapter of W.H. Mallock, The Limits of Pure Democracy (London: Chapman & Hall, 1918) for a discussion of this and other democratic slogans.)
[2] Robert Michels, Political Parties, tr. E. & C. Paul (New York: Hearst’s International Library Co., 1915), p.15. (Professor Michels himself began as a social-democrat, then became a revolutionary socialist, and ended up a Fascist, which latter form he believed to be the most democratic.)
[3] The evolution of the idea that leadership is not oligarchic and therefore not at odds with democracy can be witnessed in the development of the various social-democratic parties and unions of Europe. It runs as follows: (i) leadership is oligarchic and undemocratic and we eschew it; (ii) leadership is necessary to effect democracy; (iii) it is ridiculous to suggest that leadership is undemocratic and that we should eschew it. (For more on such parties and their evolution, see Roberts Michels, ibid., and W.H. Mallock, op.cit.)
[4] “[A]ll current definitions of democracy err, even before they are stated, by reason of a false assumption which underlies the formulation of all of them. They all assume that democracy is a system of government of some kind. This is precisely what, except in primitive and minute communities, pure democracy is not, nor ever has been, nor ever can be. It is not and never can be a system of government of any kind. It is simply one principle out of two, the other being that of oligarchy, which two may indeed be combined in very various proportions, but neither of which alone will produce what is meant by a government”. W.H. Mallock, ibid.
[5] “The first problem of all democracy is to define ‘the people’ who are to be the sovereign body. Sooner or later, this always means some sort of purge of anti-social or non-national elements.” Lord Percy of Newcastle, The Heresy of Democracy (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1954), p.40. The Marxist defines the people as the proletarian class. The bourgeois class — which is a broad category in the Marxian scheme — is not of the people and is indeed the enemy thereof.
[6] For example: “Communism alone is capable of giving really complete democracy, and the more complete it is the more quickly will it become unnecessary and wither away of itself.” V.I. Lenin, The State and Revolution (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1965), p.107.

Tuesday 20 January 2009


“Some Mens Heads are as easily blown away as their Hats.”

George Savile, First Marquis of Halifax, “Of Vanity”, A Character of King Charles the Second, and Political, Moral, and Miscellaneous Thoughts and Reflections (London: J. and R. Tonson and S. Draper, 1750), p.144.

Tuesday 13 January 2009

A List of Idiots

“They are idiots — intelligent people don’t do God”, [1] says some fellow, whose proposition has inspired me to compile an incomplete list of idiots in the West from ancient times to the present day: — Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Albertus Magnus, William of Ockham, Roger Bacon, Jean Buridan, Nicolaus Copernicus, Francis Bacon, Giordano Bruno, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, René Descartes, Blaise Pascal, Robert Boyle, Gottfried Leibniz, Isaac Newton, Giambattista Vico, Thomas Bayes, Carl Linnaeus, Leonhard Euler, Roger Joseph Boscovich, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, Joseph Priestley, Immanuel Kant, Karl Friedrich Gauss, Michael Faraday, Charles Babbage, Adam Sedgwick, James Clerk Maxwell, Gregor Mendel, Asa Gray, Louis Pasteur, William Kelvin, Miguel de Unamuno, Charles Pierce, Albert Einstein, Alfred North Whitehead, G.K. Chesterton, Arthur Eddington, Kurt Gödel, Georges Lemaitre, Frederick Copleston, Werner Heisenberg, Carl Weizsäcker, Henry Margenau, Fred Hoyle, John Eccles, Charles Hartshorne, Charles Townes, Stanley Jaki, Freeman Dyson, Edward O. Wilson, John Lucas, Michael Dummett, John Polkinghorne, Francis Collins, J.J. Haldane, John Barrow, Alvin Plantinga, Chistopher Isham, Saul Kripke, . . . — omitting of course such wavering, agnostic or mystical half-wits as Charles Darwin, Erwin Schrödinger, Paul Davies, etc. Yet there is something that makes me uncomfortable about this list. I cannot quite put my finger on it, but I have an uneasy feeling that at least some on this list are not idiots, or not when compared to anyone who would claim them to be such, which, if true, must lead me to affirm the falsity of the proposition that theists are idiots. I have even the inkling — the radical nature of which I almost dare not acknowledge — that anyone who believes that theists are idiots must be an idiot. But, as I say, it is only a feeling, and a somewhat unfashionable one too.

[1] “Yeoldetifosi”, commenting on Dave Hill, “Voice of Unreason”, Comment is Free (The Guardian’s weblog), 13th January 2009; original emphasis. (I have picked it as an example of the kind of pronouncement commonly made amongst the “new atheists” — i.e., those loud-mouthed ignoramuses and ideological crackpots led by a bog-standard scientist with the philosophical acumen of a standard bog who yet somehow appears to his followers as a fount of genius.)

Fewtril no.264

Scepticism is an important tool in the journalist’s toolbox. It looks fine and well-kept next to the space where the ratchet of public expectation occasionally rests.

Wednesday 7 January 2009

A Note on Voltaire

I cannot say I am utterly at home with Voltaire’s works, though, being no great admirer, I confess I have little desire to change this state of affairs — but I must say that the characterisation quoted below rings somewhat false to me, at least as far as Voltaire’s opinions on the Turks are concerned:
Long before the late Eduard Said invented “Orientalism” to exalt Arab culture and Islamic society at the expense of the West, bien-pensants like Voltaire inclined to express their rebellion against the dwindling vestiges of Christendom by representing Europeans as bigots or clowns and raising up exotic foreigners — Voltaire himself wrote about Turks and Persians of the Muslim fold — to be the fonts of wisdom and models of refined life in their tracts and stories. [1]
I have been and still am under the impression — perhaps false after all — that Voltaire was a lifelong reviler of the Turks, expressing himself in a hostile manner thereto countless times in his long career. As he wrote in his twilight years:
I am seventy-nine, if you please, and upon the stroke of eighty. Thus shall I never see, what I have so passionately wished for, the destruction of those rogues, the Turks, who shut up the women, and do not cultivate the fine arts. [2]
Nor, whilst I am making note, can I rightly say that he was the anti-religionist of modern secularist fable, his being somewhat religious himself. It is nevertheless true to say that he was a gadfly and a trouble-maker, and, to a devout Roman Catholic such as Mozart, nothing more than a rogue. As the composer expressed it to his father at the time of Voltaire’s death: “I give you news which you will perhaps already know, namely, that the godless arch-scoundrel Voltaire has died wretchedly like a dog — like a brute.” [3] Naturally there are all sorts of fables about Mozart too. I have even heard it said that he was a political and social revolutionary in whom modern revolutionaries might take some comradely interest — said, that is, by modern revolutionaries who would have made Voltaire look to Mozart like a saint and a staunch conservative.

[1] Thomas F. Bertonneau, “The West’s Cultural Continuity: Aristotle at Mont Saint-Michel”, The Brussels Journal, 5th January 2009.
[2] Voltaire, “Extract of a Letter from M. Voltaire to the King of Prussia”, Annual Register, Vol. XVII, December 1774, p.177, republished online at the Internet Library of Early Journals. (Another example: “How I should like to see those scoundrels hunted out of the country of Pericles and Plato: it is true, they are not persecutors, but they are brutes.” Letter to M. d’Alembert, 4th September 1769, in Voltaire in His Letters; Being a Selection from His Correspondence, tr. S.G. Tallentyre (London: John Murray, 1919), p.228.)
[3] [“Nun gebe ich Ihnen eine Nachricht, die Sie vielleicht schon wissen werden, daß nemlich der gottlose und Erz-Spitzbub Voltaire so zu sagen wie ein Hund — wie ein Vieh crepirt ist.”] Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Letter to His Father (no.107), 3. Juli 1778, in Mozarts Briefe (Salzburg: Verlag der Mayrischen Buchhandlung, 1865), p.165.