Democracy Through the Ages: A Review of “Democracy and the History of Political Thought”
Cain, Patrick N, Stephen Patrick Sims, and Stephen A. Block, eds. Democracy and the History of Political Thought. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2021   There is a tendency to think of democracy as a specific regime (in existence in Athens for about one hundred years, present in some way in some other poleis as well as… The post Democracy Through the Ages: A Review of “Democracy and the History of Political Thought” appeared first on VoegelinView.

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Cain, Patrick N, Stephen Patrick Sims, and Stephen A. Block, eds. Democracy and the History of Political Thought. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2021

 

There is a tendency to think of democracy as a specific regime (in existence in Athens for about one hundred years, present in some way in some other poleis as well as some Italian city-states, and then in a representative form in modern nation-states) or as an orienting principle within a regime (present in many regimes but balanced, intentionally or otherwise, by antagonistic principles such as aristocracy and monarchy). Using the first approach, the world has very little history of democracy and the most renowned political philosophers, at least until somewhere in the nineteenth to twentieth centuries, have been highly critical of it. If democracy is an orienting principle to politics there are elements of it throughout history and the globe and the positions of political philosophers in the Western canon are not so obvious. Patrick Cain, Stephen Sims, and Stephen Block (eds, 2021) in Democracy and the History of Political Thought adopt the latter approach and revisits the question of democracy and the key figures in Western political philosophy highlighting a consistent nuanced position (beyond the ‘they were all against democracy’). The essays, in-depth analysis of thinkers and texts from the Old Testament and Homer to Heidegger and Strauss, are written by students, colleagues, and friends of Mary and David Nichols (who also contributed to the volume) and are written in homage to the two former professors at Baylor University.
Given the range of texts and authors examined, it is worth noting the unifying elements of the volume. The authors are intellectual heirs of Leo Strauss, a towering figure in 20th century political philosophy, who emphasized careful and deep textual readings, highlighted clashes between philosophers and politicians, and was seen as critical of modernity. He was also recognized for efforts to bring into the canon thinkers who, he believed, had received short shrift (such as Xenophon). On this latter point, the volume’s chapter by David Alvis on Judah, the brother of Joseph (in Genesis) and Alexander Orwin’s on Averroes are particularly noteworthy as is the considerable attention given to various founding fathers of the United States of America (Adam Carrington on Hamilton, Jerome Foss on Madison, Lee Ward on Jefferson). But it is in the areas of close textual readings (all the chapters are both enjoyable and provocative) and the matter of how the ancient-modern divide in political theory is understood that the volume contributes the most. Specifically, against the assumption that ancient political theorists were anti-democratic while modern theorists were more egalitarian, the authors demand nuance.
Ancient authors, they argue, were not so clearly anti-democratic, though they were critical of aspects of democracy, and modern writers were far more cautious of democracy and popular sovereignty than normally assumed. A delightful trio of chapters make the point clearly. Daniel Burns and Denise Schaeffer’s chapters on Locke and Rousseau, respectively, depict the principal advocates of modern democracy as far more cautious and critical than is normally asserted and David Clinton’s analysis of Burke, normally seen as an aristocratic critic of democracy, makes an excellent case that the role of the people is far more important than is typically thought in Burke’s oeuvre (Carrington makes a similar case with Hamilton). An additional element that is raised by a number of chapters is a realistic question of statesmanship or excellence. The democratic premise and promise of equality makes problematic claims to recognition and elevation of those who excel and lead. The ancient Athenians were quite sensitive to this problem as shown in Steven Forde’s chapter on how political speech was degraded by Kleon in Thucydides or the tension Stephen Sims examines in Cicero who both included the masses in politics and recognized the role of the philosopher-statesman in preventing the perversion of regimes. Similarly, Clinton argues that Burke’s insists on a natural aristocracy to restrain democracy in order to sustain liberty, not to eliminate democracy. If the fundamental political question is who rules, democracy gives easy answers about how offices will be filled and replaced but it is rather silent on who will lead these offices.
The question of democratic leadership and whether there can/should be elites (on the basis of excellence, real or otherwise) has emerged as fundamental in recent years. The rise of populist rhetoric, politicians, and government, the advance of technocratic governance by domestic state administrations and transnational and international organizations, and public debate over whether democracy is in danger or whether democracy has been captured by oligarchs are critical for those who wish to be thoughtful citizens and participants in reasoned discussion of democracy. How should citizens in the United States regard the decisions of the Supreme Court or state agencies, or other appointed bureaucratic bodies? If elections are not ‘enough’ for democracy, what happens when deliberation about choice is degraded or when hyper-partisanship reduces voting to deciding whether to vote or not (rather than for whom or what)? The authors in this volume aim to have readers critically thinking through the current ‘crises’ (however defined) through careful readings of some of the great texts of the Western canon will be fundamental. The authors do not push the reader in any partisan direction but they nudge the careful reader to not gather up political wisdom in distant storehouses. As Ann Ward notes in her analysis of deliberative discourse in Herodotus, the ancient Athenians had a necessary connection between speech and action (distinct from the Habermasian model in which civil society and the public sphere are distinct).
In some ways, this is a bit of a rebuke of some political science which has either been abstract (equality and popular sovereignty as principles) or partial in its pragmatism. Political science criticism of inequality in democracies has, not unreasonably, imagined mechanisms which can reduce inequality. But the inequality addressed by some of the chapters is more in the direction of virtue. As Arlene Saxonhouse’s chapter on Homer suggests, “democratic optimism built on principles of equality” can be problematic, even as there is not a clear schema which can be used to evaluate the different worth of citizens (or warriors). Alvis’ reading of the patriarch Joseph’s passing authority to his brother Judah is interesting in that Judah is chosen, Alvis argues, because of his political, rather than charismatic, leadership. Thus, even in a religiously guided collection of tribes, the question of equality can be addressed politically, while the pagan and political Athens cannot be fully resolved politically. Mary Nichols shows that the utterly exceptional Socrates, in Plato’s Republic, while delivering a devastating criticism of democracy, through a city in speech which is also undesirable, demonstrates a ‘city in dialogue’ which corrects the anarchy of democracy and the non-philosophic constraints of kalipolis. That is, inequality is not so much resolved in democracy as it can be tempered through dialogic speech–between unequals, with one loving partner guiding it.
Internal criticism of political science is not unique to the present and Stephen Block shows how Aristotle’s emphasis on politics is fundamental for the highest human good. If politics is the highest good, Sims shows how “the people must possess meaningful power in any well-mixed republic, that is to say, a good republic.” Cicero was aware of arguments against democracy, as was Aristotle who nonetheless concentrated on democracy and oligarchy in his Politics. Douglas Kries notes the shift in classical to Christian thought with Saint Augustine’s emphasis on charity. He asks whether Saint Augustine’s criticism of aristocracy means he inclines towards democracy. Patrick Cain’s analysis of Thomas Aquinas suggests something a bit more pro-democratic as Aquinas shows the limits of kingship in its proximity to tyranny and suggests that democracy as the least bad form of government, may mean less harm is done. Orwin’s analysis of Averroes reading of Al-farrabi and Plato reveals an almost proto-modern/liberal reading in which democracy is not a matter of equality or license but freedom in the household. In his re-reading of the classical texts, he essentially finds democracy in the oikos not the polis.
Catherine Zuckert’s essay on Machiavelli returns the focus to public space and emphasizes how tensions between the people and grandi limit political power and contribute to constitutional republic. Not quite a democracy, but democracy operating within a political space as a balancing for against the elites who want to dominate the people who, in turn, do not want to be dominated (Discourses I.6). William Mathie notes how Hobbes is associated with the liberalism, particularly in his rejection of tradition and the traditional regime question of Aristotle, but, Mathie argues, Hobbes, like Plato, required a philosopher to rule. The radical equality of a Hobbesian pre-contract, thus, necessitates some excellence for the ruling person. As noted earlier, Daniel Burns’ analysis of John Locke reveals an egalitarian who is not much of a democrat. Locke defends popular sovereignty but not for democratic reasons and he insists on the need for an educated elite to rule. David Nichols follows with an analysis of Montesquieu’s articulation of separation of powers and the role of institutions in order to make democracies viable. The issue of separation is, unexpectedly, taken up by Schaeffer’s chapter on Rousseau who identifies Rousseau as a philosopher of popular sovereignty more than democracy, which Rousseau worried conflated legislative and executive power. Clinton’s chapter on Burke identifies liberty and stability as being fundamental for Burke. To have both, a popular élément as well as a restraining natural aristocracy were necessary. Burke did not advocate democracy as a singular regime but saw it as a necessary though not unproblematic element in any polity. Susan Shell’s chapter on Kant focuses on Kant’s understanding of criminal justice and the right to coerce and punish in a broader criticism of the  liberalism of Locke and Hobbes.
The next few chapters examine the American Founding Fathers as political philosophers and contributors to democratic theory and practice. Carrington offers a revisionist account of Alexander Hamilton as a defender of the fundamental need to ground politics in popular sovereignty, regardless of the latter’s criticisms of the thoughts and actions of the people. Foss argues against various readings of Madison (pro- and anti-democratic) and presents Madison’s contributions as primarily pragmatic and in the areas of statesmanship. This is in contrast to Lee Ward’s essay on Jefferson which, through an examination of three stages of Jefferson’s career, highlights his contributions to political theory and politics. On this reading, Jefferson was critical in building the political party system, the anti-British/monarchical tradition in the United States, and restored the role of participatory politics in modern democracy.
The volume then returns to continental thinkers with Sara MacDonald’s analysis of Hegel through the lens of his examination of aesthetic experience which allows readers to examine changes in the way religious affiliation impacts civil society. Peter Lawler’s piece on Tocqueville begins with the French thinker’s concern that American democracy was vulnerable to universalizing religions such as pantheism or Roman Catholicism and makes an argument that the latter is better for a democracy. The argument about universalizing religions being politicized raises some issues given considerable attention in the work of Eric Voegelin, principal among such gnostic ‘‘political religions’ for Voegelin were Communism and Fascism. Sean Sutton examines Marx’s writings in the next chapter and shows that Marx’s historical materialism undermine any politics involved in establishing the sort of rights social democrats advocate. Mark Blitz finds a similar challenge with Heidegger whose anti-Semitism, he argues, challenges Heidegger’s ability to speak of freedom. Importantly, Blitz argues that Heidegger’s evaluation of technology and power lead to a leap in which he treats Western liberal democracies and the Communist East in a similar category (a position that was not unique to Heidegger in post WWII German intellectual circles). The problem of such an association is made clear in Tim Burns analysis of Strauss’s critical engagement with modern democracy which involved restoring the value of ancient wisdom while also working within an imperfect liberal constitutional democracy. Strauss, Burns argues, offered a “modest political recommendation…for our time” which included “faithful adherence to liberal democratic constitutionalism whose tone and direction are provided by a sub-political ‘aristocracy within democracy,’ one whose thinking is informed by both serious religious education in one’s ancestral traditions and study of the Great Books.” Strauss, thus, offers precisely the type of deeply, intellectually engaged reflection on democracy without neglecting the role of excellence, action, and leadership that the authors extol.
Given the influence of Strauss on the authors of the volume, it is worth highlighting the final words of the final essay in which Tim Burns writes:“[t]he recovery of that older political reasoning, of the moral-religious traditions on which it depends, and the liberal education that cultivates and sustains it even as it challenges it, may be said to be the most important task of friends of liberal democracy.” The authors of this volume have endeavored to show their authors and texts as friends and friendly to democracy. This is not a superficial friendship but like that of Solzhenitsyn who declared himself a friend of the West in his Harvard address. A friend speaks plainly, honoring the other with honesty, offering critiques because of belief in the other’s ability and willingness to respond to reasoned comments from a concerned friend. In this way Socrates (M. Nichols) and Burke (Clinton) are friends of democracy but so are the alleged great democrats whose critiques are highlighted (Locke in D. Burns or Rousseau in Schaeffer). In their essays to this excellent work, the authors prove themselves friends to democracy and to their readers, contributors to “the most important task.”

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