The Failures of Democracy (an Ode to Aristides)

Oh, what America could do with an Aristides of Athens!

Of humble birth but possessing a virtuous spirit, Aristides championed order and decency against both foreigner and citizen, rich and poor alike.  His triumphs too numerous to mention in so short a space, it must suffice to recall a few: how he exposed corruption in government -- however close to him it lay; his defense of due process not simply for friends, but for criminals and enemies; his admirable conduct on the field of battle, defending Greece against the barbaric Persians; his forfeiture of pride in relinquishing the generalship to a more capable commander, and the subsequent unity of Athens in a turbulent time.  Athens had her share of honorable men, for which she has become well-known; but above them all in the pursuit of justice, perhaps, was Aristides (see Plutarch's eloquent account).

But like Israel slew her prophets when the light of virtue shone upon her people's darkened and wicked hearts (Matt 23:29-39; 2 Chron 24:20-22), Athens soon came to regret the presence of Aristides, the jealousies of men being aroused by possession not just of wealth and fame, but of all good things visible and invisible.  Themistocles, an archenemy from youth, an opponent born amidst a youthful romantic rivalry, having the popular support of the poor but the character of the disreputable, soon kindled the public's jealousy and called for Aristides's banishment.  Such an exile served as a popular punishment for those whom Athens believed possessive of too much greatness for a democratic state.  And perhaps, regarding Aristides, Athens was right, though not in the way they believed -- for Athens was in Aristides's case undeserving.

Plutarch records that Athens gathered to discuss the matter, and votes were recorded on potsherds.  Aristides, being a humble man and living in righteous poverty, was mistaken by an illiterate man for a common citizen and was asked in a brutish manner to spell "Aristides" upon the sherd -- an open vote for banishment.  Taken aback by such a request, Aristides asked what exactly the citizen had suffered at the hands of such a man.  "Nothing," the ignorant man replied.  "I'm just tired of hearing him called 'The Just' all the time."  Then, turning the other cheek as Jesus Christ would ages later command, the hero kept his peace and wrote his own name upon the sherd.

And so was Aristides banished from Athens -- noble, just, humble Aristides.  And let us be honest about the matter: how many faithful, how many virtuous, how many heroic leaders has democracy so dishonorably discarded?  How many times has she chosen the swindler, the ignorant, and the unjust instead of the Godly and the righteous?  Democracy isn't known for wisdom, or for continuity of thought; it doesn't always formulate the most noble of plans, and then perpetuate them across generations; it doesn't defend any particular rights, other than majority preference.  Rather, democracy oftentimes smothers genius -- and other times, impatiently complaining that her desires haven't been met, abandons the most meritorious of people and plans.

We have all met men of ignoble character and horrible taste; could we sanely expect that a democracy, a composition of the imperfect characters and fickle tastes of men, could without frequency commit the objectionable?  A quick glance at our most popular artists, filthy singing prostitutes and practically illiterate thugs, should easily grant an answer contrary to American pride: that our tastes are too often deplorable.

Wherein, then, does democracy's value lie?  It exists neither in good taste nor in perpetuity of thought, nor in morality itself, but rather in knowing that the structure of every government is laid upon the foundation of the unwilling (mankind being aware, however uncomfortably, that without subjection of evil to righteousness, and the foolish to the wise, order cannot triumph over chaos), in its relatively superior ability to prevent the abuse of the majority.  It makes a million monarchs within a single territory, and dilutes will and impulse amongst the masses.

Yet history records that even in its defense of the majority, democracy -- a spirit of liberty subject like mortal man to birth, strength, decay, and death, to the changing tides of necessity and constitution, to man's strengths and weaknesses alike -- must live and die, tower and crumble.  Democracy shines brightly when men are good, when in vigilance they educate themselves and their children of unalienable duties and the pursuit of honor, when they shun coveteousness and by self-restraint obey the laws of nature and of nature's God.  Locke never spoke more correctly than when he defended not simply majority rule, but majority rule according to the defense of unalienable rights, the punishment of true evil, and the reward of true good (Second Treatise of Government, sect. 135-136).  But supposing by democracy injustice prevails; supposing the populace become lenient upon evils, because they cannot bear their own punishment; supposing they vote in ignorance, and legislate absurdities, punishing the righteous and driving away the productive, eventually the cries of both the just and unjust ring so loudly that the reins of government are taken from the people, and order is established by an immensely preferable dictator.  When the majority cannot protect themselves from their own depravities, democracy is no longer viable.

The democratic supremacy of an evil populace dwindles in an hourglass passing not sand, but blood.  For noble Plato spoke correctly when he said there must exist justice within even bands of thieves, or else they could not remain a band, the peace of the unjust being ever fragile, whatever they call it, even in momentary unity against goodness.  And when national factions abound, and every citizen's eyes are turned upon his neighbor's wealth, and the anonymity of a large state obscures the confiscatory hand, then there exists no justice even amongst citizen-pirates.  And it may truly be said that in those days, when any may be made a victim by the mob, the fear of neighbors surpasses that of the despot, and a nominal liberty takes the official form of tyranny.  As the prophet Habakkuk once spoke to Israel, the law is powerless, and justice never goes forth.  For the wicked surround the righteous; Therefore perverse judgment proceeds.  

Perhaps it is time to kiss democracy goodbye -- a solemn farewell to an aged lover -- and expect that in her place will arrive a young, cruel, cold mistress, alive not with the beauty and innocence of youth, but with its most ignorant, ugliest, unbridled passions.  For such is the fate of the ignorant, the un-Godly, the unjust, the swindlers, the covetous; men whose minds are possessed in selfishness and vanity, who neglect the highest passions for the baser.  For if America's passion is for football and not her Creator; if she reads Fifty Shades of Grey instead of the Bible or Locke or Edwards; if she rallies for free contraception and mocks chastity, and riots for welfare and denies property rights; if she defends divorce more than she cherishes fidelity; if she gives her children to the state instead of raising them herself; if she prefers debt to solvency, liberty in vice to duty and virtue, hating even those who refuse approval of her misdeeds, then democracy is bidding us goodbye.  The only question which remains is how long she will stay.

And Aristides, if nobility be the reason you were exiled, then may we be shown the door alongside you.

Jeremy Egerer is a convert to biblical conservatism from radical liberalism and the editor of the Seattle website www.americanclarity.com.  American Clarity welcomes friend requests on Facebook.

Oh, what America could do with an Aristides of Athens!

Of humble birth but possessing a virtuous spirit, Aristides championed order and decency against both foreigner and citizen, rich and poor alike.  His triumphs too numerous to mention in so short a space, it must suffice to recall a few: how he exposed corruption in government -- however close to him it lay; his defense of due process not simply for friends, but for criminals and enemies; his admirable conduct on the field of battle, defending Greece against the barbaric Persians; his forfeiture of pride in relinquishing the generalship to a more capable commander, and the subsequent unity of Athens in a turbulent time.  Athens had her share of honorable men, for which she has become well-known; but above them all in the pursuit of justice, perhaps, was Aristides (see Plutarch's eloquent account).

But like Israel slew her prophets when the light of virtue shone upon her people's darkened and wicked hearts (Matt 23:29-39; 2 Chron 24:20-22), Athens soon came to regret the presence of Aristides, the jealousies of men being aroused by possession not just of wealth and fame, but of all good things visible and invisible.  Themistocles, an archenemy from youth, an opponent born amidst a youthful romantic rivalry, having the popular support of the poor but the character of the disreputable, soon kindled the public's jealousy and called for Aristides's banishment.  Such an exile served as a popular punishment for those whom Athens believed possessive of too much greatness for a democratic state.  And perhaps, regarding Aristides, Athens was right, though not in the way they believed -- for Athens was in Aristides's case undeserving.

Plutarch records that Athens gathered to discuss the matter, and votes were recorded on potsherds.  Aristides, being a humble man and living in righteous poverty, was mistaken by an illiterate man for a common citizen and was asked in a brutish manner to spell "Aristides" upon the sherd -- an open vote for banishment.  Taken aback by such a request, Aristides asked what exactly the citizen had suffered at the hands of such a man.  "Nothing," the ignorant man replied.  "I'm just tired of hearing him called 'The Just' all the time."  Then, turning the other cheek as Jesus Christ would ages later command, the hero kept his peace and wrote his own name upon the sherd.

And so was Aristides banished from Athens -- noble, just, humble Aristides.  And let us be honest about the matter: how many faithful, how many virtuous, how many heroic leaders has democracy so dishonorably discarded?  How many times has she chosen the swindler, the ignorant, and the unjust instead of the Godly and the righteous?  Democracy isn't known for wisdom, or for continuity of thought; it doesn't always formulate the most noble of plans, and then perpetuate them across generations; it doesn't defend any particular rights, other than majority preference.  Rather, democracy oftentimes smothers genius -- and other times, impatiently complaining that her desires haven't been met, abandons the most meritorious of people and plans.

We have all met men of ignoble character and horrible taste; could we sanely expect that a democracy, a composition of the imperfect characters and fickle tastes of men, could without frequency commit the objectionable?  A quick glance at our most popular artists, filthy singing prostitutes and practically illiterate thugs, should easily grant an answer contrary to American pride: that our tastes are too often deplorable.

Wherein, then, does democracy's value lie?  It exists neither in good taste nor in perpetuity of thought, nor in morality itself, but rather in knowing that the structure of every government is laid upon the foundation of the unwilling (mankind being aware, however uncomfortably, that without subjection of evil to righteousness, and the foolish to the wise, order cannot triumph over chaos), in its relatively superior ability to prevent the abuse of the majority.  It makes a million monarchs within a single territory, and dilutes will and impulse amongst the masses.

Yet history records that even in its defense of the majority, democracy -- a spirit of liberty subject like mortal man to birth, strength, decay, and death, to the changing tides of necessity and constitution, to man's strengths and weaknesses alike -- must live and die, tower and crumble.  Democracy shines brightly when men are good, when in vigilance they educate themselves and their children of unalienable duties and the pursuit of honor, when they shun coveteousness and by self-restraint obey the laws of nature and of nature's God.  Locke never spoke more correctly than when he defended not simply majority rule, but majority rule according to the defense of unalienable rights, the punishment of true evil, and the reward of true good (Second Treatise of Government, sect. 135-136).  But supposing by democracy injustice prevails; supposing the populace become lenient upon evils, because they cannot bear their own punishment; supposing they vote in ignorance, and legislate absurdities, punishing the righteous and driving away the productive, eventually the cries of both the just and unjust ring so loudly that the reins of government are taken from the people, and order is established by an immensely preferable dictator.  When the majority cannot protect themselves from their own depravities, democracy is no longer viable.

The democratic supremacy of an evil populace dwindles in an hourglass passing not sand, but blood.  For noble Plato spoke correctly when he said there must exist justice within even bands of thieves, or else they could not remain a band, the peace of the unjust being ever fragile, whatever they call it, even in momentary unity against goodness.  And when national factions abound, and every citizen's eyes are turned upon his neighbor's wealth, and the anonymity of a large state obscures the confiscatory hand, then there exists no justice even amongst citizen-pirates.  And it may truly be said that in those days, when any may be made a victim by the mob, the fear of neighbors surpasses that of the despot, and a nominal liberty takes the official form of tyranny.  As the prophet Habakkuk once spoke to Israel, the law is powerless, and justice never goes forth.  For the wicked surround the righteous; Therefore perverse judgment proceeds.  

Perhaps it is time to kiss democracy goodbye -- a solemn farewell to an aged lover -- and expect that in her place will arrive a young, cruel, cold mistress, alive not with the beauty and innocence of youth, but with its most ignorant, ugliest, unbridled passions.  For such is the fate of the ignorant, the un-Godly, the unjust, the swindlers, the covetous; men whose minds are possessed in selfishness and vanity, who neglect the highest passions for the baser.  For if America's passion is for football and not her Creator; if she reads Fifty Shades of Grey instead of the Bible or Locke or Edwards; if she rallies for free contraception and mocks chastity, and riots for welfare and denies property rights; if she defends divorce more than she cherishes fidelity; if she gives her children to the state instead of raising them herself; if she prefers debt to solvency, liberty in vice to duty and virtue, hating even those who refuse approval of her misdeeds, then democracy is bidding us goodbye.  The only question which remains is how long she will stay.

And Aristides, if nobility be the reason you were exiled, then may we be shown the door alongside you.

Jeremy Egerer is a convert to biblical conservatism from radical liberalism and the editor of the Seattle website www.americanclarity.com.  American Clarity welcomes friend requests on Facebook.

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