Alexander Pope thought that only a fool would dispute over forms of government. History has a good word to say for all of them, and for government in general. Since men love freedom, and the freedom of individuals in society requires some regulation of conduct, the first condition of freedom is its limitation; make it absolute and it dies in chaos. So the prime task of government is to establish order; organized central force is the sole alternative to incalculable and disruptive force in private hands. Power naturally converges to a center, for it is ineffective when divided, diluted, and spread, as in Poland under the liberum veto; hence, the centralization of power in the monarchy by Richelieu or Bismarck, over the protest of feudal barons, has been praised by historians. A similar process has centered power in the federal government in the United States; it was of no use to talk of “states’ rights” when the economy was ignoring state boundaries and could be regulated only by some central authority. Today international government is developing as industry, commerce, and finance override frontiers and take international forms.
Monarchy seems to be the most natural kind of government, since it applies to the group the authority of the father in a family or of the chieftain in a warrior band. If we were to judge forms of government from their prevalence and duration in history we should have to give the palm to monarchy; democracies, by contrast, have been hectic interludes.
After the breakdown of Roman democracy in the class wars of the Gracchi, Marius, and Caesar, Augustus organized, under what in effect was monarchical rule, the greatest achievement in the history of statesmanship—that Pax Romana which maintained peace from 30 B.C. to A.D. 180 throughout an empire ranging from the Atlantic to the Euphrates and from Scotland to the Black Sea. After him monarchy disgraced itself under Caligula, Nero, and Domitian; but after them came Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius—“the finest succession of good and great sovereigns,” Renan called them, “that the world has ever had.”53 “If,” said Gibbon, “a man were called upon to fix the period during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would without hesitation name that which elapsed from the accession of Nerva to the death of Marcus Aurelius. Their united reigns are possibly the only period of history in which the happiness of a great people was the sole object of government.”54 In that brilliant age, when Rome’s subjects complimented themselves on being under her rule, monarchy was adoptive: the emperor transmitted his authority not to his offspring but to the ablest man he could find; he adopted this man as his son, trained him in the functions of government, and gradually surrendered to him the reins of power. The system worked well, partly because neither Trajan nor Hadrian had a son, and the sons of Antoninus Pius died in childhood. Marcus Aurelius had a son, Commodus, who succeeded him because the philosopher failed to name another heir; soon chaos was king.*
All in all, monarchy has had a middling record. Its wars of succession brought mankind as much evil as the continuity or “legitimacy” of the monarchy brought good. When it is hereditary it is likely to be more prolific of stupidity, nepotism, irresponsibility, and extravagance than of nobility or statesmanship. Louis XIV has often been taken as the paragon of modern monarchs, but the people of France rejoiced at his death. The complexity of contemporary states seems to break down any single mind that tries to master it.
Hence most governments have been oligarchies—ruled by a minority, chosen either by birth, as in aristocracies, or by a religious organization, as in theocracies, or by wealth, as in democracies. It is unnatural (as even Rousseau saw) for a majority to rule, for a majority can seldom be organized for united and specific action, and a minority can. If the majority of abilities is contained in a minority of men, minority government is as inevitable as the concentration of wealth; the majority can do no more than periodically throw out one minority and set up another. The aristocrat holds that political selection by birth is the sanest alternative to selection by money or theology or violence. Aristocracy withdraws a few men from the exhausting and coarsening strife of economic competition, and trains them from birth, through example, surroundings, and minor office, for the tasks of government; these tasks require a special preparation that no ordinary family or background can provide. Aristocracy is not only a nursery of statesmanship, it is also a repository and vehicle of culture, manners, standards, and tastes, and serves thereby as a stabilizing barrier to social fads, artistic crazes, or neurotically rapid changes in the moral code. See what has happened to morals, manners, style, and art since the French Revolution.
Aristocracies have inspired, supported, and controlled art, but they have rarely produced it. The aristocrat looks upon artists as manual laborers; he prefers the art of life to the life of art, and would never think of reducing himself to the consuming toil that is usually the price of genius. He does not often produce literature, for he thinks of writing for publication as exhibitionism and salesmanship. The result has been, in modern aristocracies, a careless and dilettante hedonism, a lifelong holiday in which the privileges of place were enjoyed to the full, and the responsibilities were often ignored. Hence the decay of some aristocracies. Only three generations intervened between “L’état c’est moi” and “Après moi le déluge.”
So the services of aristocracy did not save it when it monopolized privilege and power too narrowly, when it oppressed the people with selfish and myopic exploitation, when it retarded the growth of the nation by a blind addiction to ancestral ways, when it consumed the men and resources of the state in the lordly sport of dynastic or territorial wars. Then the excluded banded together in wild revolt; the new rich combined with the poor against obstruction and stagnation; the guillotine cut off a thousand noble heads; and democracy took its turn in the misgovernment of mankind.
Does history justify revolutions? This is an old debate, well illustrated by Luther’s bold break from the Catholic Church versus Erasmus’ plea for patient and orderly reform, or by Charles James Fox’s stand for the French Revolution versus Edmund Burke’s defense of “prescription” and continuity. In some cases outworn and inflexible institutions seem to require violent overthrow, as in Russia in 1917. But in most instances the effects achieved by the revolution would apparently have come without it through the gradual compulsion of economic developments. America would have become the dominant factor in the English-speaking world without any revolution. The French Revolution replaced the landowning aristocracy with the money-controlling business class as the ruling power; but a similar result occurred in nineteenth-century England without bloodshed, and without disturbing the public peace. To break sharply with the past is to court the madness that may follow the shock of sudden blows or mutilations. As the sanity of the individual lies in the continuity of his memories, so the sanity of a group lies in the continuity of its traditions; in either case a break in the chain invites a neurotic reaction, as in the Paris massacres of September, 1792.*
Since wealth is an order and procedure of production and exchange rather than an accumulation of (mostly perishable) goods, and is a trust (the “credit system”) in men and institutions rather than in the intrinsic value of paper money or checks, violent revolutions do not so much redistribute wealth as destroy it. There may be a redivision of the land, but the natural inequality of men soon re-creates an inequality of possessions and privileges, and raises to power a new minority with essentially the same instincts as in the old. The only real revolution is in the enlightenment of the mind and the improvement of character, the only real emancipation is individual, and the only real revolutionists are philosophers and saints.
In strict usage of the term, democracy has existed only in modern times, for the most part since the French Revolution. As male adult suffrage in the United States it began under Andrew Jackson; as adult suffrage it began in our youth. In ancient Attica, out of a total population of 315,000 souls, 115,000 were slaves, and only 43,000 were citizens with the right to vote.55 Women, nearly all working-men, nearly all shopkeepers and tradesmen, and all resident aliens were excluded from the franchise. The citizen minority was divided into two factions: the oligarchic—chiefly the landed aristocracy and the upper bourgeoisie; and the democratic—small landowners and small businessmen, and citizens who had lapsed into wage labor but still retained the franchise. During the ascendancy of Pericles (460–430 B.C.) the aristocracy prevailed, and Athens had her supreme age in literature, drama, and art. After his death, and the disgrace of the aristocracy through the defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War (431–404 B.C.), the demos, or lower class of citizens, rose to power, much to the disgust of Socrates and Plato. From Solon to the Roman conquest of Greece (146 B.C.) the conflict of oligarchs and democrats was waged with books, plays, orations, votes, ostracism, assassination, and civil war. At Gorcyra (now Corfu), in 427 B.C., the ruling oligarchy assassinated sixty leaders of the popular party; the democrats overturned the oligarchs, tried fifty of them before a kind of Committee of Public Safety, executed all fifty, and starved hundreds of aristocratic prisoners to death. Thucydides’ description reminds us of Paris in 1792–93.
During seven days the Corcyreans were engaged in butchering those of their fellow citizens whom they regarded as their enemies…. Death raged in every shape, and, as usually happens at such times, there was no length to which violence did not go; sons were killed by their fathers, and suppliants were dragged from the altar or slain on it…. Revolution thus ran its course from city to city, and the places where it arrived last, from having heard what had been done before, carried to a still greater excess the… atrocity of their reprisals…. Corcyra gave the first example of these crimes,… of the revenge exacted by the governed (who had never experienced equitable treatment, or, indeed, aught but violence, from their rulers) and… of the savage and pitiless excesses into which men were hurried by their passions…. Meanwhile the moderate part of the citizens perished between the two [warring groups]…. The whole Hellenic world was convulsed.56
In his Republic Plato made his mouthpiece, Socrates, condemn the triumphant democracy of Athens as a chaos of class violence, cultural decadence, and moral degeneration. The democrats
contemptuously rejected temperance as unmanliness…. Insolence they term breeding, and anarchy liberty, and waste magnificence, and impudence courage…. The father gets accustomed to descend to the level of his sons and to fear them, and the son to be on a level with his father, having no shame or fear of his parents…. The teacher fears and flatters his scholars, and the scholars despise their masters and tutors…. The old do not like to be thought morose and authoritative, and therefore they imitate the young…. Nor must I forget to tell of the liberty and equality of the two sexes in relation to each other…. The citizens chafe impatiently at the least touch of authority, and at length… they cease to care even for the laws, written or unwritten…. And this is the fair and glorious beginning out of which springs dictatorship [tyrannis]…. The excessive increase of anything causes a reaction in the opposite direction;… dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme form of liberty.57
By the time of Plato’s death (347 B.C.) his hostile analysis of Athenian democracy was approaching apparent confirmation by history. Athens recovered wealth, but this was now commercial rather than landed wealth; industrialists, merchants, and bankers were at the top of the reshuffled heap. The change produced a feverish struggle for money, a pleonexia, as the Greeks called it—an appetite for more and more. The nouveaux riches (neoplutoi) built gaudy mansions, bedecked their women with costly robes and jewelry, spoiled them with dozens of servants, rivaled one another in the feasts with which they regaled their guests. The gap between the rich and the poor widened; Athens was divided, as Plato put it, into “two cities:… one the city of the poor, the other of the rich, the one at war with the other.”58 The poor schemed to despoil the rich by legislation, taxation, and revolution; the rich organized themselves for protection against the poor. The members of some oligarchic organizations, says Aristotle, took a solemn oath: “I will be an adversary of the people” (i.e., the commonalty), “and in the Council I will do it all the evil that I can.”59“The rich have become so unsocial,” wrote Isocrates about 366 B.C., “that those who own property had rather throw their possessions into the sea than lend aid to the needy, while those who are in poorer circumstances would less gladly find a treasure than seize the possessions of the rich.”60The poorer citizens captured control of the Assembly, and began to vote the money of the rich into the coffers of the state, for redistribution among the people through governmental enterprises and subsidies. The politicians strained their ingenuity to discover new sources of public revenue. In some cities the decentralizing of wealth was more direct: the debtors in Mytilene massacred their creditors en masse; the democrats of Argos fell upon the rich, killed hundreds of them, and confiscated their property. The moneyed families of otherwise hostile Greek states leagued themselves secretly for mutual aid against popular revolts. The middle classes, as well as the rich, began to distrust democracy as empowered envy, and the poor distrusted it as a sham equality of votes nullified by a gaping inequality of wealth. The rising bitterness of the class war left Greece internally as well as internationally divided when Philip of Macedon pounced down upon it in 338 B.C., and many rich Greeks welcomed his coming as preferable to revolution. Athenian democracy disappeared under Macedonian dictatorship.61
Plato’s reduction of political evolution to a sequence of monarchy, aristocracy, democracy, and dictatorship found another illustration in the history of Rome. During the third and second centuries before Christ a Roman oligarchy organized a foreign policy and a disciplined army, and conquered and exploited the Mediterranean world. The wealth so won was absorbed by the patricians, and the commerce so developed raised to luxurious opulence the upper middle class. Conquered Greeks, Orientals, and Africans were brought to Italy to serve as slaves on the latifundia; the native farmers, displaced from the soil, joined the restless, breeding proletariat in the cities, to enjoy the monthly dole of grain that Caius Gracchus had secured for the poor in 12 3 B.C. Generals and proconsuls returned from the provinces loaded with spoils for themselves and the ruling class; millionaires multiplied; mobile money replaced land as the source or instrument of political power; rival factions competed in the wholesale purchase of candidates and votes; in 53 B.C. one group of voters received ten million sesterces for its support.62 When money failed, murder was available: citizens who had voted the wrong way were in some instances beaten close to death and their houses were set on fire. Antiquity had never known so rich, so powerful, and so corrupt a government.63 The aristocrats engaged Pompey to maintain their ascendancy; the commoners cast in their lot with Caesar; ordeal of battle replaced the auctioning of victory; Caesar won, and established a popular dictatorship. Aristocrats killed him, but ended by accepting the dictatorship of his grandnephew and stepson Augustus (27 B.C.). Democracy ended, monarchy was restored; the Platonic wheel had come full turn.
We may infer, from these classic examples, that ancient democracy, corroded with slavery, venality, and war, did not deserve the name, and offers no fair test of popular government. In America democracy had a wider base. It began with the advantage of a British heritage: Anglo-Saxon law, which, from Magna Carta onward, had defended the citizens against the state; and Protestantism, which had opened the way to religious and mental liberty. The American Revolution was not only a revolt of colonials against a distant government; it was also an uprising of a native middle class against an imported aristocracy. The rebellion was eased and quickened by an abundance of free land and a minimum of legislation. Men who owned the soil they tilled, and (within the limits of nature) controlled the conditions under which they lived, had an economic footing for political freedom; their personality and character were rooted in the earth. It was such men who made Jefferson president—Jefferson who was as skeptical as Voltaire and as revolutionary as Rousseau. A government that governed least was admirably suited to liberate those individualistic energies that transformed America from a wilderness to a material utopia, and from the child and ward to the rival and guardian of Western Europe. And while rural isolation enhanced the freedom of the individual, national isolation provided liberty and security within protective seas. These and a hundred other conditions gave to America a democracy more basic and universal than history had ever seen.
Many of these formative conditions have disappeared. Personal isolation is gone through the growth of cities. Personal independence is gone through the dependence of the worker upon tools and capital that he does not own, and upon conditions that he cannot control. War becomes more consuming, and the individual is helpless to understand its causes or to escape its effects. Free land is gone, though home ownership spreads—with a minimum of land. The once self-employed shopkeeper is in the toils of the big distributor, and may echo Marx’s complaint that everything is in chains. Economic freedom, even in the middle classes, becomes more and more exceptional, making political freedom a consolatory pretense. And all this has come about not (as we thought in our hot youth) through the perversity of the rich, but through the impersonal fatality of economic development, and through the nature of man. Every advance in the complexity of the economy puts an added premium upon superior ability, and intensifies the concentration of wealth, responsibility, and political power.
Democracy is the most difficult of all forms of government, since it requires the widest spread of intelligence, and we forgot to make ourselves intelligent when we made ourselves sovereign. Education has spread, but intelligence is perpetually retarded by the fertility of the simple. A cynic remarked that “you mustn’t enthrone ignorance just because there is so much of it.” However, ignorance is not long enthroned, for it lends itself to manipulation by the forces that mold public opinion. It may be true, as Lincoln supposed, that “you can’t fool all the people all the time,” but you can fool enough of them to rule a large country.
Is democracy responsible for the current debasement of art? The debasement, of course, is not unquestioned; it is a matter of subjective judgment; and those of us who shudder at its excesses—its meaningless blotches of color, its collages of debris, its Babels of cacophony—are doubtless imprisoned in our past and dull to the courage of experiment. The producers of such nonsense are appealing not to the, general public—which scorns them as lunatics, degenerates, or charlatans—but to gullible middle-class purchasers who are hypnotized by auctioneers and are thrilled by the new, however deformed. Democracy is responsible for this collapse only in the sense that it has not been able to develop standards and tastes to replace those with which aristocracies once kept the imagination and individualism of artists within the bounds of intelligible communication, the illumination of life, and the harmony of parts in a logical sequence and a coherent whole. If art now seems to lose itself in bizarreries, this is not only because it is vulgarized by mass suggestion or domination, but also because it has exhausted the possibilities of old schools and forms, and flounders for a time in the search for new patterns and styles, new rules and disciplines.
All deductions having been made, democracy has done less harm, and more good, than any other form of government. It gave to human existence a zest and camaraderie that outweighed its pitfalls and defects. It gave to thought and science and enterprise the freedom essential to their operation and growth. It broke down the walls of privilege and class, and in each generation it raised up ability from every rank and place. Under its stimulus Athens and Rome became the most creative cities in history, and America in two centuries has provided abundance for an unprecedentedly large proportion of its population. Democracy has now dedicated itself resolutely to the spread and lengthening of education, and to the maintenance of public health. If equality of educational opportunity can be established, democracy will be real and justified. For this is the vital truth beneath its catchwords: that though men cannot be equal, their access to education and opportunity can be made more nearly equal. The rights of man are not rights to office and power, but the rights of entry into every avenue that may nourish and test a man’s fitness for office and power. A right is not a gift of God or nature but a privilege which it is good for the group that the individual should have.
In England and the United States, in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, in Switzerland and Canada, democracy is today sounder than ever before. It has defended itself with courage and energy against the assaults of foreign dictatorship, and has not yielded to dictatorship at home. But if war continues to absorb and dominate it, or if the itch to rule the world requires a large military establishment and appropriation, the freedoms of democracy may one by one succumb to the discipline of arms and strife. If race or class war divides us into hostile camps, changing political argument into blind hate, one side or the other may overturn the hustings with the rule of the sword. If our economy of freedom fails to distribute wealth as ably as it has created it, the road to dictatorship will be open to any man who can persuasively promise security to all; and a martial government, under whatever charming phrases, will engulf the democratic world.