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“If there be one thing more than another which is true of genuine democracy, it is that genuine democracy is opposed to the rule of the mob. For genuine democracy is based fundamentally on the existence of the citizen, and the best definition of a mob is a body of a thousand men in which there is no citizen.”

This quotation is from G.K. Chesterton’s article on Victor Hugo, the author of Les Miserables, in Pall Mall magazine of 1902. In it Chesterton puts his finger on a great dilemma. It is wise to devote much attention to the idols of our time, of which Democracy is one. Others include Capitalism, Progress (or Evolution), Wealth, and Equality. None of these means anything, or rather, each of them means several different things and so ought to be defined carefully whenever it is used. Others, such as Peace and Justice, have become so vague that they too qualify as idols.

For Plato, a democratic society was already more than halfway down the slippery slope, from aristocracy to tyranny. But then, for him, not all members of a society could be “citizens”, who formed a very exclusive club. Today, things are different. Democracy does not mean “mob rule”. Or does it? The two- (or three-) party system was designed to forestall revolution by permitting alternative governments an opportunity to win power through elections at regular intervals. But when the choice is made by a numerical majority largely ignorant of the issues or even the principles at stake, increasingly manipulated by the techniques of advertising and the pressure of money, it seems that “mob rule” is often what we have in practice. In Platonic terms, we are a democracy on the way to becoming a tyranny – because the tyrant, in Chesterton’s phrase, “always relied on the masses”.

A genuine democracy, according to Chesterton, is only possible if it is based on the existence of genuine “citizens.” A citizen is a man or woman (pace Plato and Chesterton) who counts as a full member of society, imbued with the rights and duties that signify full participation. Not all citizens, however, are necessarily competent to vote in an election or a referendum: children, prisoners, the insane, and other categories may be excluded, for example. Beyond this we start to get into difficulties. Why should stupid people, or ignorant people, or wicked people, be allowed to vote? Who do we assign to these categories, and who assigns them? That problem is insoluble.

The way to have a more intelligent election is to have a more intelligent electorate. It is not just a matter of supplying them with information (though a free press is also essential). The problem comes down to education. Without excluding anyone, we need to make sure that the largest possible proportion of the electorate are well educated. This connects once again with Plato, for although for him the group of citizens was a restricted bunch, they were supposed to be distinguished by the quality of their education–they received an education for leisure and freedom, a liberal education. It is the capacity to rise above one’s feelings and what one is told by others, the ability to discern, reflect, and decide for oneself, and the love of truth, integrity, and virtue, that qualify a person to be a fully mature participant in society, a citizen in the fullest sense, rather than just an inhabitant or native.

You can’t engineer a successful democracy. But you can do a great deal to improve (even to a revolutionary degree) our school system, and the way we think about education. That is where Beauty in the Word points to the great work that is being done in the homeschooling movement and small liberal arts colleges. Maybe, if we raise a few more citizens, the polis will recover with them.

Books related to the topic of this article may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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2 replies to this post
  1. It is worth noting, I think, that the electorate can’t become intelligent or even knowledgable on the wide range of programs and policies currently managed (or mismanaged) by state and federal governments. It is hard enough to gain skills in one or two fields or management skills in one or two industries. How could one vote for representatives expected to vote on energy, education, and environment policies, each endlessly complex? So citizens should at least learn the Constitutional principles intended to limit the reach of government, and the public choice economics that further explains Constitutional government. And citizens would gain wisdom, I think, from studying not only the history of kings and states, but more importantly the development of civil society institutions that enabled families, firms, and various associations to provide the various goods and services states now claim as government functions (energy, education, and environmental services, for example).

  2. Mr. Caldecott: I trust you’re aware that the standard definition of an “intelligent voter” (or an “informed voter”) is “one who votes the way I do.” It’s funny how ignorant, stupid, and even wicked the electorate seems when the wrong side wins an election.

    That said, I’m all in favor of liberal education, self-reflection, critical thinking, and rising above mere self-interest in recognition of a greater good. I also have some positive feelings about truth, integrity, and virtue, and I continue to believe that beauty will save the world, though I haven’t figured out just how or when. Please keep up your good work…

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