Though the political panacea of the day, democracy is still insufficiently understood by the many whom it affects most. The qualities of it are better known than are the qualifications for it; the ends than the means. It is airily esteemed the great emancipation, the crown of the glorified people, the tom of autocracy, the gateway to the millennium, ect. But its demands are proportionate to its favors; and there can be no true concept of democracy which ignores the preliminaries which induce it and its success.
The meaning of the word, from the time of Thucydides who first used it, until now, is popular rule. As one reviewer says, “Democracy is the state of an autonomous people“. Still, if a people are not intellectually and ethically equipped for self government, a democratic regime would not be democratic at all. It would be demagogic, or “the government of the people by the oss of the group.” It would be, save a miracle, or through the discipline of experience and time, a species of chaos. Tyranny and its equally odious opposite-lack of all rigor-are none the less political calamaties when they obtain in the many. The definition of demcracy would be improved by the linking of the adjective “qualified” to “autonomous.”
Democracy is an ideal form of government; but, like all ideals, it has not always proved the best for practical purposes. For nations have not invariably measured up to its requirements, and hence have not always been prepared for its privileges. Since it is a system which, in a manner, makes rulers of the many, it demands that the many have the mental and moral virtues requisite to regency. Until a people have evolved to the due political degree, democracy could only be a Pandora’s box in their possession. If it is the best of the forms of government, its place in political progress is last; and the belief that it is the best for the futre implies at least a concession that it may not always have been the best in the past.
Athens was ready for a democratic era only in the Golden Age of Pericles (445-431 B.C.); and even then her particular brand of popular rule which Lloyd calls “the most pure and the most important democratic government the world had ever,-nay has ever seen,” was far from ideal. Theoretically, the people ruled; practically, Pericles did. His spirit and influence leavened the whole polity, as in a form of monarchy. The Demos discussed and decided; but it was only a segment of the population. In a city-state where one regarded it a real hard-ship to have to live with less than half a dozen helots at beck and call, and the numer of free citizens, Attic-born and bred, who alone enjoyed the right of suffrage, was a startling minority, democracy, in our modern sweeping sense, was far from regent. But the truth is that to support even this narrow democracy, which was really but a broad aristocracy, Athens needed a citizenry with brains. That she happened to have it, is the great reason why the era was golden. Galton declares that the average ability of the Athenian race was at the very lowest estimate two grades higher than our own; and this, if so, means that the Hellenes intellectually surpassed us quite as much as we ourselves out-step the third world today. He recalls as evidences of the nimble intelligence and keen aesthetic sens of the Attic, the elaborate works of literature and art which were presented as a matter of course by their creators for his criticism and appreciation. If Athenian morals measured up to Athenian minds, perchance the fate of the most famous of ancient democracies would have been less swift and tragic. This classic example is of much modern politicl importance.
The need for democracy is not solely rule by and for the people, but much else which this entails. The faculty of reason must be strong and active in the people; without it there can be no genuine autonomy. Secondly, a sense of responsibility must animate the populace; else law and order would be tossed to death on the crest of passion’s wave. Thirdly, there must be a constant increase in personal intellectuality and powers of determination, for knowledge is never exhausted, nor is moral judgment ever too perfect. The field for advancement in these regards is vast. And, besides, the difference between a democracy and a pure, or ideal, democracy admits of a myriad degrees. The individual must be awakened as never before, his mind wide open to the day, his heart strong, his arm ready; otherwise the theory of self-government were fanciful. Democracy means the rise of the individual to a kind of kingship. It is not primarily a political scheme of votes, privileges, exemptions, or reforms; but rather a spiritual force arousing the individual to self-consciousness, appreciation, ambition, expression, and service in civil society and state affairs. It does not equalize men in the concrete. What could do that but a dream, and who but a dreamer? But it does make them equal in a legal sense, and does, as Tocqueville would have it, equalize opportunity. Maumus writes that democracy necessitates an application to the social order of four principles:
1-The equality of all citizens before the laws.
2-The possibility of all citizens attaining civil honor and service without any title other than personal merit.
3-The proportional division of public charges, or relative equality in the matter of taxation.
4-The right of all to be heard, directly or through representatives, when there is a question of legislation or of the form of government.
The nature of these principles indicates the need of morality and intelligence for their realization in civil society. Just laws require just legislators. The offices of the State should be open only to the competent; and if they are to be open to all, all must be competent. Only the voice of truth has a right to be heard in the State; and if all voices enjoy such a right, all should be ethical.
Hence democracy seems primarily moral, then social, and at last political. It must first arouse the individual to a keen knowledge and sense of right and wrong, and a robust appreciation and pursuit of right. It thus renders him an important item of the group-life in which he moves; an asset to the sum and quality of its thought; an increase to its power. The greater the number of rightly thinking minds and rightly feeling hearts in society, the greater is the practicability of a popular form of government.
And so a definition, accrediting all this, might be: Democracy is the state of a people who, individually qualified by intellectual and moral progress, and eager for further advancement, rule themselves either by themselves, or through their representatives. A corollary would be that such a people with such a regime enjoy “the maximum of self-expression with the minimum of restraint,” or, as Pasteur expressed it, “the true democracy is that which permits every individual to put forth his maximum strength.”
Thus understood, democracy is far from conflict with Catholic conceptions. The Church has never forgotten the practical side of life in her appreciation of the spiritual and ideal. Through her fundamental teaching, “upon which in the last analysis”, a writer observes, “all advance of democracy must be based,” dignifies each man as the image of his Maker and claims for all men the same purpose of existence, she has ever recognized that there is a wide twilight zone of human individual differences between this common origin and end. She has consistently hoped and allowed for racial progress. She has never committed herself to a policy of thrusting governments into the control of multitudes unprepared to receive them, appreciating that the people must be guided until such time as they are capable of guiding themselves; but she has never discountenanced that a people, individually or collectively, should evolve ther powers to the fullest. For to deny or combat, would have been to discount her very doctrine that men must tend to their end which is excellence itself-God. And so we find her wielding her influence in medieval and modern times to promote the advance of individual and society, warning against temerity indeed, but in season welcoming any theory of government which honestly precludes peril and promises success. She has never frowned on democracy as such, and could not. Rather she has exhaled its spirit in her teaching from the start; so much so that it is no longer considered absurd to suggest that back in the Middle Ages, in the calm of the cloisters, long before Protestant monarchs snapped their fingers at Rome, and, as some writers say, it became expedient for Catholic scholars to wither royalty in order to water the Pope, the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people was born.
One ought not to forget that kings did not rise to supreme power in Europe until the Medieval Era had almost passed. In the period of the Popes, feudalism was tempered by the guild system. The people were in the process of formation for self-government; only their own handicaps, incidental to their late emergence from barbarism, delayed the inevitable day of their return to their civil birth-right.
But theories of government, contrariwise to Catholic, came to dim the prospect; notwithstanding that the Reformation is wrested by some of its fervent admirers to explain the birth of modern democracy. The Wittenburg friar’s (i.e., Luther’s) wanton injunction to princes as to the treatment of the underlings-“drive, beat, choke, hang, urn, behead, break upon the wheel”-appears to express a pathological hostility, if anything, to the democratic ideal. Calvin, around whom swirled popular blood in Geneva; high-handed Henry and the equally autocratic Elizabeth: these betray little regard for the people and less interest in releasing political power to them. Royal might, in the sixteenth century, seized on the ecclesiastical; and under this unbridled assumption the masses seemed more menaced than ever. Stemmed was the promising tide of civil liberty, and weakened was the hitherto increasing consciousness of responsibility which animated Christian rulers. To minimize Rome, Protestantism magnified monarchs; and the disastrous slogan “The king can do no wrong” rang out the death-knell of the democratic promise and possibility of medieval political principles. The goodly solidarity which a common Faith, doctrine, and spiritual leadership had afforded Europe, saw shattered. A synthetic force yielded to one of disintegration. Individualism was doubtless thus enhanced and the purpose of future democracy served; but the crowning glory of Medievalism, “individuality through communal unity,” which could not bu induce a most desirable type of democracy, had vanished. The civil power, become minotaur, had devoured all.
Suarez, as also his twin gladiator, Bellarmine, essayed to slay the injurious pretension with the sword of Catholic tradition. Standing in the morning of the Modern Age, this celebrated later Scholastic, in the spirit and tone of the ecclesiastical era, indeed in the very voice of the Angel of the Schools (i.e., St Thomas Aquinas), vindicates the rights of the people and thus preambles the long and mighty drama of popular emancipation. He maintains that, fundamentally there is no reason why one man should have political jurisdiction; also that the subject of political power is not the individual, nor any number of individuals, but the community. In order that such power might pass by just title into the hands of one man, it is necessary that the people consent.
Alfred Rahilly has attested the heavy debt which democracy owes to its correct and courageous exposition by the doctrinal aggressor of King James and able representative of medieval political theory. He sees it struggling to life in the unrest and aspirations of the English Whigs and Puritans and bursting into rich blossom in our own American Declaration of Independence, whose principals of natural equality and popular consent, intentionally or not, are unmistakably Suarezian. And the doctrine has re-flowed in the famed and familiar utterances of Woodrow Wilson, in a manner to fill the race with enthusiasm.
If it is true that, tracking back the rise of modern democracy, we at length find ourselves clasping the hand of a Spanish Jesuit, it is also a fact that the latter represents the writings of one Thomas of Aquino, and in this wise links the modern period with medieval political doctrine. Much as is the indebtedness of the son of St Ignatius (i.e., Suarez) to the son of St Dominic (i.e., Aquinas), however, some mild protest must be made against Dr. William Dunning’s possibly semi-facetious assertion that “where Aquinas is unclear or incomplete, it is Suarez’s aim to clarify and supplement; where Aquinas takes an untenable position, Suarez reverently and with the subtlest distinction and discriminations proves that the master must have meant something different from what he said.” The Jesuit was a worthy medium of the message of the former. Aquinas hardly took positions which Suarez found “untenable,” and among his pronounced merits in his Treatise on Laws are clarity and completeness.
St Thomas of Aquino came into the world of thought when Europe was in a critical stage of transition (A.D. 1227-74). Townsfolk were then seeing their rights more clearly and were wringing recognition from feudalism in the form of charters. many of the cities glistened as tiny gems of democracy. Quickened by their industrial associations, which is some particular cities numbered as many as fifty, the masses were feeling their muscles. In St Thomas’ own Italy, medieval municipalities enjoyed particular advancement. The Lombard League, the victory of Legnano, and the Peace of Constans, are brilliant spots in the history of the principle of liberty and self-determination. Unfortunately, however, the independencies used their powers against one another in a series of midget, but sanguinary wars. It was in this clamor of petty arms that St Thomas appeared and was educated. The necessity of toning down prevalent politics to the possibility of true liberty, by submitting it to the directive influences of charity and justice, must have been paramount in the thought of the scholar. The situation in our Saint’s day was similar to that which now confronts the world. The solutions which he presents in his political theories perhaps have some of the same pertinence to the present as the the medieval past.
He saw democracies rise and ride to ruin. he studied the reasons; ignorance and dearth of moral restraint. He beheld tyranny grasp when and where the popular grip weakened-Hellas repeating itself! He traveled in Germany and France, with little political detail, we may well imagine, escaping his eye. Over and above the vivid observations of his own intense life-time, he could and did advert to the political knowledge of his predecessors. Just as Azpilcueta, Molina, Lessius, Bannez, and Suarez would later draw on his mind, so did he supplement his own intellectual treasury with the riches of preceding centuries. He indeed fills his lamp with the oil of the past; but it glows, by his own genius, with principles which serve for the whole future. he joins the Medieval with the Ancient. he takes the thought of paganism and burnishes it with Christianity. Filtering through the mind of Aquinas, Aristotelian notions are separated from their coarser elements
Especially valuable is his teaching, in that it not only holds aloft ideals for the guidance and perfection of the State, but also prescribes practical remedies for its sores; thus winning a place above the purely abstract systems which Figgis would call “the besetting sins of politics from Dante to Karl Marx.”
In our study of the political mission and message of the Angelic Doctor, we shall, of course, have much recourse to his De Regimine Principum. There is well-founded suspicion that this work is spurious from the middle of the second book to the end; but the probability is that the treatise was finished by a hand and mind skilled and sympathetic in the discipline of Aquinas. Likely the Doctor himself left material which Tolomaeus of Lucca, his disciple, arranged and amplified.
The aurora of political enlightenment, which is the Commentary on the Politics of Aristotle, surely need not be renounced as unrepresentative of Thomistic thought. It is not all the personal effort of the Saint, for Tolomaeus himself says so, and Peter of Auvergne is mentioned as concluding the enterprise. But it is all in the master’s vein. And the fact that it mirrors the mind of the Philosopher (i.e., Aristotle), is no proof that it does not reflect, at least moderately, the though and sentiment of Saint Thomas himself. Although the latter very probably failed to be as fervid as an Averroes, who reverenced Aristotle’s doctrine as supreme truth and his intellect as the human pinnacle, he must have succumbed to the spell which filled the thirteenth century. In politics, the greatest of the Greeks was preeminence itself. It was he who endowed the study with the character of an independent science, by distinguishing it from ethics. His investigations covered practically all of the Hellenic and barbarian systems of government. Aquinas would have been less great had he been blind to a greater. The strong indication is that, save in notes decidedly dissonant with Christianity, our Saint is very much in harmony with the “Philosopher.” We may beleive with Baumann that the Angelic Doctor would have hesitated to comment the Politics, if he could not quite commend it. He was seriously making it, through his commentary, mental pabulum for his age. The proof of his approval and appropriation of its lessons is his frequent references to them throughout his Summa. As for his De Regimine, it is largely a reflex of the more sterling principles of the Politics. But we should be warned by the cautious opinion of such as Antoniades and Jourdain not to identify the Saint with the Stagirite (i.e., Aristotle), and always to remember the narrow but deep Christian chasm between their mentalities. Anent the legitimacy of accrediting Aquinas with thoughts which are expressly the Philosopher’s, it is well to recall that the doctrine which the world freely attributes to Plato is, on the road-Browed’s own testimony, Socrates’; and St Thomas is to Aristotle what Plato was to Socrates. As for the unauthentic four books, we shall use them in the “restrained measure” which Crahay deems permissible, since they were possibly composed from the Doctor’s notes and are the work of one whom Tolomaeus calls his most faithful disciple.
The tract de Legibus in the Summa will be of much importance to our purpose.
Here and there in the other works of the Angelic Doctor, teachings of political value flash. These too shall be duly noted and utilized.
The trend of democratic thought will be traced. Much that the modern mind might, at first blush, find repugnant to popular favor, may be indicated in the pages of the Master. A closer scrutiny, however, will reveal that it is really the distortions and misconceptions of democracy, and not the principle itself, which are disrelished and criticized. In this Aquinas but accords with the best thought of all time. Plato could see no wisdom in having uninstructed masses rule. Aristotle placed democracy in his list of the corrupt forms of government, but by it he understands the abuse of popular rule, and not popular rule itself. The latter idea he calls Polity and quotes it with approval. Cicero, while admitting the merits of democracy, was wide-eyed to its dangers. Dante thought it shameless; Mill, impracticable; and Rousseau believed that, in its purity, it was fit for gods and not for men. Aquinas manages to avoid all heat and to present a cool opinion. And who, considering certain countries of the world today, more aroused by democracy than ready for it, convulsed in problems of their own creation, grappling desolation to their souls and deluding themselves that it is self-determination, would judge the prudence of the Angel of the Schools as prejudice?
Still the amount and merit of the democracy to be found in his doctrine are remarkable. Then again, they are not; for the very rule under which he lived gave his mind a certain democratic turn. “It is a fact beyond all doubt and beyond all question,” observes M. F. Morris, “that the first distinct and positive illustration of constitutional government is to be found in the monastic orders. The very word ‘Constitution’ in the technical sense in which we now use it, was first employed by them, and Constitutionalism in government may in fact be said to have originated with them. The Constitutions of St Anthony, and St Augustine, and St Francis of Assisi, and St Dominic, and subsequently the Constitutions of St Ignatius of Loyola, and St Francis De Sales, and others were the first schemes on record of strictly constitutional government.” Sifted, this sentence still shows much truth. And the government of the Dominican order, of which Aquinas is the greatest luminary, was a model of the representative democracy which, we shall see, met his favor for the State and has been adopted by the progressive modern age. The Order was governed by a master-general; the province y a provincial prior; the convent, by a conventual prior. The last was elected by the friars of the convent; the provincial prior, by a provincial chapter composed of the conventual priors and two friars from each convent elected by a full meeting of all the friars of the convent; the master-general, by a general chapter composed of the provincial chapter. When in subsequent pages we find St Thomas claiming for all citizens in the State some share in the government, and giving for his reason that such a polity is better loved, and hence better served, we suspect that his devotion to the Order of his choice is not altogether silent. In fact, we shall find throughout his doctrine that his church-relations in nowise prevent, but rather promote, the popular tendencies; we shall understand with Mandonnet why the post-Reformation absolutistism could show “little sympathy for the democratic constitutions of the Preachers” (i.e., the Dominicans).