The will of the people in its purest form leaves little room for the rule of lawby Julian Baggini / May 23, 2018 / Leave a comment
For all Aristotle’s reputation as the greatest of the ancient philosophers, most today rightly bracket off his defence of slavery and his dim view of the intellectual capacities of women as unfortunate examples of how even the greatest minds are still products of their times.
Many would deal with his negative views of democracy in the same way. Aristotle’s favoured form of government was the rule by the best over the rest, an aristocracy based on merit rather than blood. He even thought a good monarchy was better than a democracy. It is with good reason that few swallow his prescriptions for a healthy polis wholesale. But to dismiss all of his arguments completely would be a mistake. Aristotle’s criticisms of democracy were often insightful and prescient. They are more relevant in the age of Trump than ever.
Aristotle’s key objection to democracy was that it undermined the rule of law. A functioning state requires that everything is governed by laws. Without this there is nothing to stop those who hold the most power doing what they want and tyrannising everyone else. In a puredemocracy, the will of the majority is sovereign, not the law, not the state. If the people decide someone should be executed, they are executed and no law against capital punishment can stop that. If the people decide that a person or company’s assets should be seized, again, the fact that this requires tearing up the law book is irrelevant.
What we call modern democracies have traditionally accepted the need for the rule of law to stand between the expression of popular will and its implementation. In the contemporary west the rule of law is a core principle that stands alongside representative government by popular election. That means our cherished forms of government are not actually democracies in Aristotle’s sense at all. They are rather what he called polities: good forms of government in which the many rule over themselves.
This kind of democracy is of course the corner stone of civilised society. The danger we face today, however, is that some people have lost patience with the rule of law and yearn for a purer form of democracy. This is what populist parties—left, right and centre—all promise. They tell the electorate that the only reason…