Wednesday, June 12, 2019

"Under what form of government is the state of man at its best?"

"THE TRUTH that Dr. Jowett gave me came thus. He asked me the political question which was uppermost in his mind, and which he believed all young men should consider. It was, "Under what form of government is the state of man at its best?" I answered as all young men should  answer, "A Republic," to which he answered gently in his turn, "You cannot have a Republic without Republicans." Now that, for terseness and truth and a certain quality of "revelation," was worthy of Aristotle. It is the full answer, historical and moral, to every honest man who desires, as most honest men do, democracy, and who wonders why it is so hard to attain. But I have never considered that answer; and I think that if I had not heard these half dozen words I might never have considered it.

"Democracy, that is, the government of the community by the community: a State where in a man stands equal with his fellows, and has to suffer neither subservience nor the corruption of flattery and power: a State in which office alone commands, and not being clothed with office─that is the ideal at the back of every man's mind who cares for right in public affairs, and who has within himself anything left of private honour. It is simplest put by saying democracy is the noblest form of government. But the moment you begin to deal with men, you find in varying degree, according to the human material handled, a difficulty in the direction of such an affair. You have experience of the wickedness and folly of men, and if you add to such growing experience the vast experience of history, you find that, save in some few, and those small, communities, the ideal of democracy must breakdown in practice; and that so far from enjoying the noblest of social conditions, men in great States are soon suffering the basest forms of control by the rich. That is because most men, though intimately desiring a republic, are not republicans: when you have great numbers, those worthy of democracy are few. In the same way most men, though individually desiring peace within, have not the control of themselves which makes such peace possible.

"So much for the Master's excellent platitude.

"It is strange that things worth saying and hearing, guiding things, should always have that quality of turning into platitudes, once they are familiar; for they were sudden revelations when first they came. To me now the impracticability of democracy among men indifferent to honour and justice is so clear that I never pause to consider it, well knowing that you cannot have the thing in any modern plutocratic State; that even in small States it needs a peculiarly admirable and rare temper in the human material of them. But this conviction came slowly, and all started from those few words.

"And what has all this to do with the sailing of the sea? Nothing, save that it is during the sailing of the lonely sea that men most consider the nature of things."

~Hilaire Belloc: "The Cruise of the 'Nona'."

(Artwork: Seascape at Cayeux, by DUPRÉ, Jules. Oil on canvas, c. 1870. Private collection)

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