NL XXVI: Democracy and Aristocracy

Index to this series

Executive summary (added September 12, 2018): Aristocracy and democracy are abstractions, inseparable from one another and properly understood as correlative rules for the ruling class: don’t let in anybody who is unqualified, but don’t keep out anybody who is. By what in Chapter XXXI will be called the Principle of the Limited Objective (recognized by the Early Church Fathers), the ruling class should be prepared to solve not every problem (as Plato wanted), but those problems that are expected to come up. The concept of revolution is borrowed from the literary concept of peripety and has no place in history, where there are no heroes or villains, just human beings, partly good and partly bad.


There can be no pure democracy, not for any length of time, not if we understand a democracy to be a society whose ruling class is the whole of it. Even the most extreme democrat of ancient Greece never contemplated citizenship for women, slaves, or resident foreigners. We may be more liberal today, at least regarding women and slavery. Still we do not open the ruling class to foreigners, such as myself where I am; nor do we open it to children. We could do so, in the sense of extending the franchise to all human residents. Both possibilities were discussed favorably in The Nation in the early 1990s, as I recall. However, perhaps most children could not be given such adminstrative duties as were assigned by lot to Athenian citizens. Even if they could, what of the animals that live among us?

Edward Hicks (American, 1780-1849 ), The Cornell Farm, 1848, oil on canvas, Gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch

Democracy is an abstraction. There is an opposite abstraction, the condition of a society in which the population of the ruling class has shrunk to zero. An appropriate term for this abstraction might be theocracy, rule by an invisible perfect being.

Collingwood however calls the abstraction aristocracy. Abstractions cannot be realized, and we must not forget this. Such is the central point of Chapter XXVI, “Democracy and Aristocracy,” of Collingwood’s New Leviathan:

26. 18. Abstraction is a necessary part of thought. In thinking of a process of change you must think of its positive and negative elements in abstraction from the process.

26. 19. False abstraction is the same thing complicated by a falsehood: the falsehood, namely, that these two opposite elements are mutually independent and hostile entities.

26. 2. Thus democracy and aristocracy, which are really correlative rules for the process of drafting members from the ruled class into the ruling class (the rule ‘go as far as you can’ and ‘don’t go farther’), are misconceived as two independent and hostile rules: the rule ‘recruit them all’ and ‘don’t recruit any’.

Collingwood will discuss what this means for the British parliament in his next chapter, “Force in Politics.” He writes to contribute to the fight of Britain against Nazi Germany. His concern is with how to do what needs to be done now. He does not emulate Thucydides, who said,

I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time (κτῆμα ἐς ἀεί).

Collingwood does look at the conception of democracy and aristocracy in ancient Greece, ancient Rome, and Europe from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century. Perhaps he cannot understand the Ancients, unless he can grant the possibility of what they believed: that there were eternal questions, which somebody like Thucydides might propose to solve.

As Collingwood himself says in An Autobiography (pages 32–3):

People will speak of a savage as ‘confronted by the eternal problem of obtaining food’. But what really confronts him is the problem, quite transitory like all things human, of spearing this fish, or digging up this root, or finding blackberries in this wood.

Later and more to the present point, he says (pages 62–3),

…the history of political theory is not the history of different answers given to one and the same question, but the history of a problem more or less constantly changing, whose solution was changing with it. The ‘form of the πόλις’ is not, as Plato seems to have thought, the one and only ideal of human society possible to intelligent men. It is not something eternally laid up in heaven and eternally envisaged, as the goal of their efforts, by all good statesmen of whatever age and country. It was the ideal of human society as that ideal was conceived by the Greeks of Plato’s own time. By the time of Hobbes, people had changed their minds not only about what was possible in the way of social organization, but about what was desirable.

This would seem to be disputed by a student of Leo Strauss and one of my teachers, who thinks political theory does address eternal questions. In his article on Thucydides in History of Political Philosophy, third edition, edited by Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey (University of Chicago, 1987), David Bolotin says of his subject,

He is not generally thought of as a political philosopher, and for obvious and weighty reasons. Not only does he never use the term “political philosophy,” but he doesn’t address, at least not explicitly, its eternal questions. Though he tells us what he regarded as the best Athenian regime during his lifetime, he never speaks of the best regime simply … Yet unlike his predecessor Herodotus, Thucycides never uses the word “history.” Nor, in fact, is his theme limited to the one particular war. He claims that his study of it will be useful for those who seek clarity, not only about the war, but more generally about the past, and even about the future, which in his view will again resemble the past that he has brought to light. Accordingly, he dares to call his work “a possession for all time” (I 22.4).

Can one understand this, and disagree? I have discussed Strauss’s criticism of Collingwood on this blog, where I have suggested that Strauss may not have read Collingwood as carefully as he thought the Ancients should be read. Collingwood sees the persistence of ancient ways of thinking as a source of present troubles. The aristocrat and the democrat must understand themselves as having the same goal, which is the best ruling class. They must however be careful about the meaning of best.

26. 3. Here we part company with Plato and the ancients generally. What they demanded of a ruler was ability to do any kind of political work that might turn up. What we demand is ability to do the work that has now to be done. This is the great difference between the pagan outlook and the modern or Christian outlook. It is because Christendom takes time seriously (31. 68) that it refuses to join in the Greco-Roman quest for a superman-ruler, able to solve any kind of problem and resist any sort of emotional pressure, the ideally wise man of Plato and the Stoics, the divine king of Hellenistic thought, the god-emperor of the Romans.

Collingwood goes on to say that Christendom is what “elsewhere I have called modern Europe.” Not being sure how to take this, I just note that Collingwood seems to have had a Jewish grandfather.

Collingwood would seem to be a progressive, at least in the sense of thinking progress possible. Christian theologians effected the clarification of metaphysics that made modern science possible: I have discussed this elsewhere. Our present concern is a bit different. If you think there are eternal questions, then you may think there are eternal answers. You may think your problems can be solved, once for all, by a revolution.

26. 82. The word is still current in the vocabulary of politics; but not with any scientific significance; only an emotional one. It means an event whereby the mighty are put down from their seat and the humble and meek exalted. It is uttered, if you are one of the mighty, with intent to freeze your blood; if you are one of the humble and meek, to give you opium-dreams of coming felicity.

In its Turkish form devrim, the word gave dreams to students at Metu in Ankara, who painted and repainted the word in the stands of the campus stadium, and who spelled out the word with their bodies, candles in hand, during the annual spring festival.

Collingwood continues in what is his next paragraph, despite the numbering:

26. 9. With too few honourable exceptions the nineteenth-century politicians, dazed by their false view of the French Revolution and the mirage of ‘Revolution’ as such, thought that recent events in France and America had once for all exploded the pretensions of autocracy and had once for all established democracy as the only political system rational in theory and tolerable in practice.

Since Collingwood’s time, the fall of the Soviet Union seems to have produced a similar mirage.

Revolution is a verbal and conceptual translation, says Collingwood, from the literary peripety or reversal of fortune discussed by Aristotle in the Poetics. Not every good book needs a peripety: Don Quixote and Hamlet are examples. A peripety befalls a hero, and a good book does not even need this; Collingwood’s example here is Julius Caesar.

The conception of a miracle as an inexplicable change in the ordinary course of nature is untenable: Collingwood wrote this in 1916, and I have discussed it elsewhere. The same idea recurs now: there is no such change in the course of history either. You may in fact have no explanation for something that happens; but you cannot stop there, if you are an historian:

26. 77. ‘What do you call it the second time round?’ said an eighteenth-century squire to a landscape-gardener who walked him round the garden he had laid out and called his attention to a certain feature with the words: ‘This is what we call the Element of Surprise.’ If a twentieth-century reader of history came to an incident that surprised him, he would know what to call it. He would call it a piece of bad history: something his author had failed to explain.

In literature, you are supposed to identify with the hero. In history, this is a no-no. Does Collingwood here contradict himself? He said in An Autobiography that history is the history of thought, and doing history means re-enacting, re-thinking the thoughts of the past.

If heroes are our friends, and villains are our enemies, then Socrates himself demolishes the distinction. At the beginning of Plato’s Republic, Polemarchus is moved to assert that justice, or morality, is doing good to friends and harm to enemies. He also admits to Socrates that justice does good to those who are subject to it. If harming your enemies is doing them justice, then this is really doing them good. Thus you ought to have been doing good to your enemies in the first place, just as to your friends.

26. 79. To stop being surprised when the course of history waggles, and to think of it as waggling all the time; to stop taking sides, and to think of ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’ alike as human beings, partly good and partly bad, whose actions it is your business to understand; this is to be an historian.

7 Trackbacks

  1. By NL XXVII: Force in Politics « Polytropy on September 1, 2018 at 7:09 am

    […] my last post on the New Leviathan (which was my first for this year), I said Collingwood would discuss the […]

  2. […] In what I quoted, the eagle is called “Jove’s fowl,” but there is otherwise no suggestion that the ornithosaurian aerial combat is any kind of sign. We may therefore read Homer as David Bolotin suggests we read Thucydides, in the article I quoted in discussing Collingwood’s politics: […]

  3. […] Thucydides wrote for all time; but then he apparently thought there was an unchanging human nature, and in this sense we might all be considered his contemporaries. In any case, Collingwood writes for his time; and in the New Leviathan, this means a time when Germany is trying to conquer and rule Europe. After reviewing various opinions about Collingwood’s views of the relation of philosophy and history, and in particular the use of the historical method of re-enactment in metaphysics, Boucher concludes in his introduction (page xl), […]

  4. By NL XXII: The Family As a Mixed Community « Polytropy on September 10, 2018 at 5:32 pm

    […] must act, in order to bring children out of the nursery, but that some parents may be reluctant. In Chapter XXVI, there is a similar tension between democracy and aristocracy, as I discussed at the beginning of […]

  5. […] and enslaved, this was not a coherent goal, any more than the goal of the doctrinaire democrat (26. 1) or doctrinaire aristocrat (26. 11) is […]

  6. […] Learning means learning from mistakes. I would just quote Collingwood, from Chapter XXVI, “Democracy and Aristocracy,” of the New Leviathan. The doctrinaire democrat and the doctrinaire aristocrat are […]

  7. […] proper response would be a civilized response; but we must understand this properly. In Chapter XXVI, Collingwood explained democracy and aristocracy as abstractions; the doctrinaire democrat (26. 1) […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: