What’s So Special about Democracy?

"What’s So Special about Democracy?," review of Democracy: A History, by John Dunn, New York Sun, 26 July 2006.


Why is it that democracy is now the sole legitimate form of government throughout the world? Democracy had been deplored, even despised, from Plato to “The Federalist” — more perhaps for inconstancy and unreliability than viciousness. Yet now all (or almost all) regimes, the worst as much as the best, feel obliged to declare themse lves to be democracies.

John Dunn, the distinguished political theorist at Cambridge University, answers this question with learning and sophistication in “Democracy: A History” (Atlantic Monthly Press, 248 pages, $24). He shares the present-day view that there is no legitimate alternative to democracy, but he does not feel enthusiastic about democracy. It is not that he wants another choice of government, but as a chastened left-winger he clearly wishes that democratic voters today were not so attached to the “order of egoism,” his rather disdainful name for capitalism. (The phrase is from Philippe Buonarroti, a French socialist theorist of Italian origin active in the French Revolution.)

The word “democracy” comes from the ancient Greeks, and so too does the grandest celebration of democracy in the Funeral Speech of Pericles (430 B.C.) preserved or composed for us by Thucydides. Pericles asserts that the Athenians do not imitate others but themselves offer a model, and what is best about them is not their beautiful buildings but their beautiful regime. “For we are lovers of beauty with thrift, and lovers of wisdom without softness” — a reproach to today’s aesthetes and intellectuals, Mr. Dunn notes. Pericles goes on to say that Athenians regard a man who takes no part in public affairs not as one who minds his own business but as good for nothing. No order of egoism here!

Among the Greeks democracy, the rule of the demos, or the many, had a rival in oligarchy, the rule of the few. In Thucydides’s “History of the Peloponnesian War” democratic Athens stood against oligarchic Sparta, and the reader has a difficult time deciding which is better. Each regime has a cluster of virtues and accompanying vices, for example the daring of Athens together with its volatility, and the moderation of Sparta combined with its inhumanity to enemies. Despite what Pericles says, there is no clear superiority for democracy in Thucydides’s “History.”

NY Sun