Thoughts on Democracy, Part 2

Thoughts on Democracy
By: John Snyder
Host of In the Public Square
Part Two:

The beginning point of any meaningful inquiry into what civil government ought to be is the first question of anthropology: what is man’s nature? And from that inquiry comes a corollary: what ought man to be?

It may not be obvious at this point, but without knowing what man is and what he ought to be-we simply cannot indulge in any meaningful conversation about the nature of government and what it “ought” to be. Why? Because governments exist for the purpose of assisting us in becoming and living in some manner closer to what we are intended to be like. If one accepts any other proposition, then government is whatever the will of men want it to be-and that can be-frankly-anything! Anarchies, oligarchies, plutocracies, tyrannies, despotisms, nepotisms, military states-whatever just happens to pop into your head. But if you believe that there is a proper relationship between what man is and what government ought to be-we have now a basis for discussing the problem of human government.

In other words, if man has a nature, a government’s purpose exists relative to men’s purpose. Or perhaps I should state it this way, if government has a nature, it can only be understood in relation to man’s nature. What government ought to be is directly related to the question of what man ought to be.

Now, left to our own devices our “natural” instinct is to say that government should maximize our freedom and leave us alone. But this is to trivialize and misunderstand the purpose of government. If government were to maximize freedom and leave us alone-well- what’s the point of government? Certainly we would have maximum freedom without any government at all. Each man and woman would assert the totality of his free will to any purpose he or she desired.

And, of course, that is the definition of chaos.

Which brings us to the point: freedom has no real meaning outside of order. Or more precisely, liberty can have no real substance if it does not exist within the limits and functions of lawful society. In other words, freedom, properly understood cannot even exist without government. [1] Not only is government necessary, government is good! It is not a necessary evil. Government is positively necessary for us to live in the way we were intended to live. Or rather men, in order to live as they “ought” to live must exist within a scheme of ordered liberty. This means that there are limits to freedom. And what is more, those limits to freedom are the proper purpose of government.

This is not a popular idea.

Indeed, it is politically incorrect to assert any idea that limits individual liberty. But, alas, this is the intellectual vacuity of modernity. A liberty without constraint is only the right of your neighbor to hit you over the head when he wants to. That kind of freedom is meaningless.

So let us re-examine what man is. The intellectual world of universities and modern liberalism sees man as naturally good. According to this Enlightenment idea, man really is not in need of much government of all. This is Rousseau’s noble savage. Instead, it is the corruption of modern social order which ruins the natural moral sensibilities of men. It follows from this premise, that when left alone, men order themselves by a general will that benefits both individual men and society. Without the interference of corrupt institutions men tend to be at peace with one another and nature. In short, man is entirely rational and naturally well-behaved. This is the civic and social mythology that courses through the Age of Reason.

But of course, is it reasonable to believe that reason, at bottom, is the primary governor of men? Is it reasonable to believe that men are intrinsically good? These ideas underlay the modern liberal notion of man. And even more interestingly, they are also the Islamic notion of human nature. Man is good.

The problem is- if evil exists where does it come from?

If it doesn’t come from us-then it must come from things: things like government, families, economic systems, religions, guns, social norms, false morals, false consciousness, desire, and economic want.

Contrary to this, Christians hold to a different notion of human nature and ascribe evil to a different source. The Christians and particularly the Calvinists are much less sanguine about the goodness of men. Rather, they assert a series of contrary notions: man is fallen. Man is rebellious against God. Man is corrupted by sin. Man wants to be lied to. Man actually prefers evil.

Well, gee whiz-who wants to embrace that dark assessment of himself? And so it is the tendency-even among Christians-to discount the effects of sin on our lives, our society and history. Rather mankind, including some well-meaning Christians, is disposed to plaster a bright golden happy face over the festering reality of human wickedness.

So even within Christendom, there are various ideas about the effects of sin nature on man. To be a Christian, one must accept the fall and human sin nature. But that does not mean that there is a universally settled agreement on the totality of its effect or its importance in human society and history. There are within Christianity broad differences of opinion in regard to the effect that sin plays on human nature. For instance, Thomistic Catholics are disposed to believe that sin has not fully corrupted our faculties of reason, while Arminian Protestants believe that our choices are still free enough and subject enough to conscience and free will, that men can choose good over evil.

This is where the Puritan, or more precisely, the Calvinist, contributed something unique to the history of self-government.

Calvinists, you see, believe in “total depravity.” It is an unfortunate expression, but we are historically stuck with it. What it mean is, they believed that sin has damaged man so severely that no human faculty has escaped unscathed the devastating effects of sin. Sin has utterly corrupted every part of us, our minds, our spirits, our capacity to love, our will, our faculties of reason. Everything. Man is a total mess. Of every brand and denomination of Christianity-the Calvinist holds the lowest opinion of human nature. And so Calvinists are often portrayed as dour humorless witch-burners who wore dark, coarse unpleasant clothing, and black hats.

That’s the picture that history paints of our Puritan forebearers. It is a picture that is grotesquely unfair. But be that as it may, what is very, very fair and very, very true is that Calvinists did not trust human nature very much. He did not trust democracy unconstrained without certain proofs of regeneration. He neither trusted communities or princes to rule him. What he wanted was order based on morally objective standards. In other words, he knew that only law, and particularly God’s law was a sufficient curb on the natural lawlessness of men, both humble and great.

So why is this important to the question of liberal democracy? Remember that our idea of government will follow logically from our idea of human nature. More to the point, our idea of proper human government will follow as an inexorable corollary to what is “natural” for man. Why? Because without a correct answer to this question we cannot address the problem of what government ought to be or how it should be properly constructed.

Christians and particularly Calvinists are operating on an entirely unique conception of human nature, one that is simultaneously pessimistic and unique. Consequently the Calvinist developed a distinctive approach to the problem of civil government based on a conception of man otherwise unknown in the history of the world. Remember what I said earlier. The classical Greeks believed that man was naturally good. Chinese culture believes that man is naturally good. The Muslim believes that man is naturally good. So in the history of philosophy and psychology and even world religions, the idea that man, left to himself, will only get himself into more trouble, is really a rather narrowly held idea and an unpopular one at that.

So what must be understood here is this: what Christians and particularly Calvinists assert is strikingly different from the wisdom embraced by the world. Christians and particularly Calvinists are saying that something is “naturally” and fundamentally wrong with man. And considering the failures of human history, of classical Rome and Greece , the failures of Asian culture and Islamic culture and all other cultures to create democracies independent of Christian influence-one is obliged to consider the wisdom and insight of the Calvinist model of human nature and therefore, government.

So how do we make a government of men, when men are degenerate, and especially if we believe that every human faculty is degraded by sin? Well, that’s the problem! And the solution to that problem is the gigantic intellectual accomplishment of Protestant thinkers. It is the story of the Puritan Revolution and the America Revolution which grew out of it.

These stories are the first lessons in the wonderful history of the Calvinist development of liberal democracy to be continued in my next essay.

*John Snyder is host of In the Public Square heard every Friday night in Sacramento California , from midnight to 2am on KTKZ 1380 AM. Other materials are available along with archived radio programs at . Programs are also podcast through itunes . You can contact John Snyder at:


[1] This is such a counter-intuitive point that it needs to be elaborated. If freedom were purely the absence of constraint, then the highest expression of human liberty would be to live in nature apart from other men. In such a state, we would be as much subject to the whims of others as we are to the vicissitudes of the weather. In such a state of nature there would be no moral or civil order to appeal to- other than to family or power. Clearly, living with the unburdened freedom of an animal is hardly a useful idea to humans. Humans exist and thrive in complex communities, and, therefore, freedom is meaningful to the human animal only within the organized society of the polis . On the other hand, libertarians reject this assertion. While many of us are sympathetic to the claim that the state should be seen only as a necessary interference with freedom, we must not be seduced by the idea that our liberties can really exist and thrive without the state. In the most rudimentary way, law brings protection of rights and enforceability and remedies for breach of contract Indeed, the very formation of a contract, without the implicit civil means of enforcement, would render business transactions nearly impossible except in the most primitive forms. As an historical point, commerce is implicitly associated with city life. And the reason that commerce occurs in cities, is that cities are ordered by government.

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