VIII.2 On the corruption of the principle of democracy

The prin­ci­ple of demo­cracy beco­mes cor­rupt not only when the spi­rit of equa­lity is lost, but also when the spi­rit of extreme equa­lity is adop­ted and eve­ryone wants to be equal to those he choo­ses to com­mand him. At that point the peo­ple, una­ble to bear the very power they confer, want to do eve­ry­thing them­sel­ves : deli­be­rate for the senate, exe­cute for the magis­tra­tes, and divest all the jud­ges.

There can no lon­ger be any vir­tue in the repu­blic. The peo­ple want to take over the func­tions of the magis­tra­tes, who are the­re­fore no lon­ger res­pec­ted. The deli­be­ra­tions of the senate no lon­ger carry any weight, so there is no lon­ger any defe­rence to the sena­tors, nor conse­quently to the elderly. Now if there is no res­pect for the elderly, there will be none either for fathers ; hus­bands no lon­ger deserve defe­rence, nor mas­ters sub­mis­sion. Everyone will come to like this dis­so­lu­tion ; the nui­sance of com­man­ding will be tiring, like that of obe­dience. Wives, chil­dren, and sla­ves will be sub­mis­sive to no one. It will be the end of mora­lity, of order, and in short of vir­tue.

We see in Xenophon’s Symposium a very naive por­trait of a repu­blic where the peo­ple have abu­sed equa­lity. Each guest in turn gives the rea­son why he is content with him­self. “I am content with myself,” says Camides, “because of my poverty. When I was rich, I had to court slan­de­rers, kno­wing well that I was more in a posi­tion to be har­med by them than to do them any harm. The repu­blic was always asking me for some new sum ; I could not hide. Since I have been poor, I have acqui­red some autho­rity ; no one threa­tens me ; I threa­ten others ; I can go or stay. Already the rich rise from their seats and let me pass before them ; I am a king. I was a slave, I paid a tri­bute to the repu­blic ; today the repu­blic feeds me ; I no lon­ger fear los­ses, I hope to make acqui­si­tions.”

The peo­ple fall into this unhappy state when those whom they trust, trying to hide their own cor­rup­tion, seek to cor­rupt them. To keep their ambi­tion from sho­wing, they speak to them only about their great­ness ; to keep their ava­rice from being per­cei­ved, they end­lessly flat­ter that of the peo­ple them­sel­ves.

Corruption will increase among the cor­rup­ters, and it will increase among those who are already cor­rupt. The peo­ple will divide up all the public monies ; and as they will have added to their indo­lence the mana­ge­ment of busi­ness, they will want to add to their poverty the amu­se­ments of luxury. But with their indo­lence and their luxury, the public trea­sury is the only thing that will inte­rest them.

We must not be sur­pri­sed if we see votes tra­ded for money. You can­not give much to the peo­ple without get­ting even more from them ; but in order to get some­thing from them, you must over­turn the state. The more they appear to take advan­tage of their free­dom, the clo­ser they will be to the moment when they must lose it. Soon what free­dom remains beco­mes unbea­ra­ble ; a sin­gle tyrant ari­ses, and the peo­ple lose eve­ry­thing, even the advan­ta­ges of cor­rup­tion.

Democracy thus has two exces­ses to avoid : the spi­rit of ine­qua­lity, which leads it to aris­to­cracy or to govern­ment by one man alone ; and the spi­rit of extreme equa­lity, which leads it to the des­po­tism of one man alone, as the des­po­tism of one man alone ends in conquest.

It is true that those who cor­rup­ted the Greek repu­blics did not always become tyrants. That is because they were more skilled in elo­quence than in mili­tary art, besi­des the fact that in the heart of all Greeks there was an impla­ca­ble hatred for those who were over­tur­ning the repu­bli­can govern­ment, for which rea­son anar­chy dege­ne­ra­ted into nothing rather than turn into tyranny.

But Syracuse, which was situa­ted in the midst of a large num­ber of small oli­gar­chies that had tur­ned into tyran­nies,1 Syracuse, which had a senate2 which is hardly ever men­tio­ned in his­tory, expe­rien­ced mis­for­tu­nes not cau­sed by ordi­nary cor­rup­tion. That city, always either licen­tious3 or oppres­sed, tor­men­ted both by its free­dom and by its ser­vi­tude, ever absor­bing the one and the other like a tem­pest, and des­pite its exter­nal power, repea­tedly tip­ped into a revo­lu­tion by the smal­lest out­side force, embra­ced an immense popu­la­tion, which never had any but this cruel alter­na­tive : to give them­sel­ves a tyrant, or to be one them­sel­ves.

See Plutarch in the lives of Timoleon and Dio.

That of the six hundred, of which Diodorus speaks.

After ridding themselves of the tyrants, they made strangers and mercenary soldiers citizens, which caused civil wars (Aristotle, Politics, book V, ch. iii). The people having been the reason for the victory over the Athenians, the republic was changed (ibid., chap. iv). The passion of two young magistgrates, one of whom took a young boy from the other, who then seduced his wife, had the form of this republic changed (ibid., book VII, ch. iv).