December 11, 2004


A Philosophical and Historical Analysis of Modern Democracy, Equality, and Freedom Under the Influence of Christianity (REV. JOSEPH M. DE TORRE)

Aristotle begins his Politics with a criticism of his master Plato. The word “democracy” was already in wide use by then. Plato, in The Republic, says that there are roughly three types of government: tyrannies, oligarchies and democracies. Aristotle for his part, being a more scientific and systematic thinker, classifies the systems of government.

According to him, first we have a kingdom or monarchy. Then, we have aristocracy, and finally, polity. These are the three “good” systems of government, simply because they work (Aristotle is pragmatic in this). Whenever they do not work, it is because they are degenerating, viz. monarchy into tyranny, aristocracy into oligarchy, and polity into democracy. Democracy is the term Aristotle uses for what we nowadays would call mob-rule.

He explains that monarchy is “government by one;” aristocracy is “government by the best ones;” and polity is the other two together with the participation of all the other citizens, that is to say, of all the other freemen of the city, because the slaves are not considered citizens.

When monarchy suppresses the other two, it degenerates into tyranny; when aristocracy isolates itself from the people and becomes a clique, it degenerates into oligarchy or rule by the powerful; and when the people oust the monarchy and aristocracy it degenerates into anarchy and chaos, which is what Aristotle calls democracy.


We can observe, however, that the modern idea of democracy, originating in St. Thomas Aquinas, as we shall see, seventeen centuries after Aristotle and seven more before our time, is equivalent to Aristotle's idea of polity (sans the exclusion of slaves), viz. a government in which all participate by being represented by the best, and presided over by one.

Aquinas also says that tyranny is the worst possible form of government, to the extent that the tyrant keeps all the power to himself, and instead of using it for the common good and general justice, and for the liberty and welfare of all, he uses it for his own enjoyment and benefit, and keeps the people enslaved and oppressed. That is why the “government by one” or monarchy should be tempered by the “government by the best” or aristocracy. And for the latter not to degenerate into “government by the most powerful” or oligarchy, it should be tempered by the “government of the people” or democracy, wherein all the people in one way or another participate in the election of their best representatives.

Thus, sovereignty or political authority within civil society lies ultimately in the people, who holds it from God and for whose benefit all civil authority and government is instituted. This is the democratic vision of civilization, which, after Aquinas, was further developed by the Catholic theologians of the 16th and 17th centuries, notably Francisco de Vitoria, O.P., and worked out historically, though not without flaws and blemishes, through the English, American and French liberal political Revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries. [...]

When Christianity appeared on the scene, it proclaimed the radical equality of all persons: as St. Paul put it, “there is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor freeman; there is neither male or female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” A quiet but most powerful and unprecedented revolution was thus set in motion on the deepest level of human consciousness and life — the moral and religious level, wherein man perceives his fundamental relationship to transcendent divinity and to his fellow-men, spelled out in the biblical “love God with your whole heart and your neighbor as yourself.” It is with this level of human experience that Christianity is directly concerned, not with the temporal levels of socio-economic, political political and cultural development, since Jesus, though living on those levels like any other man, most emphatically denied any direct involvement in them by himself and his Church as such: “My kingdom is not of this world.”

Jesus would leave those levels to the personal and communal responsibility of the citizens (of the laity, not the sacred ministers), once they are fully converted to God and to their neighbor in that innermost core of their being, on that deepest level of human experience — the moral and religious level of conscience.


In the course of history, then, as the process of socioeconomic development and the spread of education would progress in peace and order, political or civil development would reach higher degrees of equality and democracy. This is the gradual and gruelling process of human liberation, constantly hampered by that lack of fundamental freedom from moral evil or sin, which is the real slavery of man and brings about continuous strife, hatred, vindictiveness, cruelty, injustice and oppression, with the consequent socio-economic and political dislocations and cultural setbacks and eclipses. Only a moral and God-centered resurgence of man can give fresh thrusts to his progress in temporal realities. It is in this sense that evangelization, though primarily concerned with eternal life, brings about, as a by-product, the total development of man as it is possible here on earth. [...]

These Christian values and ideas would have to shape and enliven human institutions in a gradual way. They could do so as the process of moral education, primarily through the family, and then through the schools and the social means of communication at the service of family values, would unleash all the creative energies of man in the world of temporal realities: socio-economic growth, social upliftment, and cultural development. But man has to contend with his own selfishness, mental laziness and proneness to injustice — the risk of his liberty and the call to his responsibility.

In the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote in his Summa thelogiae that “this is the best form of polity, being partly kingdom, if there is one at the head of all, partly aristocracy, insofar as a number of persons are set in authority, partly democracy, that is, government by the people, insofar as the rulers can be chosen by the people, and the people have the right to choose their rulers.”

This is, then, as expounded by Francisco de Vitoria in the 16th century, the Catholic teaching on the best form of society, ratified subsequently, by the continuous insistence of the Popes on human rights and the radical equality of all human beings, during colonial times and the ensuing slave-trade, up to our times, particularly in the teaching of Leo XIII, Pius XII and the Second Vatican Council on the political community. The abundant and insistent teaching of John Paul II on this subject is well known.

What the liberal Revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries contributed was the distinction and due separation of the three powers of civil authority: legislative, judicial, and executive (first Locke, and then Montesquieu). This, of course, has been heartily endorsed by Catholic teaching as in full accord with the purpose of human laws and human authority (and human proneness to injustice: hence the need for checks and balances), as well as with the sovereignty of the people. [...]

Thus, democracy, understood as the life of the political community, in which are admitted both (a) a fundamental equality of human rights, and (b) a diversity of functions in the pursuit of the common good, is the final political flowering of the trans-political Gospel values, as Jacques Maritain endeavored to show, even though, also according to the Gospel, there are many systems of implementing this democracy, depending on the local culture, and the Church is not bound to any particular concrete form.

All political theory since the 18th Century is just a postscript.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 11, 2004 7:47 AM

"All political theory since the 18th Century is just a postscript."

Or else a tragic blunder, like marxism.

Posted by: jd watson at December 11, 2004 12:24 PM

My friend Howar, who in a previous life taught philosophy, once said that it would be easier to understand the history of political theory, if it began in the 20th century and went backwards to Hobbes.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at December 13, 2004 1:49 AM