©2019 by the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project.

The Caricature of Democracy

ALICE VON HILDEBRAND

 

Catholic News Agency 

May 23, 2016

Dedicated by the author to Bob Luddy

In our culture, the word “democracy” has been granted a dignity that rivals the one that used to be granted to Gospel truths. To be “undemocratic” is the sin par excellence, but unfortunately this canonization will inevitably tempt many of us to misunderstand its authentic meaning.

One crucial metaphysical truth, which, alas, has often been trampled upon, is a recognition of the equality of all human beings: whether black or white, whether male or female, whether old or young. All of them share the same noble human nature; all of them are made to God’s image and likeness; all of them have an immortal soul and are called upon to serve Him in this life and enjoy Him forever in Heaven.

Since original sin our human mind, granted us to seek truth and to live according to its dictates, has been poisoned by pride and has led many of us to grave errors; one of which I will briefly concentrate upon: men are not equal. Some are definitely superior to others, and therefore are entitled to dominate over them. The healthy ones are superior to weak and unhealthy ones; the intelligent are superior not only to the untalented ones, but also to those that are just average. The handsome ones are crushingly superior to those whose appearance has not been favored by nature. Males are clearly superior to females; white people are definitely superior to black ones. Slavery is a law of nature, and this law should be respected. 

The caste system in India still incorporates this conviction, though discrimination based on one’s caste is now technically illegal. There are four castes: the superior one being the Brahmins, priests, and teachers; followed by the Kshatriyas, the rulers’ class; then the Vaishyas, merchants; and then the lowest class, the Sudras, destined to serve. Not only do they proclaim the crushing superiority of the highest over the others, but moreover, the superiority of the second over the third, and of the third over the fourth one. Then come the Untouchables, or Dalits, which are not even worthy to belong to a caste. Their metaphysical rank is so low that no word can adequately qualify their unworthiness. They are paying a debt for some mysterious unknown sin, the nature of which is not specified. Their very shadow is poisonous. This is so deeply rooted in the Hindu culture that “progress” in the technological sense of this word is impossible. I was told by a friend who lived in India for several years that a rich Swiss industrial had opened a factory in that country. It was strongly built, and the danger of fires was practically eliminated by the most powerful extinguishers. One day very early in the morning, he was awakened and informed that his factory was in flames. He rushed to the place and found out that none of the extinguishers had been activated. The workers were watching the fire… doing nothing. Beside himself with rage, he screamed, “Why did you not use them?” The answer was univocal: "Because none of us belongs to a caste allowing us to do menial work.” I was told (relata refero) that if members of a higher caste were sharing a sumptuous meal and an Untouchable passed by, his very shadow on the food poisoned it, and the food had to be thrown into the fire. In fact, it could probably have fed a whole village for a week or longer.

These are facts that fly in the face of the most elementary common sense. But these traditions are “sacred” and so deeply rooted in their culture, that attempts to abolish them have been interpreted by some as a grave betrayal of the very soul of their country. How did it all begin? Who is the father of this tradition? Having no historical record is, for them, a plus: “It always was so,” is their key argument. To a Hindu historical dates with their accuracy and precision are viewed as restrictive and narrow, whereas to say: “it is so from time immemorial” gives them a note of sacredness and mystery which definitely appeals to the Hindu mentality and is neither perceived nor appreciated by Western nations fettered by their calendars.

Pantheism is tempting because god and eternity are clearly related, and man, being part of the godhead, should therefore partake of eternity. 

Aristotle called man a rational animal, but one can question how often he makes use of this precious gift. A French cynic might be tempted to say, “Yes, man is indeed a rational animal whose great concern is to use this gift as little as possible.” How is one to eliminate poverty in a culture where it has become a religion? To a European mind, this philosophy—if we can call it such—is an outrage against reason, but to a Hindu it is a sacred tradition that should be respected whatever the circumstances are. Nothing is more difficult than to eradicate a tradition that goes back to a beginning that has no beginning.  

Alas, very many cultures are affected by the same metaphysical blindness: the craving to be “higher” than others, to be an “aristocrat” (aristo means the best), to be in the upper echelon of the society is, since original sin, deeply rooted in our fallen nature. In the light of this sad fact, one can understand why Christianity created a revolution: not only by proclaiming that God became incarnate to save us and accepted the death of a slave in order to reopen to his poor sinful creatures the gates of heaven, but also by its claim that all human beings, whatever their biological make up, share the same dignity; that all of them are children of God and are loved by Him; that all of them should be offered the blessed food of Truth. Christianity is also the condemnation of elitism, of secret societies whose mysteries are to be revealed only to the elect and radically denied to the hoi polloi (the unworthy ones). This promise explains how easy it is to recruit people to join any of these sects, and being thereby guaranteed to belong to the superior race. It is also easy to conceive why the victory of the Christian doctrine was, humanly speaking, inconceivable and could only be achieved by grace.

Whoever is convinced of his crushing superiority over his fellow men and has suddenly been told that a lower class, uneducated servant has the same dignity as a human being, is also a child of God, certainly is not easy to accept it—it wages war on his human pride. Yet, it is clearly said in the Magnificat, “deposuit potentes de sede et exaltavit humiles” (He has put down the mighty from their seats and raised up those who are lowly). How pleasant it is to assume that because one came from a nobler background, has famous ancestors, is more intelligent and more talented… in one word: superior to others, is therefore entitled to be other’s masters. Not so long ago I heard about a British Lady—a high class Anglican—who when informed that an acquaintance of hers had become a Catholic, she exclaimed in horror: “How can he possibly share a religion practiced by my Irish maids?” This craving for “being superior” and better than others is so ingrained in us since original sin that to uproot can only be explained as a miracle of God’s grace. How is one to convince a proud Brahmin that he is not superior to other castes? It is even difficult to totally uproot in so called “Catholic” cultures. It is related that the talented French author Louis Veuillot once had a lively argument with an aristocrat. At one point the latter feeling that he was being refuted, said to Veuillot: “Do not forget that I descend from the Crusaders,” to which, without losing a beat, Veuillot replied: “Oh! You ‘descend’ from the Crusaders; I  ‘ascend’ from a shoe maker.” Let us hope the aristocrat got the point. This tendency also works in the downward line: I had a very pretty cousin, but she was not born to be a scholar. In Belgian schools, each individual student was given a number according to her performance—number one being the best. My lovely cousin usually was the last one on the list. Once she came home radiant. Her mother questioned her, “Did you do well today?” “No, Mother, but there was another student worse than I.” It speaks volumes.

Original sin was a sin of pride, and this is so ingrained in us that humility is the most difficult virtue to acquire. I often wondered how the saints could be humble being saints? Yet, the answer is obvious: because holiness precisely means an incarnation of humility. It is not by accident that many of the first Christians were slaves, and that the conversions of big shots, such as Constantine and Clovis, was the work of grace. Our Savior redeemed us in accepting to take the form of a slave. As I just said, to acquire humility can only be the work of grace; whereas, it is conceivable that someone declares, “I have never willingly or knowingly told a lie.” It is impossible to say; the virtue of humility is so very difficult to acquire that the very moment you believe you have it, your lose it. Thank God I have it (French humor). I was told that a young man wished to enter a Benedictine convent in Belgium. He was accepted, but while having an interchange with his master of novice, he unabashedly declared, “Father, humility is my key virtue.” He did not stay very long.

To rejoice because one is “nothing” and has received everything is a proof that, to quote Christ, all things are possible with God.

Nevertheless the idea of the metaphysical equality of all human beings did conquer in Christian countries, and this gave birth to “democracy”: the solemn proclamation that all men share the same noble human nature, and one cannot be more or less of a human person. But as the devil never sleeps, and moreover to quote the remark of a wise and witty speaker: “God has set limits to human intelligence, but none to his stupidity,” this noble truth was going to be exposed to subtle attacks. Many are those in our advanced society who have been led to assume that because we all have the same dignity as human beings, we are entitled to draw the conclusion that all “hierarchies” should be abolished because they are anti-democratic. I recall vividly a student of mine sitting in the first row, and who, when I praised Plato’s intelligence, made a wry, sour face. Noticing his displeasure, I questioned him: “What is your objection?” His reply: “I strongly object to this intellectual canonization. Who is to tell? Others have different opinions that should be respected, and I see no valid reason for your making this assertion.” I got the point: being modestly talented, he resented being denied the possibility that he was an unrecognized genius. To praise Plato’s genius offended his sense of “democracy.”

In his Ethics, Dietrich von Hildebrand made distinctions which will help us to shed light on this topic. I shall use them to prove how disastrous this war on hierarchy is and alas how fast it is spreading more and more in our society.

He distinguishes between two very different types of value: ontological values and qualitative values. Whereas one possesses the former or does not possess them—that is, one is either a human being or one is not—qualitative values, such as moral goodness, degree of intelligence, variety of talents, degrees of beauty and ugliness, are possessed in very different measures. One can be more or less just, more or less intelligent, more or less sensitive to art and beauty. But as I just hinted above, there is a tendency in our society to aim at egalitarianism—claiming that any sort of hierarchy is a sin against democracy: we are all equal. At times, I wish my students learned as much in my classes as I learned by breathing for years the “fresh” democratic air that has penetrated into places of higher learning.

Let me repeat emphatically: one cannot be more or less of an angel; either one has an angelic nature or one has not. We cannot be more or less of a human person: but there is a huge hierarchy between us as far as moral, intellectual, and artistic talents are concerned. St. Teresa of Avila wrote that in heaven no two human beings will have exactly the same degree of glory. No one will ever challenge the place they are given in heaven knowing that God, being the very incarnation of Justice, will give us exactly the place we deserve.

It is of crucial importance today to make people realize that this war (maybe resentment) against any hierarchy can have disastrous consequences for democracy itself. It is also important to mention that there is also a great hierarchy not only among qualitative values—moral values are superior to intellectual values, the latter being superior to artistic talent—but moreover, that there is a hierarchy within one of the same family of values: for example, humility is a greater virtue than honesty. On his deathbed, one is bound to realize that one’s kindness and generosity are more important than one’s brilliance and wit, and that one’s loving pursuit of truth is more important than to have created buildings of remarkable beauty. In heaven we shall not be asked whether we made the headlines by our productivity and “genius,” but whether we have loved God and our neighbor. It is more important for a person to know the truth about God and the meaning of human life than to be a great astronomer or to have a deep appreciation of artistic values—important as these are because, in some subtle way, they also point “upwards.” The most important ones, those that we should most eagerly strive to acquire, are moral values, and they are moreover the only values that we are responsible for. Apart from the fact that we cannot will genius, we are responsible for our moral health: a liar is freely staining himself by lying. No one is born a liar; one becomes one by calculating that it is advantageous to give truth a slap in the face. We are not responsible for our degree of intelligence, but we are responsible for putting it at the service of truth. He who is given ten talents will be requested to give ten more. The one who has but one talent will not be required to give two back.

Am I wrong in claiming that in our society efficiency is, alas, more highly valued than holiness? A man of modest accomplishments will easily be looked down upon even though he is kind, generous, and forgiving. Whereas a “self-made man,” that is someone who through his talents and hard work “succeeded,” is likely to be praised and acclaimed. Not wishing to deny the value of hard work and courage in overcoming great obstacles to success, in the light of eternity humility and charity rank higher. By the way, I do not deny that a very successful man can also possess these key moral values, I know several of them—but he knows full well that his generosity has infinitely more value than the virtues he needed to succeed. 

The aristocratic place that should be given to moral values over other values is being more and more challenged in our society. This has been illumined in von Hildebrand’s books so that I only need to refer the reader to them. This dethronement of truth will inevitably give birth to a “new hierarchy” where efficiency is more valued than holiness. (See his article in Kennedy’s “New Tower of Babel”,1954.) To be hard working and to achieve (which inevitably implies certain moral values such as discipline, perseverance, and courage) tend to be more valued than humility, kindness, selflessness, and love of neighbor.

This strongly marked tendency is worrisome, and is to be explained by the wrong philosophy prevalent in schools and universities: namely, relativism. When a top notch professor in a well known university declared that the purpose of education is to guarantee that its graduates will earn a good living, we are forced to realize that our society is gravely morally decadent. Tell me the type of “education” children receive, and I will tell you how this society is to be rated. I am not sure we are doing well.

From grammar school on, children are repeatedly told that “certainty” can only be achieved in sciences based on experimentation. All other domains are matters of opinion, and it is arrogant to claim that one’s opinion is better than the ones defended by others. Moreover, they are warned that the claim that certain ideas are untrue, and therefore dangerous, is arrogant, and, in fact, is a subtle attack on democracy. This was expressed by a student of mine who entering my classroom told me, “Why should your ideas be better than mine?” When to his amazement I replied: “There is no reason whatever, except if my ideas are true, and therefore should also be endorsed by you because truth is offered to all men, and should be accepted by them all.” He looked at me with amazement: “Who is to tell?” I cannot be eloquent enough on this: relativism when carried to its consequences, is in fact a subtle denial of the equality of human beings. If this is only the opinion of some people, others deny it emphatically, and no one has a right to impose his ideas on another person. How is one to convince a Hindu that a Dalit is just as much of a human person as he is? This is “his” point of view, and should be respected. 

That this poison has now penetrated into Catholic colleges was proven by the fact when Mother Betty McCormack, who graduated with me from Manhattanville College, declared upon accepting this honor: “From now on all ideas are accepted in this college.” In other words, they should not be rated as true or untrue… it all depends upon one’s perspective. Narrowness is an intellectual sin that should be uprooted at all cost. Not long afterwards she left the Order of the Mothers of the Sacred Heart, worked for the Rockefeller Foundation, and married a Jewish man. 

The obvious conclusion is that the equality of all men is a view prevalent in our society; we have no right to impose it on others: they too have a right to their own opinion, for it is all a matter of opinion. They too have a right to pick-up and choose what they happen to like and consider to be is valid for United States citizens and for some European nations, but there is no validity for oriental people: it is “the American way of life.”

But this expression is rich in ambiguities. It would be ridiculous to make a law commanding all people to eat goulash because it is the favorite menu of Hungarians, as it would be to tell other nations that they should elect their president in a “democratic” fashion: that is let the majority to decide. But more than one wise man has questioned whether the majority vote is by the fact that a particular view is endorsed by more people is guaranteed to be the right and wise one. I do not recall who said that the majority is always wrong—implying that most people are not well informed, and then feed themselves on the junk food offered by most newspapers. Kierkegaard formulated this strikingly in his devastating criticism of newspapers—the only intellectual food of most people. 

In many countries the tradition was that political power was “inherited”: the king left it to his older son. In the United States, the president is chosen by the majority—assuming erroneously that all of us are equally well equipped to judge what is actually best for the country. In fact, the number of people who, fairly ignorant of politics, will give their vote to the candidate who dominates the news media is very high. And those who have the gift of gab, succeed by whatever means to convince the people that they will be a marvelous leader, will correct the mistakes made by their predecessor, and guarantee that the United States will remain the richest and most powerful country in the world. Looking at all the men who became presidents of the United States since Washington, one is entitled to raise the question: how many of them deserve to be called “great?” Looking at the long list of monarchs who have ruled Europe for centuries, one cannot say that the percentage of weak, insignificant, or bad ones, is greater. Few indeed are those who deserve the title, “Great,” and this is true in all domains. At any rate, one is tempted to endorse the view of Samuel Johnson that the ugliness of competition is such that it is wise to avoid it. Few are those among us who can long stand watching the ugly and nasty punches that one candidate gives others: elementary courtesy seems to be forgotten in the months preceding a presidential election. At times, one blushes at the thought that these people will possibly have the greatest political power in the world.  

The point that I truly wish to emphasize is that the philosophy of relativism is a poison which, when carried to its consequences, will in the long run be the death of democracy taken in the authentic meaning of the word: a recognition of the metaphysical equality of all men, while not denying that they are very different in their degree of possessing qualitative values. If empirical proofs alone give us certainty, then we cannot possibly claim that all men are metaphysically equal. That might be the “American way of life,” but they have no right whatsoever to claim that it is universally valid, and in fact, justifies the caste system which happens to be what the Hindus favor. Relativism also has to endorse the claim of the famous Yoga master Suzuki: that two plus two is four is one possible view, but that open mindedness requires us to acknowledge that it is only one point of view and that others, such as two plus two is three or five, should also be respected (Henri van Straelen, Le Zen Demystifie, 94). Once elementary logic is put on trial, any discussion becomes totally meaningless. 

That logic is the arch enemy of this type of philosophy should be luminous and is therefore the arch enemy of yogism. There are plenty of domains open to opinions—politics being one of them or the rating of great writers and great artists. But there are domains in which to speak of opinions defies common sense: whether there is a God or whether atheism is the valid attitude that intelligent people should endorse, is not a matter of opinion. It is a clear “either or”—the same applies whether God is or is not a Trinity, whether or not Christ is God and Man or only a superior human being, whether our soul is immortal or perishes with our body, etc. A pantheist and a theist cannot both be right; Muslims and Christians clash on their view of God. The crucial question is who is right or who is wrong. Either or is crucial in many intellectuals’ discussions, and to say that both positions are to be endorsed in the name of broad mindedness is nonsense. It is worth mentioning that in domains opened to various views where mathematical certainty cannot be obtained, people often argue with an obstinacy made fun of by the gifted French philosopher, Gabriel Marcel. He remarks that in such domains someone is likely to say: “I do not claim to have any competence in this domain, but you want to know my opinion…” and then defend it with tooth and nail as if he alone had the key to this complex question. It is also worth remarking that these are domains where very many of us discuss endlessly without ever coming closer to an agreement. Let me repeat: it is crucial to distinguish between domains where certainty can be obtained—relating to question of “either or”—and domains in which we do have this possibility.

   

This leads me to view our concern from a slightly different point of view. Once again, one of the taboos in universities which are severely condemned is “narrow mindedness.” In fact, what does it mean, and why does it evoke in many of us a feeling of intellectual “choking?” I tend to believe that its attraction is its very vagueness. The word “narrow” usually has a negative note: a narrow road can be dangerous. “Broad” on the other hand has a good reputation. But when applied to our problem, things become a bit more complex. There is only one health and innumerable sicknesses. Yet, to reject all sicknesses is not a sign of narrowness but a sign of sanity. There are a good many ways of misspelling a word, but only one correct one. Is one narrow minded by aiming at using the right one? There are innumerable errors that can be made in mathematics, but only one true answer. Is one “narrow minded” by aiming at the blessed narrowness of truth? I suspect that I read this in Chesterton. Reading the history of philosophy one will be struck by the fact that it has been rich in false and erroneous philosophies, but only one true one. This is why it is so easy to become famous: all one needs to do is to become the protagonist of an error that has not yet been formulated, whereas if one formulates a truth—which by its very essence is one—he might give to some weak headed persons, a feeling of “restriction” and “narrowness.”  

To make things clearer: it would be fully justified if someone declared that Bach and Bach alone deserves to be declared a great musician (some might say today, Rock and Roll) or Shakespeare the only literary giant, thereby denying any value to great French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Russian writers. But we are then entering a totally different domain where the question of truth versus error is not applicable. It is nonsensical to say: “Bach is true; Mozart is false.” A decadent society might be dubbed one in which nonsense has become popular and endorsed as finally bringing some variety. 

The conclusion I wish to draw is that it is high time that we realize that relativism is a poison that has deeply infected our so called “culture,” and that if carried to its logical consequence would inevitably lead to war on democracy: the recognition of the equality of all human beings viewed as just “an American way of life,” so that we have no right to impose on other nations.