The New York Times, July 5 2019

It should be no surprise that humans cannot sustain it.

“Why do democracies fail?”

We’ve heard that question a lot in the past few years, in books, on opinion pages and cable news shows, and in an increasingly anxious public debate. But I almost always find myself answering the question with another question: Why shouldn’t they?

History — the only true guide we have on this matter — has shown us that democracy is rare and fleeting. It flares up almost mysteriously in some fortunate place or another, and then fades out, it seems, just as mysteriously. Genuine democracy is difficult to achieve and once achieved, fragile. In the grand scheme of human events, it is the exception, not the rule.

Despite democracy’s elusive nature, its core idea is disarmingly simple: As members of a community, we should have an equal say in how we conduct our life together. “In democracy as it ought to be,” writes Paul Woodruff in his 2006 book “First Democracy: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea,” “all adults are free to chime in, to join the conversation on how they should arrange their life together. And no one is left free to enjoy the unchecked power that leads to arrogance and abuse.” Have you ever heard of anything more reasonable? But who says we are reasonable?

Fundamentally, humans are not predisposed to living democratically. One can even make the point that democracy is “unnatural” because it goes against our vital instincts and impulses. What’s most natural to us, just as to any living creature, is to seek to survive and reproduce. And for that purpose, we assert ourselves — relentlessly, unwittingly, savagely — against others: We push them aside, overstep them, overthrow them, even crush them if necessary. Behind the smiling facade of human civilization, there is at work the same blind drive toward self-assertion that we find in the animal realm.

Just scratch the surface of the human community and soon you will find the horde. It is the “unreasoning and unreasonable human nature,” writes the zoologist Konrad Lorenz in his book “On Aggression,” that pushes “two political parties or religions with amazingly similar programs of salvation to fight each other bitterly,” just as it compels “an Alexander or a Napoleon to sacrifice millions of lives in his attempt to unite the world under his scepter.” World history, for the most part, is the story of excessively self-assertive individuals in search of various scepters.

It doesn’t help matters that, once such an individual has been enthroned, others are only too eager to submit to him. It is as though, in his illustrious presence, they realize they have too much freedom on their hands, which they find suddenly oppressive. In Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov,” the Grand Inquisitor says: “There is no more ceaseless or tormenting care for man, as long as he remains free, than to find someone to bow down to as soon as possible.” And what a sweet surrender! Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Hitler and Mussolini were all smooth talkers, charmers of crowds and great political seducers… [+]

Costica Bradatan is the author, most recently, of “Dying for Ideas. The Dangerous Lives of the Philosophers,” and the religion editor for The Los Angeles Review of Books.

Now in print: “Modern Ethics in 77 Arguments,” and “The Stone Reader: Modern Philosophy in 133 Arguments,” with essays from the series, edited by Peter Catapano and Simon Critchley, published by Liveright Books.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email:letters@nytimes.com.

 

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