I just finished watching Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, and was again awed by the speeches, especially the Crispin’s Day speech. Who isn’t?
I also noticed the aweful brutality that Shakespeare accepts as a matter of course. Henry, to take one instance, threatens beseiged Harfleur with rape, rapine, and infanticide unless they open their gates. Of course, the medieval Law of War allowed such things for beseiged sites that held out past a certain time with no prospect of a relieving force, but it grates the modern conscience.
I also noticed how seriously the play took the idea of hereditary succession. What to us is the accident of a 51% majority was to them the accident of birth. That got me thinking.
We believe in being ‘subject to Kings, rulers, presidents, magistrates, etc.’ The contours of the obligation may be in dispute, but that there is some content within the contours is not.
Here’s what I wonder: is that obligation a passive one (an obligation to obey), or is it an active one (an obligation to sustain)? I suspect that the obligation is an active one. It is just, I hazard, to serve both as a draftee in WWII and as a volunteer soldier in the invasion of Iraq.
If so, then I argue that we might have some duty to uphold the legitimating myths of whatever era of government we find ourselves in. If we were medieval schoolmen, perhaps it would be our duty to try and uphold the principle of hereditary succession. Today, it may be our duty to uphold the idea that the will of the people should govern, and that majority voting can capture that will.
I understand that the idea of legitimacy that upholds our society may not be as simple as that. It may be some idea of the Constitution, of divine favor for this country, or a concept of justice that legitimizes our society in the mind of many. Whatever it is, I think we have some duty to uphold those myths, to try to give them content, and to defend them against attacks.
That’s why I’m uncomfortable with with the theoretical work showing democratic choice to be irrational in a great many cases. Condercet’s paradox, below, is just one example. These things may be true–in fact, I’ve no doubt they are true–but they are also dangerous. “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes.” They are best kept to scholars, or else qualified with some kind of general affirmation of the system. Ignorance is often bliss, as Moses Maimonides learned when he decided that philosophy should never be taught except to sober persons above 30 years of age.
P.S. This should not be construed as an attack on Nate. His post was merely the starting point of a trajectory that, continuiing on through Henry V, brought me here.
Nor should commenters assume too quick that I’m advocating a general thoughtlessness. I’m not exactly sure what I’m advocating myself. I’m just trying to put my finger on why a lot of the critiques of democracy make me uncomfortable, though I share them.