Core: noun, the most important part of a thing, the essence; from the Latin cor, meaning heart.

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 Volume 1.13 This View’s Prose May 6, 2002 

    Aristocracy for All    

In reality, democracy is neither the enemy of culture, nor a cure for all the ills of humanity. It is simply the culmination of the old European tradition of social and political freedom that has always been one of the essential elements of Western culture.

The basis of democracy is the ideal of public law and civic rights which Europe inherited from Greece and Rome, and which is almost absent in Oriental societies however advanced they may be in civilisation. Consequently the fundamental opposition is not that between democracy and aristocracy, but that between citizenship and despotism. In the East the individual is nothing and the state is everything. It is a divine power — the Shadow of God on Earth, as the Sultan of Turkey used to call himself — and any claim to independent rights against that power on the part of the individual is inconceivable.

But in the West a man has his rights, even against the state. The whole history of Europe is the story of the vindication of these rights and the affirmation of human freedom, whether by classes or communities or individuals, from the English Barons at Runnymede, the free cities of the Middle Ages, the Swiss peasants and the English House of Commons, down to the final affirmation of the Rights of Man by the fathers of the United States and the founders of the French Republic. It was inevitable that these rights should begin as the rights of a privileged class, and gradually be extended to the rest of the community. For unfortunately, they are not the natural birthright of the human race, as the early Liberals used to believe. They are the culmination of a long process of social development — the flower of an advanced civilisation. The free man who was the ideal of the eighteenth-century democrats was not a mere nobody; he was an ideal type — no less ideal than the mediaeval knight or the Renaissance gentleman, and in the same line of descent.

In fact, the ideal was first launched by aristocrats of the type of Alfieri and Mirabeau, and the English Whigs and the Virginian planters. The famous lines of Burns: “The rank is but the guinea stamp, a man’s a man for a’ that,” do not mean that quality doesn’t matter; on the contrary, they mean that quality is so important that it far outweighs the conventional labels that society has substituted for it. Thus, paradoxical as it may appear, the democratic ideal has its origin in the aristocratic principle.

In fact, Western democracy is essentially aristocracy for all. It was just the same with the Greeks. Greek democracy was not a proletariat; it had its origin in the extension to the majority of the civic rights that had originally been the jealously guarded privilege of a small body of patricians. Athens, the greatest of Greek democracies, was in reality one of the most aristocratic communities that has ever existed. And this ideal, whether ancient Greek or modern European, has nothing in common with the Oriental ideal of the absolute state. The free man has no place in the latter; it is the impersonal power of the community, whether embodied in an absolute monarch, or a priesthood or a democracy, that is all in all.

Of course, this ideal is also capable of acquiring a popular form. The absolute state may represent the interests of the whole people rather than of a privileged class; it may even, as in Communist Russia, become the instrument of a dictatorship of the proletariat. But this does not make it democratic in the Western sense. Bolshevism is a popular version of Tsarism, just as democracy is aristocracy for all.

The essential note of democracy is the recognition of the dignity and the rights of the individual citizen. And thus it is very closely associated with the traditions of humanism and humanitarianism, of which I have spoken above. In fact, apart from humanitarianism democracy becomes an empty and meaningless form. The political rights of democracy presuppose the moral rights of humanity, and if the humanitarian movement had not inspired Western society with an enthusiasm for social justice and for the cause of the weak and the oppressed, modern democracy would never have come into existence.


Christopher Dawson (b. 1889)


from The Modern Dilemma (1932)
quoted in Return to Tradition: A Directive Anthology pp. 308f
ed. Francis Beauchesne Thornton


    The Defense of Liberty    
    What constitutes the bulwark of our own liberty and independence? It is not our frowning battlements, our bristling seacoasts, the guns of our war steamers, or the strength of our gallant and disciplined army. These are not our reliance against a resumption of tyranny in our fair land. All of them may be turned against our liberties, without making us stronger or weaker for the struggle. Our reliance is in the love of liberty which God has planted in our bosoms. Our defense is in the preservation of the spirit which prizes liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands, everywhere. Destroy this spirit, and you have planted the seeds of despotism around your own doors. Familiarize yourselves with the chains of bondage, and you are preparing your own limbs to wear them. Accustomed to trample on the rights of those around you, you have lost the genius of your own independence, and become the fit subjects of the first cunning tyrant who rises.
    Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)
    from Speech at Edwardsville, Illinois, September 11, 1858
Collected Works
Volume III p. 95

 Volume 1.13 This View’s Prose May 6, 2002 

The View from the Core, and all original material, © E. L. Core 2002. All rights reserved.

Cor ad cor loquitur J. H. Newman — “Heart speaks to heart”