The Future of Democracy in America

This week I have been lecturing at the Ignatianum Academy in Krakow, Poland. It has been a marvelous experience thus far, including time spent in the classroom with bright students, as well as evenings spent dining with wonderful new and old friends in this beautiful city.

Last night I was invited to deliver a public lecture on the subject of “The Future of Democracy in America.” While I don’t break any new ground here (well, I never really break new ground – I just go over ground that seems less trodden these days), the talk was well-received, and I post it here for those who may be interested.

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The Future of American Democracy

Ignatianum Academy

Krakow, Poland

May 25, 2011

I am very grateful to be with you tonight, and deeply honored by your presence. I have been deeply moved by this ancient city, with its rich history, its tragedies and its triumphs, its stunning beauty, and particularly by the piety of its people. To see the churches here in the heart of Europe filled with worshippers, and the many signs of Poland’s special devotion to the Virgin Mother and the great joy that has accompanied the beatification of the Blessed Pope John Paul II, has been very hope-giving.

I have been invited to speak to you about the “future of democracy in America,” a daunting topic, and one that may deserve a question mark at the end of the title. There are, of course, many particular issues pertaining to contemporary politics that must be of interest to you – particularly in light of an impending visit by President Obama to your country at week’s end, and the increased discussions of another upcoming election for the Presidency. I expect I may disappoint some of you by failing to address some of these pressing questions of the day – but you are to blame for inviting a political philosopher to speak to you, rather than a journalist. I would like rather to discuss some questions that pertain to the nature of democracy itself, and to ask whether even today America is “democratic” in certain important respects. I am fearful that it may becoming less democratic every passing day – as I understand that word – which is why I suggest that a question mark is needed at the end of the title of my remarks, “The Future of Democracy in America?”

I. Two Kinds of Liberty

Let me begin at the beginning – with Aristotle, of course. In Book 6 of his great work, The Politics, we find the only time he describes the principle of democracy to be liberty, and provides two understandings of liberty by which democracies can be guided. The first way in which liberty can be manifested in democracy echoes Aristotle’s consistent definition of citizenship, which he describes numerous times in the Politics as “ruling and being ruled in turn.” By this definition, liberty is a form of self-rule, the sharing in rule by citizens in which one is ruled by laws that are self-made. This is a special definition of liberty, calling upon the widespread presence of virtues that are required by self-government, including moderation, prudence, and justice. To be “ruled and be ruled in turn” is also to live in understanding of Aristotle’s great and hard teaching, that “man is by nature a political animal,” that we are only fully human when we live in political communities in which we learn to govern our basest impulses and aspire to attain our human telos, our end, to the greatest extent possible. By this definition, democracy is the most idealistic regime of all, the one that aspires to the greatest possible extension of virtue to all citizens; but, by this same definition, it is also most demanding and perhaps least achievable, since it requires a special set of circumstances, above all a special kind of schooling in citizenship, that permit the widespread flourishing of the arts and practice of self-government.

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