Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER LXXII: the relation of democracy to letters and arts - Modern Democracies, vol. 2.
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CHAPTER LXXII: the relation of democracy to letters and arts - Viscount James Bryce, Modern Democracies, vol. 2. 
Modern Democracies, (New York: Macmillan, 1921). 2 vols. Vol. 2.
Part of: Modern Democracies, 2 vols.
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the relation of democracy to letters and arts
The question whether democratic government either favours or discourages the power of intellectual creation and the growth of a taste for letters, science, and art, lies rather outside the scope of this treatise, yet deserves to be considered by whoever attempts to estimate the value of democracy for the progress of mankind.
Two opposite theories have been advanced. The Liberal thinkers of the generation which saw the American and French Revolutions expected the democratic form of government to make for progress in the intellectual as well as in the moral sphere. In delivering men's minds from bondage and arousing their civic activities it would stimulate the free development of thought and give fuller play to individuality in philosophy and art. Every man and every type of opinion would be sure of a hearing. A public enlightened by freedom and delivered from caste prejudice would have a finer appreciation of truth and beauty. With the greater simplicity of manners and the independence of view which equality would bring, the moral standard would rise, and the honour formerly paid to rank be transferred to virtue, to intellectual eminence, and to disinterested service.
The other theory holds that political equality tends to depress individuality and originality, disparaging genius. Equality, making the will of the numerical majority supreme, produces uniformity, and uniformity produces monotony, and monotony ushers in a reign of dulness by bringing every one down to the level of the average man, whose beliefs and tastes impose the rules which few are bold enough to defy. If here and there a solitary voice is raised to challenge them, no one gives heed, because the principle that the majority is right, and whether right or wrong must be obeyed, has become an axiom. No tyranny is so crushing as the peaceful tyranny of a stolid and self-satisfied multitude, because against it there can be no insurrection. Grey and cheerless will be the world in which excellence excites suspicion, and the weight of numbers passes like a steam-roller over the souls of men.
Both of these doctrines suggest points of view for which much may be said, but they are à priori doctrines, based not on facts but on conjectures as to what may happen under certain political conditions which are assumed for the purposes of the argument to be the only conditions worth regarding. The sphere of speculation is boundless and conjectures worthless, because political conditions cannot be isolated from other influences at work. There is only one test applicable to speculations, that of setting them side by side with such facts as we possess, so if any positive conclusion is to be reached it must be by noting what history has to tell us about the influence which forms of government have in fact exerted on intellectual life, and especially on creative intellectual power.
The view that democracy develops mental activity seems drawn from the fact that such a development has often occurred in times of transition, when the old maxims and practices of arbitrary governments were being broken down. The apostles of liberty who assailed such governments were men of force and courage, eager and sanguine, inspired by their ideas, and living a life of strenuous enthusiasm, so they naturally supposed that the lively play of mind round all the subjects on which discussion, once prohibited, was now being opened to all, would continue. Freedom had won those blessings, freedom would retain them. It did not occur to them that combat is more inspiring than undisputed possession, and that the high ideals which have inspired one generation may, just because they have triumphed, lose their vivifying power for the next. A striking instance is afforded by comparing the heroes of the Italian Risorgimento (1820 to 1870) with the men of the succeeding generation. A reaction almost always follows on times of exaltation, human nature dropping back to its normal level with the discouragement of disappointed hopes.
Just as there is nothing to show that democracy has intensified intellectual life, neither are there facts to support the view expressed by Robert Lowe in a once famous speech that it is a “dull and level plain, in which every bush is a tree.” Plato, with all his moral censure for the government of his own democratic Athens, does not accuse it of inducing uniformity but rather of encouraging an undue license and irregularity in thought and manners. Travellers who visited the United States between 1820 and 1860 were struck by the universal devotion to material progress, and complained that only in a few Boston coteries could intellectual interests be discerned. This prosperous democracy, they remarked, even some years later, shows not only an overweening confidence in itself, but an overestimate of material success, with a corresponding indifference to the things of the mind. If the facts were so, the swift development of the country's natural resources, occupying nearly all its energy, furnished a sufficient explanation. America has now been a democracy for a second and longer period, yet she shows today a more vigorous and various intellectual life than was that of sixty years ago. The tyranny of the majority which disheartened Tocqueville in 1830 is not now visible except at times of unusual strain, when national safety is supposed to be endangered. In France, where democracy is only half a century old, social equality is older, and though both have alienated many men of fastidious taste, there are no signs of dreary monotony or an oppressive intolerance in the realm of thought. No one has been able to point to any instance in which equality in political rights and equality in social conditions, where they have come naturally and have not been imposed by State authority, display a tendency to induce uniformity of thought, or to prevent genius from making its way, irrespective of the accidents of birth. But if a popular government were to attempt to enforce economic and social equality by compulsory methods, and if this were carried out, as some have suggested, by allotting to each man, without regard to his own wishes and personal bent, his work and whatever remuneration for it the State authority might fix, individual initiative might wither away and thought be compelled to revolve in the limited circle which the State approved. Certain devotees of democracy have indeed argued that a democratic government must, when once installed in power, inculcate its principles not only through instruction in the schools but also by forbidding any other doctrines to seduce the minds of the citizens, an interesting return to the attitude of the Spanish Inquisition. Whoever is absolutely sure that he is right is only a step away from persecution. To make true doctrines prevail becomes for him a duty.
If we ask under what kinds of government letters and art and science have flourished, history answers, Under all kinds. Among the Greeks, the great philosophers and the lyric poets came from oligarchic as well as from democratic cities. Short was the age of Athenian glory in poetry, and it ended many years before free government was extinguished in the Hellenic world. The most illustrious Roman writers in verse and prose wrote within a period of seventy years covered by the lives of Julius Caesar and Augustus, during which republican institutions were disappearing;1 and of these only one was born in Rome. In mediaeval Europe, and especially in Italy, the thirteenth century stands out as that illumined by the largest number of famous names, and in the fourteenth and fifteenth Florence produced, in proportion to her population, far more than her share of the finest genius in literature as well as in art. The explanations that may be given of these phenomena cannot be drawn from political conditions. The same may be said of the age of Shakespeare and Bacon in England, and of the age of Louis Quatorze in France. Both were periods of exciting events, of growing enlightenment, and of great mental activity, but popular government had not been born. The group of poets that was the glory of England and Scotland during the last quarter of the eighteenth and the first quarter of the nineteenth century arose under an oligarchy, and were the harbingers rather than the harvest of political freedom. This holds true also of the German poets and scholars and philosophers from Goethe and Schiller, Lessing and Kant down to Heine, Ranke, and Mommsen. The merit credited to democracy of occasionally producing brilliant orators is counterbalanced by the flood of commonplace or turgid rhetoric which it lets loose. If we turn from literature to art it is still more evident that painting and sculpture have flourished alike under kings and in republics. Music, the most inscrutable of all the arts, seems to be quite out of relation to the other intellectual movements of the world, except possibly to those which feel the touch of religious emotion.1
The causes that determine the appearance of genius in any branch of intellectual or artistic creation have never been determined, and are perhaps beyond discovery, but though we cannot tell why persons of exceptional gifts have been born more frequently in particular times or at particular spots than at other times and in other places, there are some data for determining the conditions under which genius best ripens and produces the finest fruit. Into this fascinating enquiry I must not enter, for a long historical digression would be needed to render probable the theory I should have to propound. Enough to say that history does not prove the conditions aforesaid to have been sensibly affected by forms of government, except perhaps where rulers have (as in Spain after Charles V.) set themselves sternly and steadily during a long period of years to repress the expression of any opinions except those which they approved. The movements of intellectual and moral forces are so infinitely subtle and intricate that any explanation drawn from a few external facts is sure to be defective and likely to be misleading. It is a common habit to seek the solution of large social or historical problems in a single obvious cause. Any sciolist thinks he can explain the characters of individuals by saying that such and such a one has the Celtic, or the Slavonic, or it may be the Jewish strain: and similarly it is easy to attribute to their form of government the political and moral tendencies of a people. But just as the race factor, important as it is, cannot be Isolated from the whole environment of a race or an individual, so it is with forms of government. History finds much less than is commonly fancied to connect them either with the creative genius of individuals or with the innermost beliefs and mental habits of nations.
More than thirty years ago James Russell Lowell wrote: “Democracy must show a capacity for producing not an higher average man, but the highest possible types of manhood in all its manifold varieties or it is a failure. No matter what it does for the body, if it does not in some sort satisfy that inextinguishable passion of the soul for something that lifts life away from prose, it is a failure. Unless it knows how to make itself gracious and winning, it is a failure. Has it done this? Is it doing this? or trying to do it?”
Few will maintain that democracy has approached any nearer to Lowell's ideal since his words were written. But did he not ask more from democracy than any form of government can be expected to give? The causes that raise or depress the spirit of man lie deeper.
The citizens of a democracy do, however, show certain traits which, whether or no due to the form of government they live under, find full expression in it. One of these is the self-confidence of the man who, feeling himself, because he has an equal share in voting at elections, to be as good as any one else, is disposed to think that he and his neighbours of the same class are qualified for most public posts, and who, if himself imperfectly educated, underestimates the value of knowledge and technical skill. Equality tends not only to reduce the deference due to superior attainments, but also to the older forms of politeness and the respect which used to be paid to official rank. In the seventeenth century the Dutch and the Swiss were, as republicans, charged with rough manners by the French, but manners were no less rough among burghers and peasants in the monarchical states of Germany, the difference being that those classes did not in the latter come into official contact with French critics. Broadly speaking, one finds to-day no more rudeness in democracies than under other governments, though some races have by nature more tact and courtesy than others.
The manners which offended Dickens and other European travellers in Western America eighty years ago were the fruit of the conditions of a society in a country still raw, and no such criticisms could now be made.
The spirit of equality is alleged to have diminished the respect children owe to parents, and the young to the old. This was noted by Plato in Athens. But surely the family relations depend much more on the social structure and religious ideas of a race than on forms of government. In no countries do we see age so much respected and young children so kindly treated as in China and Japan: the passing traveller notes their gaiety and apparent happiness. May not this be connected with the conception of the Family implanted by the worship of ancestral spirits rather than with the nature of the government? Athenian women had a life less free than Roman women, but Athens was a democracy and Home was not.
More truth may be found in the view that democratic peoples carry indulgence to wrongdoers further than a regard for the safety of the community permits, because the disposition to let everybody go his own way and please himself, perhaps also in some countries the weakness of a directly elected Executive, induces leniency. The peccadilloes of public men are too quickly forgotten. Whether a tendency to self-indulgence and licence is any commoner than under other kinds of government it is impossible to say, for many other causes come into play. Divorce has become easier and divorces more frequent in all free Protestant countries, but this is a phenomenon observable in nearly every modern country, scarcely commoner in America, and not commoner in Switzerland than it is in Germany. Its frequency is, moreover, no test of the sexual immorality of a country: there have been countries where divorce was unpermitted, while the laxity of morals was notorious. In this as in many other matters it is what may be called the spirit of “modernism,” rather than the democratic influence of a form of government, that has been working a change in social usages and moral standards. The disappearance of the old theological conception of Sin, and the disposition to attribute a man's evil propensities to heredity or to surroundings for which he cannot be held accountable, have produced a tolerance more amiable than salutary, a reluctance to use severity where severity is the only means of repressing crime. This fault, though also a part of modernism, may not be specially frequent in democracies. It has not so far diminished their power of recognizing and admiring virtue. Shining examples of dignity, purity, and honour are to-day no less respected in the persons of men who have risen by their own merits than they were when exhibited by sovereigns or statesmen in the old days of inequality.
Lucretius, Catullus, Horace, Virgil, Ovid, Propertius, Tibullus, Cicero, Sallust, Livy. After an interval, a second period of fifty years covers Seneca, Lucan, Statius, Tacitus, Juvenal, Martial.
Palestrina, coming in the days of the Catholic revival, ie usually taken as the typical instance.