Democracy Breeds Aristocracy

Democracy, whether ancient or modern, lives always in terror of tyrants who are always imminent or thought by it to be imminent. Against this possible tyrant who would govern with an energetic minority, the democracy requires an immense majority that it has to bind to it by the grant of many favours; it has also to detach from this tyrant the malcontents who would be his supporters if it did not disarm them by a still more lavish distribution of favours.

Democracy requires, therefore, plenty of money. It will find this by despoiling the wealthy as much as possible; but this is a very limited source of revenue, for the wealthy are not a numerous class. It will find it more easily, more abundantly also, by exploiting the vices of all, for all is a very numerous group.

Hence the complaisance shown to drinking shops, which, as M. Fouillée remarks, it would be more dangerous for the government to close than to close the churches. As the needs of the government increase, without much doubt, it will claim a monopoly in houses of ill-fame and in the publication of indecent literature; enterprises in which there would be money.

And after all, tolerating such things for the profit of certain traders and annexing them to be worked for the profit of the State, is surely much the same thing from a moral point of view. And the financial operation would be much more beneficent in the second case than in the first.

Nietzsche really has a horror of democracy; only like all energetic pessimists, who are not mere triflers, he used to say from time to time: “There are pessimists who are resigned and cowardly. We do not wish to be like them.” When he would not take this view he persuaded himself to look at democracy through rose-coloured spectacles.

At times, looking at the matter from an æsthetic point of view, he used to say: “Intercourse with the people is as indispensable and refreshing as the contemplation of vigorous and healthy vegetation,” and although this is in flagrant contradiction to all he has elsewhere said of the “bestial flock” and the “inhabitants of the swamp,” the thought has a certain amount of sense in it. It signifies that instinct is a

It signifies that instinct is a force and that every force must be interesting to study; and further that, as such, it contains an active virtue, a principle of life, a nucleus of growth.

This, though vaguely expressed, is very possible. After all, the crowd is only powerful by reason of numbers, and because it has been decided that numbers shall decide. It is an expedient. But an expedient cannot impart force to a thing that did not have it before.

Motive power, initiative, belongs to the man who has a plan, who makes his combination to achieve it, who perseveres and is patient and does not relinquish pursuit. If he is eliminated and reduced to impotence or to a minimum of usefulness, one does not see how the crowd, without him, can obtain its power of initiation. Further explanation is needed.

At another time, Nietzsche asks whether we ought not to respect the right, which after all belongs to the multitude, to direct itself according to an ideal—there are of course many ideals—and according to the ideal which is its own. Ought we to refuse to the masses the right to search out truth for themselves, the right to believe that they have found it when they come upon a faith that seems to them vital, a faith that is to them as their very life?

The masses are the foundation on which all humanity rests, the basis of all culture. Deprived of them, what would become of the masters? It is to their interest that the masses should be happy. Let us be patient; let us grant to our insurgent slaves, our masters for the moment, the enjoyment of illusions which seem favourable to them.

So Nietzsche argues, but more often, for he returns on various occasions to this idea, led thereto by his customary aristocratic leanings, he speaks of democracy as of a form of decadence, as a necessary prelude to an aristocracy of the future. “A high civilisation can only be built upon a wide expanse of territory, upon a healthy and firmly consolidated mediocrity.” [So he wrote in 1887. Ten years earlier he held that slavery had been the necessary condition of the high civilisation of Greece and Rome.]

The only end, therefore, which at present, provisionally of course but still for a long time to come, we have to expect, must be the decadence of mankind—general decadence to a level mediocrity, for it is necessary to have a wide foundation on which a race of strong men can be reared:

“The decadence of the European is the great process which we cannot hinder, which we ought rather to accelerate. It is the active cause at work which gives us hope of seeing the rise of a stronger race, a race which will possess in abundance those same qualities which are lacking to the degenerate vanishing species, strength of will, responsibility, self-reliance, the power of concentration….”

But how, out of this mediocrity of the crowd, a mediocrity which, as Nietzsche says, is always increasing, by what process natural or artificial can a new and superior race be created? Nietzsche seems to be recalling the theory, very disrespectful and very devoid of filial piety, by which Renan sought to explain his own genius. “A long line of obscure ancestors,” he says, “has economised for me a store of intellectual energy,” and he jots down in his notebook certain suggestions, a little immature but still emitting a ray of light.

“It is absurd,” he says, “to imagine that this victory or survival of values (that is low values, values, that is, that seem to be mediocrity) can be anti-biological: we must look for an explanation in the fact that they are probably of some vital importance to the maintenance of the type ‘man’ in the event of its being threatened by a preponderance of the feeble-minded and degenerate. Perhaps if things went otherwise, man would now be an extinct animal. The elevation of type is dangerous for the preservation of the species. Why? Strong races are wasteful, we find ourselves here confronted with a problem of economy.”

We perceive, in this train of reasoning, some inkling of what Nietzsche is trying to formulate as his solution of the difficulty. What is needed must be a natural process, a vis medicatrix naturæ. In the process of declining and falling, races practise a sort of thrift; they save and they economise.

Then, if we may suppose that the quantity of energy of intellectual and moral power, i.e., of “human values” at the disposal of the race is constant, the races that so act are creating in themselves a reserve which one day will irresistibly take shape in a chosen class.

They are creating in their own bosom an élite which will one day emerge. They have conceived all unconsciously an aristocracy which will one day be born to be their ruler.

Adapted from The Cult of Influence (1912) by Beatrice Bostrow. Photograph courtesy of Global Panorama. Published under a Creative Commons license.