HAB Course Director: Dr. Thomas Strunk
Democracies are known for being relatively stable and ensuring freedom for their citizens. However, those assumptions are called into question by the various failures of modern democracies to both maintain authority and enshrine liberty. Are the institutional checks and balances failing to prevent some of the expected issues with governments based on popular voting? Or is there some other cause of failure outside of the institutional structures themselves?
To examine these questions, I will be comparing a few examples of failed modern democracies with arguably history’s longest lasting democratic government: the Roman Republic. Although separated by over two thousand years of political and philosophical developments, the basic governing structures of both the Republic and modern democracies are remarkably similar, and had to confront similar difficulties. Yet the two modern democratic governments under consideration in this thesis fell apart after no more than a decade or two, while the Roman Republic was able to sustain its institutions for half a millennium.
The most relevant differences between the Republic and modern democracies may turn out to be their specific conceptions of liberty and its relevance to democratic institutions. Both make the freedom of the individual a priority of the government, but to different degrees and by different means. In the first two chapters, I will explain how their different approaches to balancing individual liberty and governmental authority allowed the Roman Republic to succeed and several modern democracies to fail as sustainable forms of government.
The final chapter will look back at the issues of democracy through a philosophical lens. Though an overwhelming number of philosophers throughout history have written about the ideas of freedom and democracy, I have chosen to focus on the two thinkers whom I believe are most relevant to my comparison of ancient and modern democracies: Aristotle and John Stuart Mill. Aristotle provides a thorough consideration of government forms in the ancient world, at a time when democracy was not viewed as favorably as it is today. Mill writes at a time when liberal democracy is just beginning to be recognized as a triumph of human achievement, and he considers such representative government to be the best possible government form. Despite their contrasting historical perspectives, Aristotle and Mill are connected by their belief that the purpose, or telos, of government is what determines its success. By looking at various democratic institutions and underlying philosophical theories, this paper will consider the relationship of democracy and freedom with regards to the best form of government.
Yeazell, Ryan C., "Democracy vs. Liberty: The Telos of Government" (2018). Honors Bachelor of Arts. 35.
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