Archive for March, 2005

Powers of Government

“Every government, whether monarchial, aristocratical, or democratical, may be conducted arbitrarily, and not in accordance with government rules. There is not, and cannot be, anything in the form of any government, which will afford its subjects a legal security against an improper, arbitrary exercise the sovereign power. This security is to be found only in the influence of public opinion, and the other moral restraints which create the main differences in the goodness of supreme governments.”

– George Cornewall Lewis

Published in: History | on March 2nd, 2005 | Comments Off on Powers of Government

Aristotle, Aristotle…

George Cornewell Lewis, in his ca 1841 essay An Inquiry Into the Powers of a Sovereign Government, wrote:

“Arbitrary commands, when issued by the sovereign body of a republic in a legislative form, were known to the Greeks by the name of psephismata.” (emphasis added)

This is important to know, because it makes the following quote of Aristotle, from the same essay, more understandable, and thus more readily applicable in light of the actions of the current Administration:

“In democracies administered according to law, their is no demagogue: the most distinguished of the citizens presiding in the assembly; but where the laws are not supreme, demagogues arise. For the people become as it were a compound monarch, each individual being only invested with power as a member of the sovereign body; and a people of this sort, as if they were a monarch, seek to exercise a monarchial power in order that they not be governed by the law, and they assume the character of a despot; wherefore flatterers are in honor with them. A democracy of this sort is analogous to a tyrrany or despotism among monarchies. Thus the character of the government is the same in both, and both tyrranize over the superior classes, and psephismata are in the democracy what special ordinances are in the despotism. Moreover, the demagogue in the democracy corresponds to the flatterer or courtier of the despot; and each of these classes of persons is the most powerful under their respective governments. It is to be remarked that the demagogues are, by referring everything to the people, the cause of the government being administered by psephismata, and not according to laws, since their power is increased by an increase of the power of the people, whose opinions they command. The demagogues likewise attack the magistrates, and say that the people ought to decide, and since the people willingly accept their decision, the power of all the magistrates is destroyed. Accordingly, it seems to have been justly said that a democracy of this sort is not entitled to the name of a constitution, for where the laws are not supreme, there is no constitution. In order that there should be a constitution, it is necessary that the government should be administered according to the laws, and that the magistrates and constituted authorities should decide in the individual cases respecting the application of them. So that if democracy is a constitution, it is evident that this state of things, in which the entire government is administered by psephismata, is not properly a democracy.”

The applicability of this to the machinations and actions of the Republican party today is, I believe, quite remarkable.

Those who do not heed history are doomed to repeat it, indeed.

I’m not immediately able to identify the source of the Aristotle quote… but have no particular reason to doubt it’s authenticity. Anyone more familiar with Aristotle is welcome to comment with the origin of this quote.

Published in: History | on March 1st, 2005 | Comments Off on Aristotle, Aristotle…