A Brief Note On Democracy, Authority & Power Inspired by Patrick O’Brian: Houellebecq Trump-Is-Good Update

A Brief Note On Democracy, Authority & Power Inspired by Patrick O’Brian: Houellebecq Trump-Is-Good Update

The scene is this: Dr Stephen Maturin, physician and surgeon of England’s Surprise sits dining with his messmates in the ward room, near the end of the Napoleonic wars. The French prisoner and utopianist Dutourd is among the guests. From The Wine-Dark Sea.

Stephen’s mind wandered away on the subject of authority, its nature, origin, base or bases: authority whether innate of acquired, and if acquired then by what means? Authority as opposed to mere power, how exactly to be defined? Its etymology: its relation to auctor. From these thoughts he was aroused by an expectant silence opposite him, and looking up he say Dutourd and Vidal looking at him across the table, their forks poised: reaching back in his mind he caught the echo of a question: ‘What do you think of democracy?’

‘The gentleman was asking what you thought of democracy, sir,’ said Vidal, smiling.

‘Alas I cannot tell you, sir,’ said Stephen, returning the smile. ‘For although it would not be proper to call this barque or vessel a King’s ship except in the largest sense, we nevertheless adhere strictly to the naval tradition which forbids discussion of religion, women, or politics in our mess. It has been objected that this rule makes insipidity, which may be so; yet on the other hand it has it uses, since in this case for example it prevents any member from wounding any other gentleman present by saying that he did not think the policy that put Socrates to death and that left Athens prostrate was the highest expression of human wisdom, or by quoting Aristotle’s definition of democracy as mob rule, the depraved version of a commonwealth.’

O’Brian was not a democrat; or, at least, his heroes were not. This is not an essay on tradition, political systems, and so forth as seen by O’Brian, but one should be written. This is instead a brief quick incomplete note on a passage in O’Brian’s great twenty-volume novel, coming three-quarters of the way through.

A king rules with authority, a tyrant with power. A people accept rule by authority because of reverence. A people accept rule by power because of fear. Authority flows from Truth; power is based on lies.

Democracies can rule with authority when it is recognized the leaders, and when too the great mass (not just a majority) of people, acknowledge an authority higher than man, higher than themselves. Or when the great mass of people and leaders share the same spiritual goals. Voting when it happens when all share the same spiritual definition is then about uncertainty—what will happen if we do this and not that? Nobody can predict the future well, and voting makes sense.

But once the populace splits into factions of differing spirituality, or once man becomes, tacitly or openly, seen as the ultimate arbiter of all things, the democracy must devolve into a tyranny, or just-plain dissolve. This is because man is insane, inconstant, intemperate, shifting, deceitful, and ludicrous. Eventually one or many of these traits will be seen as “good” by a bare majority, or not even that, and will be voted as “good” by the democratic system. Voting won’t be about direction, but about definition. The losing side will find it impossible to accept the new definition. This happens because either the leaders capitulate to the mob, or the leaders sway the mob through underhanded means. Somewhere after this is when tyrannical rule must begin. Those that do not accept the insanity of the new definitions, whatever they are, must be cowed into at least keeping silent about it, or into active participation.

The mob relishes its newfound powers with increase verve, and things go from bad to worse. It’s either anarchy or tyranny. Both end badly. As will our democracy, if we have slipped past the point of no return.

Update As illustration, the point above was made in a recent piece by Michel Houellebecq: “Donald Trump Is a Good President“. As one of Trump’s good moves, he say this.

The Americans have stopped trying to spread democracy to the four corners of the globe. Besides, what democracy? Voting every four years to elect a head of state—is that democracy? In my view, there’s one country in the world (one country, not two) that enjoys partially democratic institutions, and that country isn’t the United States of America; it’s Switzerland. A country otherwise notable for its laudable policy of neutrality.

We can agree with Houellebecq. Switzerland has about as many people as New York City, though it isn’t nearly as diverse. It is largely white European and Christian (roots, anyway), but with a growing number of Muslims (5%), but with a tenth the number of Jews (0.2%) of the USA. There are only about 0.6% blacks (circa 2005; who complain of “discrimination“). There are a number of other, growing groups, such as Tamils, due to immigration.

Switzerland, in short, is not diverse. It is also small. Its citizens are well armed and enthusiastic about it. They are rich. The country has not yet abandoned all of Christianities tenets. There are still largely shared goals and spirituality. And so it can function as democracy.

But as it grows more diverse (if trends continue), then it will suffer the same fate as the rest.


  1. Brian (bulaoren)

    I love those books, and I always look for the lesser of two weevils

  2. Gregory van Kipnis

    I read the Aubrey-Maturin Chronicles two years ago with great passion and intensity. The dinner discussion with Dutourd was electric. You have taken my understanding to a much higher level by distinguishing power from authority. I implicitly deal with that distinction all the time without putting the right words to it. Yes man would be a wolf unto man (or as you say: man is insane, inconstant, intemperate, shifting, deceitful, and ludicrous).

  3. Clazy

    Here’s a notion that occurred to me while reading the Houellebecq: French intellectuals reach their conclusions intuitively. The “argument” they present is not a description of their thought process, it is a post hoc display of style.

  4. Stephen Senn

    I think the lack of diversity in Switzerland would come as a surprise to the Swiss of which I am an example, albeit a rather atypical one. There are four official languages and as recently as 1847 (when there was a civil war) there were more currencies than cantons (of which there are 26). The Swiss franc dates from 1850. There were also for some centuries and still are, at least to some extent, two rather different religious cultures. Walk from Basle into Solothurn or from Vaud into Valais, both of which I have done many many times, and you notice the difference immediately. You have walked from a Protestant into a Catholic world.

    You may argue that this is no big deal but for a long time it was rather important and the cause of much bloodshed. For example, the First Villmergen war started because some peasants were executed in the Catholic canton of Schwyz for being Protestant. The Statistician to the Stars and I might disagree as to how reasonable such executions were but since the war started because Protestant Zurich demanded an apology, I think we can both agree that opinions on the subject were, contrary to rumours on this website, rather diverse.

    The Sonderbund war of 1847 started (amongst other reasons) because the canton of Lucerne placed the Jesuits in charge of education. The Protestants won the war and the Jesuits were banned by the Swiss constitution until 1973, a year from which some of us mark the decline of modern Switzerland. (Just kidding.)

    So yes, really Switzerland is rather diverse.

    Of course there is a mythical Hollywood version: centuries of peace and cuckoo clocks and and a homogeneous Alpine people but that has little to do with real Switzerland.

    PS. Cuckoo Clocks come from the Black Forest, which, for the benefit of any American readers, is in Germany.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *