A review of Lord Percy of Newcastle‘s, The Heresy of Democracy: A Study in the History of Government (London, 1954).
In 1957, Kirk published a list of “must-read” books to understand modern (meaning, as it had developed or been rediscovered in the 1950s) conservatism.
His list would not surprise most readers of TIC, but it does include a number of books that are no longer familiar to most of us. These are books that, seemingly, have not stood the test of time. This is, of course, assuming that such a test of time exists at all. Perhaps we have simply forgotten these books, and we have no right to blame time for our ignorance. Poor time. Then again, it does devour. But, that’s another topic. . . .
This list, by the way, appears at the end of one of Russell Kirk’s own nearly forgotten books, The Intelligent Women’s Guide to Conservatism. Interestingly enough, it is one of Kirk’s most beautiful books–all written from a Christian Humanist and personalist standpoint. In almost every way, the book anticipates the personalism of Vatican II and John Paul II. But, that too is another topic.
Judging by the titles in that 1957 list, one of the two most intriguing forgotten books is a book by Lord Percy of Newcastle entitled The Heresy of Democracy. The other was by one of Kirk’s older friends, Ross Hoffman, a series of lectures given on Catholicism and freedom. I’ll try to touch on this one, The Spirit of Politics and the Future of Freedom, in a future post.
I had read Kirk’s review of The Heresy in the Jesuit journal, The Month, but my knowledge of Percy and the book stopped there. After looking up Percy on the web yesterday, I find that he was a rather prominent figure in the British Conservative Party during and between both world wars. He passed away in the late 1950s without leaving a male heir, thus the family property, the estate, and the title of nobility passed to others.
Two things struck me immediately upon starting this book. First, Percy wrote with a rather stunning and beautiful style. Second, his logic as well as his honesty reveal themselves from the opening word and remain throughout the book. Though dealing with a rather deep understanding of an Augustinian vision of the western tradition, Percy’s book was nearly impossible to put down. It is, simply put, captivating.
Writing as a blatant Augustinian and in the tradition of Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville, Percy argued that while democracy is no worse or more fallen than any other form of government, it more easily and readily lends itself to error than other forms of government. Too quickly, Percy noted, the voice of the people becomes, for all intents and purposes, the voice of God. Other forms of government, he claimed, can fall into such error, but they never do so as quickly as democracy does.
While the book is not nearly as radical as the title might make it first appear, Percy did make some rather strong claims, right from the beginning. First, he wrote, one can trace a rather direct line of descent from Rousseau to Marx and Lenin. Second, he continued, another line can be drawn directly from the French revolutionaries to the regimes of Hitler and Stalin.
Real and proper democracy came from the medieval Anglo-Saxon tradition, a tradition that incorporated the will of the people through common law, inherited rights, and, especially, representation in Parliament. The false tradition, so close and yet so far to the real thing, abolished the intermediary institutions that so delicately protect the fundamental institutions of a well ordered and free society. In this corrupted form of democracy, man becomes not a real citizen, but a loose individual, dependent upon authority for direction while fooling himself that he has a say in that authority.
Because of the easiness of this corruption of democracy–essentially the apotheosis of “the people” as a mass god–what passes as modern democracy is really nothing more or less than bloody, bigoted, and imperialist nationalism.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the book, though, is not what Percy surveys, but what he deconstructs, properly and intellectually. His analysis of the contributions of St. Augustine to government reveal his real brilliance as a writer and a thinker. From Percy’s standpoint, the West found its highest aspirations in the thought of Augustine as made manifest in the English tradition of order and liberty. Sounding very much like Voegelin, Percy argued that St. Augustine’s vision–one of realized eschatology–guided the West for much of its Christian history. As long as man willingly understood the limitations of man as sinful and fallen, he could maintain this realized eschatology. When, however, man forgot his limitations and his real nature, chaos and error reigned.
While the book covers the West from early Christianity to the present, it focuses on European history from 1789 through World War II. The good guys, not surprisingly, are Augustine and his followers; the heretics, Rousseau and his.
The proper Augustinian/Anglo-Saxon notions of government, Percy lamented, no longer remain in any real or proper sense. The Rousseauvian vision of man collectivized without God have allowed for the new “Age of the Leviathan”–Percy’s terms–to reign supreme.
One of the worst things a modern proponent of traditional order and liberty could do, Percy argues in a fascinating way, is to embrace Stoicism. This would be a natural response of good men, Percy claimed, an acceptance and resignation to the evils of the world, bearing through them with a stiff upper lip.
Always, however, Stoicism is deeply flawed, a “twilight” sort of philosophy that reveals that man has, for all intents and purposes, given up. Whatever natural and understandable desire he has to embrace Stoicism, the good man “must classify Stoicism as a philosophy of the twilight . . . when men are weary of action and do not care to look head. . . . Stoicism is the empty house of the parable, open to strange hauntings” (pg. 243).
In Percy’s caution, I hear the words of our own brilliant Barbara Elliott who has been saying this for at least a decade and a half.
Instead, whatever the obstacles, Percy continued, man must embrace hope, a hope only provided by Christianity. At the same time, however, it must recognize that the Augustinian world is long gone, never to return. Instead, the task of the good conservative is to understand what new form of Christendom must arise, necessarily challenging the world of Leviathan, whether that beast be hard and jackbooted or soft and seductive.
Dr. Bradley J. Birzer is co-founder of The Imaginative Conservative and a Senior Contributor. He is the author of Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, and American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll. He is also author of The Humane Republic: The Imagination of Russell Kirk (forthcoming, University Press of Kentucky). Dr. Birzer also teaches Catholics in the Public Square for Catholic Courses.
N.B. John Willson just let me know that the book is still available. So, it’s less forgotten than I’d realized.