The great historical systems of human ideals were never self-justified. They derived the authorizing magic of legitimacy from a source beyond themselves. Everything internal and consequential to these systems, such as the status of individuals and the policies of the state, were aligned, explained, and praised or condemned according to the mandates of that external source.
To Greek and Christian, and to every society known before the present time, the justifying source lay in the sacred realm of the transcendental, above and beyond. Its commandments regulated humanity’s relationship to the universal. Justification was thus direction, and direction, that clear path across time, a human necessity, was justified.
For all its unprecedented material success and quality of life, liberal democracy, at the present moment, is bereft of justification.
Material success and quality of life are praiseworthy only within a humanitarian scale of values that is suspended in mid-air, itself unjustified. We, the children of democracy, have been given much, we have been pandered to, yet we are unhappy with our condition. Appeals to God on his mountain are useless: a system rooted in the soil of indeterminacy would be baffled by the riddle of which God, on which mountain. The existential threat that, in one possible future, will rouse democracy out of its subjective torpor, cannot justify the system. The instinct for self-preservation, available to hero and coward alike, justifies nothing.
The problem of justification for democracy, however, must not be confused with the same problem for all previous systems. In the laws of its development and the range of its experience, democracy has left far behind the categorical patterns of the human past: the old forms and the old logic now stand stretched and warped by distance.
Every system in history considered “the good” to be an eternal and immutable quality. The transcendental source of justification was present in the now but also unchanging for all time. Justification meant achieving a condition of perfection that must never again be altered to the slightest degree. Legitimacy was the magical feeling of existing within that condition.
The societies that embraced these ideals were, objectively, scarcely less dynamic than our own, but their metaphysical foundations, the ideals themselves, aimed at a cosmic point beyond time, forever fixed.
In contrast, for liberal democracy “the good” assumes the attributes of a process: that of becoming. Orientation is not toward an immutable point in time, but toward the indefinite future. The paramount democratic ideal, freedom, is a procedural value, a door that clicks open and appears otherwise empty of content.
Critics of democracy have thus typically accused the system of being a mere emptiness, all process without spirit. But this could be said only from a specific perspective, one that looks upward and backward for justification. From a different perspective, freedom appears overfull: it is pregnant with every possibility, and oriented toward the future.
Because of the indeterminate spirit of liberal democracy, the source of its justification must forever lie concealed over the horizon. To be justified means to move ever closer to a transcendent condition located in the indefinite future. Direction for democratic societies is thus more a matter of search than of commandments from on high.
The object of migration is perfection, within the bounds of human possibility: and that is many, not one, because the house of truth has many mansions. Even if the universe is one, our condition will perceive the whole through a glass darkly, in fragments and pieces. Even if humanity itself is one, we can never quite know what we are. We may thirst for the universal – and, being human, we invariably will – but that is motive power to move faster and farther in our exodus, rather than to rest or to dream.
Insofar as democracy is a system driven by individual freedom, the shared purpose of existence becomes discovery, not absorption into the one.
There will be times when, crushed by the weight of our rootlessness, we will stop and stay. From weariness, from weakness, we will erect false idols and bow before them: this may well describe the present moment. But the flood of events will sweep around us, and we will either resume our wandering or we will drown.
A moral and political system oriented toward the future will appear appallingly provisional. This sense of fundamental impermanence has been seized on, critically, by an intellectual class that has always perceived itself as the mediator between humanity and the absolute. From Plato to Heidegger, the judgment of philosophers has rarely favored democracy.
Yet the philosophers have treated each other’s ideas as if they were provisional steps to a greater truth, which each alone had grasped. The “reason” of Heidegger or Foucault differed from that of Kant and Marx, and all of them differed still more substantially from Plato’s. The absolute principles these brilliant men conjured with such confidence were products of history, and thus unstable, fleeting. The same is true even of the great doctrines of Christianity: the division of scripture into Old and New Testaments is a frank confession of the impermanence of human understanding.
Every human ideal is in some sense provisional, pending future events. The justification of democracy – the future of freedom – hinges on whether a system can survive that honestly acknowledges this condition.