Dark Ages of Democracy

All our early American leaders read Montesuieu, who differentiated despotism from monarchy from democracy. In each of these forms of society he found a governing principle: for despotism it was fear, for monarchy it was honor, and for democracy it was virtue. Because freedom was practically synonymous with virtue, we turned out a generation of politicians named Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Hamilton.

Today with a population eighty times the three million who were Americans in 1776, we don't produce many leaders like that anymore, and the reason is clear; as Plato said, "What's honored in a country will be cultivated there." We have wonderful athletes and generally inferior politicians, and we deserve them both. Because we have so cruelly separated freedom from virtue, because we define freedom in a morally inferior way, we have entered what Herman Melville called the "Dark Ages of Democracy," a time when, as he predicted, the New Jerusalem would turn into Babylon, and Americans would experience what he called "the arrest of hope's advance."

"Creedo" by William Sloane Coffin


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