Philosophe Alain

Le site de référence sur le philosophe français Emile Chartier, dit Alain (1868-1951), par l’Association des Amis d’Alain, fondée par ses proches après sa mort.

Le site de référence sur le philosophe français Emile Chartier, dit Alain (1868-1951), par l’Association des Amis d’Alain, fondée par ses proches après sa mort.

What is Democracy?

I know of a number of good minds who are attempting to define Democracy. I have often worked at it myself, without arriving at anything but trite remarks which, worse, didn’t hold up against severe criticism. For example, someone who defined democracy as equality of rights and responsibilities would define it quite badly; for I can conceive of a monarchy that ensured this equality among its citizens; one can even imagine a very rigorous tyranny that maintained rights and responsibilities for all, the responsibilities being very heavy and the rights very restricted. If no one had freedom of thought, for example, this would also be a kind of equality. One might then have to say that democracy is anarchy. But I don’t think that a democracy without laws, without government is conceivable; it would be a government where individual liberty was without limit; a system like this would suit only sages. And who is a sage?

Even universal suffrage doesn’t define democracy. If the pope, infallible and without legal responsibilities, were to be elected by universal suffrage, this would not make the Church democratic. A tyrant can be elected by universal suffrage and be no less a tyrant for that. What matters is not the origin of power; it is the continuous and effective control exercised by the governed upon those who govern.

These remarks have led me to think that democracy does not exist on its own. And I firmly believe that monarchy, oligarchy and democracy exist in all constitutions, but more or less in equilibrium.


Acropolis of Athens, Greece, photo Unesco


The executive is necessarily monarchical.  In any action there must always be someone to direct the action; for action can’t be regulated in advance; action is like a battle; each turn of the road requires a decision.

The legislature, which of course includes administration, is necessarily oligarchic; since, to run an organisation, people with knowledge are required, lawyers or engineers, who work in small groups within their specialisms. The more complicated society is, the more this necessity will be felt. For example, it takes knowledge to manage insurance companies; it takes knowledge to establish fair taxes; it takes knowledge to legislate on epidemics.

So where is democracy, if not in the third power that political science has not defined and which I call the Controller? It’s nothing else but the power, continuously effective, of deposing kings and specialists at a moment’s notice, if they do not guide affairs according to the interests of the greatest number. This power has for a long time been exercised through revolutions and barricades. Nowadays it is exercised by questions in parliament. On this account democracy is the perpetual effort of the governed against abuses of power. And, as nutrition, excretion, and reproduction are in precise equilibrium in a healthy individual, so there will be, in a healthy society, a perfect equilibrium of monarchy, oligarchy and democracy.

July 22nd, 1910

English translation copyright © Michel Petheram

To read the French version on this website.


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