10 June 2003

Yves R. Simon's defence of democracy

Another important book published in 1951 was Yves R. Simon's Philosophy of Democratic Government. Like the other books I've discussed from that pivotal year, this one was also very much a product of the tumultuous middle years of the last century. In particular Simon undertook to defend democracy as a mere form of government without buying into what I would call the democratic creed of popular sovereignty.

Yves René Marie Simon was born in Cherbourg, France, one-hundred years ago in 1903. He died in South Bend, Indiana, U.S.A., in 1961, after having enjoyed a distinguished career as an academic philosopher in the neo-Thomist tradition of Jacques Maritain. His first years in academia were spent in his native France. In 1938 he went to the United States to take up a visiting professorship at University of Notre Dame, intending to spend only a year there. But by 1939 the war clouds were looming over Europe and he decided to stay at Notre Dame. He continued to teach at Notre Dame until 1948 when he accepted a position at University of Chicago. He continued to teach there until his untimely death in 1961.

In his native France support for democracy was almost always tied to support for the Revolution of 1789, with its overtly secular underpinnings. Thus believing Catholic Christians usually opposed democracy because of its historic connection to unbelief. In his Philosophy of Democratic Government Simon sought to make an argument from the tradition of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas in defence of democracy as a mere form of government. The reader can judge for him- or herself whether he is successful in this.

Two features of this book stand out for me. First, Simon began to work out here a comprehensive theory of authority and its functions that would come to fruition in his posthumously published book, A General Theory of Authority. Second, he affirmed that it is important that a democratic régime also be a political régime, i.e., one which “gives the governed a legal power of resistance” (p. 74). A political régime allows for freedom; a despotic one does not. This amounts to an affirmation of what in recent years has come to be called civil society, i.e., those independent communities and initiatives whose integrity the state is obligated to respect and protect.

Simon's career was all too brief. But it may fairly be said that the majority of his books were published after his death, some edited by his students from his lecture notes. (To be honest, I am not sure I'd want my own students doing this with my notes after I'm gone!)

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