Democracy and Universalism

Authors James E. McClellan and Harold Dorn in their book Science and Technology in World History claim that Newtonian philosophy was a major force behind the European Enlightenment which followed it. “Ironically, with his mystical speculations largely hidden until the twentieth century, Newton may be fairly said to be a founding father of the Enlightenment, that campaign of reason against superstition and irrationality that arose in France and then spread across eighteenth-century Europe and America.” The concept of the “clockwork God” inspired by the success of Newton and his successors at explaining the orbits of comets and planets influenced philosophes such as Voltaire and Montesquieu. Many scholars wanted to apply this progress in the natural sciences to the social sciences as well:

“Indeed, the first Enlightenment document may well be the ode penned by Edmond Halley to preface the first edition of the Principia, wherein Halley wrote of understanding the world: ‘In reason’s light, the clouds of ignorance/Dispelled at last by science.’ Voltaire attended Newton’s funeral and brought back the famous anecdote of having left France and a universe filled with the Cartesian aether to arrive in England and a universe of empty Newtonian space. By the middle of the eighteenth century, aided by Voltaire and Madame du Châtelet, Newton’s science conquered France and won out over Descartes among French intellectuals and scientists. The forces associated with Newtonian science and the Newtonian Enlightenment were liberal, progressive, reformist, and even revolutionary, and they played major roles in the prehistory and history of the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789. Indeed, as evidenced in the Declaration of Independence, with its proposition that ‘all men are created equal,’ the political realm can be represented as a Newtonian system of politically equal citizen-atoms moving in law-like patterns under the influence of a universal political gravity and a democratic impulse toward civil association.”

A number of historians have questioned whether there was any link between the Scientific Revolution and the more practically oriented Industrial Revolution that followed it. In The Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy, economic historian Joel Mokyr argues that the missing link between the Scientific and the Industrial Revolution was the Industrial Enlightenment. This period gave rise to a new mentality, and the spillover effects of this mentality were as important as the new knowledge directly generated by it.

The Industrial Enlightenment’s debt to the Scientific Revolution consisted of scientific method, scientific mentality and scientific culture. One of the most direct links between the seventeenth century and the emerging industrial changes of the late eighteenth century was the emphasis on experiment and the scientific method. Important was also scientific mentality, the concept that the world was orderly and rational and that natural phenomena could be predicted and described mathematically according to universal laws. As Mokyr says:

“The early seventeenth century witnessed the work of Kepler and Galileo that explicitly tried to integrate mathematics with natural philosophy, a slow and arduous process, but one that eventually changed the way all useful knowledge was gathered and analyzed. Once the natural world became intelligible, it could be tamed: because technology at base involves the manipulation of nature and the physical environment, the metaphysical assumptions under which people engaged in production operate, are ultimately of crucial importance. The Industrial Enlightenment learned from the natural philosophers – especially from Newton, who stated it explicitly in the famous opening pages of Book Three of the Principia – that the phenomena produced by nature and the artificial works of mankind were subject to the same laws. That view squarely contradicted orthodox Aristotelianism. The growing belief in the rationality of nature and the existence of knowable natural laws that govern the universe, the archetypical Enlightenment belief, led to a growing use of mathematics in pure science as well as in engineering and technology.”

This new orderly world has been dubbed the Newtonian universe. Ironically, as his biographer James Gleick points out, Newton himself was not a Newtonian; he as a deeply religious man, albeit in a highly unorthodox manner, who looked for hidden information in the Bible and embraced the mysticism of alchemy. Authors McClellan and Dorn agree with this view:

“In the quest after secret knowledge, alchemy occupied the major portion of Newton’s time and attention from the mid-1670s through the mid-1680s. His alchemical investigations represent a continuation and extension of his natural philosophical researches into mechanics, optics, and mathematics. Newton was a serious, practicing alchemist – not some sort of protochemist. He kept his alchemical furnaces burning for weeks at a time, and he mastered the difficult occult literature. He did not try to transmute lead into gold; instead, using alchemical science, he pried as hard as he could into forces and powers at work in nature. He stayed in touch with an alchemical underground, and he exchanged alchemical secrets with Robert Boyle and John Locke. The largest part of Newton’s manuscripts and papers concern alchemy, and the influence of alchemy reverberates throughout Newton’s published opus. This was not the Enlightenment’s Newton.”

There are both indirect and direct links between the new natural philosophy and the emerging political philosophy of the modern West. The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes was exposed to European scientific thought during the early Scientific Revolution, including a renewed seventeenth century interest in the atomism of Greco-Roman Antiquity. It doesn’t require much imagination to see a potential connection between atomism and the random collection of atomized human beings described in Hobbes’ political philosophy and his concept of a “war of all against all.” His mechanistic understanding of the world and human society influenced his 1651 book Leviathan. The social contract theory he introduced there was carried further in very different directions by John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

The English philosopher and physician John Locke influenced leading individuals in both the French and the Scottish Enlightenment, among them Voltaire, as well as the American Founding Fathers. He was a proponent of the idea that the human mind is a blank slate or tabula rasa. In addition to philosophy he was also a man of science who studied experimental philosophy and medicine under the tutelage of leading physicians such as Thomas Sydenham. He worked with noted scientists like Robert Boyle and corresponded with Isaac Newton. Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government from 1689 and An Essay Concerning Human Understanding from 1690 were published shortly after Newton’s great Principia from 1687.

One of the developments that took place during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries following the American and French Revolutions was the spread of democracy in the Western world. In Antiquity and plainly up until the American Founding Fathers, “democracy” was never seen as anything self-evidently good. Plato and Aristotle were quite critical of it, although the democratic system in ancient Greece was rather different from the modern one.

As John Dunn says in his book Setting the People Free: The Story of Democracy, a title he admits carries some degree of irony, in the Athens Assembly citizens had the right not merely to vote on all proposals coming before it and thus to determine together its outcome, but also to address it themselves. This fierce directness of Athenian democracy contrasts sharply with the more indirect system often called “representative democracy” that is practiced in the modern West. Indeed, the two systems are so different that calling the latter “democracy” would have caused confusion among leading figures from Athens during the Hellenic age:

“Under democracy the citizens of Athens, quite reasonably and accurately, supposed that they were ruling themselves. But the vastly less exclusive citizen bodies of modern democracies very obviously do nothing of the kind. Instead, they select from a menu which they can do little individually to modify, whichever they find least dismaying amongst the options on offer.” Moreover, “If the ancient democracy was the citizens choosing freely and immediately for themselves, modern democracy, it seems, is principally the citizens very intermittently, choosing under highly constrained circumstances, the relatively small number of their fellows who will from then on choose for them.”

While citizens were more actively and directly involved in the decision-making process back then, another major difference between ancient and modern democracy is that only a minority of the male inhabitants of ancient Athens were citizens; giving the vote to all those who happened to live within the city limits, including women and recent immigrants, would have been perceived as absurd. This contrasts sharply with the modern West where “democracy” is defined by universal suffrage where every adult male and female has an equal vote.

This concept has been carried to its logic conclusion: The system should be truly universal in that it should extend to include every single human being on Earth. The idea promoted by US President George W. Bush that the “global expansion of democracy” should roll back terrorism is denounced by John Dunn as “a glaring instance of ideological overstretch.”

Not only did Bush perceive his country to be a “democracy,” despite the fact that it was founded as a Constitutional Republic; he perceived it as being “universal.” Every person on planet Earth from whatever cultural background can move to the United States and become an equal citizen. The USA is thus a “universal” nation, and its universal democracy should be exported to all countries around the world. This version of “universalism” would have been profoundly alien to the ancient Greeks, yet has become a prominent feature of the post-Enlightenment West. “We no longer consider any human action legitimate, or even intelligible,” wrote the French late twentieth century philosopher Pierre Manent, “unless it can be shown to be subject to some universal rule of law, or to some universal ethical principle.”

Where does this notion come from? One of the most impressive features of Newton’s theory of universal gravity is that it was literally universal and assumed to apply throughout the entire universe. It is not strange that Newton, a deeply devout Christian man who believed that the universe had been created by a single God, believed this. What is remarkable is that he has since been proven right: Gravity does apply throughout the entire known universe.

Albert Einstein in his general theory of relativity in the early twentieth century showed that gravity is not, strictly speaking, a force as traditionally understood but a property of space itself as it curves around massive objects. However, gravity is no less universal today than it was in Newton’s day. Observational evidence indicates that the theories of Newton and Einstein can largely (with some yet-unexplained exceptions) predict the movements of distant galaxies billions of light-years away. A scientific theory cannot be more successful than that.

The problem is that the immense success of modern natural science has generated the often unrealistic expectation that we can uncover equally universal mathematical laws in the social sciences to describe and explain the behavior of all human beings. Moreover, while the experimental method has been immensely useful in the natural sciences it becomes more of a mixed bag and potentially dangerous when it is applied to politics and societies, and when the subject matter for your experiments is living human beings rather than lifeless substances.

The underlying belief behind the American-led efforts to export “democracy” to Islamic countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan is that all human beings should be subject to democracy, just like they are subject to gravity. But as we have seen, gravity applies throughout the entire known universe. What happens if we discover intelligent life on other planets? My bet is that on day one we will all be excited over finding E.T. On day two, American neoconservatives will ask whether E.T. has democracy. If he doesn’t, the USA must promptly send an interplanetary expeditionary force to export democracy to his planet. After all, if E.T has gravity then E.T. must also have democracy, just like Afghan Muslims.

E.T. vote home.



@ Fjordman

I like your tongue in cheek approach, if science is universal than everything is universal and should be majority controlled. Screw the minorities and the exceptions.
Since the majority of any human group is always satisfied with its power position it always goes to sleep, what can happen to them anyway???
The whole human history is full of proof to the contrary: change and chaos or progress always happens through minorities or even through the actions and drive of one man.

This comes from a major flaw in the universal "equality structure": the human being and his god-like individual image. You made me think about this Fjordman and I am happy you did so.
It also points at the flaws of evolution, the human being is today too creative to evolve by mere genetics. Of course that creativity is highly individual and not universally equal like gravity.

Thanks Mr. Fjordman. I was in hibernation because of too much work and tension but you brought me back.

Off topic

Chew on this: if the alien race discovered were to consist of only the equivalent of our male sex, all communication would become instantly impossible.

Over Stepping

I think it would be highly unlikely that Newton or any of his contemporaries would begin to pretend that his methods were applicable to the social (pseudo) sciences. The expectation that similar things should be possible there because they have been done in the natural sciences is simply a mistaken hope, willingly believed whether it is true or not.


In view of recent events in the US, I think I can safely say that many Americans are paying more attention to the fact that we are a democratic republic. While there is a democratic system for electing the national government, there are intended to be laws in place to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority. This has become particularly important within this past week with the passage of the extremely unpopular health care legislation. How that will eventually turn out remains to be seen, but there is much resistance yet to be played out, and Congress will almost surely change hands completely with the mid-term elections in November.