Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Politics and a People: Demos and Ethnos

“THE POLITICAL COMMUNITY FINDS ITS AUTHENTIC dimension in its reference to people, and should in practice be the organic and organizing unity of a real people," states the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. (Compendium, No. 385) Indeed, the Compendium goes further: "For every people there is in general a corresponding nation, but for various reasons national boundaries do not always coincide with ethnic boundaries."* (Compendium, No. 386)

Drawing from Pope Pius XII's Christmas Radio Message in 1944,* the Compendium defines what it understands as "a people" (un popolo).

The term 'a people' does not mean a shapeless multitude, an inert mass to be manipulated and exploited, but a group of persons, each of whom--'at his proper place and in his own way'--is able to form its own opinion on public matters and has the freedom to express its own political sentiments and bring them to bear positively on the common good. A people 'exists in the fullness of the lives of the men and women by whom it is made up, each of whom . . . is a person aware of his own responsibilities and convictions."

(Compendium, No. 385)

The immediate context of these quotes from Pope Pius XII's Radio Message is in his discussion of the contrast between a "genuine spirit of democracy" and a "specious mirage of democracy, naively taken for the genuine spirit of democracy." For Pius XII, the distinction between an authentic democracy and an ersatz democracy seems to stem from a proper understanding of what "a people" is, and a people's relationship to the organs of governance. It may be fruitful to look at that message further in understanding the message of the Compendium.

What is "a People?

In his discussion of the meaning of a people, Pius XII clearly rejected a people as an artificial aggregation of individuals coerced or controlled through the power of a state. "[T]he state does not contain in itself and does not mechanically bring together in a given territory a shapeless mass of individuals." Simply stated: the State does not make a people.

Rather, a people is something "organic," something that "lives and moves by its own life energy," or by its own life (per vita propria). "In a people worthy of the name, the citizen feels within him the consciousness of his personality, of his duties and rights, of his own freedom joined to respect for the freedom and dignity of others." This feeling is spontaneous, a deeply felt and real urge that one is part of some organic whole. One connaturally feels solidarity with one's people, as one does one's family, or one's team. This membership or citizenship in one's people is natural, and is something that is not externally imposed by a constitution or by law.

Because of this connatural feeling of solidarity, when one is part of a people, one accepts that people's customs, its classes, its inequalities, in short, the "givenness" of things. It is as if one's people is a body in which one lives, and breathes, and has his civil or social being. Or perhaps better, it is as if one's people is one's larger home, whose arrangement, furnishings, and members--for all their quirks--are one's own. And these givens, even those natural inequalities that are not intrinsically unjust or against charity, are accepted with equanimity--indeed with solidarity and love--as they are part of one's very self since one could not think of being something other than part of one's people:

In a people worthy of the name all inequalities based not on whim but on the nature of things, inequalities of culture, possessions, social standing -- without, of course, prejudice to justice and mutual charity -- do not constitute any obstacle to the existence and the prevalence of a true spirit of union and brotherhood.

On the contrary, so far from impairing civil equality in any way, they give it its true meaning; namely, that, before the state everyone has the right to live honorably his own personal life in the place and under the conditions in which the designs and dispositions of Providence have placed him.

A State does not make a people; rather, a people make a State. The State--its constitution, its organic documents, its governing organs, and its laws and institutions--will reflect the characteristics of the people which form it. "From the exuberant life of a true people," Pius XII explains, "an abundant rich life is diffused in the state and all its organs, instilling into them, with a vigor that is always renewing itself, the consciousness of their own responsibility, the true instinct for the common good."

In the United States, "we the people" existed before the Constitution existed. The Constitution did not forge the people, the people forged the Constitution.

In other words, in an authentic democracy, the people--and its organic values, structures, and customs which pre-exist the State--are not formed by the State. Rather, the State and its laws are an expression of the people's customs, values, and traditions. The people are not a product of the State's laws and organs of enforcement. The State is at the service of the people, and not the people at the service of the State. The people and their customs and values, so long as not against the natural law or against charity, ought not therefore violated by the State, but, on the contrary, ought to be given expression and supported by the State. The people are not formed by the State top-down, but the State is formed by the people, from the bottom up.

In rejecting what one which may be called the "Statist" view of a people, Pius XII also rejects the Marxist or Communist notion of "a people." Both the more general Statist notion, as well as the more particular Marxist or Communist notion of a people, are corrupt. These notions really view the people as what should be understood as "the masses." As he succinctly states: "The people, and a shapeless multitude (or, as it is called, 'the masses') are two distinct concepts." The "masses," in contrast to "a people," "wait for the impulse from outside," and as a result are "an easy plaything in the hands of anyone who exploits their instincts and impressions; ready to follow in turn, today this flag, tomorrow another."

Pius XII continues:
The elementary power of the masses, deftly managed and employed, the state also can utilize: in the ambitious hands of one or of several who have been artificially brought together for selfish aims, the state itself, with the support of the masses, reduced to the minimum status of a mere machine, can impose its whims on the better part of the real people: the common interest remains seriously, and for a long time, injured by this process, and the injury is very often hard to heal.

For Pius XII, "the masses" are therefore "the capital enemy of a true democracy and of its ideal of liberty and equality." True democracy, true liberty, true equality (which is something different than faceless egalitarianism) can never be achieved through the tyrannous recipe of combining external force over "the masses" in a manner which ignores, trivializes, or suppresses what really has existence, namely, "a people."

The moment one suppresses an organic people with a view of forcing some ideal of a people on the masses, even in the name of "democracy," one sins against both liberty and true equality. Instead of being the field of moral duty of the individual, liberty becomes a "tyrannous claim to give free rein to man's impulses and appetites"--so-called civil "rights"--to the detriment of others." Instead of being an expression of "true honor, of personal activity, or respect for tradition, of dignity--in a word [of] all that gives life its worth," equality "degenerates to a mechanical level, a colorless uniformity," in short, a vicious egalitarianism. The result is a "specious mirage of democracy," a far cry from the "genuine spirit of democracy." What these false notions usher in is not something organic, a government that is an expression of a people. Rather what these false notions engender is a system where there are elites in power are willing to exploit the masses who are uprooted from their relationship to a people, and so become the unhappy victims of the ruling elite.

Now in both the Compendium's use of the term "a people," as well as Pius XII's use of the term "a people," there is a certain vagueness. The term "a people" contains at least two different concepts. These two concepts are apparent in our everyday use of the term "people."

For example, we use the word people in a different manner when we say, as we do in our Constitution, "We the people" or when we refer to ourselves as the "American people," than when we refer to the "Slavic people" or the "Jewish people." Borrowing from the Greek, the sociologist Emerich Francis usefully separated the notions of "a people" into concepts of a demos and an ethnos.*** There is a people qua demos, i.e., a people understood as a demos, and a people qua ethnos, a people understood as an ethnos.

What, more precisely, is the difference between a people qua demos and a people qua ethnos? A people understood as a "demos" is a people understood in terms of a political concept, a people formed by a political constitution, under common laws, and bound by the ties of citizenship. The American people are a people qua demos. On the other hand, a people understood as an "ethnos" are a people understood as an organic and not political concept, a concept which uses ethnic, cultural, religious, linguistic, or even racial bases for distinguishing one people from another. Used in this manner, a people qua ethnos are bound together by some ethnic, cultural, religious, linguistic, or racial tie. A people qua ethnos are similar to, but broader than, notions of tribes, of clans, for there can be many tribes or clans within the boundaries of a people understood as ethnos.† The Kurdish people are clearly a people qua ethnos, and not a people qua demos, bound as they are exclusively by racial, linguistic, cultural, and historical ties.

*A good example of this phenomenon may be the Kurdish people, who, though certainly "a people" approximately 30 million strong, find themselves divided in that they (organically referred to as "Kurdistan," though Kurdistan is not a state, but an ethnic boundary) fall primarily under the governance of the states of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Obviously, this creates the potential for social friction as the natural desire of this ethnic people for self-determination is frustrated by the fact that they exist under the authority of another people. "Thus the question of minorities arises, which has historically been the cause of more than just a few conflicts." (Compendium, No. 387)
**The 1944 Christmas Message of Pope Pius XII may be found in Italian on the Vatican website as Radiomessagio de sua Santità Pio XII ai Popoli del Mondo Intero, and an English translation may be found at
***Emerich K. Francis, Ethnos und Demos: Sociologische Beiträge zur Volkstheorie (Berlin: Duneker und Hublot 1965).
†An excellent example of this might be the Arabs, who constitute a people qua ethnos, but whose tribal component is extremely important.

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