No Comment, Quotation — September 20, 2007, 6:55 am

Keller on the Wonder and Limitations of Democracy

gottfried_keller_18602

With the thoughtlessness of youth and of a second childhood, I had deemed the beauty of the countryside to be the product of an historical-political process, in a certain measure the patriotic deed of the people to be equated with freedom itself, and so hale I strode through the Catholic and Protestant regions, through those which had been awakened and which were stubborn in their obfuscation, and what appeared to me to be a great sieve filled with constitutions, confessions, parties, sovereignties and citizenries, through which at length a certain and clear consensus was to be squeezed, which was at once a consensus of power, of temper, of spirit, which was prepared to live on, and then I was struck by a great desire to raise myself up as an individual and as representative piece of the totality and to do battle… to aid in the hunt of the noble quarry of the majority, of which I was a part, but which to him is therefore no dearer than the minority which he has vanquished, precisely because they were in the end of the same nature.

But this consensus, I proclaimed, is the only genuine and essential power in our land, every bit as tangible and perceptible as the physical nature to which we are bound. It is the sole unmistakable foothold, always youthful and always equally powerful; and for exactly this reason it is essential to make it reasonable and clear, even though it is neither. This is the highest and most beautiful goal. Because it is essential and inescapable, perverse minds of all extremes are ever turned against it… It is always genial and desirable, and even when it errs, the shared responsibility of the community will bear the damages…

That great majorities may be poisoned and ruined by a single person and in response thereto give cause for still more individuals to poison and destroy,–that a majority which has once been lied to, can continue to want to be lied to in the future, and to raise ever more liars upon its pedestal, as if they were only a sole conscious and resolute villain,–that in the end the awakening of the citizen from the error wrought by a majority which he brought upon himself is nothing rosy when the damages commence to pile up–that is something which at this point was yet beyond my contemplation.

Gottfried Keller, Der grüne Heinrich, vol. 4, ch. 14 (1854-55) in: Sämtliche Werke und ausgewählte Briefe, vol. 1, pp. 1099-1100 (C. Hanser ed. 1963)(S.H. transl.)

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

Uncovering the Cover Ups: Death Camp in Delta

Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

From the June 2014 issue

The Guantánamo “Suicides,” Revisited

A missing document suggests a possible CIA cover-up

No Comment March 28, 2014, 12:32 pm

Scott Horton Debates John Rizzo on Democracy Now!

On CIA secrecy, torture, and war-making powers

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

October 2014

Cassandra Among the
Creeps

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Today Is Better Than Tomorrow”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

PBS Self-Destructs

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Monkey Did It

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
 
Rebecca Solnit on silencing women, a Marine commander returns to Iraq, the decline of PBS, and more
Article
Cassandra Among the Creeps·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On silencing women

Astra Taylor discusses the potential and peril of the Internet as a tool for cultural democracy

Photograph © Sallie Dean Shatz
Post
Ending College Sexual Assault·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“This is not a fable about a young woman whose dreams were dashed by a sexual predator. Maya’s narrative is one of institutional failure at a school desperately trying to adapt.”
Photograph © AP/Josh Reynolds
Article
“Today Is Better Than Tomorrow”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Astra Taylor discusses the potential and peril of the Internet as a tool for cultural democracy

Photograph by Benjamin Busch
Post
Astra Taylor on The People’s Platform·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Taking back power and culture in the digital age
“There’s a pervasive and ill-advised faith that technology will promote competition if left to its own devices.”
Photograph © Deborah Degraffenried

Chance that a civilian who died in a 20th-century war was American:

1 in 62,000

A physicist calculated that mass worldwide conversion to a vegetarian diet would do more to slow global warming than cutting back on oil and gas use.

“All I saw,” said a 12-year-old neighbor of visits to the man’s house, “was just cats in little diapers.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

In Praise of Idleness

By

I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today