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:

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

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

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

July 2015

Dressed to Kill

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Wrong Prescription?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Travel Day

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Fugue State

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

One Day Less

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Avian Voices·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The mockingbird’s bath is an orgy of thrashing and writhing about. When he has finished, one of the innocents alights on the rim of the basin and looks with disbelief at the thimble of water remaining.”
Illustration by Eric Hanson
[Browsings]
Before the War·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“I’m worried that what the Houthis did to push Yemen into a civil conflict in September 2014, the Saudis may end up doing again when they end their campaign by eliminating the Houthis.”
Photograph by Alex Potter
Article
The Speakeasy·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In order to understand how Marty’s could survive as an institution, I returned a year after my first visit to spend a week at what was sure to be the world’s bleakest comedy club.”
Photograph by Mike Slack
Post
The Lost Land·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“I had first encountered some of these volumes—A Swiftly Tilting Planet, The Giver—as a child, and during adolescence, they registered as postcards from a homeland recently abandoned.”
Photograph by the author
Article
Wrong Prescription?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Whatever the slogans suggested, the A.C.A. was never meant to include everyone.”
Illustration by Taylor Callery

Estimated chance, worldwide, that a father is unknowingly raising another man’s child:

1 in 25

A Spanish design student created a speech-recognition pillow into which the restive confide their worries, which are then printed out in the morning.

The mayor of Sacramento filed for a restraining order against the City of Sacramento.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today