Keller on the Wonder and Limitations of Democracy | Harper's Magazine

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Keller on the Wonder and Limitations of Democracy



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.)

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