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Shining a Light on Democracy: How the Enlightenment Ideals Shaped the Contemporary World

Updated: May 23, 2023

Alex Coiov, XI A

I. Introduction

Democracy – a political regime wherein the populace (the average citizens) holds and expresses its almighty popular sovereignty via free and general elections – is nowadays widely perceived as an ideal way of governance, an equilibrium between social order and individual liberties. The term ‘democracy’ brings to mind several principles, such as the rule of law, the upholding of civil rights – among which the freedom of speech, press, assembly, and religion – and a government ruled by the people for the people. Even so, where and when did democracy begin, after all?

II. Democracy Throughout Time

Whilst the Roman Republic planted the momentous seeds of modern-day democracy, tremendous advancements were notably made by the Ancient Greeks. Accordingly, the origins of democracy can be traced back to ancient Greece (the term ‘democracy’ originates from the Greek words ‘demos’, meaning people, and ‘kratos’, signifying power), where the city-state of Athens established a ‘participatory-style government’. A participatory democracy thus entails all citizens being on an equal footing and having an equal say in government decisions taken through regular assemblies – wherein the members of society actively propose and vote on laws.

However, the contemporary concept of democracy is associated primarily with the Enlightenment period, a prolific era in European history that spanned from the late 17th century to the early 19th century; this revolutionary epoch was marked by intellectual and cultural growth and was characterised by a protuberant, strong emphasis on reason, science, and individualism, hence the Enlightenment ideals of democracy.

III. The Enlightenment Ideals of Democracy

a) Natural Rights

According to John Locke, an English philosopher and politician and an eminent representative of the Enlightenment movement, all individuals are born equal, having identical liberties, for they are created by the same benevolent ‘Creator’. Such freedoms, coined ‘natural rights’ – entailing the right to life, liberty, and property – are inherent to all human beings and are not contingent on any supreme authority. They are considered fundamental, inalienable, and innate to the human condition. These rights are gifted by ‘the people’s Creator’ – an omnipotent, celestial entity – to all individuals by virtue of their mere yet pure humanity. Therefore, such liberties can never be denied by any mortal government, for they are a universal, everlasting, and intrinsic aspect of human existence.

b) Popular Sovereignty

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, an illustrious Swiss philosopher and writer pushing for the adoption of Enlightenment ideals, contended that the governed retain power because all members of a society are unequivocally equal in their natural rights, having been created by the same Creator. As such, individuals equal in inalienable natural rights will inevitably possess equal power, hence the need for the public’s assent to be governed.

Thereby, decisions must be made via consent of the governed, emphasising that power emanates from the people instead of being gifted to the populace by a higher authority. This principle highlights the paramountcy of active citizen participation in the political process and the requirement for the people’s consent when forming and implementing laws and policies.

c) The Social Contract

Pursuant to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the social contract is a collective agreement entered into by the members of society, wherein they give up some of their most extreme individual liberties – such as the ‘right’ to murder and theft – in return for essential safeguard and security provided by this newly created authority. The concept of the social contract thus posits that citizens come together and form a people-run government to guarantee their mutual protection and welfare.

In this Enlightenment view, the government and its laws are the product of collective bargaining and societal decision-making – choices made by the people for the people – and not as something forcibly imposed upon the populace. Consequently, the social-contract principle highlights the idea that citizens can change or abolish the government anytime it fails to fulfil its part of the contract, undermining the consent of the governed.,_baron_de_Montesquieu

d) Republicanism: Separation of Powers and Checks and Balances

During ancient times, the Greeks propagated a form of participatory democracy wherein citizens vigorously engaged in the decision-making process via regular assemblies. However, Baron de Montesquieu, an Enlightenment-supporting French politician, espoused a republican model in which the power is delegated to select representatives or 'elites' (in political science parlance) deemed suitable for the role. In a republican-style system, the will of the people is expressed via free, fair, and regular elections; such elections serve to appoint representatives who will act on their constituents’ behalf.

It is of utmost importance that the republican governance model is predicated on the representation and consent of the governed, with the regular and just election process ensuring the accountability of the elected representatives to the people holding the popular sovereignty.

Equally paramount, this delegated power is separated, a process called separation of powers, to curb governmental tyranny and abuses; ergo, this power is apportioned amongst three pivotal branches: the executive, legislative, and judicial.

The legislative branch – usually a bicameral Congress/Parliament – is responsible for law formulation and approval, the passing of budgets, declarations of war, and other crucial functions. The executive, accountable for the execution of laws and their scrupulous implementation, is typically headed by the president and his cabinet. Besides, the judicial branch, including the Supreme Court, alongside lower courts, gingerly interprets the law and ascertains that the legislative and executive do not violate the Constitution, overstepping their Constitutional bounds.

Accordingly, this power-sharing system is upheld by a checks-and-balances process that preserves the equipoise of power and ensures that none of the three primary institutions oversteps its mandate or abuses its delegated authority.

Essentially, a checks-and-balances system is a mechanism of governance wherein different branches of government have specific powers and distinct responsibilities, each able to limit and check on the undue influence of the other. Ergo, this system aims to stifle the concentration of power in any one branch, ensuring that the government is held accountable to the power-holding citizenry. An example of this system is the president using his veto to block legislation, the legislative branch utilising impeachment procedures to remove government officials exceeding their Constitutional bounds, and the judicial branch checking on the actions of the executive and legislative branches through ‘judicial review’.

IV. Concluding Remarks

To sum up, democracy is nowadays regarded as an ideal way of governance that balances social order and individual liberties, continuing to be a shining light for many nations worldwide. Whilst having its roots in ancient Greece, where the idea of participatory-style governance was first established, the contemporary concept of democracy is associated preponderantly with the Enlightenment movement, wherein influential philosophers, such as John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Baron de Montesquieu, proposed sundry ideals that continue to shape the world even to this day. Amongst such democratic ideals, natural rights, popular sovereignty, the social contract, and republican governance – with the salient additions of separation of powers and checks and balances – all play an equally crucial role.

Nonetheless, it is essential to note that democracy is not a static, inert concept; it has incontrovertibly undergone astronomical changes over time, thus adapting to societies’ constantly changing needs. As technology advances and global challenges persist, the paramountcy of democratic principles and values cannot be overstated. Consequently, it is indubitably incumbent upon all citizens to uphold and defend democratic ideals, ensuring that democracy remains a viable and comprehensive system of governance for countless generations to come.

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