I've been reading Henry David Thoreau's Resistance to Civil Government recently. It's a very interesting essay from 1849 and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in progressive thoughts on democratic theory.

I was wondering if there are more early philosophers/critics of modern* democracy from the 19th century or maybe earlier? Or any literature from that time that I really should know?

*) "modern" in terms of not ancient greek forms of democracy.

Some additions/clarifications. I'm not a native english speaker, maybe I confuse some words. By critics I not necessarily mean to be against something. I'm also talking about constructive criticism. Okay, maybe Thoreau is more than that. But his thoughts on the 19th century U.S. politics can be read quite constructive.

Well, here is one example. Thoreau said a major problem of democracy was/is that a legitimated majority can rule over any minority. It's not good sense/ intellect ruling over will to power/violence but majorities over minorities. Thoreau might be the more deconstructive type of critic, but there is so much truth in it. Have a look at Egypt for instance. Young people losing their lives on the streets fighting for more freedom, and what do they get after legit democratic elections?

But I don't want to go offtopic now. I'm looking for literature similar to Thoreau's thoughts as explained above. Nietzsche might be a good start, I've not been digging deep into his work.

  • Welcome to Politics.SE! Just to clarify, my understanding of Thoreau is not that he is a critic of democracy (indeed, quite the contrary!) but rather a firm believer that self-actualization transcends deferentialism towards all authority. Could you clarify what you mean by "critic of democracy?" Do you stress the word "critic" (meaning against all authority) or against "democracy" in particular? Commented Jan 28, 2013 at 23:54
  • 2
    the Founding Fathers were critics of modern democracy. That is why they instituted a constitutional republic.
    – user1873
    Commented Jan 29, 2013 at 0:22
  • well, i tried to clarify my question above.
    – q9f
    Commented Jan 29, 2013 at 7:34
  • 1
    After clarification, I think it's worth a +1
    – user4012
    Commented Jan 29, 2013 at 12:52

3 Answers 3


The obvious example would be Nietzsche. As an example of his thoughts on democracy, in Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, he writes:

We, who hold a different belief—we, who regard the democratic movement, not only as a degenerating form of political organization, but as equivalent to a degenerating, a waning type of man, as involving his mediocrising and depreciation: where have WE to fix our hopes? In NEW PHILOSOPHERS—there is no other alternative: in minds strong and original enough to initiate opposite estimates of value, to transvalue and invert "eternal valuations"; in forerunners, in men of the future, who in the present shall fix the constraints and fasten the knots which will compel millenniums to take NEW paths. To teach man the future of humanity as his WILL, as depending on human will, and to make preparation for vast hazardous enterprises and collective attempts in rearing and educating, in order thereby to put an end to the frightful rule of folly and chance which has hitherto gone by the name of "history" (the folly of the "greatest number" is only its last form)—for that purpose a new type of philosopher and commander will some time or other be needed, at the very idea of which everything that has existed in the way of occult, terrible, and benevolent beings might look pale and dwarfed. The image of such leaders hovers before OUR eyes:—is it lawful for me to say it aloud, ye free spirits? The conditions which one would partly have to create and partly utilize for their genesis; the presumptive methods and tests by virtue of which a soul should grow up to such an elevation and power as to feel a CONSTRAINT to these tasks; a transvaluation of values, under the new pressure and hammer of which a conscience should be steeled and a heart transformed into brass, so as to bear the weight of such responsibility; and on the other hand the necessity for such leaders, the dreadful danger that they might be lacking, or miscarry and degenerate:—these are OUR real anxieties and glooms, ye know it well, ye free spirits! these are the heavy distant thoughts and storms which sweep across the heaven of OUR life. There are few pains so grievous as to have seen, divined, or experienced how an exceptional man has missed his way and deteriorated; but he who has the rare eye for the universal danger of "man" himself DETERIORATING, he who like us has recognized the extraordinary fortuitousness which has hitherto played its game in respect to the future of mankind—a game in which neither the hand, nor even a "finger of God" has participated!—he who divines the fate that is hidden under the idiotic unwariness and blind confidence of "modern ideas," and still more under the whole of Christo-European morality—suffers from an anguish with which no other is to be compared. He sees at a glance all that could still BE MADE OUT OF MAN through a favourable accumulation and augmentation of human powers and arrangements; he knows with all the knowledge of his conviction how unexhausted man still is for the greatest possibilities, and how often in the past the type man has stood in presence of mysterious decisions and new paths:—he knows still better from his painfulest recollections on what wretched obstacles promising developments of the highest rank have hitherto usually gone to pieces, broken down, sunk, and become contemptible. The UNIVERSAL DEGENERACY OF MANKIND to the level of the "man of the future"—as idealized by the socialistic fools and shallow-pates—this degeneracy and dwarfing of man to an absolutely gregarious animal (or as they call it, to a man of "free society"), this brutalizing of man into a pigmy with equal rights and claims, is undoubtedly POSSIBLE! He who has thought out this possibility to its ultimate conclusion knows ANOTHER loathing unknown to the rest of mankind—and perhaps also a new MISSION!

Source: Beyond Good and Evil, by Friedrich Nietzsche, translated by Helen Zimmern, Project Gutenberg

Nietzsche considered democracy a manifestation of slave morality, one that severely limits the human potential. If you are interested in further exploring Nietzsche's philosophy, our sister site Philosophy.SE would be a great place to start:


"Democracy in America" by Alexis de Tocqueville is a classic criticism of the American system of representative democracy. He is responsible for coining the phrase 'tyranny of the majority'. Throughout the book he contrasts the American democracy with the French aristocratic system of the early 1800's. Sections 11-20 and 46-56 are particularly interesting (I'm assuming the numbering doesn't change with versions).


Look no further than the founding fathers. They too thought that democracy would succumb to "mob rule" and specifically set out not to create a democracy. Instead the borrowed from Rome and created a republic.

Is it fair to point out that the US is a constitutional republic and not a democracy? A democracy is a government where the people are the government, ie. not represented by some other party. I think the confusion gives rise to one of the most important fleeces of our day. To believe we truly have choice in a republic, which is a form of oligarchy (rule of the few), is an illusion.

Personally, I think the "mob rule" defense doesn't hold much water when you consider that in Athens a population of around 30,000 people were being governed by 6,000, tops. That's not to say there were only 6,000 eligible males, but that they could only fit 6,000 into their assembly at one time. So that was a rotating 6,000 depending on the day. There were strength in numbers when it came to hearing all sides of an issue. If you only had 100 people it would be easier to fall into that mob mentality, but not with 6,000. In addition, trials had extremely large juries; think 100 - 1000. So the Athenian model of democracy, while far from perfect, was far from what most reasonable people would call "mob rule."

There's an excellent book about democracy called Manifesto of Real Democracy (http://www.circleofdemocracy.net/). I highly recommend it.


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