David Brooks has started a series of columns in the New York Times that he called Heroes of Democracy. The columns are biographical but also insights into the ideas that explained and sustained the democratic momentum of the 19th and 20th centuries.
He starts with Thomas Mann, Nobel Prize winning author of “Magic Mountain” and other novels, who fled the Nazis and came to America. As Brooks said:
Democracy begins with one great truth, he argued: the infinite dignity of individual men and women. Man is made in God’s image. Unlike other animals, humans are morally responsible. Yes, humans do beastly things — Mann had just escaped the Nazis — but humans are the only creatures who can understand and seek justice, freedom and truth. This trinity “is a complex of an indivisible kind, freighted with spirituality and elementary dynamic force.”
Second in the series is John Stuart Mill, the 19th century philosopher who argued for freedom of speech in service to democracy. Brooks said that to Mill:
Real citizenship is a life-transforming vocation. It involves, at base, cultivating the ability to discern good from evil, developing the intellectual virtues required to separate the rigorous from the sloppy, living an adventurous life so that you are rooting yourself among and serving those who are completely unlike yourself.
Students of history, and anyone who cares about democracy, may want to stay tuned to David Brooks. We’re taking bets on the rest of the list in history class here at Radford University.