Supreme Court Supports Tradition on the Senate

Last July 4th I posted an essay “On the Proper Role of a Senate.” It is re-posted here for those who may have missed it. I think this essay reflects the feelings of our Founders on the proper role of a Senate in a democratic system, and readers will see that this in turn rests on a specific conception of our fallible, rather than perfectible, human nature.


In the long Western tradition the changing conceptions of what a Senate ought to be are intimately related to changing conceptions of human nature, and thus serve as a kind of mirror in which to see ourselves reflected as we grapple with the most important political question: How should we make the laws?

The Senates of ancient Greece and Rome, despite their differences, shared an underlying classical model of human nature considered universally true: human beings are weak, but willful and impulsive, and therefore prone to error in the measure that their actions are heated and hasty. For the pagan, this was an eternal truth of human nature. For the Christian, human beings were once perfect in Eden, but fell into sin through disobedience to God. Common to both pagan and Christian however, was the commonsensical belief that will and emotion originate in the heart and the appetitive parts of the body, whereas reason originates in the head.

Accordingly, the standard picture of humanity in the West has been of a divided being forever tormented by a lifelong internal struggle between appetite expressed as Will, and Reason, each vying to be Master by making the other a Slave. This Master/Slave metaphor emerged naturally from slave societies in which freedom was defined, not as today by doing whatever you might want as long as you don’t harm someone else, but as not being a slave. The goal of all free people was to be a rational being who is master of the slave passions.

As it was for the body, so it should be for the body politic. The architects of the ancient democracies felt that the public passions, like the private passions, should be acknowledged and heard, but never given control of the whole body. So in the Greek democracy under Demosthenes, for example, the Senate proposed the laws, and the People discussed and voted on them yea or nay. But the law-making “initiative” was with the Senate and almost all the laws came down from the Senate to the people, rather than the other way around as in the modern democracies.

For the Founders of Canada and America the Master/Slave metaphor was accepted as a fact of personal and political life: when acting without sufficient experience and reflection, the People and their factions will tend to behave emotionally and willfully, will be prone to error and, if acting in a simple democracy will crush all opposing minorities. Hence an appointed Upper House or Senate equating to Reason and filled with wiser and older people who have a stake in the country but are untouched by party, ought to have the final say over the will of the people in the Lower House, or Commons. To omit such a check on the impulsivity of the People is to render them slaves to their own passions.

In retrospect, we could say that the changing role of Senates (the American Senate was changed from appointive to elective in 1913) in the West is an institutional reflection of how human nature is (re)imagined at particular historical periods. In conservative periods of high skepticism concerning natural goodness, the safety check of a Senate is called for to protect all the People from majority oppression. Which is to say: to protect them from themselves! Restraint is then the cry. Conversely, in a liberal period such as our own when a belief in natural human goodness runs high, we hear loud cries for more democracy and the abolition of Senates, because (especially when corrupted by people of low character) they are widely viewed as an intolerable brake on the good and pure will of the People. Freedom is then the cry. The core question, then, has to do with whether or not unchecked human will is good by nature. Modern liberals will say yes, and conservatives will say no.

Since the Romantic period of the eighteenth century which forcefully insisted on natural human goodness and the concomitant belief that the purity of Will is corrupted not by ourselves, but by failed institutions, the historical trend of the Western democracies has been to dissolve the real and metaphorical corporal opposition between Master and Slave by arguing that human passions and appetites are good in themselves and so must be generally unrestrained. Examples are the release of restraints on divorce, homosexuality, pornography, abortion, and euthanasia.

It required but one more step in the logic of unrestraint to dissolve the same opposition in the larger body politic: once the People accept the belief that the Will of the People is an unalloyed good, they accept the idea that as they cannot be enslaved to themselves there is no need for a Senate. But is this true?

On June 18, 2013, Preston Manning, former head of the Reform Party of Canada published an Open Letter to Canada’s Senators in which he opined that “the greatest weakness of the Senate as presently constituted is that Senators are unelected and unaccountable to electors. The Senate lacks the democratic legitimacy required to command public support.”

If we accept the liberal belief that the Will of the People, whatever it may be is inevitably good, then he is right on, as they say. But if we accept the conservative view that the unalloyed Will of the People is improved by the restraint of independent “sober second thought” – that Reason (a Senate) should be the master of Will (a Commons), then such a view is quite wrong-headed. The conservative should then reply that “the greatest strength of the Senate is that Senators are unelected and unaccountable to the electors. The Senate has the legitimacy required to command public support precisely because it is not democratic and was never intended to be.”

This latter position seeks to avoid the conflict of democratic legitimacy that inevitably arises between two elected bodies each vying to represent the true will of the people (thus to avoid American-style political gridlock), and to preserve the proper relationship between Reason and Will.

It all boils down to the acceptance or rejection of the Master/Slave metaphor of human nature. The weakness in the conservative case is only the paucity of Senators of high character and independent mind who refuse in principle to self-corrupt or to be slaves of popular Will.

That is the mirror in which we are reflected.

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