History may be a series of more or less contingent events, whose only connection to the preceding or following ones is that men react to what others do.  Such events are basically disjointed because each one depends on the more or less unpredictable behavior of those men who are able to attract enough followers to stand out from the mass of secondary facts that constitute the fabric of day-to-day history.

Since philosophy rests on the conviction that visible things are merely the reflection of nonvisible principles or causes, for the philosopher the interest of factual “history” is strictly limited to providing him with phenomena whose meaning, transcending their perceptible evidence, ends up constituting the unraveling of a scheme that transcends particular men or times.  But such meaning can only stem from a reflection on an extended period of time.  Historical wisdom, like the owl, only rises after the sun has set.

Faced with the infinity of facts that the historian has provided, the philosopher acts as a sieve: To him some facts emerge as truly significant, while many others are irrelevant.  At the risk of being blamed for arrogance as well as ignorance or indifference to the complexity and intricacy of historical reality, I shall use only the gross evidence of some massive facts to support a certain overview of the modern West’s historical development, whose climax is arguably the Great War—the war that set the world afire exactly 100 years ago.  This is why I think it necessary to refer back to the French Revolution.

Setting aside the question of this Revolution’s causes, I shall argue it is difficult not to see in that momentous event a turning point in the history of the Western world: Never before had there been so many men outwardly bent on radically changing the world.  They were not merely intent on toppling a monarchical system; their unshakable faith in the democratic idea rested basically upon their conviction that democracy was the tool with which they could build a new world, and a perfect one at that, because for the first time in history men could build it together and on an equal footing without the hindrance of nefarious tyrants or even more nefarious superstitions.  So much so that they had no qualms about being aggressive.  They had a mission: to save a straying mankind from its own sins and to create a regenerated one, which meant declaring war upon the unfaithful—the rest of the world—as they actually did in 1792.  The French Revolution erupted in the midst of Europe the way volcanoes are born, slicing through the crust of multisecular societies, splitting their fabric.  Never after was anything the same as before.

Just the same the world was not turned upside down right away.  Taken by surprise, the old Europe folded at first, but the better to bounce back, at least apparently: 25 years after the initial outburst, the united kingdoms of Europe (the Holy Alliance) managed to set a lid on the mouth of the volcano, and Napoleon, heir to the Revolution, was sent off to the boondocks.  By 1815, the French Revolution appeared to be history.  But the volcano was smothered, not extinguished.  Another 25 years passed before the lava, following underground channels, erupted here and there throughout the Continent.  In 1848, France became a new republic and played pied piper to Italy, Austria, and the German confederation, where the people, set afire once again by the new French Revolution, declared their right to dispose freely of themselves, which amounted, wittingly or not, to a demand for popular sovereignty, for democracy.  History was repeating itself, and Europe had returned to 1789.  But history continued to repeat itself so that once more the volcano was quelled, and by the 1850’s, emperors seemed to be back on their traditional thrones, even in France, at least momentarily.  It is even arguable that, besides the creation of a re d’Italia, one of the significant facts of the end of the 19th century was the birth of imperial Germany, whose ever-increasing power was a bulwark against democratic ideas.  Seen from a certain distance, democracy seemed to have suffered a new setback.

The volcano was merely waiting for a weakness to appear in the European political crust.  Once that happened, its lava swept away the old Europe once and for all.  I certainly will not attempt to delve into the causes of World War I.  I shall leave this topic and its intricacies to historians.  But if there is some ground for the notion that men do not realize what they are really doing but do it anyway, as if moved by forces they are unable to acknowledge but to which they submit, the outbreak of World War I provides material almost too good to be true.  For whatever was involved in the genesis of the war, its outcome cannot be doubted: the total and irreversible collapse, at least in the Western world, of all political regimes that did not smack of democracy, and of all massively popular support for any idea even faintly alluding to Europe’s nondemocratic past, meaning aristocratic or monarchical systems.  Considered from a sufficient distance it is obvious that World War I truly amounted, both wittingly and unwittingly, to a new crusade spurred by devotion to a new god, a crusade launched against whatever countries did not worship democracy.  It was indeed a crusade to “make the world safe for democracy.”

On one hand, the main winners were democracies, especially the United States and France, or supporters of democracy, like England (a nominal monarchy).  On the other hand, not only did the Russian, Austrian, and German empires disappear (as well as the Turkish one, for that matter) but all the former kingdoms that took part in the war, like the Italian, the Hungarian, and the Rumanian, gave birth to regimes in which the kings either became mere puppets or fell under the close supervision of strong men whose constant claim was that they were mere followers of the people of whom they were the leaders, or the mere expression of their will.  The claim was by no means unfounded: The fact is that, however dictatorial the rule of the new men, there were masses to take sides with them and follow them blindly.  Neither Lenin, nor Hitler, nor Mussolini could have succeeded without popular support, and it is too systematically overlooked that men like Mussolini and Hitler were by no means princes or kings but leaders, Duce or Führer, which meant their power rested upon their having followers, and enthusiastic ones at that.  Indeed, throughout history, the real power of dictators has come from the people, and their legitimacy is basically of a democratic nature.

All in all, what the Great War achieved was a mutation of the standard principle of legitimacy that was supposed to underwrite the wielding of political power.  Before the outbreak of the war, most of Europe believed power belonged to men who, one way or the other, were deemed to possess a particular title to govern; at the end of the war, who remained—apart from some eccentric minds like Charles Maurras or Ezra Pound—to hail monarchies or aristocracies?  The scale had tilted, and common wisdom prevailed that there was to be no legitimate power that did not emanate from the people as from its only valid source.  The discreet but titanic struggle to the death between the democratic principle—all power arises from the people—and the traditional principle (all power comes eventually from God) ended at last with the final eradication of the idea that power is such a formidable thing that no man or assembly of men should feel entitled to use it as they please.  Once and for all, democracy had become the worst of all regimes, except for all the others.

World War I left another momentous legacy: a new perception of world politics.  It may be argued that, until 1914, nations were, for better or for worse, basically considered as the main actors of history.  Even modern ones, even nations built more upon a social contract than upon a prescriptive common history, like France, had not entirely shed their soul, a moral or spiritual unity inherited from history, which had been their essence for centuries.  But within democracy lay the seeds of the nations’ degeneration, for democracy was perceived as a political system suitable not only to France but to the rest of the world, which was already demonstrated by Napoleon’s endeavor to conquer Europe.  Democracy was, and is, an ideology whose essence is to claim universal acceptance: Since the Versailles treaty, the world has belonged to democracies, the only regimes that could peacefully coalesce into a general society of mankind.  In other words, the epiphany of democracy ushered in a globalist outlook that transformed nations into mere momentary repositories of a message more important than their own historical beings.  As of 1919 it was not only democracy that prevailed, but internationalism, the building of a League of Nations.

Together with the love of one’s country, it was the reverence for the past that began to wane—and so the stage was set for resuming the enlightened dream of reshaping the world, having another go at it.  It is no happenstance that hardly had the war ended when grand schemes started blossoming with the goal of turning the world into a society of mankind, under the flag of democracy.

This is why history did not stop in 1919 but, hidden from the public mind, followed the lead implicitly provided by World War I.  World War II followed, apparently fought by the West in the name of freedom and democracy against the oppression of the people by new or particularly bloody tyrants.  It was taken for granted that the war waged between 1939 and 1945 was the decisive one, by which democracy would at last overcome tyranny.  Such an opinion, though widely popular, is actually deeply mistaken, a mistake originating in a voluntary blindness to the true nature of democracy.  What the Great War actually did was to usher in a new world, at least a new West, but unfortunately a West to be torn from within and unable to know true peace or true freedom, because, though apparently united by the cult of democracy, it is actually divided by the two different meanings that can be attached to the word democracy.

What exactly is it that the masses find so appealing in the sovereignty of the people, if not the fact that what is meant by “the people” is nothing for each citizen but himself?  Why is it that the average citizen is so keen on supporting the sovereignty of the people, if not because, since the “sovereign people” is nothing but the sum of all the individual citizens, he must be a sovereign?  And if it is argued that his own power is but a speck of power, then the only other choice for him is to accept the lordship of men, like a king or noblemen, who in any case are not from, but above, the people—i.e., himself—and therefore be doomed to trust them to use their power to the best of his interests.  In other words, what makes democracy so popular is its claim to be a political system in which each citizen is supposed, and expects, to enjoy being his one and only master, something he is denied in any other system, because in any other system he is obliged to obey someone with whom he cannot identify.

Then, if so much is true, there are two sorts of democracy, because there are two ways for the individual citizen to enjoy the sovereignty he believes the system has promised him.

One is to follow his hubris and freely do whatever he pleases all by himself, or with the help he can provide himself by bargaining with others—to fend for himself and grab whatever his forces or talents allow him to reap.  This democracy may be dubbed liberal, libertarian, hedonistic, mercantile, anarchistic, competitive, constitutional, or jungle-like, depending on the willingness of citizens to adopt common rules and sincerely follow them.  For half of the world today, this is democracy.

But there is the other half, which believes in a kind of democracy that is not generally understood as such, because the supreme law—written or unwritten—or the most hideous crime is to stand out from the lot or appear to fare better than others.  Such were the egalitarian or totalitarian systems, as enacted in Revolutionary France in 1793, in Soviet Russia as of 1919, or again (horresco referens) in Nazi Germany after 1933—systems in which, whatever their differences, the leaders shared a common reference to the people as their power base.  In other words, most people have not as yet realized there is another way of being a sovereign citizen: to make sure no one else is more sovereign than oneself.  I’m rich if I own a Rolls Royce that few others own, but I’m equally rich if nobody is allowed to own one, or if those who do are supposed to owe it to the will of the people (which makes the band of unofficially privileged leaders unassailable, though they be gangsters).

All in all, if democracy means the sovereignty of the citizens, there are basically two ways to achieve this sovereignty.  But both have their drawbacks.  Life in a jungle is constant harassment, and life when one has to appear relentlessly in step with others is no fun, either.  So a democratic world has to balance unceasingly between two equally satisfactory and unsatisfactory choices; it is doomed to wage a constant war with itself.  As of 1919 such a war was unwittingly declared, and as of 1939, it was openly waged.  It is a war that no side can ever win for good, an international war waged between puppet nations whose strings are pulled by representatives of opposite types of democratic world order, and a civil war waged within them between the two democratic sects that try to prevail in their midst.  It is unfortunately all too likely that such a war will eventually drive to extinction Europe at large, from Vancouver to Moscow, and will cause its surrender to invaders who have not fallen prey to the democratic delirium.

Such is the way of the West.  Such is our inheritance from the Great War, the mother of all modern wars, the war through whose travails was painfully born the unviable new world in which every man dreams of being a sovereign, if merely a petty one.