Category Archives: E – MEDITATIONS SERIES


This blog has been online for more than eight years. A good deal has changed in that time.

When I began in 2006, it was only read by a hand­ful of friends. Since I held no aca­d­e­mic posi­tion, and had more or less failed as a fic­tion writer, I did my work in obscu­rity. A sin­gle paper, writ­ten in col­lab­o­ra­tion with an estab­lished scholar, Steven R. Muhlberger, was my only claim to aca­d­e­mic legit­i­macy. Steve’s patient friend­ship and emo­tional sup­port have been the key to my sur­vival. His own blog, the lit­er­ate and infor­ma­tive Muhlberger’s World His­tory, pre­ceded mine. The same can be said for Skye Sepp and Isaac White, whose reg­u­lar vis­its, intel­lec­tual stim­u­lus, and com­pan­ion­ship have kept me from going bonkers.

Now, in 2014, the pic­ture is a lit­tle dif­fer­ent. I still work an out­door phys­i­cal labourer’s job to pay the rent (In Toronto’s cur­rent cold snap, my abused mus­cles are nag­gingly remind­ing me of this fact), but I now have a mod­est aca­d­e­mic rep­u­ta­tion, and some of my writ­ings are widely dis­sem­i­nated. I have wit­nessed some of the ideas which, when Democracy’s Place in World His­tory was first pub­lished in 1993, were novel and unortho­dox, become a sig­nif­i­cant stream of thought sur­fac­ing in many quar­ters. The blog has a wide inter­na­tional read­er­ship — though not bloated numbers.

My blog writ­ing is not meant to be the same as for­mal aca­d­e­mic writ­ing, and much of it is rough and unpol­ished. Top­ics as dif­fer­ent as the soci­ol­ogy of silent films, cur­rent hot bands, democ­racy in the ancient world, how to cook ban­nock, and why you shouldn’t climb vol­ca­noes in sub­stan­dard sneak­ers appear in the blog, higgledy-piggledy. But among these, in the begin­ning years, were a series of arti­cles called “Med­i­ta­tions on Democ­racy and Dic­ta­tor­ship” which are still reg­u­larly read today, and have had some influ­ence. They are now buried in the back pages of the blog, and some peo­ple have asked me to re-issue them, so I’m mov­ing them up the chrono­log­i­cal counter so they can have another round of high visibility.

Some ref­er­ences in these “med­i­ta­tions” will date them to 2007–2008, when they were writ­ten. But I will leave them un-retouched. Mostly, they deal with abstract issues that do not need updating.

Phil Paine, Toronto, Mar 18, 2014.


The extended blog entries called “Med­i­ta­tions” have proven to be the most pop­u­lar items on this web­site. While some of these essays have some schol­arly trap­pings (cita­tions, etc.), they are pri­mar­ily per­sonal doc­u­ments, and thus may con­tain col­lo­quial prose, pro­fan­ity, or other non-academic elements.

Any­one is enti­tled to reprint these pieces, as long as they are not altered, and credit is given.

14-03-18 BLOG PREFACE TO THE MEDITATIONS (2010)[Fred­er­ick Dou­glass (1818–1895), born a slave in Mary­land, U.S.A., secretly taught him­self to read, and suc­cess­fully escaped slav­ery in 1838. His auto­bi­og­ra­phy cat­a­pulted him to promi­nence in the anti-slavery move­ment. Widely known as the “Sage of Ana­cos­tia”, Dou­glass was the most promi­nent and influ­en­tial African-American of his cen­tury, and one of the great­est philoso­phers of free­dom in human his­tory. In both word and deed, he strug­gled for the free­dom and equal­ity, not only of African-American males like him­self, but for women, native Amer­i­cans, immi­grants, and all other human beings. One of his favorite quo­ta­tions was: “I would unite with any­body to do right and with nobody to do wrong.”]

From A Nar­ra­tive of the Life of Fred­er­ick Dou­glass, an Amer­i­can Slave (1845):

Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kindly com­menced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in learn­ing to spell words of three or four let­ters. Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once for­bade Mrs. Auld to instruct me fur­ther, telling her, among other things, that it was unlaw­ful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, fur­ther, he said, “If you give a nig­ger an inch, he will take an ell. A nig­ger should know noth­ing but to obey his master–to do as he is told to do. Learn­ing would spoil the best nig­ger in the world. Now,” said he, “if you teach that nig­ger (speak­ing of myself) how to read, there would be no keep­ing him. It would for­ever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unman­age­able, and of no value to his mas­ter. As to him­self, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him dis­con­tented and unhappy.” These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sen­ti­ments within that lay slum­ber­ing, and called into exis­tence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and spe­cial rev­e­la­tion, explain­ing dark and mys­te­ri­ous things, with which my youth­ful under­stand­ing had strug­gled, but strug­gled in vain. I now under­stood what had been to me a most per­plex­ing difficulty–to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achieve­ment, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I under­stood the path­way from slav­ery to freedom.

else­where, Dou­glas said:

To make a con­tented slave it is nec­es­sary to make a thought­less one. It is nec­es­sary to darken the moral and men­tal vision and, as far as pos­si­ble, to anni­hi­late the power of reason.

From Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man:

Man has no prop­erty in Man.

These med­i­ta­tions are con­structed with a par­tic­u­lar dis­ci­pline. Every effort will be made to ensure that their ter­mi­nol­ogy is con­sis­tent and mean­ing­ful. The reader will prob­a­bly notice the con­spic­u­ous absence of some terms that are else­where accepted. The terms “cap­i­tal­ism” and “social­ism”, for exam­ple, are not used any­where because I con­sider them to be buzz­words with­out iden­ti­fi­able mean­ing. The terms “left” and “right”, sup­pos­edly rep­re­sent­ing a “polit­i­cal spec­trum” of ideas and prac­tice, have never been used in my work. This clas­si­fi­ca­tion of polit­i­cal ideas is per­ni­cious non­sense, and its use reduces any polit­i­cal dis­cus­sion to inco­her­ent gib­ber­ish. Instead, I will rely on a ratio­nal clas­si­fi­ca­tion of polit­i­cal move­ments and ideas. The terms “West” and “West­ern”, along with their reveal­ingly ten­den­tious cor­re­late “Non-Western”, are also renounced. They are embar­rass­ing rem­nants of a narrow-minded past, still used with annoy­ing impre­ci­sion and capri­cious­ness. Worst of all, they came into use because of a pro­found mis­un­der­stand­ing of the world’s mosaic of soci­eties. My rea­sons for these judg­ments will be expounded in an appen­dix to the Meditations.

Apart from this dis­ci­pline, I’ll avoid cre­at­ing an idio­syn­cratic jar­gon of my own. I pre­fer plain lan­guage. When I use a word or a phrase in some way that dif­fers from gen­eral cus­tom, or the rea­son­able expec­ta­tions of read­ers, I will make every effort to make my mean­ing clear. How­ever, lan­guage being a slip­pery thing, I can expect to fail at this now and then.

Works of seri­ous thought are not writ­ten with­out an implied audi­ence. The writer can­not avoid hav­ing some men­tal image, how­ever vague, of who is likely to be read­ing their words. Often it can be eas­ily rec­og­nized, for exam­ple, that a given writer assumes that the reader resides in their own coun­try, or is of the same gen­der, or has a sim­i­lar social or edu­ca­tional back­ground. The more seri­ous the sub­ject mat­ter, the more nar­row this assumed audi­ence is likely to be. Occa­sion­ally, a “we” or an “us” will appear in a work that makes it plain that the author assumes that “we” or “us” excludes most of the human race. This is not one of those works. It’s intended for all human beings, every­where on the planet. If I had my druthers, I would pre­fer it to be simul­ta­ne­ously writ­ten in every lan­guage. Unfor­tu­nately, I can only write expres­sively and pre­cisely in one lan­guage, Eng­lish. For­tu­nately, that lan­guage is the world’s most widely dis­trib­uted, and a work writ­ten in Eng­lish can find it’s way into the hands of a diverse read­er­ship, scat­tered across the globe. I am more con­cerned that my ideas reach peo­ple in places like Papua New Guinea, Tran­syl­va­nia, Bourk­ina Fasso, or Burma than that I gain pop­u­lar­ity among my own com­pa­tri­ots. I have friends and acquain­tances in all these places, and the men­tal pic­ture of a reader that hov­ers in my mind, as I write, includes them. They have big­ger prob­lems to deal with than my own coun­try­men. The sub­jects I dis­cuss are more urgent for them. I live in the aston­ish­ingly lucky coun­try called Canada. Com­pared to most places in the world, it has no seri­ous polit­i­cal prob­lems to speak of. I will try not to for­get that, and I will try not to glibly dis­miss the expe­ri­ence of peo­ple for whom the def­i­n­i­tion and appli­ca­tion of democ­racy are life-and-death issues.


Harmodius (Ἁρμόδιος ) & Aristogeiton (Ἀριστογείτωνôn),  the gay lovers honoured by ancient Athenians as the protectors of democracy.

Har­mod­ius (Ἁρμόδιος ) & Aris­to­geiton (Ἀριστογείτωνôn), the gay lovers hon­oured by ancient Athe­ni­ans as the pro­tec­tors of democracy.

All philoso­phies stand on choices that can­not be jus­ti­fied by proof. Any ama­teur Socrates can demon­strate that I can’t prove that two and two are four, or that free­dom is desir­able, or even that I exist. Ulti­mately, ideas, no mat­ter how pas­sion­ately held, rest on assump­tions that can­not be known with absolute cer­tainty. It does not fol­low from this that we should avoid act­ing on sig­nif­i­cant assump­tions, or that we should aban­don the analy­sis of ideas. If I’m stand­ing in the mid­dle of the street, and see a twelve-ton truck hurtling in my direc­tion, I don’t stand there, par­a­lyzed by epis­te­mo­log­i­cal uncer­tainty. I jump out of its way. Later, seated on a com­fort­able couch, with a cold beer in my hand, I might indulge in the lux­ury of reflect­ing that the truck may have been an illu­sion, or that I can­not prove with cer­tainty that being hit by a truck is worse than not being hit by a truck. All of us must choose our basic assump­tions, either in a con­scious process, guided by rea­son, or unconsciously.

This is a med­i­ta­tion on democ­racy, and democ­racy only becomes a coher­ent idea when it rests on the assump­tion that human beings have rights. This, in turn, rests on the assump­tion that there is a moral dimen­sion to the uni­verse. Out­side of these assump­tions, polit­i­cal thought becomes arbi­trary. If indi­vid­ual human beings have no rights, then what­ever hap­pens is self-sufficiently jus­ti­fied, and any state of affairs that human beings find them­selves in is as desir­able as any other. Effec­tively, if there is no moral dimen­sion to the uni­verse, then it is a mat­ter of indif­fer­ence what hap­pens. Events just come to pass ― say, the Holo­caust, or the Slave Trade, or Abu Graib ― and there is no point in dis­cussing them. It is point­less to seek jus­tice or defy injus­tice, because the very idea of jus­tice depends on the assump­tion of a moral­ity that rests upon some­thing more sub­stan­tial than cus­tom or whim. In the absence of moral choice, peo­ple seek some sense of order in human affairs through some amoral orga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple. Loy­alty to a group, obe­di­ence to author­ity, or the famil­iar­ity of rit­ual become sub­sti­tutes for eth­i­cal con­science. Read more »



Þingvel­lir, the out­door site of the medieval Ice­landic elected parliament.

“Civ­i­liza­tion is the process in which one grad­u­ally increases the num­ber of peo­ple included in the term ‘we’ or ‘us’ and at the same time decreases those labeled ‘you’ or ‘them’ until that cat­e­gory has no one left in it.” — Howard Win­ters, an Amer­i­can archae­ol­o­gist who stud­ied ancient set­tle­ment and trade pat­terns [quoted by Anne-Marie Cantwell in Howard Dal­ton Win­ters: In Memo­riam]

“Voice or no voice, the peo­ple can always be brought to the bid­ding of the lead­ers. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the paci­fists for lack of patri­o­tism and expos­ing the coun­try to dan­ger. It works the same in any coun­try.” — Her­mann Wil­helm Göring, sec­ond in com­mand to Adolf Hitler.

What most tellingly dis­tin­guishes demo­c­ra­tic from non-democratic thought is its respect for human beings. By this, I don’t mean respect for some neb­u­lous abstrac­tion called “human­ity” or “the peo­ple”, which is all too eas­ily trans­formed into a mys­ti­cal col­lec­tivism. It’s a respect for real-life indi­vid­ual human beings, who live, fall in love, have chil­dren, and strug­gle to find secu­rity and hap­pi­ness. In demo­c­ra­tic thought, the well­be­ing of indi­vid­ual human beings is the pur­pose and mea­sure of polit­i­cal choices. Well­be­ing, to the demo­c­rat, is defined first in terms of what mat­ters most to con­scious beings — lib­erty, self-respect, dig­nity, con­trol over their own lives. The phys­i­cal neces­si­ties of life, such as food and shel­ter, are mean­ing­less to human beings except within the con­text of those val­ues. We are not cat­tle. Read more »


A convivial gathering of men and women in ancient Pakistan.  The style of art, known Gandharan, drew on influences from India, Persia and Greece.

A con­vivial gath­er­ing of men and women in ancient Pak­istan, dur­ing the Gand­ha­ran era, a time of intel­lec­tual and artis­tic syn­the­sis. Gand­ha­ran art, drama and phi­los­o­phy drew on influ­ences from India, Per­sia and Greece.

West­ern Europe, and lands cul­tur­ally derived from it, have made some rel­a­tively suc­cess­ful approx­i­ma­tions of democ­racy and civil soci­ety, and com­bined them with notice­able pros­per­ity. Peo­ple both inside and out­side this favoured zone won­der why, and they have often sought the answer in two par­tic­u­lar areas: reli­gious tra­di­tions, and the dra­matic intel­lec­tual era called “the Enlight­en­ment”. As some­one who has writ­ten about the uni­ver­sal aspects of democ­racy, I’ve often felt some annoy­ance at what I con­sider parochial views of his­tory, and dubi­ous ideas of causal­ity. I feel great sym­pa­thy for peo­ple out­side the favoured zone, who are hope­ful that they can have a demo­c­ra­tic future, but are dis­com­fited by the “second-banana” sta­tus that it seems to imply for their cul­tural her­itage. This is espe­cially true in the Islamic world, where past cul­tural glo­ries and present embar­rass­ments com­bine to make the search for demo­c­ra­tic reform a touchy sub­ject. I think that an exces­sively car­toon­ish view of the Enlight­en­ment, and of the rela­tion­ship between reli­gion and democ­racy, is part of the prob­lem. Read more »

FOURTH MEDITATION ON DEMOCRACY (written Saturday, September 22, 2007) REPUBLISHED

14-03-18 BLOG FOURTH MEDITATION ON DEMOCRACYRecently, two Cana­dian high school stu­dents did a remark­able thing. It was remark­able enough to gen­er­ate a large amount of com­ment in the blo­gos­phere. Accord­ing to the orig­i­nal news item in the Hal­i­fax Chron­i­cle Her­ald [1], a grade 9 stu­dent “arrived for the first day of school last Wednes­day and was set upon by a group of six to 10 older stu­dents who mocked him, called him a homo­sex­ual for wear­ing pink and threat­ened to beat him up.” Any­one who has attended high school knows the usual out­come of such sit­u­a­tions. But in this case, it was dif­fer­ent. Two senior stu­dents, Travis Price and David Shep­herd, were dis­gusted by this crude bul­ly­ing. “It’s my last year. I’ve stood around too long and I wanted to do some­thing,” David explained. The two stu­dents bought 75 pink tank-tops and, ral­ly­ing stu­dents through the inter­net, per­suaded half the stu­dent body to wear them, or to sup­ply their own. When the bul­lies next came to school, they were con­fronted by an ocean of pink sol­i­dar­ity. “The bul­lies got angry,” said Travis. “One guy was throw­ing chairs (in the cafe­te­ria). We’re glad we got the response we wanted.” Read more »



It’s my con­tention that both hier­ar­chi­cal and egal­i­tar­ian behav­iour are equally “nat­ural” to human beings. These two meth­ods of inter­act­ing with oth­ers in a group have co-existed in all human soci­eties, from the ear­li­est stages of our evo­lu­tion as a species. It is also my con­tention that, while there is a lim­ited place for hier­ar­chi­cal think­ing and behav­iour in a good soci­ety, it is egal­i­tar­ian think­ing that has cre­ated civ­i­liza­tion and moral­ity. Any soci­ety that is dom­i­nated by hier­ar­chy is essen­tially back­ward, self-destructive, and immoral. Read more »



For this Med­i­ta­tion on Democ­racy, the sixth in the series, I will under­take a cri­tique of some cur­rently dom­i­nant ideas about the role of democ­racy in human his­tory, and attempt to pro­vide a con­cep­tual frame­work for look­ing at democ­racy in a dif­fer­ent, more real­is­tic way. This will mean that some of the ground cov­ered in ear­lier med­i­ta­tions will be revis­ited. It will also draw on the col­lab­o­ra­tive work between myself and Prof. Steven Muhlberger, pub­lished in the Jour­nal of World His­tory, and on the World His­tory of Democ­racy Web­site. I am exclu­sively respon­si­ble, how­ever, for the views expressed in this series. Read more »


14-03-18 - BLOG Memorial-at-Lidice-1st-Med-on-Dic

Mon­u­ment at Lidice.
The faces of the chil­dren are not gen­er­al­ized abstrac­tions. They are care­fully recon­structed from pho­tographs to rep­re­sent the indi­vid­ual chil­dren as they were in life.

We are so hamyd,
For-taxed and ramyd,
By these gentlery-men!

― The Wake­field Sec­ond Shep­herds’ Play, c.1425–1450 [1]

We are men the same as they are:
Our mem­bers are as straight as theirs are,
Our bod­ies stand as high from the ground,
The pain we suffer’s as pro­found.
Our only need is courage now,
To pledge our­selves by solemn vow,
Our goods and per­sons to defend,
And stay together to this end…

Robert Wace, Le roman de la Rou et des ducs de Nor­mandie, 1160-70s [2]

On my return to Prague, last year, after tramp­ing in Hun­gary and Tran­syl­va­nia, my friend Filip Marek took a day off for some more explo­rations of the Bohemian coun­try­side. This turned out to be the most emo­tion­ally charged day in my trav­els, and I’ve delayed describ­ing it because of its per­sonal impor­tance to me. Read more »



The argu­ment behind this series of med­i­ta­tions is that aris­to­cratic elites, whether they are dressed up in mil­i­tary uni­forms, busi­ness suits, or the regalia of roy­alty, are iden­ti­cal in pur­pose and func­tion. Dif­fer­ences between them are triv­ial and cos­metic, not struc­tural. The term “dic­ta­tor­ship” applies equally to all places where an unelected gang of hood­lums rules over peo­ple and ter­ri­tory, what­ever their sup­posed ide­ol­ogy or what­ever style they chose to prance around in. I fur­ther con­tend that they are nei­ther morally legit­i­mate, nor “gov­ern­ment” in the sense that demo­c­ra­t­i­cally elected admin­is­tra­tions are. Dic­ta­tors are merely crim­i­nals, no dif­fer­ent from the crim­i­nals that rob con­ve­nience stores or attack women in dark­ened car parks. The only dif­fer­ence is the amount of money they steal and the num­ber of peo­ple they mur­der or maim. Read more »