Cuius Religio, Eius Res Publica. From Multiple Modernities to Multiple Democracies
Alessandro Ferrara, University of Rome Tor Vergata 23 March 2015

From the “rise of modern rationalism” to “multiple modernities” and the rediscovery of the Axial Age

For the notion of multiple modernities and its polemical emphasis against the linear theory of modernization Shmuel Eisenstadt is usually credited. His life-work encompasses the transition from a comparative version of the paradigm of modernization to the paradigm of multiple modernities. Drawing on Weber’s thesis about the distinctive contribution of Calvinism to the development of a modern capitalist society, Eisenstadt began a comparative investigation of different paths to modernization.

In the late 1960’s he brought together an influential volume (Eisenstadt 1968) on the “functional equivalents” of Puritanism in a plurality of non-Western contexts — Tokugawa religion in Meiji Japan, certain sub-traditions of Islam in North Africa, Gandhi’s version of Hinduism, the santris of East Java and countless other. Emphasis was still on explaining why some countries have gone further along the path of a modern “economy & society”-nexus, and the explanation was sought in terms of the transformative potential inherent in the “economic ethic” (Wirtschaftsethik) conveyed by various strands of religiosity. Back in the 1960’s, it was still a matter of “faster” and “slower” modernization, “first-wave” modernization and subsequent adaptations.

Quite revealing of the underlying spirit of the comparative research program is Eisenstadt’s comparison of Catholic and Protestant societal contexts in Europe. The seeds of what Polany would call “the great transformation” existed “in most countries” of Europe: yet, argues Eisenstadt, “in the Catholic countries — in Spain, France, and even earlier in the Italian states of the Renaissance in which modern statecraft first developed — these potentially diversifying tendencies were stifled” (Eisenstadt 1968: 12). Innovative features such as the newly emerging role of the capitalist entrepreneur, the new type of wage-labor, the banking system, even though sporadically present, in Catholic countries could not “be freed from their dependence, in terms both of goal orientation and legitimation, on the political center” (Eisenstadt 1968: 13). From this comparative perspective, religious cultures were examined by Eisenstadt in terms of their potential for producing results similar to those attributed to the influence of Puritanism — i.e., in terms of their potential for leading to a rationalization of culture, of social life and of the actor’s life-conduct.[1]

Forty years later, in the decade 2000-2010, this research-program in “comparative modernization” undergoes a radical change. Attention is paid now not so much to the convergence of institutional, economic, social and cultural patterns onto a modern form of life originating in and epitomized by the West, but to the specific and alternative paths followed by societies rooted in different cultural-civilizational-religious contexts, when they negotiate their own distinctive version of the patterns of structural differentiation, urbanization, autonomization of the market, the replacement of status with contract and of ascription with achievement, and patterns of cultural and institutional reflexivity which characterize a modernity no longer prejudicially equated with its Western version. The insight underlying the paradigm of multiple modernities is the idea that becoming modern and becoming Westernized are two different things which need not coincide.[2]

As Eisenstadt, Riedel and Sachsenmaier (2002: 3-4) point out, earlier approaches to modernity and modernization embedded the strong assumption that the structural transformations distinctive of a modern society (again, urbanization, the rise of a market economy based on wage-labor and separated from the State, reflexivity) would spontaneously result in giving rise to a “secular and rational world-view” and to a widespread atomistic individualism. As in Walzer’s reconstruction of the “covering-law” universalism rooted in Isaiah’s prophetic voice (Walzer 1990), according to modernization theorists Western modern societies have the privilege of living under patterns which others will at best come to imitate at later points in history. Current approaches couched in the paradigm of multiple modernities, instead, renounce this perspective, deconstruct the “ideologically premised” unity of the very Western form of modernity, by pointing to the variability of modern patterns across the Atlantic Ocean and between Northern and Southern Europe, and above all emphasize that, pace Fukuyama, “although modernity has spread to most of the world, it has not given rise to a single institutional pattern or a single modern civilization” (Sachsenmaier, Riedel and Eisenstadt 2002: 4, emphasis AF).[3] Rather, modernity has “influenced the development of several modern civilizations, or at least civilizational patterns, i.e. of societies that share some characteristics, but have developed different ideological and institutional dynamics” (Eisenstadt, Riedel and Sachsenmaier 2002: 4).

This reorientation can be understood as a function both of a cultural dynamics associated with the decentering of reason, typical of Western high-culture after the Linguistic Turn of the early 20th century and of globalization. What has come under attack in the decade 2000-10 is the very idea that when conceiving and institutionalizing modern patterns of sociation and political life, the West can legitimately “draw from its internal resources while the others must be inspired solely from outside” (Sachsenmeier, Riedel and Eisenstadt 2002: 58).

The attempt to de-Westernize the notion of modernity has led to a resurgence of interest for the notion of an axial age. The term refers to a quantum leap, relatively concentrated in time when compared with the tempo of the evolution of the species and simultaneously occurring in several distinct civilizational contexts, in the reflexivity of social organization — an increase in reflexivity consisting in an “opening up of potentially universal perspectives, in contrast to the particularism of more archaic modes of thought”, in an “ontological distinction between higher and lower levels of reality, and a normative subordination of the lower level to the higher” (Arnason 2005: 2). Such increased reflexivity in turn generates new dimension of agency, a perception of historicity and responsibility of human actions and institutions (Wittrock 2005: 67).

Max Weber was the first to notice, in his essays on Hinduism and Buddhism within his investigation on the sociology of religion, that in India a philosophical reflection on nature and religion developed in the VII century BC, to be accompanied within the span of a few centuries by the rise of Confucianism, of Greek philosophy and of Judaic prophecy. Although causally unconnected, these breakthroughs in cultural evolution set the scene for the overcoming of magical, animistic and mythological world-views, and generated diverse but convergent paths to a differentiated and more reflexive social life.

Then Karl Jaspers in his Origin and Goal of History formulated the idea of an axial age as a “total spiritual phenomenon”.[4] In an attempt to decenter the Western vision of universal history, which from Augustine to Hegel had centered “on a Christian or post-Christian axis of progress”, Jaspers conceived of the “spiritual process” of the axial age as the rise of a “common frame of historical self-comprehension for all peoples” (quoted in Arnason 2005: 27). The substance of this “common frame” is constituted by a shared awareness, on the part of the human subject, “of Being as a whole, of himself and his limitations”, as well as by an experience of absoluteness “in the depths of selfhood and in the lucidity of transcendence” (Jaspers 1953: 8). At the same time, the multifocal narrative of the axial age is one of diversity. Like in the reiterative type of universalism which Walzer understands as originating from Amos’s prophecy, each and every axial breakthrough generates a historical path of its own: hence the axial age constitutes the paradigm for thinking of a multiplicity of modernities, supposedly one for each of the major civilizations where the axial breakthrough occurred.

With Eisenstadt — and also with Eric Voegelin’s work[5] — the axial age is brought into systematic relation with modernity. Axiality, as Arnason points out, introduces an unprecedented dynamism into the balancing of “order-maintaining” and “order-transforming” symbolic forces within each of the axial civilizations, leading to a long-term prevalence of transformation, though with different historical pace in different contexts.

Democracy and the spirit of democracy

This perspective on axiality can be fruitful when applied to the prospect for democracy in the world we inhabit. Democracy qua self-government originated at the time of the first axial age, in the Western version of it which unfolded in Greece, then flourished to unprecedented levels when, during the second axial age, it got combined with the liberal idea of individual rights, with the notion of a constitution and constitutionalism and with the modern nation-State (itself a combination of a State-apparatus, the rule of law, a nation with a common history and memory, a territorially delimited market economy), and now in the global world has become a general horizon and the legitimate form of government par excellence. Evidence for this claim is the fact that no one, when considering the kind of polity existing in Spain, UK, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands or Belgium, thinks that these polities cannot be considered democracies because technically they are monarchies — just as during the past 24 centuries everyone would have been thought.

In fact, since Plato’s time up to the last hundred years democracy had basically remained what it has always been — the rule of the many, as opposed to the rule of the few or the one. It is only after democracy’s merging with the modern nation-state, with liberalism and constitutionalism, that all the major democratic advances have occurred: the separation of powers, universal suffrage, social rights, the protection of privacy, the ideal of publicity and transparency in administration, gender equality, cultural rights and multiculturalism, the rights of the future generations. This process, in combination with the communicative possibilities opened up by the process of globalization and the competitive economic pressures equally emanating from it, has led to a series of big waves of democratization in the last third of the 20th century and at the beginning of the 21st: first some countries in Southern Europe in the 1970’s (Spain, Portugal, Greece), then the momentous wave of the democratization of Central and Eastern European countries after 1989, then the democratization of the countries of Latin America in the 1990’s, and now the Arab Spring of 2011.

However, this tremendous success carries its problems. First and foremost, democracy risks becoming a vague term of praise that every regime in the world tries to obtain on account of the obvious advantages it procures: easier credit lines with the main global financial institutions, being off the blacklist of the NGO’s defending human rights, easier diplomatic avenues for pressing one’s interests in the global arena. Second, the major global players also have an interest in presenting their internal publics the image of their carrying out their foreign policy in partnership not with dictators and authoritarian regimes, but with countries that strive to realize democracy “within the limits of their context”. These two powerful forces converge in trying to establish a view of democracy as merely a set of procedures, exportable anywhere and universally preferable to outright conflict or explicit oppression — a view of democracy as a mere going through certain democratic motions (campaigning on the part of a plurality of parties, perhaps debating on TV, voting, tallying the vote in a fair way, forming majorities, governing). Such view is misguided from a normative point of view: democracy so conceived can easily lead to the self-destruction of the democratic regime, as the example of Hitler and the countless other authoritarian or totalitarian regimes brought into being by popular vote can attest. It is also descriptively inaccurate: Egypt and Tunisia were countries where elections were held — in fact Mubarak was re-elected for the fourth time with an overwhelming majority — and it would be an utter mystery why people would want to risk their lives in order to obtain what they already have, if democracy were to be equated with voting.[6]

For these reasons, democracy’s success and its becoming a taken-for-granted horizon for thinking the legitimacy of legitimate government poses the challenge of offering an understanding of what fully fledged democracy means. Paraphrasing a distinction that Weber eloquently drew between “capitalism” and the “spirit of capitalism” – respectively exemplified by the profit-seeking activity of usurers, military contractors, traders, large merchants in Greece, Rome, Florence versus the entrepreneurs in Manchester in the 18th and 19th century – we could say that true democracy is “democracy with the spirit of democracy”. That is also where our difficulties begin: it is easier to export the “motions” that supposedly define democracy than the culture that turns democracy into a distinctive form of political and social life where all can live at one with themselves.

In another paper (Ferrara 2010) I have tried to reconstruct a genealogy of the “spirit of democracy” by way of tracing cultural presuppositions of democracy that in turn generate an affective infrastructure of basic democratic attitides — a passion for the common good, a passion for equality which results today in a passion for equal recognition, a passion for individuality and a passion for openness. In the light of the multiple modernities debate, the relevant question is: does the “spirit of democracy” so conceived resonate with one and only one specific version of modernity?

George Kateb has famously (and, unbeknownst to him, problematically) noted that democracy qua ethos and way of life, as understood for example by Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman “is the culmination of radical protestantism” (Kateb 1992: 85).[7] To remain within parochial Christian boundaries, is democracy then doomed to remain imperfect in non-radical protestant contexts, not to mention Catholic contexts? What about non-Christian contexts? For those who are not “among Jefferson’s fortunate heirs” (Habermas 1996: 62-63) is democracy doomed to remain a mere procedural form forever disjoined from the true “spirit of democracy”? This is where the idea of “multiple democracies” can be of help.

In order to facilitate this process, what we political philosophers could do is to disentangle significant aspects of the “spirit of democracy” from the original cultural seedbed related to the Puritan ethos and then to work out versions of it that may be compatible with other cultural configurations.

The following considerations constitute some preliminary and tentative exploration in that direction. First, I will highlight moments of convergence that relate to at least three of the sub-components of the “spirit of democracy” or democratic ethos: the orientation to the common good, to equality and to the intrinsic value of individuality. I will be looking at diverse cultural sources that could sustain these orientations with a comparable force as it has been the case with Protestantism. Second, I will highlight moments of persisting dissonance between the fundamentals of Western modern liberal democracy and the various religious cultures of the world. Unless we come to terms with these, we will not be in a position to grasp how the alternative modalities of the “spirit of democracy” can still be variants of the same thing.

Consonances across diversity

Let me begin with the orientation to the common good, or the willingness to yield to the general interest in deliberation. Arguably, this is the first and most important distinctive trait attributed to democracy. Its origin can be traced back to Montesquieu. The democratic (no less than the aristocratic) version of what he called “republic” famously rests and depends on the existence of the “political sentiment” of “virtue” among the citizens (Montesquieu 1989: Book III, n. 2), where “virtue” is a complex attitude which includes an orientation towards the common good and a readiness to stand back and yield to what the common good requires – a kind of attitude so fundamental for democracy that it becomes an indispensable ingredient of Rousseau’s “general will” (as distinct from the “will of all”) (Rousseau 1967: 30-31) and whose reflection can still be seen in the Rawlsian notion of reciprocity and in the priority of “political values” over other kinds of values within “political liberalism” (Rawls 2005: 50-51, 139).

The common good

An equivalent emphasis on the priority of the common good can be easily found in a plurality of religious cultures. We need only recall the Confucian idea of “harmony” and of the good of the people as the object of rulership, the Buddhist view of community and of the “brotherhood” of fellow believers as in the service of the advancement of the good of the larger society,[8] the Moslem Ulamas’s continuous emphasis on promotion of the common good as a legally significant concept (Zaman 2006: 130-39), and in the Hindu tradition one can find authoritative reference to the overarching notion of the common good even in Kautilya’s (c. III century BCE) Arthashastra and in King Ashoka’s Sixth Rock Edict (where dharma is said to be the object of his policies because it leads to the common good),[9] not to mention Gandhi’s teaching in modern times.

More difficult, but at the same time crucial, is to find equivalents of the connected and counterbalancing notions — crucial to democratic theorizing — of every individual’s having an equal say in what the common good is and of a resulting acceptability of a plurality of legitimate visions of the common good, of the notion of every citizen’s equal entitlement to try to advance their vision of the common good and of consent as a standard of legitimacy. Consequently, the convergence of a plurality of religious sources will be discussed in the remainder of this section with respect to three further aspects of the spirit of democracy over and beyond an emphasis of the common good: namely a convergence on a) accommodating pluralism, b) consent as the ground as opposed to being a sign of legitimate rule and c) accepting the equality of all citizens.


Multiple sources for accommodating pluralism — sources other than mere equivalents of the tradition that runs from Voltaire’s scepticism to Rawls’s “burdens of judgment” — are relatively unproblematic to find. Islam, for one thing, is argued by distinguished scholar Ali İhsan Yitik never to have included, let alone mandated, a motto like extra ecclesiam nulla salus, but to have always accepted the possibility of salvation outside its borders (Yitik 2004: 1).[10] In the Confucian tradition a fundamental difference separates “agreeing” and “harmonizing”, where harmonizing preserves a central place for respect of plurality.[11] Throughout Chinese history, although he (harmony) has often resulted in mere tong (uniformity), the conceptual resources are there for always addressing this degeneration and restoring a unity which contains plurality.[12] Hindu religiosity also includes the acceptance of pluralism as one of its core notions, as eloquently stated in the famous Vedic verse according to which truth “is One, though the sages know it variously” (Ékam sat vipra bahudā vadanti) (Rig Veda 1.164.46) and reasserted in the Bhagavad Gita where all paths are said to lead to God, leaving then room for the notion of other religions embedding specific aspects of the truth. Similarly, Buddhism embeds at its core a pluralistic combination of the “unity of Ultimate Being with the freedom of different paths for realizing it” (Murti 1980: 341).[13] In the Hebrew tradition, the line of prophecy originating with Amos has been argued by Walzer to exclude that there is one and only one chosen people and path to salvation and even the phrase “evil in God’s sight” should not be interpreted as identifying just one set of evil acts, but rather as suggesting that God “blesses each nation differently” and that “there is a set of evil acts for each nation, though the different sets certainly overlap” (Walzer 1990: 516).[14]

Consent as the ground of legitimacy

Moving on to the second element, consent as the ground of legitimacy is very evident in Sunni Islam, less so in Sh’ia Islam. More specifically, leaders (imam) of the Muslim community are supposed to be selected on the basis of communal consensus and on their individual merits, though certainly this has been only an episodical practice during history, but the principle is certainly there (Hallaq 1986).[15] With reference to both adjudication and deliberation, furthermore, it has been argued that “diversity and differences among human beings are claimed in the Qur’anic discourse as merciful divine gifts to humankind (11:119) (El Fadl 2006: 11). Also within Buddhism the notion can be found that kings derive their legitimacy from the general consent of the people they ruled. Several of the Jakata stories in the Pali Canon implicitly suggest that people had a right to overthrow a king who was cruel, unjust or incompetent (Jataka I, 326; III, 513-14; VI, 156).

Confucianism can be argued both to contain and intrinsic idea of consent as the ground of legitimacy and a sui generis idea of equality, which leads us into the third dimension of non-Western notion of the “spirit of democracy”. By contrast to the received notion of a Confucian natural penchant for authoritarianism — active rulership being conceived as the prerogative of those who display moral exemplarity — it has been argued that underlying the Confucian idea of dedication to the common good on the part of the ruler is a notion of equality as the equal possession, on the part of all the members of the people, of a moral capacity to reach perfection. As Ranjoo Seodu Herr has suggested,

“If due respect for the people is not forthcoming and leaders neglect or vitiate the people’s well-being, then the people are entitled to complain to, criticize, dissent from, and even actively depose the leaders, precisely because their equal moral potentiality entitles them to the most optimal social conditions for realizing such potentiality. Therefore, equality among Confucian persons is the fundamental idea undergirding and safeguarding Confucian politics” (Herr 2010: 280).”

The equality of citizens

The idea of the equality of citizens constitutes perhaps the single most important dividing line between a fully-fledged liberal-democratic polity and what counts for Rawls as a “decent polity”.[16] What makes of a political order a decent polity is the presence of a view of the common good overwhelmingly shared, but also questioned at the margins, and the presence of a “decent consultation hierarchy” when decisions are to be made, which allows for pluralism to find expression. What then distinguishes a decent from a liberal-democratic polity is the non-equal or equal right of every citizen to express their views. Underlying the project of “multiple democracies” is the question whether a diversity of paths of progression “from decency to democracy” can be reconstructed on the basis of the different religious and civilizational bedrocks upon which decent polities rest.

In this respect, whereas the Lockean and later Jeffersonian idea that “all men are equal because they were created equal” cannot be easily generalized beyond the boundaries of Christianity, the “political-liberal” idea that the ground of equality resides in the equal possession of the “two moral powers” on the part of all human beings and in their potential for constituting “self-authenticating sources of valid claims” is much more versatile. Over and beyond the case for a Confucian egalitarian and democratic polity,[17] similar cases can be made for Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna’s message to his followers is “I am equally disposed to all loving entities; there is neither friend nor foe to me” (9, 29). In the Dhammapada of the Buddhist canon, the idea is found that to become a brahmin is not a matter of birth or natural disposition: only the one dedicated to searching for the truth, whatever his station in life, can be a brahmin.[18] As far as Islam is concerned, in the wake of his Sudanese mentor Ustadh Mahmoud Mohamed Taha’s interpretation of the Qur’ân as envisaging the equality of all human beings, An-Na’im has maintained that the parts of the Qur’ân connected with the Mecca period of Mohammed’s prophecy, as opposed to the later Medina period (during which concerns about ruling over unruly tribes and unrestful poliethnic populations inspired a more conservative message) constitute its normative core and ground the idea of a full equality of all those included in the polity, to the point of granting them religious freedom and gender equality (An-Na’im 2008: 54-62 and 106-08).[19] An-Na’im goes further than a mere compatibility-thesis and argues that shura – the practice of non-binding consultation in matters of public decision-making on the part of the rulers – could be made to evolve into a practice of resorting to “institutionalized constitutional principles that include the population at large” (An-Na’im 2008: 108).[20] Having said this, however, the unfinished task remains to specify how the equality of citizens takes on a specific coloring when it comes to gender lines and to lines of religious multiconfessional diversity, and how the concepts of public reason and reasonability resonate in contexts where the background culture is significantly different.[21]

Individuality as a value

Another area of convergence is that of individuality, the one which the “democratic individualists” such as Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman and later George Kateb identified as quintessential for defining the spirit of democracy and yet the most difficult to detach from the Puritan background.[22] Yet even on this most impervious terrain equivalent cultural resources can be found. For example, in the idea of the individual members of an Islamic polity sharing in the quality of being “vicegerents” of God, or “vicegerents” of the Prophet in another version, lies the challenge of interpreting the Qur’an along more inclusive lines and deriving from it a conjectural argument leading to less suspicious attitude towards the Western notion of individual autonomy (El Fadl 2006).[23]

With reference to Confucianism, it has been argued that the Confucian self is a “reflective, and ceaselessly transformative being” (Tu, 1989, p. 45) and that ability for self-reflection is the primary means through which the imperative of self-perfection is responded to (Cheng 2004: 124-35). Although such self-reflection cannot be equated in all respects with the Western notion of individual autonomy, it does provide for many of the results associated with moral autonomy, notably with the capacity for rethinking and reimanining the web of social relations within which the self emerges and develops (Kupperman 2004). One of the loci where a Confucian concept of personal autonomy can be found is provided by the eloquent passage of the Analects, where the Master points out that the Gentleman agrees with others without being an echo. The small man echoes without being in agreement” (XIII, 23).

More complicated is to work out the locus of autonomy in the “no-self view of the self” characteristic of Buddhism. In order to discover the moment of contact between the Western and the Buddhist apparently opposed conceptions, one has to direct attention to the more encompassing notion of the person. The enlightened person who has understood the illusory quality of ātman or the unitary, volitional self, and has learned to attend the void or substanceless of any supposed core of identity, has done so certainly not in order to put herself at the mercy of external stimuli and unbridled inner urges. On the contrary, the person has attained a higher-level of self-control and self-awareness, and transcended the particularity of attachments, expanding her boundaries somehow from the limited ones of an insignificant self to the limitless ones of a “great self”.[24] The arahant, namely the person who through the Noble Eightfold Path (āryāṣṭāgamārga) has carried the process of personal development to perfection and has developed all the good aspects of the personality, is described as “one with a mind like a diamond”: just a a diamond, the mind of such a person can “cut” anything but cannot itself be cut.

Persisting dissonances: the “spirit of democracy” in the plural

After highlighting the convergence of a plurality of religious cultures onto a set of distinctive aspects of the spirit of democracy — orientation towards the common good, acceptance of pluralism, consent as the ground of legitimate rule, equality of citizens, capacity of the person to raise above the received cultural inputs — we need to cast a glimpse also on the dissonances, namely on those points of friction between the fundamentals of Western modern liberal democracy and the various religious cultures of the world. By focusing on dissonances, it is possible to launch the critical imagination well beyond the existing forms and it is possible, for those who inhabit Western liberal-democratic polities, to enrich their critical self-understanding by way, to use Chakrabarty’s felicitous expression, of “provincializing” their own, up to now mainstream, ways (Chakrabarty 2007). Also, by focusing on dissonances, we can exert the political imagination in order to envision a plurality of paths of progression from a decent polity to a fully-fledged but not necessarily Westernized liberal-democratic polity.

Among the points of dissonance which a comparative analysis of understandings of democracy can highlight, I find it promising to start from two which appear at first sight of crucial importance: a) the idea of rights and b) the role of political conflict within a democratic polity.

The idea of rights as trumps and their priority over duties

Compared to the ideas of a required orientation to the common good, of a plurality of legitimate version thereof, of “government by consent”, of the equality of citizens, and of the person as a independent source of valid claims, much more unpalatable to non-Western cultures appears to be the very idea of subjective rights, qua prerogatives of the single individual against authority and potentially against the whole political community. In a way, a major distinctive feature of the Western modern form of political association is the priority of rights, qua subjective entitlements, over duties. This priority runs against the grain of all religiously framed approach to communal life. As Abdulkarim Soroush has very eloquently put it, in Western modern polities

“Rights are honored over duties. One of the markers of the modern – in contradistinction to the traditional – world is the emergence of ‘rights carrier’ as opposed to ‘duty bound’ human being. The language of religion (especially that of Islam as exemplified by the Qur’an and the Tradition) is the language of duties, not rights. In these texts, human beings are given commandments by a supremely sovereign authority. The language of shari’ah is that of commanding, as the picture of humanity in the mirror of religion is that of a duty-bound creature. Human beings are required to believe, pray, give alms, and conduct themselves in such matters as matrimony and inheritance in accordance with traditional guidelines . . . Of course, the religious texts do occasionally address the rights of humans, but such passages are very rare and exceptional (Soroush 2002: 61-62).”

This is true of the Muslim perception of the Western “rights-discourse” but it applies to many other religious cultures.[25] In the Muslim context, rights are invoked only as a restorative concept after a harm has been inflicted or a tort perpetrated. Rights come into the picture as compensations for torts and damages. What remains difficult to metabolize is the idea of rights “in general”, as preordained to any legal action and as the “property” of individuals before they become victims deserving compensation.[26] Within the Confucian tradition, again, the individual is not a bearer of rights but the center of a network of social obligations which do give her the entitlement to a certain solidarity, help and recognition, but not to an unconditional set of “abstract” rights vis-à-vis the collectivity. Justice is achieved through interpersonal mediation, rather than impersonal procedures, and through the requirement of benevolence (ren) which binds the rulers and whoever is a position of social dominance. The duty of benevolence has its roots directly in the Analects, where at VIII, 7 Confucius states that a Gentleman “takes benevolence as his burden”. It is impossible to track here all the various epiphanies of this basic idea of social justice as a harmonious network of relations, as distinct from its resting on procedures that secure respect for individual rights, in the other religious cultures such as Buddhism or Hinduism.

The point is that such view is well represented also within Western culture and it forms the backbone of the indigenous Western resistance to Protestant-modernity. Max Weber wrote a memorable reconstruction of the clash between the traditional Catholic ethic of brotherliness, centred on the reciprocal care of the neighbors for one another, under the principle “Your want of today may be mine of tomorrow”, which obviously knew of no individual rights but only of required benevolence (Weber 1975b: 329). In the wake of the French Revolution, Edmund Burke on the one hand and Joseph De Maistre on the other reacted with repulsion to the “abstractness” of the rights of man as such and to the priority of rights over duty. De Maistre, in fact, famously spoke of the “rights of God”. Hegel too argued that the modern ethical life was traversed by a tragic rift, between “abstract” morality of the Kantian-type individual subject, who sets himself as a judging tribunal for the whole of social practices in the name of a formal law-like principle, on one hand, and the thick values embedded in practices and customs which contribute to the cohesion of the social fabric and project a concrete, situated, “rational” normativity of their own.

In the wake of this dual line of development, within Western political cultures the Catholic and the Hegelian and later Marxist traditions have been very wary of anchoring the just polity in the observance and enforcement of abstract individual rights, and this resistance can be observed in the mistrust that Christian-Democratic and Communist party-elites have displayed vis-a-vis the whole “rights-discourse”. Finally, the emphasis on a nomocentric order, based on a comprehesive conception of the good of religious or secular derivation and the duties, not the rights, that it generates for its adherents, has continued to inspire a critique of liberalism from well within the ranks of Western philosophy. One need only recall here the communitarian critique of liberalism, and notably Taylor’s articulation of a notion of “duty to society” (Taylor 1985: 197-98),[27] of which the liberal “rights-discourse” becomes entirely forgetful, the preoccupation with the anomic outcome and the parasitic relation between liberal institutions and pre-liberal reservoirs of meaning from Durkheim to Böckenförde, and the feminist opposition of an ethics of care versus one centred on rights.[28] Charles Taylor has gone so far as arguing the case for a Liberalism 2 (Taylor 1992: 58-61), as distinct from the classical liberalism centered on rights and allowing for a normative public discourse on the good, which could resonate much more harmoniously with the Confucian, Islamic, Catholic, Orthodox, Buddhist and Hindu understanding of the democratic polity. Emphasis on duty has also gained wide acceptance over the past decade, on the scene on international law, thought the acclaimed doctrine of the “Responsibility to Protect”, elaborated on UN input by a Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty and later adopted by the UN at the initiative of Secretary General Ban-Ki-Moon. At the center of the Responsibility to Protect view is no longer a clash of rights — the single states’ right to freedom from interference with their sovereignty versus the international community’s right to stop, if needed through military force, all massive and perduring violations of human rights — but one and the same “duty” or “responsibility” to protect human life, which is entrusted primarily on nation states but can be legitimately fulfilled by the international community if for any reason, voluntary or involuntary, states fail to discharge it.[29]

The positive role of intra-systemic political conflict

Finally, another point of friction between contemporary Western right-centered liberal democracy and the various nomocentric, comprehensive or “duty”-oriented versions of it concerns the role of social and political conflict within democratic life. First, what is meant here by conflict? Rights-centered democracies expand and institutionalize an insight which dates back to Machiavelli’s reflections on the positive role of the conflict or “disunion” between nobility and common people in the Roman republic (Machiavelli 1998 : Book I, Ch. 2) . They see the vigorous confrontation of contending interests and values in the public arena as a sign of a healthy democratic life. Far from endangering social and political cohesion, contestation and political conflict, often rooted in social and cultural diversity, can lead to the better articulation of points of view, to a better public choice, to a selection of a more efficacious leadership, to an invigorating sense of a political community of equals who jointly determine the fundamentals of their shared life.[30] This insight then branches out in a plurality of institutional implications and assumptions about a viable democratic infrastructure, such as party pluralism, the idea of majority rule within a constitutionally secured framework, the notion of a vibrant public sphere nourished by an independent press, by a plurality of electronic media and more recently by an open access internet combined with social media, the idea of transparency in public administration and of the protection of privacy, the idea of transparency in the private funding of political parties and more recently also of a control over the maximum level of expenditures in electoral campaigns. Also the separation of powers, from Montesquieu to the reconsideration recently offered by Bruce Ackerman can be understood as a fundamental principle which responds to the factual ubiquity and the normative desirability of strong confrontations in the public arena of a democratic society.

When placed, transplanted or emerging from “nomocentric”, comprehensive or otherwise duty-centered political cultures, democracy rests on, and has to meet the challenge of, a democratic ethos which is much more wary of the “disharmony” implicit in conflict, much more suspicious of the divisive potential unleashed by a plurality of organizations, parties, associations, newspapers, media, by standards of transparency and of privacy to be imposed on respectively administrative activities and areas of private concern. Political cultures nurtured within Catholic, Islamic, Confucian, Buddhist, Hindu religious background, and their secularized successors, when and where they do prize pluralism, majority rule, the separation of powers, they nonetheless inject in the spirit of democracy underlying their institutions an instinctive aversion to conflict and confrontation, to voting and coalition forming, and constantly compare the costs and benefits of living with injustice versus the instability produced by exposing injustice. The fear of divisions and conflict often paralizes the democratic institutions which are implanted in these cultures. To give just one example, it is one thing for majority rule to operate in contexts where the political culture admits of and even invites fruitful confrontation in the public arena, it is quite another for the same procedural rule to operate in contexts where close majorities up to 60% are perceived as indicative of a pernicious “split” or “rift” within the deliberative body and not fully legitimated in pursuing their ends.[31] In some contexts unanimousness is suspicious, it reeks of hidden oppression or bribery; in other contexts unanimousness is the highly appreciated sign of a successful “mediation”. Thus we can have a distinction between democratic cultures which are tendentially consociationalist and democratic cultures that tend towards a more agonistic view of the process.[32]


Throughout this discussion the plausibility of a certain thesis has been somehow corroborated. After distinguishing between a merely procedural notion of democracy and a fully fledged notion of democracy cum “spirit of democracy”, a thesis has been propounded to the effect that adequate consonances can be found in all historical religions for most of the major components of the “spirit of democracy”: namely, for an orientation to the common good, for a positive notion of pluralism, for a notion of legitimate rule as resting on the consent of the governed, for the equality of the citizens, and for a positive appraisal of individuality. Finally another thesis put forward in this paper has identified the priority of rights over duties and the valuing of contestation and agonism within democratic life as the two components, within the “spirit of democracy”, for which it is most problematic to find equivalents in non-Western and non-Protestant cultures.

Provisionally then the analytic differentiation of the concept of democracy must start from here, from construing four versions of the spirit of democracy which represent alternative paths of transition from a Rawlsian “decent polity” to a “liberal-democratic one”. The classical path which reductive theories of modernization have taken as canonical and exclusive has combined an agonistic and rights-centered understanding of the democratic process, a combination most resonant with the Protestant and especially Puritan version of Christianity. Other possibilities exist, however. Agonism and the valuing of contestation could be combined with a duty-centered political culture, which emphasizes political mediation of conflict over juridified litigation. This is the combination that we observe in all forms of strong republicanism, endorsed by Machiavelli and Arendt, such as Athens and the Roman republic in ancient times, Harrington’s Venice and Machiavelli’s Florence before 1512, the Puritan republic of Cromwell. In modern times it is difficult to find exemples of this version of the democratic ethos except in transient stages of history: the Paris commune, the Kronstadt uprising, and the Spanish Republic at the time of the Civil War of 1936-39.

On the consociationalist (or confrontation-averting) side of the spectrum, democratic cultures built on an aversion to conflict and contestation may combine with a propensity for the centrality of duties over rights, as the case might be with the Islamic retributive and restorative understanding of rights, with the Confucian emphasis on harmony and with Buddhism: examples could be here the Malaysian form of democracy and the Turkish one for Islam, and Thailand’s Buddhist democracy and Taiwan ‘s Buddhist-Thaoist culture as background for its democracy, and a possible avenue for a future Chinese Confucian democracy. On the other hand, democratic regimes exist that formally endorse and prize the priority of rights in so far as their constitutions are concerned, but do so with a consociationalist bent and a strong aversion to democratic contestation: one example among the major democracies being Italy’s former Christian-Democratic dominated democratic polity (in a pluriconfessional Christian political culture, Belgium and Switzerland may also offer examples of consociationalism).[33]

Finally, it should be emphasized that these are just initial and tentative analytic distinctions, which should give way to a more detailed typology of democratic forms which function as developmental but culture-specific paths for the transition of decent polities towards full democratic forms that can still preserve the mark of their civilizational distinctiveness. As the 21st century begins to unfold, an age old dictum can be inspirational when aptly reformulated: “Cuius religio, eius res publica”.


[1]This line of research is exemplified by Wolfgang Schluchter’s reconstruction of Weber’s “developmental history” and, more particularly, by the implicit matrix of indicators of rationalization (extension of the class of addresses of the moral imperative, complexity of the object of moral regulation, reflexivity of the moral actor’s consciousness, source of normativity for moral commands) that Schluchter’s traces underneath Weber’s succession of still enchanted magical ethics, axial ageethics of norms, modern ethics of principle (the new quantum leap in rationalizaton inaugurated by Protestantism), the ethics of responsibility. See Schluchter (1981: 39-48).

[2]Needless to say, ideology has its own inertia. The original Western-centric thrust of modernization theory survives in the 1980’s and 1990’s not only under the heading of the “end of history” approach developed by Francis Fukuyama in the wake of 1989, indeed a “mission accomplished”-statement that argues for the final entrenchment of the one and only version of socio-political modernity, but also in Samuel Huntington’s idea that such triumph will not be free of contestation and will result in a “clash of civilizations”. See Fukuyama (1992) and Huntington (1997).

[3]Moreover, Western modernity has itself been the object of contested and conflicting appraisals. For one line of thinking it amounts to the liberating experience of differentiation, the institutionalization of individual freedom, the individuation of the individual, the idea of government as legitimated by the consent of the governed. For another equally Western-centric line of thinking, modernity entails the painful rendering of previously integrated communities, the rise of unbridgeable chasms or Entzweiungen among values, the rise of an unstable politheism, rational irregimentation in the service of irrational values, techno-scientific domination over life-forms that are turned asunder, the rise of a new heteronomy oriented to the peer-group in lieu of authority. So Western modernity in a way has tormented itself, and the rest of the world, with its own self-interpretation.

[4]Here I follow Arnason’s concise reconstruction in Arnason 2005: 19-48.

[5]See Voegelin (1957, 1974) and the commentaries by Thomassen (2010: 328-30) and Duso (1988).

[6]So acute has become the awareness of the necessary but not sufficient conditionality of voting for democracy, that the catchphrase “elections without democracy” has become popular: see Sadiki (2008), see also Diamond (2002).

[7]For a similar way of raising the problem of what a non-protestant or “post-post-protestant” democracy with its own spirit of democracy, see Rosati (2009: 112-15).

[8]See The Teaching of Buddha, Mahaparinirvana-sutra, AN 3-118, p. 242.

[9]See Boesche (2002: 14).

[10]Along the same lines, writes the late Nasr Abu Zayd: “The Qur’ân is the ‘speech of God’; there is no dispute about this doctrine, but the discourse structure of the Qurân reveals multiplicity of voices not only one. As a discourse the Qur’ân is polyphonic not monophonic; there are so many voices in which the ‘I’ and/or ‘We’ speaker is not always the Divine voice” (Abu Zayd 2004 : 19). And furthermore: “there is no one single verse in the Qur’ân stipulating world punishment, or legal penalty, for apostasy; freedom of religion in the form of ‘no coercion’ is widely quoted even by the traditional `ulamâ’” (Abu Zayd 2004 : 27). Under the heading of allowing for “epistemic humility”, the Islamic acceptance of pluralism is discussed in Rosati (2009: 124-26).

[11]A famous passage from the traditional commentaries to Confucius’s Analects illustrates the point. To the Marquis of Qi’s question “Is there a difference between agreeing and harmonizing?” Master Yan answered: “There is a difference. Harmonizing is like cooking soup. You have water, fire, vinegar, pickle, salt, and plums with which to cook fish and meat. You heat it by means of firewood, and then the cook harmonizes the ingredients, balancing the various flavors, strengthening the taste of whatever is lacking, and moderating the taste of whatever is excessive”. The contrast with “agreeing” could not be sharper and is illustrated by the character of Ran Qiu, whom we would call today a yes-man: “What his lord declares acceptable, he also declares acceptable; what his lord declares wrong, he also declares wrong. This is like trying to season water with more water. Who would be willing to eat it? It is like playing nothing but a single note on your zither. Who would want to listen?” (Confucius 2003: 150).

[12]See Tu Weiming (2009: 55).

[13]For a different view, see Hayes (1991: 72-77).

[14]For a discussion of tradition and the space for pluralism, see also Seligman (2000:139-40).

[15]Abu Zayd, on the other hand, underlines the conservative moment in the Sunni doctrine of consensus (even though it was in turn certainly less autocracy-leaning than the Shi’a’s emphasis on hereditary succession), and notes how the Muslim reformists had to “break through the principle of consensus by re-invoking the principle of rational reasoning, ijtihâd (…). By undermining the principle of ‘consensus’, they were able to navigate through the volumes of law, fiqh, without limiting themselves to following a specific school, which gave them more freedom to choose opinions and to build legal syllogisms” Abu Zayd (2004: 48).

[16]For the definition of what a “decent”, as opposed to liberal-democratic, polity is, see Rawls (1999: 59-60). On the side of democracy, the flourishing of democracy with the “spirit of democracy” requires a passion for equality that Tocqueville associated with the success of democracy in the American society of the 1830’s. As he wrote, equality in its most complete form includes freedom: “all the citizens take part in the government and each of them has an equal right to do so” (Tocqueville 1969: 503). Anticipating the “free and equal” phrase that so often recurs in contemporary liberalism, Tocqueville observes that in an ideal democratic order, “men will be perfectly free because they are entirely equal, and they will be perfectly equal because they are entirely free” (Tocqueville 1969: 503). In contemporary views of democracy Tocqueville’s insight lives on not just in the liberal ideal notion of “free and equal citizens”, but also in a certain “recognitional” twist that the passion for equality has received. Authors such as Axel Honneth, Avishai Margalit and Charles Taylor always connect their notion of recognition with an implicit “equality” of recognition. A democratic and just society is one where everyone obtains recognition in the legal sphere (Honneth 1996), where no one is “humiliated” or treated as less than fully human (Margalit 1996), and where recognition automatically means “equal recognition” (Taylor 1992).

[17]See Herr (2010: 269-80) and Tan’s discussion of the unique equality-grounding passage of the Analects (17.2) where Confucius maintains that “Men are close to one another by nature; they diverge as a result of repeated practice”, in Tan (2004: 101-03). See also the interesting collection edited by Chang and Kalmanson (2010).

[18]”By birth one is no brahmin, by family, austerity. In whom are truth and Dhamma too pure is he, a Brahmin’s he” (Dhammapada, 26, 393)

[19]See also An-Na’im 1990 and Taha 1987. Khaled Abou El Fadl has argued that “A fundamental Qur’anic idea is that God vested all of humanity with a kind of divinity by making all human beings the viceroys of God on this earth: “Remember, when your Lord said to the angels: ‘I have to place a vicegerent on earth,’ they said: ‘Will you place one there who will create disorder and shed blood, while we intone Your litanies and sanctify Your name?’ And God said: ‘I know what you do not know’” (2:30). In particular, human beings are responsible, as God’s vicegerents, for making the world more just. By assigning equal political rights to all adults, democracy expresses that special status of human beings in God’s creation and enables them to discharge that responsibility” (Abou El Fadl 2006: 3-4).

[20]See also El Fadl’s interesting reconstruction of shura as potentially a “symbol signifying participatory politics and legitimacy” (El Fadl 2006: 8-9).

[21]An-Na’im moves some steps in that direction with his concept of “civic reason”, as distinct from public reason (An-Na’im 2008: 97-101).

[22]Democracy is nourished by a “passion for individualism”. Democratic individuality, as opposed to “individualism pure and simple” (Kateb 1992: 83) is the name given to this inspiration, which revolves around the idea of self-reliance, “independent thinking, newly innocent perception, self-expressive activity, unexpected creativity” (Kateb 1992: 33) and around the suggestion that “democracy’s most elevated justification lies in its encouragement of individuality” (Kateb 1992: 78).

[23]For a conjectural argument leading to acceptance of pluralism and equality within Islam, see also March (2009).

[24]Interestingly, it has been argued that the Buddhist idea of the self as composed of an empty core and expendable layers of illusory self-images, as well as the underlying understanding of the Absolute as void, leads to a receptivity towards openness, for which a parallel can be found in the Hebrew rejection of all image of the absolute and of God as idolatry: “the teaching of voidness does not really mean that everything is nothing… Emptiness has a sense that something has an open inside, a free inside. One can translate emptiness as freedom, so that everything is free of being pinned down by what one person or one group or one community thinks it is… in the ancient Hebrew tradition, the fact that they would not include vowels with the consonants in the name of God in order to make it humany unpronounceable is in the same direction of what we would call voidness or freedom” (Thurman 1997: 394).

[25]See also Seligman (2000: 130).

[26]One of the possible avenues for the transformation of this picture is pointed out by Abou El Fadl. One could consider “prior”, “abstract” or “immutable” those rights which “are necessary to achieve a just society” according to the Islamic view and in order to apply the principles of Islam with the virtue of “mercy”. They could coincide with the five values mentioned by El Fadl as those which spell out the necessities (daruriyyat) constitutive (along with needs or hajiyyat and luxuries or kamaliyyat) of the good for the citizens: religion, life, intellect, lineage or honor, and property. See (Abou El Fadl 2006: 13). For interesting comments on El Fadl’s understanding of rights, see Rasmussen (2008).

[27]The central critique raised by Taylor contends that “Primacy-of-rights theories in other words accept a principle ascribing rights to men as binding unconditionally, binding, that is, on men as such. But they do not accept as similarly unconditional a principle of belonging or obligation. Rather our obligation to belong to or sustain a society, or to obey its authorities, is seen as derivative, as laid on us conditionally, through our consent, or through its being to our advantage” (Taylor 1975: 188).

[28]See Böckenförde’s dictum, “The liberal secular state lives on premises that it cannot itself guarantee. On the one hand, it can subsist only if the freedom it consents to its citizens is regulated from within, inside the moral substance of individuals and of a homogeneous society. On the other hand, it is not able to guarantee these forces of inner regulation by itself without renouncing its liberalism” (Böckenförde 1991: 112, quoted in Habermas 2008: 101). A true representative, within Western discourse, of the Confucian emphasis on a benevolence now renamed as care, is Gilligan’s conception of an ethics of care as reflective of women’s approach to the moral life (Li 2008:176). On the other hand, Toni Woodiwiss has explored the Confucian equivalent of a right in labor protection, a right-equivalent realized as a legally enforceable benevolence, on the part of the employer for the benefit of the employee (Woodiwiss 2008).

[29]See ICISS (2001).

[30]In a sense, the idea of conflict and agonistic confrontation implicit in liberal-democratic views incorporates Simmel’s view of conflict not as the opposite of social cohesion but as one of the forms of social cohesion. See Simmel (1964: 13-20).

[31]As Lijphart puts it, a consociationalist democratic culture accepts majority rule just as much as an agonistic culture does, but “it accepts majority rule only as a minimum requirement: instead of being satisfied with narrow decision-making majorities, it seeks to maximize the size of these majorities” (Lijphart 1999: 2).

[32]In the literature consociationalism is identified through the concurrence of features such as the presence of a “Grand Coalition” ruling the country, of practice of mutually recognizing veto power among the major parties, strong proportionality in appointing people who belong to parties and factions to office and prominent positions, presence of locally autonomous governemnt institutions.

[33]Other interesting examples are half-way or semiconsociationalist cases such as Canada and Israel. See Lijphart (1977: 119-33).


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