Abolish the Senate? Not so Fast!

October 22, 2018 Updated: October 23, 2018


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

The senates of ancient Greece and Rome, despite their differences, shared an underlying classical model of human nature considered universally true: Human beings are willful and impulsive, and therefore prone to error in the measure that their actions are heated and hasty.

For the pagan, this was an eternal truth of human nature. For the Christian, human beings were once perfect in Eden, but fell into sin and error through disobedience to God.

Common to both pagan and Christian beliefs, however, was the commonsensical belief that will and emotion originate in the heart and appetitive parts of the body, whereas reason originates in reflection, in the head.

Accordingly, our standard picture of humanity has been of a divided being tormented by a lifelong internal struggle between will and reason, each vying to be master by making the other a slave.

This master/slave metaphor emerged naturally from slave societies, in which freedom was not defined as the ability to do whatever you might want as long as you don’t harm someone else, but as not being a slave. The goal of all free people was to be a rational being who was master of his or her own passions.

Human Nature

As it was for the body, so it should be for the body politic. The architects of the ancient democracies felt that the public passions, like the private passions, should be acknowledged and heard, but never given control over the whole political body.

So, in the Greek democracy under Demosthenes, for example, a senate comprising older and more experienced citizens proposed the laws, and the people voted on them, yea or nay. But the law-making “initiative” was with the senate.

The laws came down from the senate to the people, rather than the other way around as in the modern democracies, in some of which even convicts are considered part of the people, and allowed to vote on the laws.

For the founders of America and Canada, the master/slave metaphor was accepted as an obvious fact of personal and political life: The people and their factions will tend to be emotional, willful, and prone to error and, in a simple majoritarian democracy, will always crush minorities.

Constitutions must be designed to block this tendency. Hence, an appointed Upper House or Senate equating to reason and filled with wiser and older people, who have a stake in the country but are untouched by politics, must have the right to frustrate, and even to block, the will of the people in a Lower House. To omit such a check on the impulsivity of the people is to render them slaves to their own passions.

In retrospect, however, it seems clear that the changing role of senates in the West (the American Senate became popularly elective in 1913, while the Canadian Senate is so far still appointive) is an institutional reflection of how human nature is (re)imagined at particular historical periods.

In conservative periods of high skepticism concerning natural human goodness, the safety check of an appointed Senate has always been called for to protect the people from themselves! Restraint is then the cry.

Conversely, in a modern liberal period when a belief in natural human goodness runs high, we hear loud cries for more direct democracy, to change appointive Senates to elective, and even for the abolition of senates entirely, because they are widely viewed as an intolerable brake on the pure (and purely good) will of the People. Freedom is then the cry.

The core question is whether or not unchecked human will is good by nature. Modern liberals will tend to say yes, and conservatives, no.

Popular Will

Ever since the Romantic sentiments that arose in the late 18th century when thinkers—and poets such as Wordsworth, Shelley, and Whitman—first began so forcefully to insist on natural human goodness, and hence to argue that we are corrupted not by ourselves but by imperfect laws and institutions, the trend of the Western democracies has been to argue that human nature, passions, and appetites must be less restrained.

This is clearly visible today in our widespread release of legal and moral restraints on sex, divorce, homosexuality, pornography, abortion, euthanasia, drugs, natural gender distinctions, and much else.

In 2013, a former leader of Canada’s Parliamentary Opposition published an open letter to Canada’s senators in the National Post in which he opined that “the greatest weakness of our appointed Senate as presently constituted is that Senators are unelected and unaccountable to electors. The Senate lacks the democratic legitimacy required to command public support.”

If we accept the liberal belief that the will of the people is usually and inevitably good, then he is right on, as they say. But if we accept the conservative view that the unalloyed will of the people ought to be restrained and improved by independent “sober second thought”—that reason (a senate) must always stand ready to correct will (a Commons, or House of Representatives), and not the other way around, then such a view is quite wrong-headed.

It all boils down to the acceptance or rejection of the master/slave metaphor of human nature.

The weakness of the recurring liberal effort to dissolve the metaphor—by conflating will with reason—is obvious and visible in the political gridlock that manifests when two elective bodies each claim democratic legitimacy.

The weakness of the conservative case is the paucity of senators of sufficiently high character and independent mind who refuse in principle to self-corrupt or to become slaves of popular will.

This is the mirror in which we are reflected.

William Gairdner is an author living near Toronto. His latest book is “The Great Divide: Why Liberals and Conservatives Will Never, Ever Agree” (2015). His website is WilliamGairdner.ca

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Follow William on Twitter: @williamgairdner