In times such as these – Brexit, Trump, Macron being the most notable headlines – it seems appropriate to reconsider the complacent authority vested in the old adage ‘vox populi, vox Dei’, the concept that the voice of the people is the voice of God. We live in confusing times when the popular will is leading the democratic spirit a merry dance. Personally, I have long been a sceptic about the voice of the people – an eternally pliant ambiguity wrapped in a quandary of perennial vacillation, qualities never part of my idea of the divine.
How has the voice of the people, the popular will, come to be invested with the dignity of articulating the voice of God? The idea has roots in Biblical and Qur’anic tradition, becoming part of the interpretive repertoire of all the monotheistic religions. The Qur’an is unequivocal in placing its message in the hands of ‘the people’ (al nas). The focus is equally strong in the Christian Protestant traditions from which came the declarative investiture of ‘We the People’ with constitutional independence. The people are called to take responsibility for implementing the good news of divine guidance. The optimistic idea that the majority of the people will ultimately do the right thing and elect to follow the path of righteousness easily elides into the self-confident, and effortlessly self-serving assertion that those who claim allegiance to the revealed truth are the equivalent of that truth. The only problem with this correlation is history: high on aspiration; pity about the track record of performance. Not that reality has ever dented popular invocation of the rhetoric or assumption of the mantle of righteousness.
The familiar Latin formulation ‘vox populi, vox Dei’ indicates that the idea itself goes way back in time. Its origin is telling. The popularity of the formula arises from people getting the wrong end of the stick. As usual we are dealing with no innocent oversight. Taking the phrase out of context permits the venerable strategy of calculated inversion of meaning and intent for maximum latitude, the ideological elbow room to cause mayhem. The aphorism is credited to Alcuin of York (c 735-804) a scholar, clergy, poet and teacher remembered as ‘the most leaned man anywhere to be found’. Alcuin was therefore an impeccable authority for what has proved a most useful idea – so long as what the monk actually argued is considered irrelevant. Keep the ‘vox populi, vox Dei’ as it easily trips off the tongue, conveniently forget the ‘tumultuositas vulgi semper insaniae proxima sit’ that followed: ‘the tumult of the crowd is always close to madness’. Far from dignifying the popular will with divine authority Alcuin was advising his pupil the Emperor Charlemagne to beware and never listen to the urgings and enthusiasms of the cheering mob.