Centre for Continuing Education

Philosophy Course: Democracy

Philosophy. Study the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality and existence.

COVID-19 update: arrangement of our courses

We are now delivering courses online and in-person. Please check the delivery format of each class before enrolling.

Please note that course materials (excluding prescribed texts) are shared electronically within 48 hours of course commencement. Printing is not available.

Astra Taylor (2019) quipped that 'Democracy may not exist but we will miss it when it’s gone': a timely remark as the discussion grows concerning the ‘crisis of democracy’ in the current world situation.

During this course, we will study the philosophical and historical roots of democratic systems; why they emerge and why they falter. We will discuss the core elements that make a democracy ‘democratic’ and test various kinds of democracies against the ideal. We will also discuss philosophers, from the Ancient Greeks, Magna Carta (1215), through Alexis de Tocqueville (Democracy in America), to the present situation. Issues include checks and balances, suffrage, rights and responsibilities, separation of powers, equality, capitalism, and more. Finally, we will consider the theory that democracy is in crisis and the responses to this idea.


The aims of this course are to:

  • provide an overview of the origins and complexities of the many theories of 'democracy'
  • make the connection between the history of democracy and the development of contemporary politics, from the ancient world to now
  • demonstrate the important role that democracy played in the changing philosophical ideas of what it means to be human
  • provide an understanding of the interrelation between democracy and capitalism
  • demonstrate the complex nature of the contemporary political situation and the possibility of change.


By the end of this course, you should be able to:

  • identify the main features which constitute a democracy
  • discuss the philosophical ideas of Aristotle, John Locke, Alexis de Tocqueville, Mill and many others
  • identify the different kinds of democracy and how their development throughout history
  • discuss the implications of the fortunes of democracy for our own time.


What is a democracy?

Defining Democracy is a complex issue. What must a political system have in order to qualify?

Comparison to non-democratic systems

Many political systems in the past and now claim to have benefits that democracies lack: what are the benefits and what are the flaws?

Emergence in history

We will consider a range of ancient forms, some precursors to the Greek invention of democracy.

Magna Carta (1215) to the Dutch Declaration of Independence (1581)

The checks and balances on Sovereign power happen slowly, and we will follow this historical and philosophical development.

Alexis de Tocqueville Democracy in America

Tocqueville’s speculations on the newly formed American Democracy became one of the most influential works for the next hundred years; many of his ideas were far-sighted.

Twentieth-century democracies

At the beginning of the 1970s, the majority of countries had authoritarian systems. By 1995, 114 of 191 countries had declared that they were democracies (we will assess how democratic); this is a staggering change in the political landscape: why and how did this happen?

Elections: what do we mean by ‘equal, fair and impartial’?

The idea of ‘fair’ needs to be assessed; no democracy will reach the ideal in this matter, but what is ‘fair enough’?

Democracy and capitalism: can you have one without the other?

There is a great deal of political philosophy, which proposes that democracy and capitalism are interdependent. We will assess this issue.

The contemporary ‘crisis’ of democracy

If democracy is in crisis, then what has precipitated this situation, and what are the suggested remedies for it? Keep in mind that at least some theorists think that this ‘panic’ is unnecessary.

Theories of a better way

Maybe democracy has run its course. If so, what could take its place?

Intended audience

Anyone with a general interest in philosophy and democracies.

Delivery style



Course notes are provided electronically.


  • Expert trainers
  • Central locations
  • Course materials – yours to keep
  • CCE Statement of Completion

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