Even if all the people would be scribes: An epistemic foundation for universal democracy and its limits

“And Rava bar Meḥasseya said that Rav Ḥama bar Gurya said that Rav said: Even if all the seas would be ink, and the reeds that grow near swamps would be quills, and the heavens would be parchment upon which the words would be written, and all the people would be scribes; all of these are insufficient to write the unquantifiable space of governmental authority.” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 11a)

The passage above is classically interpreted as impressing upon a lay audience, to whom the decisions of government must often seem inscrutable, if not simply irrational, how much the decision-maker must consider with every decision that the external audience doesn’t see.

This may seem at first glance to be apologia for any given regime who can always use this line to justify itself against its critics. And yet, in it lies precisely the democratic rebuttal against any such elitist excuses. That is, it imagines a world in which “all the people would be scribes”. It setting out the expansiveness of what government considers, it also, seems to me, to empower each individual to set forth the legitimate criticism that “you did not consider me.” Of course, it is open to government to say that they did and that this does not necessarily mean that particularly interest or perspective will be satisfied, but it must be given its due weight.

Furthermore, in imagining each individual as a scribe, it seems to me to express a certain theory about the “data” which governments must deal with. That is, the natural world offers the source of people’s experiences which they take in, and in response, people express themselves on the parchment of the heavens (i.e. pure potentiality, the reach beyond our grasp to mix metaphors, which is what politics consists in). People must not be considered as mere passive facts, but as authors. Note that, understood this way, this passage perfectly reflects and deepens the division of epistemic labour between people and politicians that discussed here and here.

Universal democracy is achieved “when all the people are scribes”. The franchise is merely one narrow aspect of people in their capacity as scribes. However, this passage cleverly articulates how even if universal democracy were achieved it would not exhaust the scope of what governments ought to consider in their decision-making. There are concerns beyond people’s views which necessarily may bear on any given decision.