Do not be angry with me for speaking the truth; no man will survive who genuinely opposes you or any other crowd and prevents the occurrence of many unjust and illegal happenings in the city. A man who really fights for justice must lead a private, not a public, life if he is to survive for even a short time. (Apology 31e-32a)
One of the contemporary definitions of democracy today is as follows: “Government by the people, exercised either directly or through elected representatives; Rule by the majority” (“Democracy” Def.1,4). Democracy, as a form of government, was a radical idea when it manifested; many governments in the early history of the world were totalitarian or tyrannical in nature, due to overarching beliefs that the strong ruled over the weak.
Although the Greeks coined the word “democracy” – the words demos “people” and kratos “rule” conjoined together to mean, literally, “rule by the people” – there is speculation about whether or not certain other peoples, such as the Sumerians and the Indians, managed to engage in democratic methods of governance first. However, the history of democracy is not what is being discussed here; we are focusing on Plato’s criticism of democracy, particularly with regards to the Athenian model and his writings in the Socratic dialogues. Let us continue on, before we veer off and lose sight of the argument.
So democracy is a system of government wherein the people elect their rulers; in the case of Athens, it was, more or less, a direct democracy, where all male citizens voted in an assembly and decided by majority rule (elected officials were chosen by allotment). Why would this be a bad thing? Is it not better than dictatorships or oligarchies, where anywhere from one man to a small group of elites have power over all? Why exactly would a government that has its decisions made by the very people it represents be considered something worthy of criticism?
This is where we get into the meat of the argument. Take note that there might be some consideration as to whether or not, particularly with regard to the Socratic dialogues, the criticism of democracy’s properties originated from Socrates or Plato. But with regards to this essay, such a consideration is irrelevant, as it is not incorrect to say that Plato did indeed have some problems with democracy, especially with regard to the Athenian model.
The crux of this argument will focus on three of Plato’s works: Gorgias, Apology, and The Republic.
In Gorgias, named for the Sicilian sophist and rhetorician featured in the dialogue, Socrates speaks with Gorgias concerning the nature of rhetoric as compared with philosophy; also, he speaks with Gorgias’s pupil Polus concerning the tyrant and how he truly is the most unhappiest of all, despite any ill-gotten gains they may have attained. Socrates’ distaste – and, by extension, Plato’s – of the rhetorician is quite evident in passage 459 (Helmbold 18-19).
How does this tie in to the discussion of democracy?
Let us see first how Socrates classifies one skilled in the art of rhetoric, particularly with regards to one who is not learned in a particular subject outside of rhetoric. Using Socrates’ own analogy, it is suggested that a rhetorician would be more capable of persuading a crowd of ignorant people on the subject of health than even a doctor. Although this seems foolish on the surface, a further examination would reveal the chilling truth behind these words; throughout the history of the world, a great multitude of people have been deceived and beguiled by skilled speakers, masters of rhetoric. This was something that Friedrich Nietzsche noted:
“Insanity in individuals is something rare - but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.”
However, let us refocus the argument on Socrates and his words concerning the evil-doing tyrant in passages 470-480 (Helmbold 32-48). Polus – a teacher of rhetoric – contends that an unjust man (in this case, Archelaus, a king of Macedon), despite the crimes he has committed, is happy. Despite his unjust actions, he managed to become a person of power; he is the happier man, considering he has not met any punishment. Socrates does not agree with this notion; he contends that, among all wretched men, it is the unpunished that are truly unhappy. Recall, if you will, the beliefs of Socrates in terms of the soul.
He emphasized throughout his life that men should be concerned about the welfare of their soul. It is not at all unlike Socrates to suggest that a criminal who receives punishment for his wrongdoing – in other words, correction of their evils – will, in the end, be far happier than he who does not receive any punishment at all.
Let us carry this line of thought back to the issue of democracy. As Socrates suggested in Plato’s Gorgias, the criminal who does wrongdoing without receiving any punishment is the most wretched person of all. What then, of a democracy, where the majority of people determines actions and policies?
What if, as a majority, the people decided to commit a heinous act, such as an unjustified military action against another nation for the sake of resources, no matter the cost in human lives? Such an action would lead to death and suffering for a great many people. Also, consider that the majority would not judge or correct themselves, for they were the ones who agreed to partake in that course of action. As such, they inflict evil upon many more people than an individual could ever hope to; after all, as a democracy, the majority’s actions affect the entirety of the state and its citizens.
Even if the aforementioned individual were actually a tyrant, the evil he inflicts would only pollute his own soul; a democracy that commits wrongdoing pollutes the souls of everyone who partakes in the political process. Recall in the Apology that Socrates was tried and sentenced to death by the men of Athens. Recall that their minds were swayed against Socrates by rhetoricians; from the time they were mere babes, the men of the jury were of the opinion that Socrates had committed things that were, in fact, falsities (Apology 17a-19e). A wise and noble philosopher was put to death by people who had been persuaded wrongfully by skilled rhetoricians (once again reminding us that there was no love lost between Plato and those who were considered masters of persuasion), and as such they committed an unjust act that, in the end, negatively affected the welfare of the souls. After all, who would rejoice in putting an innocent man of wisdom to death? The answer: only those who are ignorant of the philosopher’s innocence, misled as they were by groupthink and ill-intentioned rhetoricians.
So now we can see why Plato had some unflattering opinions of democracy; for a philosopher concerned with the welfare of the soul, the idea of so many people – people that, in large groups, can be swayed easily by rhetoricians – being capable of unwittingly corrupting the health of their own souls must be horrifying. This leads us to Plato’s idea of the “ideal” government. In the vast work that is The Republic, there is one passage in Book V that shows the ones whom Socrates thinks should be the rulers of a government:
Unless the philosophers rule as kings or those now called kings and chiefs genuinely and adequately philosophize, and political power and philosophy coincide in the same place, while the many natures now making their way to either apart from the other are by necessity excluded, there is no rest from ills for the cities, my dear Glaucon, nor I think for human kind, nor will the regime we have now described in speech ever come forth from nature, insofar as possible, and see the light of the sun. (Republic 473d-e)
A philosopher, to Plato and Socrates, is the ideal ruler of a state. The fact that such a government would be one where the people do not decide is irrelevant; as a philosopher concerned with the welfare of one’s soul, Plato wants what is best for the souls of the citizens. A king concerned with the pursuit of wisdom would undoubtedly be better than a lover of wealth, power, or status.
In conclusion, it should be noted that, in modern times, a democracy is considered one of the more ideal forms of government, considering the value many people tend to place on individual liberty and the freedom to choose one’s own path in life.
However, Plato’s criticisms should be kept in mind when determining the merit of a democratic government. Oh, would it not be great to have a democracy of philosophers, who would pursue truth and wisdom! Alas, we are only human, and susceptible to many evils and lies. The trick is to prevent such ignorant people from becoming the majority. At times, it seems nigh impossible to do so; curse our stupidity!
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