Friday, July 31, 2009

Plato’s Criticism of Democracy

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)

These are the words of Socrates, who spoke before the Athenian jury in the trial that would, ultimately, condemn him to his death. Through works such as the Apology and The Republic, we can see Plato’s distaste of the concept of democracy. Why does he consider democracy to be so flawed? Let us look through his own eyes and see what his individual criticisms are, and determine if the very concept of democracy is as flawed as he believes it to be.

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.”

Even today, we hear the words of those who proclaim they have wisdom in areas they have no expertise in. Though this may seem contradictory by default, it pays to not underestimate the ignorance of the populace at large, particularly when normally skeptical and rational individuals are swayed into thinking along with the group.

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!

19 Opinion(s):

FishEagle said...

A democratic society's culture of non-accountability rubs off on individuals from the group. I heard a senior black government employee express her frustration yesterday. In her words, "it is very difficult to dismiss someone that works for the government that doesn't come to work." Huh?????

Despite the fact that there were a few individuals at the meeting that were overloaded with work already, they were just loaded with more responsibility at the meeting. These were also the only people that were ever criticized, by the way. They weren't just whites, although none were blacks.

Tim Johnston said...

it must be very frustrating to sit in an office next to an Affirmative Employee who does no work but can't be fired.
Bear in mind, SA is not representative of a democratic country. Accountability would be a high priority for a democracy, because position ought to depend on performance.
This country has a great constitution - in theory- but on the ground it's characterised by mob rule. Voting in SA amounts to state-sponsored looting.

FishEagle said...

@ Viking, "Voting in SA amounts to state-sponsored looting." Hahaha! Very good. But you are wrong about SA not being a democratic country. The whole point is that we ARE! Each individual gets one vote. That is being implemented on the ground. Wasn't it something like 70% of the voting population that turned up for the last elections? Compare that to America's 30%! In theory we are more democratic, lol.

FishEagle said...

This is the bottom line - a democracy is a popularity contest and there is no accountability required from the popular. Once elected, the popular are at their end destination. Whatever comes after that is of no consequence to them because they represent a group of people that cannot collectively be held accountable.

FishEagle said...

P.S. Viking, yes, very frustrating! That is only the tip of the iceberg though. Here is another example. One of my bosses earned a salary that was lower than mine despite the fact that he had a more senior position. It was because he was a white male and believe me, they found ways of manipulating the system against him.

Tim Johnston said...

I hear you, but I mean that SA is not representative of a democratic country - because here all it took was massive population growth from the blacks to ensure a huge majority - in other countries that doesn't happen.
I read recently that during the time of the mad cattle-culling in 1857, there were only 127,000 Xhosas!!

what went wrong, people???

Yes, democracy is a popularity contest. In a Libertarian state, the personality of the president would be irrelevant. That's why Harding and Coolidge are two of my favourite US presidents - they didn't do very much at all.

When leaders are free to 'do' things, as Democrats believe, that's when the trouble starts.

Democracy good, state interference bad!

FishEagle said...

Viking, I just think the status quo should change. Presently the status quo is that there are only two options considered for debate when discussing governments - democracy and communism. Neither of these political systems are addressing the needs of people, of which the most basic need is making sure there are enough resources for people to survive. It may be required to reduce the number of people for the greater good of the group but there is nothing in place in today's democracies that can make that happen. Education of the general public may prevent the same thing from happening that happened in South Africa, i.e. a population explosion due to tribal competition for power, although I have my doubts because there is still no way to hold people accountable collectively, should they fail.

Exzanian said...

“Democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
Winston Churchill

FishEagle said...

@Exzanian, times have changed. As much as there is a temptation to stick to what we know, we need to look to the future and we need to try something different. I am proposing Plato's meritocracy with 'philosopher kings' as the solution. You will shit yourself because I get an image of a priest in my mind when thinking of these philosopher kings. They will have to be allowed to have sex partners though, unlike the Catholic priests! It hasn't been tried yet and we will never know unless we tried.

Tim Johnston said...

Can I be a philosopher king???
I would be a terrible president. Like PJ O'Rourke said about the possibility of his running for the White House - I would campaign on a do-nothing ticket.

'Enlightened rule' would be the worst kind of fascism, with endless do-good ideas being trotted out and social experiments causing untold suffering - and a lot of bearded know it alls scratching their chins and saying, oh well better luck next time.

It's truly horrific.. Plato was a genius and for his time his thoughts make sense but I don't agree that they do now.

Exzanian said...

FE - When you get down to it, really deep down, Anarchy (true Anarchy, not the popular myth of thuggery and chaos) is where we need to head.

"Laws: We know what they are, and what they are worth! They are spider webs for the rich and mighty, steel chains for the poor and weak, fishing nets in the hands of government."
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

FishEagle said...

@ Viking, government is not just an administrator of people. People need leadership too. The thinkers, like scientists and philosophers, have been ignored and democracy gave preference to popular beliefs.

FishEagle said...

Viking & Exzanian - you guys are just rebels. Lol.

Exzanian said...

And so are you too FE ;#D

FishEagle said...

Lol. :)

Tim Johnston said...


I don't need leadership :)

FishEagle said...

Viking, the more pertinent question is whether you offer leadership.

Anonymous said...

A democracy is only practical in a country with a homogenetic society. We are now in melting pot society, it is impossible for a democracy to work in a enviroment such as this.

Tim Johnston said...

I'll never be The Leader - but I will write her speeches lol

what you say is true. Democracy cannot cope with competing interest groups - that's why multiculturalism is the antithesis of democracy.