|Plato’s Criticism of Democracy
Jim D. Shelton
University of Central Arkansas
1. The Basic Argument
In his dialogue, Republic, Plato argues from the nature of a just or successful state, a good state, to support his view of the nature of a just or virtuous individual. The argument is one of analogy. And like all analogies, they can be understood in reverse. So I will take his argument to be one from the nature of the virtuous individual, the successful individual in achieving the good, to the idea of a just state. By taking his argument this way, perhaps we can understand more fully his opposition to democracy.
Plato, born in 427 B. C., was an aristocrat, coming from an old and established family of Athens. Athens was defeated by the militaristic city state of Sparta. As a result, the aristocracy of Athens was overthrown and a democratic government was established. So it is no puzzles that Plato opposed the democratic government. But Plato had another special reason to dislike the Athenian democracy. For that government had executed his mentor and friend, Socrates.
Socrates wrote nothing. But his influence was enormous, especially on Athenian young men. But he came under suspicion, partly because he also was an aristocrat, but likely because of his constant criticisms of the government. He may also have been involved in some religious cult opposed to the traditional polytheistic religion of Athens. After his trial, when he was negotiating his sentence, he proposed that the Athenians should honor him and support him for the rest of his life. The Athenians saw no humor in this and sentenced him to death. So the heart-broken Plato also had this motivation in opposing democracy. But motivation is not argument.
We can propose that Plato’s first premise is the claim that only when a state is ruled by the wise can it be a just or successful state. It is virtually impossible to disagree with this. But who are the wise and how are they to acquire positions of power? What we need is a definition of wisdom and a constitutional procedure for making sure that those with wisdom become rulers. These are the main points of Republic as concerning the just state.
A second premise of Plato is that wisdom consists not only of genuine knowledge of universal truths but also that among these truths is virtue or goodness. The levels of human cognition are laid out in Plato’s simile of the divided line. The very lowest level is that of mere consciousness of sensations, the level of feeling (often translated as opinion). The second level, sometimes called belief, concerns the perception and cognition of the ordinary objects and events of the observable world. Both these levels concern what is given to us in sense experience and both fall short of genuine knowledge. But the mind can grasp far more than what it can sense. For example, there are the mathematical forms, such as numbers and perfect triangles. These can never be subject to the senses. We can discern, for example, groups of five things. But to know that they are five, we have to have some cognition of the number five. But the number five is never given or known by the senses. And we can judge precise and eternal truths about triangles that are never exactly true, and never eternally true of things we can observe.
But the very highest level of human consciousness is knowledge of pure forms such as equality and perfection. The most important forms for Plato bear out what is called here his second premise. These are the forms of justice and goodness. The Good is the very highest form because literally everything shares in that form. Even the lowest sensations are good in their own way but in a much lesser way than the form of a triangle. The point is that just as we discover truths about the ideal forms of mathematics, so too we can discover truths about the Good and Just by the use of our intellect alone. Knowledge of these is necessary for wisdom. And to achieve this, we must severely discipline our senses. Wisdom, then consists of the highest knowledge that includes the knowledge of what is good, right or just.
A third premise of Plato is that one can never knowingly do what is unjust. The wise, because of their wisdom, will be virtuous. So knowledge of the proper sort will make a person a good ruler.
The Allegory of the Cave
Plato devised the allegory of the cave to illustrate all this. The soul of man is captive to the body and its sensations. It must free itself from the body and enter the realm of the pure intellect if it is to achieve true understanding. Such an individual, freed from the senses, and able to understand the ideal forms is a genuine philosopher. From this we can conclude that philosophers should rule.
Let us review the three main premises of Plato: 1. Only when a state is ruled by the wise can it be a just or successful state; 2. Wisdom consists, along with general knowledge, the learning of virtue; 3. One can never knowingly do evil. So wise persons, the philosophers, will make the best rulers. To this, we can add a fourth: 4. Ordinary people cannot be sufficiently educated to be able to make wise decisions.
Functions of Classes in a Society
A democracy is a system of rule by the citizens of a state. Plato’s first premise, that the wise should rule, would require that every citizen who participates in governing be wise. In a democracy that would imply that every citizen should be wise. He thought is impossible. He described the three main functions of people in a state. There must be those who seek to supply the goods and services for the others, the farmers, craftsmen, merchants, and so on. Presumably, they do this for profits. So the people best suited for such endeavors are those who have what is called appetite or the desire make money. And of course, they want money to provide things that they want to possess. So their values are found in the satisfaction of ordinary desires. Furthermore, the education they need to perform their tasks is limited to practical fields of study. A farmer needs to know about farming, but has little ability or time to study politics, history, economics and all the other studies needed to make one wise. They are dominated by what Plato called appetite.
A second function of people in the state is to guard the state from external and internal enemies. The best people to serve in this capacity, Plato thought, would not be motivated by monetary interests but by a form of pride or what is often called “spirit.” Their values are those of a good athlete or soldier, namely those of recognition, duty, loyalty, fame, glory and the like. They need to be motivated by a pride in maintaining their own integrity so as to do their job and not to become corrupted by the desire for wealth. But in Plato’s view, soldiers make good warriors but not good rulers. A chief virtue of the soldier is obedience to command, not to create policy.
Some people have to make the decisions of the state, determining laws and policies. This requires wisdom. Clearly, he thought, neither the working people nor the soldiers will have the education or inclination that are required for ruling the state. If the state is ruled by the masses of people, the workers, and today we might think of business people or even international corporations in this category, the state will be unjust. Such a state will end up actually being ruled by the super-wealthy who will be able to fool the masses of under-educated and ill-disciplined people. The tendency will be for the masses of people to vote in ways that are in the interests of the few. And if the state is ruled by the soldiers, there will be too much engagement in war and aggression. It is necessary for the rulers to control and direct the other two sections in order to make sure each function is carried out. So the successful or just state will be one in which every person performs his or her role in the proper manner, workers produce goods and services, soldiers guard and protect and the guardians rule.
Here we have again, a reason to distrust democracy. Turning the government over to the people when most people are engaged in economic life and when they lack sufficient education, would be like allowing one’s desires for pleasure to rule his or her life. And while the desire to gain glory on the battlefield may be worthy and desirable for the soldiers, it is not the kind of motivation that should dominate and direct a ruler’s behavior. Like a charioteer struggling to drive two powerful and headstrong horses who want to go in different directions, reason must keep tight reins on the appetite and the spirit to keep the state on a just course.
When those who desire wealth become rulers, the state soon becomes a plutocracy, rule by the wealthy. This creates a division between the few wealthy and those who are poor. This in turn leads to a revolution ending in a democracy. But since the people do not know their own interests and lack fundamental education, they will become victims of one influential tyrant.
In criticism of Plato’s conception, we can bring two of his premises under scrutiny. He assumes that becoming a virtuous person is a function of knowledge. If this is so, only the educated will be virtuous. But if virtue is not a function of learning, then ordinary people may end up just as virtuous, if not more virtuous, than the best educated persons. The most famous student of Plato, Aristotle, believed that virtue is very much the result of habit formation beginning early in life and does not arise from theoretical education.
Plato also assumed that the people in the state would be content to obey what the rulers decide. But this would require that they give up their own individual judgment as to what is right or just, and even their own decision as to what they should possess or what occupation they should enter. Plato gives no reason to think that people will be willing to give up their own individual judgments and be content with what the rulers decide for them. And if virtue is not dependent on educational level they may have a legitimate right to criticize the virtue of their rulers.
Plato realized this and suggested teaching people a myth: some people are of gold, some of bronze and some of iron. Workers are to be taught that they are iron and thus unworthy of ruling, while soldiers are of bronze, with the same implication.
3. The Constitution of the Ideal State
As for the constitution of the state, a person would become a ruler (or guardian) only after years of education, including a final five years of philosophical inquiry and discussion. At age thirty-five, the philosopher would enter into public life, governing the state. At age fifty, those who have been successful would be allowed to retire to a life of contemplation. Plato proposed that women be allowed the opportunity to become a philosopher ruler. Women would be required to have military training just as were men. However, Plato never mentioned who it is who is to enforce all these and other regulations.
A problem that Plato saw was that of preventing the rulers or guardians themselves from becoming corrupt. What would keep them from using their power to enrich themselves and their families at the expense of the citizens?
First, the guardians will be such that they will have to be forced to rule. Their interest as philosophers is to reason, to search for understanding, and not to rule, even though they are best qualified to do it. Plato (Socrates) asked: “And those who govern ought not to be lovers of the task? For if they are there will be rival lovers, and they will fight.” This, he thinks, rules out politicians who seek positions of power for their own purposes. Rulers should not be politicians. Plato also toyed with the idea of a kind of communal living for the guardians. No ruler would be allowed to own any property. This, along with not having to campaign for the position, would eliminate individual corruption. And to prevent them from using their positions to enrich their families, Plato proposed the extreme of there being no marriage among the guardians with children raised in common nurseries, where even their own parents will not know them. This is also a way of ensuring equality of opportunity among the children. An individual would rise by his or her own abilities. No child would receive a better education because of his parents’ position. Plato even advanced the idea of eugenics, or selective breeding.
These proposals suggest that Plato saw the guardians coming from a select class of people. The children would all be given the opportunity for education and from that group, those who were successful in becoming philosophers would become rulers. This would establish a kind of aristocracy but one based on merit.
The state proposed by Plato would be a totalitarian system, with the rulers determining who would reproduce, how children would be educated, what occupation an individual would enter, what books one would read, what plays one would observe. For Plato, even the term ‘education’ seems to indicate the use of deception and propaganda in order to insure the attitudes of future guardians. While he proposed to define a just state, the result would hardly be what people today regard as justice. He actually seemed committed to creating a state that would be successful in survival, very much like militaristic Sparta that had defeated Athens in war.