Classical Athens was the world’s first democracy. It was also the only polis run by a city government in the Greek world, surrounded by powerful monarchies and oligarchies that were sceptical of their system. Despite its uniqueness, Athens became the wealthiest and most powerful state in the Delian League. It reached its peak under Pericles after defeating the mighty Persian Empire. For Athenians, democracy was something to be treasured and cherished, just as we would instinctively choose a democratic system over its authoritarian alternatives today, flawed as democracy is. For it has the might of the ideals; it strengthens the collective many instead of the privileged few.
Most people would agree with this assertion. Yet philosophers see things differently. Western political thought has long been sceptical of democracy. In the past few centuries, philosophers such as Alexis de Tocqueville have questioned whether people are in chains under democracy. And whether democracy is essentially a tyranny of the majority, where vote winners silence the vote losers, separated by the 50% mark. The first philosopher to question the first democracy was Plato. The Republic of Plato was the first book of political philosophy ever written. In this monumental work, he evaluates human nature, the essence of justice; the pitfalls of democracy were also one of its many deep themes.
This article will first provide an overview of the functioning of Athenian democracy and the context of Plato’s writing. Then it will dive into Plato’s critique of the demos. It seeks to reconstruct and clarify Plato’s arguments and explain the implications of his analogies.
The Athenian Democracy: A Brief Introduction
One cannot grasp Plato’s critique towards democracy without an understanding of the Athenian system. The prime of Athens was around the late 5th Century and 4th Century BC. Under this system, all male citizens (the demos) had extensive political rights, freedom of speech, and the opportunity to participate directly in political affairs. It was a direct democracy, meaning that citizens actively served in the institutions that governed them. Hence, they directly influenced and controlled the political process.
The most important institution was the Assembly, which is the ancient equivalent of the Westminster Parliament today. This body meets 2-3 times a month on Pnyx Hill, where space could accommodate 6000 citizens. Citizens debate a wide range of issues, such as making laws, starting political trials, prosecuting a citizen, and signing treaties. Any citizen could speak to the Assembly and vote on decisions by simply holding up their hands. The majority won the day, and the decision was final.
The Assembly is powerful, but the law courts can offer a degree of checks. 6000 jurors make up the courts, headed by a body of chief magistrates chosen annually by lot. The Athenians had a lottery system kleroterion to ensure the fairness of selection. The courts could challenge or support the Assembly’s decision on matters such as the prosecution of citizens, like ostracism, which expels ambitious and powerful citizens from the police.
The Empowerment of the Masses and its Problems
Athens, therefore, has a system that empowers all citizens, champions equal political participation, and prevents the elites from abusing the poor. As Pericles puts it in the Funeral Oration for the Athenian dead in the Peloponnesian War:
“Athens’ constitution is called a democracy because it respects the interests not of a minority but the whole people. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law; when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses. No one, so long as he has it in him to be of service to the state, is kept in political obscurity because of poverty.” (Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, 2.37)
So, what’s not to like? A problem with Athens is that citizens are often not experts in the realms in which they make political and legislative decisions. In the law courts, professional judges with a deep moral understanding of law did not exist. In the Assembly, many citizens who contribute to foreign affairs decisions lack diplomatic experience. Many were not well-versed in economics, yet they voted on the city’s financial affairs. Although one should not suggest that the multitude were incompetent because their decision-making was often beneficial for Athens, as the city dominated the Delian League. Nevertheless, as citizens lack knowledge, they inevitably make serious blunders. Blunders such as trialling a just man unfairly, listening to populists, and adhering to the policies proposed by sophists instead of righteous statesmen.
The Trial of Socrates
Socrates was the first western philosopher and a teacher of Plato. He was a dedicated Athenian citizen who served as a Hoplite in the army. Socrates lived his life democratically; he engaged in conversation with the masses, asked questions such as what is virtue? What is justice? And what are love and happiness? He talked not only to fellow academics and keen young minds but also to non-citizens and slaves. His engagement with the masses transcends class boundaries. In doing so, Socrates encouraged Athenians to think deeply about human existence.
Yet the democracy he loved sentenced him to death in 399 BC. Jurors accused him of introducing new gods and corrupting the youth. Whilst there are many causes for such convictions, many historians point out two significant motivations that led to the trial. The first is to do with Critias, a student of Socrates and a member of the Thirty Tyrants who briefly overthrew the Athenian Democracy in 404 BC for a short 8 months. Yet the Tyrants’ reign resulted in the killing of 5% of the Athenian population and confiscating citizens’ property. Enraged, the Athenians associated Critias’ brutality with Socrates’ teaching. Even though, as Historian William Morison convincingly points out, the two had a strained relationship, and Socrates disapproved of Critias’ action fervently. The masses acted according to passion instead of reason.
The second cause, according to Plato, is to do with the famous playwright Aristophanes’ negative portrayal of Socrates in his comedy – The Clouds. In this play, Aristophanes depicts Socrates as a fraud who reputes traditional Greek religion, worships strange deities of his own, and runs a special school (The Thinking Institute) to teach ideas subversive of conventional morality. One may ask, isn’t comedy light-hearted, and therefore, people should not take the messages seriously?
But the Greek context is different. The Greek word for a playwright is didáskalos, which means teacher. Playwrights have a teaching function. There are sections called parabasis in comedies where the play is paused, and the chorus leader addresses the audience. The actors leave the stage, and the chorus leader assumes the playwright’s perspective and speaks to the audience. It is hence possible that Athenians took Aristophanes’ false portrayal of Socrates seriously. And Critias and Aristophanes contributed to the people’s misjudgments of Socrates.
Born around 429 BC, Plato lived through the crisis of Athenian democracy and witnessed many blunders made by the citizen-government. Athens lost the Peloponnesian war against Sparta, she was ravaged by the Thirty Tyrants, and out of frenzy, she executed one of its greatest minds – Socrates. The democracy Plato lived in faced the greatest challenges she ever encountered and failed to resolve these difficulties with effective domestic policy and wise diplomacy. Witnessing Athens’ failure laid the foundation of Plato’s criticisms against democracy. The rest of the article explores Plato’s argument against this system of government in The Republic.
The Republic of Plato
The freedom that leads to fickleness
Plato views the masses living in a democracy in a profoundly negative light. He describes his conception of ‘the democratic man’, in other words, a typical Athenian citizen, in the following passage:
‘He lives from day to day, indulging the pleasure of the moment. One day it’s wine, women and song, the next water to drink and a strict diet. One day it’s hard physical training, the next indolence and careless ease, and then a period of philosophic study. Often, he takes to politics and keeps jumping to his feet and saying or doing whatever comes into his head. Sometimes all his ambitions and efforts are military, sometimes they are all directed to success in business. There’s no order or restraint in his life, and he reckons his way of living is pleasant, free and happy, and sticks to it through thick and thin.’ (Plato, The Republic, Penguin Classics, 2007, p. 298)
From this it is clear, Plato thinks democratic men lack persistence and discipline. Evident via their lifestyle, citizens of democracy shift interests according to temperaments. Although there is mobility for good because sometimes the desires are good-intentioned, such as philosophical studies and physical training, others are lustful, such as wine and women.
Plato’s emphasis in this passage is that democratic men focus on ‘pleasure of the moment’ and freedom. ‘The moment’ suggests short-termism, and being free meant that democratic men never pursue a particular craft with persistence, and lacking consistent practice meant they are virtually good at nothing. Plato suggests, for a society to function at its peak, its citizens should specialise in a craft, such as carpeting, farming, etc. Then a polis would consist of experts from different realms. Democracy, on the contrary, consists of amateurs.
Sophistry and Populism in Democracies
As a consequence of fickleness, many citizens do not pursue the toilful study of science, logic, and philosophy, which would help them to perceive truth. The citizenry-government therefore lack knowledge and wisdom. This makes them the targets of populists, who often adopt sophistry as a method of persuasion. Populist politicians used the masses through deception for their gains. They outcast those who are capable of ruling. Plato illustrates this via the analogy of the ship of state in book 6.
Plato imaginatively compares ruling in a democracy to steering a ship. He likens the citizens to the short-sighted shipowner, sophists to incompetent sailors, philosophers to stargazers. Philosophers are those who perceive truth and spread wisdom. The stargazer knows seamanship, but unskilled sailors cast him aside, claims seamanship is unteachable and threatens to ‘cut to pieces the man’ who objects. They enchant the shipowner with ‘drinking and feasting and begging’ until the shipowner accepts them.
Plato insists, such an analogy parallels situations in a democracy. The masses lack reason and are creatures of desires, so that wicked politicians lure their support by fulfilling their desires. Violence is incited, the ‘cut to pieces’ phrase is powerful; it shows how unconstitutional populists are willing to go, to achieve their agenda. As a result, philosophers, like the fallen Socrates, paradoxically become the enemy of the state.
The Road to Tyranny
An ignorant body of citizens and the elimination of just man like Socrates provide the ideal ground for demagoguery. Plato suggests in book 8 of The Republic, eventually the popular desire for freedom becomes so extreme that any limitations on anyone’s freedom seem unfair. This limitation could be due to a difference in wealth and intellect. A demagogue would arise by presenting himself as a champion of the people against the class of the few wealthy people. The demagogue commits several acts to gain power: accuse people falsely, attack his kinsmen, bring people to trial under false pretences, murder and exile and purport to cancel the debts of the poor to gain their support.
The demagogue will turn into a tyrant. He eliminates the brave and wise people in the city since he perceives them as threats to his power. Self-preservation characterises the tyrant. He ends up using private militia as guards, for he has the leading citizens’ blood on his hand and distrust the people. Tyrannical society is enslaved: the masses live under the tyrant’s iron fist, whilst the tyrant is enslaved by his desire to dominate and his paranoia of betrayal and citizenry uprising. While words like freedom and slavery, democracy and tyranny seem so far apart, because they have polar opposite literal meanings, Plato insists that they are closely intertwined in political thought.
Relevance to Modern History
To us, Plato’s arguments may seem crazy. Surely freedom and repression are the furthest thing apart? But modern history has proven otherwise. Although demagogues may not seize power exactly as the way Plato describes, tyrannies nevertheless often arise from democracies. One only needs to look at the Weimar Republic’s descent into Nazi Germany, Chile and the Pinochet coup in the 1970s, and Venezuela to realise how fragile democracy is. The example of Weimar Germany is especially evocative.
Hitler’s rise somewhat parallels Plato’s theoretical demagogue. Hitler and his National Socialists presented themselves as champions of the lower-middle class and working class during the Great Depression. At the same time, he appealed to ultra-conservatives on the promise to restore German greatness by discarding the Treaty of Versailles and the expansionist policy of Lebensraum. He orchestrated the Night of the Long Knives to eliminate his colleague and competitor Ernst Roehm, cementing his hold over the Nazis. Like Plato’s tyrant, he has militias for personal protection and gains; first the SA, then the SS. Of course, there are contextual differences between Plato’s tyrant and dictators in modern history. It is nevertheless striking that Plato, writing thousands of years before modernity, almost foresees how modern democracy could crumble.
Although we may disagree with Plato’s single-sided distaste for democracy, modern readers can learn a lot from his critique of this system. His description of ‘the democratic man’, who takes the system for granted, is chilling but relevant. The precondition of the demagogue’s rise is the ignorance of the masses.
Thus, a modern reader could interpret The Republic as a warning. Democratic citizens should pursue knowledge, critical thinking, and logic. People should become men of reason, instead of creatures of passion, so that smooth populists would find it difficult to sway public opinions with honeyed rhetoric.
There is also a moral dimension in Plato’s work. Evaluation of democracy is a small aspect, the tip of an iceberg. In the opening parts of The Republic, Plato discusses ethical issues. For example, in a world of appearances and facades, why should we remain good and just? Overall, The Republic is a thought-provoking masterpiece ahead of its time. By reading it, one can see the colourful interaction between Athenian context and Plato’s arguments, confront and evaluate disruptive ideas, and draw links between the past and present, theory and reality.