The greatest minds and influences in the history of Western Civilisation were also those who held the greatest critique and objection to democracy. In this article, I will discuss Plato’s ancient utopia for a perfect, harmonious state and how, although it is far from all the systems we have in place now, that “the good man will apply, even in the imperfect state, the perfect law” and through applying his ancient principles and beliefs to our modern society, we can strive to attain his visions of societal harmony and justice.
Philosophers and their doubts upon democracy
Plato, narrated by Socrates, of Book VI of The Republic, draws the analogy between a ship and society; describing that a ship with a mutinous crew and a society with rebellious citizens are analogous because crew members violently struggle with one another to become captain, while not one of them possess the knowledge of navigation, all while considering the proper, qualified captain a ‘star gazer’, failing to realize that the constellations provide guide to navigate the seas. Just as the crews’ ignorance causes them to unjustly mutilate the captain, so too does the citizens’ ignorance of statesmanship cause them to rebel against true philosophers and elect those among demagoguery of political opportunists, many of which prevail even to this day.
Socrates had fallen victim to the capricious, unpredictable, and unjust dealings of democracy himself. When the revolution of his time came, the fate of Socrates had been acted upon – he was the proclaimed intellectual leader of the revolting party and was put on trial. He was tried for the charges of asebeia (impiety) for “failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges” and of corrupting the youth of the city-state solely due to the state’s fear of thought, discussion, and debate.
In the famous work ‘Apology’, which is a Socratic dialogue of the speech in legal self-defense written by Plato, where Socrates the first martyr of philosophy upheld the right of freedom of thought, claimed the value of the state, and refused to beg for mercy the crowd whom he disdained, not even making an appeal. In 399 BC he was put to death by the Athenian Jury of five hundred people and only decided of this by a terribly slim margin of only thirty votes, unjustly following and acting upon irrationality to biased charges. Another variety of randomly selected people could have changed the votes ever so slightly and philosophy’s founding father would not have been put to his death, from the very system he most fervently feared throughout his life.
This event had significantly solidified Plato’s perspective on democracy and its dangerous methods if left uncontrolled. The mob mentality, the uninformed decisions, the randomity, and often injudiciousness of it all. Engendering doubts upon democracy and many objections to it. Plato and his fellow philosophers discussed the question of how educated should voters be; whether voting was something that had to be done by only those properly educated, or if it was a birth-right. They believed that an election would need to be an intellectual election to function and uphold a state, not simply random and owed to everyone. These ideas weren’t elitist, that only a minuscule minority is to have these rights– but simply that the people who voted be educated and informed.
“There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance.” - Socrates
The other objection that arose after the trial was why a majority vote on anything should automatically constitute their right, and whether instead, we must look at things beyond randomly selected numbers, but instead at a group of carefully elected wise “guardians” to decide upon matters. Plato cast severe doubts upon the effectiveness of a system that rested all confidence in the idea of “majority rule”, as opposed to the ruling of those most capable. As these philosophers conveyed ideas and meaning through analogy and debate, there is a famous story that describes and warns of the dangers of demagoguery. Demagoguery is when political practice seeks people’s support and attention through appealing to desire and prejudice, and often false narratives, rather than logic or truth. Criticism of demagoguery comes from them
through the metaphor of the candy shop owner and the doctor.
The argument is that many politicians behave like the candy shop owners, trying to appeal to our desires and our “simplistic nature of wanting easy answers”, rather than what is truly good for us, and for the society we live in with a cult of personality and falsehoods. All while the truly good leaders, drawn as an example of the doctor, cannot provide the lies of sweet pleasure and are disregarded for his logic and good intention, having an impossible time convincing a crowd of voters with his honesty and magnanimity. The risk of demagogues building a mass following through simply exciting the passions of the mob against the thoughtful, just and qualified candidates was not something that Plato, Socrates, or any of their students condoned.
Democracy can degenerate into demagoguery. This philosophical argument, and grave warning, still holds dear relevance and value to this day, with new examples and problems arising constantly through those who use the susceptible, uninformed populations to their ill-intended manipulations where leaders cunningly appeal to the emotions of the masses in order to manipulate feelings regarding issues without using any rational approach. Demagogues, competing to be powerful, are only elected by people being subject to choose foolishly between the lesser of two evils, rather than the truly capable.
The word ‘Democracy’ itself is a reflection of the ideal, with ‘Demos’ meaning people and ‘Kratos’ meaning strength. This aspiration for the strength of the masses seems to have failed us in many circumstances, with institutions, education, inequalities, and societal functions such as court procedure all relying on a system that is fundamentally flawed because of the few simple errors it succumbs to. The ancient objections still hold their relevance. Is there really strength in simply numbers? Is there really any strength in uninformed citizens making serious decisions? Is there really any strength in simply electing the lesser of two evils? Is there really any strength in citizens being misinformed by political opportunists? Is there really any strength in uneducated political opportunists having free reign to manipulate?
The Utopia of Plato
In Plato’s ideal state, people are divided into three classes; the artisans, the auxiliaries, and the philosopher-kings (also known as the guardians). These proclivities reflect a particular combination of one’s “tripartite soul” which is made up of desire, spirit, and reason. The most significantly described class of people would be the philosopher-kings. Among these rulers, chosen through examination, subject to over thirty years of
learning, and forced to undergo military service and work in society, will, if successful, rule in an established form of communism between them. With no private property, no narrowing egoism of family, a fixed rate of pay, and common meals and homes. This dream state, described as the “truly just state”, would be a utopia where everyone would be “having and doing, what is one’s own” for the individual sovereignty of a citizen and the harmony of all collectively, that consequently would benefit each individual for the most utilitarian outcome achievable.
For all in society, this is all decided not by monopolized opportunity or nepotic favoritism, but simply by stages of examination. Every opportunity in this ideal state will be utterly equal, meaning that eventually, everyone would fill their roles in society and function harmoniously, fulfilling their deontological moral duty to the state and themselves as individuals by respecting their roles. Plato’s most influential work, The Republic, in book IV describes a key aspect of his vision; full equality of educational opportunity for everyone.
“We must seek it [the ability of statesmanship] impartially everywhere, in every rank and race”
In Plato’s last works, The Laws, which is a conversation on political philosophy combined with applied legislation, there is significant discussion regarding who will be qualified to rule. Those who will rule must be nominated as candidates, by those in the public who have served in the military, and be finely educated “in divine and every other kind of knowledge which will enable them to fulfill their office.”
That all citizens of this utopia are to have the same, democratically equal intellectual opportunities and shall have the same chance to rise to the highest positions of the state. These ancient philosophers were very enthusiastic about the equality of opportunity, rather than the equality of outcome, to ensure that only those most capable and fit would rule as a meritocracy.
Adapting His Idealised Thought into Our Own Times and Limitations
Plato’s utopia for a perfect, harmonious state is far from all the systems we have now, and although it is, as he readily admits, an ideal difficulty of attainment, that the good man will apply, even in the imperfect state, the perfect law. Thus ultimately aligning to the best “coordination of the real in light of the ideal”.
Voting is a skill that should be taught and learned for democracy to function at the highest of levels, and in ways that are truly just. We cannot limit the suffrage of the people to only those educated, as proposed in the ideal state, but we can improve the education itself that the people receive, as Socrates himself tells us. We can work towards investing and funding better schools, ones that are equitable and will help ensure opportunity for all, and have educational institutions offer easily accessible scholarships to all that demonstrate need. But truly, the change must start with the educational quality to receive, as regardless of how many scholarships are tossed out, they can only be of use with a population that can work towards it.
“Democracy is only as good as the education that surrounds it”
Ruling, similarly, is a skill that should be taught and learned just the same. Plato believed that truly the wisest must rule, and it was most effective to entrust power to carefully educated and trustworthy guardians. Though we may not be able to subject our politicians and prime ministers to years and years of learning the greatness of athletics and music, the immersion into military service and regular work, followed by rigorously learning the art of philosophy – we can get pretty close. National departments of political science and administration in universities, with courses in philosophy and effective statesmanship that would qualify towards the ability to rule, enforced by a legislative procedure that ensures only those truly qualified through education and experience can go onto rule.
For a society that is just, harmonious, and egalitarian, we must start at the very foundations of philosophy’s greatest concern – education. Equality in educational opportunity for all, to learn and to rule, is absolutely necessary, and the dire consequences of neglecting the importance of wisdom and knowledge are incomprehensibly detrimental. The most utilitarian approach, one that would maximize the good of all, would start with ensuring education for all, to hold up our institutions, our government, our international relations, and our law. To decide on the law, we must work towards improving the education of the masses, and to enforce the law, we must improve the education of those in office.