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