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Plato on Democracy and the Tyranny of the Majority: A Revisiting Plato on Democracy and the Tyranny of the Majority: A Revisiting
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2015-11-07 13:05:01
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Plato (427-347 B.C.)

Some eight years ago, I contributed an article to Ovi magazine titled “Democracy as the Common Sense of the People: Confronting the ancient to the Modern View.” For interested readers, the link to such an article is as follows: www.ovimagazine.com/art/2043. I’d like to revisit this issue as introduced by none other than Plato via Socrates some twenty four hundred years ago in the Republic. The revisiting is relevant in the light of the current questioning by the likes of Bernie Sanders of the wisdom of unregulated free markets somehow associated with a democratic form of government, or what should be the role of government in the efficient managing of the economy. Plato’s arguments, made so long ago, resonate in the current modern world in much the same way as they did when they first appeared. Indeed, times of crisis remind us of the need for an ongoing review of the assumptions we make regarding the best way to govern and to manage a polis.

There is nowadays a veritable plethora of points of views and different societies arrive at different conclusions regarding political and economic systems. In Western societies, in general, the view that seems to be most popular is that democracy accompanied by capitalism, offers the best, most efficient use of resources. On the other hand, Communist doctrine, as adopted by other nations, endorses the establishment of an egalitarian, classless, stateless society based on common ownership of the means of production and property. As an ideal, the communist doctrine defines a just city as one that eliminates the need for its citizens to wish to exploit each other. History appears to indicate that in practice, however, the communist vision cannot be fulfilled since absolute power as given to the leader corrupts absolutely. Human nature does not appear to manage total supremacy very well. When authorities are left unchallenged, their characters appear to be altered, inverting their true selves with alter egos incapable of putting the welfare of others before their own.

History provides many examples of autocrats who brought tragedy and devastation to the people that they governed. Many were appointed in an attempt to bring relief in times of turmoil, but ended up by using their political prowess to dictate and oppress. Adolf Hitler and Mussolini, once social misfits, became two of history’s most infamous tyrants whose attainment of power spiraled from the aftermath of the Treaty of Versailles. Against the backdrop of these various choices made by different nations throughout history, democracies have viewed the choice of that political system as obviously superior. Churchill used to quip that democracy is the worst of all political systems, except for all the others.

The concept of a ruling elite finds a strong proponent in the philosopher Plato. While recognizing the fundamental flaw in humankind so clearly manifested in his famous myth of the cave, Plato believed in the appointment of one supreme guardian, the philosopher king, an individual, who with the proper education, was competent enough to decide on legislative policies. In Plato’s work, The Republic, such a knowledgeable being determines the laws in the city. Plato believed that the philosopher king was incorruptible since his only desire was knowledge and wisdom. The question arises: in the light of history’s lessons, is it plausible to believe that a society can be governed in such an ideal or utopian manner? Or is democracy the ideal form of governance when the true nature of humankind is considered? Moreover, given the current and past crises arising out of capitalism accompanied by democracy, could it be true that democracy is no less flawed than those other forms of governance? Let’s attempt to tackle those crucial questions.

The Republic is arguably Plato’s most influential work. It portrays several dialogues between the philosopher Socrates and several observers in which they discuss a political theory for a just state. The central belief is that “justice and happiness stand and fall together. Not because good consequences follow from being just, but because justice itself is so great that nothing gained by injustice could be greater”. Socrates unified a just person and a just city, claiming that an individual’s soul contains three parts or desires. The first part is the desire for wisdom and truth, the second for honor, and the last for gains. The individual’s parts correspond to those of a city. The portion of the soul that desires wisdom and truth is the principle role of the guardians of a city. The portion that desires honor is the principle role of the auxiliaries. The last portion that desires gains is the principle role of the producing class. The Socrates of The Republic believes that “guardians” should run a city because they are the only ones with the knowledge and the desire to do so.

When we contrast this doctrine to the democratic process in Western society, the question is raised as to whether Socrates’ republic would be more practical. A democracy as practiced today allows for virtually all citizens to take part in the election of a leader with the possible exceptions of minors and convicts. Campaigns may span years during which candidates debate in a national forum. Interviews are held to allow voters to gain knowledge of the candidates’ policies. In spite of this, how many in Western democracies evaluate all policies and subsequently vote based on what is relevant to them? Precious few, I dare say. In fact, how many understand the relevance of so many events that would allow them to make a truly informed decision? And if people are not fully informed about events, domestic and foreign, then how can they understand any candidate’s proposed policies?

Without complete and relevant information, the democratic election process becomes a mere entertaining popularity contest. People favor the charismatic contender whether he is the best candidate or not. We have a perfect example of this phenomenon in the USA as we speak: Trump and Carson are more than 50% ahead in the Republican party’s polls. Is this how a country should be governed, based on emotions rather than an informed decision?. The logical conclusion is that it may be best to allow those who are truly informed (the wise) to determine what is best for the group. Those individuals who might disagree with such an idea on the basis that it is undemocratic should be advised that such practices already occur in democratic states. By its nature, a representational democracy allows for elected leadership to make decisions for the group. Events are concealed from the public at large for a variety of reasons, homeland security being a popular rationale currently.

Plato showed no great love for democracy because he believed that not all members of society were capable of making wise decisions. As voiced through Socrates, the Platonic principle is that only a few people in a just city (those individuals known as the philosophers) possess the principle portion of the soul that desires for truth and wisdom. Furthermore, since this portion of their souls is also rational, this ruling cadre will be just, thus assuring that the city they rule is also just.  On the other hand, justice does not form the basis of rule in a capitalistic society, and by extension, will have a lesser role in a democratic republic. In a capitalistic system, where free markets uncontrolled by the government are endorsed, buyers and sellers come together in the exchange of goods and services. Money has a large influence in this society playing a role as a foreign policy tool where sanctions and embargos are used to coerce other nations to do one’s bidding.

Plato did not believe in money because he understood its power to corrupt. He believed that a society would be happier without it. Leaders not motivated by justice will find ways to rationalize immoral actions, or inactions, using the ends to justify the means. Democratic nations see no political gain to be had from interference in foreign governments where innocent people suffer but no wealth or control is to be gained. The Republic proposes the view that morality outweighs rationality. If money and wealth are not at the forefront of society’s value system, morality dictates that all societies will be on an equal footing. In consequence, a society will have fewer wars since there would not be financial gains to be desired and mutual respect across nations would forbid war being used as a means of control of other nations. 

A distinction between the democratic state and Plato’s Republic lies in the appointment of its leaders. Democratic elections are competitive, periodic, inclusive, definitive elections in which the chief decision-makers in a government are selected by citizens who enjoy broad freedom to criticize government, to publish their criticism and to present alternatives.  In a democracy, after the candidates have campaigned and voiced their policies, the people are called upon to vote. In the U.S. version of democracy, for example, contrary to popular perception, people do not vote directly for a president. They are in fact voting for an elector who is a part of the Electoral College. The elector then votes for the candidate to whom he or she is pledged. The candidate with the largest number of electoral votes wins the Presidency. In the election of Bush versus Gore, where each candidate was declared the winner at different intervals, confidence in the system was severely strained.

Leaders motivated by wealth are susceptible to temptation and may not be trusted to do the right thing. A system like that electoral system used in U.S. presidential elections is not consistent with Plato’s vision on two levels. First, the average individual may not have the wisdom to be involved in the appointment of a leader and second, potential leaders’ abilities should be carefully and objectively scrutinized before nomination. Those individuals that Plato described as “guardians” are the only ones with the knowledge, wisdom and virtue to run a just city. They are the ones with the education and the thirst for knowledge to make decisions based on morals rather than emotions. Moreover, of all the guardians, one particular philosopher is needed to govern the city: the philosopher-king. In the Platonic system, guardians were subjected to several tests in order to determine which of that select group could be that king. The most important test was their grasp of the idea of the “Form of the Good”. Through their understanding of this idea, the selected guardian would reach the highest level of knowledge and be capable of becoming the philosopher-king in charge of the common good. This ruler was described as the supreme ruler who is at the top of a hierarchy, followed by the auxiliaries, and finally the producing class. For Plato, this described the perfect society—a leadership capable of, and a system designed to optimize the happiness of its citizens.

The strength of Plato’s political vision is not dissimilar from that of a democratic, capitalistic system in that it recognizes the strength of reward to motivate behavior. Where it differs is that that the guardians were not to be rewarded with private wealth, given their natures their reward was what they most desired, that is truth and wisdom. Such a city was designed to be free of corruption. The auxiliaries, whose primary desire was for honor, act as helpers to the guardians and police the producing class who are those who desire gain. All parts of the city are rewarded with what they most desire and each sector’s desire guarantees the overall happiness of all. These rewards are not monetary, as there is no money in the city, thereby removing a major source of corruption. A potential strength of a Republic as envisioned by Plato is that it is governed by a small group. With few in leadership roles, it is easy to congregate, set an agenda and come to a united agreement. This government of small numbers allows for order and unity.

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In this view, Plato puts a great deal of emphasis on the soul as rational and assumes that people, who choose occupations based on their desires, will be just. What about those who use their passions to deceive and manipulate? For instance, Machiavellians who check their passions so that they can practice even greater injustice? According to Plato’s doctrine, given that they are following the desires of their rational soul, they must be behaving in a just manner, but clearly this is not so. Another weakness of this doctrine is that it puts too much power in the hands of a selected few. It is dangerous to allow so few to govern so many. This weakness was identified by Aristotle, who believed that all things considered, without the checks and balances of a democratic society, an environment of tyranny remains a real possibility. In contrast, a weakness of democracy is that the masses are given the ability to govern the country. As a group, they are susceptible to the “group think” mentality so well described in Orwell’s 1984; voting based on the collective mentality rather than individual ideals. Here again we are witnessing this phenomenon represented in Trump and Cason, as we speak.

Economic gain is of course central in a capitalist society and will influence people’s decision making. The group may vote based on emotions rather than thought. Also, a large number of people may be unable to focus on one agenda since different people have different ideals, agendas and motivations. That said, it may be safer to leave power in the hands of the many rather than the hands of the few and collectively people may object to that which seems tyrannical. A republic such as this has never existed, making it an utopist ideal. The dilemma with idealism is that it is counter-intuitive to reality. Ideals may not function in reality. They serve more as a moral compass than an actual function basis of governance.

So what is the solution? The best form of governance is that which combines idealism and realism. What Is the Ideal Form of Governance? Is the best form of governance grounded by economic realities regarding the greed of some individuals, rather than the democracy of today where unfettered capitalism creates periodic crisis? The current interpretation of democracy appears to work better for some members of society than others and often democratic ideals are sacrificed in order to accommodate the so-called free markets which appear to be freer for some then they are for others. The founding fathers of US democracy believed that in an ideal society those who own property, have an income and meet age requirements, should govern the country and fight its wars. The reason is that they are the individuals who have the most to lose. Women and slaves and those without property were automatically excluded from voting. They had the least to lose.

In today’s society, the vast majority of these people would be the middle class. They pay the majority of the nation’s taxes and own a large proportion of its land. Because of this, the middle class would fight harder in wars and choose a leader whose policies are best for the collective. Following this argument, the poor should not vote because they may not truly be informed about politics and have less to lose should poor decisions about leadership be made. Their primary concern is likely to be to vote for leaders who would distribute more aid to them. Again reality intrudes on such an argument. The middle class shows no sign of an inclination to sign up for military life to defend their way of life. Rather they are content to allow the poor to do so. And the middle class is no less likely to vote to promote their own welfare than the poor, regardless of what might be in the best interests of the nation overall. Relegating the poor to the sidelines of power raises the specter of racism as well, an ongoing American problem. Poverty is frequently identified with Black and Hispanic citizens and a larger proportion of those citizens are likely to be poor. The ideal of democracy, as originally envisioned, would serve to amplify the problems of racism, alienate a large group of minority families from the political process and further drive a wedge between the races. The reality of economics again intrudes on the historic democratic ideal.

In modern societies, it is perhaps best that all people participate in their society’s governance. In spite of Plato’s arguments and any inconvenience and inefficiency, placing the reins of democracy in the hands of the masses is in the long run safer than relegating power to only a few, as Aristotle well perceived. Plato was correct however in requiring that leaders be informed, and equally correct in believing that the uniformed masses are less likely to make good decisions, but the way to address this is not to exclude people. Rather, as part of the political process, people should be educated about all of the facets of the process, as well as about the candidates, their policies and political ideologies, and opportunities should be available to them so that they have a stake in the polity to which they belong.

In addition to education about the candidates and the process, the population requires a more general education in order to allow it to follow its desires, in terms of career and the contribution that each individual might make to society. As in The Republic, allowing people to perform jobs which best suit their desires would give each individual a stake in the welfare of the nation overall, allowing for a more efficient use of labor resources and a motivation for all members of society to work for the collective good of the whole. Given the economic realities of capitalism, where some have resources and the power to manipulate the government in their own best interests, modern democracy requires some reining in of free markets. The reality of greed and the existence of those who would put their own desires before the welfare of the nation overall, necessitate a government that regulates those who control more resources. In other words, economic realities cannot be ignored or wished away as in a Platonic ideal. Here the presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is rendering an eminent educational benefit to the nation as a whole and may well change the trajectory of American history, as I have argued in another article.

But just as the communist ideal seems somewhat naïve in a modern era, so is the concept of unfettered capitalism, free markets and entrepreneurship, as the only efficient economic system. The greatest contribution of Plato to our modern understanding of appropriate governance may be the emphasis the philosopher placed on the power of knowledge supported by wisdom. Some investment in those attributes might allow for a better informed voter and a more reasonable form of government where democratic ideal is blended with an understanding of economic necessity and the realities of human nature. Perhaps what has become most apparent from the current crisis, especially the refugees crisis, is that some sense of collective good, as well as a sense of collective responsibility, must be incorporated into the notion of democracy. Democracy as a political system does not seem to be able to solve those crisis all by itself which makes one suspect that there may be democratic deficit at work, or worse, a corrupted form of democracy which has retained the outer shell of democratic trappings, but lost its inner substance. An uninformed democracy is the road to the tyranny of the majority and the eventual loss of freedom which encompasses democracy. Jefferson, who surely had read Plato’s Republic had it on target with his warning that “eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.” We, in Western democracies, ignore that warning at our own peril.


     
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