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Democracy as the Common Sense of the People: Confronting the Ancient to the Modern View 1/2 Democracy as the Common Sense of the People: Confronting the Ancient to the Modern View 1/2
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2007-09-17 09:27:47
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In a relativistic age which beliefs in functional truths but not in Truth, when consequently many sing the praises of democracy but precious few can pin down its essence, a revisiting of Plato’s skeptical attitude towards it may lead us to a surprising discovery, that of Giambattista Vico in the 18th century: that democracy has never been based on the rule of a few all-wise leaders and not even on that of learned people, i.e., the philosopher-kings and the manipulating politicians, but on the “common sense” of all the people.

"No one pretends that Democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the other forms that have been tried." (Winston Churchill)

The above statement was proffered by Churchill in the House of Commons on the 11th of November 1947. Some have assumed that Churchill had Plato’s critique of democracy in mind when he proffered it. That assumption is based on a kind of rationalism devoid of imagination which ends up missing the irony of Churchill’s statement, not to speak of the paradoxical nature of Plato’s critique of democracy in The Republic.

Indeed, in an age of relativism, when many sing the praises of democracy as the gift of the age of Enlightenment, ignoring the fact that in reality its cradle is ancient Athens, when others (the futurists who run on cars with no rear view mirrors) say that its essence may have changed even in the last fifty years or so, and will keep on changing faster and faster, while precious few bother to explore its essence, its ambiguity and paradox, perhaps a revisiting of Plato’s critique of democracy may be worthwhile. In book VI of The Republic Plato narrates a parable as a way of answering this crucial question by Adeimantus: “How can you be justified in saying that cities will not cease from evil until philosophers rule in them, when philosophers are acknowledged by us to be of no use to them?” This is the parable by which Plato answers the question, via Socrates:

Suppose the following to the state of affairs on board a ship or ships. The captain is large and stronger than any of the crew, but a bit deaf and short sighted and similarly limited in seamanship. The crew are all quarreling with each other about how to navigate the ship, each thinking he ought to be at the helm; they have never learned the art of navigation and cannot say that anyone ever taught it them, or that they spent any time studying it; indeed they say it cannot be taught and are ready to murder any one who says it can. They spend all their time milling around the captain and doing all they can to get him to give them the helm. If one faction is more successful than another, their rivals may kill them and throw them overboard, lay out the honest captain with drugs or drinks or in some other way, take control of the ship, help themselves to what’s on board, and turn the voyage into the sort of drunken pleasure-cruise you would expect. Finally, they reserve their admiration for the man who knows how to lend a hand in controlling the captain by force or fraud; they praise his seamanship and navigation and knowledge of the sea and condemn everyone else as useless. They have no idea that the true navigator must study the seasons of the year, the sky, the stars, the wind and all the other subjects appropriate to his profession if he is to be really fit to control a ship (488b-d).”


The above allegory, as per Aristotle’s book on Rhetoric, can be interpreted thus: the ship is the Athenian ship of State, the rather incompetent captain is the Athenian people. The people own the state and are supreme in it, as indeed it ought to be in any democratic Republic, even a rudimentary undeveloped one. The motley crew represents the politicians who are constantly quarrelling with each other on how best to navigate the ship while regularly attempting to take the helm from the captain.


Now, it would appear that things have not changed that much in twenty four hundred years. Undoubtedly, this allegory from The Republic paints a rather bleak picture of democracy. Plato seems to be neither a “republican” nor a “democrat.” Had he lived today in the United States of America, he might have ended up voting for the green party or Ralph Nader. Be that as it may, some of his readers over the ages, while acknowledging his penetrating genius, have attributed to him totalitarian-elitists intellectual tendencies, the attempt to explain the whole of reality with one over-reaching theoretical scheme. This charge seems to be supported by the fact that Plato maintains a rather skeptical attitude toward the poetical in general, and that his ultimate solution to the conundrum of the political incompetence of ordinary people who own the ship of state in a democracy, seems to be that philosophers become kings or vice versa, kings become philosophers. Moreover, it should not be forgotten that he also advocated that no one is ready to be a philosopher before the age of fifty; wisdom arrives, if at all, with the experience of a life-time of virtue, or to say it with Shakespeare: “maturity is all.”


Were we to seriously survey the history of mankind we would soon find out that humanity has had as their leaders precious few philosopher-kings and an abundance of Caesars and Napoleons, people who in general are in love with Machiavellian “power politik” which they practice rationally on the chess-board of life while being completely uninterested in philosophy.

We would also find out that sometimes the rule of the majority turns into the tyranny of the mob which represses the few who may be branded as outsiders. This ugly phenomenon is observed and commented upon in modern times by none other than Tocqueville; despite the fact that he had great sympathies for democratic systems, he suspected that it applied to democracies also. The founding fathers of the United States were in fact so troubled by this sad tendency of human nature to rule and manipulate others, that they decided to add the Bill of Rights to a Constitution which already proclaimed and enshrined inalienable and universal truths and values.

PART ONE
PART TWO


    
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Linda Lane2007-09-17 20:18:06
Love reading your stuff Emanuel.


Emanuel Paparella2007-09-17 21:49:03
Thanks Linda, but let us also give some credit to Plato and Vico on whose shoulders I stand and who give me the confidence that one's voice may be heard after all, even in what one may be tempted to surmize as a desert of sort, and may in fact even find a sympathetic echo or dialogue. I have been pleasantly surprised that way time and again.


Jack2007-09-18 23:54:51
I do wish we would look back to the wisdom of the early American forefathers, for the knew all too well human nature and it's tendency to ascendency. If they were here today, they would see the priviledged few hands at the helm while the people themselves row incessantly. Moving the mechanism of Deomocracy with "all hands below" small wonder that the rudder knows not where the helmsmen are steering? The oarsmen "cats-eye" view let's them see what's ahead, yet they remain helpless in controling it.

I am sadened to agree with a former History professor who once said concerning modern history: "The bottom dollar is the bottom dollar". It'$ all about the money. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts abosolutely.

Great observation about a lacking of an historical rear-view mirror. This is the "accident waiting to happen".


Monica2007-09-22 22:57:58
Excellent two part series! However - I am wondering if we are being somewhat "Polly Anna" in thinking that "common sense" will prevail. I believe that we need to be much more proactive in mentoring those who follow us to demonstrate leadership in this area.


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