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Democracy as the Common Sense of the People: Confronting the Ancient to the Modern View 2/2
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2007-09-19 09:37:50
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At this point one may ask: is Plato’s critique still valid today, and if so, what are the practical consequences of ignoring it? Let us try to apply this critique to an overarching problem of modern Western Civilization, namely the principle of sustainable development. This principle would require that we change the way we live our lives. We should distinguish what we truly need from what we want, as Aristotle teaches in The Nicomachean Ethics. In other words, we the people would have to democratically agree to place a greater value on the future quality of the environment than on our present comfortable life-style. This is particularly true in the developed countries, the so called first world, such as the US and the EU.

This moral concept creates obligations not only for the common good of the present inhabitants of the world, but also toward future generations. There is a problem however: in a free market there is no normative standard of what constitutes a need and what constitutes a want. The only standard is one’s desires, as Madison Avenue well knows and as Plato intimated when he said that poverty is not measured by how little one possesses but by how big are one’s desires. In effect the idea that the majority of the people in a democracy would deprive themselves of their wants is redolent of one of Eco’s hyper-reality fantasies.

Most “successful” politicians would not risk their popularity with the ones who elected them for the sake of voters yet to be born, to wit the jettisoning of the Kyoto agreement by a President Bush and its disregard by the EU political leaders despite its pious lip service to it. Hence Plato’s dire pessimism about democracy. He would tell us this: in rational terms, you lovers of democracy have a clear choice; you can keep democracy or keep the earth cool so that you can keep on living on this earth, but you cannot do both. You may ask: what Is Plato suggesting that we opt for dictatorship or perhaps that we vote for the Green party and Ralph Nader? Not exactly, but he is however suggesting a rational pessimism about democratic governments.

The question at this point is this: is such pessimism warranted? Yes, if one keeps in mind Plato’s metaphor of the ship of State and its assumptions. No, if one challenges any of its assumptions. One such assumption is that wisdom does not reside with the people but with a select few elites: the philosopher-kings. However, Giambattista Vico asserts in his poetic philosophy that such an assumption is unwarranted. He has another better idea: he called the wisdom of the people “common sense” and he considered it superior to that of the few which he called “la boria dei dotti” (the conceit of the learned). He is the first philosopher to put forward a radical notion: that Homer, the blind poet, did not exist, that he is the poetic representation of the common oral tradition and wisdom of Hellas, i.e., of all the ancient Greek people which he calls “common sense.”

Vico proved this notion philologically by comparing The Iliad and The Odyssey and showing that they could not have been written by the same author. He repeatedly explains in his New Science how this common sense wisdom has, time and again, saved humankind; that Providence avails itself of that wisdom within the immanence of human history, and it is that kind of wisdom, much more than the elitist kind of wisdom of the learned parading as “leadership,” that saves humankind time and again.

Here we need to remember that in the above statement by Churchill there is an “exception:” Churchill seems to agree with Plato that democracy is inefficient, the worst kind of political system imaginable when manipulated by incompetent politicians, yes, but with the exception of all the others. This paradox that Churchill perceived and Plato missed can be explained thus: when one has trust and faith in the innate wisdom of the people, then democracy begins to appear as the only possible solution to the problems of all the people.

This explanation has been proven even empirically and mathematically. Two or three people are asked to guess how many jelly beans are in a jar; an average is taken and recorded. Then six more people are asked and the average is again taken and recorded. Twelve people are than asked and the average is taken and recorded again. Consistently, the average for the last group will be closer to the reality of the situation than the second or the first, the second closer than the first, that of all the groups together closer than any individual group and closer than the guess of any single individual.

In practical terms, the above mathematics proves that one can trust the common sense of all the people more than the conceited knowledge of a few elites. Not to do so, is to risk ending up with dictatorship, albeit that of a philosopher-king. Which is to say, trusting the people, the way an Abraham Lincoln did, for example, when he advocated a government of the people, for the people, by the people, has far better consequences than not trusting them, as a Machiavelli would suggest.

Indeed, few people would cooperate with a State that denied them some sort of participation in the decisions affecting their own lives. They would only do so under coercion. In conclusion we can say that from a purely rational viewpoint Plato was justified in being skeptical of democracy, nevertheless he was wrong in the assumption that it was a mere matter of logic and rationality; it is also a matter of imagination and faith: faith in the ultimate wisdom of the “common sense” of the people.


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Carlos2007-09-20 22:06:29
"Two or three people are asked...

This is a false argument. If your were to ask the designer of the Jellybean and the manufacturer of the jar, the two of them would be far closer than the average of any number of hoi polloi. Expertise counts. And better decisions are made by well informed people. That is what is so bad about our current situation. Decisions are not made by experts, nor are they elected by an informed public.

Emanuel Paparella2007-09-21 06:29:39
Indeed arguments and ideologies can be true or false, but what is scientifically verified by the experiment of the jelly beans in the jar are statistical mathematical probabilities not philosophical arguments. On the other hand if we are to stay in the realm of philosophical arguments then we can side with Machiavelli who would of course insist that the Prince ought to have expertise and know-how (what he calls virtu’), or we can side with Plato who insists that what is needed more than “know how” is wisdom. One such, I suppose was Marcus Aurelius, but he is the exception that proves the rule in human history. Or we can side with Vico’s faith in the “common sense” of the people which insists that the best insurance against tyranny is not the elitism and the expertise of the few but the democracy rooted in the wisdom of the many, the common people, often contemptuously dubbed the hoi polloi. Perhaps Churchill had it on target after all.

jw kersten2007-09-21 12:48:01
While there are many instances where common sense is superior to the expert opinion, it is not a rule. Your example of the jellybeans is a good example for your case, but ask a group of people how many of them are born on the same day and they would almost certainly be wrong, only those with a grasp of statistics (the experts) would be close.
There are many such situations were the better decision is counterintuitive and people need an expert to explain this for them to make the correct decision. And this is the problem with democratic decision-making; common sense only works if the information needed is widely enough distributed among the hoi polloi, correct and unambiguous.
A poll done in the US found that 20% of the people think they belong to the top 4% of the income-scale, obviously those people would favour a tax-brake for the top 4%, but a lot of them would be wrong. Here in Holland the people outside the cities are afraid of the immigrant-population, but the people in the cities who have the most contact with them don’t see it as such a great problem.
Perceptions, fears, lack of information etc. are paramount in decision-making and with the growing role of trivia and sensationalism in the media it doesn’t look like getting better. Of course this doesn’t mean that there’s an alternative to democracy, but I do think that there are serious problems, as the rise op populist movements ( with there anti-other rhetoric ) throughout the world show.

Emanuel L. Paparella2007-09-21 14:58:04
Indeed Mr. Kersten, Plato had a powerful argument for not trusting the mob, so did the founding fathers of the US (hence the bill of rights). But it is a mistake to confuse the rule of the people for the rule of the mob. Something like that happen during the reign of terror during the French Revolution, the mother of all revolutions... Indeed it takes faith and courage to trust in democracy and keep one's vision clear of the common good, especially in times of crisis. The Roman suspended democratic government in times of crisis and installed a temporary dictatorship. Neverthless, I think that nobody had proven Churchill wrong about his paradoxical statement on democracy. It still stands.

Jack2007-09-21 21:04:53
If you ask most people on this planet, I believe that most tell you that they would like to have at least some say in the nation in which they live. To at least try and hold governments accountable for their actions is better than being assimilated, by force (or worse!) into a government that rules with an iron hand. There is no questioning the state!

Besides, what other forms of government are there to choose from? Some form of Democracy,even if a terrible one, is better than having absolutely no power to change. This increases the likelihood of revolution and anarchy.

It is interesting to note that Democracy seems to coincide with prosperity. Yes, the power to even be wrong is better than none whatsover. Calling other forms, close to it, is simply semantics. The "experts" would do good to listen to the simple, for just like power corrupts, so too does knowledge at times. And there is wisdom even in a young child...

Emanuel Paparella2007-09-22 00:15:27
For the sake of those who might have missed the first half of this article here is the quote from Churchill with which the article starts:

"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

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