Plato, an ancient Greek philosopher, was not a fan of democracy. He believed public rule was politically unstable and susceptible to tyranny.
That’d be bad news if the United States were fundamentally democratic. But it’s not.
A proponent of an ordered city as well as an ordered soul, Plato saw democracy as naturally arising from a sufficiently corrupted oligarchic system.
When the money-loving oligarchs, greedily pursuing greater profit-making schemes, eventually deplete the wealth of the city’s ordinary citizens, the population revolts. The former rulers are overthrown, with the new populist revolution establishing a mix of equality and anarchy.
In a democracy, everyone is equal, even those who shouldn’t be. This radical governance, which puts the greatest power of the city in the hands of a population susceptible to demagoguery, is not sustainable, Plato believed.
Democracies crumble when freedom is too widespread. In their wake, tyranny evolves.
But Plato’s criticism is only applicable to a class of governmental system that seldom exists in reality. Most modern democracies, or states with democratic features, have built-in protections against their most chaotic elements.
A majority of today’s democratic states have rights-protecting constitutions and law-making processes that prioritize representative bodies over direct referendums. Other branches, such as courts or the executive, provide a check on the power of the legislatures, and vice versa.
In the United States, specifically, the judiciary is elevated to a co-equal position to both the legislative and executive branches, creating a tripartite system much more stable than the ragtag state Plato envisioned, but still able to grant the same mode of liberation and free living he saw as appearing only in a democracy.
Nevertheless, Plato was correct when he said democratic methods tend to be more volatile than traditional monarchic, timarchic or oligarchic practices, and this is evident even in our governments, today. Though rarely enough to destabilize a well-established and properly conceived system, populist revolutions in liberal democracies can hold sway over the course of a nation, hindering its ability to function in an efficient and responsible manner.
This article will explain Plato’s criticism of democracy through its presentation in The Republic, his seminal political and moral dialogue. His argument will be detailed while exploring the applicability of these criticisms to modern democratic governments, concluding with a brief discussion and examination of Plato’s ideal state: Kallipolis.
More freedom, more problems
In Book Eight of The Republic, Plato examines, by way of his character Socrates, how an oligarchic state devolves into a democratic one through a revolt of the people.
This happens when the greed of the money-loving oligarchs pushes them to take advantage of ordinary citizens, Socrates says. By lending vast amounts of money and allowing the borrowers to accrue debt, they sow a dissatisfaction in the populace while also increasing the number of poor in the city.
The maligned people, then, are “passionately longing for revolution.” The moneymakers feign ignorance, “pretending not to see them.” Socrates concludes the argument: “Then democracy comes about, I suppose, when the poor are victorious, kill or expel the others, and give the rest an equal share in the constitution and the ruling offices, and the majority of offices in it are assigned by lot.”
Democracy arises, then, when the people of the city take power. The people, being of many different backgrounds and characteristics, naturally foster a state of freedom and tolerance.
“Well, in the first place, aren’t they free? And isn’t the city full of freedom and freedom of speech? And isn’t there license in it to do whatever one wants?” Socrates says.
The democratic city “contains all kinds of constitutions” as a result of its freedoms, Socrates adds, meaning that the order of each individual’s soul may differ radically from that of a neighbor.
The best part of the city is this freedom, but it is also its downfall.
“And it would, it seems, be a pleasant constitution — lacking rulers but not complexity, and assigning a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike,” Socrates says. But he continues by adding that this attitude for freedom, an unnecessary and lawful appetite, will spread throughout the city and into the familial and social relations of its citizens. Sons will rise against fathers, teachers will fear their pupils and the liberty of an animal will be valued as equal to that of a man. Freedom in a democracy “is bound to make its way into private households until finally it breeds anarchy among the very animals,” Socrates says.
This attitude continues, creating a sort of society in which deference to leadership is no longer valued. The city “showers with abuse those who obey the rulers as voluntary slaves and nonentities,” Socrates says. Elites lose their sway. The people become increasingly rebellious, until anarchy descends to engulf the entire city.
“In the end, as I am sure you are aware, they take no notice of the laws — written or unwritten — in order to avoid having any master at all,” Socrates says.
At this point, the late-stage democracy is most susceptible to trickery from a charismatic ideologue.
In A Companion to Plato’s Republic, Nicholas White explains the transition:
“Strife breaks out when the leaders of the people attempt to gain wealth for themselves and the people, and accuse the wealthiest of plotting against the people; in response the wealthiest attempt to act as oligarchs, and a struggle results. The people elevate one man as their champion, and out of this situation there grows dictatorship. Such a man dominates the people, and turns to all sorts of crimes to gain power, at the same time enticing the people with promises of gain for them. To protect himself against the opposition of the would-be oligarchs, he asks for a bodyguard, which the people grant him, and he now becomes a dictator.”
With their authority, the people install a ruler who will come to have more power than even they: the tyrant. In this, they are fooled into supporting the very man who will one day turn to persecute them, crushing the freedoms they have come to revere.
The Republic in practice
Plato’s argument against democracy can be summarized as follows:
P1. In a democracy, ordinary people have the most power of any class of citizens, and that power is largely unchecked
P2. When people have power, they use it to attain what they desire
P3. Ordinary people desire freedom
C1. A democracy will maximize freedom
P4. A society operates most efficiently when all of its parts are arranged in a rational order
P5. Maximal freedom is antithetical to order
C2. A democratic society will be chaotic
P6. A society both free and chaotic is susceptible to demagoguery
P7. Demagoguery naturally leads to tyranny
C3. Democracy produces tyranny
This argument is sound. Each premise is true and, together, they logically entail each separate conclusion. But this is so only if democracy is taken to mean “pure democracy,” one that has no meaningful limitations, such as a constitutional charter, balance of powers or other mode of societal control.
Few pure democracies exist in the modern world. When they do, they are never very large. As Plato foresaw, such a system would be too chaotic.
The United States, for example, is a constitutionally-restrained republic with democratic aspects; it is not the democracy Plato described in The Republic. As mentioned in a previous quotation, Plato’s democracy didn’t even have elections for the majority of its offices; most rulers were appointed by lot.
Nevertheless, our country, due to a few similar democratic elements, should still consider the dangers of the governmental form Plato posited. Our system may not naturally lead to tyranny, but it is not entirely immune to it, either.
In an article for New York Magazine from summer 2016, Andrew Sullivan describes the similarities between our modern political machinations and those of Plato’s fabled state.
“Democracies end when they are too democratic,” reads the headline. The problem is that Sullivan then commits much of his piece to showing how undemocratic many of our nation’s institutions are, albeit while attempting to show how direct democracy may be slowly encroaching upon these institutions’ power.
“Part of American democracy’s stability is owed to the fact that the Founding Fathers had read their Plato,” Sullivan says. “To guard our democracy from the tyranny of the majority and the passions of the mob, they constructed large, hefty barriers between the popular will and the exercise of power.”
Although he believes these bulwarks are eroding over time, Sullivan was spot on in the initial analysis: the United States is not and was never meant to be a pure democracy.
In an opinion piece for The Washington Post from fall 2016, David Williams, a political science professor at DePaul University, argues that Donald Trump is “unwittingly echoing Plato’s villain Thrasymachus” from The Republic.
Thrasymachus is a defender of the unjust life, which he believes will provide for a better life than steadfast adherence to the virtue of justice. Through Socrates, Plato challenges this view.
But it is Trump’s relation to the tyrant that worries Williams most: Both seek public praise and derive power, initially, from popular support. The appetite of such a man is insatiable.
“There is no amount of public praise that is enough,” Williams says. “It is a quest that reaches its summit in becoming a political tyrant.”
What Williams fails to consider, however, is the utter freedom of ideas that permeates our country. There will always be those in dissension on an issue, because there will always be those who abhor the other side simply for the sake of wanting someone to fight against.
When it comes to a man like Trump, there will doubtless never be a clear national consensus on whether to love him or hate him. Trump would need to attain much more support than he has currently to supplant the powers of Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court and the Constitution. With sky-high and rock-solid disapproval ratings as of this writing, and little sign of improvement, he likely never will.
Both articles mentioned above point to the dangers of populist demagoguery even in our relatively stable political systems, but there are certain undemocratic elements of our current system that serve as mighty bulwarks to political revolution.
For example, the U.S. Supreme Court, in addition to many federal courts, is appointed, not elected. This creates a system where expertise and experience is valued more than political affiliation, at least in comparison to the selection process of an elected official.
Several states, such as Missouri, go one step further by having high court judges appointed on a merit-based system, which, in many cases, is run by a rotating, nonpartisan review board.
Additionally, Congress, while having an elected membership, determines most of the country’s policymaking in lieu of direct referendums. This ensures a greater percentage of men and women deciding any one issue have the requisite skills, interest and intelligence to produce a rational outcome.
Further, the Constitution, the supreme law of the land, holds provisions for many different minority rights even a majority would be unable to easily dissolve. This includes rights for racial minorities, as well as rights for political minorities and social minorities, such as guaranteeing certain rights for persons accused of a crime.
The vast and increasingly diverse population of the United States is too stubborn, too antagonistic, too divided and too belligerent to ever easily form a consensus around any one issue, let alone a figurehead that must embody several. Thankfully, that willingness to obstruct makes it much harder for even the most dangerously power hungry leader to stay in office for long.
Partisanship has a silver lining: It ensures there will always be an opposition. Such division spells doom for a would-be tyrant.
A city on a hill
In The Republic, Plato presents his form of an ideal city, which he calls Kallipolis.
In this city, the people are divided into three separate classes: rulers, warriors and producers. Each has a specific function. The rulers are the city’s thoughtful policymakers, the warriors enforce the rulers’ laws and the producers are the ordinary men and women who make society run.
Kallipolis, likely, was never meant to be a physical city. Just as with Plato’s Forms, Kallipolis was meant to illuminate our understanding of other governments through a comparison to a supposed metaphysical ideal. That’s why it appears so foreign and unworkable.
Nevertheless, if one wants to maximize individual freedom in the most efficient manner, Kallipolis is not the city for which one should strive. There is little ability to move between the producing class and the two guardian classes, the warriors and rulers. There is a code of ethic that states a man should perform the task for which he is best suited, rather than the one he most desires to perform.
All in all, the city prioritizes efficiency over freedom. That’s not how human beings ought to live.
However, the city does posit a few notable characteristics of which even our modern societies can take note.
For one, the ruling class is well educated. The idea of philosophy and political decision making going hand-in-hand would no doubt benefit our legal structures, as well. Isn’t it self-evident that directed rational thought — what philosophy is all about, really — will arrive at the truth more often than irrational thinking?
Additionally, the men and women are judged by their respective abilities, not gender. Women can be guardians if they are intelligent and fit enough. At the time, that was a radical notion for Plato to put forth, but it makes sense: Why waste half of a city’s potential talent?
Further, there is a lot of interclass respect in Kallipolis. The guardians do not denigrate the producers, and neither do the producers despise the guardians. The citizens may not be free, but they are well governed and, at least internally, at peace.
Plato was right: pure democracy is chaotic, susceptible to tyranny and unsustainable. Thankfully, most of our modern democratic governments have much broader protection and working undemocratic elements than the democracy Plato foresaw.
Nevertheless, even our superior systems have the potential to fall victim to the same problems Plato feared, even if doing so is less than certain.
Plato’s own ideal, Kallipolis, is not a feasible solution for practical implementation. It can illuminate our goals as a useful thought experiment, but is of little other use.
The path forward, it seems, is to strike a balance between individual freedom and social order. Unlike Plato, we should not wholly sacrifice the former to achieve the latter. We should, however, continue to closely examine the reasons for why he feared democracy as greatly as he did.
We should tread lightly. Plato may yet prove his political prescience.