Plato’s Critique of Democracy

Tom Hermes, Dickson College, 2011


The following essay was written as part of the Athens to Alexander unit at Dickson College, Semester 2, 2011. It responds to the self-devised focus question: ‘How does Plato criticise Athenian democracy in The Republic?’ Tom Hermes has also contributed Minoan Religion and the Ancient Greeks to Clio.

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Democracy is arguably the greatest achievement of ancient Athens, and the form of government largely favoured in the world today. So why did this form of government come under such criticism from Athens’ greatest thinkers? Plato, one of the most influential political and philosophical thinkers of all time, made absolutely clear his unfavourable view of democracy[1] , most notably in his magnum opus, The Republic. Indeed, Plato ranks both timocracy and oligarchy as favourable to democracy and maintains that only tyranny is a less preferable form of government. In the words of historian John Wild “The most serious charge against Plato from a modern point of view is that he is an enemy of democracy.” (Thorson 1963, p.105) The Republic takes the form of a Socratic dialogue[2] which details the workings of Plato’s imagined ideal state (a meritocracy or “philosophocracy”), in so doing defining the imperfections in extant political methods. The deficiencies Plato perceives in Athenian democracy can be defined under three main points: inherent class tension; blind commitment to liberty and equality; and incompetent governance.

Inherent class tensions were, perhaps, Plato’s most damning criticism of the democratic system. Plato makes evident the disunity between the classes, with a distinct lack of respect and discipline in the ordinary citizen for authority. This stems from the lack of incentive for the ruled to submit to the decisions of the rulers. “It [democratic society] goes on to abuse as servile and contemptible those who obey the authorities and reserves its approval, in private life as well as public, for rulers who behave like subjects and subjects who behave like rulers.” (Plato 1955, p.299)This in turn leads to anarchy and revolution. “The minds of the citizens become so sensitive that the least vestige of restraint is resented as intolerable, till finally, as you know, in their determination to have no master they disregard all laws, written and unwritten.” (ibid, p. 300) Moreover, this eventuality, Plato says, will likely give rise to tyranny, seen by most as the most unjust governmental form. This occurs when the people, flush with power, nominate a representative whose path to becoming a tyrant is evident. Plato’s argument here is supported by the tyrannical nature of Athens’ rule over her empire, which shows the way in which democracy can give rise to tyranny. Cleon, an Athenian politician, is quoted as telling the Assembly “Your empire is now a tyranny.” (ibid, p. XIII). Pericles also admitted to the tyrannical practices of the imperial rule of Athens (ibid.). Democratic governance, with its ultimate goal being liberty, is, according to Plato, prone to the rise of anarchy and rebellion due to a distinct lack of discipline, sense of duty and respect for order.

Plato also attacks the fundamental ideal upon which democracy is built, that of liberty itself. As shown above, full liberty leads to anarchy but also means that social disunity is likely to emerge. Nicholas White, an historian of ideas, writes of The Republic: “Democracy contains all sorts of people and, as it were, contains all kinds of constitutions ... The emphasis is on the variety and lack of cohesiveness in a democratic city.” (White 1979, p. 214). Pervasive liberty means that people are free to do what they desire, not what they are suited to. An important element of Plato’s imagined utopian city is that people must commit to the profession in which they have natural talent. This corresponds to a sense of social justice and a unified and efficient society, a level of cohesion which Plato does not believe can be achieved in democracy. In this way a democratic society is one which obeys its basest wants, labelled the “appetite” by translator Desmond Lee, those of food, sex and money, above the more civilly beneficial elements of the psyche: reason and indignation.[3]

Furthermore, Plato values overall happiness and justice far more than liberty, this is seen in his advocacy of the censorship of art and his statement “It will be for our rulers of our city, then, if anyone, to use falsehood in dealing with citizen or enemy for the good of the State; no one else must do so.” (Plato 1955, p. 75) He argues that to create beneficial morals within citizens art, particularly poetry, must be censored in order to depict only virtuous character in people and gods so that it is these attributes which are emulated by the impressionable minds of youth. “It seems that our first business is to supervise the production of stories, and choose only those we think suitable, and reject the rest.” (ibid., p. 69) Plato argues that the liberal nature of democracy is in fact detrimental to overarching happiness and order.

Related Article: The Nature of Athenian Democracy
Plato contends that the placement of power in the hands of the people has a detrimental effect on the efficacy and justice of the state. Perhaps disillusioned by Socrates’ condemnation to death at the hands of the assembly, Plato launches a devastating attack putting into question the peoples’ ability to rule justly. Plato denounces the use of lot to select officials as giving undue power to the less able and knowledgeable. Plato argues that in all other professions society demands a certain level of aptitude and skill. Why, then, should the profession of governance be any exception? As stated by Renford Bambrough in his essay “Plato’s Political Analogies”,

We insist on having our shoes and ships made by skilled specialists: surely it is unreasonable to rely on our own untutored judgments, or on those of any unskilled amateur, for commodities infinitely more valuable than any material goods? ... If the royal art of politics is analogous to the art of the healer or the skill of the navigator, then it follows that it can be practiced only by the small minority who have the native ability and the training to master its subtlety and complexity.” (Bambrough 1967, p. 101-2)

This scathing view of the rule of the masses in Athens can perhaps be justified in light of certain barbaric decisions made by the Assembly. Thucydides writes of the Athenian Assembly voting to kill every man and enslave all women and children of a city which had rebelled against Athenian authority (Plato 1955, p. XIV). Though this brutal decision was later repealed, the fact that such a decision could ever be made by popular vote does not speak well of Athenian democracy. The Athenian belief that all men are equal and so should have an equal opportunity in politics is severely criticised by Plato.

Not only does Plato decry the rule of the masses but also those elected by popular vote. He argues that within Athenian democracy it is not the wisest and ablest who are elected to offices of power but the demagogues best versed in oration and rhetoric. This is most clearly seen in the Parable of the Ship, according to Lee, “There are few more vivid condemnations of the ways of democratic politicians ...” (Plato 1955, p.208) In this extended simile Plato likens the state to a ship, the rule of the people is represented by the captain who “is larger and stronger than any of the crew, but a bit deaf and short-sighted, and similarly limited in seamanship.” (ibid., p. 210) The democratic politicians are the crew who “are all quarreling with each other about how to navigate the ship, each thinking he ought to be at the helm.” (ibid., p. 210) The true philosopher is the ship’s expert navigator who holds the only hope of steering the ship on the right course. Here Plato denounces the ineffectual and easily corrupted rule of the masses (the captain) but even more so condemns the machinations of power-seeking, unscrupulous politicians (the crew). The politicians are shown to pander to the public, “They spend all their time milling round the captain and doing all they can to get him to give over the helm.” (ibid., p. 210) They also are shown to possess no skill or aim other than the desire for power itself, “they have never learned the art of navigation.” (ibid., p. 210) And once ascending to power they do nothing for the benefit of anyone but embark on a “drunken pleasure cruise.” (ibid., p. 210) Democratic politicians are decried as dishonest and wicked. “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 drink or in some other way, take control of the ship, help themselves to what’s on board ...” (ibid., p. 210) The Parable of the Ship is perhaps the most devastating and injurious indictment to the workings of Athenian democracy ever written and perfectly demonstrates the contempt which Plato held for the democratic system of government.

Plato was the most prominent and outspoken critic of Athenian democracy. He makes clear the injustice and ineffectiveness of the Athenian manifestation of democracy by arguing that outright liberty and political equality do not provide true happiness and justice for the majority of citizens or in the state itself. He laments the prevailing rule of the incapable and corrupt and advocates rule by not the greatest orator or panderer but the greatest and most morally righteous of citizens.


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Bibliography



Aristotle (translated by T. A. Sinclair) 1962, The Politics, Penguin Publishing, London.

Bambrough, Renford (editor) 1967, Plato, Popper and Politics: Some Contributions to a Modern Controversy, W. Heffer & Sons Limited, Cambridge (UK).

Connor, W. Robert 1971, The New Politicians of the Fifth-Century Athens, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Ober, Josiah 1989, Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Plato (translated by Desmond Lee) 1955, The Republic, Penguin Publishing, London.

Popper, K.R. 1952, The Open Society and its Enemies: Volume 1: The Spell of Plato, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., London.

Thorson, Thomas Landon (editor) 1963, Plato: Totalitarian or Democrat?, Prentice-Hall Inc., Englewood Cliffs.

White, Nicolas 1979, A Companion to Plato’s Republic, Hackett Publishing Company, Cambridge (US)


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References


  1. ^ From here on in ‘democracy’ will refer to the Athenian model and manifestation of the governmental form, distinct from modern democracies.
  2. ^ Though the text is a Socratic dialogue in method, the opinions and ideas in the Republic are thought to be almost entirely those of Plato. Unlike many of Plato’s other works which are considered to depict actual conversations of the historical Socrates, in the Republic Socrates is considered to merely be a character who articulates the ideas of Plato. See Melissa Lane’s Introduction in the Penguin edition of the Republic, (Plato 1955, p. XVII).
  3. ^ ‘Indignation’ is used by translator Desmond Lee here as a lose translation of a Greek word with no full English equivalent. Here it means spirit to act against perceived wrongdoings and also encompasses attributes like courage and determination.