Plato, the Greek philosopher is considered to be one of the greatest thinkers in history and is called by one scholar “the fountainhead through which all western thought flows. ” In his book The Republic he outlines what the perfect city-state would look like and how it would operate. Along his path of reason he makes no attempt to hide his disdain for other political systems. That includes democracy, a system he does not seem to agree with. In fact, from what I read, Plato obviously disagrees with democracy and its principals.
Plato ranks democracy fourth out of what he considers to be the five major constitutions. Just barely ahead of tyranny! He even ranks it behind oligarchy; a constitution that he himself states in 552a of The Republic is the first kind of city to admit the greatest of all evils! Why does he believe this? Are all the freedom loving Americans with red, white, and blue bumper stickers on their gas guzzling cars wrong? If so, what are they missing? To understand Plato’s claim that democracy is nothing but a stopgap on the way to tyranny one must first understand Plato’s viewpoint.
Plato is credited with developing a school of thought called Platonic Idealism. Platonic Idealism is based upon the assumption that the essence of the qualities you predicate to things is eternal. Examples of that are ideas such as justice, piety or equality. While we may not be able to readily define them we all know what they are and can identify them when seen. Plato contends that only through philosophy can we express those essences in language. Plato translates his assumption to mean there is something inside each and every person that is the same, it comes inborn, and contains those eternal principals.
That inborn intellectual part of every person is what Plato calls the soul. Souls are like those ideas or essences they are eternal. However, if everybody has this greatest truth that is called a soul inside them, why do people do stupid selfish things or even make mistakes at all? Plato’s explanation is that the material part of us, the body stops the intellectual part from exercising the knowledge it has. The analogy that Plato uses is that of a clouded eye. It goes that the soul is like an eye that can see those eternal ideas and truths but the body and its desires cloud the view.
Desire therefore is the one barrier that blocks man from experiencing the Truth. As I mentioned earlier, Plato sees philosophy as the one method to strengthen your inner eye and to find those ideas. The phrase used to refer to that method is the Platonic Theory of Recollection. Plato sees logos, or reason through language as the chief vehicle of philosophy. Specifically, Plato favors the Dialectic method. The Dialectic method can be described as a method of argument with the goal of arriving at truth that systematically weighs contradictory facts or ideas with a view to the resolution of contradictions.
That is the method of discussion and intellectual pursuit of truth that you can see Plato exhibit in The Republic and his other famous works. Happiness as Plato sees it dependant upon truth and the search for it. Plato believes many people are tricked by their body into believing that pursuits of desire are the path to happiness. He believes that only by ignoring your body’s desires and choosing to instead seek out intellectual and philosophical goals can a person reach a state of true happiness.
Plato justifies this by claiming that thought or philosophy is an end in itself. Even if you don’t find the truth you are pursuing just by attempting to you can achieve contentment in the fact you know nothing and from that certainty derive happiness. Therefore, to borrow from Plato’s protege Aristotle, desire is the most subversive element because it more than anything else impedes the soul and the person from achieving their telos or purpose of philosophy. However, Plato does not see this happiness as a possibility for everyone. He rather sees three main types of people.
Those he calls desirous who are oriented and concern themselves entirely with satisfaction of their desires. Those he calls spirited who are most concerned with satisfying the part of their body that hungers for honor and valor i. e. a soldier. Then thirdly, those he calls rational. The rational are those who are able to ignore their body’s superficial resources and have the orientation to utilize their intellectual part to its potential and seek out truth. According to Plato a person’s orientation is something they are born with and almost exclusively limited to.
He sees the majority of people falling into the first category of desirous, a large part of the remaining being spirited and the smallest group being the rational. His idea of the ideal city-state is one that best allows all three personalities types to find happiness. Most importantly it should be ideally configured to allow the rational to pursue their philosophical pursuits above all. Plato also believes that this cannot and never will be realized if a philosopher-king is not the ruler.
Plato argues that all governments outside of his perfect city-state, which he calls the kallipolis, eventually, devolve into tyranny. He sees it as inevitable process that is brought about by the rule of the desirous. In The Republic, Plato describes the four kinds of constitutions other than a kallipolis that he sees as the most prominent. He also ranks them in order by their level of impropriety and injustice. They are, in order: kallipolis, timocracy, oligarchy, democracy and finally, the most terrible of all tyranny.
Why does Plato think so little of democracy? Today most people view democracy as the best of all possible constitutions. If you ask any American citizen today what the cornerstone of all democracies is they will undoubtedly tell you it is freedom. That is one thing that they and Plato agree upon. However American’s value their freedom and see it as the most important thing for a government to respect. Plato has a different prospective, he believes that freedom, while the most valued thing in a democratic system is also its downfall.
Plato acknowledges that people in a democracy will have many kinds of freedoms. With all these freedoms “each of them will arrange his own life in whatever manner pleases him. ” Plato claims that a nation with that sort of freedom gives the appearance of “a coat embroidered with every kind of ornament”, home to every character type and seemingly the most beautiful. Plato says that like woman and children when they see something multicolored many people will judge this democracy to be the most beautiful. When from his reference point of Idealism it is far from the most beautiful.
That is because in a democracy the masses have direct or indirect control over the government and its actions. Which demands that the government must then serve the needs of the desirous majority above the needs of the rational. According to Plato’s schema such a system will not lead to happiness because the rulers serve the needs and desires and do not help to seek out truth. If you look at things from an Idealistic prospective his views are right on target. Many people placidly accept and believe that America is that lavish coat that Plato describes.
Plato says that in American there is “no requirement to fight, no requirement to rule”, no requirement to do anything that is beyond one’s own will. Plato acknowledges that sounds like a novel and pleasant life, however he says that such a system will lead to unhappiness, disorganization and the rule of “poor cupbearers”. Plato makes an almost prophetic statement when he says that a government built on freedom will lead to the choice of rulers without “giving thought to what (he) was doing before they entered public life and by honoring him if only he tells them that he wishes the majority well”.
That very accurately describes the actions of many people in our country today. In our latest presidential election to decide our ruler the common thought was that we should disregard the rather sordid pasts of the two major candidates. We should dismiss them as irrelevant. That is a practice that I am sure Plato would very much dislike. Also the second part of the quote is very true too. Both candidates promised many things to voters only in hopes of gaining the favor of the majority.
The rational and the candidates themselves know their motivations are only to gain the praise of the most people in the hopes of gaining power. Plato also describes what he views as an unavoidable transition between democracy and tyranny. He says that eventually a democracy is bound to have a “bad cupbearer” for a leader whose popularity with the majority will corrupt him to believe he can do whatever he wishes. The leader will then destroy that freedom by exploiting the power granted to him by the people and establish a tyrannical government.
An example of this in modern times would be Adolf Hitler in Germany. He was elected to the position of Chancellor in Germany and used his popularity with the majority (which he had gained by telling people want they wanted to hear) to establish a fascist regime to carry out his most certainly evil intentions. If we limited ourselves to our modern liberalistic prospective, democracy is surely the greatest of all constitutions. Even though we may not agree with Plato and his conclusions and assumptions it is important to recognize that inside a certain prospective his views are extremely valid.
If you accept the assumptions that go along with Platonic Idealism you most certainly must agree with Plato’s claims about democracy. I think that main difference between Plato and the founders of democratic constitutions like Thomas Jefferson is their goals. Plato seeks a government that actively participates to keep the hoi polloi docile and helps to elevate the rational. Conversely, democratic founders wishes to have a powerful but controlled form of government that left people free to do as they will and provides equal opportunity for all.