Plato and Democracy
Needless to say, time has much progressed since the era of Plato; however his ideas still stand and are often referenced in modern society. A republic can be defined as a group of people who are considered to be equals and who have a collective interest, objection, or vocation. Plato’s ‘Republic’ talks much about the just society, what justice is and who should has the right to rule and how should they act which is still relevant in today’s society. Drawing parallels with our own society much of the questions asked in the ‘Republic’ still resonate in modern society, for instance, the ‘White Revolution’ in Egypt both shocked the world and showed us the true power of the ‘demos’ i.e. democracy. The ‘White Revolution’, much like earlier on in Tunisia, saw the end of an oppressive regime through the power of the people and ushered in a new era of democracy. This of course, set a ripple in the Arab ocean with much of the regimes in the Arab world fearing revolutions and with the now apparent civil war in Libya, some fear that Yemen might be ripe for revolution; already youths in Yemen are staging some forms of protest but this doesn’t boost well for the Western world.
In Plato’s view, democracies on the other hand were rather anarchical as they were dictated by the ‘demos’. For this reason one must first understand what is meant by the term ‘democracy’; much like ‘ monarchy’ means ‘ruled by the monarch’, ‘democracy’ means ‘ruled by the demos’ and in classic Greek the word can be understood both as ‘the people’ or ‘the mob’ hence Plato’s critic on democracy calling it a ‘Ochlocracy’ or ‘mobocracy’ (informal). The paradox of democracy rises when we have a regime making all the decisions like in Egypt (with the oil, bread prices) or the ‘demos’ making those choices, in our society we rather elected members make the decisions on our behalf i.e. representative democracy; and often those representative members are held to account by the constitution to stop them from acting ultra vires thus making it a fair system; however with the recent expanses scandal in the UK, the transparency of that system is beginning to be questioned.
Plato argues, for instance, if you fallen ill and wanted advice on your health, you would go to the expert i.e. the doctor. In other words, you would want to consult someone who had been specially trained to do the job, last thing you would want is to assemble a crowd and have them vote on the correct remedy. In addition, on matter regarding the state, Plato argues that the decision should be left in the hands of the experts i.e. the ‘Philosopher-Kings’. Plato states that “The just society is impossible unless the kings become Philosophers or the philosophers become Kings”, therefore this advocates elitism in society as Plato portrays the rulers as having an acquired unique skilled that only the few can acquire thus to Plato, democracy seems plainly absurd or irrational due to the lack of knowledge to ‘demos’ has. Secondly, Plato also states that in democracy, there is ‘tyranny of the majority’ which is the majority rule of the ‘demos’ (who in, Platos eyes were uneducated and thus unfit to make decisions). From this, Plato’s critic of democracy stands out more, the tyranny of the majority is problematic to Plato as it represents the will of the uneducated on important matters thus endangering the city-state, furthermore the majority rule ignore the minorities thus subjecting them to their own dictatorship which is like be a slave in Platos view; so why not install a system of a benevolent dictator i.e. the educated Primus inter pares (Philosopher-King)?
Thus, the educated Primus inter pares should be a no mere veneer of a philosopher but one who has been trained all his life in philosophy, however the ‘Philosopher-King’ can also be subject to corruption and the allure of power like most people as Lord Acton once said ‘power corrupts and absolute power, corrupts absolutely’ and inevitably turning him into a dictator thus defeating the notion of the ‘Philosopher-King’. On the contrary, looking at some so-called dictators such as Hugo Chavez or Fidel Castro who have served- to the best of their ability- in the interest of their people, it might be wise to adopt the notion of the benevolent tyranny or Philosopher-King but as Rousseau said, ‘were there a people of gods, their government would be democratic. so perfect a government is not for men’, suggesting that man is unable to attain a perfect way of ruling as we’re subject to many faults.
With this idea of the ‘Philosopher-King’, begs the age old question of Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who will guard the guardians?). In our modern society, we have constitutions that regulated the power of the ‘Philosopher-Kings’, keeping them in check. However, with constitutions arises the conundrum of who sets these rules; the uneducated demos or the Philosopher-Kings themselves. Hence the question remains whether or not the past and current revolutions are meaningless, as they are said to replace the old Devil with a new Devil. So begs the question is the Devil you know really better than the one you don’t know?
More by this Author
Realism is an outdated discipline which is sadly still used today. But with all history, the only we can do is learn from our past.
This hub looks at one of the oldest theoretical tools used to look at International relations and gauges it relevance.