Plato: The Failure of Democracy

Plato: The Failure of Democracy

Plato (427-347) is often described as the greatest Western philosopher. Historians like to quote A. N. Whitehead who said: “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”

Plato was born into an aristocratic Athenian family, and he grew up during the Peloponnesian War. It is likely that he served in the cavalry in various campaigns against Sparta. Disgusted by the belligerent and self-destructive policies of his native city, he stayed out of politics and spent most of his time and energy pursuing philosophy. He became Socrates’ most illustrious student.

When Socrates was executed in 399, Plato left Athens. He studied mathematics in the neighboring city of Megara, and then spent a decade or so traveling to various places around the Mediterranean Sea.

When he returned to Athens around 388, he founded what was later described as the first European university, the “Academy.” For the rest of his long life Plato was a teacher and administrator of this school, which quickly attracted a great number of outstanding students and faculty. Aristotle, for example, both studied and taught at the Academy before he founded his own school. Plato’s school-related activities were interrupted a couple of times because of invitations to visit and teach in Syracuse. Plato accepted these invitations because he hoped that the rulers of Syracuse would install the constitution and government that he had designed as part of his innovative social philosophy. Nothing came of this political ambition, however, and Plato had to content himself with being a teacher of ideas.

Plato’s best known and most comprehensive work is the Republic, possibly published around 377. The following notes focus on the political and pedagogical ideas of this book.

The two political parties or social classes that vied for power in classical Athens, as in most other Greek city states, were the oligarchs and the democrats. The oligarchs tried to establish a state in which only owners of substantial amounts of property could vote and hold public office, while the democrats insisted that all male citizens have the same rights. “An oligarchy is said to be that in which the few and the wealthy, and a democracy that in which the many and the poor are the rulers,” as Aristotle put it in his Politics. (1)

Athens was a democracy throughout most of the 5th and the 4th century. Only in 411 and 404 did oligarchs succeed in establishing a government where the few and wealthy ruled over the many and mostly poor. Neither oligarchic regime lasted even as long as a year. But tensions between oligarchs and democrats were always present in Athenian politics. There was rarely a time when the democrats did not suspect the oligarchs of conspiring against the democracy, or when the oligarchs did not fear hostile encroachments on their privileges and wealth. Commenting on the ever present antagonism between the two classes, Plato notes in the Republic that every city consists really of “two cities that are at war with each other.”(2)

While the class war in Athens was not quite as gruesome as, for example, in Corcyra, where the democrats butchered almost the entire oligarchic ruling class, it was nevertheless bloody at times. In 411 the Athenian oligarchs executed a great number of their democratic opponents, and forced many others into exile. Even in exile death squads and other supporters of the oligarchic regime assassinated particularly popular leaders of the democrats. But the oligarchic junta of 411 was moderate in comparison with the terror that the oligarchs unleashed when the Spartans, after their victory over Athens, installed them as rulers of the city in 404.

Two relatives of Plato, his uncle Critias and his cousin Charmides, were then part of the ruling junta, and they were among its bloodiest and most extremist members. Their crimes were the reason why Plato declined to become involved in oligarchic politics, even though he was invited by his relatives to do so. Critias in particular ordered the cold-blooded execution of numerous democrats—often for no other reason than to confiscate their property to replenish the city’s depleted treasury. The dictatorial rule of the oligarchs eventually became so egregious that the democrats rose up en masse and defeated their oppressors in a series of dramatic battles. The Spartans withdrew their garrison from the Athenian Acropolis, and democracy was restored. A generous amnesty succeeded in preventing any further bloodshed among Athenians.

Plato was in his early twenties when Athens was defeated by Sparta, and when the second oligarch dictatorship was established. His inclination was to turn his back on politics—it seemed altogether too hopeless a mess. He had no faith in the rule of the rich, nor any confidence in the ability of ordinary citizens to run a city like Athens. The rich, as he saw, had mostly their special interests in mind, and during the time of their short-lived regimes they had shown to what length they could go to defend the advantages of the few against the majority of ordinary people. But the rule by the many was no remedy for the ills of oligarchy, according to Plato, because ordinary people were too easily swayed by the emotional and deceptive rhetoric of ambitious politicians. It was the demos, after all, the majority of ordinary people, who time and again had supported the disastrous campaigns of the Peloponnesian War by their votes, who had condoned numerous atrocities and breaches of the law, and who were also responsible for the questionable trial and execution of Socrates. Athenian politics, in other words, seemed an irremediably corrupted affair, and all a rational person could do was to attend to personal matters, and to pursue wisdom in the privacy of one’s solitude and a small circle of friends.

Such a retreat into privacy went strongly against the grain of Greek thinking, however. The citizens and inhabitants of Greek city states were generally far too aware of the social base of their personal lives to simply ignore the politics of the community on which they depended in one way or another. An individual who retreated from politics and public life was called an idiotes–a person who lacks the knowledge and social skills that mature individuals can be expected to posses. Even Socrates, an outspoken individualist, had always been concerned with Athens as a community in which his, as well as everyone else’s, life was inescapably grounded.

In the end Plato could not see himself living a private life of the mind; he felt that he had to make his contribution to the construction of a rational and just society. Reason and justice, he thought, could not be a matter of personal conduct alone; they had to become attributes of society at large. A rational state of affairs could not come about on the basis of Athenian politics-as-usual, however. For more than a generation politics-as-usual had produced an incessant series of wars and civil strife. If peace and just conditions were to be secured in the future, an alternative to the limiting choice between oligarchy and democracy had to be found. A convincing blueprint for such an alternative was the task that Plato set for himself in writing the Republic.

In mapping out the constitution for his utopian society or state, Plato starts out with a schematic description of the human soul. Every soul, according to him, is composed of three parts: bodily desires and appetites, “spirited emotions” like ambition and courage, and finally the faculty of knowledge and reason. In a healthy individual all three parts fulfill their proper function. Bodily desires and appetites secure the physical survival of a person, the spirited emotions inspire his more far-reaching plans and projects, and the intellectual faculties make sure that all enterprises remain reasonable and under rational control. Plato lays great stress on the disciplining function of reason. Without the self-discipline imposed by reason a person may easily turn into something like a self-destructive glutton, or into a person carried away by foolish emotions and thoughtless ambitions. Informed reason, according to Plato, is the faculty best suited to make all the right and necessary decisions in a person’s life.

The utopian society described in the Republic has a similar tripartite structure as the human soul. Corresponding to the bodily desires and appetites of the soul is the class of people who are involved in the economy of a state. This class constitutes the vast majority of the people, and it comprises such diverse groups as craftsmen, farmers, merchants, manufacturers, and money changers or bankers. Plato classifies all of them as “lovers of money.”

Corresponding to the spirited emotions in the soul is the much smaller class of the armed forces, the class of professional warriors that is responsible for the safety of the community. Plato calls them “lovers of honor.” Their main desire is to gain fame and admiration by serving their fellow citizens—for whom, in extreme situations, they are willing to sacrifice their lives as well as their material possessions.

Corresponding to the faculty of reason is the smallest class of people—scientists, scholars, high-level experts, and similar sophisticates. Plato calls them “lovers of wisdom,” i. e., “philosophers.” Their most passionate interests are understanding and knowledge, and their greatest pleasure a lively life of the mind.

As a just and healthy person is governed by knowledge and reason, a just society must be under the control of society’s most cultivated and best informed minds, its “lovers of wisdom.” Just societies cannot be run by big money or armed forces with their too narrow agendas. Limitless desire for wealth and blind ambition must be watched and contained as potential public dangers. The most informed minds must determine objectively, with due consideration of all points of view, what the most healthy and practical goals for the commonwealth are.

This rule by society’s best minds is the core concept of Plato’s so-called “philosopher kings.” Until now crucial decisions concerning war, peace, and the welfare of society had always been left to corrupt or incompetent politicians, ignorant voters, over-ambitious generals, and other people unsuited to run a state. Bloodshed, hatred, waste of resources, and deplorable conditions had usually been the result. There is no chance for things to become better unless knowledge and reason are put in command—the best knowledge and the most competent reason that society can muster. Lovers of wisdom may not be eager to govern, as their main passions are more intellectual pursuits. But since they are the best trained and best informed minds, they must be obligated by law to run the state—as a sort of committee of technocrats. “Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, … cities will never have rest from their evils,” as Plato suggests in the Republic. (3)

Plato was fully aware of how outlandish such an idea must have sounded in the ears of most of his contemporaries, an idea that was rendered even more fantastic by his contention that women are as capable of being philosophers and governors as men, and that no member of the government should be allowed to own or accumulate property while in office. Plato himself poked subtle fun at the strangeness of what he was proposing, and some scholars are not sure just how seriously Plato took the proposals of the Republic himself. Still, the book’s discussion of good government provides arguments that give philosophers and political scientists pause. The Republic’s critique of democracy in particular is too substantial to be simply dismissed as excentric speculation.

Plato’s Ship Analogy

Plato compares the state to an elaborate and expensive ship. A ship, to accomplish a safe and successful journey, needs an expert navigator at the helm, a captain who knows the capacities of the vessel, geography, meteorology, water currents, navigational astronomy, supplies management, and other related matters. An ignorant and untrained person at the helm of a ship would endanger vessel, cargo, crew, and passengers alike. Similarly, Plato suggests, the ship of state needs expert governors at the helm, governors who are well informed about such things as law, economics, sociology, military strategy, history, and other relevant subjects. Ignorant and incompetent governors can be and have been disasters for citizens and states.

Democratic self-government does not work, according to Plato, because ordinary people have not learned how to run the ship of state. They are not familiar enough with such things as economics, military strategy, conditions in other countries, or the confusing intricacies of law and ethics. They are also not inclined to acquire such knowledge. The effort and self-discipline required for serious study is not something most people enjoy. In their ignorance they tend to vote for politicians who beguile them with appearances and nebulous talk, and they inevitably find themselves at the mercy of administrations and conditions over which they have no control because they do not understand what is happening around them. They are guided by unreliable emotions more than by careful analysis, and they are lured into adventurous wars and victimized by costly defeats that could have been entirely avoided. This is how the Republic portrays politics in a democracy:

Imagine then a ship or a fleet in which there is a captain who is taller and stronger than any of the crew, but who is a little deaf and has a similar infirmity in sight, and whose knowledge of navigation is not much better. The sailors are quarreling with one another about the steering—every one is of the opinion that he has a right to steer, though he has never learned the art of navigation … (4)

The captain in this analogy is the owner of the ship or fleet; he represents the demos, the majority of ordinary people. The sailors are the politicians who compete to be at the helm. It had been their incompetence, as well as that of the owner, that has brought Athens to ruin in the past:

[The sailors] throng about the captain, begging and praying him to commit the helm to them; and if at any time they do not prevail, but others are preferred to them, they kill the others or throw them overboard, and having first chained up the noble captain’s senses with drink or some narcotic drug, they mutiny and take possession of the ship and make free with the stores, thus eating and drinking. They proceed on their voyage in such a manner as can be expected of them. Him who is their partisan and cleverly aids them in their plot for getting the ship out of the captain’s hands into their own whether by force or persuasion, they compliment with the name of sailor, pilot, able seaman, and abuse the other sort of man, whom they call a good-for-nothing; but that the good pilot must pay attention to the year and seasons and sky and stars and winds, and whatever else belongs to his art, if he intends to be really qualified for the command of a ship, and that he must and will be the steerer, whether other people like it or not—the possibility of this union of authority with the steerer’s art has never seriously entered into their thoughts or been made part of their calling. (5)

The way to avoid the serious shortcomings of democracy as well as oligarchy is the installation of the government of technocrats that will make all relevant and necessary decisions on the basis of objective analyses and unbiased deliberations. Since neither the demos nor ordinary politicians can be expected to acquire this sort of competence, it will have to be the committee of philosopher kings (and philosopher queens) that guarantees justice, public welfare, and peace.

The idea of such a dictatorship of reason has been criticized as follows: Even if one admits that expert knowledge is necessary for the government of a commonwealth, and that most ordinary people do not have a sufficient grasp of all the social, administrative, legal, and other relevant details that go into running a government, people nevertheless need not relinquish their right to appoint the officials of an administration, or to recall them, if the results of their performance seem unsatisfactory. The owner of a ship may not know how to navigate, but he or she still has the right to determine where the ship will go. Hired expert navigators may be necessary to figure out the best means of getting to some place, but the owners of the ship should still be able to determine the ends. Voters in a democracy may not know all or even any of the technicalities of running a government, but they surely can judge the results. What is essential for a democracy is not that citizens be able to understand and do everything themselves, but that they be able to determine the major outcomes and their over-all destiny as a community.

Turning the ship analogy against Plato in this way is a persuasive move, but it ultimately does not take care of Plato’s challenge. For if it is plausible to argue that voters may be too uninformed to decide on the best means to reach a certain goal, then it is also plausible to argue that they may not be informed enough to choose the right ends. A serious lack of knowledge can manifest itself not only in the way a state is run, but also in the choice of destinations. What can and has to be criticized is not only a citizenry’s possible ignorance of the measures that a government might take to reach certain goals, but also their ideas and expectations about where their society ought to go–what goals they want to reach as a commonwealth. The democratic election of a leader who plans to replace a capitalist democracy with a fascist warfare state, for example, is a case in point. Hitler, it is worth remembering, was elected by a democratic vote, and it is surely not irrelevant to ask whether those who voted for him did not suffer from an unacceptable degree of ignorance and lack of political education.

The democratic decision to engage in a series of expansionist wars, as sanctioned by the Athenian Assembly, is a similar case in point. What Plato witnessed as a young man was not a lack of understanding of the technicalities of governing on the part of the demos, but rather poor judgment in the choice of major goals. Major political destinies can be judged in terms of wisdom, feasibility, logic, moral responsibility, and other criteria that make the general intellectual competence of an electorate a relevant and urgent issue. It is obviously not a foregone conclusion that whatever the majority decides is also the best—or even acceptable. Both short-term and long-term expectations and decisions of a democratic polity may be quite thoughtless, ill-advised, stupid, illusory, dangerous, or outright insane. In spite of the above critique of the ship analogy, in other words, Plato’s challenge to the idea of democracy stands.

Granted, then, that sound political decisions concerning means as well as ends require not only reliable knowledge of such things as economics, geography, sociology, and military strategy, but also something like moral competence, the question arises as to how this sort of preparedness can be acquired. Plato’s emphatic answer is: by a sound and systematic education. No good government—democratic or otherwise–is possible without an adequate amount of knowledge and understanding. It is for this reason that education is the most central concern of Plato’s Republic.

The best known summary of Plato’s idea of education is his Allegory of the Cave. It expresses both the great liberating and emancipating force of knowledge and understanding, and the deep-seated dislike that most people seem to have of anything that smacks of disciplined study, intellectual effort, unaccustomed ideas, or innovative ways of thinking. In Book VII of the Republic Socrates presents the allegory as follows.

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

Behold! Human beings living in an underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so they cannot move, and can see only before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets. (6)

The tightly chained prisoners, as Socrates then points out, can neither see each other nor themselves. Nor can they see the puppets and objects that the puppeteers carry along the walkway in front of the fire and behind their heads. All the prisoners can see are the shadows of the things carried in front of the fire—the shadows cast on the wall of the cave. Naturally, the prisoners think that the shadows are real things. And when the puppeteers talk, the prisoners think that the shadows are talking. Therisoners are caught in a world of illusion.

But what would happen, Socrates asks, if one of the prisoners were released from his chains and forced to turn his head, walk around in the cave, and even look at the fire? Will he not be in pain because of the sudden bright light, and will he not have trouble seeing those things clearly whose shadows he had seen so distinctly before? And, Socrates continues,

conceive some one saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, that he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has a clearer vision,–what will be his reply? And you may further imagine that his instructor is pointing to the objects as they pass and requiring him to name them,–will he not be perplexed? Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him? (7)

The answer to these questions is, of course, that the ex-prisoner’s liberation from his past illusions is painful, and that at first he will have a hard time getting used to seeing real things. And still further difficulties lie ahead. For if somebody dragged him by force up the rough and steep path to the entrance of the cave, and if that person didn’t let go of him until he had dragged him out into broad daylight, the liberated prisoner would be thoroughly confused and quite angry. For one thing, his eyes would get hit so hard by the sunlight that he could not possibly recognize any of the things that exist on the surface of the earth. Only gradually would he see all the things after which the puppeteers’ objects are modeled. And only at last would he be able to look at the sun itself, the source that makes not only everything visible, but ultimately also produces all things.

Reflecting on what has happened to him, the ex-prisoner would surely consider himself fortunate, in spite of all the pain, and remembering his former fellow-prisoners, he would take pity on them. He would feel obliged to return to the cave and liberate them, too. This, however, turns out to be far more difficult than he thinks. There is, for example, the fact that his eyes are now used to the bright light of day, and groping about in the dark cave again, trying to recognize the puppeteers’ objects and their shadows, he cuts a rather poor figure. Seeing him stumbling about in the dark, the prisoners have a great time making fun of him.
The prisoners are, indeed, not dumb when it comes to shadows on the wall. They observe them closely, and some of them are quite impressive in recognizing and predicting the sequences in which the shadows appear, and they are awarded honors and prizes by their fellow-prisoners. The fact that the objects of their observation are only shadows, and not real things, naturally does not bother them. And if the returning ex-prisoner had to compete with the cave dwellers in the observation of shadows, everyone in the cave would think that the ex-prisoner had ruined his eyesight, and that going outside the cave is a waste. So hostile are the troglodytes to the idea of leaving the cave, in fact, that they would eagerly kill anyone who tried to lead them out into the light. (8)

The Meaning of the Allegory

The Allegory of the Cave describes four stages through which a person has to pass to get a sound education. These stages are distinguished by what a learner is able to see. An ignorant person can see only shadows—without even suspecting that they are not real things. A fully educated person can see the shadows, the puppets that cast the shadows, the original things after which the puppets are modeled, and the sun that makes the original things visible. Since the tale of the cave is an allegory, the question is what all these things mean. What do shadows, puppets, original things, and the sun stand for? And what exactly does getting out of the cave symbolize? The Republic suggests the following translation:

The shadows on the wall stand for the notions of things that people have in their minds, notions that are more or less closely related to the things of which they are notions. People may have a certain notion of what a rhinoceros is, or what the living conditions in some foreign country are like. There often is a considerable difference between such notions and the real things. People may be mistaken about any number of details concerning rhinos, or they may have rather distorted notions of conditions in other countries. There is often no incentive or opportunity to check one’s notions against the real world, and thus many people may live their whole lives in a largely illusory world of unquestioned assumptions. Like the chained prisoners in the cave who think that the shadows are real things, they are condemned to believe that their notions of the world are reality.

The puppets and objects from which the shadows are cast stand for what we call real things–real rhinos, real countries with their actual living conditions, and anything else that one encounters in the world. Cave dwellers who are not chained anymore can compare shadows with the things from which the shadows are cast; they are free, that is, to compare the notions in their minds with the things in the world. They still live in the cave, to be sure, but they have ceased to be helplessly fettered to dubious and unexamined conceptions. By having become able to distinguish between true and false notions they have reached the first stage of their intellectual emancipation.

The most dramatic step in a person’s education is the ascent from the cave to the light of the outside world. Leaving the darkness of the cave suggests enlightenment, and emerging from the womb of the earth the beginning of a new life. The things that the learner encounters outside the cave stand for ideas, and in their entirety these ideas constitute a new kind of world in which a learning person begins to feel at home.

Ideas in Plato’s sense are different from the notions mentioned above. They have their origin in the way Socrates formulated his basic philosophical questions. As described earlier, Socrates went around Athens asking such questions as “What is knowledge?”, “What is beauty?”, “What is art?”, “What is justice?” and so forth. He always expected an answer that would pinpoint what is common to a certain class of objects: Beauty is that which all beautiful things have in common, art is that which all works of art have in common, justice is that which all cases of justice have in common, and so forth. What is common to a class of phenomena is the idea of that class—also referred to as its definition. What all beautiful things have in common is the idea or definition of beauty, what all triangles have in common is the idea or definition of a triangle, and so forth.

While beautiful things can be seen or otherwise perceived by the senses, the idea or definition of beauty cannot be perceived in this way, it can only be thought. An idea or definition is a concept, not a percept. It is gained by an act of abstraction—the process of singling out the common or essential characteristics of an object from a host of characteristics that are only accidental or inessential. An idea belongs to the realm of thought, not to the world of physical things that can be seen, touched, or otherwise perceived by the senses. The general or abstract idea of beauty is thus a radically different kind of thing than an individual beautiful object.

In Plato’s philosophy there are thus two distinct worlds, and it is these two worlds that are symbolized in his allegory by the cave on the one hand, and the outside world on the other. The cave represents the world of the senses, while the outside world stands for the world of abstract ideas. Cave dwellers are captives of the senses (“lovers of sounds and sights”); they cannot rise above things that can be touched, seen, or otherwise perceived through the body. Learners who manage to climb out of the cave are persons who have become empowered to move freely and with ease among abstractions and conceptual relations. Their knowledge is wider and more comprehensive than that of the troglodytes: they are not limited to what lies within reach of their immediate experiences and sensual awareness; they can think far beyond such limited horizons.

Learners outside the cave appreciate not only individual beautiful things; they also understand the general nature of beauty. They are not only familiar with this or that person or group, but comprehend human nature in general. Justice for them is not just the justice of Athens or Sparta or any other particular community, but universal justice, justice as such. They can avoid one-sidedness and partiality because their research is not limited to concrete and individual cases. It is always their power of abstraction, their ability to transcend sense perception and immediate experience that enables such learners to expand and improve their understanding and knowledge of things.

The sun in Plato’s allegory stands for the idea of goodness or “the Good.” An understanding of “the Good” is the necessary completion of a person’s education because the mere knowledge of facts and concepts can still leave one at a loss. To make any sense of things one needs to know something about ultimate purposes and values, and about the ways in which important matters are distinguished from trivial ones. In contrast to many modern theoreticians, Plato did not think that a “neutral” or “value-free” description of the world and human affairs is possible, let alone desirable. Competent governors in particular must be more than walking data banks without an idea of why things ought to be done one way rather than another. The ability to deal with valuations, therefore, is the necessary completion of a student’s education; it lays the foundation for a person’s ability to give sufficient reasons for living a certain kind of life.

While Plato thus describes the liberating and empowering nature of education, he was deeply pessimistic with regard to its popularity. In the tale of the cave great emphasis is placed on the difficulties of acquiring knowledge, and on the hostility and mistrust that many people feel toward education and educated people. The ascent out of the cave and into the light is neither easy nor necessarily voluntary, and it requires a persistence and willingness to undergo changes that most people would find too strange to consider, or too painful to endure. Not only do cave dwellers dislike leaving the cozy darkness to which they are accustomed, they also hate and mistrust those who have been outside and who have come back to improve things. Most people dislike being told that they lack knowledge; disturbing gadflies like Socrates are rarely respected for their critical remarks and demanding ideas. What people basically like is having fun and being left alone.

And that, according to Plato, is the reason why democracy does not work. Good government requires a sufficient degree of knowledge and understanding, and democracy in particular presupposes a competent citizenry. His experiences in Athens convinced Plato not only that the demos of his native city was incapable of making rational decisions, but also that it is simply not in the nature of most people to exert themselves in the pursuit of a serious education–to become competent governors of themselves. It will, Plato thought, always be just a small number of people who will be willing to develop their intellectual faculties to a point where they can be trusted to make informed and well reasoned decisions.

Platonic Elitism in Modern Times

For a modern reader of the Republic it is not necessary to summarize its author’s discussions as an argument against democracy. One can also read the book as a reminder of what would have to be the case for a genuine democracy to function. For the major point of Plato’s discussion of knowledge, education, and democracy is the contention that democracy will not work–will not be a true democracy–unless its citizens are sufficiently prepared for it. This is a point that many modern democrats share. As prominent a founding father as James Madison maintained: “A people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives. A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both.” (9)

The challenge that Plato’s critique of democracy still poses is the question whether the citizens of today’s democracies are interested and informed enough to participate meaningfully in the democratic process. Are today’s self-proclaimed democracies in fact societies where people are “their own governors”– where they are well enough informed to be effectively in control of their commonwealth and their lives? Do the citizens of these societies really understand why wars are declared, resources committed, debts incurred, relations denied, and so forth? Could it be that a majority of citizens live in a cognitive haze that reduces them to voting on the basis of uninformed convictions, catchy slogans, and altogether vague hunches and feelings?

The image of Plato’s cave is strongly reminiscent of today’s media scene– particularly the situation created by motion pictures as the main medium of communication and entertainment. When movie theatres had the most dominant position in the entertainment industry, millions of people sat motionless in dark caverns, all mesmerized by the same shadows that moved across the big screens. And when television became the primary medium, people spent even more time as semi-hypnotized consumers of an endless stream of moving images and manipulative sounds. It is not far-fetched to see today’s television consumers as masses of mental prisoners who get their values and views of the world from the images and programs that powerful corporations or governments keep feeding into their minds. Most viewers are in no position to check what they receive from the screen against the facts of the real world. The world in which they live emotionally and cognitively is a television world, a world produced and explained by Strongly manipulative information and entertainment industries. Like Plato’s chained troglodytes, viewers rarely even wonder whether what they see and think corresponds to reality or not. To a large extent they simply take what they see to be the world.

Many theoreticians, particularly those on the Left, argue that the distortion or abrogation of the democratic process is due to the “brainwashing” and “manipulation” of the masses by the media and other institutions–particularly however by TV. Being kept busy by making a living during most of the day, most people are too exhausted during their time off to do much else except watch television programs that make no intellectual demands on them. And the ruling elites, so the argument goes, have no interest in changing this situation in any event; they would not like an alert and informed citizenry that can read budgets and ask critical questions. They have, on the contrary, always had an interest in keeping the majority of the people in a state of benightedness–in the same way in which slaveholders once had an interest in keeping their slaves in a state of illiteracy, ignorance, and thus helplessness. And since most of the important media are either owned or controlled by wealthy and otherwise privileged groups, it is next to impossible to really enlighten the masses–to liberate them from their “false consciousness.” It will only be in certain crisis situations, such as times of unpopular wars or severe economic depressions, that ordinary people will wake up from their troglodyte torpor and begin to seriously inform themselves. Without such a crisis, however, the stranglehold of manipulative media on the minds of the voters is too strong to be broken. The reduction of potential voters to an apathetic and poorly informed mass of television consumers works too well for the privileged to be seriously questioned by anyone in power. The manufacturers of “false consciousness” are forever making sure that the demos will not be able to use the democratic process effectively on their own behalf and for their own advantage.

There is no such explanation or excuse for the problematic state of democracy in Plato’s thinking. If a democracy is dysfunctional, then this is only a natural state of affairs, a logical outgrowth of the natural constitution of most human beings. The majority of people are simply not made to be interested students and disciplined citizens, according to Plato, most people just desire amusement and the freedom to do what they like. This is how the Republic describes the prevalent disposition of “democratic man”:

He lives from day to day indulging the appetite of the hour, and sometimes he is lapped in drink and strains of the flute; then he becomes a water-drinker, and tries to get thin; then he takes a turn at gymnastics; sometimes idling and neglecting everything, then once more living the life of a philosopher; often he is busy with politics, and starts to his feet and says and does whatever comes into his head; and, if he is emulous of any one who is a warrior, off he is in that direction, or of men of business, once more in that. His life has neither law nor order; and this distracted existence he terms joy and bliss and freedom; and so he goes on. (10)

If the majority of the people are too uninformed, lackadaisical, or apathetic to make the democratic process rational and effective, then they just reveal their inherent nature, according to this thinking. It is not an upper class that keeps the demos unenlightened, but it is the people’s own disposition that makes them eschew enlightenment, and thus dependent on some sort of rulers. If people did not naturally have the disposition they display in a dysfunctional democracy, other people would not be able to exploit and mislead them the way they do. Ruling elites do not create popular ignorance and apathy, a defender of Plato might say, they only use it for their own purposes–in the same way in which a seller of dubious merchandise does not create lack of buyer discretion, but simply exploits that deficiency.

For Platonists, in short, the incompetence and victimization of the masses are a more or less permanent condition. The eventual education and emancipation of the demos envisioned by the Left is a baseless hope in their eyes. To a large extent they would agree with what the conservative scholar and journalist H. L. Mencken once wrote in a letter to the Socialist Upton Sinclair: “The longer I live, the more I am convinced that the common people are doomed to be diddled forever.” (11)

Plato and Lenin

Historically, opposition to democracy has always come from the political right–from monarchists, aristocrats, or economically privileged classes that feared for their disproportionate wealth and power. Ideological conservatives, too, tended to have strong reservations with regard to popular rule. The Catholic Church, for example, used to be closely allied with anti-democratic forces, such as standing armies or privileged land-owning classes. But such opposition to democratic government has basically been in retreat since the successes of the American and French Revolutions, temporary reversals notwithstanding. Historically the ideal of democracy has become the norm, not the exception—at least in theory.

What is therefore remarkable is the fact that a major challenge to the principle of democratic rule in the 20th century came from the political Left, from the constellation of forces that before had always fought adamantly for unabridged popular sovereignty and self-determination. At the beginning of the 20th century, in connection with the formation of the Bolshevik party, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin argued in his influential What Is To Be Done? that under certain conditions it will be necessary for a tightly organized, well trained, and philosophically schooled “vanguard party” of professional revolutionaries to take over the leadership of the workers and their political organizations in order to stage a successful uprising against the capitalist system and the rule of the bourgeoisie. Lenin’s conception of a more or less dictatorially ruling central committee was a novel addition to the traditionally democratic working class movements, Marxist and otherwise. Under the name “democratic centralism” it has had a fateful influence on the forms that Socialism and Communism took in the 20th century.

Lenin used somewhat similar arguments in favor of his scheme as those that Plato used in his defense of his Philosopher-Kings: The broad masses, and in particular certain sections of organized labor, were not sophisticated and informed enough to make the right decisions in a complex situation that often called for quick and decisive action. The masses, confused by ideological traditions, brainwashed by powerful media and propaganda machines, and partially pacified by crumbs from the tables of the rich, cannot be relied upon to make the right political decisions. Theoretically and practically competent experts have to do most of the hard thinking and direct the revolution, and then manage any revolutionary government until all necessary tasks of a thorough transformation of social conditions are accomplished. Without such a vanguard party of expert revolutionaries the exploiters of the working class will always be able to take advantage of the intellectual and organizational weaknesses of the masses.

Emphasizing that until now quality education had always been the privilege of the upper classes, Lenin argued that an effective revolutionary theory had to be brought to working class parties from outside pure working class organizations:

We have said that there could not have been Social-Democratic [i. e., revolutionary] consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade-union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labor legislation, etc. The theory of Socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical, and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals. By their social status, the founders of modern scientific socialism, Marx and Engels, themselves belonged to the bourgeois intelligentsia. (12)

Until the working class has acquired the degree of education that until now has been a privilege of the propertied classes, workers simply do not have the necessary means to take over the government; they would be helpless in the face of all the problems they would have to solve right away. If the working class government is to be successful, experts have to take over that government for a certain period of time.

The only significant difference between Lenin’s and Plato’s conception of effective political leadership is that Lenin’s vanguard party is supposed to relinquish its power once the masses are ready to assume it–when they have had a real chance to make themselves experts. Leninist leaders, in other words, are only temporary Philosopher-Kings. They operate on the assumption that genuine democracy does have a future once a level playing field with respect to education has been established.

On a theoretical level Lenin was politely but vigorously opposed in 1904 by Rosa Luxemburg, one of the radical leaders of the Social Democrats in Germany. In an article that was later published as “Marxism or Leninism?” she agreed with Lenin’s revolutionary goals, but unequivocally opposed the introduction of undemocratic practices as a means to achieve these goals. A political mistake made by a democratic majority of the people is far better than a correct decision made by a dictatorial vanguard, she argued:

The working class demands the right to make its mistakes and learn in the dialectic of history. Let us speak plainly. Historically, the errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more fruitful than the infallibility of the cleverest central committee. (13)

Actual self-determination, in other words, takes precedence over superior insight or practical efficiency if there is a conflict between the two. It is better not to have a revolution if that revolution can only be had at the price of some sort of dictatorship. Learning will come with self-government, even if this self-government is far from perfect. Any rule by Philosopher-Kings, no matter how well intentioned, will merely prolong dependency and the lack of knowledge among the masses. Even as a temporary measure any elitist designs are out of place in a truly progressive movement.

It would be interesting to know what Luxemburg would have said about the democratic election of Hitler. (She was murdered by right-wing vigilantes before the Nazis officially assumed power.) 20th century history provides intriguing support for both Lenin’s and Luxemburg’s position. On more than one occasion “the masses” were dangerously ignorant during this century of world wars and genocide, and what many of them actively or passively supported cannot always be written off as a tolerable learning experience. The institution of a dictatorial party of idealistic experts, on the other hand, has not had the originally desired effects either. Leninism, as it turned out, unintentionally prepared the way for Stalin, and thus infected Socialism with a legacy of tyranny from which the Left has yet to recover. The question whether the demos can and should be relied upon to make the right decisions in very complex and dangerous situations is still an intriguing one. The critical ideas of Plato’s Republic thus survive–in the gap between an acknowledged ideal of democracy and a largely undemocratic reality…