21 Aralık 2010 Salı

Plato and His Conception of Democracy

Plato (427 BC-377 BC) was an Athenian nobleman who sacrificed his life to discover justice (dikaiosuné) and ideal type of state through philosophy. Philosophy is a Greek word, which means the “love of knowledge”. In Plato’s epoch, many Greek polis (cities) were administrated with radical or direct democracy, a type of government system in which all male citizens were coming together in large public squares to discuss and decide on specific policies by raising their hands (voting). Especially Athenian polis was a centre of science, democracy and welfare at this epoch. However, this radical democracy was in elitist nature and only available for some groups in the society. In addition, there were problems like corruption and the transformation of democracy into despotism. There was also the existence of slavery and the oligarchic structure of the society.
Plato, who is also known as the founder of the Academy, was a student of Socrates who died in the hands of Athenian democracy. He learned a lot from Socrates most importantly how to think and what sort of questions to think about. He accepted Socrates’ basic philosophy and dialectical style of debate: the pursuit of truth through questions, answers and additional questions. Plato was a keen admirer of Socrates (all we know about Socrates comes from Plato’s writings) and he was extremely affected by his execution. Thus, he decided to collect Socrates’ ideas and theoretically create a utopian state in which philosophers would not be executed but instead rule their polis. Plato wrote “Five Dialogues” in the form of dialogues and used Socrates as the main character of the book. In this assignment, I am going to use “Crito” part of Plato’s “Five Dialogues” book in order to seek for an answer to the question whether Plato would consider today’s democratic societies as just or unjust. I am going to argue that Plato does not believe in democracy and justice together with knowledge prevails over democracy in his thinking. Thus, I will manifest that Plato would have regarded today’s democracies as unjust.
In Crito book, we witness to the last days of Socrates who is imprisoned by Athenian democracy because of his ideas not conforming to the existing rules. Socrates waits for the execution in prison and his friend Crito comes to see him for helping him to escape from prison. Crito talks about his plans but Socrates tells him that he does not want to escape. By using his own method, Socrates convinces Crito in the rightness of not escaping. In many parts of this text, Socrates shows how the majority can have wrong decisions and warns Crito kindly not to give too much attention to the majority. Crito tells him that if he is executed; people would think that Crito -as one of the best friends of Socrates- did not help him. Crito says that it would be a very bad reputation for him because people would not believe that Socrates refused his help. Socrates responds: “My good Crito, why should we care so much for what the majority think? The most reasonable people, to whom one should pay more attention, will believe that things were done as they were done” (Plato, p. 47).
For Socrates (Plato), justice and knowledge prevails over democracy. In other words, the quantity of votes would not change the quality of ideas in his thinking. “One should value the good opinions and not the bad ones” says Socrates to express his idea that the important is not to conform to the majority but rather to follow just, good ideas (Plato, p. 49). Socrates then gives the example of a man professionally engaged in physical training. He asks Crito whether for this man it would be more appropriate to listen the advices of many men or a doctor or trainer (Plato, p. 49). Crito admits that in such a case, it would be more reasonable for this man to take doctor or trainer’s advices instead of many men who lack professional skills. This example is very significant in understanding Plato’s view that justice and expertise are preferable to the majority. “We should not then think so much of what the majority will say about us, but what he will say who understands justice and injustice, the one, that is, and the truth itself” (Plato, 50). Plato, by using Socrates as the protagonist in the story, also underlines that the majority can have wrong, unjust decisions. “One should never do wrong in return, nor mistreat any man, no matter how one has been mistreated by him. And Crito, see that you do not agree to this, contrary to your belief. For I know that only a few people hold this view or will hold it, and there is no common ground between those who hold this view and those who do not, but they inevitably despise each other’s views” (Plato, p. 52).
After understanding some basic ideas of Plato on democracy, we can pass to discuss whether he would support today’s democratic regimes. As far as I am concerned, Plato as an elitist who cares about knowledge and justice, would not like today’s democratic regimes. Unlike ancient Greek city-states, today in modern democracies all citizens, all inhabitants have the right to vote in elections. This means that the vote of an educated elite person would be equal to an ignorant man who knows nothing about politics. This is a thing Plato would not support in my opinion. Plato believes that “good opinions are those of wise men, the bad ones those of foolish man” and thus, he would never support such a government system (Plato, p. 49). In his another important work “The Republic” also Plato clearly states his views about the supremacy of knowledge and expertise over democracy. In Plato’s ideal state which was drawn in The Republic there are three main classes: the first class is the class of Guardians (Rulers, Auxiliaries), the second class consists of artisans, workers, farmers, businessman and the third class refers to slaves who are not accepted as citizens. Guardians are the golden class of Plato’s ideal society. According to Plato, Guardians must have been selected from the most talented children of the society and should have a special education. This is also another important sign of Plato’s elitism.
Plato basically believes that the majority consists of many people lacking in knowledge and that is why Guardians class which consisted of very talented and cultivated men should rule the state. This oligarchic understanding of Plato is completely different from today’s democratic norms. In democratic states also, we give importance to expertise and knowledge but still people have political equality in voting and possessing basic civil rights and liberties. Although Plato’s ideas seem to be disturbing, we can also be aware of the fact that during the history many times the majority has made wrong decisions. The rise of Adolph Hitler in Germany in the late 1920s is a good example for this. Although Hitler’s policies towards Jewish people and other states were completely unjust and bad, he was successful in mobilizing and taking the support of the majority of German people. Like in the example in the majoritarian democracy system there can be some mistakes and in order to prevent this problem, some basic rights and liberties as well as universal norms for the relations between states are created with the consensus of states all around the world. Humans have some inviolable rights like the right to live, right to have property which are secured by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In this respect, although in a democratic state Socrates would have never been executed, I think that Plato’s elitist understanding would never support such a system. We know that in ancient-Greek city states there were slaves who had not got any rights. Finally, in my opinion Plato would never support a government like today’s democracies but we should bear in mind that Plato lived 2400 years ago in a very different context and his ideas can be said to be progressive for his epoch.
- Plato, 2002, “Five Dialogues”, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company
- Plato, 1987, “The Republic”, London: Penguin Books
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