Plato the greatest western philosopher
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.
As for Plato, the highest up the list of his "good regime" list was an aristocracy, then a timocracy, then an oligarchy, then a democracy, and at dead last was a tyranny.
Through works such as the Apology and The Republic, we can see Plato's distaste of the concept of democracy. Why does he consider democracy to be so flawed? Let us look through his own eyes and see what his individual criticisms are, and determine if the very concept of democracy is as flawed as he believes it to be.
One of the contemporary definitions of democracy today is as follows: "Government by the people, exercised either directly or through elected representatives; Rule by the majority" ("Democracy" Def.1,4). Democracy, as a form of government, was a radical idea when it manifested; many governments in the early history of the world were totalitarian or tyrannical in nature, due to overarching beliefs that the strong ruled over the weak.
Although the Greeks coined the word "democracy" - the words demos "people" and kratos "rule" conjoined together to mean, literally, "rule by the people" - there is speculation about weather or not certain other peoples, such as the Sumerians and the Indians, managed to engage in democratic methods of governance first. However, the history of democracy is not what is being discussed here; we are focusing on Plato's criticism of democracy, particularly with regards to the Athenian model and his writings in the Socratic dialogues. Let us continue on, before we veer off and lose sight of the argument.
So democracy is a system of government wherein the people elect their rulers; in the case of Athens, it was, more or less, a direct democracy, where all male citizens voted in an assembly and decided by majority rule (elected officials were chosen by allotment). Why would this be a bad thing? Is it not better than dictatorships or oligarchies, where anywhere from one man to a small group of elites have power over all? Why exactly would a government that has its decisions made by the very people it represents be considered something worthy of criticism?
This is where we get into the meat of the argument. Take note that there might be some consideration as to whether or not, particularly with regard to the Socratic dialogues, the criticism of democracy's properties originated from Socrates or Plato. But with regards to this essay, such a consideration is irrelevant, as it is not incorrect to say that Plato did indeed have some problems with democracy, especially with regard to the Athenian model.
The crux of this argument will focus on three of Plato's works: Gorgias, Apology, and The Republic.
In Gorgias, named for the Sicilian sophist and rhetorician featured in the dialogue, Socrates speaks with Gorgias concerning the nature of rhetoric as compared with philosophy; also, he speaks with Gorgias's pupil Polus concerning the tyrant and how he truly is the most unhappiest of all, despite any ill-gotten gains they may have attained. Socrates' distaste - and, by extension, Plato's - of the rhetorician is quite evident in passage 459 (Helmbold 18-19).
How does this tie in to the discussion of democracy?
Let us see first how Socrates classifies one skilled in the art of rhetoric, particularly with regards to one who is not learned in a particular subject outside of rhetoric. Using Socrates' own analogy, it is suggested that a rhetorician would be more capable of persuading a crowd of ignorant people on the subject of health than even a doctor. Although this seems foolish on the surface, a further examination would reveal the chilling truth behind these words; throughout the history of the world, a great multitude of people have been deceived and beguiled by skilled speakers, masters of rhetoric. This was something that Friedrich Nietzsche noted: "Insanity in individuals is something rare - but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule." Even today, we hear the words of those who proclaim they have wisdom in areas they have no expertise in. Though this may seem contradictory by default, it pays to not underestimate the ignorance of the populace at large, particularly when normally skeptical and rational individuals are swayed into thinking along with the group.
However, let us refocus the argument on Socrates and his words concerning the evil-doing tyrant in passages 470-480 (Helmbold 32-48). Polus - a teacher of rhetoric - contends that an unjust man (in this case, Archelaus, a king of Macedon), despite the crimes he has committed, is happy. Despite his unjust actions, he managed to become a person of power; he is the happier man, considering he has not met any punishment. Socrates does not agree with this notion; he contends that, among all wretched men, it is the unpunished that are truly unhappy. Recall, if you will, the beliefs of Socrates in terms of the soul.
He emphasized throughout his life that men should be concerned about the welfare of their soul. It is not at all unlike Socrates to suggest that a criminal who receives punishment for his wrongdoing - in other words, correction of their evils - will, in the end, be far happier than he who does not receive any punishment at all.
Let us carry this line of thought back to the issue of democracy. As Socrates suggested in Plato's Gorgias, the criminal who does wrongdoing without receiving any punishment is the most wretched person of all. What then, of a democracy, where the majority of people determines actions and policies?
What if, as a majority, the people decided to commit a heinous act, such as an unjustified military action against another nation for the sake of resources, no matter the cost in human lives? Such an action would lead to death and suffering for a great many people. Also, consider that the majority would not judge or correct themselves, for they were the ones who agreed to partake in that course of action. As such, they inflict evil upon many more people than an individual could ever hope to; after all, as a democracy, the majority's actions affect the entirety of the state and its citizens.
Even if the aforementioned individual were actually a tyrant, the evil he inflicts would only pollute his own soul; a democracy that commits wrongdoing pollutes the souls of everyone who partakes in the political process. Recall in the Apology that Socrates was tried and sentenced to death by the men of Athens. Recall that their minds were swayed against Socrates by rhetoricians; from the time they were mere babes, the men of the jury were of the opinion that Socrates had committed things that were, in fact, falsities (Apology 17a-19e). A wise and noble philosopher was put to death by people who had been persuaded wrongfully by skilled rhetoricians (once again reminding us that there was no love lost between Plato and those who were considered masters of persuasion), and as such they committed an unjust act that, in the end, negatively affected the welfare of the souls. After all, who would rejoice in putting an innocent man of wisdom to death? The answer: only those who are ignorant of the philosopher's innocence, misled as they were by group-think and ill-intentioned rhetoricians.
So now we can see why Plato had some unflattering opinions of democracy; for a philosopher concerned with the welfare of the soul, the idea of so many people - people that, in large groups, can be swayed easily by rhetoricians - being capable of unwittingly corrupting the health of their own souls must be horrifying. This leads us to Plato's idea of the "ideal" government. In the vast work that is The Republic, there is one passage in Book V that shows the ones whom Socrates thinks should be the rulers of a government:
Unless the philosophers rule as kings or those now called kings and chiefs genuinely and adequately philosophize, and political power and philosophy coincide in the same place, while the many natures now making their way to either apart from the other are by necessity excluded, there is no rest from ills for the cities, my dear Glaucon, nor I think for human kind, nor will the regime we have now described in speech ever come forth from nature, insofar as possible, and see the light of the sun. (Republic 473d-e)
A philosopher, to Plato and Socrates, is the ideal ruler of a state. The fact that such a government would be one where the people do not decide is irrelevant; as a philosopher concerned with the welfare of one's soul, Plato wants what is best for the souls of the citizens. A king concerned with the pursuit of wisdom would undoubtedly be better than a lover of wealth, power, or status.
In conclusion, it should be noted that, in modern times, a democracy is considered one of the more ideal forms of government, considering the value many people tend to place on individual liberty and the freedom to choose one's own path in life. However, Plato's criticisms should be kept in mind when determining the merit of a democratic government. Oh, would it not be great to have a democracy of philosophers, who would pursue truth and wisdom! Alas, we are only human, and susceptible to many evils and lies. The trick is to prevent such ignorant people from becoming the majority. At times, it seems nigh impossible to do so; curse our stupidity!
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