Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Plato pt. 1

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Plato pt. 1

There will be no end to the troubles of states, or of humanity itself, till philosophers become kings in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands.




The first and most famous writing in Western political philosophy is Republic, written by Plato around 380 BCE. It is not only a political writing, and arguably may not even be primarily such; it is a philosophical tour de force, discussing ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, and esthetics as well as politics. Thus it is one of the most encyclopedic pieces of philosophical writing as well as one of the earliest, and for both reasons is often a cornerstone of “Philosophy 101.”

Plato’s answers do not always satisfy, and did not always satisfy even his contemporaries; but his writings set the agenda for philosophy down through the millennia. It is therefore fitting to start any discussion of political philosophy with Plato, hear what he has to say, and then examine how later thinkers have confirmed or rejected his claims.

No thinker writes completely in a vacuum, and Plato was particularly a man of his time despite his desire to speak only of the eternal Forms. He began his philosophical career as one of those young aristocratic men who followed Socrates around the Athenian agora, hanging on his every word as he interrogated the professional politicians, professors and other leaders of society. Socrates wrote nothing of his own, as far as we know, except perhaps a hymn according to one historical record; what we know of his actual beliefs comes to us through the writings and teachings of his students. As was common in the ancient world, his students were not shy about using the master’s name to try to give answers the master would have given if he had only thought about some problem, or if he had lived longer, and thus had explicitly taught on some subject he didn’t actually cover. They were not journalists in today’s sense, trying to capture the words and deeds of the great person without error or embellishment; they were more concerned with keeping the spirit of the great teacher alive so that he could continue to teach even after death. In the case of Plato, great devotion to the person of Socrates was joined to great literary talent and to great philosophical genius, the result being that we know that at some point Plato starts putting his own words into Socrates’ mouth but we don’t agree on exactly which parts are closer to the original Socrates and which are Plato’s thoughts attributed to Socrates. What we do know is that Plato wrote an extensive library of books, many of which survive to this day, and that almost all of them are written as philosophical conversations or debates in which Socrates is the main figure. They do not always agree with each other in content, and the style varies as well, reinforcing the impression that as Plato grew older his own thought became more independent of Socrates. But certain principles appear early and often in Plato, and are echoed in other writers who similarly knew Socrates. An early story is that the oracle at Delphi identified Socrates as the wisest man alive, and that Socrates decided that his only wisdom was to realize his own ignorance. Therefore, he devoted his life to exposing the ignorance of those who claimed to have knowledge, particularly the knowledge to tell others what was right and good. The professional teachers of his day, the Sophists, are generally remembered today as relativists; they taught as “good” whatever the local community said was “good,” while themselves noting that what was praised in one city-state was often abhorred in another. Socrates by contrast is said to have believed that there was indeed a real universal truth to be found, and a real sense in which “good” was an ethical principle that held true no matter what the society said. He thus claimed his own inquiries were his own attempt to educate himself, or to find a teacher who could show him the truth of how to live his life. However, he also quickly found that no one he encountered really knew this truth at all, since none of the important men he questioned was able to defend his views. He thus styled himself a “philo-sopher,” a “lover-of wisdom,” a perpetual seeker rather than an authority; and he called all his neighbors to become seekers as well.

History, including Plato’s own writings, reports that this did not sit well with the leaders he had interrogated and publicly embarrassed. Eventually, he was arrested and charged with corrupting the youth and not reverencing the gods. He was brought to trial in the waning days of Athenian democracy, when the Athenian people were fairly paranoid about finding enemies of the State and rooting them out. It is true that some of the young men who followed Socrates had turned traitor during the war with Sparta, which had ended a few years earlier with a humiliating defeat for the Athenians. At the same time, some of his followers had also proven to be patriots, and Socrates himself was nearly arrested by the pro-Spartan junta which briefly ruled before it was overthrown and democracy reinstated.

The trial of Socrates took place in the same way every important decision was made in Athenian democracy. A large jury, generally 501 randomly chosen free male citizens, listened to advocates for and against the proposition—in this case, the proposition that Socrates was guilty of capital crimes and should be executed. Normally, the defendant in such a trial would give as eloquent a speech as possible, often reciting one written by a professional. He would appeal for mercy, perhaps having his wife and children come on stage with him in rags even if they were in fact quite wealthy, to try to sway the emotions of the jurors. Socrates rejected that plan and refused the speech a friend offered him. Instead, he taught the audience and his accusers. He brought one of them up before them all and asked him to recite the details of his crimes, poking holes in his claims and suggesting that even his accusers didn’t believe what they were saying. Instead, he argued, they were simply embarrassed by his lifetime of needling them. He had made them look foolish by exposing their ignorance, and they wanted revenge. Instead, Socrates argued, he should be seen as a benefactor of the city, who sought nothing but the moral improvement of the citizens by teaching each one individually to seek the good. His questions were like the sting of a gadfly, which might stir a lazy cow to action; his only purpose was to make people think about what is good or evil so that they might act for the good. He therefore insisted that the charges against him were nonsense, insincere, and false; far from undermining the city, he was actually its chief benefactor. Still, the jury narrowly voted to convict. Under Athenian law, at that point both sides had to propose a suitable punishment. When his accusers demanded his death and the jury asked Socrates what alternative punishment he would recommend, he suggested they give him free meals for life like they would for an Olympic victor or military hero. Given those two choices, the jury chose death. He accepted the sentence, submitting to the laws of the State and the will of God, and was executed.

I would like to draw four main points from this story (which is drawn primarily from Plato’s Apology and also agrees with Xenophon’s account, both apparently eyewitness accounts of the trial of Socrates):

  1. Socrates, though avoiding usual “political activities” such as seeking office or making speeches in the assembly. Still, he regarded himself to be a political citizen and even a moral activist.
  2. He was brought up on political charges by leading politicians, so his trial and execution was a political event.
  3. He was subversive in undermining respect of certain leaders, but submitted to the laws of his country even to his own death.
  4. The overall impression of the presentations is that democracy failed. Democracy, not just particular individuals, tried and executed Socrates unjustly.

This last point is particularly important for the later development of Plato’s political philosophy. His writings, as well as Xenophon’s, depict Socrates as basically patriotic. Yes, he was unconventional; yes, he did embarrass some political leaders by exposing their ignorance and hypocrisy; and yes, some of his followers were disloyal and even treasonous. Still, he himself died in obedience to the laws of Athens. Plato came away from that thinking that democracy is inherently unjust. In democracy, demagogues driven by personal ambition, greed and vanity manipulate the mob, which is itself motivated by passions and appetites rather than rational thought. Neither the leaders nor the followers have any interest in justice or even a conception of what this is, so that they conspired together to kill their greatest benefactor and teacher. Therefore, Plato concluded, the only way a just society could ever exist would be if power is held not by the majority, but only by those few who have the moral and intellectual capacity for leadership.

To be continued….

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