Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Plato pt. 3

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Plato pt. 3

 

“And then one, seeing another grow rich, seeks to rival him, and thus the great mass of the citizens become lovers of money.”

—–“Likely enough.”

“And so they grow richer and richer, and the more they think of making a fortune the less they think of virtue; for when riches and virtue are placed together in the scales of the balance, the one always rises as the other falls.”

—–Plato, Republic

 

 

One of the key elements of Plato’s idealized republic is that each individual does what he or she is best at. The best thinkers are set to solving problems and making plans for the society; the best and bravest soldiers are given jobs of defense and law enforcement; and the best businesspeople are empowered to make money and all the products that make life possible for all, and comfortable for themselves. Sometimes we carelessly call this a “caste” system, but it really is a meritocracy: each job is to be done by whomever is best at that job.

A second key element is that each person is to receive what he or she desires most. Thinkers want to think; makers want to make; warriors want to show their prowess. Therefore, the guardians are given the leisure to philosophize, theorize and investigate; the producers are allowed to make money and to enjoy the fruits of their labors; and the auxiliaries spend their time training and fighting for the sense of achievement and for the social recognition their honor demands. When Socrates describes the life of the guardians, with its lack of fame and creature comforts, Glaucon complains that he is making his citizens miserable. Socrates really has two replies to this. First, he says that the point of his exercise is to explore what would make the overall healthiest society, not to make any one person the happiest possible; therefore, it is irrelevant whether one group or another has everything that could be desired. But more importantly, Socrates/Plato is saying that in fact these people are getting what they really want, and what will really fulfill the longings of their true natures.

Thirdly, and just as vitally, no one gets what he or she should not have. The guardians are allowed to think, and have the satisfaction of seeing their ideas in action; though Plato makes it clear that true philosophers would rather focus on theory and only stoop to the distraction of implementing their ideas out of a recognition of their duty to others. But they do their work for the republic for nothing more than their own basic maintenance. They receive no riches, no fine mansions or spectacular clothes so that people should look at them enviously as they are carried about on palanquins; they live simple lives devoted to their work and to self-improvement to make themselves better at their jobs. And the guardians receive no fame, since that is reserved for the auxiliaries; the guardians are to do their work not so they can be loved and have their names emblazoned on monuments like a pharaoh, but simply so they can learn more and lead their society. Fame is reserved for the auxiliaries, whose ambition and sense of honor is their strongest drive; but they are not allowed any leadership role, nor are they allowed to accumulate riches. The auxiliaries are to be more educated than the producers, but still are temperamentally and intellectually unsuited to leadership; and they are not to collect creature comforts which would distract and soften them. And the producers, who so crave wealth and luxuries, are too undisciplined and selfish to be trusted either in the professional defense force or in political leadership. They may enjoy the wealth of the republic, but may not have any power or part in its leadership.

Plato indicates why this is important in Book VIII of Republic. There he imagines how this ideal state would eventually degenerate, since nothing human lasts forever. The point of this fiction is to show how each of the main political archetypes of his day vary from the ideal, and to rank them from best to worst. The first step away from the ideal resembles the Spartan or Cretan states, which Plato has Socrates affirm are generally considered well-run. There is no clear name for this sort of state, but Plato coins the term “timocracy,” or government by honor. This state resembles his republic in most respects, but the leaders are not philosophers. Instead, they are more like the people Plato had as auxiliaries: educated and cultured perhaps, but more passionate and ambitious and concerned for their personal honor. Lacking philosophic discipline and wisdom, they are prone to temptation and longing for the goods the guardians were denied. They are competitive with one another, seeking personal honor as much or more than the welfare of the state. When they are younger, this drive for honor is likely to be their primary motivation, and this to some extent keeps them honest and devoted to their service as warrior-leaders. When they are older, however, Plato says they are more likely to start to covet wealth. They are legally denied wealth and forbidden from farming, trading or other ways they could make money; so they may resort to extorting from their fellow citizens or other covert means of accumulating luxuries, and they become miserly over what they do have since it is so hard to acquire. Without philosophy to build and guide their characters, they start to love money more and virtue less.

The next sort of state is oligarchy, or government by a rich elite. In this sort of state, personal virtue and excellence have been largely dispensed with as requirements for leadership. Instead, leaders are those who are wealthy and powerful, and those who are politically powerful in turn use their position to gain more wealth. While the timocratic state of Sparta or Crete was still said to be “well run” and in fact the actual governments most approved by Plato, oligarchy is clearly corrupt. Love of virtue and justice has been replaced by love of money, and it is the rich who are respected rather than the wise. Furthermore, as there are separations between rich and poor, there is envy and crime as those without wealth attempt to get some by whatever means they can. Graft at the top, theft at the bottom, the oligarchy seems corrupt through and through.

However, oligarchy is in fact barely midway down Plato’s scale of corrupt states. Next is democracy, such as found in Plato’s own state of Athens. In this state, the pretense that some people are better fit to lead than others is thrown out completely; everyone competes for money and for power. The people have realized that their leaders are, in fact, no better than any of them, so they command little loyalty in times of crisis. The people chafe at any restrictions imposed on them by leaders who they regard as nothing special in themselves, so they revolt and establish a government that will allow the maximum liberty possible to the individual citizens. Being the freest in that respect, democracy also allows the most range of individual characters, from the virtuous to the positively criminal. And being so variegated and individualistic, the democracy lacks cohesion; mutual competition is everything.

Naturally, in such an environment there are some people who simply want to be free of all restraint, and others who will not be satisfied until they dominate everything. Therefore, democracy naturally slides towards tyranny. In tyranny, the confusion of economic and political power is complete, as one individual takes over the state and runs it for his own pleasure and that of his lackeys. The tyrant is thus the complete opposite of the philosopher-king in the ideal republic; while the guardians served the state and received only their basic needs in return, the tyrant demands satisfaction of his every appetite and expects the state to serve him. And while democracy promised complete equality as well as freedom, Plato argues that the greed and ambition of its citizens guarantees that both of these will be lost, resulting in the most unequal and repressive state possible.

In Plato’s terms, the United States is not a democracy; it is a mixture of democracy and oligarchy. The Constitution was written by men who had read Plato and read the history of Athens, and who shared many of Plato’s concerns about pure democracy. Instead of having the people set policy directly, the created a system where the people elect leaders who in turn set policy. But even with this sort of two-stage democracy, the tendency for tyranny has always existed. America’s detractors and lovers all agree that this is a society devoted to the making and spending of money. And particularly today, there is an unquestioned faith in the wisdom of the businessman. Plato says this is exactly the sort of person we should keep well away from power. Government requires long-term thinking; business can do very well planning year-by-year or quarter-by-quarter. Government requires an eye on the big picture, coordinating and prioritizing all sorts of needs of the citizens; business requires only a limited perspective. Businesses may profit and even be founded on a holistic approach, but it is not necessary. In Plato’s republic, all leaders were to be trained in music and in physical fitness, as well as in the intellectual skills directly relating to politics, because they needed to be well-rounded individuals, limber of body and mind. In American schools the focus is on training for the business world, and funding for the arts and for physical fitness (aside from team sports which are practically businesses themselves) is constantly under threat.   The idea of a “liberal arts” education, training everyone in a core body of knowledge to make each one a better citizen, is generally despised as useless; why learn about history or science or philosophy when you can just earn an M.B.A. and get rich?

Plato would say it is inevitable that a rich and powerful individual would emerge in a government like ours and set himself up as a strongman, that he would gain a loyal following by promising some group power over others, that he would play on their emotions rather than argue logically or factually, and that eventually the government would be taken down and fall into tyranny. This is always the danger of populism, and Plato saw nothing good in it. He believed in a government that gave the people what they truly needed and wanted even if they didn’t realize this themselves, but which did not give them a voice or power since they would inevitably misuse it. At the same time, he believed in a government that impoverished its leaders rather than enriching them, making them true public servants; government was to exist for the well-being of the citizenry as a whole, not just the ruling elite.

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