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HUMANITIES 2220 S1
Democracy's Harshest Critic--Plato
Plato is the single most influential critic of democracy in the history of the
The philosopher lived in Athens in the fourth century B.C., during which
time he saw his teacher and idol Socrates put to death by a democratic court.
Much of Plato's writing can be seen as a response to the anger and despair
aroused by that event.
is the summation of Plato's political
philosophy, a massive dialogue in which Socrates and his friends outline a
blueprint for the perfect society.
The criticisms that Plato put into Socrates'
mouth have dominated western thinking on democracy ever since.
helped shape modern democracy, but they have also helped shape Hitler's
fascist state and the communism of the Soviet Union.
Plato, it seems, has a lot
to answer for.
Plato's first and most lasting criticism is beguilingly simple, yet its effect on
modern democracy is devastating.
The argument is most seductively put in a
series of dialogues between Socrates and the citizens he meets.
"If you want
advice on how to make shoes," asks Socrates, "whom would you ask for that
"A shoemaker," comes the response.
The stakes gradually rise:
want advice on who is good at playing music," continues Socrates, "would you ask
someone who is an expert at playing musical instruments?"
"Of course," the
"If you want to know who is good at math, you would ask a
And so on, until the crunch questions:
"If you want
advice about politics, would you ask a shoemaker or a musician, or would you ask
an expert on politics?
Backed into this corner, the interlocutor finally agrees that
in each field there is an expert who is best.
Who, then, is the expert in politics?
Surely not the shoemakers or the others who make up the populace.
The implications of this argument for democracy are ruthlessly explored in
In the ideal state, Plato says, the ruling class will be the
philosopher-kings, men especially selected and trained for the business of
government. It is to them, he says, that ruling should be entrusted. (Woman may
—theoretically, at least—be included.)
The military class will be those men best
fitted and trained for protecting the state.
The others—the workers, the
producers, the ordinary men and women—will live happily in the perfect and
stable city, enchanted by the noble lie, the myths circulated by the philosopher-
kings that offer justification for why the state is as it is.
Plato's first criticism, then, is that experts should judge in their sphere of