Why Socrates Hated Democracy

September 10, 2019

We are used to thinking very highly of democracy
– and by extension, of Ancient Athens, the civilisation that gave rise to it. The Parthenon
has become almost a byword for democratic values, which is why so many leaders of democracies
like to be photographed there. It’s therefore very striking to discover
that one of Ancient Greece’s great achievements, Philosophy, was highly suspicious of its other
achievement, Democracy. The founding father of Greek Philosophy
– Socrates – is portrayed, in the dialogues of Plato, as hugely pessimistic about the whole business of democracy. In
Book Six of The Republic, Plato describes Socrates falling into conversation with a
character called Adeimantus and trying to get him to see the flaws of democracy by comparing
a society to a ship. If you were heading out on a journey by sea, asks Socrates, who would
you ideally want deciding who was in charge of the vessel? Just anyone or people educated
in the rules and demands of seafaring? The latter of course, says Adeimantus, so why
then, responds Socrates, do we keep thinking that any old person should be fit to judge
who should be a ruler of a country? Socrates’s point is that voting in an election is a skill,
not a random intuition. And like any skill, it needs to be taught systematically to people.
Letting the citizenry vote without an education is as irresponsible as putting them in charge
of a trireme sailing to Samos in a storm. Socrates was to have first hand, catastrophic
experience of the foolishness of voters. In 399 BC, the philosopher was put on trial on
trumped up charges of corrupting the youth of Athens. A jury of 500 Athenians was invited
to weigh up the case and decided by a narrow margin that the philosopher was guilty. He
was put to death by hemlock in a process which is, for thinking people, every bit as tragic
as Jesus’s condemnation has been for Christians. Crucially, Socrates was not elitist in the
normal sense. He didn’t believe that a narrow few should only ever vote. He did, however,
insist that only those who had thought about issues rationally and deeply should be let
near a vote. We have forgotten this distinction between an intellectual democracy and a democracy
by birthright. We have given the vote to all without connecting it to wisdom. And
Socrates knew exactly where that would lead: to a system the Greeks feared above all, demagoguery. Ancient Athens had painful experience of demagogues,
for example, the louche figure of Alcibiades, a rich, charismatic, smooth-talking wealthy
man who eroded basic freedoms and helped to push Athens to its disastrous military adventures
in Sicily. Socrates knew how easily people seeking election could exploit our desire
for easy answers. He asked us to imagine an election debate between two candidates, one
who was like a doctor and the other who was like a sweet shop owner. The sweet shop owner
would say of his rival: Look, this person here has worked many evils on you. He hurts
you, gives you bitter potions and tells you he not to eat and drink whatever you like. He’ll
never serve you feasts of many and varied pleasant things like I will. Socrates asks
us to consider the audience response: Do you think the doctor would be able to reply effectively?
The true answer – ‘I cause you trouble, and go against you desires in order to help
you’ would cause an uproar among the voters, don’t you think? We have forgotten all about
Socrates’s salient warnings against democracy. We have preferred to think of democracy as
an unambiguous good – rather than as something that is only ever as effective as the education
system that surrounds it. As a result, we have elected many sweet shop owners, and very
few doctors.

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