Plato’s Criticism of Democracy

Introduction

Today’s world largely perceives democracy, which refers to the government of the people by the people and for the people, as the best political system. Distinct elements of democracy are equality and freedom. In simpler terms, democracy refers to the rule of the free people who govern themselves in their selfish interests. Notably, Plato did not consider democracy as the best form of government. In the Republic, Plato criticized democracy, describing it as next to tyranny. This essay seeks to evaluate Plato’s criticism of democracy whereby it addresses specific elements of his critique. Subsequently, it discusses my position regarding Plato’s criticism of democracy.

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Plato’s Critique of Democracy

            Plato acknowledged that freedom is a crucial feature of government. However, he raised concern that democracy involves the danger of allowing excessive freedom whereby each individual does as they wish. Plato warned that this leads to anarchy. He argued that in a democracy, people are free due to the presence of liberty and freedom, but eventually, they must abuse the ultimate freedom. According to Plato, this leads to chaos and instability (Somerville & Santoni, 2012). For this reason, Plato refers to democracy as an agreeable anarchic form as “an agreeable anarchic form of society” as it considers all people equal whether they are equal or not (Kraut, 2018). In such a society, there is no protection of people’s individual rights; thus, it facilitates complete chaos. Plato warns that eventually, such a society is characterized by rampant violence and inevitably leads to oppression as it allows for tyranny (Somerville & Santoni, 2012). Thus, Plato opposed democracy because he believed it is next to tyranny.

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            The second point of Plato’s criticism of democracy is that it advocates for equality, related to the belief that every person has the right as well as equal; capacity to rule. Plato argued that this invites all kinds of power-seeking people, motivated by personal gains, to join politics instead of those standing for the public good. Due to this reason, Plato believed that democracy is highly corruptible as it opens gates to potential dictators and demagogues and, therefore, can lead to tyranny (Somerville & Santoni, 2012). He further argued that a democratic society is an arena for “constitution hunting” whereby there are numerous constitutions based on individuals’ varying interests. Plato asserts, “it is a shop in which one finds plenty of models to show” (Kraut, 2018). However, since there is a leader elected by the lot, his/her constitution must prevail, and, therefore, democracy creates tyrants. Plato argues that a society must have regulations to prevent this from happening (Somerville & Santoni, 2012). Hence, Plato is against democracy as he believes that it is founded on a false belief that everyone is equal.

            Thirdly, Plato argued that democracy lacks leaders with proper morals and skills. He elucidated that without competent leaders, it is not a good form of government. Plato strongly believed that expertise is the essential attribute of a leader. He criticized democracy for seldom producing competent leaders citing that it elects popular spinsters characterized by effectiveness in manipulating popular opinion. Plato explains that while selecting an effective leader, a popular vote is ineffective since people can be easily swayed by attributes that are irrelevant to leadership. Plato advises that a nation should only seek the most knowledgeable candidate to lead as he/she is the one who holds the required expertise. He believed that philosopher-kings should rule as opposed to leaders elected by a majority vote. Notably, Plato defines a philosopher as an individual who is in love with knowledge and is continually searching for true reality (Somerville & Santoni, 2012). Thus, he criticizes democracy as it fails in elected leaders of such quality.

Plato’s Conception of Justice and Nature

It is imperative to review Plato’s conception of justice and nature to properly understand his perspective regarding democracy. Plato conceptualized that an individual is just when each part of their soul (reason, spirit, and appetite) performs its functions without interfering with those of the other elements. According to Plato, “reason” should rule on behalf of the entire soul with forethought and wisdom. “Spirit” subordinates itself to the rule of reason. The two (reason and spirit) are brought into harmony by a combination of physical and mental training. They are, therefore, in control of appetites which form the larger part of a person’s soul. Justice occurs when “reason” and “spirit” are in precise control of appetites as they should not be allowed to enslave the other elements (Anagnostopoulos & Santas, 2018). Plato conceptualized that democracy allowed appetites to enslave “reason” and “spirit” as well as usurp dominion to where they have no right.  He believed that justice is not a sheer strength but rather harmonious strength of the human soul’s three elements.

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Corresponding the above-defined three elements of human nature, there are three classes of people in society. First, the philosopher class or the ruling class, which is a representative of reason. Second, a class of warriors or defenders who are representative of the spirit. Third, the ordinary citizens of a nation who follow their appetite instincts and are the lowest rung in Plato’s social ladder. Plato argued that for a society to function effectively, every social class must specialize in the station they fall under (Anagnostopoulos & Santas, 2018). Therefore, as per Plato, justice exists in both an individual and society. The justice explained in the previous paragraph relates to an individual. For a society to be just, there must be social consciousness that allows it to be harmonious and good. According to Plato, this begins with each social class playing its position. Plato explained that democracy threatens the said justice by allowing the appetite class to rule instead of the reason class (Anagnostopoulos & Santas, 2018). Thus, to Plato, justice is a form of specialization.

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Review of Plato’s Criticism of Democracy

            It is crucial to establish that when Plato criticized democracy, it is not the contemporary democracy that is embraced almost worldwide. Plato criticized the direct and unchecked democracy of his time precisely because it allowed incompetent individuals to lead a nation. Given that there were no constitutions or the rule of law to provide checks and balances for democracy during Plato’s time, a democratic government posed a significant risk to justice. It had all the necessary elements to create tyranny. Unchecked democracy can easily facilitate anarchy, especially when the people in power are not competent or are these for self-centered interests as opposed to the good of a nation.

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Plato understood that the biggest challenges facing democracy were not addressed. Athens did not have a clearly defined way of identifying the best individuals to govern. Secondly, it did not establish how to keep the elected leaders from getting corrupt as there were no systems designed to address the issue. Although his solutions were radical, his criticism was well-informed by logic. Therefore, I agree with Plato’s criticism of the Republic’s democracy. In fact, today’s democratic nations have party systems to identify competent leaders as well as checks and balances, including the constitution, independent courts, respect for the rule of law, among others, to ensure precise balance and avoid corruption and misuse of power.

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Conclusion

Therefore, Plato was against direct and unchecked democracy due to the threats it posed to justice and society in general. The democracy that Plato criticized did not have a well-defined framework for identifying and electing competent leaders. Thus, any person, including those of questionable character, could become elected to lead the nation. Moreover, the democracy did not have checks and balances to ensure that those elected to power did not become corrupt or misuse their powers. Hence, Plato’s criticism of the said democracy is well-informed by logic and makes a rational argument regarding why it is a recipe for tyranny and anarchy.

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