The problem with Democracy
Democracy, and by extension of ancient Athens, the civilization 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 is therefore very striking to discover that one of ancient Greece's greatest 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 ship. “If you were heading out on a journey by sea,” asks Socrates, “who would you ideally want deciding who oversaw the vessel. Just anyone, or people educated in the rules and demands of seafaring?” The latter of course is Adeimantus. “So why then,” responds Socrates, “do we keep thinking that any old person should be fit to judge who should be the ruler of a country?” Socrates' 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 two samples in a storm Socrates was to have first-hand catastrophic experience of the foolishness of voters. In 39 BC, the philosopher was put on trial on trumped-up charges of corrupting the youth of Athens. A jury of Ian's 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 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 loose figure of Alcibiades, a rich, charismatic, smooth-talking, wealthy man who rode basic freedoms and helped to push Athens to his disastrous military adventures in Sicily. Socrates knew how easily people seeking election could exploit our desire for easy answers. 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 not to eat and drink whatever you like. He will never serve you feasts of many and varied pleasant things like I will.” Socrates asks us to consider the audience's response. Do you think the doctor would be able to reply effectively? The true answer of “I caused you trouble and go against your desires to help you,” would cause an uproar among the voters. Did you think we have forgotten all about Socrates’ 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.
Posted by johnspartan11707
on 06 January 17 at 23:31
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