In this essay I will be attempting to critically assess Plato’s critique of democracy. This will include the points that he makes using the ship analogy and what flaws in democracy this analogy points out. I will also be using philosophers such as John Stuart Mill (1806-73) and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) to reinforce my objections to his points and conclusions, thus providing alternatives to his Republic.
To begin with, Plato’s critique of democracy is best known by two analogies, the ship and the craft. They both essentially tell the same story and give the same conclusion, so I will just use the ship in order to make clear what Plato’s objections to democracy were. In the ship analogy contained in The Republic(1) a ship is taken over by many people, they all fight over who should be the navigators while having no navigational abilities. They also try to persuade the captain who is short sighted and sightly deaf to put them in power. Being short sighted and slightly deaf he is not very useful or well suited to the role of captain nor navigator. While the expert navigators are ignored when they are the best suited for the job. The experts are ignored over the majority, who are scrambling for power. Those who are listened to possess ability in persuasion and charisma, pleasing the captain and the rest of the crew, while not being the best people to advise or lead the ship. Thus, letting the untrained majority rule the ship instead of the trained minority who would do a much better job of it.
Plato was pointing out the flaws of the democratic system. ‘As Plato sees it, democracy is a menace because it rejects the idea that society should be directed by expertise, and thus blocks changes that would encourage people to think less individualistically.'(2) Democracy is the rule of the Demos, which is the people, the mob. Plato’s views on the common people is rather derogatory. They are seen as ignorant, ill-informed, easy to please but hard to direct towards the good without philosophical training. But in his critique of democracy it is not just the common people who are the problem, although they are the root of it. ‘Democratic politicians are merely the slaves of those they pretend to rule, and ordinary people are volatile, violent and bestial.'(3)
What Plato thinks about democracy has some very deep points but the silencing of the masses and allowing them to be ruled by tyranny, whether expert or benign tyrants, is not a good alternative. This seems to ignore the problem Plato sees with democracy rather than to cure them. A much better way to deal with such a problem would be to make political, economic and philosophical education a mandatory part of the child’s upbringing. ‘But if they are ignorant, then it is probably better to educate them than despise them.'(4)
Plato judges democracy on its skill at achieving a desirable consequence via experts. It is odd for Plato to judge democracy in this way and come to a negative conclusion, seeming as democracy’s aim is to serve the people and by letting the majority rule it is doing exactly that. Which would mean that democracy has a tremendous skill of achieving its desirable consequences. This is especially true if the democracy also happens to be a Utilitarian democracy. If the aim of democracy is to serve the people, to give them what they desire and to bring the greatest amount of happiness to the greatest amount of people, then democracy is skilled at achieving its own ends. ‘For Plato, democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others. Only in an ideal world could we do better and live not merely alongside one another but together, with shared lives and ideals.'(5)
Plato’s critique assumes that there is one direction for a society to take: Towards the good. His view on this is based on the metaphysical assumption of the theory of forms outlined in the Republic. When in reality we cannot form a workable society based on idealistic and essentially assumed truths and theories. First of all they do not conform to our reality and second they could simply be untrue. Which is not a good foundation for an entire political system. Instead we need to experiment with many different ways of ruling and living in order to find the best suited for us, but this form that best suits us will be changing as much as the people who both rule it and are ruled by it. ‘You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and only way, it does not exist ‘(6)
To conclude, although Plato has legitimate criticisms of democracy, his alternative (The Republic) is less desirable than democracy and its flaws. Democracy has the advantage of getting rid of tyrants in a term, while a tyranny obviously does not. When the benign or benevolent tyrant dies, someone else has to take over and who is to say this tyrant will be benign or benevolent too? If he isn’t, you have an entire life to wait for better, rather than a mere term to get rid of them. This alone, makes democracy far less risky to everyone involved, but Plato’s criticisms should be considered and always remembered by each generation, as they are as sharp and relevant as when he first put them forward in the Republic over 2000 years ago.
1. Plato, Republic (Penguin books, 1965) Part seven (Book six) Section 3: The prejudice against philosophy and the corruption of the philosophic nature in contemporary society, pp. 248-250.
2. Julia Annas, Plato: A very short introduction (Oxford university press, 2003) Chapter five: Virtue, in me and in my society, p. 63.
3. Dave Robinson & Judy Groves, Plato: A graphic guide, (Totem books, 2010) p. 114.
4. Dave Robinson & Judy Groves, Plato: A graphic guide, quoting John Stuart Mill (Totem books, 2010) p. 117.
5. Julia Annas, Plato: A very short introduction (Oxford university press, 2003) Chapter five: Virtue, in me and in my society, p. 64.
6. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus spoke Zarathustra (Penguin classics, 1969), Part three: Of the spirit of gravity.
– Annas, Julia. Plato: A very short introduction (Oxford university press, 2003)
– Dave Robinson & Judy Groves, Plato: A graphic guide (Totem books, 2010)
– Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus spoke Zarathustra (Penguin classics, 1969)
– Plato, Republic (Penguin books, 1965)