Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1124, 29 November - 5 December 2012
Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Issue 1124, 29 November - 5 December 2012

Ahram Weekly

On philosophy and democracy

Democracy is often considered to encourage freedom of thought, but some ancient philosophers had other ideas, writes Mohamed Soffar

Al-Ahram Weekly

The prevailing opinion views democracy as the form of government that not only encourages free thought, but also shields free thinkers from persecution or even discrimination. In short, it is an environment conducive to philosophy.

However, the history of philosophy tells us a totally different story. In 399 BCE, the democratic government of Athens sentenced to death an old man of 70 years of age, who was accused of blasphemy as well as of corrupting youth. The old man was none other than Socrates, the wisest man then alive. Among the disciples of Socrates who fled from democratic Athens after the master’s execution was Plato, who in his dialogues delivered to us an account of the trial, defence and death of Socrates.

In describing the different forms of government known to the ancient Greeks, it was not to be expected of Plato, or even of his student Aristotle, that he would draw a bright picture of “the rule of the many” or of democracy. After having depicted the perfect state embodying the ideal of justice in his book The Republic, Plato continued the comparison between justice and injustice by laying out four perverted forms of government embodying injustice, democracy included.

The hallmark of democracy for Plato is the full freedom for the individual to order his life as he pleases. The political, social, economic and intellectual plurality resulting from such freedom will charm, like a variety of colours, many men to whom democracy must appear to be the best form of government. But the main strength of democracy, namely its principles of freedom and equality, turns out to be its Achilles’ heel.

This is so because democracy’s excessive and insatiable desire for freedom will push it into the arms of its exact opposite, tyranny. In the heat of democratically based freedom and equality, all authority relations in society will melt into air. Teachers will fear and flatter their students; the old will condescend to the young; and parents will fear and obey their children. But as such disrespect for authority and disregard of the laws prevails, this condition will arouse an impatient yearning for the tender touch of authority, and it is from this burning desire to be taken by authority that society will be seduced to surrender itself, body and soul, to tyranny.  

What is striking in Plato’s incisive analysis is not the fierce attack on democracy, but the fact that such an attack firmly constituted the form and content of philosophy’s self-assertion or self-conception, as represented in one of the most influential classical works of political philosophy, The Republic. Plato was very much afraid of democratic government, and as a result he did not dare to project his embittered critique of democracy on Athens, but had to resort to fiction in order to explain the distorting effects of democracy on philosophy.

Yet, phrases like “the present evil state of governments,” or “the present governors of mankind” must reveal, even from behind the curtain of time, Plato’s intentions and fears. An analysis of two of Plato’s analogies will underscore the entanglement of philosophy’s self-understanding with its virulent critique of democracy.

In one of these, Plato narrates the story of a ship whose captain is stronger and taller than any of the crew but whose sense and knowledge is no better. The sailors, ignorant of the art of navigation and thus unjustifiably claiming the right to positions of authority, fight amongst themselves and eliminate every person of a higher rank. During a mutiny in which they succeed in drugging the captain and getting rid of him, they take control of the ship. Without a captain, the mutineers devour the food stored on board and aimlessly sail on to no clear destination.

One partisan of the crew, who pours flattering praise on them and justifies their actions, is described by them as an able seaman and pilot, while in fact the true pilot who seeks to learn the art of navigation by studying the wind, the stars and the sky is looked down upon as a useless sky-gazer or idle person.

If we decipher the analogy, Plato’s meaning becomes clear. The captain steering the ship by dint of power not knowledge is a tyrant who is overthrown by the many, all of whom have unfounded claims to authority because it never crosses their minds that the practice of authority is based on knowledge of the art of exercising authority, or the so-called “royal art”. The partisan is the demagogue who flatters the masses in order to control them by creating an idol of authority, just as he previously idolised the tyrant by flattering him. Finally, the true sailor is the real philosopher who studies the order of things, something beyond generation and corruption, in order to establish order in the laws ruling the city and to preserve that same order.

It is the rule of the many that disqualifies philosophy by presenting this figure as an idle person, a strange creature, or even a rogue or monster.

However, in Plato’s conception democracy does not just produce a negative image of philosophers and thus defame philosophy. It also corrupts the natural potential for philosophising in the youth and creates out of them fake philosophers who fit its fabricated image.

In another metaphor, Plato completes his attack on democracy. He uses the image of a plant that no matter how good its seeds are will grow the worst kind of fruit because of the soil that nurtures it. Reversing the charges leveled against his master Socrates, he accuses the people in a democracy of corrupting the youth by ruining their faculties of judgment. Leaving no doubt that he is describing democratic rule, Plato describes how the great uproar of the people in an assembly, court of law, theatre, camp, or any other public gathering, amplified by shouting and clapping of hands and echoed by the rocks around the place, will make the hearts of the youth jump every time the people congregate to praise and blame or reward and punish.

Against such power, Plato asks, what kind of private education will enable the youth to stand up against the overwhelming flood of popular opinion? He even sadly concludes that “in the present evil state of government, whatever is saved and comes to good is saved by the power of God.” These words contain more than just a critique of current political conditions. They also present the self-assertion of philosophy in its ancient sources.

The writer is associate professor at Cairo University’s Faculty of Economics and Political Science.

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