The Platonian Society: Weakness of Democracy

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Alfred North Whitehead once said, “the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” Overall, while philosophy students differ in many ways, most can agree that Plato is indeed one of the most prominent figures in Western philosophy. He was unique, but also relatable on a wide scale. If you have ever pondered about which forms of government work best, reality and whether or not it even exists, or perhaps how much knowledge is actually possible, you have already started to think about some of the things that Plato had hoped to address.

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The name Plato is actually a nickname derived from the Greek word, Platon, meaning “wide,” or “broad.” Some say that he had a broad forehead and some say that he had broad shoulders, which would have been useful in his surprisingly successful time as a wrestler. The name that Plato was given at birth was Aristocles. Aristocles, or Plato, was born into an elite and wealthy Athenian family. His family lineage was so impressive that it was said to trace back to the God of the Sea, Poseidon. During Plato’s years as a young man, the Peloponnesian Wars between Athens and Sparta took place. This conflict brought about an event that changed the way that Plato thought. Athens surrendered to Sparta in 404 B.C.E., bringing in a new method of ruling by a group of nobles known as the Thirty. Plato’s family was amongst the nobles of this group. Their time in charge didn’t last very long, but they still left some impressions. The Thirty was bitter about the loss in privileges Athenian democracy had caused. They therefore ruled very greedily, with only the interests of the upper class in mind. This left Plato with an impression of disdain for elitism based on bloodlines.

Another event that changed Plato’s views was the trial and death of his mentor, Socrates. Socrates’ role in Plato’s life and philosophy cannot be overstated. Even Plato’s writing, which appeared with a conversational format instead of an essay one, consisted of mostly conversations with Socrates. A good amount of what we know of Socrates comes from Plato’s reverence. Socrates was a strange but incredibly wise man. Part of the problem that Athenians saw in him arose from one of his methods of teaching. Socrates believed that to simply tell a student information, is to “fill an empty vessel.” Therefore, he taught using a question-and-answer style to force students to find answers on their own, and this style has become know as the Socratic method. However, many Athenians found his tendency to question everything, especially that which they would prefer left alone, offensive. As Socrates gathered a following, he was no longer seen as the strange man that aimlessly wandered Athens, instead he became a threatening figure to those that didn’t agree with him. Another thing that concerned some people of Athens was Socrates’ connection to the general, Alcibiades. Alcibiades had been one of Socrates’ students.

As a result, when Alcibiades left to assist Sparta during the Peloponnesian Wars, some citizens believed that Socrates’ influence was to blame. Furthermore, after Sparta’s defeat of Athens, the Thirty came into power and led ruthlessly. Socrates has friends amongst this group of nobles, which soiled his reputation further when the Thirty lost power. Eventually, these all climaxed in Socrates being brought to trial. At the trial, the majority vote had decided on his guilt. After a customary waiting period, Socrates was executed, and he accepted this with dignity. This particularly stuck with Plato. Plato saw that Athenian democracy was dangerous as it allowed the unintelligent majority to have power through numbers alone. Plato came to realize that rule by the elite was ineffective, but so was rule by the majority. As a result, Plato developed perhaps one of the most appreciated works of philosophy, The Republic. The Republic, which consists of multiple books, is quite larger than most of Plato’s works. Despite its size, it is still written as a dialogue with Socrates as a main speaker. In this work, Plato proposes a government and social structure that he thinks would work most effectively. Before explaining Plato’s ideal world, it would be best to explain the “cardinal virtues.” These are the virtues that, according to Plato, are required for a soul to function correctly. While each virtue is essential to all classes, some are more particular to grouping. Temperance, or constraint, is needed especially in the working class. Courage is vital for the warrior class. Wisdom relates to the guardians, or philosopher-kings, according to Plato. Justice is the virtue that is gained through the presence of the other three virtues. Plato believed that all of these virtues must exist for a just state. As the name indicates, Plato believes that philosopher-kings should rule entirely, with no democratic features. According to Plato, democracy has some bonuses, however there is no control or wisdom. It is unsurprising that Plato had such feelings towards democracy since, as in the case of Socrates, he saw it being used as a way for the majority to overpower reason.

In the modern world, it can be a bit difficult to consider the possibility of a government and society like Plato’s. Compared to the scale of history, we now live in a world with a lot of liberty. We are so used to liberty, that the idea of any form of government with restrictions is considered repulsive. Plato said that, in a democracy, “the minds of the citizens become so sensitive that the least vestige of restraint is resented as intolerable.” To some extent, this can be seen today. However, regardless of how someone feels about democracy, it can generally be agreed that there are some benefits and down-falls of a Platonian society. If we were to live in a society ruled by philosopher-kings, there would be no concern of mob-ruling. On the other hand, most people are not comfortable with a government in which they are not allowed any say. In closing, most can agree that Plato is a figure that deserves at least some consideration. While some of his ideas may have been extreme, there is some wisdom to be taken from him. However, that wisdom can only be obtained if one makes an effort—as Socrates said, in the Republic, “’You can’t persuade people who won’t listen.’”

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