The Founding Fathers and Plato: The Challenge of Democracy


In The Republic, Socrates discusses his perfect city ruled by a philosopher-king and begins to critique the four additional forms of government, each one more terrible than the last: timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny. According to Socrates, these are inevitable stages a just city undergoes over time. Socrates explains in his Ship Analogy, comparing the state to a complicated and large ship. In order for the ship to make safe passage it must have an experienced navigator who has knowledge of capacities of the ship, meteorology, water currents, navigational astronomy and the like. An ignorant person would not be able to guarantee safe voyage of the ship, the people in side, and its cargo. This metaphor can be applied to the head of a state, which should be someone knowledgeable on the matters of how to govern and run a state. Socrates explains that the problem with democracy is that it relies on ordinary people to run the government, people who may not be familiar with the necessary subjects essential to running the state. The masses will vote for politicians who entice them with rhetoric and vague speeches, only to find themselves at the mercy of incompetent administrations. People will be guided by emotions rather than rational analysis and thought. Socrates demonstrates these types of politics:

"Imagine then a ship or a fleet in which there is a captain who is taller and stronger than any of the crew, but who is a little deaf and has a similar infirmity in sight, and whose knowledge of navigation is not much better. The sailors are quarreling with one another about the steering--every one is of the opinion that he has a right to steer, though he has never learned the art of navigation." (488b)

The captain represents the people or demos, while the sailors represent the politicians trying to control the direction of the state. The criticism continues:

"[The sailors] throng about the captain, begging and praying him to commit the helm to them; and if at any time they do not prevail, but others are preferred to them, they kill the others or throw them overboard, and having first chained up the noble captain's senses with drink or some narcotic drug, they mutiny and take possession of the ship and make free with the stores, thus eating and drinking. They proceed on their voyage in such a manner as can be expected of them. Him who is their partisan and cleverly aids them in their plot for getting the ship out of the captain's hands into their own whether by force or persuasion, they compliment with the name of sailor, pilot, able seaman, and abuse the other sort of man, whom they call a good-for-nothing; but that the good pilot must pay attention to the year and seasons and sky and stars and winds, and whatever else belongs to his art, if he intends to be really qualified for the command of a ship, and that he must and will be the steerer, whether other people like it or not--the possibility of this union of authority with the steerer's art has never seriously entered into their thoughts or been made part of their calling." (488c)

These same concerns pervade our society today. Plato and his contemporaries had a strong distrust of the common man, since people tend to act on emotion instead of reasonable rational thought. Centuries later The Age of Enlightenment brought an emphasis on rejecting the hierarchical structure of the past in favor of power coming from the governed, not the government. The idea of a democracy for the people and of the people was revisited through many writing during this period, often, and ironically, inspired by the ancient Greeks, even Plato's critiques of democracy. These critiques were acknowledged and confronted in Federalist Paper No. 49, in which James Madison writes that the Constitution will solve some of the problems Plato raises:

"As the people are the only legitimate fountain of power, and it is from them that the constitutional charter, under which the several branches of government hold their power, is derived, it seems strictly consonant to the republican theory, to recur to the same original authority, not only whenever it may be necessary to enlarge, diminish, or new-model the powers of the government, but also whenever any one of the departments may commit encroachments on the chartered authorities of the others...If it be true that all governments rest on opinion, it is no less true that the strength of opinion in each individual, and its practical influence on his conduct, depend much on the number which he supposes to have entertained the same opinion. The reason of man, like man himself, is timid and cautious when left alone, and acquires firmness and confidence in proportion to the number with which it is associated. When the examples which fortify opinion are ANCIENT as well as NUMEROUS, they are known to have a double effect. In a nation of philosophers, this consideration ought to be disregarded. A reverence for the laws would be sufficiently inculcated by the voice of an enlightened reason. But a nation of philosophers is as little to be expected as the philosophical race of kings wished for by Plato. And in every other nation, the most rational government will not find it a superfluous advantage to have the prejudices of the community on its side."

It would seem that in the founding of the United States, the Founding Fathers did not necessarily share the same opinion on the people that Plato and his contemporaries did. It is important to acknowledge, however, that the Founding Fathers did establish institutions such as the Electoral College, which in theory would prevent the masses from electing a king or dictator into office. Separation of Powers, impeachments, and requirements for elected officials also serve as safeguards to prevent democracy from degrading into tyranny. It was through the rejection of Plato's view of man, while also acknowledging the tendency of man to act in his own self-interest, which led to the establishment of the greatest democracy the world has ever seen. Plato's contribution to the establishment of the United States was in his challenge of democracy, a challenge that was confronted in 1787 and one that continues to be challenged even today. Time will tell whether Plato will someday be proven correct, or if the United States, and every other democratic country, are exceptions to the rule.

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