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Further Reading

DEPARTMENT: Archives

Plato's Republic

The Critic of Democracy Is the Friend of Democracy

by Cameron Wybrow

No one who has lived in a totalitarian regime and then come to live in a democracy wishes to return. We thus tend to take the soundness of democracy for granted. However, in one of the greatest of old books, Plato's Republic, the ability of a democratic society to sustain itself is called into question.

In Book VIII of the Republic, Plato has Socrates describe the character of the democratic man and the regime he produces. The democratic man takes delight in freedom and equality above all other things. He deems the best society to be that in which there is the greatest variety of modes of satisfaction (561e). But lacking any criteria by which to rank the various satisfactions, the democratic man lacks focus. He tends to be distracted by the enthusiasm of the moment, going in alternately for pleasure-seeking, physical fitness, political activity, philosophy, and other activities. He lives without discipline or steadiness of purpose, and he calls this unstructured existence "freedom" and "happiness" (561d–e).

So great is his individualism that he resents ever being told what to do, under any circumstances. He thus deems moderation a "want of manhood" and thriftiness "illiberal"; he dignifies license as "liberty" and shamelessness as "manly spirit" (560d–e). In such an unruly ethos, teachers fear and fawn upon their students; children have no reverence for parents, and servants none for masters; and even animals aggressively bump people in the street (563a–d). Ultimately, democratic men "pay no heed even to the laws written or unwritten, so that forsooth they may have no master anywhere over them" (563d). Democracy leads to anarchy, and thence to tyranny (562a ff.).

Our first reaction to such a critique of democracy is that it is unfair, and falsified by the experience of Western nations, in which free and equal societies have not automatically led to selfishness, anarchy, and tyranny. Western democracies have often been disciplined, orderly societies, capable of great heroism in war and great social progress in peacetime, and their citizens have shown less shallowness and greater moral and social focus than Socrates' description allows.

But let us look closer at the Western examples: the United States, Canada, Western Europe, the British Commonwealth. What do all of these democratic societies have in common? A strong moral and political tradition shaped by the Bible and by Greek and Roman classical literature. These intertwining influences created a spiritual fabric of restraint, in which all that was good in democracy could flourish, while all of its bad tendencies—toward selfish individualism, the leveling of morals and manners, and anarchy—could be kept in check. Democracy as Plato knew it did not have the biblical influence, and the classical tradition (of which Plato himself became a part) was not yet fully formed.

The constructive synthesis of the classical and biblical traditions lasted for centuries, but we are now near its close. Today in the West, the classical tradition has been virtually abandoned (in how many high schools can students still learn Latin or Herodotus?) and the biblical tradition has been purged from the schools and marginalized in the wider society. Thus, the influences that moderated the soul of democratic man and made democratic society better than what Plato could hope for, are fading away.

What kind of democracy will we have in the future, when all traces of classical and biblical ideals are erased from the souls of citizens, and "democracy" is reduced to "I'm as good as anybody else, and I've got the same rights as anyone else, and I don't need anyone to teach me what truth and virtue are"? Plato's Republic gives us a stark warning. Can a democracy that is indifferent to the claims of the Good and its duty to God, and that exists solely to serve the transient desires of its members, long endure? •


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