In the dialogues of Plato, the founding father of Greek Philosophy – Socrates – is portrayed as hugely pessimistic about the whole business of democracy. In Book Six of The Republic, Plato describes Socrates falling into conversation with a character called Adeimantus and trying to get him to see the flaws of democracy by comparing a society to a ship. “If you were heading out on a journey by sea, asks Socrates, who would you ideally want deciding who was in charge of the vessel? Just anyone or people educated in the rules and demands of seafaring?” The latter of course, says Adeimantus; “So why then, responds Socrates, do we keep thinking that any old person should be fit to judge who should be a ruler of a country?”
Socrates’s point is that voting in an election is a skill, not a random intuition. And like any skill, it needs to be taught systematically to people. Letting the citizenry vote without an education is as irresponsible as putting them in charge of a trireme sailing to Samos in a storm.
Socrates was to have first hand, catastrophic experience of the foolishness of voters. In 399 BC, the philosopher was put on trial on trumped up charges of corrupting the youth of Athens. A jury of 500 Athenian citizens was invited to weigh up the case, and decided by a narrow margin that the philosopher was guilty. He was put to death by hemlock in a process which is, for thinking people, every bit as tragic as Jesus’s condemnation has been for Christians.
We have forgotten this distinction between an intellectual democracy and a democracy by birthright. We have given the vote to all without connecting it to that of wisdom. And Socrates knew exactly where that would lead: to a system the Greeks feared above all, demagoguery. We have forgotten all about Socrates’s salient warnings against democracy. We have preferred to think of democracy as an unambiguous good – rather than a process that is only ever as effective as the education system that surrounds it.
Josiah Ober, professor of political science and classics at Stanford University says: “We tend to mistranslate it as majority rule. For the ancient Greeks, the word didn’t mean majority rule, or majority tyranny. Instead it meant people have the capacity to rule themselves. That’s the core idea of democracy, the capacity for self-governance, not power of one part of the population over another part of the population.”
Ober believes that they would describe the US as a “pseudo-democracy or straight-up oligarchy.” And they would be particularly unimpressed with the current president of the United States.
Ancient Greeks had a definite idea of the characteristics of a tyrant: “A Greek tyrant was a megalomaniac, extremely greedy for material possessions, a sexual aggressor, he sought to block out all of his enemies from any role in politics. I
think they would look at our current president and say, ‘How doesn’t this fit the
view we have of what a tyrant is?’ If you have a tyrant, and you accept it and say, ‘Oh, that’s too bad, we have a tyrant,’ then you don’t have a democracy.”
There are further problems that prevent the US political system from meeting
ancient Greek democratic ideals. Rather than the relentless contemporary focus on elections, under a true self-governing democracy, ordinary citizens would take turns holding most public offices.
Moreover, Ober says any strong democratic nation must first establish shared
interests, such as a mutual desire for a basic level of national security or welfare. And strong civic education—exploring the values of the nation, and the responsibilities that go with being a citizen—is necessary to a functioning democracy. “I think these skills can be learned. It’s not like magic. I think the Ancient Greeks would say the US is a failed democracy. They’d say the inability of the wealthy and relatively non-wealthy to come to some kind of a common judgment about things like healthcare and public education and so on is an example of a failure.”