Democracy and Freedom

To Democracy, the greatest political system in the world!

Right. Well, if you know anything about Plato, you know that he would not agree with that statement. In Book VIII of the Republic, or, as its proper name is, the Kaliopolis, Plato paints a very dim picture of democracy. If all the regimes have a corresponding image of the soul (refer to previous post for components), then democracy corresponds to the soul where desires rule the will and the will in turn controls reason. As Plato puts it, a concrete image of that kind of soul is a many-headed dragon (desires have become monstrous since they are not checked by reason) ruling the lion (will), who has imprisoned the man (reason). If you have trouble with this image, then think back to a beast we have all seen, namely a man or a woman who has become the slave of his/her desires, whose reason tells them to stop what they are doing because it is harming them, but they respond with the simple, “Oh yea, well I don’t care.” In fact, Plato ranks democracy below timocracy (will takes over reason, the state is based on honor, mostly from military action) and oligarchy (rule of the few, usually market-based, the desires are in control of the soul, but that control is not total, because some principles are still needed to be successful in business), it is followed only by tyranny, which Plato argues is the natural result of democracy.

Plato’s specific critique concerning democracy is the fact that there is an inherent excess of freedom within a democracy. The whole extent of the Kaliopolis is needed to understand what he is talking about, of course, but the short version is that in Plato’s ideal city, everyone is placed to the profession/vocation that is his or her natural priority. The whole schooling process centers around finding out each individual’s capabilities and natural talents and cultivating them in order to make each person most adept and comfortable in a job where they would fit most naturally. In a democracy, however, every person can decide for himself or herself what they want to do in life. In theory, there is nothing wrong with that, since every person is most happy wherever they are most naturally fit in society and every person wants to be happy (the definition of happiness in the Greek mind is a little different than the modern one, attach this and the heart to a list that shall be treated in later post), so everyone should make their way to what Plato’s system would have picked for them. Well, the one big problem with the actual world is that common sense is not that common. That in itself is perhaps a little too harsh, since there are other extenuating circumstances, at least in the modern American system.

Personal story time. At the beginning of my senior year in high school, I was beyond sure that I was going to study chemistry in college. Well, if you realize that this blog is not about chemistry, then you can understand that the plans changed pretty soon. I am very lucky to have attended a private high school (before you go crazy and call me a WASP, and only the “W” is true for me, I got a pretty huge scholarship to go there, I could not otherwise afford it, though it is very mid-range as private high school tuition rates go) where there was a whole structure set out to help students figure out what they truly want to do in life. On top of that, I was part of a program at Harvard University, which offered me an additional perspective on possibilities for college. By the end of senior year in high school, I figured out that I wanted to pursue a career in law and leave behind chemistry. Pretty early into college I figured out I was also interested in Philosophy. I had picked out Classics as my undergraduate major and I am now a Classics and Philosophy double major.

The point is, how many people have those opportunities? An appropriate example would be the fact that coming in Freshman year about 60% of the new students are pre-med and by senior year about 10 are pre-med. That’s not to mention all those poor souls who start out being History majors and end up being Communications majors or the like. Plato’s point in the Kaliopolis is that in democracy everyone is too free regarding their professions, i.e. you decide to be an athlete and you work toward that for two weeks, then you decide musician is more your thing and you work toward that for a few weeks, and then you decide economist is more down your alley in any case, so you become an economist. What you end up with is a jack-of-all-trades, but a master of none, which is the exact opposite of what Plato wants (if everyone can do a little bit of building, a little bit of singing, and a little bit of fighting, then there are really not that many people around who reach new heights in each).

In the modern world, this problem with too much freedom is very apparent in places like Greece, Spain, etc., the rather distasteful acronym “PIGS.” The reason why I write this entry is because I attended a panel about a week ago talking about the situation in Greece and the possible lessons to be learned from it in America. Dr. Prodromou, one of the panelists, along with a Political Science professor from my school, a delegate of the Greek Ambassador in the US, and the head of a Hellenic fraternal organization (not to be confused with fraternities) accepted that the root of the problems within Greece is a fundamental lack of responsibility and an “I could care less” attitude about national duty. Well, the delegate from the Ambassador had a pseudo-philosophical speech about democracy and tragedy and the head of the fraternal organization used his time to promote his organization, so I’ll just ignore what they had to say for the time being.

I asked the two people who actually were concerned with the topic at hand the same question that I ask in this entry and they both came to the same answer, i.e. that democracy cannot work unless people practice self-restraint (a.k.a. self-control, a.k.a. virtue). That is, of course, Aristotle’s argument, that a democracy, an oligarchy, and a monarchy could be a great forms of government as long as people are selfless. It seems to me that that answer is too readily available in people’s tongues, however, because this is the same guy who says that ethics is to the person what politics is to the state, so clearly, within modern politics, he is a crazy old fool.

In its most basic sense, freedom is power. People understand very well that too much freedom is dangerous, because it can easily corrupt, however, they do not connect the dots between freedom and power. Personally, I believe in Aristotle’s point that democracy can work provided that virtue is present, but that either our schooling or our government needs to realign itself to have virtue as its end goal. In other words, schools (the easier of the two to do this) should be about learning to be someone rather than learning how to do something.


10 comments on “Democracy and Freedom

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  5. davor says:

    Karl Popper in his criticism of Plato (Open Society and Its Enemies, vol. 1, chapter 4, iii): ”I wish to express my belief that personal superiority whether racial or intellectual or moral or educational, can never claim to political prerogatives, even if such superiority could be ascertained.” Popper’s naive egalitarian understanding of democracy does not correspond to modern liberal democracy, where institution of democratic election should enable citizens to elect, as their representatives, precisely intellectually, morally and educationally superior candidates. (There’s no mention of racial superiority in Plato, so Popper is being just mean there).

    Of course, there’s no doubt in my mind that in practice most of so called liberal democracies today are actually oligarchies. Is it better that way, as Plato suggests? I don’t think so. And the reason is exactly that liberal democracies are not supposed to be as egalitarian as Plato’s democracies. If we could really expect demos to candidates that are elect intellectually, morally and educationally superior then modern democracies would be getting close to aristocracies. However, problem is that we usually cannot ascertain such superiority, so we are left with popularity contest to decide. Where we have criteria for superiority, we apply them (for instance educational superiority – therefore we have experts in some areas), and we don’t leave it to demos. Problem is that we don’t have some universal criterion for moral superiority.

    (I have to apologize for my ‘Tarzan English’, I haven’t written in English since school days, and that was a long time ago.)

    • davor says:

      I cannot edit my comment now, but that sentence should be: ”If we could really expect demos to elect candidates that are intellectually, morally and educationally superior then modern democracies would be getting close to aristocracies.”

    • What you have pointed out is exactly the problem. Most people today are confused about who them are and what to do. Plato’s point in the Republic is that if we can get a government together that would fairly and accurately find out what each person is most adept in doing, their life would be very much stabilized. Therein is the problem with modern democracies. Most people have aspirations to the top, but they actually have no clue what to do with such power should they ever get there. In addition, you have to discriminate. Discrimination is an essential part of logic (i.e. what is “dog” is not “non-dog”), so, even though in our modern society the word “discrimination” has a very negative connotation to it, we have to discriminate different people by the range of their skills and their abilities. Of course, most people would be scandalized to hear this, because we do not trust our government and we trust our philosophers even less (Thank God for both of those things!), but if we are able to bring good and moral philosophers to the government, who in turn turn the government into the trustworthy institution that it should, be, then I do not think most people would mind having a fair institution who gives structure to their life.

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