A Belated Reply to Plato

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse Plato

Plato is among the most famous critics of democracy. His criticism is relatively simple, but potentially devastating. It runs as follows. Politics aims at achieving justice, and so political policy must reflect the demands of justice. Only those who know what justice is and have the self-control to enact what justice requires are capable of doing politics properly. Alas, the average citizen is dumb and vicious. Hence Plato's conclusion is that democracy is a fundamentally corrupt form of politics; it is the rule of those who neither know nor care about justice. In The Republic, Plato's Socrates argues for a philosophical monarchy, the rule of the wise and virtuous.

Citizens of modern democracies naturally tend to recoil at Plato's argument, and his positive proposal that philosophers should rule is often met with understandable ridicule. And yet Plato's crucial premise that the average citizen is too dumb and undisciplined for democracy is widely embraced, especially among those who find themselves on the losing side of a democratic vote. For one example, consider a common reaction among social and fiscal conservatives to Barack Obama's re-election in 2012; it was routinely claimed that the People had been “duped” and “mislead.” Furthermore, it seems that a second crucial Platonic premise – namely that a proper political order must place those who have knowledge and integrity in charge – is also widely endorsed. Consider here the popular criticisms of President Bush that fix upon his alleged lack of intelligence.

So we must ask: Could Plato be right?

We should begin by noting that many philosophers, including us, hold that democratic citizens ought to take seriously Plato's criticisms. There is nothing anti-democratic about earnestly confronting democracy's critics, and arguably there's something on the order of an imperative to engage with democracy's smartest detractors. As John Stuart Mill once argued, “He who knows only his own side of an argument knows little of that.”

Now, there are several responses to Plato, and we'd like to survey a few popular rejoinders before sketching our own. First, one may respond to Plato by denying that politics has anything at all to do with ideals so lofty as wisdom and justice. Politics, the response continues, is not about discerning truths, but producing stable government. And stability is not a matter of getting things right, but getting things done in ways that prevent revolution, and that's what a democracy accomplishes.

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