Plato’s concept of democracy has undergone debate and has been subjected to argument through the pages of time. This paper shall attempt to contribute to the understanding of Plato’s perception of democracy and justice by elaborating on it in the context of the modern-day forms of the same.
When shedding light on Plato’s opinion of democracy, it is essential to acquire a thorough understanding of the fact that Plato’s perception of democracy was based on one of the most initial forms of democracy in existence. It was a time when democracy was evolving and the criterion for evaluation of a democratic society was far more different from the one that exists in modern-day society.
Plato believes that democracy is harmful to a society because it leads to the creation of a pretense (Plato and Reeve). According to Plato, democracy develops this fall pretense by claiming that every individual in the society has a right to raise their voice, regardless of the magnitude of their capabilities, talent, knowledge and wisdom.
“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—everyone is of the opinion that he has a right to steer, though he has never learned the art of navigation” (488b).
When considering how Plato’s perception of democracy falls with regard to his perception of an ideal society, it is evident that Plato believes that in order for a society to be successful, it is essential to give power into the hands of the few people who possess the abilities required to steer the society towards prosperity. In believing so, Plato denounces a democratic society in which power is distributed equally and impartially to each individual of the society. To Plato, a city that can be expected to be a success is one in which “the desires of the inferior many are controlled by the wisdom and desires of the superior few” (431d).
Therefore, according to Plato, the need for the establishment of balance in a society cannot be acquired through the disbursement of authority but the identification of an individual or a group of individuals who can maintain that balance. This leads us to the relevance of justice depicted in Plato’s Republic.
Plato believes that in order for a democracy to be successful, it is imperative for the democracy to constitute social hierarchies and since a traditional democracy is one that opposes the idea of social class and hierarchy, Plato considers democracy to be nothing more than a contradiction of justice. To Plato, it is not the establishment of democracy that is crucial for the survival of the State but the provision of justice that should be regarded as a pivotal element.
In the days of Plato, democracy was taken in far more literal terms than it is taken in modern-day society. The creation of artificial equality in the decision-making process for the state was taken to a far higher level of relevance than the functioning of democracy is allowed in a modern-day society.
With regard to justice, the presence of fairness and impartiality in a society is not one that should be associated with the decision-making affairs of the state but one that should be associated with the internal thoughts and perceptions of an individual. This brings us to the subject of justice in Plato’s Republic.
To Plato, five different kinds of societies exist when considered with regard to the prevalence and provision of justice in a State. These are the aristocratic, the timocratic, the oligarchic, the democratic and the tyrannic. In these, Plato believed that the aristocratic was the best whereas the tyrannic represented the worst whilst the remaining three were present in between. To Plato, almost every issue that is testable for its ethical validity is one that pertains to justice. Plato’s Republic shows us that Plato believed justice to be a form of good in which emotional desires were given a lesser priority when considered in comparison with logical and knowledge-based rationale. In this regard, Plato considered the soul to be in direct relation to the human soul.
By proposing that justice in a society is reliant on the good and evil in the souls of the individual that constitute the society, Plato diverts the focus of the prevalence of justice from social norms to the inner state of the individuals that constitute the society. When considered in comparison with modern times, it is evident that Plato’s perception of justice is extensively different from the form of justice that prevails today. In modern-day society, the provision of justice has become an issue that questions the state and form of the democracy that prevails in the state.
According to Plato, a democratic society cannot be an appropriate provider of justice because even though all men were born with the right to acquire comprehension and contribute to the establishment of the difference between good and evil, not all men possessed knowledge of this calling and often chose to spend their lives while neglecting it. It is because of this rationale that Plato considered it irrational to allow all men to part take in the decision-making affairs of the State. Plato further conceded that the disbursement of justice under a system that gave unconditional relevance to opinions given by society members was riddled with faults and did not give regard to merit and value for talent, experience and knowledge. Plato, along with Socrates, believed that equality is not a trait that exists amongst men. To Plato, democracy gave power to individuals who did not have access to the capabilities and mental resources required to provide justice.
With regard to the reconciliation of Plato’s opinion of the relevance of a democratic society, it is imperative to note that modern-day democracy has developed in a manner such that it is quite different from the form of democracy that existed in the days of Plato. This is because of the fact that modern-day democracy is one that appears to be in compliance with Plato’s analogical view of a State as a Ship (488b).
Modern-day democracy functions in a manner such that capable individuals are given the right and opportunity to contribute to the decision-making processes of the State. While the central fundamental of democracy may still provide authority to the people, the functioning of the democratic leadership takes place in a manner such that not only the highly talented and capable are given a chance to contribute but the opposition to the democratic leadership is also allowed the right to contribute to the decision making processes of the State. This modern-day form of democracy comes forth as an exceptional display of the reconciliation between Plato’s perspective on democracy and the implementation of democracy. It would not be unjust to conclude that modern-day democracy gives room to Plato’s opinion of democracy and functions in a manner such that elements that choose to oppose democracy are given the right to contribute as well.
“Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside, cities will never have rest from their evils — no, or the human race, as I believe — and then only will this our State have a possibility of life and behold the light of day” (473d).
Democracy in modern-day societies comes forth in sharp comparison to Plato’s idea of a democracy. The world has become a place where democracy is idealized and the presence of a democratic society in a state is now considered to be the perfect environment for the disbursement and assurance of credible justice. However, a closer look into these reveals that Plato’s ideas have not been rejected by modern-day man altogether and still play a significant role in the evolution of democracy. In fact, modern-day democracies can be found to be of a form that brings together the democratic society that Plato denounced and the non-democratic government that Plato approved of.
Modern-day democracies can be taken to observe and respect Plato’s perception of the need for the degeneration of democracy in a society for the society to be considered a success. As the functional hierarchy of government structures in modern-day democracies progresses, the authority begins to shift from the hands of the common man to the hands of individuals who hold an exceptional magnitude of information, talent and ability that is crucial to the development of the State. A fact to consider at this point is that the modern-day state is one that has to face far more external variables than there were during the time of Plato. It is for the same reason that the relevance of the appropriate disbursement of authority has become all the more crucial for the survival and success of the state.
We can surmise from the discussion presented above that Plato’s perception of democracy and justice, as presented in The Republic does indeed hold a significant degree of relevance when considered about modern-day democracies and while it may not be as effective in today’s time if it was to be implemented in its full form, the fact does not serve to decrease the relevance of its observation in a democracy. Even though Plato’s ideas may appear to be in sharp contrast to modern-day democracy, underlying practices within the democratic structures of today observe measures that comply with Plato’s precautionary beliefs of a proper government.
Plato and C.D.C. Reeve. Republic. Trans. G.M.A. Grube. Indiana, 1992.