Who Should Rule? The Strife Between Plato and Democracy

The ongoing debate whether a state of nature, (a wild primitive state untouched by civilization, a definition by Wordink) has ever coincided with the timeline of the human history may demonstrate the immortality of the concept of governments, since the non-existence of state of nature in human history would mean that we always established authorities and governments. If we are bound to be governed by an authority, or if it is in human nature to establish a higher power for the greater good of the society, then can societies have a blueprint of the ideal state that they want to live under? Even if a formulation of the ideal way to govern is formed, is it possible to find the right ingredients that fulfill the formulation? These questions have concerned many philosophers and political scientists throughout history. Although we have an indefinite amount of approaches to the issue, we are by no means close to achieving an ideal answer to the question: “Who should rule?”.

As mentioned before, asking who the leaders should be always has been relevant in time, and probably will stay relevant as far the human timeline reaches. At the same time, it is inconceivable how the substantial ideas regarding the topic, of some dignified Greek philosophers, as old as 2400 years, have lived up to today as if humans and societies have immutable traits since the beginning. But is Plato’s thoughts regarding the vulnarability of democracy still relevant in today’s political structure? Comparing contemporary democratic states and Plato’s arguments in his book The Republic, yes. In fact, in this writing, I will be analyzing Plato’s arguments and concerns regarding democracy, while trying to argue that Plato’s points form a reasonable yet inapplicable answer to the question above.

Today, metaphorically thinking, when the word “democracy” is heard by a citizen, he is likely to imagine himself freely rolling down a hill, filled with blossoming flowers, enjoying every benefit of living under a democratic state. Or, as Jonathan Wolff describes it “When someone, in protest, says that ‘I thought this country was meant to be a democracy’, what she would normally mean is that she supposes that she has been treated unfairly in some way. Perhaps her home has been made subject to a compulsory purchase order, for example, to make way for a road. Whatever the details, the basis of the complaint is that an individual’s interests or rights have been treated with insufficient regard. And this, it is claimed, is undemocratic”. Democracy’s meaning has indeed been stretched as much as fulfilling everyone’s ideal state which cares enough for every citizen. And ‘democracy’ has indeed become a wild card of politicians that label their actions as democratic, in order to appease the public. Although the case, democracy has always been in many thinkers’, including Plato’s, radar of critique. If democracy ought to be impeccable, then why has it always been necessary to poke it with a sharp stick?

Let me start with the question: Is democracy actually “democratic”? Although it is claimed that pure democracy has never been practiced, if we look at modern democratic states, it could be said that the way a ruler is chosen in a democracy is via elections in which every citizen plays an equal role in determining a president based on his or her rationale. However, once a person comes to power, usually, the sovereignty of the citizens ceases and is turned into a dormant state until the next elections take place. I cannot resist but ask, how is it “democratic” that an individual citizen, plays a relatively insignificant role in determining the outcome of her nation by having no more than an opinion on who should rule (which happens once in several years)? Furthermore, once a citizen of a democracy walks out from a ballot box, she no longer is a part of the authority that she lives under. In fact, if we have a brief look at recent human history, warmongers and tyrannical dictators such as Getulio Vargas, Muammar Al Gaddafi, Adolf Hitler, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Hugo Chavez all came to power by democracy’s consent. Therefore, it could be said that authoritarianism is potentially a product of democracy, even though the rulers are chosen by the majority. So, democracy does not necessarily reflect the authority of the majority.

It may also be argued that my previous point has an assumption of an inadequate justice system that allows rulers to extend their authority in an unrestrained manner. However, even if pure democracy is achievable, and if the majority somehow has a constant and a direct impact on the authority, does that mean that the right decisions for what is best for the society will be taken? If we assume that not every citizen is rational enough to consider the needs of the society instead of his or her selfish gains, certainly not. In fact, Plato approaches the situation in a very insightful and apprehensive manner.

In The Republic, Plato uses a ship, also known as ‘Ship of State’, as a metaphor for democracy. In this ship, the crew quarrels with each other about the navigation of the ship instead of leaving it to the captain that has studied every aspect of navigation throughout his lifetime. It could be inferred from the metaphor that for Plato, the idea of “majority rule” is absurd and injudicious. One of his arguments is that “If the people are allowed to decide, they will be swayed by those who speak loudest and with most conviction-the Sophist- and so, like the deaf and short-sighted captain on the ship, will be swayed by the false reasoning of ambitious politicians. Meanwhile, those who are truly skilled in the art of navigation will be ignored”. So, Plato believes that societies should be ruled by expert rulers. And these rulers must beforehand devote most of their life to literacy, philosophy, musical, mathematical, military and physical education as a necessary qualification. He calls such guardian rulers “philosopher-kings”.

Plato’s concept of guardianship raises some concerns regarding corruption. Perhaps, a common question would be “who is going to judge the guardians?” As an answer, we should recall that a philosopher-king ought to go through various self-disciplinary qualifications which would eventually purge one from materialistic and transient desires and pursue what wisdom, as a tradition, offers. Or as Plato describes “The guardians agree to rule, not for intrinsic or external rewards of the role, but to avoid being ruled by others. Rather than allow other people-worse still, all other people-to rule, they grudgingly accept this necessary duty”. Plato furthermore addresses the concern of corruption by stating that the guardians should be placed in a position where the opportunities for corruption are minimized. For instance, the philosopher-kings should not be allowed to own private property. Therefore, combining the various self-disciplinary traits philosopher-kings ought to have with the additional restriction of external goods applied to them, it is evident that Plato’s guardianship mitigates the possibility of corruption and instead, establishes philanthropic and ascetic rulers.

Another reason which underpins Plato’s guardianship while exposing democracy is the inconsistency of the majority opinion. Since many people are indifferent to long-term gains which mostly benefit future generations and since such people are prone to embracing that which is beguiling, and which offers immediate effect, a society that propels by the majority rule will inevitably crumble by trying to address any matter with short-term solutions. In fact, an individual which forms the majority may not even be attentive to contemporary issues. Or as Jonathan Wolff describes, “We can never be sure what is motivating the members of any given electorate: in fact, they may not be sure themselves.”. On the other hand, guardians devote their life to perceiving society, as well as to develop analytical reasoning by being intertwined with numerous fields mentioned earlier. Thus, it is absurd to be reluctant about the ruling of philosopher-kings while assuming that the “rabble-opinion” would better discern the needs of the society.

If we look at humanity’s most natural and most informative source of didactic learning, the human history, it is quite evident how some prosperous and momentous civilizations of the past stemmed from rulers comparable to Plato’s philosopher-kings. For instance, in Ottoman Empire’s peak period (16th century) of authority over 3 continents, which is also its period of prosperity in science, art and culture, the Ottomans were reigned by adept Sultans that were raised under the supervision of mentors called “Lala” who had a vast knowledge in discrete fields. Eventually, raising philosopher-king-like rulers not only led to historical conquests of the Ottomans but also formed a civilization in which the society that had no concerns of revolution or politics at all was able to flourish in science, art, and culture which were endorsed by Sultans since a very young age.

But does the idea of philosopher-kings possess even a possibility in today’s world at all? Considering the fact that modernity requires every person that is considered as “successful” to become an expert in one specific field; Considering the fact that raising such a wisdom in a person is almost impossible in a world that spins around profit; And considering the fact that the education systems forcibly impose knowledge without wisdom, the answer seems like a clear no.

To conclude, although trying to find a definite answer to the question “who should rule?” is implausible, it is possible to shed light on the absurdity of democracy by scrutinizing why the majority should not rule. Additionally, although it sounds utopic in a contemporary point of view, Plato’s idea of guardian philosopher-kings not only comes up with a reasonable answer to the initial question but significantly increases the intensity of the light shed on the flaws of democracy. Considering the erratic and short-sighted demands of human nature, the majority rule does not reflect what is better for society. And even if it did, the thought or the will of the majority does not become an authority but is only spoken out once in a pinpoint of time and potentially result in an authoritarian and an “undemocratic” regime. On the other hand, the guardianship of philosopher-kings not only addresses the issue of unqualified leaders and corruption but is a rational resolution to how the ship ought to be navigated accurately.

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