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  • We are used to thinking very highly of democracyand by extension, of Ancient Athens, the

  • civilisation that gave rise to it. The Parthenon has become almost a byword for democratic

  • values, which is why so many leaders of democracies like to be photographed there.

  • It’s therefore very striking to discover that one of Ancient Greece’s great achievements,

  • Philosophy, was highly suspicious of its other achievement, Democracy.

  • The founding father of Greek PhilosophySocratesis portrayed, in the dialogues of Plato, 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 Athenians 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.

  • Crucially, Socrates was not elitist in the normal sense. He didn’t believe that a narrow

  • few should only ever vote. He did, however, insist that only those who had thought about

  • issues rationally and deeply should be let near a vote. 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 wisdom. And Socrates knew exactly where that would lead:

  • to a system the Greeks feared above all, demagoguery.

  • Ancient Athens had painful experience of demagogues, for example, the louche figure of Alcibiades,

  • a rich, charismatic, smooth-talking wealthy man who eroded basic freedoms and helped to

  • push Athens to its disastrous military adventures in Sicily. Socrates knew how easily people

  • seeking election could exploit our desire for easy answers. He asked us to imagine an

  • election debate between two candidates, one who was like a doctor and the other who was

  • like a sweet shop owner. The sweet shop owner would say of his rival: Look, this person

  • here has worked many evils on you. He hurts you, gives you bitter potions and tells you

  • not to eat and drink whatever you like. Hell never serve you feasts of many and varied

  • pleasant things like I will. Socrates asks us to consider the audience response: Do you

  • think the doctor would be able to reply effectively? The true answer – ‘I cause you trouble,

  • and go against you desires in order to help youwould cause an uproar among the voters,

  • don’t you think? We have forgotten all about Socrates’s salient warnings against democracy.

  • We have preferred to think of democracy as an unambiguous goodrather than as something

  • that is only ever as effective as the education system that surrounds it. As a result, we

  • have elected many sweet shop owners, and very few doctors.

We are used to thinking very highly of democracyand by extension, of Ancient Athens, the

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Why Socrates Hated Democracy

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    c_hoimantik posted on 2017/02/16
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