What did Ancient Greek philosophers and scholars think about democracy?

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Democracy was a desirable form of governance.

Democracy was a desired rule of governance, but it was not without its critics. One of the most vocal critics of democracy was one of the greatest philosophers of Ancient Greece, Socrates (470 B.C.E.–399 B.C.E.).1“Socrates – The Perceived Fragility of Athenian Democracy.” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Socrates. Accessed 1 Aug. 2021. Socrates was accused of “corrupting the youth of Athens” and practicing impiety, and they put him on trial at the People’s Court. In a narrow public vote, Athenians sentenced Socrates to death by poison.

One of the leading philosophers was killed during a trial in the People’s Court.

Socrates’ death is a testimony of the failures and disadvantages of democracy. Plato’s Apology chronicles Socrates’ defense during the trial. Socrates was sentenced to death for being a philosopher. He made enemies with leading Athenian politicians, poets, and artisans because he was told by the Oracle of Delphi that he was the wisest living man. To verify this, he questioned the wisdom of those deemed wisest in Athens. At the time, the politicians, poets, and artisans were considered the wisest. In his cross examinations with them, Socrates learned they were not all that wise since all the men he interviewed refused to recognize their ignorance. Since Socrates was conscious of his ignorance and the limits of his knowledge (and wisdom), he considered himself the wisest of all men, much to the insult of prominent Athenians.2The Internet Classics Archive | Apology by Plato. http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/apology.html. Accessed 2 Aug. 2021.

In hindsight, voting in favor of capital punishment for Socrates in a one-day trial was egregious. It illustrates that when the power to govern and judge lays in the hands of uninformed individuals, then it is difficult for them to make the right decision. The trial of Socrates made up a form of “mob-rule” whereby a large audience of people served as “judges” lacking legal knowledge and time to prepare for the case.

Voting is a skill and needs to be practiced.

Socrates precisely criticized these aspects of democracy. Democracy cannot ensure that the educated and the trained govern society. He did not trust the capabilities of the common people and believed “voting in an election is a skill, not a random intuition.”3Why Socrates Hated Democracy. https://www.worldhistory.org/video/1223/why-socrates-hated-democracy/. Accessed 2 Aug. 2021. One of the greatest fears Socrates had regarding democracy was its susceptibility to “demagoguery.” A skilled politician could seduce the public to vote in favor of an irrational or a disastrous way. His trial in 399 B.C.E., where the People’s Court condemned him to death for questioning the logic of prominent Athenians, ironically illustrated this point.4Why Socrates Hated Democracy. https://www.worldhistory.org/video/1223/why-socrates-hated-democracy/. Accessed 2 Aug. 2021.

Even about two millennia later (1749), French historian who devoted significant time researching Classical Greece, Charles Rollin, condemns the acts of the Athenians arguing that Socrates’ execution “will, through all the ages, cover Athens with infamy and reproach, that all the splendor of its glorious actions, for which it is otherwise so justly renowned, can never obliterate.”5Morris, Ian Macgregor. “The Refutation of Democracy? Socrates in the Enlightenment.” M.B. Trapp (Ed.): Socrates From Antiquity to the Enlightenment (Aldershot 2007) 209-27. www.academia.edu, https://www.academia.edu/10846841/The_Refutation_of_Democracy_Socrates_in_the_Enlightenment. Accessed 2 Aug. 2021.

It is understandable why Plato (428/427 B.C.E.–348/347 B.C.E.) critiqued Athenian democracy. Socrates was a friend and a mentor to Plato, and he perished over a triviality, questioning the wisdom and intellect of prominent Athenians. Even though the idea of democracy in Athens was to limit the power of the aristocrats, it sometimes led to bizarre and petty trials where innocent people were sentenced to death.6Plato and the Disaster of Democracy | Classical Wisdom Weekly. https://classicalwisdom.com/philosophy/socrates-plato/plato-and-the-disaster-of-democracy/. Accessed 2 Aug. 2021.

Democracy may lead to freedom, which may lead to tyranny.

In Plato’s Republic, which is written as a dialogue, one of the key characters is Socrates. In Book VIII, Socrates argues that democracy gives rise to tyranny. The reason is that in a democracy, people have more freedom over their lives, and they will keep demanding more of it.7Plato: The Republic | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://iep.utm.edu/republic/. Accessed 3 Aug. 2021. As they demand more freedom, the people will at some point protest any form of perceived infringement on freedom.8Blunt, Gwilym David. “Face Mask Rules: Do They Really Violate Personal Liberty?” The Conversation, http://theconversation.com/face-mask-rules-do-they-really-violate-personal-liberty-143634. Accessed 3 Aug. 2021.

For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, people around the world protested the temporary measures of wearing face masks to curb the spread of the coronavirus because of the perceived infringement on freedom. Sometimes, these protests serve as a check on temporary government measures that may turn permanent. Sometimes protesting the infringement on freedom may be excessive.

For example, in Ancient Athens, the affluent and prominent Athenians who were insulted by Socrates put him on a public trial that led to him being sentenced to death. In a hypothetical case, people protesting traffic lights because they instruct drivers and pedestrians to stop at intersections is also an excessive reaction to curbing some freedom to gain safety. So far, there have been no people protesting traffic lights to the best of my knowledge.

Socrates claimed that once people go into an extreme pursuit of freedom, any infringement on freedom will seem unfair.9Plato: The Republic | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://iep.utm.edu/republic/. Accessed 3 Aug. 2021. Once someone wants or does too much of one thing, it will lead to its opposite. Instead of democracy leading to freedom and prosperity, it leads to excessive freedom, which leads to slavery. Plato wrote: “The excess of liberty, whether in States or individuals, seems only to pass into excess of slavery.”10Plato, 427? BCE-347? BCE. The Republic. Translated by Benjamin Jowett, 1998. Project Gutenberg, https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1497.

Seeing that the people feel their freedoms taken away, they would seek someone to restore their freedoms. Plato further elaborates that this would give rise to a “tyrant” who would seek to be a champion of the rights of the poor by blaming the rich.11Cherry, Kevin M. Aristotle on Democracy and Democracies. core.ac.uk, https://core.ac.uk/reader/232791914. Accessed 31 July 2021. Page 27. The “tyrant” would seek to purge anyone who he would deem a threat to his power.11The Internet Classics Archive | Apology by Plato. http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/apology.html. Accessed 2 Aug. 2021. To ensure the stability, the “tyrant” would surround himself with people he can control and bribe. Those he cannot control, the rich, the intellectuals and so forth, he would seek to get rid of. One of the biggest criticisms of democracy is that it is the governance of the uneducated and untrained. Perhaps Socrates and Plato were highly critical of democracy because the People’s Court sentenced Socrates to death thanks to a skillful demagoguery by his adversaries.

Democracy requires a “golden mean.”

However, democracy does not imply absolute freedom. This brings us to Aristotle (384 B.C.E.–322 B.C.E.) and the concept of the golden mean. In a democracy, just like in other areas of life, we must balance freedom from being too modest and too excessive. In Aristotle’s words, in a democracy, this means that “the good citizen ought to be capable of both; he should know how to govern like a freeman, and how to obey like a freeman.”12The Internet Classics Archive | Politics by Aristotle. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/politics.3.three.html. Accessed 3 Aug. 2021.

Aristotle noted that there were different democracies,13Lintott, Andrew. “Aristotle and Democracy.” The Classical Quarterly, vol. 42, no. 1, May 1992, pp. 114–28. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.1017/S0009838800042622. Page 26. which opens the floor for continuous development of democracy. This is also in line with the premise of the book that there is no single democracy, and that democracy is constantly evolving, sometimes progressively, other times regressively. This reminds us that democracy is a work in progress and a reflection of the challenges in a given historic moment.

Aristotle saw the struggle in governance as between oligarchy, which he defined as governance by the rich, and democracy, governance by the poor. He saw each group would govern the city to serve their interests. The rich to get richer and the poor to be equal to the rest of the people, because whether a person is rich or poor, they are all born “free.”14Cherry, Kevin M. Aristotle on Democracy and Democracies. core.ac.uk, https://core.ac.uk/reader/232791914. Accessed 31 July 2021. Unlike his predecessors (Socrates and Plato) Aristotle argued, democracy is the likely form of governance due the majority people being poor, and they would demand equality from the rich.15Cherry, Kevin M. Aristotle on Democracy and Democracies. core.ac.uk, https://core.ac.uk/reader/232791914. Accessed 31 July 2021. Page 27. Aristotle saw democracy as the “natural governance order.”16Aristotle as cited in Cherry, Kevin M. Aristotle on Democracy and Democracies. core.ac.uk, https://core.ac.uk/reader/232791914. Accessed 31 July 2021. He also alarmed about its risks. Aristotle saw that a direct form of democracy whereby the poor would dominate the assembly would lead to tyranny. To avoid tyranny, “it is necessary for democratic citizens to receive a democratic education, an education relative to the regime.”17Aristotle as cited in Cherry, Kevin M. Aristotle on Democracy and Democracies. core.ac.uk, https://core.ac.uk/reader/232791914. Accessed 31 July 2021.

Political life should be about improving the quality of life of people.

The purpose of political life is to create an environment where people can achieve their happiness, not pursue the interests of their group alone (the rich or the poor) and alienate the rest: “The end of the state is the good life, and these are the means towards it.”18The Internet Classics Archive | Politics by Aristotle. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/politics.3.three.html. Accessed 3 Aug. 2021. One way to achieve it is through having a rule of law.19The Internet Classics Archive | Politics by Aristotle. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/politics.3.three.html. Accessed 3 Aug. 2021.

The laws would need to be aligned with these principles to ensure a good life. Then the question would arise: Who will write the laws? Who will judge what are the best laws to ensure a good life? What makes up a good life? These questions are difficult to answer, but if history and experience are our teachers, then we can at least learn in what direction not to go. This is one step towards reaching a good life. Knowing the wrong direction is just as important as knowing the right direction.

In reading the criticisms that leading philosophers of Ancient Greece like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle hurled at Athenian Democracy, it is important to remember they came from a privileged group. For instance, Aristotle was Plato’s most famous student and the tutor of Alexander the Great. Philosophers were not then (neither today) the majority of the demos in Athens or in any other city or country. Although their thinking was quite thorough, we should not forget that it is susceptible to human limitations. There is room for improvement and refinement of their criticisms of (and praise for) democracy.

The success of democracy requires passing down the knowledge to the next generation.

Their criticisms of democracy come from the observation of the workings of Athenian democracy, its successes, and failures. However, the understanding of democracy has been built over years and years of thought and practice. What bears mentioning is that with each new individual and generation, the previous lessons from democracy are not automatically passed down. Even though the knowledge about the workings of democracy is readily available online, stored in books or in the minds of people, each new person and generation needs to gain it and learn to apply it in practice from scratch.

If we want to practice democracy; we need to start from an early age and practice it throughout our lives. Just like our understanding of democracy has evolved over the years, so too, the understanding of democracy needs to evolve in the hearts and minds of each new individual and each new generation. Therefore, it is important to embrace a lifestyle of democracy.

Just as the philosophical thoughts of Socrates were further explored and upgraded by Plato, so did Aristotle further the thoughts and ideas of Plato and Socrates. Despite the failures of democracy, it is worthy to recognize the innovation in governance, giving power to govern to those least privileged, the people. Along those lines, even the Buddha argued that “‘human nature’ is not fixed but developing.”20Omvedt, Gail. “The Buddha as a Political Philosopher.” Economic and Political Weekly, edited by Kancha Ilaiah, vol. 36, no. 21, Economic and Political Weekly, 2001, pp. 1801–04. Therefore democracy is not fixed but evolving.

What do you think about democracy?

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