Philosophy is defined as the rational, abstract and methodical consideration of reality. It deals with ideas ranging from morality to knowledge. But we are here to talk about politics. Let’s start with the most renowned Greek philosopher and the father of western philosophy Socrates. But to understand his stance on democracy first we need to know what democracy was in his time.
The first known democracy in the world was in Athens (capital of Greece). Athenian democracy developed around the fifth century B.C.E. The Greek idea of democracy was different from present-day democracy because, in Athens, all adult citizens were required to take an active part in the government. If they did not fulfill their duty they would be fined and sometimes marked with red paint. The Athenian definition of “citizens” was also different from modern-day citizens: only free men were considered citizens in Athens. Women, children, and slaves were not considered citizens and therefore could not vote. Each year 500 names were chosen from all the citizens of ancient Athens. Those 500 citizens had to actively serve in the government for one year. During that year, they were responsible for making new laws and controlled all parts of the political process. When a new law was proposed, all the citizens of Athens had the opportunity to vote on it.
Socrates criticized democracy ,in a dialogue with Adeimantus, 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 believed that a Vote is sacred and not everyone has the skill to use it adequately. Like any skill, it needs to be taught systematically to people. Letting the citizenry vote without an education is irresponsible and will lead to a government which is not competent enough.
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 that of wisdom. And Socrates knew exactly where that would lead: to a system the Greeks feared above all, demagoguery.
dēmos ‘the people’ + agōgos ‘leading
A demagogue is a leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power .Socrates 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. He’ll 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 you’ would 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 good – rather than a process 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.