Plato’s criticism of democracy
Plato criticises the free choices or freedoms in democracy and the free choice of occupation. An important theory that comes from Socrates states that control of policy in government should be given in the hands of the ‘guardians’. The guardians are those who have reason or a dominating faculty which allows them to distinguish between what is right and what is wrong.
Morality can be guarded and ensured if those given the chance to have power over it are those whose actions are ruled by reason. The others who are not dominated by reason should not be allowed to take control of policy. (Sofroniou 2007, p. 75)
People in government should have moral knowledge and not just moral opinion. According to Plato, this is a requirement in order for a government to be moral. An ordinary citizen can have opinion about good things in life but may not have good moral judgement.
He does not know if such things are good if he does not know how to distinguish the ‘essence of goodness’ and its corresponding attributes or manifestations. If a citizen does not possess this power or quality, he will not be able to know the goodness of a thing.
To speak of it in our present time, there are only a few people who are given the power of ‘sound judgement about what is right and what is wrong’ and should have the power to make policy.
Plato opposed the doctrine that everyone should be allowed to express his or her own opinion, to state his beliefs or to influence policies because those who are not trained to function in government do not have enough reason and do not exactly know what is right and what is wrong. A moral government should be controlled by those with moral knowledge and not with mere moral opinion.
In order to expound on this clearly, Plato makes another distinction, that between Forms and their apparent manifestations. Plato would like to distinguish the ‘essence’ of beauty and the manifestations of beauty. For Plato these are two different things – essence and manifestations of beauty. (Sofroniou 2007, p. 75)
Modern philosophers have interpreted this distinction with their examples of ‘particular’s and ‘universals’. For example, an orange has its individual qualities, the particulars, but oranges have general qualities of colour, taste, smell, and so on. An orange may have a particular sweet taste – it may be sweeter than another orange but the universal quality is that all oranges have sweet taste.
Plato suggests that a thing is beautiful if it has the Form of beauty. We will know that a thing is beautiful if we know the Form of beauty, or the thing has the presence of that Form, and not on our mere belief that the thing is beautiful. Knowledge depends upon what we know of the universals.
Having knowledge of the Form is important before one can have the wisdom to act and according to Plato this is a prerequisite before he can act on his own life or anything about the state. This is true with goodness and the Form of goodness. The Form of goodness enables us to understand the goodness of a thing. This is compared to the sun which makes our eyes see and makes things visible to everyone.(Sofroniou 2007, p. 76)
The Form of the Good, according to Socrates, may not be the same with universal characteristic. But Socrates believes the objective difference between good and bad acts and humans know how to recognise this difference and distinction. Socrates suggests that only the philosophers can do it.
A philosopher is one who has the ‘passion to see the truth’. He knows how to discern the essence of the thing and does not confuse things. For this reason, Socrates concludes that philosophers should be kings – political power and philosophy should meet so that people can rest from troubles and there will be peace in the land. (Sofroniou 2007, p. 77)
Plato suggests that a government should be composed of experts. He does not conform to the democratic system that people should select the kind of leaders to make the policy of government because those who are elected in office will only do what satisfies public demand and do not even know the essence of things and the many manifestations of things.
Experts in government should be selected according to their knowledge of the essence of things.
How should experts in government be selected?
According to Plato, someone who has the capability to have knowledge of the Good needs training or his mind should be trained for this purpose. And another important thing is that someone who has this kind of knowledge and training should live apart from temptations so that he is able to perform his solemn duty.(Sofroniou 2007, p. 78)
Plato criticises the free choice of occupation and the free choice of being politician. In the play, Socrates proposed in social justice that one should perform one social service according to his best nature or capacity – one should perform according to what he knows best. He must not perform the job of a cobbler if he is a carpenter, or perform the job of a carpenter if he is a cobbler, or perform both.
If this happens, he does a great disservice to the city and it would cause a problem. (Santas 2010, p. 171) Multitasking results in a great problem for the city, Socrates suggests. A money maker should not become a soldier, or a soldier cannot become a counsellor and guardian, or one man cannot perform all those functions; otherwise, he gives a ‘ruin of the city’ (Santas 2010, p. 171).
The principle of social justice
The principle of social justice, as suggested in the Republic, is that one should perform for what he is best suited and should not be permitted to do anything that he cannot do best; anyone should also not be permitted to change occupation from something for which she can do best to something she cannot do best, and this applies to all. Why can this harm the city?
According to Socrates, this goes all the way to the principle of division of labour which makes things easier, rather than each one do all the things he/she can do – be it production of food, shelter and clothing. People are born with different talents and capabilities needed in different occupations.
An individual can do best on one particular thing while another one can do best on other things. He cannot do many things because doing best on one occupation requires time, education, training, and so on. (Santas 2010, p. 172)
Socrates’ reasoning is still applicable in our time. Division of labour is applied in production. In communities, we get the right people for the right job.
Firms have human resource management to get the best person for the job. And it is not possible to have two jobs for one person even if that person is multi-talented – his performance will be affected. It is still best if people are chosen and perform their job according to their knowledge and training.
Aristotle’s criticism of democracy
Aristotle’s criticisms of democracy are varied and still practiced up to today. They can be applied in many governments today. They are present in many of human activities.
Aristotle says that there is a tendency for democracy to be excessive. More democracy is the usual cry of democrats. A democrat starts with a cry for justice and equality; then he identifies this with the masses and the sovereignty and will of the people. He ends up with absolute freedom (Coats 1994, p. 54). Absolute freedom and absolute ownership of property go together.
Extreme democracy, according to Aristotle, allows the political domination of a small group of citizenry over all the members of a polity (Ober 2001, p. 328). Aristotle says that democracy can change and like any other human activity, it is subject to change.
Democracy can turn into oligarchy or oligarchy into democracy, but there are other forms of democracy and also other forms of oligarchy. From oligarchy, tyranny can take place and tyranny terminates progress. (Simpson 1998, p. 419)
Aristotle in his writings taught that there is a system of check in democracy, something which is found in the American system. This kind of check is present in the powerful and the elite. Bureaucrats are criticised by the people, and when the people are organised, they oppose every proposed measure which is good for the people. (Wilson, Cheek, Power, & Cheek 2001, p. 242)
Aristotle sometimes agreed with Plato that democracy is not an ‘ideal political constitution’ but it distorts and corrupts something else. Aristotle attacks what democracy creates: the people’s ambivalence to what they call social justice; political chaos; seeming lack of morality by the so-called elite; the holding on to power by a select few; etc. (Corcoran 1983, p. 17)
Aristotle considers polity is a form of government or state – it is constitutional and applies to what we now know as democracy. Aristocracy has a constitution which diverts from democracy or it may have a mix of oligarchic and democratic ideals. But Aristotle recognizes democracy as the best that we can ever have as a form of government – it is ‘a government of, by, and for the people’ (Jayapalan 2002, p. 139).
It is false to state that democracy is a government by the poor because rich countries of the world have the democratic form of government – with all the weaknesses and barriers that democracy can offer to the poor. But it is still the best, or perhaps better than dictatorship. Aristotle does not recognize or mention other forms of government like Parliamentary, Representative, or Totalitarian form. (Jayapalan 2002, p. 139)
Concept of private property
Aristotle’s criticism on private property is often the subject of commentaries of philosophers. It is interesting and worth the time because it is one of the original concepts of socialism: wealth should not be used for private gain but for the common good. Property enables an organised community to be well constituted and in a well-organised polity common means should be given to all people. (Frank 2005, p. 55)
Aristotle prefers the word ‘holding’ instead of ownership but he rejects common ownership by Plato. He is not opposed to private property but anyone with property should also have the power over it. He opposes forced redistribution of property because it may lead to civil strife. (Frank 2005, p. 55)
But if people have private property, there should be one for common use, with laws applied to it, properties like land and crops, political offices, and so on. This gives a public dimension to the concept of property. Scholars regard property as an instrument; theorists hold that it is an instrument to accumulation of wealth. Property can lead to wealth and virtue.
But Aristotle says that too much property can harm the owner or possessor of property. The summary of Aristotle’s understanding of property is that property is both private and public. Excessive property will not do any good to its owner. (Frank 2005, p. 56)
How valid are the arguments of Plato and Aristotle?
The world’s main source of Greek political thought, the old and modern tenets of democracy are the writings of Plato and Aristotle. No way can they be considered not valid. Plato is Aristotle’s predecessor and most of their writings agree although there are times that they deviate from their original ideas.
Plato and Aristotle have anti-democratic biases which sometimes render obstacle to a political-science student’s serious study of ancient political thought. But they are more than valid and are even applicable to today’s democratic practices.
Plato’s criticism on the many kinds of regimes depends on the degree from which they have departed from ideal democracy. Aristotle’s criticism on democracy and oligarchy are very valid in the sense that they sometimes both meet on their extremes. For example, when democrats cry for justice, they go to the extent of seeking the people’s support but when they are given the freedom, they abuse power.
Oligarchs are old-time democrats who have lost their being democrats because of their long stay in the system. They are used to democracy that they have taken it for granted. They have transformed into oligarchs. (Yunis 1996, p. 26)
In contrast to Plato, Aristotle warns of excessive property for excessive wealth brings harm to the possessor. Aristotle’s words echo in the lobbies and corridors of wealth and power in congress and in the skyscrapers of businesses in New York and Wall Street where money sells like hotcake, or ‘money doesn’t sleep’. It is here where according to Plato freedom becomes absolute because the democrat continues to cry for justice.
Plato and Aristotle both opposed absolute freedom. Plato said that if all people are allowed to express themselves, there will be chaos. This is the freedom of expression that is a primary freedom of the world today. Take this out and there will be chaos and war.
But this is one of the primary causes of war – the freedom to express one’s self. While both Plato and Aristotle are proponents of democracy, they want a controlled democracy. It may be called an ‘autocratic democracy’.
But this could be an ideal state. There are states practicing this form of autocratic democracy. Some call it a police state. And they are successful in some sense.
Coats, W 1994, A theory of Republican character and related essays, Susquehanna University Press, U.S.A.
Corcoran, P 1983, “The limits of democratic theory”, in G Duncan (ed.), Democratic theory and practice, Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, Cambridge and New York, pp. 13-24.
Frank, J 2005, A democracy of distinction: Aristotle and the work of politics, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London.
Jayapalan, N 2002, Comprehensive study of Aristotle, Atlantic Publishers and Distributors, New Delhi.
Ober, J 2001, Political dissent in democratic Athens: intellectual critics of popular rule, Princeton University Press, Oxford and New Jersey.
Santas, G 2010, Understanding Plato’s Republic, John Wiley & Sons Inc., West Sussex.
Simpson, P 1998, A philosophical commentary on the politics of Aristotle, University of North Carolina Press, North Carolina.
Sofroniou, A 2007, Moral philosophy, from Hippocrates to the 21st aeon, Lulu.com, UK.
Wilson, F, Cheek, H, Power, M, & Cheek, K 2001, Political philosophy and cultural renewal: collected essays, Transaction Publishers, New Jersey.
Yunis, H 1996, Taming democracy: models of political rhetoric in classical Athens, Cornell University, New York.