“The greatest punishment, if one isn’t willing to rule, is to be ruled by someone worse than oneself.” (Republic, 347c)
“Until philosophers rule as kings or those who are not called kings and leading men genuinely and adequately philosophize, that is, until political power and philosophy entirely coincide…cities will have no rest from evils…nor, I think, will the human race.” (Republic, 473d – e)
The other day I posted a video from the BBC. It’s a short piece from the journalist Andrew Sullivan, who says that the rise of Trump reminded him of a passage from Plato’s Republic that he’d read in college.
[Watch the video here. I especially like Trump’s glowing head.]
Plato took a dim view of democracy, claiming it was the second worst form of government. In the passage that Sullivan reads, Plato describes a descending, corrupt democracy, and argues that it’s the perfect breeding ground for a tyrant. The passage from the Republic seems eerily prescient; it seems really to capture important elements of our dysfunctional 21st Century democracy that enabled Trump to come to power.
I thought the video might be of interest for some of my Twitter followers, so I posted it with the comment: “As usual, Plato nailed it.”
A number of people retweeted or “favorited” the post. But I received a couple of negative comments from people I’d never interacted with before.
@CrispinSartwell said: “no philosopher has ever been wronger about anything than plato about politics.”
In his bio, Sartwell notes that he’s a philosophy professor, so we can assume he has some knowledge of Plato (maybe a lot). However, his comment exemplifies the impossibility of doing philosophy on social media (particularly on Twitter). What he wrote is the equivalent of: “You’re just wrong!” or “My dad can beat up your dad!”
In other words, the comment is exaggerated and philosophically unhelpful. It’s meant to shut someone down, rather than to open up a conversation. This is not to blame Professor Sartwell. His comment is perfectly appropriate for Twitter. It just illustrates my point that you can’t say anything truly subtle or analyze something properly in 140 characters.
Then, @NealCurtis made two comments. First: “No he didn’t [nail it]. Plato supported aristocratic government. It is natural he would oppose democracy. This is just age-old conservative bullshit.”
Second: “Plato supported aristocracy & opposed to democracy. It’s like using David Duke’s writings as evidence miscegenation is bad.”
Mr. Curtis’s bio says: “Interested in critical theory, comics, capital, SF, and technology,” so there’s no way to tell what his background in philosophy or Plato might be.
Mr. Curtis’s claim that Plato was opposed to democracy is correct. Plato was elitist and anti-egalitarian. However, his claim that Plato “supported aristocracy” is quite misleading, at least as far as the arguments in the Republic go. “Aristocracy” means literally “rule of the best,” so Plato wasn’t advocating the divine right of kings.
Rather, he was claiming that in the ideal city, the best people suited to ruling would rule. They’d have to be truly wise people, philosophers in fact. What’s more, in this utopia, the rulers would have no private property, to prevent bribery; and they would have no individual spouses and wouldn’t know who their own children were, so that they’d have loyalty to the city-state, and not to an individual family. This is a far cry from the historical examples of aristocracy we’re familiar with.
Misleading interpretations aside, it seems to me, that both Professor Sartwell and Mr. Curtis’s comments are short-sighted. Even if you disagree with Plato’s politics, and even if you disagree vehemently with his assessment of democracy, his discussion in the Republic may hold some key insights into the ways in which a democracy such as our own, when it falls into dysfunction (which it has), can become a breeding ground for a tyrant.
Indeed, especially if you disagree vehemently with Plato and hold democracy and its freedoms dear, you should pay close attention to the dangers he foresaw. Perhaps if we’d all read the Republic a little more closely, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in.