A Belated Reply to Plato

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse Plato

Plato is among the most famous critics of democracy. His criticism is relatively simple, but potentially devastating. It runs as follows. Politics aims at achieving justice, and so political policy must reflect the demands of justice. Only those who know what justice is and have the self-control to enact what justice requires are capable of doing politics properly. Alas, the average citizen is dumb and vicious. Hence Plato's conclusion is that democracy is a fundamentally corrupt form of politics; it is the rule of those who neither know nor care about justice. In The Republic, Plato's Socrates argues for a philosophical monarchy, the rule of the wise and virtuous.

Citizens of modern democracies naturally tend to recoil at Plato's argument, and his positive proposal that philosophers should rule is often met with understandable ridicule. And yet Plato's crucial premise that the average citizen is too dumb and undisciplined for democracy is widely embraced, especially among those who find themselves on the losing side of a democratic vote. For one example, consider a common reaction among social and fiscal conservatives to Barack Obama's re-election in 2012; it was routinely claimed that the People had been “duped” and “mislead.” Furthermore, it seems that a second crucial Platonic premise – namely that a proper political order must place those who have knowledge and integrity in charge – is also widely endorsed. Consider here the popular criticisms of President Bush that fix upon his alleged lack of intelligence.

So we must ask: Could Plato be right?

We should begin by noting that many philosophers, including us, hold that democratic citizens ought to take seriously Plato's criticisms. There is nothing anti-democratic about earnestly confronting democracy's critics, and arguably there's something on the order of an imperative to engage with democracy's smartest detractors. As John Stuart Mill once argued, “He who knows only his own side of an argument knows little of that.”

Now, there are several responses to Plato, and we'd like to survey a few popular rejoinders before sketching our own. First, one may respond to Plato by denying that politics has anything at all to do with ideals so lofty as wisdom and justice. Politics, the response continues, is not about discerning truths, but producing stable government. And stability is not a matter of getting things right, but getting things done in ways that prevent revolution, and that's what a democracy accomplishes.

Were it successful, this reply would decisively undercut the Platonic objection. Were proper politics not a matter of truth but the effective wielding of power, there would be no sense to the worry that democracies are unwise; the case for democracy is made simply by appeal to its stability. The trouble with this rejoinder, however, lies in its apparent strength. The idea that proper politics is about effective power forces us to conclude that there's nothing to criticize in dictatorship, provided it is brutal and oppressive enough to be long-lasting. That's unacceptable. We should seek to preserve the commonsense distinction between power successfully exercised and power justly exercised. In denying this distinction, the attempted rejoinder presents no case for democracy at all.

Consider a more sophisticated kind of reply to Plato. It is alleged that Plato makes the error of comparing an ideal form of monarchy to real democracy. Any comparison between an ideal X and a real Y will tend to punctuate the flaws of real world while extolling the pristine wholesomeness of the ideal. The thought continues that when real monarchy and real democracy are compared, democracy actually looks pretty good; and when ideal forms of both are compared, democracy is decidedly superior. Were Plato to have kept his philosophical categories straight, he would have been a democrat after all.

This response to Plato underlies Winston Churchill's famous quip about democracy being the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried. However, though it is an improvement on the former argument, this response to Plato concedes too much. It challenges Plato's positive claim that philosophical monarchy is superior to democracy, but makes no advance against Plato's claim that democracy is fundamentally unjust. The Platonist could concede Churchill's point, and then go on to assert that though democracy is the best we can get, it is still no good at all. That's not much of a defense of democracy.

Another kind of response to Plato is less frequently pursued, yet strikes us as the most promising. It consists in taking the bull by the horns, as it were, and making the case for the wisdom of democracy. One version of this argument draws on the “wisdom of crowds” phenomenon, arguing that the outcomes of properly democratic decision-making processes are wiser than non-democratic processes. Alas, this argument encounters difficulties. It concedes much of Plato's conceptual argument, differing from Plato only in the empirical thesis that the only true philosopher king is the collective democratic citizenry. And though the empirical data concerning the “wisdom of crowds” are suggestive, they're not decisive. So were the empirical data turn out to support not the “wisdom of crowds,” but the “wisdom of some subset of the crowd,” these theorists would find themselves back on the road to Platonism.

A better version of this bull-by-the-horn of response associates the wisdom of democracy not with the correctness of its outcomes, but with its ability to support and enrich our most fundamental cognitive aspirations. To wit: when we adopt a belief, or begin to wonder, or ask a question, or express a disagreement, or engage in argument, we are attempting to embrace the truth and reject the false. This truth-aspiration brings with it the aspiration to discern and follow the best reasons and evidence available. And in this we are inevitably dependent on each other as fellow reasoners; we must rely on others to share and articulate their ideas, as well as to formulate their reasons and challenge ours. In short, in order to pursue wisdom, we need others to pursue wisdom as well. But we also need more. We need to share with others a common social and political world where reasons, arguments, information, and evidence can be freely and openly exchanged. Further, we need there to be mechanisms where the public officials and the basic terms of social association can be scrutinized, challenged, held accountable, and if necessary, changed. These conditions are best secured under a democratic political order.

Hence a belated reply to Plato: We need democracy in order to be wise. This view does not make any unduly rosy claims concerning the wisdom of democratic decisions, and it is fully consistent with a pessimistic assessment of the wisdom of individual democratic citizens. Our claim rather is that democracy is the political manifestation of our aspiration to rationally pursue the truth; it is, in other words, the political correlate to our pursuit of wisdom. Accordingly, democracy is the only system of government fit for a philosopher.