21 - 08 - 2019

Why Socrates was suspicious of an unenlightened democracy

We used to think very highly of democracy and, by extension, of ancient Athens that gave rise to democracy as we know it today. That’s why so many leaders of democracy like to photograph themselves there. It will be, therefore, interesting to see what one of Athens’ wisest men had to say about democracy.

Born in 438 B.C. at a time of rapid democratization, Socrates grew up in Athens. He was short and famously very ugly, with a flat nose and bulging eyes. He would walk bare foot and wear the same clothes for days in a row. As such, he was often looked down upon as Athenian society highly adored male beauty. But despite his physical disadvantages, he became arguably one of the most influential philosophers of all time.

Socrates never wrote anything himself. Most of what we know about him came from the writings of his pupils, Plato, Xenophon, and Aristophanes. Socrates argued in the streets as well as in the Athenian agora with anyone who would listen. He often played the role of a gadfly: stinging, as it were, those who were intellectually dogmatic or remaining complacent in the status quo and calling citizens to examine their lives.

The Oracle of Delphi said that Socrates was the wisest man in Athens. This shocked Socrates because he famously claimed, “All I know is that I know nothing.” This led him to question the claims and beliefs of others to see if anyone really knew more than he did. He concluded that perhaps what made the Oracle think of him as wise was that he admitted his ignorance, while others dogmatically asserted what they did not know.

Socrates was also an open critic of the Athenian newly formed democracy. He forced politicians and social elites to question their own claims. In more than one occasion, he clearly embarrassed some public leaders. This, of course, did not go very well with the upper class of the day. In 399 B.C., he was brought to court on charges of corrupting the Athenian youth and doubting the gods of the city. He argued vehemently in his own defense and declared that he would face any consequence if that was what the law required of him. As expected, he was unjustly convicted. Although he could have found some way to escape execution, he went to his death with no outward appearance of fear. He willingly drank the cup of deadly hemlock which was the means of his execution. In that way Athens had put to death the man Plato called the wisest and most just of all men. Indeed, Socrates died as a martyr for dissent. He boldly stood up for the right of people to question authority and to challenge the claims of those in power. (In a way, Jesus Christ or even Martin Luther King, Jr., did the same.)

According to Socrates, ethics and politics are closely connected with each other. Without politics, ethics carries no value. And without ethics, politics become harmful.

Socrates also discussed about the concept of law as it relates to justice. He cautioned that if a law is not justified by justice, it is useless. But not withstanding every citizen must obey the law. He thought that without unqualified obedience to law, there could be no unity and integrity in the Republic.

Voting in an election, according to Socrates, is a skill, not a random hunch. Like any other skill, voting must, first of all, be systematically taught to citizens. Letting the citizens vote without education is an irresponsible act as it is like putting anyone to sail in a storm, which can lead to a catastrophic end. Just because the majority supports an opinion does not make that right. Whatever is done should be based on reason and facts.

Socrates was not an elitist in the normal sense – he did not believe that only a few should vote. Rather, his concern was that only those who have thought through the whole process deeply and rationally should be eligible to vote (enlightened democracy). In other words, he warned against granting voting privileges to all without connecting it to wisdom, because to do so, he argued, would lead to demagoguery, that is, seeking political support by appealing to the desires and prejudices of ordinary people rather than by using rational argument.

To illustrate his point, Socrates used an example of a rich, charismatic, smooth-talking person who eroded Athens’ freedom and pushed its citizens to military disaster in Sicily. According to Socrates, such people seeking election could exploit people’s desire for personal gain. He asked his audience to imagine a debate between two candidates: one was a medical doctor and the other, a sweet shop-owner. In such a combative scenario, the sweet shop-owner could say about his rival, “Look! This person will cause you many harms. He will hurt you. He will give you bitter potions. He will tell you not to eat or drink whatever you like. He will never serve you feasts or give you many pleasant things like I will.”  “What, then,” Socrates asked, “could be the response of the audience?  Do you think the doctor would be able to reply effectively?  What if the doctor said, ‘I cause you pain in order to heal you.’  That would cause uproar. Don’t you think so,” Socrates asked.

We have forgotten all about Socrates’ salient warnings against democracy, because we prefer to think of democracy as a mere birthright for one and all rather than as something which can only be effective as the education system that surrounds it. As a result, we have elected many sweet shop-owners and very few doctors.