Is liberty a bad thing? Socrates seemed to think so.
In Book VIIIof Platos Republic, Socrates criticizes democracy by attacking three ofits most important aspects: liberty, equality, and majority rule. Heasserts that because of these things, a democratic city will always fallinto tyranny. I disagree, and feel that all three of the principles areessential to a fair and just city, and only in their absence can a city betaken into tyranny.Socrates begins his observations on the defects of a democraticgovernment by first attacking liberty. His main argument is that there isentirely too much of it.
People in a democracy are free to do what theywish in their lives and are free to chose what if any job they will do.Socrates asks if, like the man with the democratic soul, they will notjust pass the time and not get much done (Plato, 557e).This may be true, but people who do not work do not eat. InSocrates city, much like in a communist regime, all of the people in acity are responsible for the common good of all of the other members oftheir city. A man who does nothing would truly be a burden on thissociety, but unlike in Socrates city, or a communist state, in a capitalistdemocracy people are responsible for their own survival, and a manmust work if he is to have a food, shelter, and all of the othernecessities of life.When describing his just city, Socrates was very much in favor ofspecialization of labor (Plato, 367e-372b), so for a man to try manythings would go against his concept of what belongs in a good city. ButShouldnt one try ones hand at many tasks until one find a job that bestfulfills ones soul? In Alienated Labor, Karl Marx argues that separationof labor is fundamentally wrong in that it alienates the laborer not onlyfrom his labor, but also from himself and society as a whole(Good Life,272).
Socrates himself claims that a just soul must find work that isbest for the rational part of the soul (Plato, 434d-444e)Socrates also claims that criminals in a democratic city have toomuch freedom. He asks Adeimantus if he had not seen mensentenced to death or exile, nonetheless staying and carrying on rightin the middle of things…
(Plato 558a). A democracy has laws andpunishments as does every other government.Justice is always dependent on the wisdom of people, and peopleare fallible.
Perhaps criminals do go free sometimes when given a trialby their peers, but monarchies and tyrannies are no less fallible. Historyis full of wrongly accused people being put to death, and horrible menbeing set free, in all kinds of government. Trial by a jury of peers, as isfound in a democracy, helps to alleviate this much better than judgmentpassed by a ruling body. According to Lysander Spooner, trial by juryis the watchdog of liberty, and when jurors are truly takenindiscriminately, and do theirs jobs seriously and without bias, then aperson has received the fairest trial that is possible (Spooner, 2)Socrates next takes aim against majority rule.
He asks, what ismajority rule, but a system of a leader telling his people what he thinksthey want to hear? (Plato 558b) This may be true, but when a city hasthe power to choose its leaders, the leader then becomes responsible tothe needs and desires of the people if he wishes to stay in power. It isas Thomas Jefferson says, Governments..
.derive their just powersfrom the consent of the governed (Jefferson). Even if a leader isignoble, if the people he is leading wish for noble things, he must to thegood thing or not be leader anymore.Socrates imagines a city where there are philosophers are guidingthe city (Plato, 484), but are not philosophers human too? Why would aphilosopher be any less sensitive to corruption? Socrates response tothis is that the philosophers would be educated to know what is right forthe city. History has proven though, that just because a person iseducated does not mean he is noble or virtuous. Some of the worstleaders in the world have been the most educated.
Education does notnecessarily breed morality. Aristotle explains that to be a truly virtuousperson one must act in a virtuous way, not just know what is the way tobe virtuous (Good Life, 35).Would not a corrupted leader in Socrates city be much morecatastrophic to a city than a corrupted leader in a democracy? In ademocracy, one corrupted leader can be forced to leave office and bereplaced, but when there is only one leader, who is either ordained bygod or brought in by military force, or when there is a group of leaderswho are not responsible to the people, the people have no opportunityto decide on a more noble or just person as their leader, and the peoplehave no protection against corruption in their government.Socrates last attack is against equality. He says democracydispenses a certain equality to equals and unequals alike (Plato,558c). He seems to be saying that all men are not created equal andthat certain people are better equipped to have rights in a city.
In fact,Socrates says that the people must be told that they have certainmetals in their souls which make them of different classes (Plato,412b-415d). He calls this the Noble Lie, and while it is a lie, I am notsure how noble it is.Equality certainly has been a huge issue in our Americangovernment. As for personal rights, President John F. Kennedy said,All of us do not have equal talent, but all of should have an equalopportunity to develop our talents (Kennedy) When it comes to equalityin government, Alexander Hamilton Declared in a speech to theConstitutional convention that every individual of the community atlarge has an equal right to protection of the government (Hamilton).When it come to equality in choosing government, things tend to gettricky.
If everyone is not going to be given a say in the government, thenwho decides who gets a say and who does not? What are thecredentials for voting? Who decides on the credentials? Who decideswho decides on the credentials? Philosophers? Who decides whichpeople are fit to be philosophers? Who educates the philosophers to beable to tell who would make a good voter and who would not?All people may not be created equal, but if all people are going to beaffected by the laws, all people should have an opportunity to decide onthem, and all people should be protected by them. The whole point of agovernment is to take care of its people. According to Lord Macaulay,That is the best government which desires to make the people happy,and knows how to make them happy (Macaulay, 231).
Michael Davis, in his book The Politics of Philosophy, explains thatthe best way to ensure a well run city is to make sure all of the citizens inthe city are given equal say in the way it is governed. He uses MalcolmXs famous saying in that a group of oppressed people will not stayoppressed forever, and that the best way for a government to stay stableis to listen to the majority with respect for the minorities. (Davis, 55-57)In conclusion, while Socrates offers good criticisms of democracy, hedoes not defend them very well, and he offers us no plausible alternative.
He claims that democracy is one of the worst regimes, yet it wasdemocracy which allowed him to criticize the very system he was takingadvantage. I think the best argument for democracy is the failure of otherrepressive governments such as the collapse of communism in theSoviet Union, The French monarchy, Britains colonial rule here inAmerica, and Fascism in Germany. Perhaps if these governments hadallowed for liberty, equality, and a majority rule, they would still be inexistence today.Works CitedDavis, Michael. The Politics of Philosophy. London: Rowman &Littlefield Publishers, 1996Hamilton, Alexander. Constitutional Convention Address.
Constitutional Convention, Philadelphia. 29 Jul. 1787Durant, Will. The Story of Philosophy.
New York: Simon and Schuster,1961Guigon, Charles, ed. The Good Life. Cambridge: Hackett PublishingCompany, 1999Kennedy, John F. Speech at San Diego State College. San DiegoState College, San Diego. 06 Jun.
1963Macaulay, Thomas Babbington Ed. Scott, Allan. The Works of ThomasBabbington Macaulay.
London: Wordsworth Poetry Library, 1995Marx, Karl. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts. Germany: 1844Plato, Ed. Allan Bloom. Republic.
USA: Basic Books, 1991Spooner, Lysander. An Essay on the Trial By Jury. London: 1852Category: Philosophy