Topics: Democracy, Voting, Direct democracy Pages: 12 (2128 words) Published: December 6, 2012
Explain and Assess Plato’s Critique of Democracy. Do You Think His Critique is

Still Applicable? Why or Why Not?

In this essay I will offer an explanation of Plato’s critique of democracy. I

will then assess this critique based on the contemporary model of democracy

experienced by Plato. Furthermore, I will argue that the critique is still

applicable in a modern context by presenting various problems that modern

democratic models pose for the critique and then demonstrating how Plato’s

argument can overcome them.

In order to clearly understand why Plato finds democracy so objectionable

it is necessary to understand how democracy worked in an Ancient Greek

context. One of the main characteristics of this early democracy was its

emphasis on ‘Direct Participation’. This meant that all citizens were to take

part in the political affairs of the state. This was made possible by a relatively

small population of citizens, about 30,000.1 All of these were expected to

partake in the democratic process and vote in assembly, while presidency

over all state bodies was cycled among the citizens to promote fairness and

equality in the government’s agenda. Ancient Athenian democracy, therefore,

was to govern and be governed in turn in a system where majority rule was

paramount, and liberty was equated to direct autonomy over one’s own


Plato’s charge against democracy is simply that it violates the proper

order of society by creating an artificial equality. His fundamental criticism of

democracy is that it is based on the assumption that every citizen is equally


Held, op. cit pg 12


entitled to a say in political affairs, no matter how unsuited he is in terms

of ability, character or training. In his Republic, Plato gives the analogy of a

ship, where the captain, all his training, expertise and life-long experience

notwithstanding, is somehow incapacitated by the crew who now take control

of the ship, with ‘no idea that the true navigator must study the seasons of

the year, the sky, the stars ... if he is to be really fit to control a ship’2 What

is meant by this analogy from ship to state is that no matter how ignorant a

person may be, under a democratic system they still could find themselves

playing a significant role in the regulation of public affairs. A system where

value and merit are disregarded and instead unconditional equality promoted

disgusted Plato. He held that this type of mob rule marginalised the wise

minority who have the necessary acquired abilities to allow them to rule

efficiently. Furthermore, when people do appear from the masses and find

themselves in positions of power, they are still potentially disastrous. In a

democracy, Plato explains, the leaders will always be at the mercy of popular

appraisal, and so will only act to appease the majority, which makes their

political decisions as inefficient and unskilled as anyone else’s.

In an ancient context, it certainly does seem that Plato makes a strong

point. The cycle of the various state body presidencies throughout the entire

electorate, while being egalitarian, does indeed lead to people with hugely

varying levels of competency finding themselves in positions of power.

Furthermore, in this system when the electorate met over forty times a year to

vote, the majority certainly did have a formidable input into the affairs of the

state. The majority of citizens in Plato’s time (early 4th century BC) were poor,

and since at this time the poor were uneducated and largely illiterate, it can

be granted to Plato that he is right in assuming that they will often have had


Plato, op. cit. pp 282-83.


absolutely no experience or training in the management of state. This could

almost certainly cause problems in times of emergency like sudden war or

famine, as strong leadership and informed...
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