The term “democracy” first came to know in ancient Greek political and philosophical thought in the city of Athens during classical antiquity.
The word originates from demos, “common people” and Kratos, “strength.” Led by Cleisthenes, Athenians established what is generally held as the first democracy in 508–507 BC.
The Parthenon in Greece is synonymous with the word democracy, a reason why so many leaders of democratic countries around the world, like getting photographed next to it.
However, it is somewhat surprising to discover that ancient Greece’s most significant achievement, which was “philosophy,” was at loggerheads with its other greatest achievement, which was “democracy.”
The Classical Greek Philosopher
Socrates was a classical Greek philosopher credited as one of the founders of Western philosophy, and being the first moral philosopher of the Western ethical tradition of thought.
The founding father of Greek philosophy, Socrates, is portrayed in the dialogues of Plato as immensely pessimistic about the whole business of “democracy.”
In book 6 of The Republic, Plato describes Socrates falling into conversation with a character named Adeimantus and trying to get him to see the flaws of democracy by comparing a society with a ship.
“If you are heading out on a journey by sea..” asked Socrates, “who would you ideally want in charge of the vessel? Just anyone? Or people educated in the rules of seafaring?”.
“The later, of course,” replied Adeimantus.
“So why then do we keep thinking that any old person should be fit to judge who should be the ruler of a country?” asked Socrates.
Voting in an election
Socrates’ point was that voting in an election a skill, not a random intuition, and just like any skill, it needs to teach to people.
Letting the citizens vote without an education, is as irresponsible as putting them in charge of a trireme sailing to Samos in a storm.
Socrates was to have the first-hand catastrophic experience of the foolishness of voters. In 399 BC, he put on trial on trumped-up charges on corrupting the youth of Athens. The Jury of 500 Athenians invited to weigh up the case and sided by a narrow margin that the philosopher was guilty.
He was put to death by hemlock poisoning, a process, which is for thinking people, every bit as tragic as Jesus’ condemnation has been for Christians.
Crucially, Socrates was not elitist in the usual sense. He didn’t believe that a narrow few should only ever vote. However, he insists that only those who think about politics, rationally, should be allowed to vote.
It was his fear that people will forget the important distinction between an intellectual democracy and a democracy led by birthright. People might give their vote to all, without linking it to wisdom. And Socrates knew precisely where that would lead. A system feared the most by ancient Greeks, called demagoguery.
Ancient Athens had painful experiences of Demagogues. For example, Alcibiades, a wealthy man who eroded fundamental freedoms and helped to push Athens to its disastrous military adventures in Sicily.
Socrates knew how easily people seeking election could exploit our desire for easy answers.
To demonstrate this, he asked his audience to imagine an election debate between two candidates. One who was like a doctor and the other as a sweet shop owner.
The friendly shop owner would say “look this person has worked many evils on you, he hurts you, gives you bitter potions and tells you not to eat or drink whatever you like, he’ll never serve you feasts of many and varied pleasant things like I will.”
Socrates then asks the audience, “do you think the doctor will be able to reply effectively?” The correct answer, “I cause you trouble, and go against your desires to help you” cause an uproar amongst the voters, don’t you think?
We have forgotten about all of Socrates’ warnings against democracy. We prefer to thinking about freedom rather than, something that is only effective as the education system that surrounds it. As a result, we have, over time, elected many sweet shop owners and few doctors!.
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