Plato's Republic and Democratic Moral Decline

20 December 2010

Some of Plato's most powerful criticisms of democracy are found in Book 6 of Plato's Republic. Let's begin with three famous allegorical speeches from Book 6 attributed to Socrates, namely the "sea captain", "wild beast trainer", and "sophist at assembly".

(1) The "sea captain" allegory explains why philosophers are either regarded as vicious critics or good for nothing star gazers. Relating this allegory to 430BC Ancient Athens, we could imagine the Captain as Pericles, the mutineers as populist politicians such as Alcibiades, and the true pilot as Socrates.

Imagine a ship in which there is a captain who is taller and stronger than any of the crew, but he is a little deaf and a little blind, and his knowledge of navigation is not much better. The sailors are quarrelling with one another about the steering of the ship, every one of them is of opinion that he has the right to steer, though he has never learned the art of navigation, and cannot tell who taught him, nor when he learned the skill. Indeed the sailors further assert that navigation is not a skill, that it cannot be taught, and they are ready to cut in pieces any one who says the contrary. They throng about the captain, begging and praying to takeover the helm, and if at any time they do not prevail, but others are preferred to them, they kill the others or throw them overboard. They try to chain up the captain with drink or narcotic drugs, then they mutiny and take possession of the ship. They make free with the stores, and whilst eating and drinking to their hearts content they proceed on their voyage in such manner as might be expected of them. Whomever is their partisan and cleverly aids them, whether by force or persuasion, in their plot for getting the ship out of the captain's hands and into their own they compliment with the name of sailor, pilot, able seaman. They abuse and call good-for nothing the other sort of man, the true pilot who pays attention to the year and seasons and sky and stars and winds and whatever else belongs to his art. It never seriously enters their mind to think of the steerer's art as a professional calling requiring qualification. Now in this ship, which is in a state of constant mutiny, and which is steered by sailors who are mutineers, how will the true pilot be regarded? Will he not be called by them a star-gazer, a good-for-nothing?

This parable describes the relationship between the true philosopher and his state. The treatment of the philosopher, and the frustration he feels, is so grievous that no single thing on earth is comparable to it. No wonder then that philosophers have no honour in their cities, indeed their having honour would be far more extraordinary. No wonder they are called cranks or good for nothings.


It's a very powerful poetic allegory, but we can analyse it scientifically as well:

Notice that in this speech Socrates describes statesmanship as a "professional calling" and an "expert art" not something one can make up as one goes along. What does that mean? Think about plumbing. If you take an ordinary person who has no training and ask him to fix the pluming in your home he will fail hopelessly and probably flood your house. That's because plumbing is a profession that requires expert skill, but there there are other professions that don't require an expert skill, but rather only a sort of all rounder knack for pretending to possess scientific skill. Think, for example, about the way an actor can impersonate a plumber, although he would be quickly discovered in a one-on-one technical conversation with a real plumber, he looks and sounds the part to a crowd. Socrates called experts in this kind psychological imitation "sophists", and in a sense they are upside down philosophers who use their knowledge of human nature to trick people into thinking they know things. For example, in Plato's Gorgias dialogue a famous sophists tells Socrates that even though he knows nothing about medicine, he can pretend to be a doctor to non-experts and in competition with a real doctor, ordinary people will find him more convincing, and he can persuade them to take whatever medicine he see fits. Today people would call Gorgias an expert is salesmanship and marketing, but the point is he posses a sort of dark art that twists little people round his fingers and which can make him very famous, wealthy and powerful. How does this 'knack', this 'witch craft', work? Think of children playing a game of doctors and nurses, they know nothing about medical science but they pick up on a sort of zeitgeist exuded by professionals in the medical profession, and that's the energy the sophists use to trick people. So by using these childish techniques, talking in a non-specific and emotionally charged unscientific ways, the sophist can, in effect, turn the children into his puppets.

Socrates also talks about how the non-expert sailors "throng about the captain, begging and praying to takeover the helm, and if at any time they do not prevail, but others are preferred to them, they kill the others or throw them overboard". Imagine a debate between Albert Einstein and a group of fellow scientists, of course Albert Einstein had an ego, of course he had hopes and dreams, of course he was a man not a god, but if you engage him in a serious scientific debate, as Max Webber would say, his human side vanishes as the objective science takes over. Now imagine a debate between Tony Blair and a group of journalists, do you see that unlike Albert Einstein talking about science, they are not individually in control of the topic because it is not a science but rather a sort of orgy in which each one is rubbing his feelings up against the other? So imagine yourself watching Albert Einstein debating the theory of relativity with fellow scientists, think how their words would go right over your head, they wouldn't be like cat fighting women full of tears and screams, the conversation wouldn't waver back and forth, like an Olympic contest between Apollonian heros, it would ooze clean warrior like competitive passion. Notice that whereas the cat fighting women hate one another when they loose and never really admit defeat, the energy of the scientists fighting is completely different, they love wrestling with each other and crowning each other with wreaths. Think about a school playground, the children divide into cliques and each clique has a certain way of looking at life, there is no debate but just a sort of gridlocked difference of political opinion that arises because the children answer everything in a mindless opinionated way by looking through a pair of rose or green or blue tinted spectacles. Think about climate change today, on the left the children want to build windmills, yet they have never even bother to calculated the cost, it's totally a psychological choice not a scientific choice. On the right the children don't even believe in climate change, but not because they know anything about climate change science, but rather because solving climate change requires government intervention and the children are slavish NIMBYists who therefore fight against it. So if you look at a crowd of sophists trying to persuade children whether or not to build windmills or oil wells, you will see them engaged in a sort of exhausting grubby bohemian chatter that goes round and round in circles without every saying anything you could actually take hold of.

Socrates says "They make free with the stores, and whilst eating and drinking to their hearts content they proceed on their voyage in such manner as might be expected of them". Imagine a ship with a captain, a crew, and a set of passengers. The captain is calculating long term consequences in a very intellectually detached way, the crew are following his instructions and calculating short term consequences in a more heartfelt way, but the passengers are just bystanders soaking in the moment and gossiping amongst one another. All a passenger can tell you is what the journey feels like, he can't tell whether or not the captain or crew are doing a good job, because to do that it is not enough to feel what is going on, you also have to know how things would have been different had the captain or crew acted differently. Understand that the sophist lives with the passengers on the third deck down from truth because his whole life revolves around talking to passengers and leaning what they like and what they dislike. So the sophist is a passenger who drifts through life completely immersed in the feelings of the multitude without any reason or discipline at all, that's why if the sophist takes control of the the ship and and starts taking his own feelings seriously he ends up eating and drinking to his hearts content. Notice the sophist is utterly helpless and clueless when alone, he is shoeless and homeless and wrinkled by exposure to the elements, and he lives by hoodwinking and seducing and kidnapping experts. Think about democracy in European and America today, even though the weather is fair and the people have never have it so good, the politicians can't help themselves anymore that a kid in candy shop, that's why they are racking up debts like no tomorrow and one day the store room is going to be empty and chaos will be be unleashed. Socrates says "they abuse and call good-for nothing the other sort of man, the true pilot who pays attention to the year and seasons and sky and stars and winds and whatever else belongs to his art". Think about politics today, nobody cares about the future, unsustainable debts, over population, climate change, declining standards in the media, declining standards in education are all building toward a terrible  crisis but the party just keeps on going because the passengers are in control. The expert who cares about these things is a ridiculous figure, a good for nothing start gazing dope, a party-pooper whose warnings are as irritating as mosquito bytes, at best a tragic Cassandra. The battle between the real statesman and the sophist impostors doesn't get started until the people start to wake up and realise just how much danger they are in and how badly they have been taken for a ride by those who claimed to be experts.

(2) We have been talking about Socrates' famous "sea captain" analogy that appears in Book Six of Plato's Republic. Later in Book 6 Socrates proffers another famous analogy about democracy and sophistry which we can call "the sophist at assembly":

Do you really think, as people so often say, that our youth are corrupted by sophists? Are not the public who say these things the greatest Sophists of all? Do not the people themselves educate to perfection young and old, men and women alike, and fashion them after their own hearts? When they meet together at assembly, or in a court of law, or a theatre, or a camp, or in any other popular resort, and there is a great uproar, and they praise some things which are being said or done, and blame other things, equally exaggerating both, shouting and clapping their hands, and the echo of the rocks and the place in which they are assembled redoubles the sound of the praise or blame--at such a time will not a young man's heart, as they say, leap within him? Will any private training enable him to stand firm against the overwhelming flood of popular opinion? Or will he not be carried away by the stream? Will he not have the notions of good and evil which the public in general have--he will do as they do, and as they are, such will he be?

That's why I say "we are in this all together". In the sea captain story we blamed the evils of the world on the elite, but the truth is the madness of politicians is a sort of reflection of our own madness, we have no one to blame but ourselves, we make our leaders in our own democratic image. If we're full of communal spirit we get heartfelt men like Martin Luther who despise clapping, but as we get more and more populist we end up being seduced by every more tacky men who flatter us shamelessly. Remember the stories about fighting gorgons by looking in the mirror, the decline of democracy is the decline of ourselves, look at it and learn.

Remember we talked about the captain, the crew and the passengers. We said the captain is a lonely long term thinker and the crew are more down to earth, not a long haired skinny visionary, but short stocky practical men overflowing with passion for the communal fight. But this moving communal song is supposed to accompany the King in the same way that Lancelot accompanied Arthur, or Achilles accompanied Agamemnon, allow it to lead and you will have years of grubby vegetarianism ending in existential failure followed by unstoppable mania. Think of the Germans, they oscilate between Green Peace and Nietzsche, and its because the enormously powerful communal spirit described above overwhelms their judgement in the same sort of way that Mephisto threatened to overwhelm Faust, and it's why the Germans were traditionally so aristocratic and despised political populism above all things. In the same way that Achilles was the son of river god who was destined to a long boring life or a glorious death after nearly drowning in a stream, so there is something incredibly divine and heroic about the Teutonic Kinghts, and they spend their life in search of their Agamemnon who can wake them up and lead them to glory for a scared cause.

(3) We have talked about reason and the madness of love, now lets talk about the animal passions of the "wild beast trainer":

The Sophists, in fact, teach nothing but the opinion of the many, that is to say, the opinions of their assemblies; and this is their wisdom. I might compare them to a man who should study the tempers and desires of a mighty strong and terrible beast who is fed by him. He learns how to approach and handle him, also at what times and from what causes he is dangerous or the reverse, and what is the meaning of his several cries, and by what sounds, when another utters them, he is soothed or infuriated; and you may suppose further, that when, by continually attending upon him, he has become perfect in all this, he calls his knowledge wisdom, and makes of it a system or art, which he proceeds to teach, although he has no real notion of what he means by the principles or passions of which he is speaking, but calls this honourable and that dishonourable, or good or evil, or just or unjust, all in accordance with the tastes and tempers of the great brute. Good he pronounces to be that in which the beast delights and evil to be that which he dislikes; and he can give no other account of them except that the just and noble are the necessary, having never himself seen, and having no power of explaining to others the nature of either, or the difference between them, which is immense.
 
We began by talking about statesmanship as a science, then we talked about communal passion, in this example we turn our back on everything reasoned and moral and just grasp shamelessly at pleasure. So the sophist's only moral philosophy is whatever the masses buy, and like the film Lord Of Flies the moral decline begins with what seems to be a sort of charming liberalism, but it gradually turns into a vicious tyranny. Imagine a person feeding a lion sugar, at first it loves him, but gradually the sugar roots the beast's teeth and the pain turns the beast mad. In Ancient Athens, properly pornographic liberal democracy began with Pericles and lasted for only about thirty years before it started to go insane. So democracy took Ancient Athens on a roller coaster ride, at first it became the world's most urbane anything goes place, but over the next thirty years it gradually turned into an Adolph Hitler style psychopathy. Think of modern Greece, European politicians turned a blind eye to morality and let the Greeks lie and fail to pay debts. This seemingly charming distain for morality creates existential disaster, propelling the rise of the angry nationalists who feed on the pain of the masses, driving Eurozone break-up. Yet this break-up precipitates yet more disaster, and then a new set of politicians come along preaching vengeance.

How did Socrates fight against this terrible decline? In argument he demanded short to the point answers instead of long speeches, leading his sophist subjects past muddle headed self-contradictory rambling, teaching them how to properly reach down into the deepest abstract ethical substance underlying human decision making. So Socrates was more than just a utilitarian pragmatist, he didn't claim the art of statesmanship is some kind of dry science that aims only at living standards gains, but rather he described the art of statesmanship as something which aims to make men both just and wise.


For a feeling of life in democratic Athens, consider this quote from Plato's Republic:

Democracy?... In the first place, are they not free, is not the city full of freedom and frankness, a man may say and do what he likes. And where freedom is, the individual is clearly able to order for himself his own life as he pleases. Thus in this kind of State there will be the greatest variety of human natures. This, then, seems likely to be the fairest of States, being an embroidered robe which is spangled with every sort of flower. And just as women and children think a variety of colours to be of all things most charming, so there are many men to whom this State, which is spangled with the manners and characters of mankind, will appear to be the fairest of States... Is not their humanity to the condemned in some cases quite charming. Have you not observed how, in a democracy, many persons, although they have been sentenced to death or exile, just stay where they are and walk about the world -- the gentleman parades like a hero, and nobody sees or cares?... Is not this a way of life which for the moment is supremely delightful...

Eventually we find... complete equality and liberty in relations between the sexes... the father standing in awe of his son, and the son neither respecting nor fearing his parents, in order to assert what he calls independence... the teacher fears and panders to his pupils, who in turn despise their teachers and attendants... You would never believe - unless you had seen it for yourself - how much more liberty the domestic animals have in a democracy. The dog comes to resemble is mistress, as the proverb has it. They are in the habit of walking about the streets with a grand freedom, and bump into people they meet if they don't get out of their way. Everything is full of this spirit of liberty....

What it adds up to is this, you find that the minds of the citizens become so sensitive that the least vestige of restraint is resented as intolerable, till finally, as you know, in their determination to have no master they disregard all laws written or unwritten.


What do you think Plato means by "society comes to resemble an embroidered robe which is spangled with every sort of flower. And women and children think this variety of colours most charming"? Think about old films and photographs, one of the remarkable things about the world a hundred or more years ago is the cultural homogeneity, back in the good old days everyone looked similar and thought about life similarly etc. Today we tend to call the way our ancestors distained fashion and politics "quaint", today we idealise the very opposite of homogeneity, everyone is trying to be original and everyone has a head full of opinions, everyone is brimming over with images and opinions from TV and facebook etc and cultural forces are running wild. In the 1960s the idea of multiple personality disorder became suddenly fashionable, and perhaps we can think about the embroidered robe spangled by flowers as our modern multiple personality type societies. Why do "women and children" in particular love this variety? Back in Ancient Athens some intellectuals spent all day debating politics economics and philosophy, which obviously creates massive change, but what we are talking about here is the sort of inverse of intellectual debate, think about the idea of twin births in the Theaetetus. So it's what ordinary people do, it's not an intellectual debate creating new philosophies, rather a sort of cultural debate creating new personalities. Think about the modern world, there is very little deep and meaningful conversation and philosophy is going backwards and becoming hopelessly naive and ideological, instead the growth is on the surface at the nebulous undefined psychological level. Remember we said earlier "Think of children playing a game of doctors and nurses, they know nothing about medical science but they pick up on a sort of zeitgeist exuded by professionals in the medical profession, and that's the energy the sophists use to trick people". So whereas the wise men are interested in wrestling with the intellectual substance, women and children love to be rocked back and forth by this mindless psychic shadow of the truth flickering at the surface - "the robe spangled with flowers". Although it's an illusion, it's still a vital energy for the child's development because by imitating these energies the child is programmed with the basic psyche he needs to get started.

What do you think Plato means by "Is not their humanity to the condemned in some cases quite charming"? Think about the multiple personality world we live in, the basic idea behind it is that "man is the measure of all things" and there is no such thing as good and bad personality. For example the charming old 1930s film "The Little Minister" is about a Scottish Minister who falls in love with a gipsy played by Katharine Hepburn, and throughout the film you get the sense of the old fashioned Scottish community which was very judgemental, cynics would say small minded, and the controversy that consequently surrounded the romance. But in modern democracy all that goes and people can more or less do whatever they like and very often the more outrageous people are the more respected they are. If you read old newspapers you will notice that they are filled with worlds like "justice" and "morality", but today newspapers are filled with "rights" and "fun". We often think we are the first moderns, but our post-modern nihilistic wanton culture has existed many times in history, not just in Ancient Athens or Ancient Rome, think, for example about the film "Metropolis" or "La Règle du jeu". Those films showed the cultural vacuum that occured in the rich 1930s liberal elite set who had been freed by great wealth from the drudgery of work and could do whatever they pleased. These pockets of freedom can even exist in very socially conservative societies, for example, the libertine lives of the modern Saudi Royal Family. Think about "the father standing in awe of his son, and the son neither respecting nor fearing his parents", do you see Plato is talking about the cult of youth that grows up in libertine society?

What do you think Plato means by "in their determination to have no master they disregard all laws written or unwritten"? Plato is describing the nemesis which is accompanied by a bursting of the freedom bubble because the insanity and ignorance starts failing existentially, yet nobody is prepared to pull together and make sacrifices for the community or give up their political rights etc, and instead people steeped in self interest choose whatever tyrant they think best serves their own interests. In this desperate condition it starts to dawn on people that this society isn't charming at all, it's basically a hellish spiritually bankrupt world, and a great battle between good and evil develops.

For a feeling of life in authoritarian Sparta, by contrast, consider this quote about the education of male children:

A child deemed worth of raising is given to its mother to be cared for until the age of 7 [did you notice the beautiful expression "given to its mother"?], although during the day, it accompanies its father... picking up Spartan customs by osmosis... Children are barefoot to encourage them to move swiftly, and they are encouraged to learn to withstand the elements by having only one outfit. Children are never satiated with food or fed fancy dishes.

At the age of 7 the boys are organized into divisions 60 strong, living in barracks under the supervision of an elder youth. There they are encouraged to give their loyalty to their fellows rather than their families. They are intentionally underfed and if they want more food must hunt or raid. After dinner, the boys sing songs of war, history, and morality, or the eiren quizzes them, training their memory, logic, and ability to speak laconically. The boys play ball games, ride, swim, wrestle and do gymnastics. They sleep on reeds and suffer floggings -- silently, or they suffer them again.

At 18, the young men become reserve members of the Spartan army. At 20 they become full members and are finally permitted to marry but continue to live in barracks and compete for a place among the the royal guard of honour. Any who do not successfully pass through the agoge [educational system] are denied Spartan citizenship.


The Spartans despised wealth and luxury and hedonism, they were an idealistic cohesive self sacrificing army of the worlds best and bravest fighters. Fans of Democracy today champion the advanced culture of the Athenians and denigrate the comparatively backward Spartans. But frankly it's nonsense, it ignores the accusation that Athens had plundered much of her wealth from surrounding states, also the importance of military prowess in an unsafe world, but most of all it ignores the whole shallowness and tackiness of Ancient Athens. Even modern Theatre Studies types can find themselves cringing as they plough though 400BC Ancient Athenian plays filled with crass jokes about homosexuals playing with their feces etc. One of the great myths is that Ancient Athens was filled with philosophers, in Plato's Protagoras Socrates said the Spartan's were the top philosophers and up until himself Athens had no famous philosophers of her own. The sophists who came to Athens were foreigners who came because everyone in Athens was desperate to learn the secrets of rhetoric, but the Athenians themselves were typically regarded as spiritually bankrupt vapid wimpy dishonest rich kids. The low esteem attributed to Athenian culture is testified to by the fact that many of the noblest Athenians considered the Spartan state near ideal even though the Spartans were their enemies. In fact the word "Laconophilia" was coined to indicate love or admiration of Sparta and philosophers and historians though history consistently championed Sparta up until perhaps the 1960s when it suddenly became fashionable to talk about the cultural superiority of liberal democratic Athens. Eg even Jean-Jacques Rousseau (whose political philosophy influenced the French Revolution and the development of modern political and educational thought) contrasted Sparta favourably with Athens in his Discourse on the Arts and Sciences.

The extreme bravery of the Spartans has been immortalised by the film "The 300 Spartans" which tells the story of a small unit who willingly sacrificed their lives by engaging the entire Persian Army. Their formidable fighting prowess blocked the only road through which the massive invading army could pass, delaying the Persian assault for three days, giving the Athenian fleet time to prepare, and possibly saving the entire Greek world from defeat.

It is said that Spartan King Leonidas who commanded the small unit was convinced that the invading army needed to be delayed and he and his men would certainly die in the process. He told his wife who, despite her love for him, encouraged him. As he was leaving she asked what she should do afterwards. He replied "Marry a good man and have good children". The Persian King Xerxes laughed when he saw the small force but his advisers warned him "they are as brave as any man living, and together they are the best warriors on earth". Xerxes sent emissaries offering to make Leonidas ruler of all Greece if he joined with him. Leonidas answered: "If you had any knowledge of the noble things of life, you would refrain from coveting others' possessions; but for me to die for Greece is better than to be the sole ruler over the people of my race". It is said that when one of the Spartan soldiers was told the Persian arrows would be so numerous as "to block out the sun", he responded with a characteristically laconic remark, "so we shall fight in the shade".

We can see that Ancient Greece was a time of intense idealism, personal self sacrifice and social cohesion. Ancient Athens was the epicentre of a sort of spiritual and intellectual rot which cast off all religion and tradition and filled up with money, fake gurus, lawyers, comedians, pornographers. As this un-idealistic philosophy took hold society gradually failed, both as a result of internal chaos and Darwinian competition with its neighbours. Socrates was the philosopher who proffered an advanced new values system based on progressive intellectual and spiritual analysis. We can think of him as super charged version of Age Of Enlightenment Deist philosophers such as Voltaire, by which I mean he believed in reason and thought the existence of god can be proved without recourse to faith or gut feel, but Socrates was also far more advanced because he taught an objective system of virtue ethics which was infinitely more advanced than both Voltaire's shallow utilitarianism and Kant's hopelessly irrational deontological ethical theory.

Perhaps we can say that liberal democracy is a sort of incubator which culminates in the creation of either philosophers or godforsaken slaves. It encourages us to question everything, to cast off all the traditions and assumptions of our ancestors that made us who we are, to eat the proverbial apple and become sinners and destroy ourselves, and in that hellish condition we become like the drunk who looses everything and ends up in the street and consciously decides to become good again. But what then? Does the cycle start again with a new religion, or can everybody study philosophy? Socrates said a philosophical society is possible, but we we need to turn the cult of youth upside down, the young need to focus on earthly professions such as science or craftsmanship, and only when they reach a certain age should they give it all up and study philosophy.

Let's finish off with a nice quote about Athenian democracy from Ancient Greece. Explaining the fall of Athens, which occurred in spite of its vast wealth during the 430BC Peloponnesian War with Sparta, the historian Thucydides wrote:

Pericles indeed, by his rank, ability, and known integrity, was enabled to exercise an independent control over the multitude--in short, to lead them instead of being led by them; for as he never sought power by improper means, he was never compelled to flatter them, but, on the contrary, enjoyed so high an estimation that he could afford to anger them by contradiction. Whenever he saw them unseasonably and insolently elated, he would with a word reduce them to alarm; on the other hand, if they fell victims to a panic, he could at once restore them to confidence. In short, what was nominally a democracy became in his hands government by the first citizen. With his successors it was different. More on a level with one another, and each grasping at supremacy, they ended by committing even the conduct of state affairs to the whims of the multitude... [many blunders then led to total military defeat]