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Can Philosophy and Democracy Co-Exist?

  • June 3, 2020
  • By Donielle
Can Philosophy and Democracy Co-Exist?

As you can see, I am continuing to prove the timelessness of The Republic of Plato was sharing excerpts of essays that high school students wrote on the classic work. Here are more questions and answers by Socrates and the newest generation to enter adulthood. Let’s hear from Ronin Hsiao.

Did Socrates think democracy was at war with philosophy?

Socrates explains that as a man is thrust into a vast crowd of people, all yelling in tandem about what they agree or disagree with, he will be influenced and persuaded to join the masses, and lose individuality and reason of their own. The philosopher that lives in a true democracy will be too influenced by those around him to become a true seeker of philosophy and reason.

The second reason why a philosopher’s ideals would contrast to those of a democratic mindset, is that in a democracy, the masses will see a philosopher as useless and unnecessary. Socrates illustrates this idea in the following story:

“Suppose the following to be the state of affairs on board a ship or ships. The captain is larger and stronger than any of the crew, but a bit deaf and short-sighted, and similarly limited in seamanship. The crew are all quarrelling with each other about how to navigate the ship, each thinking he ought to be at the helm; they have never learned the art of navigation and cannot say that anyone ever taught it to them, or that they spent any time studying it; indeed they say it can’t be taught and are ready to murder anyone who says it can. They spend all their time milling round the captain and doing all they can to get him to give them the helm. If one faction is more successful than another, their rivals may kill them and throw them overboard, lay out the honest captain with drugs or drink or in some other way, take control of the ship, help themselves to what’s on board, and turn the voyage unto the sort of drunken pleasure cruise you would expect. Finally, they reserve their admiration for the man who knows how to lend a hand in controlling the captain by force or fraud; they praise his seamanship and navigation and knowledge of the sea and condemn everyone else as useless. They have no idea that the true navigator must study the seasons of the year, the sky, the stars, the winds and all the other subjects appropriate to his profession if he is to be really fit to control a ship; and they think that it’s needed for such control (whether or not they want it exercised) and that there’s no such thing as an art of navigation. With all this going on aboard aren’t the sailors on any such ship bound to regard the true navigator as a word-spinner and a star-gazer, of no use to them at all?”

In this story, Socrates is making a parallel between the ship’s crew and politicians of a democratic society, and between the true navigator, and a true philosopher. The crew is so involved and distracted from trying to control the ship and being at conflict with the other crew members, that they don’t have any time to see the true navigator as useful, or legitimate. This is the same way in a democracy. The masses or the representatives of the masses are so involved with the wants of the majority, and political struggles, that they have no use for philosophy, and immediately cast away any thoughts of seeking truth or reason. It is for this reason why a democratic society will always see a philosopher as useless. 

People distort reason

The third reason as to why a philosopher would find it difficult to practice philosophy in a democratic society, is that truth and reason would be distorted by the masses. A philosopher’s goal is to achieve an understanding of the absolute truths of existence through the use of reason and logic. As such, if the truth all around the philosopher was distorted, then it would become incredibly difficult for the philosopher to discern real truth. An article by Richard Oxenberg on the Political Animal Magazine website states:

“Various theorists of liberal democracy will have their various answers to these questions. It is not my purpose to explore these answers, but to touch upon an issue fundamental to all of them. In order for any of these answers to be effective citizens must be able to recognize a species of truth – moral truth – that is, so to speak, trans-individual. They must be able to apprehend, intellectually, moral imperatives that derive their legitimacy from something more universal than the individuality of individual interest.” (Oxenberg, Richard, Sep 19, 2016)

Here, Richard explains why in order for a philosopher to truly co-exist with a true democracy, it would mean that every individual would have to have the same understanding of truth and morality, which could never be possible, due to every individual having their own opinions and beliefs. 

Some may give the argument that a philosopher would be able to thrive in a democratic society, showing the following quote from Socrates as an example:

“… he [the philosopher] lives from day today, indulging in the pleasure of the moment. One day, it’s wine, women and song, the next water to drink and a strict diet; one day it’s hard physical training, the next indolence and careless ease, and then a period of philosophic study. Often he takes to politics and keeps jumping to his feet and saying or doing whatever comes into his head. Sometimes all his ambitions and efforts are military, sometimes they are all directed to success in business. There’s no order or restraint in his life, and he reckons his way of living is pleasant, free and happy, and sticks to it through thick and thin.” (Socrates, The Republic 561c)

Socrates explains here that in a democratic society, a philosopher can live a joyful life, free of bonds and allowed to do whatever he so pleases. However, as it was stated before, even though this means the philosopher can live happily, he would still be corrupted by his pleasures and surroundings, and be unable to truly pursue philosophy without distractions. 

Does freedom stifle philosophy?

Some may still argue that democracy would give enough freedom to the philosopher, that he would be able to study philosophy without the distraction or influence of the masses. Socrates says the following about democracy:

“It contains every possible type, because of this wide freedom it allows, and anyone engaged in founding a state, as we are doing, should perhaps be made to pay a visit to a democracy and choose what he likes from the variety of models it displays, before he proceeds to make his own foundation.” (Socrates, The Republic 557d)

However, this still does not answer the problem of the influence that the masses would have on the philosopher’s reasoning. The decisions in a true democracy are made by the majority, so it would be practically impossible for the philosopher to remain completely uninfluenced by the passion of the crowds of people around him, and therefore, his reasoning and morals would become influenced and distorted.

In conclusion, the fact that philosophers would need an environment, uninfluenced by the masses, to truly grow, a democratic society would deem the philosopher as useless and a phony, and the truth and reason would become distorted when influenced by a democratic society, it is natural to draw the conclusion that a philosopher’s reason for being would come into conflict with a true democratic society. (Excerpts from as essay by Ronin Hsiao)

If you need guidance reading The Republic of Plato, this can help:

Plato’s Republic: A Reader’s Guide (affiliate link).

By Donielle, June 3, 2020
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