Disappointing Democracy

Is Democracy all it’s cracked up to be?

Adam De Salle

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(Credit: Ivan Dmitri/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Image)

We are used to thinking very highly of democracy, the majority of us live in democracies and we think their quite nice, far better than any of the alternatives. And while that may be true, are we just being naïve and blindly optimistic, ignoring the inherent flaws of democracy? Democracy was achieved by such a long, arduous, heroic struggle that it can feel embarrassing, even shameful, to be disappointed by it. But democracy is not perfect and a couple of major historical figures thought so too.

Socrates

Democracy is inherently linked with Ancient Athens — the civilization that gave rise to it. The Parthenon has become almost a by-word for democratic values. Hence, it is very surprising to discover that one of Ancient Greece’s greatest achievements, philosophy, was highly suspicious of its other major achievement, democracy. The founding father of Greek philosophy, Socrates is portrayed in the dialogues of Plato as hugely pessimistic about the whole business of democracy. In Book 6 of ‘The Republic’, Plato describes Socrates falling into conversation with a character called Adeimantus (Plato’s brother) and trying to get him to see the flaws of democracy by comparing society to a ship.

If you were heading out on a journey by sea, who would you ideally want to choose who was in charge of the vessel? Everyone and anyone, or people well-versed in what seafaring requires? Adeimantus, like any of us, of course wanted the latter and so Socrates asks why then we still leave anyone to decide who should be a ruler of a country. Socrates’ point is that voting in an election is a skill, not a random intuition. Like any skill, it has to be taught systematically to people. Letting the citizenry vote without an education is as irresponsible as putting them in charge of a trireme to Samos in a storm, Socrates jests.

Indeed, Socrates was to have first hand experience of the foolishness of voters. In 399 BCE, he was put on trial on trumped up charges of corrupting the youth of Athens. The jury of 500 Athenians decided on a very narrow margin (52% guilty, 48%…

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Adam De Salle

I am a young writer interested in providing the intellectual tools to those in the political trenches so that they may fight their battles well-informed.