Against Democracy, 2008 Tour

I seem to get a little less fiery each time I play Plato during this lesson.  I don’t know whether I’m just going soft or whether I’ve got more genuine pedagogical motives, but even without the grand pyrotechnics, Plato’s offensive against democracy on its own was enough this year to get both classes fighting.  The raw datum that’s hard to combat (and which makes playing Plato so easy) is that so much of modern life does not trust democracy: the multitudes per se do not vote on who gets into med school, who becomes UGA’s starting quarterback, who becomes an English professor, or much of anything else, yet almost all of my students (I’ve had a couple who have doubts) hold the conviction that when it comes to justice, everybody eighteen or older should have equal say in who administers justice in human communities.  And I tell them each time that holding such convictions is fine, but they need to do some reading and some reflecting on why they think so.  Although Jeffersonian rhetoric is inspiring in the abstract, once I get students to think on it a while, they realize that not everybody has the same degree of expertise in medicine or football strategy, and the answer to the riddle of democracy is not that everyone has the same degree of expertise in justice.  The answer lies elsewhere, though for the moment, since this discussion still might continue on my WebCT site, I’m not going to say right now what I think the answer might be except to say that I’ve read a whole mess of eighteenth-century philosophy, and it’s hard work, intellectually speaking, to turn Plato on his head on this question.



Filed under Plato, teaching

2 responses to “Against Democracy, 2008 Tour

  1. Andrew

    One of things which distinguishes those involved in government from say football coaches and English professors is political power. That is not to say that professors are powerless, although they may sometimes feel powerless, but that the task and the authority of ordering the ‘polis’ is one with greater power. Indeed its those charged with ordering the ‘polis’ who ultimately check the power of coaches, professors and surgeons, so that coaches may not beat players, surgeons may not bury too many of their mistakes, and professors may not accept money for grades. Of course its not just the extent of the power which is different, but its legitimacy, the final ordering of the polis is the concern of all citizens because all citizens should grow in virtue and a properly ordered polis is the context, at least according to Plato, in which one might grow in virtue.

    As you know I am no Calvinist, however the one service which Reformed theology seems to have rendered is the insight that democracy attempts to equalise power not because everyone is equally qualified to exercise political power but because everyone is equally disqualified from exercising political power.

  2. Alright, old friend, then what of the power over a body? Why not have people vote on surgical procedures, if nobody can be trusted with exercising power? The polis is, after all, analogous to the body in Plato.

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