On Democracy, Demoguery and Foolocracy


In Book Six of Plato‘s The Republic, there is a very illuminating passage about the nature of democracy. Socrates is discoursing with Plato’s brother Adeimantus trying to get him to see the flaws of democracy by comparing a society to a ship. “If you were heading out on a journey by sea“, asks Socrates “who would you ideally want to decide who was in charge of the vessel? Just anyone or people educated in the rules and demands of seafaring?” The latter of course“, says Adeimantus, ” So why then“, responds Socrates,” “do we keep thinking that any old person should be fit to judge who should be a ruler of a country?

soc1Such display of distrust in the democratic system from one of the foundling fathers of  philosophical thought and symbol of that idea of civilization which has Ancient Athens as universal icon, sounds quite striking. However, that means that since the very beginning the issue of representation was seen as the weakest aspect of democracy. Should electors require any skill to exercise their right to vote, census, education etc.? Or should we presume that democracy by birthright is the greatest modern achievement?

Socrates’s point is that voting in an election is a skill rather than a random intuition. And like any other skill, it needs to be taught methodically to people. Letting citizens vote without an education is as irresponsible as putting them in charge of that ship sailing to the frightening ocean. If they are not qualified, it might very likely crash against the rocks when the first storm comes. It sounds snobbish, I know,  but he was not. For Socrates only those who” had thought about issues rationally and deeply should be let near a vote”.Giving the vote to all without connecting it to that of wisdom could lead a system the Greeks feared above all:( demagoguery: dēmos ‘the people’ + agōgos ‘leading) and only education could be the most effective antidote.

soc3Ancient Athens had indeed experienced  what being ruled by demagogues meant with Alcibiades. Rich, charismatic, smooth-talking,he had slowly eroded basic freedoms and helped to push Athens to its disastrous military adventures in Sicily. However, any era has seen the birth of one or more Alcibiades, because their real skill is exploiting our desire for easy answers, that is all. We want to believe to their alluring world made of slogans and promises without  taking the trouble of pondering on how all could be achieved or their consequences on people. We always enjoy a good story, don’t we?

As a demonstration of how our minds work, Socrates wanted us to imagine an election debate between two candidates: a doctor and a sweet shop owner. The sweet shop owner’ s speech would sound more or less like this:

“Look, this person here has worked many evils on you. He hurts you, gives you bitter potions and tells you not to eat and drink whatever you like. He’ll never serve you feasts of many and varied pleasant things like I will”. Socrates asks us to consider what the reaction of the audience would be like: Do you think the doctor would be able to reply effectively? The true answer – “I cause you trouble, and go against your desires in order to help you’” would cause an uproar among the voters, don’t you think? That’s why we prefer to give our vote to sweet shop owners rather than doctors.

But, if Socrates could be here among us and see who are the captains in charge of many “vessels” around the world, I guess he would regret that sweet shop owner, wouldn’t he?


58 thoughts on “On Democracy, Demoguery and Foolocracy

    • I know , my dear. Alcibiades of any kind are proliferating everywhere,and when one of them is about to be in charge of the most powerful nation of the globe….uhmmmm. Let’s wait and see. 🙆

  1. Great post. You bring up an issue I’ve been struggling with myself–the wisdom of democracy. I’m saying this as an American who has just witnessed Donald Trump be elected president. My struggle, though, is what is the alternative? Just letting the rich people vote? It’s tough and I can’t figure out an alternative system that seems more palatable.

      • and therein lies the issue with the U.S. for its republican leadership loves to cut education. so, with this election, you have seen the fruits of all of that, starting decades ago. Bernie Sanders is setting out to educate. Hopefully that gets covered in the media.

        I agree wholeheartedly with you and let’s hope the people wake up. and thanks for the history lesson 🙂

      • Unfortunately you can’t give a student a test and believe that is a good arbiter of citizenship. Only by teaching student to think for themselves will we come up with good citizenship.

  2. I always look forward to your posts, and this one is a great reason why: you have caught what I, and I suspect many others, have been struggling with ever since last June.
    If I could not Share any other post, I would Share this one.
    Happy New Year.

  3. What I like about your posts, Stefy, is perspective. And history. A nation not educated with a sense of historical perspective is a nation unable to learn from past mistakes or past wisdom, living with a very short-term collective memory.
    Have nations no recall of where demagogues like Mussolini or Hitler, and strong men like Napoleon, have ultimately led them with their visions and promises? It appears not.

    • Let me quote one of my posts to explain better what I mean with the word fool:”Every time it was the fool’s turn to go on stage there was great expectation in the audience. The most important actors wanted to play that role, actually. Portraying the fool did not only mean juggling or making people laugh with trivial jokes or puns, it was much more. He was charismatic, witty, shrewd, sometimes cynical, but above all, the fool was the only character who was allowed the privilege to say whatever he liked. He was a fool after all. He could target whoever he considered worthy of contempt exposing him to ridicule (with a certain prudence obviously), for example. People laughed with him, people were with him, because after all he was one of them, one who could understand their frustrations, misery, rage, disappointed hopes. With a laugh he could exorcise all that. It was a great power indeed and he knew it. But I’m sure, that not even in his wildest dreams, he would have ever imagined one day to use this power to become a politician and, why not, rule a country or become the mayor of a town. People would have died from laughing. Yes, but that was the Middle Age, the dark age. Nowadays, in the modern age, we have smashed these prejudices and we have allowed fools of any kind to be part of the active political life. Even those who were not really born fool, try clumsily to imitate them, because this seems to be what people want….” and of course, for me he is also a fool.😜🙋

      • Indeed, fair point. Though as we are no longer in the Middle Ages either, it seems that the system of politics worldwide has changed as well.

        Italy I presume is a much more straight-up mass democracy. Here in America where we have more of a controlled/regulated democracy, we just elected a celebrity–given, a celebrity who has economic experience in business but still a celebrity nonetheless.

        It seems though that the politicians have been knowing less and less and have been failing as politicians while the fools seem to know more and more.

  4. I come from a family related to Socrates, which I have notice you do write quite some about him, point being, caffe owner would be best knowing my knowledge.
    I have an idea…..

      • I can teach the Socratic methods to those kids you teach, as a matter of fact when I was in college….long time ago now, damn, I argued that it was right to kill civilians in a war environment with 3 of his philosophies, I did have to read it in front of a class full of 30 plus students, and this was in San Francisco, quite liberal college as you know, so that statement in front of the class I could see the rest of the class their eyes that said I want to kill you right now. So I wasn’ t very popular. Yet again the easy argument was to say it was wrong to kill civilians in war environment with his philosophies, actually it was 3 from 3 other philosophers which i don t remember. Point being, the teacher even though he was a communist he was fair and gave me an A minus. Pretty good was I am, at that time to make some freaking strange arguments, I could argue about anything if I believe it or not to be true to my believes, so….I’ m just the KING
        By the way, let me have a teaching lesson with those Italians

  5. Nowhere in the world there is democracy, not in the basic naked importance – the countries that claim they have democracy, they have only homemade alibi constitutions – a constitution isn’t necessarily democracy – although those who make them want to give the impression of being democratic – the swiss Constitution is perhaps being closest without being it.

    What we often see are either pure dictatorship or majoritarian dictatorship – the latter likes to mention itself as being democratic, but it is an illusion – the main difference by pure dictatorship or majoritarian dictatorship, it is in the latter category are the voters lulled to sleep while politicians steal their influence.

    • Pitiless analysis, but true. However, we should work on those lulled majorities, shouldn’t we? We should make more aware and informed in order to make the best choice. Education is the key. I cannot see anything else.

      • Agree with you – Both dictatorship and tyranny of the majority are controlled by fear – the first mentioned, so there is a palpable fear of life or death – in the latter there is an imaginary or inflated fear planted in people – people with fear is much easier to manipulate – many of the countries where there actually can be voted, there voters are controlled as a more or less frightened herd animals almost like sheep guided by shepherd dogs.

  6. There’s another angle to this which became a major political issue in the Progressive Era: do we directly elect officials, or do we have elected officials appoint competent experts to positions that need them?

    Consider a ship. The captain is in charge, and makes the major decisions. You might well want to elect him, to ensure you have a voice in what he decides, such as matters of where to go! But that captain, in turn, might want to appoint pilots, engineers, and chefs, because the people in those positions require expert knowledge and abilities. Indeed, if you go read Mark Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi,” you’ll see that pilots on the Mississippi in the antebellum era were unelected experts picked by the captain; the pilot’s expertise was considered so essential that the captain himself could not override the pilot’s professional decisions. So such an arrangement is quite possible.

    During the Progressive Era, one of the tensions was between increasing popular participation in politics, say by changing the Constitution to make Senators directly elected by the public instead of by state legislators, while also increasing professional expertise by making such positions as coroner appointed instead of elected, or hiring appointed professional city managers to assist elected mayors. The Progressives wanted better government, but they were often divided over whether this required more or less democracy.

    So besides considering whether we need a better educated electorate, it’s worth also thinking about what sort of education office holders should have, as well. The difficulty in the U.S. would be that rampant anti-intellectualism would make an educational requirement for elected office politically impossible

  7. It is hard to say what kind of government is best. The curious thing about this election is that the two worst candidates were chosen: the Republican one by the populist faction and the Democratic one by the party elite. The best answer to this problem was given by thinkers like Aristotle and Cicero: creating a mixed government of democratic, aristocratic, and kingly elements. The problem is how to balance these elements so that no significant class or interest feels underrepresented and develops grievances which lead to violence, which is the debacle a government of experts always runs into.

    Our Founding Fathers did an excellent job of mixing together a democratic element in the Legislature, aristocratic ones in the Senate and Judiciary, and a kingly one in the President. The main reason for Trump’s victory is that the government has lost its connection to the people, which produced many grievances among the demos. Trump, good demagogue that he is, took full advantage of it.

    However, lack of education is the second reason Trump won the Republican candidacy in the first place. Our schools have moved too far from the liberal and classical education of the Founders–the kind of education which truly liberates people to think for themselves. This problem began in the Progressive Era with new theories of education. In the book Cultural Literacy, E. D. Hirsch writes that the curricula of many schools now are not only lacking in good content but are even anti-knowledge! It is sad to think that these problems are so widespread that they will take many decades to fix.

  8. “Should electors require any skill to exercise their right to vote, census, education etc.?” No doubts! To become an American 36 years ago I passed an exam (history of the state, etc.) Today many voters can’t answer simpliest questions. It’s unacceptable!

  9. I found this fascinating, not just your excellent post but the comments and responses too.
    In much of my writing I emphasise the importance, the critical importance, of education, but my concern now is that education is synonymous with indoctrination.
    How do we create a system which teaches how to think and not what to think?
    Oh, and thank you for making me think!

    • This is an interesting question. We should teach students to be curious and never give for granted everything they hear, but we need time and of course well prepared educators who believe in the power of education. Dreamers , actually. Thank you so much for dropping by.
      Stefy. 🙋

  10. One longs for the philosopher king but even there the possibility of totalitarianism stands in the shadows nearby. When citizens are untethered from spiritual moorings they eventually cry out for a king to stop their drift. As Mestrovic observed, this opens the way to manipulation by the unscrupulous on a vast scale to a totalitarianism that promises restored greatness. Once people have lost their connection to God, they are sure to be enslaved by a Caesar. In that condition there is little patience for a King who is not of this world.
    They will cry out for Barabbas every time.

  11. Hi teacher
    Socrate’s thought embodied a contemporary problem.
    I think that the new generation (including me) has to learn the skill to vote, or someone wiser should teach it to us, to let us lay the fondation for a better society.

  12. I studied Plato last year and I found fascinating what he thought about democracy: his arguments were so actual that I could easily connect them with the Italian political situation and with the widest idea of political elections all over the world.
    Since I have studied universal suffrage at middle school, I reflect about what it means. I consider it a double-edged sword: it allows every citizen to express his own opinion and his preference for a candidate, and this is a great achievement, but on the other hand, everyone, even without a basic education or without beeing informed, can vote. Mass media, such as newspapers or news on TV, are the primary source of information and should help people decide by reporting real facts, but unfortunately, nowadays, they are totally corrupted and controlled by rich companies who side with specific parties that grant them special regulations and taxations with ”ad hoc” laws. As Socrate said, we can’t allow to vote who is unaware of what is voting: risks for democracy are huge.
    Actually, today everyone is unaware: this is a camouflaged democracy, where people are encouraged to vote with obsessive propaganda, even on media, against other parties with false promises and slogans. Of course, informed people would be able to recognise these, but how can we be well informed without real and honest news? It is a vicious circle that could be eliminated only by regulating media: then we would be free to decide which political project is the best for our country and our vote would be conscious mind. It is an ambitious idea that, probably, with the actual Italian political class, won’t be approved: we can only hope for a more radiant future for our country and, in the meanwhile, build our personal opinion by reading different newspapers and analysing several points of view.

      • Lots of newspapers and TV programmes are controlled by important families which are involved in politics too. News given by these are unfair, because they side with a specific party. Even it is quite difficult, I would remove every tie between media and politics, allowing impartial publishers to inform with neutral news (I mean you can work in one of the two sectors, not in both).

  13. I found this article very interesting but I disagree with Socrate because I think that all the people, it doesn’t matter whether they are uneducated or not, have the right to vote .
    Francesco Rizzitelli

  14. Nowdays the possibility of vote is a symbol of freedom; the presence of monarchies and tyrannies prevented citizens to exercise that right. Modern Democracies grant and safeguard this right but the latter has to be used carefully. Indeed I partially agree with Socrates’s idea: vote requires skills and education (for this reason he claims the need of a meritocratic government). I also think that freedom is something people can’t give up to. How can we figure this out? As far as I’m concerned, through education and information.

  15. I think that Socrate’s thougt is quite correct but he exaggerates about the fact of the skills that everyone should learn before voting because I think that they should just learn to build their own idea and try not to be influenced by other people

  16. I had this kind of debatte last year when I studied Plato: I agree with him. Voting requires education just because ignorance makes people take the wrong decisions. I wish it was that easy… but I know the issue is more complex than that.
    p.s. sorry for the late hour

  17. I agree with Socrate. His point is that voting in an election is a skill rather than a random intuition. In my opinion, politics isn’t for everyone. Who rules must be an acculturated and smart man/woman who understands the problems of the nation and finds a solution. Who doesn’t know how to do this must stay home!

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