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?”
Such 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.
Ancient 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 that we are about to put in charge of the Italian vessel a comedian, a fool, I guess he would regret that sweet shop owner, wouldn’t he?