Democracy and Knowledge

This week I ran a General Knowledge quiz over a succession of lunchtimes at school. The quiz was open to all pupils from across the age range (13-18) and there were around 60 entrants this year (not too bad, in retrospect, although fewer than last). There were 80 questions for pupils to complete, and the quiz was multiple choice (with 4 options). I wrote many of the questions with the intention that, even if the boys didn’t know the right answer, they might be able to form an educated guess and – even if not – pick up information of interest simply from the question itself.

So, for example, in asking a question about the ancient Etruscans, I posed it as follows: ‘The ancient Etruscans leave no written texts: our knowledge of their culture is confined mainly to archaeological finds, including a series of impressive tombs. In which modern country might you find the archaeological remains of the ancient Etruscan civilisation?’

And, when asking a question about the opera Carmen, I framed it like this: ‘Who wrote the opera ‘Carmen’, which tells the story of the seduction of a naive Spanish soldier, Don Jose, by Carmen, a gypsy girl?’

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A scene from Bizet’s Carmen

Posing the questions in this way was done (I admit) with the intention not simply of providing a tidbit of knowledge about the subject matter they refer to, but with a view to inspiring further interest or investigation of topics that pupils might not have heard of, or that might not have interested them, before.

What particularly struck me as I was setting the quiz this year, though, was the importance of general knowledge across a whole range of areas of life – from the humdrum and everyday to the way we are able to exercise important individual liberties. I have been thinking quite a bit, in other words, not just about the quiz itself, but about the place of general knowledge in education – and democracies – more generally.

A few years ago, around the time of the election of Donald Trump, I encountered a provocative and very interesting article in the New Yorker by Caleb Crain, entitled ‘The Case against Democracy’ (link here). The opening lines of the article gave immediate pause for thought: ‘Roughly a third of American voters think that the Marxist slogan “From each according to his ability to each according to his need” appears in the Constitution. About as many are incapable of naming even one of the three branches of the United States government. Fewer than a quarter know who their senators are, and only half are aware that their state has two of them’.

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This sort of general knowledge deficit is of course not unique to citizens of America’s democracy: a degree of unawareness of political and constitutional realities exists everywhere. The remainder of Crain’s article looks at different ways in which political theorists have tried to grapple with the problem of ‘political ignorance’ among voters in democracies. From considering arguments for weighing the votes of the knowledgeable more heavily, to arguments in favour of outright vote restriction; from trying to ascertain whether there might be a ‘rational’ explanation for political ignorance, to trying to assess the psychological dispositions of those who are both more and less ignorant: a lot has been done to try to understand ‘political ignorance’, and to explore how it might be addressed.

One point that is not considered in Crain’s article is that the existence of something like a General Knowledge requirement for participation/involvement in political/civic life already exists in countries like the UK and the US, in the form of the tests which those applying for citizenship or leave to remain in those countries must complete. The existence of such tests is not widely queried nor do the tests themselves occasion much (if any, from what I have seen) controversy. Why shouldn’t a similar test, checking knowledge of basic political and constitutional realities, be a requirement for all those wishing to exercise the right to vote? And isn’t this the sort of thing schools might provide for all pupils before they leave?

An obvious worry here would of course be with the potential for corruption: making any such test too easy or difficult, or politically biased in some or other direction, for instance. But is it not also worrying that widespread misinformation, ‘fake news’ and disingenuous political campaigning also generate the potential for equally – if not more – serious corruption of the political process? That, arguably, is the situation we must confront.

Arguments in favour of the introduction of tests of political knowledge/ignorance do not seem to have an ancient pedigree. That this is so may seem surprising. For one thing, after all, the arrival of democratic government in the world’s first democracy in ancient Athens seems to have been accompanied by a rising tide of education. Where, previously, only the nobly born could expect to receive an education, increasingly young men (though not women) from across the body of free citizens might now receive one (sometimes very much to the chagrin of Athens’ aristocrats).

And yet: we do not – to my knowledge – possess evidence of any ancient laws mandating education for citizens of democratic Athens from this period. It seems rather that the free-born just recognised something good in literate education, for instance, that seemed to be of value: it certainly wasn’t a requirement, though, that they had to have an education to participate in politics.

Deep in the very history of democracy, then, we find knowledge – at least, that is, knowledge of a sort that is transmitted through an education – being treated not as a fundamental requirement of democratic involvement, but as an optional freedom which citizens might choose, but not be required, to have.

The argument that democratic government in ancient Athens was nonetheless effective at dispersing knowledge among its citizens in ways that produced many desirable outcomes for the city can still, however, be made.* It’s just that – so the argument goes – knowledge emerges among citizens of the democracy more as a product of the Athenian political system and its social networks and institutions – but not in any altogether obvious way out of its educational institutions too.

What significance might there be in the fact that, at the very origin of democratic institutions, rights and citizenship, no special measure was introduced to the effect that a particular kind of education would be the norm?

Figures of significance in the later development of democracy certainly recognised the importance of having an educated citizen body. For John Adams, the American statesman and founding father, writing in his Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law in 1765, ‘Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right, from the frame of their nature, to knowledge’.

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John Adams, founding father and the 2nd US president

Adams is worth quoting at length: ‘The preservation of the means of knowledge, among the lowest ranks, is of more importance to the public than all the property of all the rich men in the country…Let us tenderly and kindly cherish, therefore, the means of knowledge. Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write. Let every order and degree among the people rouse their attention and animate their resolution. Let them all become attentive to the grounds and principles of government’.

Adams was not alone among the US founding fathers in adopting this sort of view. Indeed, so influential did such thoughts become that De Tocqueville, on visiting the US in the 19th century, made the following observation at the outset of his great work on American politics: ‘In the United States, the sum of men’s education is directed toward politics’.

This, if it represents an accurate assessment, may not, of course, be taken to reflect an altogether healthy state of affairs.

Perhaps, and especially given the parlous state of contemporary US politics, there is good reason to remain suspicious of any attempt to introduce a new test of political knowledge to voters, or into school curricula. Do we want education to have an outright and precisely specified requirement of political knowledge?

If so, do we risk moving in the direction of producing the sort of education Tocqueville identified as characteristic of the 19th century US?

If not, perhaps we will remain in some sense close to the somewhat more laissez-faire democrats of ancient Athens, for whom democratic citizenship and formal education did not need to go together, hand in hand.

*See e.g. Josiah Ober (2008), Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens.

Against Sophistry: Philosophers and Politics in Plato’s Republic

In Plato’s Republic, the ideal politician is also the ideal kind of philosopher. This politician-philosopher is an honest individual who is never willing to accept anything but the truth (Rep. 6.485f). He – and for Plato in fourth century Athens, it will always be a he – is a lover of wisdom and learning. He is self-disciplined, someone who avoids reckless spending, and isn’t greedy. He isn’t narrow-minded or petty, forgetful, cowardly or boastful. And he won’t ever drive hard bargains or act unjustly.

Since childhood, he will have been notable not only for his sense of fairness and his kind disposition, but also for his excellent memory and the speed with which he acquires knowledge. He will be refined, with a developed understanding of ‘order’ and ‘grace’ – and he will be courageous, someone prepared to make a full contribution to the world around him. He will, in short, be an impressive figure indeed, an all-round good human being. And in Plato’s view, his virtues will make him ideally suited – together with a small group of equally impressive colleagues – to running the state.

In this way, Plato openly doubts the capacity of most individuals to play a part in government. Sound political decision-making, he thinks, plainly rests on special capacities of judgment and wisdom, capacities which most people simply don’t possess. Best, therefore, to leave this decision-making to those with the right skill-set (which he feels he can identify).

This vision of oligarchy, in which a highly educated and morally virtuous elite rule over their peers, offers nothing short of an affront to our contemporary sensibilities. It is a profoundly anti-democratic vision, as Plato himself knew all too well: a major part of his goal in offering it was to propose an alternative to the democracy of which he himself was a member in ancient Athens.

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This alternative was not put into practice, then or subsequently. Despite this, Plato’s political programme has continued to remain a topic of discussion and debate ever since it was first formulated. In a previous post, I explored how one recent strand of interpretation even identified in Plato’s political ideas an important intellectual influence on the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century.

In this post, I want to offer some brief thoughts about what a charitable interpretation of Plato’s vision of politics – featuring rule by philosopher-kings – might look like today. For centuries, Plato’s negative view of democracy at Athens was accepted and endorsed by his readers: this began to change in the 19th century, and since then, Plato’s criticisms have been viewed in an altogether different – and usually much more critical – light.*

So what might a charitable reading of Plato’s politics look like in the light of this dramatic shift? In sketching out a few thoughts on this, I am interested in trying to make sense of Plato’s ideas in a way that assumes they are not the simple product of a malign or bigoted point of view – but rather of a sophisticated mind trying to confront serious problems with a view to finding solutions that would be to everyone’s benefit.

It is no doubt easy to sympathise with Plato’s preference for politicians who are honest, courageous, kind and wise. And who could complain about the sort of politician who doesn’t spend recklessly and isn’t greedy? On the face of it, Plato’s ideal politicians sound plausible and attractive enough: indeed their qualities wouldn’t go amiss among some of the politicians of today.

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Nelson Mandela, who many hold up as a model of good statesmanship in the modern world.

Having said this, I recoil from Plato’s suggestion that only a small group of highly educated individuals should enjoy political power – though even here I would still argue that the motivation underlying his point of view deserves some sympathy. Put simply, Plato wants to find a way to ensure that the best sort of politician really will get to exercise power – and to ensure that people lacking in the qualities required of good leaders (as he sees them) don’t.

Oligarchy, he assumes, is the best way to achieve this – accompanied by a ruthless selection procedure that enables only the very best leaders to be put in charge. We may disagree with some of Plato’s ideas about the qualities required in leaders – and indeed about his sense that such qualities are present only in a few people. But his sense that the best leaders should lead, and that there should be a rigorous process for determining who they are, is uncontroversial enough. Plato’s high standards might even hold lessons for the ways in which we set the bar (not high enough?) for political leadership today.

Importantly, and perhaps despite appearances, it is not (or at least not solely) a snobbish elitism that motivates Plato, but a desire to find a way to ensure that ordinary citizens enjoy the best kind of governance. Plato thinks that his form of oligarchy will produce the best potential for happiness for all citizens: it is a way of ensuring the common good. On this basis, some interpreters of Plato have seen him as a kind of utilitarian.

Plato’s scepticism about the capacity of democracy, as he saw it practised in Athens, to deliver the best outcomes for the city’s citizens is grounded in a number of reservations he had about how he saw the Athenian democracy working in practice.

One big problem, as he saw it, was that ordinary Athenians were too much in thrall to an influential group of individuals he regarded as charlatans: the sophists. These sophists were in some respects similar to philosophers like Plato himself. They were involved in offering education to the city’s young, but they seem to have had a special interest in providing a particular kind of training: teaching people to speak persuasively in Athens’ democratic assembly.

They did this in a way that Plato himself found alarming. In Plato’s estimation, all that the sophists really impart to their pupils is a capacity to argue convincingly in favour of any given proposition. They do not try to instil in their pupils a sense of what is really true, what is really good and what is really just. The sophists are highly skilled and convincing arguers, but – for Plato – they lack any real moral compass, and they produce pupils (and political opinion-formers) with this same deficiency.

For Plato, the false views that could be detected among many of his fellow Athenian citizens, far from being attacked and exposed by the sophists, were in fact often (indirectly) attributable to them. He even compares the citizens of Athens to a large, irascible but dim-witted animal and the sophists to an animal trainer who has mastered the art of pandering to the animal’s preferences, without really seeking to improve its behaviour (Rep. 6.493).

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Plato likens the citizens of Athens to a large and powerful animal, and he describes the sophists as their trainer

A clear issue here, for Plato, is that the sophists are not trying to get their fellow citizens to think accurately with a view to arriving at good decisions, and they are not looking after their genuine best interests. Rather, they are part of a culture in which superficial cleverness and rhetorical sleights of hand are having a corrosive impact, leading citizens to disregard – or to misapprehend altogether – what is best for themselves and for their fellow citizens.

The fairness of Plato’s attack on the sophists, and the extent to which he accurately represents their views, have both been subjects of extended scholarly dispute. If, however, Plato has a point when he says that the Athenian democracy was in the grip of a school of thought that placed no discernible emphasis on what is true, good, or right, then we may find some sympathy with his attempt to confront this state of affairs, even if we stop short of accepting his conclusion that democracy as a whole would need to be sacrificed to ensure that its malign influence could be prevented.

*This process is neatly charted in Athens on Trial: The Antidemocratic Tradition in Western Thought, by Jennifer Tolbert Roberts

The State is Like a Ship: on Plato’s Critique of the Athenian Democracy

In Book 6 of Plato’s Republic, in the context of a damning appraisal of the way the democracy at Athens works, Socrates compares the Athenian state to a ship. The owner of the ship, he says, is big and strong – but he is hard of hearing, shortsighted and not much of a navigator. The ship’s crew are in persistent disarray. They recklessly gorge themselves on the ship’s resources, while disagreeing with one another about who should be in charge on board, with each sailor believing he should be the captain (despite having neither experience nor training). Being the captain, the sailors maintain, requires no special skill (Gk. techne).

In this analogy, the citizen population of Athens are the owners of the ship. In Plato’s candid assessment, they are politically powerful but lacking in governmental acumen and intellectual ability. With them in charge, the Athenian ship is not going to cut a clear, sensible or efficient path.

The crew of the ship, meanwhile, are the disputatious demagogues and politicians who hold sway in Athens’ political assembly, each vying for influence and power over their fellow citizens.

Plato wants his fellow Athenians to undertake a thoroughgoing revaluation of the way things on board work. Rather than looking to the ship’s owner, or to themselves, he thinks the sailors on board the Athenian ship should look instead to a marginal, currently powerless figure whose quiet presence on board is regrettably overlooked: this figure he calls the ‘true navigator’. This true navigator is a person of great learning, wisdom and moral fibre: a philosopher.

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A bust of Plato

My doctoral supervisor once told me of how she had been campaigning to try to get philosophers onto many of the various university decision-taking panels and boards she had contact with. Decisions rely on philosophical judgments: even if philosophers present on decision-making panels weren’t themselves making such judgments, might they nonetheless be able to advise those who were about philosophical issues and questions which arose in the course of a given set of deliberations?

I don’t know if this argument ever gained any traction but it is a good example of how – in our society too – philosophers’ voices are usually pretty marginal to the way things in the arena of practical affairs proceed.* Indeed, we even use the word ‘philosophical’ in everyday speech to describe people who have a calm attitude in the face of disappointment: in common parlance and the popular imagination, then, being ‘philosophical’ is certainly not something you openly do when successfully pulling the levers of worldly power.

Plato’s fellow Athenians would also have been surprised by his suggestion that philosophers, of all people (and whether they could lay claim to being true philosophers or not), are the best placed group of people to run a city-state. Philosophers at Athens, by Plato’s own admission, were not the most popular of individuals. In the estimation of the majority of Athens’ ordinary citizen population, he himself suggests, philosophers served no self-evidently useful purpose.

On one level, this is easy enough to understand: philosophers in ancient Athens tended to earn their livings by presiding over the higher education of a select group: the wealthy young men of the city. An education in philosophy was thus an education in a form of high culture. If most people found themselves able to make do without it, just how valuable to them could it be?**

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Raphael’s famous depiction of philosophy in action at Athens. Depicted in the centre are Plato and Aristotle. Not all Athenians had Plato’s high view of the capacity of philosophy to have a positive influence on public life.

Plato doesn’t offer anything like the sort of sociological explanation for most ordinary Athenians’ remoteness from philosophy that I have just presented. Instead, he offers a moralistic explanation. In the Republic, philosophers are marginal figures in Athens simply because most people don’t approach them in the right spirit.

Philosophers are like doctors of the soul, Plato says (Rep. 489b), using a further analogy. The ‘sick’ man should have the wherewithal to go to the door of these doctors: it’s certainly not incumbent on the doctors to go around canvassing for their patients! What ordinary Athenians ought to do, Plato thinks, is to recognise their own dire need of good politicians – they are sick, after all – and to respond accordingly (by knocking on the doors of the philosophers in their midst).

I can almost find in this passage a humorous patrician hauteur (the hauteur is clearly there; the humour just possibly). The idea is that the less well-educated ought simply to recognise their need for intellectual instruction from the neighbours they perceive as effete and unworldly and then take steps to address it. This is an idea that is certainly of a piece with the picture sketched in the analogy to the ship: there the sailors need to acknowledge their own reckless and grasping behaviour if they are ever to stand a chance of benefiting from the wisdom of the navigator on board.

The analogy of the ship thus forms part of Plato’s broader argument, but it encapsulates many of his key points on politics in general – on the state of Athenian society, on the inadequacy of democracy as a form of government, and on the nature of the alterations to it that he would like to see. To what extent might these assessments, particularly in the form in which they are outlined in the analogy of the ship, have been convincing to his fellow Athenians?

A very brief answer here might be that, if they had cared to reflect on it, Plato’s analogy would likely have seemed a rather loaded one. Ancient ships would indeed have had just one captain – but democracy in ancient Athens plainly didn’t have just one officially recognised leadership figure, even if a figure like Pericles might emerge periodically as a particularly important political influencer. The fact that modern representative democracies do have officially recognised overall leadership figures – whether e.g. presidents or prime ministers – represents just one clear point of contrast with democracy at Athens.

The analogy of the ship arguably allows Plato to make his argument that only very few people should be able to control the state just a bit more effectively. He manages to insinuate that Athenian ships – a large number of which would have been involved in their navy, a much celebrated force which provided the city with its political and military strength – function so effectively precisely by using a non-democratic (and very hierarchical) model. Leading figures in the Athenian army and navy were not selected by lot for their posts (and yet they – mostly – performed their roles to the satisfaction of their fellow citizens, while presiding over a flourishing institution). This was exceptional in Athens: most public positions involved selection by lot.

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A replica Athenian trireme, the key ship in the Athenian navy

Many Athenians would not, we can guess, have shared Plato’s damning assessment of the limited capacities of the owner of the ship, or the sailors on board, in his analogy. And as I have suggested, by Plato’s own admission they would have baulked at the idea that highly-skilled philosophers were the right people to have in charge of their political affairs.

This is not to dismiss tout court the potential of Plato’s analogy to appeal to his readers. Equally, it seems unlikely to me that in offering his criticisms of the workings of Athens’ democracy, Plato was mounting a serious attempt to convert all of his fellow citizens to his point of view.***

*At least, that is, on a surface level. The ideas and/or influence of philosophers, in one form or another, often lie hidden and unacknowledged within the moral reasoning people employ.

**One group of teachers – the sophists – had a short and effective answer to this question: it will enable those who learn it to argue well and make convincing points in public meetings of the democratic assembly. Plato himself regarded this as charlatanism: doing philosophy, for him, was emphatically not about learning how to make popular arguments.

***This post was written to accompany an earlier post on Plato’s political philosophy: Democracy and the Totalitarian Threat: from Plato to Popper via Arginusae.

Democracy and the Totalitarian Threat, from Plato to Popper via Arginusae

Some heavy charges were laid against Plato’s political philosophy in the twentieth century. In the influential view of Karl Popper,* Plato’s conception of the ideal city-state in the Republic represents a totalitarian vision, an intellectual antecedent to the abhorrent totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century.

A major element of the totalitarianism Popper identifies in Plato is that he thinks political power should be concentrated in the hands of an elite, chosen few (whose task, among other things, is to ensure the wellbeing of everyone else). The general population is offered no alternative to this specially groomed group of rulers, who are chosen not by popular vote but by selection on the basis of their natural characteristics, intellectual abilities and personal virtues.

Popper criticises Plato also for the unity his rulers aim to instil in the city-state. The rulers are required to ensure that all members of the city can enjoy a good life. To do this, they must use propaganda: this is necessary, Plato thinks, if citizens are going to accept that what is good for them as individuals is the same thing as what is good for the city as a whole. In a functional city-state, Plato maintains, everyone will be motivated to live and work as individuals toward the good and unity of their city. By doing so – and only by doing so, will they be able to realise their own personal happiness. The job of the city-state’s rulers (who are concerned with the happiness of everyone) is to maintain the conditions in which these aims can be met.

For Popper, Plato’s is a nightmarish vision. Its principal defect, he suggests, is that Plato just doesn’t take seriously enough people’s individual interests and concerns: he seems to be uninterested in personal autonomy as a requisite feature of the good city. Instead, he is happy for his citizens to be propagandised for purportedly benign purposes, and he wants them to align their individual interests with those of a given political unit and its rulers. If the disastrous totalitarian experiments of twentieth century history teach us anything, Popper proposes, it is that this is a kind of political philosophy that leads in a very dangerous direction and cannot be endorsed.

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Karl Popper, who argued against the totalitarian elements he identified in Plato’s political philosophy

Popper wants to distinguish, however, between the philosophy of Plato and that of Socrates – his teacher and the star character in Plato’s dialogues. This is difficult, as we only really have access to Plato’s views insofar as they are voiced by Socrates himself in the dialogues. But, for Popper (and indeed for many scholarly experts on Plato), we meet different Socrateses in different places in Plato’s dialogues: amongst these texts, we sometimes gain good access to what the historical Socrates himself thought and said; sometimes we gain access instead only to what Plato himself thinks.

In short, Popper blames what he identifies as the totalitarian elements in Plato’s dialogues on Plato himself, seeing those parts of the Republic in which Plato articulates them (using the voice of Socrates to do so) as a betrayal of the true thought of the historical Socrates. On this view, it is Plato – not Socrates – who is the totalitarian enemy of individual autonomy and freedom and critic of democracy, and (in Popper’s phrase) of ‘the open society’.

I do not share Popper’s confidence that the historical Socrates can be so straightforwardly excluded from the picture here. It doesn’t take an excess of imagination to see a clear fit between the political ideas which the figure of Socrates articulates in Plato’s Republic and some of the more significant moments we know about from the life of the historical Socrates. I want to point to just one, by way of example – not only for what it reveals about Socrates himself, but for what it reveals about a central problem that has often confronted democracy as a political form, from its earliest appearance in ancient Athens right up to its (quite different) instantiations in the present day.

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A bust of Socrates

In the aftermath of the naval conflict between Athens and its rival city-state Sparta at the Battle of Arginusae in the year 406 BC, controversy had ensued.** Although the Athenians had successfully defended themselves in the conflict, some of their generals had elected to press ahead to try to destroy some more Spartan ships, rather than to rescue some floundering fellow Athenians whose ships had been sunk. The water-bound Athenians unfortunately died as a consequence of this decision. When news of this reached Athens, many citizens were outraged. They wanted the death penalty for the generals and one of them – Callixenus – proposed a well-supported motion to this effect.

Socrates, who happened to be acting as an administrative official, chosen by lot to serve the Athenian council (one of the prytaneis), at the time this motion was tabled, attempted to block it, refusing to allow it to be put to vote in the assembly. Xenophon, who records this story, writes that Socrates stated that he wasn’t prepared to allow the motion on the basis that it was illegal: it didn’t matter that a majority of citizens seemed intent on voting for it.

An alternative form of the motion was then tabled and voted through: rather than being tried as a group, the generals would each be tried as individuals. This in turn was overturned: Callixenus’ original motion, with Socrates no longer serving as one of the prytaneis and thus unable to block it, was passed.

Lived experience of this episode likely provided the historical Socrates with troubling proof of an obviously imperfect feature of the Athenian democracy: without much difficulty, a majority had managed to exert itself over and against the rule of law. Democracy itself, arguably, had turned authoritarian. Not only this, but in subsequent years, a good number of the Athenians who had supported Callixenus’ motion came to regret doing so: sometimes, as a democrat, you may find yourself regretting what you voted for.

Plato’s political philosophy in the Republic offers a critique of the whole idea of democracy.*** What Socrates’ experience of the Arginusae debacle offers, in my view, is a good indication as to why the historical Socrates himself may have shared (or come to share) the sort of criticism of democracy that Plato places on his lips in the text. Popper’s scepticism about this should, I think, be doubted.

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A depiction of Plato and his Academy, from a Roman mosaic

Plato’s vision of a good society in the Republic can be criticised in numerous ways and from many angles, especially for the totalitarian ideas it commends. Of course it is important that this vision took shape against the background of lived experience in a democratic society. To its tremendous credit, this was a society that was free-thinking and tolerant enough of free speech to allow dissenting views such as Plato’s, which questioned its very political foundations, to be aired.

Equally, however, the Athens of Socrates and Plato must be seen as a society always under threat. This threat was not just external in nature – from enemies like the Persians, or from the Athenians’ not always very willing allies. The threat to Athens’ democracy could also be internal: it might come from would-be tyrants who lurked in the wings, or from its own intellectual critics – like Plato.

But also, at times, as the Arginusae episode demonstrates, the threat to democracy (insofar as democratic governance must be distinguished from mob-rule, and insofar as the integrity of democratic institutions and the rule of law must form part of a cardinal set of values in any democratic setting) could come also from the authoritarian behaviour of large swathes of its own citizen population.

While it may be tempting to label Plato a straight-down-the-line totalitarian on account of some of the political ideas that are expressed in the Republic, it is worth remembering that it was Plato’s hero Socrates who stood against the authoritarian abuse of Athens’ democratic powers by its own citizens in the aftermath of Arginusae.

*As outlined in The Open Society and its Enemies, volume 1.

**A neat overview of this episode is presented here.

***In a subsequent post, I am going to take a look at one significant passage that forms part of this critique: the famous analogy of the ship.

Theseus the Democrat

Just as modern theatre, film and costume drama can contain elements of anachronism, whereby storylines are adapted and/or jazzed up to produce a contemporary resonance (or provocation), so the same could be true of the very earliest theatrical productions in fifth century Athens. A good example of one such anachronism occurs in Euripides’ Suppliants, a play first performed in 423 BC.

The play itself tells a largely sorry story. The king of Thebes, Creon, has refused burial rites to warriors from another city, Argos, who have been slain outside his city gates. The families of the dead warriors (the ‘suppliants’ of the title are their mothers) are distraught. They regard a third party, Theseus – the king of Athens, as the only figure who might be able to prevail upon Creon to change his mind, so they approach him and ask him to do so. Theseus agrees to do so but is unsuccessful and, with Creon thoroughly stirred up, battle between Athens and Thebes ensues. Theseus’ Athenians successfully overpower Creon’s Theban army; we then learn that Theseus manages to recover the corpses of the slain warriors. Theseus receives the gratitude of the warriors’ relatives and the lasting respect of Argos: the Argives promise that, in recognition of Theseus’ accomplishments on their behalf, they will never attack the city of Athens.

The plot of the play plays out in mythical pre-history. The remote past of Athens seems to have been a topic of some fascination to the city’s fifth century inhabitants: this was a past in which they could find, among other things, their bearings in the present. What better way for a playwright to evoke this past for a fifth century audience, then, than to present it in ways which addressed matters of contemporary (fifth century) relevance?

Euripides self-consciously adopts just this approach in the Suppliants. The clearest case in point is an interaction between Theseus and a herald who has been dispatched by Creon from Thebes. The central matter at issue in this interaction is the topic of democratic governance – and herein lies the anachronism.

Democracy was a relatively recent development for the Athenians of the 420s BC. The central practices and institutions of what would only later come to be called ‘democracy’ had been a staple feature of Athenian politics only since the reforms of Cleisthenes in the late 6th century BC. Certainly the earlier figure of Solon also stands tall in what would turn out to be the Athenian move toward democracy. But Cleisthenes (depicted below) was the really decisive figure. All of which is to say that, in the context of the mythical pre-history that is depicted in the Suppliants, democracy is but a figment of the fictive world Euripides recreates for his audience.

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In suggesting that Theseus, king of Athens, stands for democracy, Euripides is creating not just an anachronism but an additional awkwardness. For is not Theseus a king? And isn’t fifth century Athenian democracy characterised precisely by its lack of (autocratic) monarchy? This self-evident wrinkle is not something that Theseus’ Theban interlocutor aims to exploit, in spite of the fact that Theseus himself surprisingly argues along the following lines:

‘There’s no heavier burden for a city to bear than a monarch. To begin with, a city like that has no laws that are equal to all its citizens’.

And this from a monarch, no less! Clearly, in the Euripidean vision of early Athens, things are a bit complicated and can involve a degree of doublethink on the part of its democratic monarch.

In any case, inserting a debate about the pros and cons of democracy into the Suppliants allows Euripides both to rehearse arguments for democracy and to air scathing criticisms of it. To what extent the playwright himself sympathises with these criticisms, we are left to wonder.

For the Theban herald, one noteworthy danger of democracy is that it can slip into the control of the eloquent but self-serving trickster. A democracy may have

‘men who speak well but who then destroy everything…men who [then] lie to hide all the damage they’ve caused and with those lies escape justice’.

Democracies, he continues, should be criticised for three further reasons. First, they are ruled by ‘mindless herds’. Such herds rush to quick decisions, where it is self-evident that patience and wisdom are required.

Second, many citizens of democracies are far too occupied with mundane affairs and staying economically productive to take a serious interest in governing their city. It is inefficient and unnecessary that such citizens should have a serious political role.

And third (a most objectionable complaint by modern standards), there is the ‘problem’ that humbly born citizens may rise – on account of their capacity to make eloquent political speeches – and surpass even a city’s nobles in their political influence.

Theseus’ response to these arguments is to dismiss them as ‘irrelevant little words’, without in fact directly countering any of them. Instead he extols what he presents as democracy’s attractions.

These include the equal treatment of rich and poor alike before the law; the right of the poor man to speak up in his own defence; the right of any citizen to air ‘good ideas for the city’ to see if he can gain praise for them; and, finally, the opportunity for everyone to flourish and thrive in pursuit of excellence, without fear of offending the ego of an envious autocrat. Under an autocracy, he avers, will not a man’s daughters be always at risk of being involuntarily co-opted into a relationship with a ruling figure? Will not his sons always be at risk of being culled?

It bears repeating that these words are spoken not just anachronistically, but by a monarch. This was an awkwardness Euripides was clearly ready to put up with when writing the play. The debate between Theseus and the herald, with its contemporary fifth century political slant, would certainly have registered with his audience.

Speaking to the deep-seated ideas and thoughts of this audience mattered: for each play Euripides wrote was designed to impress a panel of fellow citizen-judges, with the fundamental aim of winning an annual competition. And ‘doing politics’ in an interesting way, as the devisers of many modern-day productions can surely attest, is one well-trodden route to attracting the plaudits you seek.

  • the featured image is of a 6th century kylix (wine cup) which illustrates Theseus slaying the Minotaur.