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.