By Jeff Rutherford
Here’s a portion of Book VIII of Plato’s Republic (written in 381 BC), as helpfully paraphrased by Will Durant in his popular 1926 book The Story of Philosophy. The numbers refer to the pages in Plato’s original Greek manuscript.
Maybe this can help us remember again why America’s Founders did NOT want our government to be a pure democracy (mob rule), but instead they constructed a Constitutional Republic that embodies some democratic principles, but also has separation of powers and checks & balances. It can also remind us why it’s important for each American citizen to actually work to understand what the hell is going on around them and why. Our Founders were just recalling Plato’s wisdom from 2168 years earlier. Now, 2400 years later, I’m doing the same:
“Every form of government tends to perish by excess of its basic principle. Aristocracy ruins itself by limiting too narrowly the circle within which power is confined; oligarchy ruins itself by the incautious scramble for immediate wealth. In either case the end is revolution. When revolution comes it may seem to arise from little causes and petty whims; but though it may spring from slight occasions it is the precipitate result of grave and accumulated wrongs; when a body is weakened by neglected ills, the merest exposure may bring serious disease (556). Then democracy comes: the poor overcome their opponents, slaughtering some and banishing the rest; and give to the people an equal share of freedom and power (557).
But even democracy ruins itself by excess — of democracy. Its basic principle is the equal right of all to hold office and determine public policy. This is at first glance a delightful arrangement; it becomes disastrous because the people are not properly equipped by education to select the best rulers and the wisest courses (588). As to the people they have no understanding, and only repeat what their rulers are pleased to tell them; to get a doctrine accepted or rejected it is only necessary to have it praised or ridiculed in a popular play [the mass media of ancient Greece]. Mob rule is a rough sea for the ship of state to ride; every wind of oratory stirs up the waters and deflects the course. The upshot of such a democracy is tyranny or autocracy; the crowd so loves flattery, it is so hungry for honey, that at last the wiliest and most unscrupulous flatterer, calling himself the ‘protector of the people’ rises to supreme power (565).”
A free pdf download of Allan Bloom’s very readable 1968 translation of Plato’s Republic is available here. Click the link and you can be reading Plato’s wisdom yourself in about 3 minutes.