We don't live in a true democracy, but that can be our strength

May 13, 2020

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The Athenian democracy of Plato's time was a 'truer' democracy than ours. Plato was staunchly against it, and yet his anti-democratic ideas still influence our democracy today. How? The age old dichotomy between 'the many' and 'the few' of Plato's time doesn't really exist anymore. From Plato, to Machiavelli, to Thomas Hobbes, we have devised a new democracy that collapses the two. And it's this change that should give us hope for the future.


The Athenian democracy of the philosopher Plato's time—the 4th century BC—was far from perfect. This democratic arena was chaotic environment, with hundreds of citizens responsible for the decision-making of the state. That chaos was a driving force behind an aristocratic revolution and the eventual execution of Socrates after the revolution's failure. The death of Plato's mentor was also the symbolic birth of many of Plato's ideas on governence, many of which linger still in our modern conception of government. Plato, suffice to say, was not a fan of democracy. So how is it that our democracy today was influenced by him?

The answer is that our democracy isn't one, not truly.

The faults of a 'true' democracy

Democracy comes from the Greek: dÄ“mos—the people, kratos—rule. Democracy is literally rule by the people. The Athenian democracy was as close to a true democracy as we might find in the historic record. Though very few actually went, every citizen was invited to participate in the Ecclesia, something akin to our modern legislative assemblies. More specialised branches of government were comprised of citizens chosen by lot, and in huge numbers to make bribery prohibitively expensive, quite unlike our comparatively pared down executive and judicial branches today.

The issue with this kind of democracy is twofold: it's slow when it shouldn't be, and it's fast when it shouldn't be. The sophists of Plato's time, fuelled in part by a rowdy aristocratic party, saw in their government an inability to make decisions on many matters. It's true to say that often, the larger the leadership structure, the slower the decisions. Yet these crowded theatres were also subject at times to mob mentality. The demagoguery of particular people, who would

go ringing on in a long harangue, like brazen pots, which when they are struck continue to sound unless some one puts his hand upon them"

- Plato, Protagoras

could have outsize influence and impulsive decision-making.

As an example, the execution of several Athenian generals sparked fury among those opposed to the democracy, and is thought to have been a key contributing factor to Athens losing the famous Pelopennesian war with long-lasting consequences.

The Athenian democracy was a 'true' democracy in many ways, but it was far from perfect.

The moral basis for aristocracy

The aristocratic faction of Athenian society was no doubt comprised, in part, of individuals who disliked the constraints democracy imposed on their accumulation of wealth and power. But interestingly, it was also comprised of some of the most famous intellectuals of the time. Of all time. Socrates and Plato for a start, and many others besides.

These aristocratically inclined philosophers, for which we might take Socrates as our figurehead, saw humans as inherently unequal. The Athenian democracy was, to them, evidence of this. Rather than placing the state into the hands of the chaotic many, they thought it would be instead be wiser to put the state into the hands of the talented few. These few could rule benevolently, or rather virtuously, on the behalf of the weak. This notion of the 'virtuous man', through whom justice and wisdom flow, is one that is still present today. It has guided modern decision-making in the military, in our governmental leadership, and in the corporate sphere. As a result, modern democracies are nothing like the truer democracy of Athens. Our smaller governing bodies are in some ways off-limits entirely to the many. Our judicial branches, for example, are comprised in part of legal specialists. The talented few.

Today, far from opposing the influence of the many, our intellectual class more commonly fights this meritocratic foundation on which our more modern democracy plants itself. In this, they reflect the ideals of another camp of those ancient philosophers who saw humans as inherently equal, with inequality the product of institutions created by the powerful.

Yet this is not a reversal. We haven't quite created a society in which the few rule and the intellectuals promote the rule of the many. Rather, modern democracy is something mixed between competence and representation, and organised along a separation of powers.

The many and the few: the age old question

Politics has been long dominated by this dichotomy between the few and the many. The power to make decisions must lie somewhere, and the burden of those decisions must be shouldered by someone. Should the decision-makers be seperate from that burden (in the hands of the few and shouldered by the many)? Or should the decision-makers be equally responsible for shouldering it (in the hands of, and shouldered by, the many)?

Consider Machiavelli's 16th Century "The Prince", considered to this day to be a touchpoint of modern political thought.

We will put aside the longstanding notion that this book may have been a satire, or perhaps even an attempt to sabotage the ruling class of the time. Whatever Machiavelli's intentions, leaders through the ages have referred to it, and his lesser known Discourses on Livy, to guide their political thinking, through to today.

Machiavelli is thought to be one of the first examples in modern history exploring politics as an entity apart; a enterprise governed by it's own aims, outcomes, and rules, as opposed to the natural continuation of religious theology for example. In this, The Prince reflects modern notions of the separation of church and state. And yet it's not quite modern.

Machiavelli hits off with the line:

All states, all powers, that have held and hold rule over men have been and are either republics or principalities.

And this, in essence, is the great dichotomy of Plato's time as it was in Machiavelli's. Should the state governed by 'a prince', be it a monarch or a small group of elites? Or should it be governed by a republic of the people?

Important questions fall out of this line of thinking. For example, what are the ideal characteristics of the 'few'? This is the question addressed at length in Plato's Republic, in Aristotalian virtue ethics, and followed up repeatedly through the centuries that followed. How to best maintain power? This is the question that Machiavelli applied himself to in The Prince.

But perhaps the most important question has been, are you a supporter of the many, or are you a supporter of the few?

It's not quite the right question anymore

This question is perhaps the most tumultuous. The question of what side should be supported has been an influential factor in almost any recorded revolution. When times become difficult, the current seat of power—the many, or the few—is held accountable and an effort to turn the tables ensues.

But today's politics isn't a clearcut question of the many or the few. Our democracy might not be a 'true' democracy, closer to that of the Athenians. But it is a democracy. We have a 'representative democracy', which is something deliberately in between. A social contract between the few and the many.

It ostensibly starts with Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan. Hobbes constructs a state in which the delineation of power lies in the hands of the few. Not at the expense of the many, but at their behest. The many delegates the power to the few.

Hobbes' "absolute sovereign" is an entity ("one man, or an assembly of more than one") to resolve what he saw as the natural friction that arises between us from our changeable human natures. According to Hobbes, humans, without anything to unify them, are naturally anarchic. Our individual desires come into conflict when the limited resources of this world mean that only some can be satisfied. Left to our own devices, it would be a "war of all against all" and our lives would be "nasty, brutish, and short"(pdf).

Instead, we should hand over to some authority to represent us all. He believed that humans have a right to all things, but that we should empower a sovereign entity to curtail that right when it threatens the order of the commonwealth. Crucially, he believed that the sovereign should have absolute authority, and those who might disagree should be forced to come into alignment. In this way, humans retain the right to all things, but only when it doesn't pose a threat to unity.

Hobbes' sovereign is a far more stringent and absolute sovereign than that we have today. Hobbes explicitly rejects a separation of powers, favouring censorship and control of religious expression where necessary to promote order. In Hobbes' view, the absolute delegation of the power means absolute freedom for the people from concerns about governence. The sovereign keeps them safe, and ensures the continuation of their freedoms in exchange for absolute authority over which freedoms are permissable.

Hobbes' social contract seems pretty dark in comparison to the balance of powers apparent in the representative democracies that exist today. But it accentuates this new structure. Hobbes' sovereign state is no longer one of Machiavelli's republics, nor one of his principalities. It is something in between. The many give the power to the few, and are subject to that power. This is the birth of the social contract.

The transformations from Hobbes' explicitly mechanical role of the sovereign developed, through Tocqueville and Rousseau and Constant and others, into something less robotic. Hobbes' absolute authority devolved into a separation of powers. And in this diluted form, the modern democratic system was born.

Yet, today we give our leaders power that go far beyond the powers of a democratic 'republic' like that of the Athenians. Still, though, we aren't the possessions of one of Machiavelli's 'princes'. Our princes are there to represent us, and their power comes from us. We are co-dependent.

This co-dependency is our strength

There is a question as to whether our "representative" democracy really represents us. Many questions, in fact. If you don't know Noam Chompsky's work in linguistics, you probably know his views on this. This week, the Cambridge Union invited him to speak, and he espoused the same concerns he's espoused since the 1950's. To Chompsky, and frankly to many people, academic or otherwise, it seems clear that certain elites and the institutions that support them have generated a lasting and growing inequality in our democratic system. In this, his views reflect those of the anti-aristocratic Sophists from 2500 years ago (which makes you wonder how different a 'truer' democracy really was from ours).

But unlike those Sophists, and unlike many systems of governments throughout the ages, we do not have to make that age old choice between the few and the many. We certainly can. But thanks to the work of Hobbes and those like him, we have built a system of mutual dependence. Without our support, the sovereign can't rule.

We are unsatisfied. Growing inequality was just the start. At the time of writing, the underfunding of our medical services has come into sharp relief as the rise of a new virus has compounded the already barely contained devestation of seasonal influenza. The resulting economic outcomes of various lockdown measures for those who don't have the luxury of simply "working from home" will make sure the effects last for longer and are broader than the obvious metric represented by a climbing rate of death. The global lack of government support for education will continue to widen gaps generationally. Discrimination has formed new, and more complex, frontiers despite the fantastic successes of the generations before us. And all that without mentioning the unknown outcomes of the various other crises that loom on our doorstep, from climate change to unprecedented movement of people across borders.

No wonder we see the kinds of populism that Plato described in our time. Plato's 'brazen pots' appeal to people in times of crisis, and history demonstrates the cyclical nature of these things. The people grow unsettled. The political situation destablises. Eventually the few crush the many, or less commonly the many crush the few. Often in blood. Consider the French Revolution. This up-ending of the few by the many started 'virtuously'. Literally. Max de Robespierre began his political career as the "Candle of Arras" and held the notion of virtue central to his philosophy. And yet, that virtuous movement became the infamous "Terror", and with Robespierre's help led to almost 20,000 publically sanctioned executions, including the execution of Robespierre himself. And like the French Revolution, the losing side is always around the corner waiting to take back control.

As I edit this document only a couple of weeks after its writing, the previous paragraphs are thrown into sharper relief. The killing of George Floyd by the (now ex-)police officer Derek Chauvin has done what many other killings of black citizens in the US failed to do to this point--sparked protests and civil unrest in every US state, as well as many around the world. It would be a mistake to characterise this simply as a long-overdue reaction to the systemic racism that pervades the US justice system. It is certainly that, but surely exacerbated by the viral pandemic that preceded it, and the dissatisfaction of citizens in the governmental handling of that crisis too. The many are keenly aware of the failings of the few.

But we don't have to be subject to this same cycle. Hobbes suffered through a similar revolution to the French during the English Civil War. His Leviathan was in part a solution to these kinds of crises, and its development into the form we see it today is supposed to stablise this cyclical turmoil.

We don't have to resort to revolution to get our way. It's an option. And as we have seen in the weeks following the publication of this article, one that many feel compelled to resort to in order to be taken seriously. But it's not the only one, not anymore. The few have the power because the many gave it to them. We shouldn't forget that.

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