Welcome back!

Welcome to Spring 2014! I hope your classes fill you with new and exciting ideas.

And to get you started, here is a link to a brief essay on whether Plato is right in his criticisms of democracy. The conclusion: “Our claim is that democracy is the political manifestation of our aspiration to rationally pursue the truth; it is, in other words, the political correlate to our pursuit of wisdom. Accordingly, democracy is the only system of government fit for a philosopher.”

Author: Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.

8 thoughts on “Welcome back!”

  1. Interesting article. I have two responses:
    a) I wonder if it really undermines Plato and b) I wonder if it even understands Plato’s entire concern.

    a) In a nutshell, the article argues that we need democracy because wisdom only comes through discourse – which he characterizes as engagement in conversation with competing ideas. Might Plato not grant that point? Keep in mind the kind of education the philosopher kings would receive. After they are done with the education of the guardians (which is really a moral education of desires rather than an education of the intellect), a chosen few philosophers move on to complete what would otherwise be an incomplete education.

    Those with the proper natures who are selected for philosophical training move on to an education in the things themselves. Plato calls this dialectic – reasoning through conversation, question and answer and the exchange of arguments.

    Point is, perhaps there is something like a “democratic pedagogy” among the philosopher kings. So Plato might concede the point, but restrict it to a certain class of people. For Plato would argue that the vast majority of people are utterly incapable of engaging in philosophical conversation. Why think that?

    To point (b). Aiken and Talisse do not take seriously enough what it means to have, for Plato, a democratic society. For Plato, the citizens will take on the character of the regime. This is not so much an intellectual question as a moral one. In a democratic society, most people will not have sufficiently ordered desires to be the sort who could seriously engage in philosophical conversation. In other words, I wonder if their response sort of misses the whole point. They presume that a democratic regime would produce people capable of engaging in philosophical exchange. But this is precisely what Plato denies. By ignoring the moral formation question that is central to the education program in the Republic, they are failing to take up the most serious part of the objection to democracy — it is incapable of producing philosophers!

    Plato’s point is not that conversation and exchange are bad. Quite to the contrary, that is what a philosophical education looks like for Plato. No, Plato’s point is that a particular moral education of the desires is a pre-requisite for that philosophical education, and that moral education is impossible in a democratic regime.

    This helps explain something the authors of the article identify — while many democrats recoil at Plato’s argument, they seem to grant that most people are too undisciplined or stupid to rule well. They provide no explanation for this curious set of facts – we like democracy but grant that most voters are not in a position to vote well. Plato actually has an explanation for why this is the case — the voters are democratic souls who, by being democratic, lack the requisite ordering of desires and discipline for philosophical education/conversation. Instead they simply vote based on whatever desire seems most pressing at the time and, in the end, want promises and security and vote for that (thus the devolution of democratic regimes into tyrannical ones).


  2. I think you’ve misread the article (and I mischaracterised it). The authors are working out pro-democratic responses to Plato’s critique. The most interesting response is the one that says Plato is using an ideal form of aristocracy but only a real form of democracy, so it’s no surprise that the aristocracy comes out on top. I think you/Plato would say that it’s not merely a real form, but what democracy essentially is. And that’s where the authors disagree, and want to invest it with more. Namely, they want to think of it as a pluralistic process whereby individuals get progressively better visions of what’s true (and these individuals desire knowledge).


  3. But whether these individuals would be or even could be desirous of knowledge is the just the issue. Would citizens in a democracy – real or ideal – desire wisdom? Plato’s answer is no; because their desires are not properly ordered the pursuit of wisdom would be impossible for them. One big idea from the republic is that a certain kind of moral formation is a prerequisite for the pursuit of wisdom.
    I think something I get out of de Tocqueville holds here: a democratic regime can only function if it is populated by aristocratic (in the platonic sense) souls. The latter are the only ones capable of pursuing wisdom – because of their moral rather than intellectual formation. Again, Plato thinks the process of getting a better vision of what is true is dialectical; he is just paying attention to the necessary formation that is something like the condition for the possibility of the pursuit of wisdom. Plato thinks that de Tocqueville’s idea would be impossible since Plato thinks souls will necessarily take on the character of their regime. De Tocqueville seems to think that mediating institutions (the church) could “aristocracize” souls and mitigate the damaging effects on the order of our souls that comes from living in a democracy. The authors of this piece are not, I think, taking seriously enough plato’s concern and instead seem to just assume that democratic citizens (real or ideal) will be just as capable of the pursuit of wisdom as aristocratic ones.


  4. But then something must have gone wrong in Plato’s argument. He and Socrates lived in a democratic regime, with a brief interlude of tyranny. Their souls did not take on the form of democracy, as Plato saw it. So either Plato has the form wrong, or he’s wrong about souls taking on the form of the political regime. (Or Athens wasn’t a democracy, or Plato & Socrates did not pursue wisdom – options I take to be non-starters!)


  5. Excellent point. Two possible issues here:
    (a) how did Socrates manage to get a philosophical soul in the first place?
    (b) Is the pursuit of wisdom viable in a democracy?

    I think the Apology is Plato’s answer to (b). Democracy hates wisdom seekers and kills them when it can. Our own democracy does not kill its philosophers, it just ignores them to death.

    But I was pushing the (a) line in my above post and you raise a really good objection against that reading — How did Socrates manage to acquire the proper formation in a democratic regime? Perhaps there are some exceptions to the rule. I am thinking of the 7th Letter, where Plato suggests that some are “naturally gifted” for philosophy. So Socrates and Plato are, perhaps, those rare souls who can be philosophical in spite of their regime because their natural gifts are so thick. This is, I suppose, one way of saying this: Plato does not have to abandon his general principle that souls will take on the character of the regime type just because there are a few exceptions. Those cases (Socrates and Plato) are, well, quite exceptional. And when those exceptional men are found in democratic societies, they do not get along very well with their regime.

    That story might hang together, but too many twists and turns?

    But for whatever problems my reading might have in explaining the real Socrates and Plato, I think it is a pretty good reading of the Republic itself. But if my reading of the Republic is wrong (that a proper formation is a prerequisite for the possibility of dialectic), then how do you read the education passages in the Republic? And how do you see those education passages pairing with the regime type discussion?

    Let me put my challenge to the article in another way: the article pretty well ignores all of the moral education that I think it absolutely essential to the pre-education of philosophers in the Republic. It assumes that democratic souls with no particular moral education (which is what happens when you live in a democracy) will just naturally desire knowledge and be capable of dialectic. Plato seems to disagree.

    But, you might respond, isn’t Aristotle right when he says “all men by nature desire to understand”? Isn’t that natural impulse sufficient? Well, I think Aristotle is right and I think Plato would agree. But one lesson from both the Republic and the Nicomachean Ethics is that nature needs the help of culture (education, formation, the law) in order to move from potency to actuality. The article really does not address these “pre-philosophical” training issues.


  6. This is an interesting case of figuring out the dialectic. The authors wish to dispute Plato’s conclusion that (in short) democracy fails because people are silly. They don’t deny that people are in fact silly, but they assert that, contra Plato, democracy can coax them out of their silliness, if the democracy is configured correctly. Your objection, I think, is that the authors are not buying into enough of Plato’s theory – they need to pay attention to his account of how souls are formed, how children are reared, etc. And once they do, then they will not be able to launch their alternative. You might rightly say: the Republic is one long argument, and you can’t simply reject the conclusion without making the effort of identifying which premise is false. They might say: in Plato’s basic line of thought there’s something clearly true and something clearly false, and we want to sort that out, ignoring the book-length argument that leads to that conclusion, and instead assuming a basic framework for thinking about humans and politics that is plausible today.

    It seems to me your approach is right if what we want to do is understand Plato, or determine precisely where we get of his bus. The authors’ approach is right if we’re more interested in defending the value of democracy from a basic objection that has been voiced by several thinkers, including Plato (but Plato’s role here becomes more incidental).


    1. I can live with that. However the response to the basic objection is a response to an objection that is pretty thin. Plato’s longer argument about the formation of souls and education puts forward a much thicker concern about democracy and wisdom (it is not just that people are silly or ignorant, it is that they have disordered souls that are incapable of allowing reason to rule). I guess there is something to be said for setting aside a simple objection, but not much of an accomplishment when a much stronger and more serious objection is sitting there. They are not, despite how their article frames itself, really responding to Plato’s full objection to democracy. de Tocqueville, I think, puts forward a much more serious attempt to deal with Plato’s concerns while still affirming democracy. But, on my read of de Tocqueville, bad news for secular humanists: the conclusion seems to be that secular democracy almost has to fail.

      de Tocqueville’s view in brief: The condition for the possibility of a democracy is the self-rule of the citizens (democratic regimes require aristocratic souls in order to prosper). Perhaps mediating institutions can be enough (de tocqueville’s view), but those mediating institutions cannot themselves be democratic (de Tocqueville insists those mediating institutions, like churches, have to be aristocratic in character).

      We see the same story here at USU with the curriculum. We can talk about “citizen scholar” goals that will help have the outcome of thoughtful citizens, but that only works if you have a metaphysics/theology at work that is giving shape to the education with something thicker than wanting to encourage “critical thinking” (whatever that is). Students don’t / won’t magically turn into virtuous citizens, like all people they have to be formed into it. (And this is not even taking up the concern that some/many/most college students today do not have anything approaching an adequate pre-philosophical formation prior to their arrival here). Here is the bottom line on which I think Plato has it right: You can’t pretend to have a civilized democracy without a particular view of what it is to be civilized. But to have that understanding of civilization active in the education of souls means you really cannot have a democratic process of education (at least not in the early stages, perhaps you can once souls have been adequately prepared for dialectic). The authors of the article seem to think that view can come out of the back end but ignore the need to front-load any formation. But Plato’s point is that it has to be front-loaded into the moral education of the young in order for them to be potentially philosophical at all. In a sense, the conclusion has to be pre-decided before education can begin. Parents know this: your education of your children is shaped in advance by a particular view of human nature and human goods.

      I suppose the question, then, for the article might be this: just how thin of a metaphysics in pre-education and education could you get away with while still having your successful secular democratic philosophical state? Again, in the article they just pretend that democratic citizens (real or ideal) will simply and naturally be the kinds of folks who desire wisdom. Why in the world should we think that? Teach at an American university for a few years and you’ll be quickly cured of that naiveté! Sadly, our intellectual aristocrats (academic faculties) today seem utterly unwilling / incapable of taking up the metaphysical question, much less making some kind of a metaphysical commitment!

      I’m rambling and ranting now. Sorry.


  7. I have been reading Allan Bloom’s interpretive essay on the Republic. He has an interesting take on Plato and democracy.
    Bloom takes the highest regime type (aristocracy) to be utterly impractical. Plenty of reasons for this reading, which I will not develop here. Of the 4 practical regimes (timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny), Bloom thinks that democracy is the only place where philosophy can make an appearance. This has to do with Plato’s account of necessary and unnecessary desires, but boils down to this:
    “the moral or fiscal austerity of timocracy and oligarchy preclude the leisure necessary to philosophy and condemn the thought produced by it; at the same time, life in these regimes is too organized for philosophy to be able to escape unnoticed for long. And they tyrant is frightened by the wise and free-minded. Philosophy is among the unnecessary desires and hence finds it home in democracy.”

    He thinks that Socrates the citizen praises timocracy, even though it is furthest from allowing philosophy, while Socrates the philosopher desires democracy.

    Interesting take. I need to think more about whether philosophy is an unnecessary desire. I think it is, since Socrates defines a necessary desire as one that cannot be overcome by habituation (our desire for food, for example).

    But I am still left with the puzzle I tried to introduce in this discussion – if a certain pre-philosophical formation is necessary for philosophy, and if people take on the character of their regime, then how could a philosopher spring up in a democracy? Plato might say that the rare one could – see Socrates – and that that rare philosopher will last longer in a democracy than anywhere else. This because the democratic regime makes no judgment between desires and so is indifferent to which desire a person takes up. So long as that philosopher keeps his head down, the democracy will be mostly indifferent to him.

    Back to my de Tocqueville read: philosophy requires an aristocratic soul in a democratic state. Plato’s account of regimes in the Republic seems to think this impossible, but de Tocqueville thinks it is possible so long as the democratizing tendencies of the regime are mitigated by “mediating institutions” that form aristocratic souls (de Tocqueville focuses on hierarchical churches like Catholicism).


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