Reading Time: 5 minutes
Plato, the Greek philosopher who taught and wrote about the idea of democracy 2400 years ago, offered a warning to all future generations. Democracy, he said, has one fatal flaw. Its greatest benefit, ironically, always becomes its greatest weakness. He had doubts about whether democracy would survive the centuries as a way of running a society.
The big flaw, he declared, lay in the popular vote. In his day, all of the citizens of Athens would come to the agora, a big open space where political leaders, activists, and ordinary citizens could tout their solutions to the republic’s problems. When everyone had had his say, they (men only, of course) voted to choose the course of action they liked best.
Over the decades and centuries, as the ancient city-states evolved into big empires, a second phase of governance emerged—representative democracy. In a modern republic, the people elect representatives to go to the seat of government and vote on their behalf.
Plato considered all versions of democracy dangerously flawed. Anyone with the ability and the intent, he said, who could charm the citizens and get them aroused—angry, afraid, resentful, jealous, vengeful—could sell them on the most perverse or destructive course of action, including war.
Throughout human history, time has proven Plato mostly right. The Founders of our Republic knew this well, and the old philosopher’s warnings haunted their deliberations constantly. Alexander Hamilton, for one, cautioned about too much democracy, in a sense. He and others wanted to limit the voting rights to men of property and social station. He warned about the influence of demagogues who could “inflame the passions of the ignorant mob.”
Plato Pays Us a Visit
Let’s imagine that Plato himself pays us a visit. He climbed aboard his own time machine and rocketed forward through two millennia to advise us. How might a conversation with him go?
Possibly, something like this:
K.A.: Welcome, and thank you so much for this honor, and for sharing your perspectives with us. May I call you Plato?
Plato: Thank you for inviting me. Actually, my real name is Aristocles. My friends gave me the nickname of Plato. You can call me Plato.
K.A.: OK, thank you, Plato. May I ask you for your first impression of our American democracy? How do we stack up against your ideal society?
Plato: First of all, congratulations—for lasting this long. Your democracy has endured, through some very tough times. As you know, I’ve had my doubts about whether democracy and the rule of law could survive the constant attacks of clever demagogues, aspiring dictators, and ignorant citizens.
K.A.: Thank you.
Plato: Second, I congratulate you on building a system of government that allows all citizens, regardless of rank, wealth, or social station, to participate. You’ve eliminated slavery—something my society hasn’t yet accomplished. You’ve made women full citizens with full voting rights. And you’ve done all of that on a scale that includes hundreds of millions of people.
You’ve also elevated the democratic conversation—which in my day we experience as the physical gathering of citizens at the agora—to a vast scale. With your modern “electronic technology,” you now have a “virtual agora”—a marketplace of ideas that transcends all physical boundaries, and even transcends time. Information and ideas that, in my time, require days or months to move about, now travel instantly over unlimited distances.
K.A.: Thank you for the kind words and the reassurance. And, what about the other part of the report card—the things we need to do better?
Plato: Of course, you still have much to do. You have a democracy, but you don’t have equality of opportunity. In an ideal democracy, each person can strive toward his or her own personal aspirations, within the same rules. Unfortunately, the fruits of your democracy don’t always come to all in equal measure. The rules don’t always apply to everyone in the same way.
You have a multi-cultural society, but the members of some groups don’t enjoy the same benefits and opportunities as others. A few of your citizens enjoy vast wealth while many, many others struggle to survive.
K.A.: So, what do we do? How can we solve these problems and have a Republic that benefits everyone?
Plato: First, you must make the rules apply fairly and equally to everyone. Beginning with the laws, and considering the systems and practices of governments at all levels, you must strive for fairness and equal treatment for all people, in all ways. Commerce, public services, law and order, civil liberties—all the domains of a successful republic—must treat people equally. Only then can they truly strive and compete for the lives they want to lead.
K.A.: Yes, indeed. That remains a pressing problem for all of American society. What else?
Plato: Second, you must educate your citizens for a much higher standard of democratic thinking and action. You haven’t solved the fundamental problem of democracy that I write and teach about every day—the problem of human ignorance, and the vulnerability of ignorant people to manipulation by demagogues and aspiring dictators.
Your educational systems and practices fall far short of producing enlightened, thoughtful citizens worthy of participating in a modern democracy, especially for the difficult times you will surely face in the coming decades. Most of what your educators think of as teaching amounts to little more than the mindless, ritualistic pursuit of useless information.
An intellectual underclass has formed over these many years, consisting of people whose educational experiences haven’t prepared them for their roles as citizens. Your scientists—psychologists, I believe you call them—identify a rather large number of your citizens as “willfully ignorant,” stubbornly and emotionally attached to a biased and misinformed view of society, and unable to reconsider their beliefs.
I want you to make a serious commitment to revolutionizing the entire experience of citizen education. You must begin teaching people how to think, not merely what to think. You must teach all citizens, from birth and early schooling, to think democratically.
K.A.: What should we do about racial prejudice? Ethnic conflict? Intolerance? Persecution of minorities? We seem to have become more and more polarized between the complacent white majority and various minorities.
Plato: You haven’t solved those problems because you haven’t understood them.
K.A.: Explain, please?
Plato: You’ve named the problem “white supremacy.” You would better have conceived of it as male supremacy. The male biological propensity for violence, conquest, and dominance energizes all of your racial, ethnic, social, political, religious, and generational conflicts—all of them.
We haven’t solved it in my society. The Romans certainly didn’t. Nor have the Europeans, the Latin Americans, or the Asians. America could become the first society to find real peace through equality between men and women—a true “partnership” society.
K.A.: But how? That seems very difficult.
Plato: Education and enlightened leadership. With the right leaders—people with intelligence, strength of character, humanitarian values, and the determination to reshape the society—more and more males will understand the prospect and value of true partnership, in place of dominant relationships based on coercive power.
In your modern, civilized, technological world, physical strength and fighting ability no longer count for much, except when needed by soldiers. Males and females have the same mental capacities; the same willingness to work and strive; and the same desire to see the whole society succeed. Building a true partnership society might take you fifty years; or a hundred; or ten. Why not get started?
K.A.: Thank you, thank you indeed. Any final thoughts?
Plato: Yes. I want to see your elected leaders strive to bring people together, not set them against one another. Too many of your political leaders promote disharmony, resentment, jealousy, and animosity between groups of people as the instruments of power.
Now, more than ever in the history of your Republic, you need to create a spirit of community, within your society and reaching out to all societies of the wider world.
Your “national conversation,” as you call it, has become noisy, strident, antagonistic, rude, and dishonest. Most of your citizens spend far more of their time entertaining themselves, and one another, than they spend on educating themselves.
K.A.: So, what of our future? How do you see our prospects?
Plato: A thousand years from now—or even a hundred—will some enterprise known as America still exist? Will your descendants look back on these times and admire your leaders for what they’ve done?
You and your fellow Americans now stand at a momentous turning point in history. Will your democracy survive and thrive?
The answer to that question, my friend, and the fate of America, lies in your hands.
K.A.: Thank you so much, Plato. We appreciate your perspectives, and your wise advice and guidance.
Plato: You’re welcome, and good luck. I may check in with you again in a hundred years or so.