The Ship of Fools

Anja Steinbauer explains why Plato had problems with democracy.

A lovely boat lazily bobbing up and down on the water, going here and there and nowhere: A nice way of spending a summer Sunday afternoon. But would you really want all of your life to be like this? Well, this is what you get, Plato tells us, if you live in a democracy. What is Plato’s problem with democracy? As it happens, there is more than one problem. Plato has a very powerful formal objection to democracy, which I will discuss later in this article – but there is more, and it all comes to a head in the trial of Socrates. It seems like Plato didn’t like democracy much, and neither did Socrates. Athenian democracy didn’t like Socrates either, which is why the troublesome thinker was eventually democratically put to death.

Why did this happen? Athenian democracy – democratic only to a limited extent, restricted to about 20% of the population – had a great reputation at its time, helped by the enthusiastic advertisement of ‘first citizen’ Pericles: “Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighbouring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favours the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if no social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition. The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbour for doing what he likes, or even to indulge in those injurious looks which cannot fail to be offensive, although they inflict no positive penalty.” This doesn’t just sound great; Athens was indeed the most liberal and open society of its time – a society in which we might expect someone like Socrates to have flourished. As you probably know, Socrates was an outspoken advocate of truth, of uncompromising honesty and commitment to virtuous behaviour. Why was a man of such integrity sentenced to death by the democratic majority of his civilized peers?

At the time of Socrates’ trial in 399 BCE, Pericles had been dead for 30 years and other events had occurred which were less conducive to political liberty and tolerance. The Peloponnesian War, a gruelling conflict between Sparta and Athens, was fought on and off for almost 30 years, ending in the defeat of Athens in 404 BCE and the installation of a pro-Spartan oligarchy, the ‘Thirty Tyrants’. Their rule was marked by mass executions and the exiling of political dissenters. After only a year the Thirty were driven out and democracy was re-established. Three years later, three men, Meletus, Anytus, and Lycon, all of whom had been part of the democratic anti-Spartan resistance movement, brought charges against Socrates.

The fragility of democracy had been laid bare. It is no accident that the trial of Socrates took place in the aftermath of military humiliation, political collapse and resistance. Socrates was accused of corrupting the young and ‘inventing new gods’, in other words of causing young people to critique the customs and institutions of the state and of undermining the core values of the Athenian society. Plato himself acknowledges the fundamental importance of political and legal obligations in the Crito. Can any democracy, especially one as vulnerable as Athens at the time, tolerate civil disobedience?

Socrates argues at his trial that a democracy such as Athens is particularly in need of someone critical and controversial: “And so, men of Athens, I am now making my defence not for my own sake, as one might imagine, but far more for yours, that you may not by condemning me err in your treatment of the gift the god gave you. For if you put me to death, you will not easily find another, who, to use a rather absurd figure, attaches himself to the city as a gadfly to a horse, which, though large and well bred, is sluggish on account of his size and needs to be aroused by stinging.” Who is on trial here, Socrates or Athenian democracy itself?

In Book 8 of the Republic, Plato describes how a democracy is unlikely to be a stable political solution, since it offers freedom but neglects the demands of proper statecraft. Plato therefore predicts an almost certain collapse of democracy and decline into tyranny, a total loss of freedom. Why does democracy involve a neglect of statecraft? Plato argues that in a system where political power (‘cratos’) lies in the hands of the people (‘demos’) it is not guaranteed, in fact is unlikely, that those best equipped to rule will get a chance to manage public affairs. Instead the loudest voices will dominate, irrational, ill-motivated decisions will be made and the complex arena of politics which is in need of carful ordering and management will turn into a crazy circus.

To make this plausible, Plato illustrates his account with his famous ‘ship of fools’ analogy: Imagine a sea voyage on which all that are travelling feel entitled to claim the helm. Though the captain is a good navigator he isn’t good at convincing the others that he is, and those who shout the loudest and make the most confident claims, though they know nothing of the skills of navigation, will get a go. Discipline and order go overboard and what results is a kind of drunken pleasure cruise rather than a rational, well-organized journey from A to B.

Jonathan Wolff in his Introduction to Political Philosophy summarizes Plato’s argument like this: Ruling is a skill, like medicine or navigation. It is rational to leave the exercise of skills to experts. In a democracy, however, the people rule and the people are not experts. Therefore, democracy is irrational.

Are the people really as incompetent at political decision-making as Plato fears? The death of Socrates seems to confirm it, yet it is not clear what ‘being good at’ politics means. Perhaps Plato’s ship analogy is also flawed: Is statecraft really a skill like navigation, dentistry or carpentry, a skill which requires an expert in the field to execute it?

Perhaps Rousseau is right when he tells us democracy is a good idea but such a tall order that it is realistically almost impossible to pull off: “Were there a people of gods, their government would be democratic. So perfect a government is not for men.”

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