voice for democracy

Flawed Plato predicted today's democracy dilemmas 2,500 years ago – Cape Cod Times

“I am Plato and boy, am I mad. (Also astonished and disgusted.) I’ve just returned from the Underworld to see what a democratic society looks like in your time and I’m ready to throw up. Pericles will cry when I tell him. Shame on you.”
That was how a 9th-grade ancient-history project started. The Greek philosopher Plato hated democracy and thought a highly educated elite should rule. 
Each student got this letter from Plato, challenging them to defend the right of the people to direct their own destinies. It was almost suicidally hard work for a teacher. I’d be Plato and have to respond to each reply, making his arguments … staying in character. Maybe 64 letters in total.
What was Plato’s beef? He thought personal freedom, pursued without reservations, would make a democratic society ungovernable. 
“When a person’s unhealthy,” writes Plato, “it takes very little to upset him and make him ill. The same is true of an unhealthy society. It will fall into sickness and dissension at the slightest external provocation.” Oh my God, he’s talking about us
Plato refers to “… a fear of admitting intelligent people to office. Because intelligence is no longer combined with simplicity and sincerity; people will prefer the simpler, hearty types, who prefer war to peace.” This is from 2,500 years ago!
Plato hated democracy because his own in Athens sentenced his beloved teacher Socrates to death … voted for it. Plato’s conclusion: Ordinary people are too stupid, uninformed and easily fooled to be entrusted with their own affairs. His solution: rule by an elite. Not the rich, necessarily, but by a spiritual and intellectual elite, a patriotic elite who could define what the proper sort of life was — and compel the populace to live it.
Patriotism would be the defense of this required vision and the repression of all others.  Authoritarianism abhors diversity: diversity of faith, opinion, ethnicity.   
Five hundred years before Christianity, Plato was a sexual puritan. He saw science, art and sex as dangerous distractions from the stern pursuit of purity. Spiritual truth wasn’t only superior to evidentiary truth, it alone was real. Sex, sneered Plato, was a “mindless frenzy.” Pure souls avoided it like the plague.
We actually have a modern example of Plato’s moral elites. When Ronald Reagan was president, he organized a systematic study of pornography — the Meese Commission. The commission’s panel viewed hundreds of hours of pornography in the course of their study. 
Here’s the irony. By their own logic, the viewing of pornography led inexorably to violent, anti-social acts. It was causal. Were that the case, one would have expected the members of the sex-drenched Meese Commission to have run helplessly amok in their personal behaviors. But nothing of the sort occurred.
Why not?  Because — and here’s the heart of elitist thinking — the panel considered themselves to be morally superior to ordinary people. They were confident that they were immune. It was the rest of us they had their doubts about.  
In the end, Plato predicts our love of liberty will be our undoing. 
“The minds of the citizens become so sensitive that the least vestige of restraint is resented as intolerable, till finally, in their determination to have no master, they disregard all laws, written and unwritten. An excessive desire for liberty at the expense of everything else is what undermines democracy and leads to the demand for tyranny.” 
A self-polarizing society like ours looks an awful lot like confirmation of Plato’s critique.
In the midst of a pandemic, asking people to wear masks, to get vaccinated gets spun into intolerable abridgments of our personal liberty. 
The absolute guarantee of free speech is taken as a defense for lies and cruelties — as if freedom and decency were mutually exclusive options. Conservative governors, supposedly defenders of local governmental freedoms, deny their own mayors the right to defend their communities by requiring vaccines and masks … all on the principle that no authority should have the right to tell a sovereign citizen what to do. Plato saw it all coming.
Meanwhile, for 27 years, 14-year-olds struggled to outwit the wily old Plato. A few weary kids surrendered.
“You’re right,” some of them said. “I give up. You win.” 
To my Platonic converts, I’d write back with enthusiasm. 
“Glad to have your support,” Plato’d say. “Let’s go to work. Please list what freedoms the people no longer deserve to have.”
There were no takers.
Personally, I can’t stand Plato, but if he’s right, there will be a tyrant waiting in our future at whose feet we will, like a band of addicts, lay down everything worth having. We’re almost there now.
Lawrence Brown is a columnist for the Cape Cod Times.  Email him at [email protected].