Plato’s Philosophy Is an Aristocratic Attack on Democracy and Popular Rule

Plato developed his philosophy in ancient Greece during an early experiment in democratic government that threatened the power of his class. He responded with an argument for rule by aristocratic elites that has appealed to conservatives ever since.

Cave of Plato, Jan Saenredam, Cornelis Cornelisz. Van Haarlem, 1604. (Sepia Times / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Modern commentators trace the emergence of Western philosophy back to Plato. Karl Popper once suggested that Western thought has been Platonic or anti-Platonic but rarely ever non-Platonic, while Alfred North Whitehead famously quipped that the history of Western philosophy has been little more than “footnotes to Plato.”

One reason for his enduring influence is the sheer breadth of Plato’s writing. Across three dozen dialogues, Plato tackles everything from theology, metaphysics, and epistemology to political theory, the nature of love, and the theory of language. Another reason is the undeniable depth of Plato’s thought, which assimilates insights from his predecessors — Parmenides and Pythagoras in particular — while breaking new ground in many of the areas highlighted above.

A third reason, far less remarked upon, is the historical role that Plato’s philosophy has played in attacking democracy. His most influential work, The Republic, is a highly sophisticated argument against the democratic approach to government that had taken shape in Plato’s time. Plato’s uncompromising defense of human inequality has appealed to conservatives ever since.

The Natural Order

By the time Plato was writing in the early decades of the fourth century BCE, Athens had been a democracy for more than a century. Starting with Solon’s reforms in the early sixth century BCE and continuing with the Cleisthenian reforms in 507, thousands of Athenian males won citizenship rights in the teeth of opposition from conservative aristocrats — members of the Eupatridae — who objected to this upending of the “natural order of things.”

Plato was a member of the Eupatridae on both sides of his family. His father was descended from the old kings of Athens, while his mother’s family was even more prestigious, tracing its roots to the great Athenian lawgiver Solon. Members of Plato’s family were also heavily involved in contemporary politics. When he was in his early twenties, Plato’s uncle and his mother’s cousin led a coup against Athenian democracy in the aftermath of defeat in the Peloponnesian War.

Writing about these events fifty years later, Plato recounts how he initially supported this antidemocratic coup in the hope that its leaders would “set the city back onto the path of justice.” Instead, they acted with brutality, slaughtering their opponents and tearing up the rule of law.

Plato wants his readers to know that he abhorred the behavior of his friends and relatives, but it is worth remembering that his letter was written long after the failure of the coup was a well-established fact. We cannot know what role Plato might have played had the coup been successful, particularly as he went on to have intimate relations with more successful tyrants in the region.

In this context, it is worth nothing that the letter outlining Plato’s opposition to his associates in Athens was actually written to exonerate his own record in the politics of Syracuse, where one of his long-standing supporters played a central role in turning a once-vibrant democracy into a bloodbath of civil war and internecine violence.

Members of Plato’s Academy were also directly involved in the Syracuse bloodletting. Plato’s Letter to the Friends of Dion was essentially written to eulogize his protégé, despite Dion’s role in the cycle of violence, to denounce Dion’s rivals as men whom Plato had tried (and failed) to turn into philosopher-kings, and to exonerate Plato himself, in view of the disaster that was unfolding for ordinary people.

In spite of the killing and chaos that ensued, Plato never gave up his conviction that ordinary men and women were incapable of ruling themselves. He also retained his conviction that the easiest way to bring justice to the city-state would involve converting autocrats into philosopher-kings and that the nature of such “justice” could only be truly discerned from Plato’s own idealist philosophy.

A New Society

Western philosophy was a product of the polis, a new form of political organization that arose in Greece during the period from 800 to 500 BCE. These city-states grew out of a Dark Age centered on warrior bands and rural villages. The value system that underpinned the older society was based on military achievement. Men followed leaders who could protect the family unit (oikos) and display excellence in battle.

In the period between 1100 and 800 BCE, warrior chieftains coalesced into a military aristocracy who controlled the land and differentiated themselves through noble lineage. As before, it was military virtue that commanded respect, as aristocrats secured honor through success in warfare and victory against rival noblemen. These values were encapsulated in the ideal of aretḗ — the strength and skill of a noble warrior coupled with his superiority over commoners.

The most important catalyst for the emerging polis was a population explosion facilitated by improvements in agriculture associated with the shift from bronze to iron. According to one estimate, the population increased by a factor of seven between 780 BCE and 720 BCE, creating a struggle for land that in turn resulted in a series of important consequences for the development of the polis.

An urban civilization slowly developed, helping to create the legal and spatial centers for these new communities. At the same time, there was a wave of outward migration, with Greeks founding hundreds of new colonies and re-establishing trade with older empires to their east and south. The struggle for land also brought the masses more fully into politics as they began to claim political representation, land redistribution, and debt forgiveness.

The latter point indicates the growing importance of a monetary economy, which further destabilized an aristocracy who needed wealth to maintain their power without wanting to lower themselves to commercial activity. Over time, the rise in commerce created differentials within the aristocracy as some families adopted to the new economic reality while others failed to do so. It also created a class of prosperous farmers who demanded political representation as their economic fortunes improved.

The development of hoplite warfare in the middle of the seventh century was another important milestone in the move toward citizen-states, as warfare was no longer the preserve of the aristocracy. Instead of noble warriors fighting on horseback, warfare was carried out by around a third of the adult male population who had the resources to afford the equipment of a hoplite infantryman.

The fact that political rights had historically been associated with participation in battle meant that it was very likely that power now would begin to open up, particularly as internal competition within the nobility meant that they never imposed a class state over the commoners. In this respect, the collapse of the Mycenaean Empire during the twelfth century BCE allowed essential space for the development of more democratic forms of decision-making centuries later.

Solon’s Reforms

One consequence of struggle among the elites was the rise of tyrants. These were aristocrats who emerged in a period of conflict to grab power for themselves. From 650 to 500 BCE, strongmen emerged in various poleis with the aim of breaking the political, familial, and religious bases of their aristocratic rivals.

The best way to achieve this was to elevate the importance of the polis as a civic and religious center. Tyrants were associated with investment in civic and religious infrastructure that fostered a sense of citizen-solidarity. They also offered small commercial loans to break the economic power of the aristocracy and enacted legal codes that replaced the informal judgements of the nobility with more formal laws erected by the polis itself.

Meanwhile, the gradual rise in commercial logic was dissolving traditional relationships while also increasing economic inequality. In Athens, the resulting struggles became particularly sharp around 594 BCE, as the development of a rising class of prosperous farmers was mirrored by a growing mass of poorer peasants. Renowned as a lawmaker, Solon was tasked with restoring civic harmony among the contending parties: the nobility, the yeoman farmers, and the poorer peasants.

To help the poorest farmers, he abolished the quasi-feudal hektḗmoroi system along with the debt slavery that resulted from it. He also opened political office to men of wealth and made the aristocracy more accountable to justice administered through the polis. His aim was to ensure a hierarchical form of social order (eunomia) based on the proportionate contributions made by different classes to the good of the state.

However, within half a century, the reforms of Solon had given way to an Athenian tyranny under Pisistratus. In the same mode as tyrants elsewhere, Pisistratus fostered a sense of Athenian citizenship while further weakening the power of the Eupatridae. In the subsequent battle to overthrow Hippias, the son of Pisistratus, Cleisthenes sought a base among the masses against the conservative wing of the aristocracy, led by Isagoras.

War and Empire

The victory of Cleisthenes was also a victory for the lower orders. To confirm it, Cleisthenes further weakened the traditional nobility by abolishing their kinship groups, known as phratry. The newer kinship groups were tied directly to the polis, making sure the Athenian citizenry would become a self-conscious and a self-defined political body.

Cleisthenes expected his own family to remain close to the center of power, but his reforms soon took on a momentum of their own, deepening the role of the demos while creating new demands for genuine equality throughout public life (isonomia). One factor in this development was internal to the reforms themselves, as adult men gained unprecedented influence through their majorities within the assembly and the law courts.

The second factor was historical. The reforms of Cleisthenes came seventeen years before the invasion of Greece by an enormous Persian army. Against all odds, the Athenian citizen-army helped defeat the Persian attempt to conquer Greece, first on land at the Battle of Marathon (490 BCE), and then more decisively at sea in the Battle of Salamis (480 BCE).

The second of these battles announced the Athenian navy as a major military force — a force that was manned by the poorest Athenians, known as thetes. In the aftermath of this great victory, Athens developed a maritime empire that relied heavily on the contribution of the fleet.

This contribution, combined with the wealth of empire, helped to attenuate class struggle in Athens during much of the fifth century and created the conditions for the final strategy employed by the most farsighted aristocrats. These were men like Pericles, who forged his own influence in the middle decades of the century by supporting key demands from the democratic polis.

Class and Democracy in Athens

The rise of democracy entailed a radical departure from the norms of the ancient world. For the first time in recorded history, significant numbers of people made their own decisions. However, the force of this revolution was constrained by a number of important factors:

  1. Athenian democracy was limited to adult-born Athenian males, who made up 10-20 percent of the total population.
  2. Slavery was widespread: there were always two to four times as many slaves as citizens.
  3. The nobility maintained their wealth and status, and a slave mode of production was welded together with a participatory democracy for the minority of citizens.
  4. Athenian democracy existed in a hostile environment where the dominant external powers were antidemocratic.
  5. The Athenian polis remained a war society and quickly grew to become a maritime empire.

The resulting class relations were suitably complex. On the one hand, the Athenian citizenry became a unified political elite, making common cause in military campaigns and in the protection of their domestic privileges. On the other hand, class struggle persisted within the citizenry itself as the nobility sought to project their remaining privileges further into the polis, while poorer citizens used their greater numbers to counteract them.

The value system reflected these contradictory class relations in important ways. As it was a society engaged in regular warfare, aretḗ remained the central virtue of Athenian citizens with excellence now tied to one’s achievements while fighting for the polis. Citizens were encouraged to conceive of their city-state in semidivine terms. They were expected to fight ferociously in the citizen-army and to see their own success as intimately bound up with success for their compatriots.

To counterbalance these centrifugal forces based on courage and military achievement, the democratic polis also fostered cooperative virtues based on moderation and self-control (sophrosyne). Avoiding hubris became an essential attribute of citizenship, as every citizen was encouraged to “act with measure and within fair limits,” allowing justice to emerge within a community of political equals.

A second development was a fusion of reason, politics, and social superiority felt by men deliberating in the polis and judging in the law courts. Citizens were expected to listen to an argument, weigh up the evidence, and make their own decisions. The result was a sense of equality among the citizenry mixed with a sense of superiority over everyone else.

Reason (logos) became a defining feature of the democratic polis, while wisdom — or the excellence of reason — became associated with public speaking in the assembly and the law courts. The result was a set of cardinal virtues that went significantly beyond military prowess:  wisdom, courage, prudence, and justice.

Equality and Order

Another expression of the connection between politics and reason was the political nature of Greek metaphysics, as philosophers projected the laws of their poleis into the laws of the universe. Replacing the arbitrary judgements of the old aristocracy, Greek legal codes — written down and on public display — regularized relations among the citizenry, ensuring that justice became objective, universal, and predictable.

The sense of order that resulted from this process was soon writ large in the laws of the universe. Greek thought developed an analogy between the justice of the polis and the justice of the universe — a form of cosmic moral order that was present in the souls of men, in the relations of the city, and in the wider pattern of the universe.

A further development was a contest over the nature of this order between representatives of democracy and those aristocratic philosophers who sought a return to more traditional forms of hierarchy. For those in the former camp, the polis was enriched through democratic reforms aimed at creating isonomia — a political ideal that simultaneously meant “equality in law” and a genuinely equal distribution of political power.

Conservative thinkers championed an alternative form of “geometric equality” that they defined as eunomia. Here the guiding principle was that men are unequal by nature and that those who make proportionately greater contributions to the polis should be afforded proportionately more responsibility for its running.

The latter doctrine was to prove extremely important for Plato as a young aristocrat growing up during the horrors of the Peloponnesian War. Witnessing mass decision-making during the war, Plato, like his maternal relatives, reached the conclusion that democracy was full of sycophants and ignoramuses, who governed through irrational whims rather than genuine knowledge.

He further assumed that democracy upset the natural order of things as it allowed inferior men to control their superiors, often with disastrous consequences. Indeed, the depravity of Athenian democracy was confirmed for Plato when it executed his great mentor Socrates in 399 BCE. Yet when they had their chance to replace this democracy, Plato’s associates had proven no less depraved, murdering their opponents and tearing up the rule of law.

For Plato, this was evidence of moral degeneration across the state. It also demanded an entirely new basis for political organization — one that would be rooted in divine first principles of ultimate reality. It was to achieve this task that Plato undertook his most famous work, The Republic.

The Theory of Forms

Plato’s earliest dialogues use his master Socrates to highlight the ignorance of the masses. Socrates typically engages a fellow Athenian in a process of elenchus, a process of questioning and answering that exposes error in their common-sense explanation, allowing the interlocuters to move closer to the truth. However, the results often lead to aporia (perplexity), as the truth proves elusive under the scrutiny of the Socratic method.

To escape this perplexity, Plato turns in his middle-period dialogues to divine inspiration in his theory of forms. He argues that while the material world is subject to generation and degeneration, the ultimate ground of this world — its ontological first principle — is a realm of perfect, eternal, and absolute forms. The phenomena of everyday life are best understood as imperfect manifestations of divinely sanctioned structuring principles responsible for the order exhibited throughout the visible cosmos.

Knowledge of these forms is essential for understanding how an intelligent logos has arranged the visible cosmos into a hierarchy of beings, reflecting the hierarchy of the forms themselves. It is also essential for ruling justly, as those who spend their time contemplating the form of justice will be determined to see its pattern imitated in society as well.

The Ionian materialists had assumed that the order of the universe was immanent within matter itself. Politically, this had egalitarian connotations, as everything results from patterns of material necessity rather than divine intervention. Since human beings are all part of this material necessity, there is nothing to differentiate them from each other.

Plato, following Pythagoras, rejects the metaphysics of the Ionian philosopher Anaximander as incapable of explaining the obvious intelligence underpinning the material world. Matter is base and disordered without a higher form to give it structure. This is the basis for his reactionary metaphysics, as everything becomes part of a hierarchy of being.

Indeed, Plato’s most famous dialogue attempts to elicit justice in the city and soul by grounding it in the form of justice revealed as divine and eternal. To achieve this, he creates a famous analogy between the inner lives of men and their outer lives as citizens — between the relations of the parts making up their souls and the relations of the classes making up their city. In both cases, justice emerges from the proportionate ordering of the parts within a hierarchically structured totality.

There are six principles to this ordering process that ensure justice will emerge:

  1. The parts in any whole make a unity but not an equality. Parts are unequal by nature but complementary in function.
  2. Unity is created — it is not a random process of material necessity, but an intelligent process achieved by the logos through rational design.
  3. Unity is hierarchical — there are higher and lower parts in each totality based on the level of logos they possess.
  4. Higher parts should rule over lower parts — they have more natural capacity by virtue of their reason, but they must rule for the good of the totality.
  5. Higher parts are proportionately more important than lower parts, but all of the parts should hang together in mathematically harmonious ratios.
  6. This process is morally good as well as ontologically optimal — it allows the parts to reach their potential being as good and as rational as possible.

Variety of Natures

Plato’s first task is to apply this framework to relations in the city. To achieve this, he constructs a thought experiment — an ideal city-state — with the help of his two aristocratic interlocuters, Glaucon and Adeimantus.

Plato’s first assumption is his most important one. He assumes that nature makes men and women of different qualities and that these natural differences mean that society must be made up of separate classes, each with their own role within a harmonious totality. His discussion initially focuses on the benefits of economic specialization, arguing that “different people are inherently suitable for different activities, as people are not particularly similar to one another, but have a wide variety of natures.”

In this context, Plato begins with the majority of citizens who spend their days in different occupations. Their work will provide resources for the polis, but unlike the farmer-hoplites in democratic Athens, they will not be responsible for any military activity. Plato envisages a fully professional army freed from the demands of manual labor, following the model of Sparta.

However, he also assumes a further division within the auxiliaries to ensure that those who have a “philosopher’s love of knowledge” become the rational element within the state, while those who are naturally courageous take direction from the guardians proper. This leaves us with a class of producers, a class of auxiliaries, and a class of guardians. It soon becomes clear that the thrust of Plato’s argument is not about economic specialization at all but rather is designed to erect a rigid class system, with the majority excluded from access to political decision-making and the means of violence.

Historically, warrior-aristocrats tended to use their control of violence to further their own sectional interests. But Plato believes that this can be avoided if those with the most rational natures train the auxiliaries to work within proper bounds — to show courage and ferocity when meeting the enemy, but gentleness and honor when dealing with their fellow citizens.

Division of Labor

At this point, Plato makes the fundamental political argument of the Republic, which is that a harmonious community can only emerge when there is proportionality within the social totality, with all three classes working together for the good of the whole. Organized through the wisdom of the guardians, the ideal city exhibits a form of hierarchical order that allows all of the parts to reach their potential.

The wisdom of the guardians will be complemented by the courage of the warriors. Workers will display moderation by accepting that they have no business in ruling while their superiors will act moderately by ensuring that their rule will be in the interests of all. The overall result will exhibit justice and morality as every part receives the amount of honor and responsibility commensurate with its natural ability and social training:

When each of the three classes — the ones that work for a living, the auxiliaries, and the guardians — performs its own function and does its own job . . . then this is justice and makes the community a moral one.

Accepting the four cardinal virtues of the Athenian city-state, Plato has given them an aristocratic twist. For the Athenian citizen, all four virtues make up the excellence of his character. For Plato, on the other hand, wisdom is possessed by only one class of citizens, courage by another.

These two groups make up the ruling classes, with moderation and justice formed around a compact between rulers and ruled. Members of one class will accept their subjection, while members of the other will rule them justly.

The next step in the argument is to draw an analogy between the well-functioning city and the well-functioning soul. Having shown that a just society contains three classes arranged into a hierarchic totality, Plato insists that there are three analogous parts to the soul, with reason mirroring the role of the guardians, passion that of the auxiliaries, and desire that of the workers.

The central argument in his discussion of the state is that justice requires all three classes to work together. Here we find Plato arguing that a well-ordered soul can only flourish when each of its parts does its appropriate function and allows the others to do the same.

Reason and Passion

Reason, for Plato, is the highest faculty in the human soul. It is the soul’s connection with divine intelligence and, as such, it is the only part capable of understanding the good of the whole. Its role is to order the parts into proportionate relations so that goodness will emerge.

To achieve this, it must enlist the passions as its loyal auxiliary — as its emotional drive — to ensure that each human being can live a well-ordered life. Rational people successfully recruit their passions to ensure that only those desires that facilitate their long-term flourishing (eudaemonia) will be acceded to. Desire plays the part of the worker in Plato’s analogy, as the lowest, most inferior, and most numerous faculty within the soul.

In this schema, well-regulated desires have their proper place in the well-lived life. However, when they are left unchecked, desires have the potential to overstep their boundaries, undermining proportionality and throwing a harmonious totality into disorder. Unruly desires, like unruly workers, “try to dominate and rule over things which they are not equipped by their hereditary status to rule over, and so plunge the whole of everyone’s life into chaos.”

At this point, the two parts of Plato’s analogy can be brought into harmonious alignment. Nature makes different kinds of people with different kinds of souls. Those with the most rational souls and the right education will have wisdom enough to organize their own souls — and the classes in the polis — into mathematically proportionate relations modeled on the pattern of justice evident in the forms.

Those who lack sufficient wisdom and social training can still play their part by allowing the guardians to temper unruly desires and make political decisions for the good of everyone. At its core, this is a sophisticated version of Solon’s eunomia referenced above.

Plato has accepted the centrality of equality in the democratic polis but once again given it an aristocratic twist. Men who contribute proportionately more should be rewarded with proportionately more. Treating men who are equal in capacity as equals is justice — everything else is injustice.

Metaphysics Against Democracy

The neoconservative philosopher Leo Strauss once described The Republic as “the harshest possible indictment of the reigning democracy . . . which was ever uttered.” Strauss was no democrat either, but his point is well made when viewed in the light of Plato’s metaphysics.

Rooting his analysis in the nature of the divine, Plato argues that democracy represents a disastrous attempt to overturn the hierarchic order of reality itself. Distinctions between higher and lower, better and worse, are woven into the fabric of reality — a reality that is also mathematical in structure, containing proportionate relations among its parts.

Justice relies on the different parts getting their due, with mathematically proportionate relations among the hierarchy of forms, the hierarchy of citizens, and the hierarchy of soul constituents. Justice in the state requires the distribution of relevant political goods so that those who contribute the most receive the most in return.

Plato contrasts this model to democracy, which insists on treating naturally unequal men as if they were equal. This gives such inferior types more than they are morally entitled to receive, destroying the proportionality that underpins justice, and creating chaos in every domain.

People in democracies laud their freedom and equality. Yet for Plato, this masks a deeper servility as disordered men and women get pushed from pillar to post by desires that enslave them. Chaos in their internal lives in compounded by chaos in their city-state. The result is the proliferation of sycophants in public life, as demagogues peddle their wares among ignorant masses.

A second result is the defilement of philosophy, as those who cannot hope to understand the nature of the forms nevertheless encroach on the work of those who do. Respecting the hierarchic ordering of the universe, aristocratic rule not only expresses the natural order of things. It is morally just and supremely good.

Plato has therefore made class rule universally beneficial on a threefold basis. He has presented reality as infused with a reason that operates behind the backs of ordinary people; he has presented his own class as the inheritors of this reason, once they have been reformed in line with philosophy; and he has utilized his metaphysics to sanctify class rule as the reflection of a deeper cosmic justice.

The Republic rationalizes class as part of the natural order of things. Its enduring influence and success was surely linked to the death of Athenian democracy a mere twenty-five years after the death of Plato himself.

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Brian O’Boyle is the author, with Kieran Allen, of Tax Haven Ireland, Durkheim: A Critical Introduction, and Austerity Ireland. He lectures in economics at St Angela College, National University of Ireland, Galway, and is editor of the Irish Marxist Review.

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