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Enlightened Democracy – Plato and Beyond

Plato`s idea about the rule of the philosophers

Plato considered the Athenian democracy in the fifth century BC as a system run by people possessing muddled judgments based on impulses, sentiments, or prejudice and not out of knowledge and wisdom about what could be just and right. He believed people cannot be trusted to choose their leader because popular leaders will play on likes and dislikes, weakness and foibles of the public, and will never tell people the unpleasant truth which may make the voters uncomfortable. Like the salesmen the main aim of these leaders are to sell comforts to the public in order to win votes and thus the state affairs are perpetuated on the basis of bad judgment and whims of the multitude. He considered democratic liberty to do as he/she likes as extremely disintegrating. In such democracy, he thought, the dislike of individuals for moral authority of any kind, and the sensitivity to any restraint on the personal freedom would only increase dissension and weakening of cohesion among the fellow human beings. He was afraid that such a system will breed greater and greater moral permissiveness, which in the end will destroy the society. He became furious against this democracy when the Athenians condemned Socrates to death for teaching moral and political philosophy not accepted by the mass.

The alternative to this democracy was oligarchy or tyranny. In the oligarchic rule the power went with the wealth. Since the wealth remained in the hands of the few, the political power was controlled by only a handful of minority. Plato had deep distrust of the profit motive and the politics controlled by the power of the wealth because he was afraid of the increasing exploitation of the poor by the rich. He believed such oppression would create a  social maladjustment and disunity which will lead to growing conflicts ending in revolution. Plato described tyranny as rising out of the chaos and dissention into which a society may degenerate. Tyrants secure their single-handed rules by maintaining loyalty of small groups of body-guards – a private army tied to him by interest. It is an arbitrary rule of an individual,  characterized by his ruthlessness and destructiveness in opposing and uprooting any rival. Anyone who may stand against him will be swept away by using all means. Plato called these tyrants drunkards, sex-maniacs and madmen.

Confronting this choice among democracy, oligarchy or tyranny Plato dreamt of a just society, ruled by enlightened citizens. Plato gave an allegory of a dark cave to describe the way he saw the life of people in the society, who needed to come out to experience light. The cave dwellers were born and brought up in the darkness from their childhood and had their necks and legs bound in chains. The way the society had brought them up was the only reality they knew.  He called their perception of reality as shadow reality. Like puppets they were bound to their shadows. Plato wished to liberate these enchained souls and show them the path of ascent towards light.  He wished to cure these cave dwellers of their delusions and drag them out into the “sunlight”.  He believed that knowledge about the true unchanging reality, which lay behind the reality of the shadow world of the changing impermanent world that we perceive as real, was the path of liberation from the cave.  He called this as the knowledge of the good.

He was preoccupied with a morally sound society which would automatically produce a just society. Therefore he had dealt at length with the question of true knowledge and how one may become enlightened by acquiring such knowledge. His solution in creating a just political system was based on the ideas of these enlightened human beings who possessed such knowledge. He called them philosophers.

According to him the humanity will be able to create the just states only if these philosophers, who love wisdom and knowledge of truth, could be made the rulers. The knowledge of these philosophers are the knowledge of things which are ultimately real which exist beyond the world perceived by the senses. They are attainable by reason and contemplation. He believed that these philosophers have the capacity to grasp the eternal and the immutable and they possessed love of learning which reveals the eternal knowledge of the “good”.  

These enlightened men, who attempt to grasp the whole in their entirety, are not touched by any meanness or pettiness of the mind. They are well-balanced, never boastful or unjust and possess self-control. People, possessing such greatness of mind and breadth of vision, which encompass all time and reality, bear in mind the consequences which their actions may have on other`s life. They are the true navigators. When  the society is led by these people no evil can follow.


Criticism of Plato`s idea

Plato`s ideas have been criticized as being unrealizable and impractical. His monolithic view about the rule of the enlightened, who have knowledge of the good, which descends from a transcendental realm outside the sphere bound to the changing world of emotions and thoughts of the sense-bound mortals grounded on needs and necessities, is criticized as arising out of a vacuum without relations to the real life.  The critics argue that what he believes as the true eternal unchanging reality, whose knowledge the philosopher rulers should try to achieve, may not have any reality at all outside the metaphysical speculation of his mind. It does not delve with the true nature of man. Instead Plato demands from man efforts to seek an imaginary sphere of morality with no proof that such sphere may have any importance to real man`s life. Moreover his ideas have no empirical basis.


People like Aristotle stressed on what existed and affected the real life of people – the historical necessities and the knowledge of the processes through which social evolutions proceed. This process may not follow any transcendental reason or any reason at all. The social evolution has to be seen as the result of the behavior of the creatures that the human beings truly are. It may take different forms and directions of development according to circumstances of history, environmental constraints and the way authorities take roots and grow. What may be good for a society living in particular circumstances may not be good for others living in societies experiencing different economic and political challenges of their existence.

Aristotle meant that instead of focusing on transcendental reason, which belongs to something divine and out of reach for most people, one should seek practical reason which may bring benefits to the life of people in a society. According to these practical philosophers people may not know what may be the ultimate good for them, they may be ignorant about the knowledge of “Heaven” and have little or no perspective to understand the way controlled and manipulated by the people in power,  however everybody possesses the innate abilities to grasp their own personal interests. This will dictate people to choose to conform, or protest against their oppressors. As long as there is no tyranny people will be able to find practical ways to navigate among the contending powers. So there is no unique way as Plato has prescribed. There are multitude of choices of social systems which may follow different tactics and practical needs of people who comprise the social body. The best one can do is to choose the best practical methods to improve the conditions of one`s own. Human nature is basically self-centered and focused on the benefit one may rip from the circumstances. The justice can be seen as something that causes no evil to one`s life and the community where one lives. So it is relative. In a world where one`s security and wellbeing may cost others their security and wellbeing, what may appear just for an individual, or a society, may be unjust for another individual or a society. There does not exist any unique prescription as regards what is justice to all. They argue that Plato`s imaginary society is nothing but an Utopia. The idea of rule by the enlightened philosophers, they are afraid, will result in the dictatorship of the virtuous ones, who have no touch with the reality of life of people living in flesh and blood. The philosophers will only create a mess in the society.