Liberty and Justice for All—Plato’s Condemnation of Democracy

By Andrew Fairweather, Seward Park Branch Library
June 15, 2020

Socrates drinks the hemlock

Liberty, Democracy and Tyranny

Like many thinkers worth reading, all sorts have claimed Plato as their own. There is plenty in his work which recommends aspects of the conservative tradition, yet his proposals of communal childrearing and equal rights and privileges between the sexes in ‘Republic’ have endeared him to young romantics and movements on the left. But regardless of whether you read him as a reactionary or revolutionary, one thing is quite certain—Plato was not a fan of democracy.

Percy Shelley

Shelley, the young romantic, grew to see Plato's work as prefiguring his own revolutionary ideals

The most important reason for this, of course, is because it was under Athenian democracy that Plato’s mentor, Socrates, was condemned to death for “corrupting the youth of Athens.” Plato’s depiction of Socrates in his 'Crito’ does battle with this popular depiction of Socrates as a rebellious upstart—no, Socrates is no rebel. Like the prophets in the Old Testament, Socrates sought to save the city from its rebellion against itself.

After all, Athens at this time was a tale of two cities, rent in twain by class division. Reading Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War we can bear witness to the bitter arguments waged between rich and poor that served to help them lose to the Spartan-led Peloponnesian League. Not to mention that public opinion in democratic Athens was incredibly malleable, shifting here and there depending on what the popular position was. Is it any mystery that Plato’s scheme for a good society in ‘Republic’ more closely resembles the Spartan rather than the Athenian mode?

Plato’s description of the democratic society is one where liberty is the guiding principle. To quote from Book VIII of ‘Republic’—

“Liberty […] is best managed in a democratic city, and for this reason that is the only city in which a man of free spirit cares to live.”

This quote in isolation sounds like a recommendation to the 21st century American reader. This is far from being the case. For Plato, liberty as a guiding principle is dangerous. The spirit of liberty knows no authority, going to all lengths to dismantle all that is sacred or has pretensions to moral superiority. It “chafes at the slightest suggestion of servitude”, it recognizes no standards, and anyone who wishes to distinguish themselves from the masses in any way is accused of being an “oligarch” (which might as well be another term for being called an “elitist” today). It follows that the spirit of liberty only recognizes leaders that resemble themselves. Teachers do not teach for they are not willing to assume the authority to do so at risk of sounding disagreeable to the youth, while the youth themselves lack compass, living only to rile up the elders.

But perhaps the most frightening and consequential charge Plato makes is that the tyrannical regime is the natural product of the lawlessness of democracy’s spirit of liberty. The rudderless-ness of democracy leaves people desperate for a protector, as there is no shared tradition amongst the people to draw from to make their own way in the world. They find their answer in the tyrant, ushering in what Plato sees to be the most miserable state of unfreedom in all political forms where paranoia and anger are the rule, our bestial, selfish side is completely unleashed, and the possibility of trust is all but extinguished.

I admit, this doesn’t look good!

Liberty & Justice Opposed

For any American who grew up hearing, “with liberty and justice for all” at the end of the Pledge of Allegiance, one of the most striking aspects of Plato’s ‘Republic’ will be his opposition between the spirit of liberty to that of justice. Justice is the central concern of ‘Republic,’ specifically, the possibility of justice as something intrinsically valuable for its own sake. Socrates’ interlocutors, Polemarchus and Glaucon, challenge Socrates to disprove the more common idea of justice which sees the individual at its center—that justice occurs when I receive pleasure or avoid suffering, essentially a conflation of liberty and justice. Socrates must furthermore disprove the idea that people can only willingly act justly in order to seem just, that is, not out of fear of doing wrong but out of fear of being seen to do wrong, a notion perfectly illustrated in Book II by the Myth of Gyges where a man finds a ring that makes him invisible and gets to commit a series of heinous crimes against the state completely undetected. Who among us wouldn’t get up to mischief? Socrates has his work cut out for him.


Embodiment of Justice from Cambrensis Geraldus 'Liber de Instructione Principum

As I see it, the two attitudes towards justice can be broken down into two separate attitudes toward human nature. The premise of Glaucon and Polemarchus asks that we see individuals as essentially seeking their own interest. The question of whether it is desirable or not that people seek their own interest is besides the point—this premise suggests that we can’t help it. In this sense justice can only be giving people what they deserve when they make us or others suffer (with the law as its helpmeet). The second premise, Plato’s own, is that society must seek a harmony that takes precedence over random individual desires in order to be just. Principles for the good and peaceable life must be sought and orchestrated like a beautiful song. In practice this means that in such a society everyone is taught to know one’s place and value each contribution to society as important. Everyone knows, in essence, “why they’re here.”

There are implications in regard to education within these two attitudes—while the first attitude begs that we regard human nature as unchangeably self interested and inherited at birth, the second believes that people must be taught to embrace their own nature. The aspect of our nature which seeks out the harmony of justice must be cultivated, like a garden. This is precisely why education (rather than law) plays such a large role in Plato’s Republic. For Plato, human nature is paradoxically something we are not immediately in touch with but must be revealed to us through proper instruction. That is, we must be taught to know ourselves and our relation to the whole. This is , furthermore, a universal quality of all—in Plato’s ‘Meno,’ this is abundantly clear when Socrates has a slave boy come to understand mathematical principles in just a few quick lessons. In the first attitude, the spirit of liberty, the role of one in their society is fluid and liable to change according to the fluctuation of desire and ambition of the individual. In the second, one’s role is fixed according to the harmony of the whole and is almost entirely devoid of ambition as a rule.

It is, then, a give-and-take. Plato would have us consider that feeling a sense of belonging or striving for justice is altogether impossible in a society that places a premium on innovation, change, gain, and ambition, the four horsemen of the spirit of liberty. Without a shared sense of direction or vision for the future, justice becomes all but impossible, a matter of what Patrick Deneen in his ‘Why Liberalism Failed’ characterizes as “anonymous oversight triggering post-facto punishment.” Deneen argues that a populace driven by private rather than collective concerns leads to distrust that bears an expanded surveillance network and state power that is nothing but punitive. That, “ironically, the more completely the sphere of autonomy is secured, the more comprehensive the state must become” since liberty becomes defined as liberation from all socially determined categories which might stifle a sense of oneself as untethered and free... and the imagination around the state becomes nothing besides a tool for punishment to fill the vacuum created by the absence of the sorts of unwritten rules that allow a society to function.

It is the lack of deference to any authority whatsoever what disturbs Plato in his assessment of democracy and its attendant spirit of liberty. Yet, the key for Plato is not that we blindly follow authority—an assumption of Plato we can easily dismiss after reading his ‘Protagoras’ where the simple memorization of self-identical categories from a long-winded and, quite possibly, abusive professor is dismissed as far short of true knowledge. He is well aware that a forced truth will never become one’s own. Rather, Plato is asking that we listen to one another, as Socrates was so apt to do. That, for just a moment, we suspend our bestial tendencies to jump to conclusions and devour our interlocutors. Justice at all times operates for the sake of the health of the whole. The execution of justice, when properly done, is about setting the values of our society before ourselves in judgment. With an eye to justice, we can understand the role we must play in our society, and know what is important (the fact that essential workers have been working chronically underpaid positions is a revelation in this regard). It is all well and good for the court of liberty to sputter and stall at trespasses against its privileges—but such noise does not make a society.

Democratic Justice?

Perhaps Plato’s outright rejection of democracy is unwarranted, an extreme position. My own view is that it is not altogether impossible to couple democracy with justice. I am not alone in this—20th century thinkers attempting to understand the brutal regimes of their own times such as the economist Karl Polanyi believed that the very survival of democracy depended on emphasizing justice. Nonetheless, Plato's point in regard to the growth the spirit of liberty as an encroachment on the project of justice is at least intriguing. Is there a time in the life of the democratic polity where it must choose to emphasize justice at the expense of liberty? Distribution at the expense of expansion? This is possible. Maybe doing so would save us from “rebellion against ourselves.” Maybe the health of our democracy depends on it.


If you are interested in reading and/or discussing Plato's 'Republic' please join us on Tuesday, June 23rd at 12pm for a virtual book discussion. Click here to register.