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“The complaints of Plato and Aristotle concerning the character of democracy are as

relevant today as they were in their time.”
Plato and Aristotle were both philosophers from Greece who criticized democracy

as a poor form of government. Plato’s thoughts on democracy were that it causes the

corruption of people through public opinion and creates rulers who do not actually know

how to rule but only know how to influence the “beast” which is the Demos, the public.

Aristotle’s views about democracy hold that democratic office will cause corruption in

the people, if the people choose to redistribute the wealth of the rich they will end up

destroying the state and since the people have no knowledge about governance when they

elect rulers they will err. Do these criticisms of democracy hold true for the democracy

of today? We will investigate this question with reference to the Democracy of the

United States of America. When talking about something as broad as democracy we

must define the term to make it more manageable. For this discussion we will define

democracy as a form of government where eligible people choose their leaders through

elections and the social constructs are based on the equality of everyone within the state.

Plato as we have discussed views democracy as a system of government where

public opinion shapes the ideas and views of the citizens “are not the public who say

these things the greatest of all Sophists? And do they not educate to perfection young and

old, men and women alike, and fashion them after their own hearts?”1 This is undesirable

according to Plato because the public exaggerate the praise for both what they think is

good and the shame for the bad “there is a great uproar, and they praise some things

which are being said or done, and blame other things, equally exaggerating both”1. The

exaggeration is a problem for a developing person because they will gain their knowledge

Plato. The Republic, Book 6. Translated by Benjamin Jowett
of what is good and bad from the views of the public “Will he not have the notions of

good and evil which the public in general have --he will do as they do, and as they are,

such will he be”1. These exaggerated views of good and evil will not be the proper views

of what is just and right according to Plato, which can only be found through the study of

philosophy and the ideas of forms.

Democracy “despises those things we solemnly spoke of when we were founding

our city… unless a man has an exceedingly fine nature, he would never become a good

man”2 for Plato the freedom of a democracy leads to the citizens not toward but away

from enlightenment unlike Plato’s government in the “ Republic” which helps to

enlighten individuals. The reason this happens is because the democratic man “does not

welcome true reasoning… if someone tells him that some pleasures belong to the good

and beautiful desires, but others belong to evil ones that one should prize and pursue the

former while the latter must be restrained and masters, he denies all this and declares that

all pleasures are equal and must be equally prized.”2. Since all pleasures are equal and

must be equally prized and the democratic man “[has] no plan or discipline in his life”1 he

jumps from pleasure to pleasure never fully pursuing anything his soul becomes

rudderless as “insolence becomes good breeding, anarchy freedom, extravagance

munificence, and shamelessness courage.”1

Plato. The Republic, Book 8. Translated by G.M.A Grube, Hackett publishing company (1974)
Plato. The Republic, Book 8. Translated by G.M.A Grube, Hackett publishing company (1974) p 83
Plato also uses a strong analogy to make his thoughts on democracies more


“[the sailors] throng about the captain, begging and praying him to commit the

helm to them; and if at any time they do not prevail, but others are preferred to them, they

kill the others or throw them overboard, and having first chained up the noble captain’s

senses with drink or some narcotic drug, they mutiny and take possession of the ship and

make free with the stores, thus eating and drinking. They proceed on their voyage in

such a manner as can be expected of them. Him who is their partisan and cleverly aids

them in their plot for getting the ship out of the captain’s hands into their own whether by

force or persuasion, they compliment with the name of sailor, pilot, able seaman, and

abuse the other sort of man, whom they call a good-for-nothing; but that the good pilot

must pay attention to the year and seasons and sky and stars and winds, and whatever else

belongs to his art, if he intends to be really qualified for the command of a ship, and that

he must and will be the steerer, whether other people like it or not—the possibility of this

union of authority with the steerer’s art has never seriously entered into their thoughts or

been made part of their calling”2

In this analogy the captain is considered the “demos” or majority of peoples and

the sailors the politicians who are vying for the approval of the captain to take control of

the ship, which is representative of the state. In their struggle for control the sailors ply

the captain with alcohol or drugs, which could represent something such as pleasurable

Plato. The Republic, Book 6. Translated by Benjamin Jowett
promises and rhetorical speeches. Once they have wrested the control of the ship from

the captain through force or persuasion, the sailors break open the stores of food and wine

with no consideration for any rationing. The sailors, whom have disregarded the fact that

the ships food has been rationed, are like politicians who ransack the state stealing money

and wealth which was originally planned for some greater good of the community. Those

who have aided the sailors in their mutiny are now known as true sailors and those who

went against the sailors fight for control of the ship are considered unfit sailors and

contemptible. These unfit sailors represent the philosophers, such as Plato, who have

knowledge of how to truly run a state which is sustainable as well as just and moral. They

are disregarded by the politicians because the politicians argue no one can learn the art of

governance “every one is of opinion that he has a right to steer, though he has never

learned the art of navigation and cannot tell who taught him or when he learned, and will

further assert that it cannot be taught”2 and that the true navigators or philosophers are

merely star gazers with their heads in the clouds.

These Politicians who have taken control of the state will have been educated

about the demos by the Sophists whom “teach nothing but the opinion of the many, that is

to say, the opinions of their assemblies”2 . The “Sophists” according to Plato learn the

way of the “mighty and strong beast”2 which is the demos and teach this to the

politicians. These teachings however do not teach what is “honorable and dishonorable”2
Plato. The Republic, Book 6. Translated by Benjamin Jowett
because the teacher has no concept of these things. His views of good and evil are “Good

he pronounces to be that in which the beast delights and evil to be that which he

dislikes”2. The Sophists are teaching untrue definitions of what is just and good which is

corrupting the very people that he is teaching. Due to this it is extremely hard for a good

and just man to develop within a democracy since he is constantly being bombarded by

untrue definitions of what are the good and bad instead of the ideas and forms of good

and bad which are the only true definitions.

Aristotle writes in his book “Nicomachean Ethics” that “[of the perverted forms]

Democracy is the least wicked since its perversion of the constitutional type of

government is only small”3. Though this deviation from the constitutional type of

government is only small it is still big enough for Aristotle to have some criticisms of it.

His criticisms however are mostly based on hypothetical scenarios and types of

democracy. To him a democracy which is ruled by law with a people who are not utterly

degraded is not that bad a form of government and actually seems to praise it “that if the

people are not utterly degraded, although individually they may be worse judges than

those who have special knowledge -- as a body they are as good or better”4.

Aristotle asserts that the worst type of democracy is a Demagoguery, in which

everyone’s voice is equal and the rule of the majority has a greater authority that the law.
Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics, Translated by Martin Ostwald. Prentice Hall, 1999. p 234
Aristotle. Politics, Book 3. Translated by Benjamin Jowett.
This lawlessness is created as decrees gain more power then laws. With government

decrees having more power then the law, “The demagogues make the decrees of the

people override the laws, by referring all things to the popular assembly”5, Aristotle

argues that a charismatic leader will eventually be able to control the opinions and

feelings of demos so well that he will become a virtual tyrant over the people. “At all

events this sort of democracy, which is now a monarch, and no longer under the control

of law, seeks to exercise monarchical sway, and grows into a despot; the flatterer is held

in honor; this sort of democracy being relatively to other democracies what tyranny is to

other forms of monarchy. The spirit of both is the same, and they alike exercise a despotic

rule over the better citizens. The decrees of the demos correspond to the edicts of the

tyrant”1. The Tyrants then rule like masters of the people instead of equals which they

first claimed to be.

Another problem for Aristotle is allowing the poor people to “share the great

offices of state”1. The problem arises from their poorness and ill education, these two

factors will cause them to err and become criminals. They will become criminals because

they are so poor and responsible for such great and grandiose things that they will desire

them for themselves. The fact that they will error is self evident from the fact that they

have no education in the higher matters of the state. The poor however shouldn’t be

totally excluded from according to Aristotle “for a state in which many poor men are

Aristotle. Politics, Book 4. Translated by Benjamin Jowett.
Aristotle. Politics, Book 4. Translated by Benjamin Jowett.
excluded from office will necessarily be full of enemies”1 the enemies being the poor

against the rich.

How well do these philosophers arguments apply to today’s democracies? Using

the United States of America as an example we will see that many if not all of the

criticisms argued by Plato and Aristotle are just as relevant today as they were 1500 years

ago. Plato’s argument that democracy creates men who believe “insolence is good

breeding, anarchy freedom, extravagance munificence, and shamelessness courage” is

found to be somewhat true in democracy today. Many Americans believe insolence to be

good breeding, while this is really only evident within certain counter cultures such as

Punk/Gothic this is still a substantial portion of the population that should not be

overlooked. It is also exhibited in some ways by the rich and powerful such as Donald

Trump “All of the women on The Apprentice flirted with me - consciously or

unconsciously.” Anarchy is the most free a person could ever be, this is ingrained into

democratic individuals though the current economic system within the USA in which

lassie-faire economic policy is preferred. This is an economic policy where the

government tries its best to totally stay out of the private economic sector making

businesses freer to do as they wish. When this policy is not adhered to the government

gets quite an earful from economic commentators and big businessmen, whom do often

shape the opinions of the public. The general public as well often dislikes it when the

government is interfering with their affairs and would like more autonomy, while they

don’t necessarily harbor dreams of anarchy these are anarchist tendencies. The
extravagant within America are very commonly seen as munificent individuals. They are

seen in this light because of the USA’s economical policies. As with our discussion about

anarchy the current economic policy also ingrains into the population that extravagance is

munificence. This is based on the tickle down effect which was first stated by Ronald

Regan. This effect basically states that through increasing corporate profits the poor will

benefit indirectly making extravagant corporations or people seemingly appear to also be

munificent. Shamelessness is seen as courage by the majority of the youth of America,

this can be seen through such culturally important films as “Jackass” which influenced an

entire generation to believe that idiotic shamelessness was actually a type of courage i.e.

having the “balls” to beat your father up on the toilet.

Plato’s ship analogy also applies to American democracy in every way. The

politicians in the current democracy still ply the demos with rhetoric and pleasurable

promises such as pulling out of Iraq or bushes promises of election reform which he yet

to be realized. Once in office politicians, such as Bush, seem to use the power that they

now have to award defense contracts to their friends which are not the most cost effective

way of dealing out expensive deals. This is reminiscent of the sailors who raid the food

stores and take no account of the fact that they need to be rationed. The “true politicians”

of today, republicans and democrats, are known to belittle and attack the “unfit

politicians” such as the independents who are usually running on a campaign of

sustainability, environmental reform, and health care reform. All things which are
important for running a state such as the USA but the independent gets told he has his

head in the clouds and should focus on more attainable goals.

Plato’s other arguments do not apply very well to democracy today. Such as his

argument that politicians will not know what is really just and unjust. I think that the

politicians these days do understand what is truly just and unjust because they are very

educated men. They still do support or deny whatever the public says is good or bad but

because of their higher education they have probably read Plato’s works and understand

his forms of true justice which is really all he can ask for, a politician to understand his

views of justice. His argument that the demos will impose their views onto others is also

flawed but still applies to some situations. There are so many different view points on so

many different issues that most people’s opinions today are shaped by their close relatives

and friends and not the demos because there are to many different view points. There also

aren’t that many important issues where public opinion is not polarized. This

polarization does however affect how people view such issues as abortion and Iraq, in

which there are really only two views and people are highly motivated on each side.
Aristotle’s arguments against democracy are broken down into two points one

which is valid in our modern day criticisms and the other which is invalid today. His first

argument against Demagoguery applies completely to today’s democracy within the

USA. With reference to the situation after 9/11 the “charismatic leader” (I’m stretching

the word charismatic pretty far) George Bush was able to sway public opinion in favor of

a complete revamping of the nations anti terror laws, leading to, as some might say, an

almost tyrannical type of security. The way in which he used the situation to his

advantage was exactly the way in which Aristotle envisioned a demagogue using the

people’s emotions and fears to create an almost monarchical control the state. The

president used the momentary fear and emotions of the people to put forward a

controversial security bill which at any other time might not have passed. Aristotle’s

other argument on how you cannot allow the poor people into higher offices because their

education and poor self control would lead them to corruption is no very applicable to the

current situation. The American democracy uses almost oligarchic rulers for its higher

political offices, considering the last 3 or more presidents have been considerably

wealthy. So this argument of Aristotle’s doesn’t really apply to the democracies of today.

However Aristotle does address this type of oligarchic leadership “For the stronger they

are, the more power they claim, and having this object in view, they themselves select

those of the other classes who are to be admitted to the government; but, not being as yet

strong enough to rule without the law, they make the law represent their wishes”. The

Government of the USA does make laws that represent their wishes such as the earlier

mentioned tightening of anti terror laws but they also make laws for their friends such as
lowering of corporate taxes or pardoning those who have been incarcerated such as

President Ford pardoning Nixon.

This discussion regarding the critiques of Plato and Aristotle concerning

democracy, and its relevance to the current government in the United States of America

has allowed us to make the following assumption. If either philosopher were alive today

they would not agree that the current government in the USA is the ideal form of

government. Plato’s complaints would include how democracy corrupts certain citizens

as well as creates rulers who are tyrannical in how they go about running the state.

Aristotle, while not thinking that this type of democracy is best, would not be able to

completely condemn it. This is because he does think that democracy is the least

perverted of all the perverted types of government. Though he would not condemn it

fully, according to how we have understood his thoughts on demagogues, he would

disapprove as to how the president rules. The use of the fear and emotions of the demos,

in order to enact controversial legislation, is a perversion of good governance according

to Aristotle. With the information provided above it is clear that according to ancient

philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, the government utilized by the United States is far from


Aristotle. Politics, Book 4. Translated by Benjamin Jowett.

Plato. The Republic, Book 6. Translated by Benjamin Jowett

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics, Translated by Martin Ostwald.
Prentice Hall, 1999. p 234

Aristotle. Politics, Book 3. Translated by Benjamin Jowett.

Plato. The Republic, Book 6. Translated by Benjamin Jowett

Plato. The Republic, Book 8. Translated by G.M.A Grube, Hackett publishing company

Sorry my citations are not as good as they could be but the internet reading I used did not
have any line numbering system.