Ancient Greek Lessons for the Modern Political World

‘Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch’ — so goes the saying widely attributed to American founding father Benjamin Franklin. What might this man, often represented as the embodiment of the American Enlightenment, have thought of the contemporary political manifestation of democracy in his beloved republic today? At the heart of his political philosophy lay an undoubtedly complex understanding of democratic citizenship and its attached rights and liberties.


The aforementioned quote is ostensibly a critique of democracy itself, one that echoes fears of majoritarianism. Majoritarianism is, of course, the nomenclature for the political philosophy whereby the majority is granted primacy in matters political. The weeks following the U.S. election saw extensive, though misinformed, criticism of the electoral college. The rationale for this was undoubtedly hysteria from the left who witnessed their candidate win the popular vote only to be dismantled in the electoral college. Those calling for a recount evidently fear a sort of ‘Tyranny of the Majority’, that would see the weightier part of the electorate exert its will at the expense of an ‘oppressed’ minority. The irony of this is, of course, that the electoral college was established in the United States Constitution as the very mechanism that would ensure that no tyrant nor demagogue could win the presidency.


The election however, begs larger questions of democracy, criticisms of which are almost as old as the form of government treasured across the West itself. But what happens when the rule of the people degrades into what is described as majoritarianism. The term ‘Tyranny of the Majority’ lends itself unto this article more suitably. Indeed, the founding father of Greek philosophy, Socrates, is portrayed as largely pessimistic about democracy for reasons quite similar.


In book six of the Republic, Socrates likens society to a ship in an attempt to highlight the flaws of democratic government whilst in dialogue with Adeimantus, the brother of Plato. Would one feel safer with just anybody in charge of the sea vessel, or rather, those educated in the rules and demands of seafaring. By no means was Socrates elitist in his political philosophy, however, the disconnection of wisdom and rationality from the vote itself, as understood by the standard-bearer of Greek thought, would lead to a system the Greeks feared above all, demagoguery. This term as well, is derived from the Ancient Greek demos and agogos, meaning people and leader respectively; as in the original Greek, the term demagogue has similarly negative connotations in the English language.


The desire for election by demagogues like Trump, and the rise of far-right parties across Europe — including France’s Front National, Germany’s Alternative for Deutschland, the Netherlands’ Dutch Party for Freedom, and Greece’s Golden Dawn —  has evidently exploited the desire of the masses for easy answers to some far more complex questions. We should consider the Socratic example of an election between a sweet shop owner and a doctor. Can the doctor really provide any effective response to the more enticing, empty as they may be, words of the sweet vendor? Modern philosopher Alain de Botton underlines the fact that democracy, as a form of government, is only as effective as the education system upon which it stands. As a result, he rather brilliantly argues, we have elected many sweet shop owners and very few doctors.

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