What was Plato's view of democracy

Plato"The State"

It had been too uncomfortable: Socrates had warned the Athenians not to leave rule lightly to nobles or even to populist pied puzzles, but only to competent people. That was too much for the rulers of Athens: Socrates was sentenced to death. To the horror of his pupil Plato, for whom events did not leave him in peace: What should one do to prevent a state from killing its best minds in the future? So that he might be more just?

"Justice is a matter for the individual - but it is also a matter for the entire state."

The ideal state: directed by philosophers

With these words Plato started out from the individual in his "Politeia": Man is just when the three parts of his soul - reason, thirst for action and desires - live in equilibrium; however, reason must lead. Applied to the state, this meant: "As long as the class of philosophers does not become master of the state, there will be no end to misery for either the state or the citizens." Plato himself already admitted that the rule of the philosophers would remain an unattainable ideal. In this way he looked at the reality of the state and society.

The just state: under the sign of all-round virtue

Analogous to the three sides of the soul, Plato divided people into rulers, guards - i.e. police and military - and workers. They included farmers as well as rich merchants and poor day laborers. Plato now made his demands on all of them: "If the class of business man, assistant and guardian do their own thing and each of them fulfills his task in the state, then that would be justice and would make the state just."

Each class of the population should live according to a certain virtue: the rulers should act wisely, the guards bravely. And the workers should behave prudently. Plato defined this in practical terms: "For the broad masses, prudence consists primarily in being subject to those in power, but controlling oneself in the joys of drinking, love and eating."

Marked by pessimism: Plato's doctrine of the forms of government

Of course, one could only be subject to a just rule. According to Plato, it should be an aristocracy, that is, the rule of an intellectual elite. Plato did not consider this aristocracy to be very long-lived, however. For he thought of how vain the mighty acted; and so he foresaw that the aristocracy would decline to a timocracy: there it was no longer wisdom that counted, but the social image - an Eldorado of blenders and whippers. From this an oligarchy will develop - the rule of the materially rich.

It's all about money there - and the good upbringing of young people is neglected. A society is growing up that is characterized by extravagance and idleness. As a result, however, the broader population will be materially impoverished. Sooner or later the dissatisfaction of these people would discharge in a revolution; and from which a democracy emerges. Of that, however, Plato clearly thought little:

"Will not the urge for freedom in such a state inevitably extend to everything? In such a situation the teacher is afraid of the pupils and flatters them; the pupils disregard their teachers and so do the boys' overseers; and in general the young face the older ones the same and compete with them in word and deed; the elderly let themselves down to the young, are full of wit and joke and imitate the young so as not to appear sullen and bossy. "

Here, of course, the philosopher had the Athenian democracy of his time in mind. Applied to today's conditions, one could say: a democracy without value-conscious and politically alert citizens. Paradoxically, however, according to Plato, people longed for an orderly relationship, for a leader. That is why they become easy prey for demagogues - and with that the state takes on the last and most despicable form: that of tyranny.

Plato's "Politeia": Ammunition for Totalitarianism?

The philosopher did not explicitly describe in his book how to get out of there. But his fundamental values ​​set the course: Plato was obviously interested in people subordinating their interests to the common good. However, this also resulted in the fact that he demanded a state-compliant youth education and even wanted to make the artists politically compliant. He also outlined ideas for a real euthanasia. That is why Hannah Arendt and Karl R. Popper accused him of having spoken the word about totalitarianism. One cannot completely deny that. But Plato did not want a state of arbitrariness; Above all should be the ideal of natural justice. In any case, with its intellectual sharpness and also with its literary qualities, Plato's book stood at the beginning of two and a half millennia of Western political theory. Even if it was that later philosophers only rubbed against him.

Plato: The state. Translated and edited by Gernot Krapinger,
Reclam 2017, 579 pages, 12 €.