Tuesday, 15 March 2016
Plato, democracy and the time in which we live
'... a variety of colours to be of all things most charming'
Donald Trump, the SNP, Brexit... Although these are in many ways diverse and even contradictory phenomena, Jeremiahs like myself may well seek to trace general patterns of misery therein. I sometimes think that the essential problem in the modern world is a very simple one. On the one hand, we have a democratic culture that feeds us with ever ballooning dreams of autonomy and freedom, while, on the other hand, the increasingly globalisation of the economy and of power means that these fantasies, politically, have less and less chance of being realised. Coupled with decreasing cultural emphasis on self control and the toleration of frustration, we lurch around wildly seeking some remedy for the blocks we meet, creating fantasies of enemies who lie behind the simple brute indifference of the world to our desires.
And so to Plato (here). In Books VIII and IX of the The Republic, he traces the decline of the perfect society into tyranny, the disintegration of order in the state being mirrored (and interconnected with) the disintegration of order in the individual soul.
Then in this kind of State there will be the greatest variety of human natures?
This, then, seems likely to be the fairest of States, being an embroidered robe which is spangled with every sort of flower. And just as women and children think a variety of colours to be of all things most charming, so there are many men to whom this State, which is spangled with the manners and characters of mankind, will appear to be the fairest of States.
Yes, my good Sir, and there will be no better in which to look for a government.
Because of the liberty which reigns there --they have a complete assortment of constitutions; and he who has a mind to establish a State, as we have been doing, must go to a democracy as he would to a bazaar at which they sell them, and pick out the one that suits him; then, when he has made his choice, he may found his State.
He will be sure to have patterns enough.
And there being no necessity, I said, for you to govern in this State, even if you have the capacity, or to be governed, unless you like, or go to war when the rest go to war, or to be at peace when others are at peace, unless you are so disposed --there being no necessity also, because some law forbids you to hold office or be a dicast, that you should not hold office or be a dicast, if you have a fancy --is not this a way of life which for the moment is supremely delightful
For the moment, yes.
And is not their humanity to the condemned in some cases quite charming? Have you not observed how, in a democracy, many persons, although they have been sentenced to death or exile, just stay where they are and walk about the world --the gentleman parades like a hero, and nobody sees or cares?
Yes, he replied, many and many a one.
See too, I said, the forgiving spirit of democracy, and the 'don't care' about trifles, and the disregard which she shows of all the fine principles which we solemnly laid down at the foundation of the city --as when we said that, except in the case of some rarely gifted nature, there never will be a good man who has not from his childhood been used to play amid things of beauty and make of them a joy and a study --how grandly does she trample all these fine notions of ours under her feet, never giving a thought to the pursuits which make a statesman, and promoting to honour any one who professes to be the people's friend.
As Plato hints at the end here, the chaotic desires of the democratic populace tend to fasten onto any plausible rogue who claims to be on their side. This chaos is mirrored inside the soul of the democatic man:
Yes, I said, he lives from day to day indulging the appetite of the hour; and sometimes he is lapped in drink and strains of the flute; then he becomes a water-drinker, and tries to get thin; then he takes a turn at gymnastics; sometimes idling and neglecting everything, then once more living the life of a philosopher; often he-is busy with politics, and starts to his feet and says and does whatever comes into his head; and, if he is emulous of any one who is a warrior, off he is in that direction, or of men of business, once more in that. His life has neither law nor order; and this distracted existence he terms joy and bliss and freedom; and so he goes on.
One of the blind spots of the contemporary Western world is any criticism of democracy, particularly in progressive thought. That isn't to dismiss democracy as a form of government, perhaps even democracy as the best form of government, but it is to acknowledge (as the ancients were clearly aware) that any form of government has its dangers as well as its advantages. Plato's analysis is that democracies will tend to lurch from one whim to another, from one fancy to another. In part, it is this danger that parliamentary representation and the checks and balances of a republican constitution are supposed to remedy. But there we get the resentment of the 'elite' or the 'Establishment': to the extent that a political class is created which is designedly resistent to that whim, it will be subject to resentment from the electorate and the possibility of the harnessing of that resentment by populist movements.
When a democracy which is thirsting for freedom has evil cupbearers presiding over the feast, and has drunk too deeply of the strong wine of freedom, then, unless her rulers are very amenable and give a plentiful draught, she calls them to account and punishes them, and says that they are cursed oligarchs.
To the conservative mind, there is no complete remedy to the ills of democracy or any other governmental system. But two safety valves at least exist to reduce the effect of those ills (quite apart from, the simple acknowledgement that generally all will not be well). First, there are the spheres of social life which lie outwith government: the associations of civil society and the family provide spaces where the whim and resentment of democratic politics can be escaped. Secondly there is religion. By providing an analysis of the end of human life as one which lies beyond this world -and certainly beyond politics- again resentment and frustration are reduced.
But of course, we have moved beyond this. Vox populi, vox dei. And there is no God anyway. And so we lurch from whim to whim, blaming the oligarchs, desperately willing to believe that sometime someone will deliver the goods, not knowing quite how, but believing with divine certainty that it will be both beautiful and great.
Touch me with noble anger,
And let not women's weapons, water-drops,
Stain my man's cheeks! No, you unnatural hags,
I will have such revenges on you both,
That all the world shall -- I will do such things --
What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be
The terrors of the earth!
(King Lear: Act 2, scene 4)