Monday, December 28, 2009
Why Socrates Died by Robin Waterfield
The roll-call of contemporary critics of Athenian democracy, during its flourishing in the fifth and fourth centuries, is impressive. It includes not just men of action, such as Alcibiades and Critias, but just about all the intellectuals who come to mind: the playwrights, both comic and tragic, the orators, the historian Thucydides, philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, Xenophon, Isocrates and Aristotle, and pamphleteers such as the anonymous author of The Constitution of the Athenians who is familiarly known as the 'Old Oligarch'. They had a limited number of points to make, and they made them more or less forcefully.
First, some argued that the masses were innately stupid and over-emotional, and remained so thanks to lack of education; moreover, since economic circumstances largely determined human behavior, the fact that the masses worked made them less moral than the rich; therefore democracy was the perverted rule of the morally inferior over the morally superior.* Democracy was by definition the rule of the working class, whose members had neither the money nor the leisure nor the education to do the kind of long-term and objective thinking that government required. The idea that mass decision-making could be superior to individual wisdom was a joke. This is still a live issue in political philosophy: a recent book takes as its starting point the fact that 'Democracy is not naturally plausible'. Why turn such important matters over to the masses of people who have no expertise?* In ancient Athens, the problem was exacerbated by the fact that the elite felt that they did have such expertise, handed down from generation to generation ever since the good old days of aristocracy.*
Second, they felt that the democracy was a kind of tyranny of the weak over the strong, a violation of the natural hierarchy, too egalitarian and open. Democracy made laws in its own interest and gulled the credulous by calling this "justice". Democracy tended to confuse freedom with lack of restraint, lawlessness and anarchy, or at least promoted the sovereignty of the people rather than the law, with attendant dangers. As a kind of tyrant, democracy favored flatterers and yes-men, and exploited the wealth of others for its own purposes; it governed by whim, and the masses were therefore fickle and easily led by demagogues and self-interested speakers, especially into over-confidence or vindictiveness (but even the critics often wryly acknowledged that the Oligarchs served themselves in precisely the same fashion).
Third, democracy's preference for committees over individuals, and for the annual change of administrative positions, made it inefficient. It stifled initiative, favoured the average and failed to make use of experts in government. Democracy had too much power for its own good: elite fear of chastisement by the democracy made them less inclined to put their abilities in the service of the state. And in particular, democracy was hopeless at foreign policy: witness the follies and the final catastrophe of the Peloponnesian War. The masses were more likely than the elite to be belligerent, because the elite were linked by hereditary relationships to their peers abroad, had a better understanding of foreign affairs and naturally wanted to protect their foreign estates ( the 4th and 5th century 'Global Economy').
Fourth, the people mishandled public money. This mismanagement manifested above all in paying the poor for public service in the courts and Assembly and for military service, and in an ambitious programme of enhancing the city with monumental buildings and other public works. As if these measures- depriving the rich of resources they could have spent privately- were not enough democracy had also taken the state into a crippling expensive war (The Oligarchs didn't have a nifty banking system to turn such liabilities into rich reward.)
Curiously, it would be hard to draw up a similar list of counter arguments by democracy's supporters. Only a few isolated passages develop in a piecemeal fashion anything like a theory of democratic virtues, while others (such as Pericles famous Funeral Speech in Thucydides) are too complacent to contribute much ammunition to the debate ( it is a eulogy to Athens, not political theory). Dmocracy was more performance than theory, and was constantly evolving. Nevertheless, various ideas and arguments crop up here and there: the egalitarianism of democracy, and the idea that the possession of common goals reduces discontent and increases concord, without any need for hierarchy; the belief that almost every citizen has the mental capacities necessary for socialization and contribution to debate, so that there is such a thing as collective wisdom. Those in favour of democracy denied the equation of pluralism with anarchy, and claimed that accountability was self-evidently a good discipline for a community's officers to work under.
The debate was won by the democrats, not because they had the best arguments, but because their opponents had the worse track record. The scandals of 415, Alcibiades's arrogance and, above all, the brutality of the Thirty Tyrants were plain facts that needed no theoretician: if this is what oligarchy was like, democracy was clearly preferable. Oligarchs never fully recovered the moral high ground. Active dissent fizzled out in the fourth century and took with it much of the social crisis. After the rule of the Thirty, it was left to philosophers to formulate criticisms; the men of action had been silenced and democracy had been restored. There was only one loose end: Socrates.
* I personally heard Martin Luther King Jr. preach against this notion used a justification for Jim Crow in the early 1960s.
* The U.S. Senate routinely ignores the the desires of the majority of Americans when legislating such issues as Health Care, Banking and Tax Policy.
* The "Wisdom of the Founding Fathers" is often invoked whether very relevant to the current social, economic or political situation or not.