Prominent Greek Thinkers Actually Hated Democracy

By Joshua T Garcia on Friday, November 29, 2013
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“Political society exists for the sake of noble actions, and not of mere companionship.” —Aristotle

In A Nutshell

Ancient Athens is often associated with democracy, but our favorite Greek thinkers (Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle) were unapologetically elitist. Their theories of human nature were less than flattering. As a result, they strongly criticized democracy as an inherently corrupt and inefficient form of government.

The Whole Bushel

Along with Rome, Ancient Greece is often heralded as a bastion of democracy. The government of Athens was supposedly a precursor to the governments we practice today. The American framers, we are wantonly informed, were heavily influenced by Greek democratic ideals.

To some extent, this is true; but the most prominent Greek thinkers—the ones most of us are still familiar with today—actually strongly disliked democracy.

Socrates insisted that democracy is inherently corrupt, as it gives in to the will of the people, which is inherently depraved. Democratic people have little tolerance for argument: Mob rule sustains their political way of life. Those who disagree will be killed.

The many, Socrates explained, are unfit for rule. Humans are naturally shallow, superficial, and ignorant—given the chance, these qualities will manifest themselves as injustice. Only a select, educated few will ever be capable of effective leadership.

Plato, a follower and transcriber of Socrates, agreed. In The Republic, Plato categorized different Greek governments in a hierarchical, devolutionary manner: An oligarchy leads to a democracy, which leads to tyranny. Plato stressed this idea, repeating it often: Democracy leads directly to tyranny.

And as far as Plato could tell, the road to tyranny was well-paved. Democratic citizens care only for money and wealth, disregarding virtue; the majority rules with fear.

Aristotle, adapting Plato’s ideas, suggests that democracy is a deviant form of polity, in line with tyranny. He categorizes democracy as a government that aims only to advantage the rulers. In addition to these harsh criticisms, Plato and Socrates both suggest that the ideal ruler of a government would be a philosopher. No surprise there.

Show Me The Proof

Socrates’ criticism of democracy
Aristotle’s Political Theory
Greek Philosophers on Democracy

  • WhiteExodus

    Let the Liberal bashing begin! (Watches in antipation for an argument between leftists and right wing group)

  • https://soundcloud.com/arjan-hut Arjan Hut

    I’ve heard about democracy. It was stillborn, but it’s ghost still lingers.

  • Hadeskabir

    Democracy has it’s flaws, it’s far from perfect. But it’s the best thing we have, where the people have a voice and enjoy freedom. The ideals of these philosophers, that people should be ruled by a select few intellectuals, is what brings the horrors of dictatorship and tyranny. We don’t need intellectuals to rule us, we need someone who listens to the people and only the people can elect them. If they aren’t doing their jobs right, we can always elect someone else. That’s what I love about democracy.

    • Jonathantol

      There’s a problem with Democracy though, just like what was said above. Most people don’t have real knowledge of how to run a country and how to deal with economic/strategic/international problems, and choose their votes mostly just for what they think is best for them. But what is best for them doesn’t always come from good reason and virtue. Look at Nazi Germany, the people voted for extremists because they were in a terrible economic state, even though the Nazis didn’t hide their awful ideologies.
      But I think the goods outdo the bads in Democracy.

      • Hadeskabir

        In democracy people can make mistakes and put the wrong people in power, but the good thing about democracy is that we can replace them with leaders the people thinks are better. The people decides what’s best, because a country is not about the rulers but about the people.

  • Yoshi

    I don’t normally comment, but still… this has to be the most simplistic philosophical 101 essay I’ve ever read of these arguments (plural), the only thing that gives it credit, is its most excellent spelling and grammar

  • Spartacross

    There is huge difference between a Democracy and a Republic. What most of the Western World has today are Republics, with elected (and easily corruptible) representatives.

    In a Democracy, the people get to vote DIRECTLY on the issues, from taxation and balancing the budget and to acts of commerce or war. Of course the ruling Elite could not tolerate this. hence, this system of elections that make absolutely no difference was invented by the crumbling British Empire. This way, even if a nation may be independent in paper, its economy and external politics never gets to be independent.

    When all electable candidates are already bought lock-stock and barrel before the elections, can it really make a difference who wins them?

    • aussieshepherd

      Very well put! I am an American and am constantly amazed at the ignorance of most of the population.

    • inconspicuous detective

      if i had read what you said first, i’d probably not have posted something so similar hah.

    • Víktor Bautista i Roca

      Are you maybe from the US? People there are the only ones I’ve heard saying this nonsense about Republic versus Democracy.

      What you call democracy is just a subtype of democracy, called direct democracy.

      A republic can be dictatorial or democratic, it’s not incompatible. What is incompatible is Republic vs Monarchy.

      • Spartacross

        It is quite easy to discern them apart: in a Democracy your opinions and vote count. You would be asked to vote often and directly on the issues. In a Democracy every citizen is important.

        In contrast, in a Republic, each of us is bestowed with very little importance. You (and 20,000-2,000,000 other people) are asked to be represented by a single person on every vote and on every issue. I trust you see the problem already.

        Now, it is not easy to corrupt 20,000 or 2,000,000 people in order, say, to give the taxpayers’ money to Wall Street and International Banks to cover for their own bad decisions. However, it is very easy to “contribute to the political fund” of a single Senator or the “presidential library” or “lecture tour” of a single president.

        Hence, these people in Wall Street gave themselves multi-million dollar bonuses at the end of that year.
        Having a party – with the citizens’ money.

        You think Big Banks would be able to run every Western country if he had Democracies?
        You think America would had been at perpetual War for over 100 years if the people would get to vote on whether they would rather have well equipped schools and decently paid teachers instead of cluster bombs and oil-producing puppet-state dictators? Well, if they did, they would make sure not to be paying those exorbitant gas prices!

        • Fora Nakit

          But on the other side, in direct democracy, another issue occurs, and that’s the knowledge and competence of the voters. A long time ago when economy and law was not so complicated it might work, but today…
          In my country ( Croatia), for a long time people demand two things from the government:
          1. lower taxes
          2. more benefits for citizens
          They don’t realize that those two things exclude each other. You cant give government less money to work with and ask for more benefits. If there was direct democracy at work in my country ( and probably in most of the countries in the world) there would be a big mess in politics and economy. A lot of people tends to think a few months in advance, may be a year or two, about such issues.. They don’t think about long term consequences of political or economic decisions. They don’t have enough knowledge to do it.

          • Jason Bay

            Athens was a direct democracy for a time. It was a complete disaster.

    • Julian Petkov

      Well, Athenian “Democracy” was a very extended oligarchy in nature. And still the Phoenicians controlled it with great ease, using populism and psyops. Athens was allowed more privileges than Sparta not because of Democracy. Democracy was part of the privileges. Being a premier Phoenician colony and a stock exchange centre.

      • SpartaCross

        I am afraid you have either not studied enough history or have skewed understanding of it. For starters, the Phoenician cities were in dire decline in 5th century BC (the time of Athenian Democracy), their dominion gnawed at by the Persians only to be eradicated two centuries later.

        • Julian Petkov

          I am afraid, you need to have a closer look. Europe is named after Phoenician woman, the Phoenician Embassy aka “Delphi Sanctuary” moved to Rome to become “the Vatican”. We are living in a Phoenician Empire. The “Persians” were a hoax, a “Cold War” from the Classical Period. King Leonidas went to the Phoenician Embassy in Delphi, to discuss if the “Persians” can be postponed… You have to know when the Elites are playing Kabuki theatre with fake wars.

          • SpartaCross

            HaHa! I do not know what you have been smoking, man – but you have to share!

  • http://www.teaparty.org/about-us/ Nixys

    Screw the Greeks, I’m all about the Romans. Plagiarists or not. Marcus Aurelius is my favorite philosopher king.

    • Raymond Donahue

      Plato invented the Philosopher King.

  • inconspicuous detective

    i will agree that democracy leads to tyranny. we’re seeing it right now in the US, where democracy is leading to it though subtle changes and policy enforcement. i would argue though that the reason behind this is NOT the type of government we have. it has much more to do with the captialist approach to all aspects of life we have fostered here over the two and a half centuries of our short time as a nation.

    that is to say, that people have realized they can vote in money, which if you’re familiar with some other great thinkers (some benny franklin guy) when people realize they can vote in money, “that will signal the fall of the republic”. in essence, he was right. that is the flaw of democracy, who we decide have rights influences how corrupt we can become. we have given these rights to corporations, ignorant to the damage they can do with power, and thus are subject to it.

    democracy needs no chains to work in its entirety. that is to say, the people need to be entirely free and democracy must be unrestricted (all things coming down to a majority vote) to really work. this means somebody’s toes will get stepped on, but the majority will be happy. that’s the best you can do, though. you can protect these people, sure, but they don’t get their way over the majority. that is yet another flaw of altered democracy…tyranny of the minority. the system isn’t perfect, but you have to accept flaws one way or another. personally, i think that yea, stepping over the minority and separating money from democracy would be great, but is not entirely realistic YET. we will see if things change in the future (as they likely will) as the american situation deteriorates.

  • Errkism

    Well America has the “select few” part going for us, now we just need those select few to actually be educated.

  • Errkism

    The last paragraph astonished me because you can see this in effect even today. “He categorizes democracy as a government that aims only to advantage the rulers”. Look at all the government officials who have increased their own salaries. I don’t think however, that this corruption is limited to democracy. I think any form of power in the wrong hands will turn sour, no matter the style of government.

  • Jhale

    I find it pretty funny that Americans’ history has to allow every winner to be as politically correct as possible. Children must get so bored in History class because most of the history books are not talking about real people, but their government-formatted personas.

  • Daniel Levi

    Democracy can and does lead to tyranny. It does this by subjugating the individual to the collective majority. It is an unfortunate mistake that so many equate democracy with liberty. Liberty is not democracy. Liberty is the rule of the individual over oneself and the absence of exterior rule from other individuals or collective groups of individuals.

  • assman35

    “Democracies may be more volatile and prone to demagogic extremes, but at least the power to decide your own fate lies with the people. Not the closed circle of political cabals.”

    No power lies with the people. In a democracy power lies with the most unscrupulous demogague. And it leads to complete disaster.

    • coda alexander mars

      Thank you. I was waiting for someone with a historical perspective to point that out

  • Raymond Donahue

    The Ancient Greeks were right. Chicago is a democratic city and just the way Plato and Socrates describe it.

  • http://jaredmithrandirolorin.blogspot.com/ MithrandirOlorin

    The Greek Phlosphers I view the source of all modern Evil, from Homophobia to GNosticism. And the government Plato advocated for in Laws was the most power big government ever imagined. Nothing for Libertarians to identify with.