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.