Plato and Politics


This was the title of an A-level Class Civ topic until fifteen years ago—withdrawn because the number of schools offering it went down to less than ten, and no girls studied it. So now the reading of Plato at school amounts to the occasional Greek set book, or it can be recommended for the aspiring classical scholar in the sixth form.

But Plato can still enthuse, not least with his Republic, which is relevant both to political and psychological theory and to Greek history. It has enraged some political idealists for its rejection of democracy.

The notorious comment that democracy is ‘agreed to be senseless, so there’s nothing more to say about it’ is sometimes attributed to Plato, but it is from Thucydides, who has Alcibiades saying it to the ephors at Sparta after he had defected. (VI.89)

In the Republic, Plato is actually mild about the democratic regime that during his own lifetime had committed crimes against its own people as well as against other Greeks. He refers to democracy as ‘gaily coloured’: an agreeable kind of society that gives equality to people who are not equal. But then he explains that in a democracy unchecked, the principle of liberty becomes the only one. That principle goes to extremes, until the democracy destroys itself and hands over power to a tyrant.

The Athenian democracy was responsible for, among other things:

  • the siege and destruction of Melos, the massacre of its male inhabitants and the selling of its women and children into slavery because that city declined to join the ‘Delian League’;
  • the vote to send the entire fleet on an expedition of conquest to Sicily, which ended in a military disaster unprecedented for Greeks;
  • the hysterical trial of the generals after the battle of Arginusae, in which one of the principles of democracy itself was ignored (that people be tried as individuals), and the generals were executed the same afternoon;*
  • the repeated refusal, at the instance of Cleophon, to accept Spartan offers of peace on equal terms, although the entire fleet had already been destroyed at Aegospotami and there was no prospect of anything other than defeat.

The first two of these can be found in Thucydides, the other two in Xenophon’s Hellenica. Although narrated in measured terms in the classical style, they describe voters who were becoming almost infantilised.

*Socrates by chance was one of the prytaneis: he refused to put the vote and was summarily—and illegally—deposed.

Next few posts: Words that delight, and things that enthuse.

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