Why Socrates Hated Democracies: An Animated Case for Why Self-Government Requires Wisdom & Education

How often have you heard the quote in one form or another? “Democracy is the worst form of Government,” said Winston Churchill in 1947, “except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time….” The sentiment expresses two cultural values many Americans are trained to hold uncritically: the primacy of democracy and the burdensomeness of government as a necessary evil.

In his new book Toward Democracy, Harvard historian James T. Kloppenberg argues that these ideas arose fairly recently with “mostly Protestants, at least at first,” notes Kirkus, in whose hands “the idea of democracy as a dangerous doctrine of the mob was reshaped into an ideal.” Much of this transformation “occurred in the former British colonies that became the United States, where, at least from a British nobleman’s point of view, mob rule did take hold.”

The modern revamping of democracy into a sacred set of universal institutions has defined our understanding of the term. Just as the West has co-opted classical Athenian architecture as symbolic of democratic purity, it has often co-opted Greek philosophy. But as anyone who has ever read Plato’s Republic knows, Greek philosophers were highly suspicious of democracy, and could not conceive of a functioning egalitarian society with full suffrage and freedom of speech.

Socrates, especially, says Alain de Botton in the School of Life video above, “was portrayed in the dialogues of Plato as hugely pessimistic about the whole business of democracy.” In the ideal society Socrates constructs in the Republic, he famously argues for restricted freedom of movement, strict censorship according to moralistic civic virtues, and a guardian soldier class and the rule of philosopher kings.

In Book VI, Socrates points out the “flaws of democracy by comparing a society to a ship.” If you were going on a sea voyage, “who would you ideally want deciding who was in charge of the vessel, just anyone, or people educated in the rules and demands of seafaring?” Unless we wish to be obtusely contrarian, we must invariably answer the latter, as does Socrates’ interlocutor Adeimantus. Why then should just any of us, without regard to level of skill, experience, or education, be allowed to select the rulers of a country?

The grim irony of Socrates’ skepticism, de Botton observes, is that he himself was put to death after a vote by 500 Athenians. Rather than the typical elitism of purely aristocratic thinking, however, Socrates insisted that “only those who had thought about issues rationally and deeply should be let near a vote.” Says de Botton, “We have forgotten this distinction between an intellectual democracy and a democracy by birthright. We have given the vote to all without connecting it to wisdom.” (He does not tell us whom he means by “we.”)

For Socrates, so-called “birthright democracy” was inevitably susceptible to demagoguery. Socrates “knew how easily people seeking election could exploit our desire for easy answers” by telling us what we wanted to hear. We should heed Socrates’ warnings against mob rule and the dangers of demagoguery, de Botton argues, and consider democracy as “something that is only ever as good as the education system that surrounds it.” It’s a potent idea, and one often repeated with reference to a similar warning from Thomas Jefferson.

What de Botton does not mention in his short video, however, is that Socrates also advised that his rulers lie to the citizenry, securing their trust not with false promises and seductive blandishments, but with ideology. As the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy summarizes, Socrates “suggests that [the rulers] need to tell the citizens a myth that should be believed by subsequent generations in order for everyone to accept his position in the city”—and to accept the legitimacy of the rulers. The myth—like modern scientific racism and eugenics—divides the citizenry into an essential hierarchy, which Socrates symbolizes by the metals gold, silver, and bronze.

But who determines these categories, or which voters are the more “rational,” or what that category entails? How do we reconcile the egalitarian premises of democracy with the caste systems of the utopian Republic, in which voting “rationally” means voting for the interests of the class that gets the vote? What about the uses of propaganda to cultivate official state ideology in the populace (as Walter Lippman so well described in Public Opinion). And what are we to do with the deep suspicions of, say, Nietzsche when it comes to Socratic ideas of reason, many of which have been confirmed by the findings of neuroscience?

As cognitive scientist and linguist George Lakoff writes, “Most thought is unconscious, since we don’t have conscious access to our neural circuitry…. Estimates by neuroscientists vary between a general ‘most’ to as much as 98%, with consciousness as the tip of the mental iceberg.” That is to say that—despite our levels of education and specialized training—we “tend to make decisions unconsciously,” at the gut level, “before becoming consciously aware of them.” Even decisions like voting.

These considerations should also inform critiques of democracy, which have not only warned us of its dangers, but have also been used to justify widespread voter suppression and disenfranchisement for reasons that have nothing to do with objective rationality and everything to do with myth and political ideology.

Related Content:

Socrates on TV, Courtesy of Alain de Botton (2000)

Watch Animated Introductions to 25 Philosophers by The School of Life: From Plato to Kant and Foucault

How to Know if Your Country Is Heading Toward Despotism: An Educational Film from 1946

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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Comments (14)
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  • brian t says:

    Imagine what would happen if society were divided in to two by IQ, using a neutral “culture fair” test that works for everybody. Score over 100, you get the vote, below 100, you don’t. These two categories would represent above-average and below-average, since an IQ score of 100 is average by definition. You could build flexibility in the system to make it more inclusive, allowing people to retake IQ tests without restriction as they grow older and demographics change (the “Flynn Effect”). IQ is not a precise score and comes with a built-in margin of error. It wouldn’t be totally in line with Socrates’ thinking, but it would be a start.

    Why IQ? Because it’s not a measure of what you have learned, but it is an ability of your ability to learn. So, even if you don’t have the knowledge recommended by Socrates, IQ is correlated with one’s ability to absorb knowledge from any source, inside or outside the classroom, and with BS detection. *

    However, straight away you would have a problem along racial lines, since as things are today in the USA, Asian and Whites *tend* to be higher than Blacks and Hispanics. There are socio-economic reasons why this can happen, but when it comes to the negative outcomes from low IQ, they don’t really matter. In that sense an IQ score is heartless and not “fair”, since it make no allowances for personal history.

    Note that I have emphasised the word *tend*: this trend describes groups only, *not* individuals, and IQ was never intended to be, used to discriminate against people. But if you are to follow Socrates advice, limiting voting rights to the educated (or at least the educable), you are going to end up discriminating against people. So, no easy solution, then!

    * http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/scientists-find-a-link-between-low-intelligence-and-acceptance-of-pseudo-profound-bulls-a6757731.html

  • Rich H says:

    It is our federal government controlled education system that is failing our country. Universities do not teach wisdom but teach leftism and that teaching now begins at kindergarten. Leftism is the antithesis of the Republic our Founders established. Leftism is America’s greatest threat and its great growth of gov’t (which constitutionally is supposed to very limited) is why America has been in decline as its tentacles reach into every aspect our economy, society and our lives. The People have become painfully aware of the decline, even if not knowing the cause and so the uninformed actually vote for more of it.
    I would argue that virtue is also a necessity. Knowledge without wisdom and virtue is hardly better than amoral ignorance. And yet the Left also actively against virtue as it works to drive Christianity out of the public square to undermine Judeo/Christian values and godly faith overall.
    The Left works to undo all that is needed for a democracy to work well because Leftism is totalitarian in nature and seeks to control everything and thus everyone. So, the democracy is manipulated to fail so leftists can rule. It is not just a natural occurrence but a devious deliberate one.

  • octaaf coeckelberghs says:

    In English : he must have meant Bourgeois Democracy… for decades causes war, unumployment,pollution and to keep this goiing a higher welfare for some as well, but no ecological production and distribution, stressed life styles and not enough time to be busy with the true meaning of life
    laat ons zeggen “why Socrates hated BOURGEOIS DEMOCRACY http://philosophicalresistance4.skynetblogs.be   ‘t zou me allemaal niet zo kunnen schelen ware het niet dat al die oorlogen daardoor kunnen beginnen, jongeren massaal zonder werk zitten in bepaalde regio’s en er geen tijd genoeg is wegens het kapitalistische levensritme om dingen te doen die met het wezen zelf van het leven te maken hebben….alleen nuttige dingen maken, meer collectieve voorzieningen, ecologisch produceren en sociaal verdelen

  • Vítor Barreira says:

    Mr. Josh Jones,

    Thank you for your excellent text on democracy and its enemies.

    It is an informed, well articulated text and written in an exemplary prose.

    I especially liked its dialectic structure: Thesis, Antithesis and Anti-Antithesis.

    My best regards,

    Vítor Barreira (Lisbon, Portugal)


  • Ersi Samara says:

    I was born and grew up in Athens, Greece, so the legacy of ancient greek philosophy weighs heavily on me, believe me. But we live in the twenty first century and we don’t necessarily need to assume that our ancestors’ ideas are set in stone. Things change, society evolves, philosophy does too.

    I agree that our actions are the result of unconscious processes to a large extent. The unconscious is a tricky little beast that can manipulate us better than any propaganda can. But that is true of everyone’s actions, rulers and leaders included, illuminated and cultured as they may be. So we’d better leave it out of the equation since it’s ever-present.

    This is a fine article on democracy though mostly restricted to abstract considerations. I think that to discuss democracy today we must necessarily consider the needs and desires of the population. A democratic society would strive to satisfy those needs, not only the craves of a certain race, religious group or an elite, be it financial or cultural. Equality is much more than the right to vote, especially knowing what politicians tend to do with our vote once in office.

    Human affairs have little to do with perfection, I think. Democracy doesn’t need to be perfect -it can’t- but it does need to address the necessities of all. And to guarantee that, everyone would better be involved in the everyday processes.

    P.D. Education is extremely important, I totally agree with that. And I mean education, not technical training.

  • J-M Barreto says:

    Popper´s “The Open Society and Its Enemies” is always relevant when revisiting Socrates and Plato. Popper relates both thinkers to authoritarianism. Historically both of them were willing enemies of Athenian democracy and supporters of Sparta authoritarian regime.

  • Joseph (Joe) Frame says:

    I agree that good education, that which engenders independent thought and consequences for one’s won actions/decisions, is vital for good government. Government money spent on this kind of education is money well spent; money spent on “testing” and “the college experience” is not.

  • Kerry King says:

    The core values of Leftism’ are freedom and equality. Christianity values supernatural entities and dogmatic subservience. Since God’s existence cannot be proven or any of ‘his’ un-scientific miracles, how long could you survive without god and how long could you live without what nature provides you?

  • Kbj says:

    Ah, that would be conservatism you are describing so well.

  • David says:

    The comparison of the republic’s caste system is nothing like racism, that’s a total mischaracterization of the passage. Socrates makes provisions for moving children up and down the system based not on genetics, not on intelligence alone but most importantly on moral character. Those of the highest caste would live almost like monks. In any event citizens of the USA need not fear, such a state could never develop here because moral character has never been a sought after requirement in politics, business or any form of leadership in the USA!

  • Putput says:

    I agree that good education. Government money spent on this kind of education is money well spent; money spent on “testing” and “the college experience” is not.

  • zet says:

    I agree that good education

  • Aurielle says:


  • Gail says:

    Oh, do tell wise one. What is “leftism?” Science?! And the alternative is what? Fantasy? Mythical thinking, what you call Christianity?
    Science isn’t political. There is no left agenda. The scientific method was designed to spot bias and correct for it when found.
    Oh, I’m not done.
    In kindergarten, you won’t find kids learning critical race theory.
    Critical thinking, or wisdom if you will, is exactly what we should be teaching in schools. Given the uneven, often deplorable condition of schools, particularly in the south, we’re not ready for such a big paradigm shift. Of course, the right likes to keep their base dumb, so it’s not going to happen anytime soon anyway, if ever.
    MAGA is the party of “simple solutions.” Your 5 year old boy feels like they’re a girl? Remove all books that mention transgender or even suggest it – that’ll solve the problem! Not.
    Simple solutions are the work of charlatans. Their lies appeal to the uneducated bc it’s comforting to think big problems have an easy fix. News flash. Complex problems require complex solutions.
    Totalitarianism by the left you say?! That’s bulls**t. It’s the RIGHT who believes govt should control a woman’s body, control who we love, control who we marry, control gender identity, control what’s taught in schools, control the books we read, control voting, control the results of elections…Sounds like totalitarianism to me.

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