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© Michael Lacewing Plato on democracy Michael Lacewing

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1 © Michael Lacewing Plato on democracy Michael Lacewing

2 Two claims The kind of freedom democracy creates is ‘licence’ - getting what you want. This kind of freedom is harmful; the value of freedom is in choosing what is good. Democracy is rule by ignorance, which is bad for everyone.

3 The beast Suppose a man was in charge of a large and powerful animal, and made a study of its moods and wants; he would learn when to approach and handle it, when and why it was especially savage or gentle, what the different noises it made meant, and what tone of voice to use to soothe or annoy it… But he would not really know which of the creature’s tastes and desires was admirable or shameful, good or bad, right or wrong; he would simply use the terms on the basis of its reactions, calling what pleased it good, what annoyed it bad. (The Republic, Book VI, 493b)

4 The ship Suppose the following to be the state of affairs on board a ship… The captain is larger and stronger than any of the crew, but a bit deaf and short-sighted, and similarly limited in seamanship. The crew are all quarrelling with each other about how to navigate the ship, each thinking he ought to be at the helm; they have never learned the art of navigation and cannot say that anyone ever taught it them, or that they spent any time studying it; indeed they say it can’t be taught and are ready to murder anyone who says it can.

5 The ship They spend all their time milling round the captain and doing all they can to get him to give them the helm. If one faction is more successful than another, their rivals may kill them and throw them overboard, lay out the honest captain with drugs or drink or in some other way, take control of the ship, help themselves to what’s on board, and turn the voyage into the sort of drunken pleasure-cruise you would expect.

6 The ship Finally, they reserve their admiration for the man who knows how to lend a hand in controlling the captain by force or fraud; they praise his seamanship and navigation and knowledge of the sea and condemn everyone else as useless. They have no idea that the true navigator must study the seasons of the year, the sky, the stars, the winds and all the other subjects appropriate to his profession if he is to be really fit to control a ship…

7 The ship …and they think that it’s quite impossible to acquire the professionl skill needed for such control (whether or not they want it exercised) and that there’s no such thing as an art of navigation. With all this going on aboard aren’t the sailors on any such ship bound to regard the true navigator as a word-spinner and a star-gazer, of no use to them at all? (The Republic, Book VI, 488a-e)

8 Analysing the analogy the ship = the state; the captain = politicians; the crew = the people; the art of navigation = the knowledge of the good needed to rule properly; and the true navigator = the philosopher.

9 Philosopher kings Politics is about the common good. There can be knowledge of the common good. People don’t always (or even generally) know what is good for them; and so consent will only tell us what they want, not how they should be ruled. People certainly don’t know the common good; nor are they motivated by it. Philosophy gives us true and proper knowledge of what is good. It is philosophers, then, who ought to rule.

10 Objections Is the common good independent of what we want? Can philosophers have knowledge of the common good? Would philosophers make good rulers in any other way? Is politics (only) about the common good? Does democracy embody other values?


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