Plato’s anti-democracy

Plato’s anti-democracy November 19, 2007

Reviewing Malcolm Schofield’s Plato: Political Philosophy in the TLS, Jonathan Lear offers this superb precis of Plato’s politics: “For Plato, one cannot understand politics unless one grasps the nature and structure of human desire. Political scientists must be students of the human soul: for one cannot understand the problem of democracy if one sticks to the rhetoric of its self-understanding in terms of equality and freedom. One needs to see these values as underwriting, and giving license to, a form of human desire which Plato called appetite. In fact, he has a difficult time telling us what appetitive desire is. He picks it out via paradigm instances – hunger, thirst, sexual desire – but then goes on to say that this arena is multiform and thus, strictly speaking, lacks a name adequate to it. It comes to be known as the money-loving or profit-loving part of the soul, Plato tells us, because appetites are most easily satisfied by money. But, as Schofield explains, the fact that appetite can transfer desire from its original objects onto that which can purchase them sets us up for psychic conflict and political confusion. Psychically, if one comes to develop an appetite for money, one will tend to be reluctant to spend it on the things that would gratify other appetites. And since one of the hallmarks of human appetite is a tendency towards insatiability, one should expect a money-lover to be pulled powerfully in disparate directions. Politically, as Schofield puts is, ‘given the social freedom to do as one likes, what people in general will do under a democracy is the thing money gives them the capacity to do – satisfy their appetites.’ Because appetite is multifarious, democracy will in fact be a congeries of people pursuing different ways of life according to disparate appetitive conceptions of the good life. Plato likens it to shopping for constitutions in a market.”

All to the good, say modern theorists of democracy; this is what reason is all about – calculating how one can satisfy desires most efficiently. But for Plato this only looks rational when reason has been distorted by democracy. Reason properly functioning would have other desires: “to know what justice itself is; not merely to know what the just society or the just person is like, nor indeed how justice manifests itself in an orderly cosmos, but to grasp the form of justice and understand how this form is a manifestation of goodness wherever it is instantiated.” Without this desire to know the good, “human life, Plato thinks, is a vain and petty farce.”

The whole review is very rich, but a couple of comments on these points: First, the continuity of Plato and Augustine is very clear here; second, the Platonic desire for justice might reflect a kind of protoevangelium , a yearning for the manifestation of Justice; finally, the prescient recognition of the corrosive impact of money on political order.


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