Plato vs. De Tocqueville -- The ideal vs. The real vision of the democratic character and the democratic state
Both the Greek philosopher Plato and French traveler Alexis de Tocqueville approached different 'lived' versions of contemporary democracy as outsiders looking in. Plato (using the persona and voice of the deceased teacher Socrates) critiqued ancient Greek democracy with the aim of putting in that democracy's stead an idealized version of a republic, run entirely by philosopher kings who were judged to be the most fit to rule. Alexis de Tocqueville, in contrast, came from France to American. He came from a nation that had experienced a difficult relationship with its monarchy to a nation where the democracy of the masses was something to be aspired to rather than something to be feared and dreaded. Although de Tocqueville did allow that democracy had its potential to become abusive, when the popular will was shaped by the wrong hands of demagogues, ultimately his more realistic view than Plato's caused de Tocqueville to decide that democracy was the superior form of governance.
However, the philosophy advanced The Republic by Plato is almost entirely driven by a fear of popular demagogues such as the philosopher Glaucon, shaping the popular will of others to the nation's detriment. In fact, in Book 8 of The Republic, when delineating the four forms of rule government may take, the sophist Glaucon openly defends tyranny in a tautological and bloody fashion, suggesting that the mightiest ought to rule, and he who can sway the masses to do his bidding is most fit to govern. But while Socrates does not believe that 'might makes right,' Socrates also does not believe that the judgment of the majority of the nation and the ability of some politicians to sway the giddy opinion of the masses should be considered automatically right, either.
Rather, in Book Six, section 486, Socrates compares the democratic state to a ship that has undergone a mutiny. He complains that the manner in which the best men, (such as himself he implies, as well as other philosophers) are treated in their own states is like a ship. On the ship, there is a captain who is fitter to govern by virtue of being taller and stronger than any of the crew, with better technical knowledge navigation, but because the captain might have a slight infirmity in his sight or hearing, the sailors fall to quarrelling with one another about the steering of the ship. The captain is the envisioned, Platonic pure philosopher king who knows how to guide the state but lacks the military might or populist charisma and gift of speech to sway the common crew.
Because of this, the sailors decide that everyone has the same right to steer, even though they have never learned the art of navigation. Socrates mocks the sailors who assert that navigation, in his parable, cannot be taught, and thus they all have the same right to steer. Because everyone is trying to lead, nothing gets done. Socrates' implication is that a philosopher king should rule the state by fiat, not democracy, as the ship's captain must rule the will of the masses, else the ship will crash. Without a proper ruler, the sailors are ready to cut in pieces anyone who says something to the contrary of what they believe, and chaos, rather than freedom of speech ensues. Most people the philosopher suggests, desire autocratic leadership, as the sailors first throng about the captain, but because the captain refuses to rule, and attempts a kind of rough democracy on the ship that is ineffective, the sailors have the superior captain chained up, drug him, and then take to eating and drinking, merely acting upon the pleasures of the moment rather than pursuing a true and higher order, as ought to take place in an ideal Republic. The ship crashes because a true pilot, the ruler and philosopher, who should pay attention to the year and seasons and sky and stars and winds with his superior mind, has slacked in his duties, and shirked to assert that he is the most qualified person for the command of a ship, and that he must and will be the leader, whether other people like or not.
Thus, Plato's view of human nature in a natural and democratic state is fundamentally mistrustful. People do not know what is best for either himself or herself or the state, thus a ruler who is most fit should govern, not because of superior birth, but because of superior intellect. However, Alexis de Tocqueville stresses the positive virtues as well as the possible negative influence of the predominance of the popular will and character in politics. Rather than a sailor, he uses the example of "that opulent citizen," in America, "who is as anxious ... To conceal his wealth," rather than to flaunt it. "His dress is plain, his demeanor unassuming." True, the interior of his dwelling glitters with luxury, and none but a few chosen guests, whom he haughtily styles his equals, are allowed to penetrate into this sanctuary. No European noble is more exclusive in his pleasures or more jealous of the smallest advantages that a privileged station confers. But the same individual crosses the city to reach a dark counting house in the center of traffic, where everyone may accost him who pleases. If he meets his cobbler on the way, they stop and converse; the two citizens discuss the affairs of the state and shake hands before they part." (Volume I, Section 1, Chapter 10)
True, rather than wisdom, in the democratic nation of America wealth conveys power, just as charisma conveyed power in ancient Athens. But the popular will also has the ability to keep the vices of aristocracy in check, unlike the tyranny advocated by Glaucon -- or even the philosophical republic of Plato. Plato does not suggest, for example, what might happen if the ruling captain goes mad or abuses his authority, he assumes that the leader is perfect in his philosophy and will not attempt to do such a thing because of his superior wisdom and learning. But in De Tocqueville's more realistic view, and the wealthy and powerful, although they may "have a hearty dislike of the democratic institutions of their country," know that "the people form a power which they at once fear and despise." (Volume I, Section 1, Chapter 10)
Alexis de Tocqueville's view of democracy is hardly idealistic about the perfectibility of popular, human nature. He grants that "obviously without such common belief no society can prosper; say, rather, no society can exist; for without ideas held in common there is no common action, and without common action there may still be men, but there is no social body. In order that society should exist and, a fortiori, that a society should prosper, it is necessary that the minds of all the citizens should be rallied and held together by certain predominant ideas; and this cannot be the case unless each of them sometimes draws his opinions from the common source and consents to accept certain matters of belief already formed." (Volume II, Section 1, Chapter 2)
Thus, as with Plato, de Tocqueville would accede to the need for myths and societal structures to hold even democratic men and women together in cohesive social ideals. But rather than stress the need for knowledge as the purpose of the ideal society, as does Plato in his myth of the cave, where Plato despairs of a world where human beings are living in an underground den, of philosophical ignorance with the metaphorical legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and see the truth, Alexis de Tocqueville stresses the need for functional government to create a better living society…