Thucydides and Democracy Term Paper

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Salvaging Democracy consent of the governed) then one is not in a democracy, though democratic elements may exist. America, for example, was founded as a republic and not as a democracy (though with time it has shifted towards being more ogliarchical in some aspects and more democratic in others). The more traditional definition of democracy needs to be understood if one is to approach the philosophy of the classical Greek philosophers. Ancient Greece, one must understand, is one of the few places in the world or in history where democracy has actually been practiced in a state setting. The polises of Greece such as Athens were frequently democratic, and all citizens had a right to vote on issues ranging from laws to criminal trials. True Democracy has only thrived in classical Greece, yet the greatest Greek philosophers condemned it in favor of a more Republican or even Aristocratic regime that nonetheless was driven by the purest properties of democratic thought.

Plato was one philosopher who argued against democracy in favor of a more republican form of government. (A republic is defined as rule by selected representatives for the people rather than by the people themselves) This is not to say that Plato did not see certain benefits to democracy. Plato (and Socrates, into whose mouth he put his opinions) himself lived in Athens and enjoyed the liberties which democracy afforded him there. However, he portrayed democracy as dangerous to the future of the state and injurious to the minority in its present.

Plato gave three basic problems with democracy that can be seen as relevant even to our current era. First, he feared that democracy was synonymous with mob rule, and that as such it pandered to the lowest common denominator. Those who were given power by the masses would need to continue to please them even if it meant victimizing the minority or contributing to the dissolution of the majority. He equated democracy with the unbridled pursuit of vanity, pleasure, and licentiousness. The democratic state was likened to the democratic soul in which all urges had a chance at control over the individual, making him easily swayed and easily turned from virtue to vice with no discrimination thereof.

Equality, Plato thought, was impossible in actual terms, though it might be an ideal politically. It is simply not possible that all men are alike in intelligence and wisdom and virtue, as simple experience proves otherwise. Why then should the opinions of the ignorant and wicked count equally with the opinions of wise philosophers and virtuous men? He suggested that democracy put the foolish and the wise on equal footing, and that the opinions of fools would threaten the welfare of all. His second concern was that democracy was inevitably turned to rule by well spoken idiots. Those with good rhetorical and speaking skills could sway the majority, while those who were truly superior in intelligence might be rejected by a jealous and unintelligent majority. True wisdom and knowledge was unlikely to be as much admired by the majority as was a path dictated by magnetism and impulse.

Finally, he recognized that democracy was characterized by conflict among citizens and a threat of tyranny. Inner conflict was a concern because a city might be torn apart over politics and be unable to function as a unified whole. This he considered to be an evil in and of itself. Additionally, however, he suggested that Democracy was just a thin line away from outright tyranny. He suggested that a populace glutted on equality might play into the hands of a populist leader who could easily involve into a tyrant. A tyrant is worse than a mere king, because he lacks a king's sense of moral obligation. The tyrant enslaves the entire state to its own desires and to his own, and will ruthlessly destroy all who oppose him. Tyranny, for Plato, was the worst of regimes.

Of course, in positing tyranny as the worst possible regimes because it enslaves the state, Plato is showing his democratic underpinnings. While he suggested a sort of aristocracy of the virtuous as the ideal government, his fear of tyranny shows that he continues to value a certain degree of autonomy for the individual and a democratic sensibility that cannot stand to be dictated to. This is important to keep in mind when considering his stance on democracy, for it reminds the modern reader that to be opposed in theory to democracy as Plato was is not to be opposed either to individual freedom or to representation of the people's will in governance.

Plato was not alone in his critique of pure democracy; his most famous student, Aristotle, also suggested that democracy was not the best possible form of government. Aristotle explained that there are three basic forms of government which may be good for the people: kingship which is to say rule by the one for the sake of the many, aristocracy which is rule by the elite few for the good of the many, and polity which is rule by people. He suggested that polity was the highest form of government when properly practiced, though aristocracy might more often be successful, and kingship was the best form in theory if only a good enough man could be found to be king (which he likely could not). However, each of these regimes could be corrupted. Kingship could become tyranny, which is to say rule by the one for the sake of the one. Aristocracy could become oligarchy, rule by the wealthy for the sake of their wealth. Polity could become democracy, which is rule by the poor majority which favors equality over justice.

Unlike Plato, Aristotle seemed to recognize a definite justification for democracy. He claimed it was the least evil of the deviant regimes. According to his Politics, the majority are the appropriate judges of poetry and music and of choosing those who should govern them. He explains that just as many men coming together to provide food for a feast is better than one man providing alone, so the many may better provide for justice. The multitude is harder to corrupt than is the individual, and less likely to err out of passion. Thus the multitude may provide more reasoned justice in criminal affairs and the like.

However, Aristotle also feared the mob-like qualities of democracy. He explained that democracy tended to be fickle in its judgments, and would frequently follow charismatic leaders for a time and then suddenly turn against them and send them into exile. The democratic love for equality tended to discourage excellence and ostracize the exceptionally virtuous or wise rather than elevate them, just as it might unfairly deprive the wealthy for the sake of the poor majority. Ogliarchy, he explained, was deficient in that it allowed the rich to take advantage of the state to increase their wealth and created a sort of tyranny of the rich. Likewise tyranny in general was deficient because it deprived the people of any measure of self rule, and this could only lead to revolution and anger among a people to whom equality was natural to a degree. However, democracy was deficient in that it was unfocused in its purpose, allowed the majority and the poor to take advantage of the minority or the rich, and tended to inner division.

Aristotle suggested that the answer would be to provide a mixture of democracy and oligarchy properly to create polity. He claimed that the rule of law must supersede the rule of the majority so that their excesses could be kept in check, and that the demands of the poor majority must be thus balanced with the demands of the rich minority.

Much has been made in the course of this argument about the complaints of Greeks against their system of government. However, it is also important to recognize how much the Greeks loved their democratic system, and while they might have modified it to a degree would never have sacrificed it for autocracy. Plato's arguments in the Republic against democracy are easily and appropriately read as primarily a metaphysical argument about the nature of the soul (as he is using his city as a metaphor for the human condition), and his writing in other works seem to indicate that he had a great deal of respect for the democratic will of the Athenian people. Aristotle is even more obvious in his allegiance to what we would today consider to be a democratic government, which is to say a government in which the rulers are directly responsive to the will of the people though ot necessarily directly dependent on it. Other Greek authors share the mixed feelings of Aristotle and Plato. For example, Thucydides (the great historian who penned the history of the Peloponnesian wars) shows in his work a sense of realpolitik which takes a sometimes harsh view of the populism and dangers of democratic functioning in Greece as it related to foreign policy…[continue]

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"Thucydides---Pericles'-Funeral-Oration" 

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