Socrates on Democracy

The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates hated democracy. He knew its dangers and spoke against them. To him, a ruler must not be chosen because of his popularity, but a ruler should be chosen because he possesses the necessary skills to lead a state, just as a doctor possesses the necessary skills to manage the well-being of a person or how an architect possesses special skills to design a durable structure. Socrates believed that it was not logical for everyone to have a chance at governing the state. It saddened him to think that democracy allows the people to rule even though people do not possess the necessary skills to do so. He concluded that democracy is absurd. Socrates claimed that the best form of government is one that is ruled by a leader who possesses virtue, knowledge, and understanding of the state. Socrates then admired the Spartan monarchy, describing it as well-governed.

In Socrates’ time, Athenian democracy was a source of pride to its citizens. The statesman Pericles, who helped advance democracy in Athens, proudly said that their political constitution was original and not copied from anywhere else. It was a rule for the majority of citizens and not for the few. As a result, Athenian democracy does not forbid anyone to begin a political career. Even if you belong to a lower social status, democracy will grant you a chance to hold a public position. According to Pericles, Athenian democracy was freedom. All citizens were free to do as they pleased, even in their everyday lives.

And Pericles had the whole of Athens to back up his words. To many, if not all of Socrates’ contemporaries, democracy might have posed no danger to anyone. It might even have seemed to be the most practical political arrangement because political careers are open to everyone. This characteristic of democracy should have appealed to Socrates because people like him might have succeeded in this democratic society. He, too, was open-minded on almost any subject under the sun. Instead, he despised the rule of the people.

In Plato’s Republic, which contains Socrates’ views on democracy, Socrates says that the Athenian state is like a ship. He says the ship’s captain is a big, strong man, but he is deaf, his eyes are blurry, and he cannot see where he is sailing to. Meanwhile, his crew all lead chaotic lives on the ship, consuming the food supplies, and arguing continually about who should be the rightful captain of the ship. All this happens while every one of them is convinced that he is the best qualified to be the captain, knowing that no special ability is needed to be one. What results is a ship sailing to no specific destination. 

In Socrates’ sharp criticism of democracy, the ship’s owners are the citizens of Athens. The people are powerful, but they do not possess the knowledge and intellectual understanding to govern themselves. With their blurry eyes and unhearing ears, the ship called Athens will not be able to plot a clear destination, let alone reach one. Meanwhile, the crew is the babbling politicians, the skillful talkers, and the arrogant aspirants for public office. They continually bicker with each other in their attempt to influence and persuade others that they are the best men for the job of governing Athens.

Socrates clearly wanted his fellow Athenians to think harder about how their ship was being sailed. He wants them to stop trusting the ship’s owners or crew and instead search the ship for somebody who does not speak in a loud voice, who has been ignored by many, but who possesses knowledge and virtue. Socrates is suggesting to his fellow Athenians that the man who is qualified to rule is the philosopher.

In an ironic turn of history, Socrates was killed by democracy itself. Socrates conversed with many people and was known for asking questions that involved Athenian culture and conventional notions about the gods. People had the impression that he was trying to undermine Athenian values. Athens was politically unstable during that time, having just combined forces with Sparta to defend Greece against Persia. Then, Athens went on a 27-year war against Sparta and lost. Sparta then threw aside Athens’ democracy and ruled her with an oligarchy. This suited Socrates because two oligarchs ruling Athens happened to be his followers. Then, in 403 B.C., the oligarchs were forced out, and democracy was restored. Socrates’ political support vanished, and he was persecuted for his relentless questioning of conventional notions. To the loud-talking, influential politicians of Athens, not only was his association with the oligarchs a threat, even his philosophy was a threat to the normalcy of society. He made his last plea to his fellow Athenians during his trial, telling them that Athens needed a critical person like him. He said that he was like a gadfly who stings a large horse, like Athens, in order to wake it up. But his fellow Athenians had already been influenced by the loud-talking politicians, and Socrates was then charged with inventing new gods and corrupting the youth. The philosopher was sentenced to death by drinking a potion made from the poisonous plant, hemlock.