Socrates: Then & Now

Updated: Mar 30, 2021



It would be fair to acknowledge that democracy is currently regarded as the definitive political regime in not only the western world, but in the globalised sphere more generally (1). However, whilst democracy is as widespread as it has ever been, its sceptics have all but vanished, and as all human sciences tend to prove, un-antagonising a premise, firm, judgement or belief paves the way for inefficiency and lacklustre growth. Philosophy’s founding father, Socrates was perhaps the first intellectual to challenge the ideas of this system and inspired many after him to expand this opposition, examples include Plato, Hobbes and Locke, but is there any truth to be found in Socrates’ work?

In Book 6 of The Republic, written by Plato, Socrates’ student, Socrates finds himself in a philosophical discussion regarding issues of the Athenian state with Adeimantus. Using a ship as an analogy for society, Socrates tries to persuade his fellow of democracy’s shortcomings.


 

“Imagine then a fleet or a ship in which there is a captain w ho is taller and stronger than any of the crew, but he is a little deaf and has a similar infirmity in sight, and his knowledge of navigation is not much better. The sailors are quarrelling with one another about the steering—everyone is of opinion that he has a right to steer, though he has never learned the art of navigation and cannot tell who taught him or when he learned, and will further assert that it cannot be taught, and they are ready to cut in pieces anyone who says the contrary. […] Now in vessels which are in a state of mutiny and by sailors who are mutineers, how will the true pilot be regarded? Will he not be called by them a prater, a star-gazer, a good-for-nothing?” (2)

 


Socrates maintains that voting is in fact a skill, not a birth right or random intuition. It is the role of every education institution to teach this skill throughout an individual’s youth, and in the case of our world and time, up until the minimum voting age, which of course differs from country to country. For him, allowing an un-skilled person to vote is simply put, irresponsible.


For the spread of his radical ideals to the Athenian youth, Socrates was put down by hemlock in 399 BC.


Contrary to popular belief, Socrates was not an elitist. He did not believe that only a few people could be in charge, he did however deem that only those who had engaged in thinking as intellectuals beforehand should be allowed to vote. In June of 2016, the UK held the notorious referendum to active Article 50, better known as Brexit. Just a few hours after the results had been published it was revealed that the question “What is the EU?” came in at a mind-boggling 2nd place for most searches on Google (3), signifying that a notable amount of voters had virtually no clue what they were voting for, ignoring the necessary rational deep thought necessary to vote.


Socrates feared that connecting voting rights with citizenship as opposed to wisdom would lead to demagoguery, or δημαγωγία, in Greek. This is the act of “exciting the emotions of ordinary people rather than having good or morally right ideas” (4) There is a plethora of examples in real life politics. To name a few, Donald Trump (5) during his 2016 presidential campaign, perhaps controversially, Barrack Obama (6), Alexis Tsipras (7) and Nigel Farage (8). Demagoguery is a thorn in today’s politics. It breeds corruption, extremism and contributes greatly to a general “I’ve had enough” stance by some voters leading to stable or even decreasing voting turnover figures.


Socrates summarises this idea and invites us to consider a debate between a doctor and a sweetshop owner. He argues that it would be all but impossible for the doctor to reply effectively and win over an audience, whilst the sweetshop owner lures the audience to their side by promising joy and avoiding perhaps necessary pain.


DC’s main goal is to decode encrypted news for an enlightened citizen

Michael Valmas, Writer at Warwick University

25/04/20

Sources used and to further your knowledge on the topic:

  1. https://ourworldindata.org/democracy

  2. https://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/republic/full-text/book-vi/

  3. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/britons-are-frantically-googling-what-the-eu-is-after-voting-to-leave-it-a7101856.html

  4. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/demagogue

  5. https://time.com/4375262/history-demagogues-donald-trump/

  6. https://www.nationalreview.com/2015/12/barack-obama-american-demagogue/

  7. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/12/05/world/europe/populism-in-age-of-trump.html

  8. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/12/05/world/europe/populism-in-age-of-trump.html