Socrates Hated Democracy

A statue of the philosopher Socrates in a contemplative pose

In contrast to the modern perceptions of democracy, Socrates argued that logic and reason were always superior to mob rule.
(Image credit: Bigstock/araelf)

A Founder of Western Philosophy

You'd be hard pressed to find a person that hasn't heard of the legendary classical Greek philosopher, Socrates. Born in 399 BC, Socrates spent the majority of his 71 years on earth contemplating the many core aspects of human existence with such passion and tenacity that he is widely credited today as being one of the main creators of Western philosophy--the foundation of Western civilization, itself.

Socrates was actually a fairly controversial figure in his own time and was often mocked in the dramatic theaters of Athens because of his beliefs. Socrates left us nothing in the form of his own writing. so we instead have to rely on accounts of other philosophers, such as Plato and Xenophon, in order to understand his particular philosophical arguments and positions.

Socrates eventually met his end by being made to drink poison hemlock for the crime of corrupting the youth, among other charges. Plato’s Apology of Socrates is thought to be the speech that Socrates gave in defense of the accusations made against him. In the Apology is perhaps the most famous of all Socratic quotes, "the unexamined life is not worth living." However, the text also reveals an interesting political position held by the sage: his contempt for Athenian democracy.

The Fallacy of Democracy and "Mob Rule"

Despite all of Socrates' contributions to philosophy and ethical tradition of thought, one of the things he is most renowned for in contemporary culture is his disdain for the concept of democracy. Plainly documented in Book VI of The Republic, Socrates discusses his pessimism towards democracy with Plato's brother, Adeimantus of Collytus. In the discussion between the two men, Socrates compares the concept of democracy to a ship heading out to sea. He then goes on to ask, who is the fittest to select the captain of a sea fairing vessel? He vocally concludes, shouldn't it be someone thoroughly educated in the rules of seafaring? Continuing with the dialogue, Socrates goes on to ponder that if a random person is unfit to decide on such a simple matter as who is best to captain a boat, how can that same person be in charge of selecting the ruler of a nation?

Socrates, being the exceptionally brilliant and intelligent man that he was, found that his primary point of contention with the concept of democracy is that the mob of everyday citizens put in charge of selecting a national leader is rarely fit to make such an important decision. Socrates also realized that the mob which decides the fate of a nation was easily prone to emotional manipulation, in which dishonest demagogues could wrangle control of a country by appealing to the base desires and prejudices of the mob, rather than formulating a logical and rational basis for their political ambitions.

Manipulative Political Wordplay

The United States is often referred to as a democracy. However, it is actually a constitutional republic with democratically elected leaders. Laws are passed in the legislative branch by a majority vote, so there are elements of democracy in the governmental process. Strictly speaking, however, the United States is not a democracy. The basic difference between a constitutional republic and a democracy is that a republic is governed by a set of laws that cannot be taken away by the government, while a pure democracy has absolutely zero constitutional restraints and can change in accordance with the wishes of the majority. Think about this: in a pure democracy, the mob can vote to kill someone for absolutely no reason. The killing would be completely legal under mob rule, regardless of how ethically and morally wrong it may be.

United States Constitution prominently displaying "We the People"

The government of the United States is a constitutional republic, not a democracy. While the distinction is important, the system does have "democratic" characteristics.
(Image credit: Bigstock/Pamela Au)

Politicians and the media in the United States constantly refer to the government as a democracy, despite it being a constitutional republic. The reason why the word "democracy" is carelessly thrown around so often is because the word evokes a sense of total unrestrained freedom of the public. In other words, it elicits an emotional response from the unwashed masses, giving them an illusion of power and control. Just as Socrates forewarned, it is a word often used by demagogues in an attempt to appeal to the passions and desires of the mob, rather than logic and reasoned discourse.

It's interesting to note that many of the most repressive governments are officially called "democratic republics." Many of these communist, authoritarian, and totalitarian systems refer to themselves as "democratic republics" because, again, it is a notion that appeals to the common citizens' passion and desires to be totally free. Dictators and oppressive regimes almost always come to power on the back of what they call the "will of the people." However, without an ironclad constitution to limit the powers the government and outline the inalienable rights of the people, it becomes a true democracy in the sense that oppressive forces deem themselves to be the true unrestrained will of the people, with the avalanche of oppression and corruption usually not far behind.