The invocation of Plato in any article about Donald Trump might seem misplaced to most readers. How does one of the most brilliant philosophers of all times relate to an unqualified, opportunistic US presidential candidate? What can Plato possibly say about the current mess of American politics? Are we really so desperate that we have to fall back on philosophy? However odd, part of the public debate has turned to the ancient Greek philosopher in order to explain the unanticipated popularity of Trump – and with it the rise of populism in Europe and the US. Democracy may eventually lead to tyranny, as Plato argues, but it is even more interesting to see how he would prevent this process in the first place.
After reading this excellent piece in the New York Magazine, which starts off with Plato’s skepticism towards democracy and then discusses Trump’s success in the primaries, I thought there was still something missing from the lengthy paragraphs. So, too much democracy – when there is absolute equality, any authority is despised, and people can basically do whatever they want – is a breeding ground for populism, demagogues and, ultimately, tyrants. Checks and balances gradually erode and expertise is looked down upon. People’s long-ignored grievances become tangible through protest votes and violent rallies (or so I have argued elsewhere). It seems the fruits of our democracy have started to rot.
Any critique of (modern) democracy quickly loses its strength because of Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Although one could raise further objections (what kind of democracy are we talking about?) it is tempting to fall in line with the old man. We have gone through monarchy, aristocracy, communism, and fascism, finally arriving at this ideal political system called democracy. I wonder though, if democracy indeed tends to morph into tyranny, what can we do to stop this? More concretely, how do prevent someone like Trump brining havoc and destruction?
This is where Plato becomes really interesting, and relevant. Plato does not only explain how overly democratic ambitions might lead to the resurfacing of tyrants, he also offers advice on how to mitigate this tendency. In Republic, he makes the case for an elite consisting of young aristocratic men who are selected to govern based on their training and merit. If power would reside the hands of the few, it is of course very important that they act virtuously. Alan Ryan, author of On Politics, describes the difficulty of this task:
The upbringing of aristocratic young men mattered immensely to the ancient world – even more than the upbringing of privileged young people matters to ours. It was commonplace that the sons of eminent men often turned out a disappointment, and that talented young men might be corrupted by fame and destroy themselves and their city. […] If good fathers can have wicked or merely useless sons, either the virtuous man knows something that he cannot teach, or he acts well without knowing what he is doing. The son of the virtuous father who becomes corrupt and dissolute must have been ill trained; things would have gone better if he had been properly educated. What must someone know before offering to teach young men who will grow up to be statesmen; what must we be taught if we are to behave justly and lead a good life?
In short, Plato’s answer to safeguarding a well-functioning democracy is education. Not mass education of particular professions or skills, but the education of an elite in terms of justice and ethics. Now this may sound too vague or naive. After all, history has shown us all too often that power corrupts (and absolute power corrupts absolutely, of course). Yet what Plato is after is not some kind of oligarchy where the few exploit the many. Instead, he sees a (virtuous) elite as a necessary check against the excesses of democracy mentioned earlier. They would not resort to uncontrolled enrichment or emotional rhetoric because, if trained well, there would be no need for these kinds of perverse political instruments in the first place.
Admittedly, Plato’s vision of an enlightened elite is rather utopian, and some of its best aspects are already included in our representative democracies. Though somewhere along the way we have taken a wrong turn, with Trump acting as the biggest (and loudest) piece of evidence. Anyway, if we really want to find a way to beat Trump and his demagogue entourage, ancient Greek philosophy might not be such a strange place to look.