Plato on Democracy

In Eric Robinson & Valentina Arena (eds.), The Cambridge History of Democracy, Vol. 1: From Democratic Beginnings to c. 1350. Cambridge University Press (forthcoming)
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Plato is often acknowledged as the first philosophical critic of democracy and his Republic is regularly taken as a paradigm of an anti-democratic work. While it is true that Plato objected to much about the democracy of his own time, Plato’s political theorizing also reveals an interest in improving democratic institutions. This chapter explores three themes in Plato’s thinking about democracy: firstly, Plato's insistence that rulers should be knowledgeable and his claim that most people are politically incompetent (§1); secondly, Plato's criticisms of oratory and the corrupting effects of public rhetoric (§2); thirdly, Plato's use of democratic institutions in the Laws (§3). Once we appreciate these different evaluations of democratic practices, we can see that Plato was not simply ‘anti-democratic’ or ‘pro-democratic’ but thought some democratic practices should be abandoned, some reformed, and some adopted.

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Jeremy Reid
San Francisco State University


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