Criticisms of Democracy

David Kute

PS 111A

Professor Sissa



            Within the ancient Greek world, the democratic form of government was associated with a set of principles that served as its raison d’etre. These positive attributes included freedom, equality, diversity, and justice. The importance of these democratic values is highlighted by an exchange from Euripides’ Suppliant Women, in which Theseus is challenged by the herald of a despot to a rhetorical argument over the better system of government. Theseus’s retort mirrors that others would provide when defending democracy, namely, that the city was both free and equal, and these qualities were where its virtue lies. Yet, not all Greeks accepted the democratic vision, and some held reservations towards its viability. I will explore this topic of criticism of democracy as it appears in four ancient writings: Herodotus’s The Histories, Euripides’s Suppliant Women, Aristophanes’s The Ecclesiazusae, and Plato’s Republic. It is my contention that the most compelling criticism of democracy belongs to Plato. This is because Plato’s analysis of democracy is the more focused, convincing, and applicable of the ancient authors.

In The Histories, Herodotus attributes certain characteristics to a democracy. Following the death of the Persian King Cambyses, and the murder of the Magi usurpers of the Persian throne, the seven rebels discuss which form the new government will take. It is in this context that Herodotus makes his argument against democracies, on the basis that democracies are guided by the uneducated and that the system, due to its instability, eventually reverts to monarchy.

Herodotus argues that the matter of education plays a role in governance, and because those with power, the people, are uneducated, the democratic system can be considered flawed. The education that is available for the ruling class of an oligarchy or monarchy does not extend to the people. For all the tyrant’s faults, what “one does, he does with knowledge.”(Herodotus, LXXXI) This can never be the case in a democracy, as the mass of people do not have the means or conditions to have time for an education. The people who guide the democracy are considered to be directionless, “foolish and violent.”(Herodotus, LXXXI )For the unguided populace, “knowledge is impossible; how can they have knowledge who have not learned or seen for themselves what is best, but always rush headlong and drive blindly onward, like a river in flood?”(Herodotus, LXXXI) Thus, the character of the populace, which is identified with violence, lack of purpose, and foolishness, is linked to the fact that the “multitudes” have not been educated. (Herodotus, LXXXI) The argument that Megabyzus offers against democracy hinges on the nature of the citizenry and how important an education is for developing a human’s character and wisdom. Those who do not have “knowledge” have no way of knowing what is “best.” Only through education can virtue be cultivated. Thus, Herodotus describes the people as foolish, unguided, and violent, negative attributes which plague both the uneducated and the democratic form of government.

Democracies also are unstable and prone to infighting and rebellion. Herodotus describes how the wicked character of the people results in political turmoil: “Then again, when the people rule, it is impossible that wickedness will not occur; and when wickedness towards the state occurs, hatred does not result among the wicked, but strong alliances; for those that want to do the state harm conspire to do it together.”(Herodotus, LXXXII) When Darius calls the people “wicked,” it seems that he is referring to Megabyzus’s conception of an uneducated multitude. Thus, it is impossible for wickedness not to occur as the people, by their very nature, are lacking in virtue and wisdom. Consequently, the foolish nature of those who rule the democracy is the principle cause of instability. The inevitable result is that the “wickedness” will be directed towards the state, and that the “wicked” men will ally against the government. These unstable conditions will create an opening for a champion of the people to oppose them, and assume a sort of demagoguery, leading to the creation of a new government around this personality (Herodotus, LXXXII). Herodotus seems to believe that this instability is more commonplace in a democracy. In the narrative, when Darius discusses the positives of each form of government, he fails to mention instability in the monarchical system, and in an oligarchy, jealousy, not wickedness, is the cause of instability. In Herodotus’s illustration, the educated leaders in an oligarchy are not prone to wickedness. Jealousy is the vice that holds most strongly for aristocrats. It seems there is a relationship between the nature of the rulers and the stability of the government, and therefore, because the democracy is composed of the most base and foolish, it is also the least stable.

Criticisms of democracy also abound in the work The Suppliants written by Euripides in 5th century Athens. The play is about a group of women who are dishonored by the despot of Thebes, who has killed their kin and refused proper burial of the bodies. The women come to Athens and entreat Theseus to rid them of the despot and allow for customs to be followed. Euripides uses an exchange between Theseus and a Theban herald to expound upon the positive and negative elements in the different systems of government. The herald cites the absence of education and leisure time, and the use of persuasive speech to incite mass compulsion, as negative aspects of a democratic system.

            Euripides argues that education and leisure time are necessary for the administration of a state. For both of these categories, however, the people are least able to meet the requirements. Education is necessary for governance, as Euripides explains in this passage: “Besides, how would the people, if it cannot form true judgements, be able rightly to direct the state?”(Euripides, The Suppliants, 415-420) Again, as in Herodotus, understanding and wisdom are related to education, and the people, not having the material conditions for education, are subject to foolishness rather than coming to their own rational decisions. Leisure time is also imperative in cultivation of virtue and running the state, as Euripides explains: “No, it is time, not haste, that affords a better[420] understanding. A poor farmer, even if he were not unschooled, would still be unable from his toil to give his mind to politics.” (Euripides, The Suppliants, 415-420, 420-425) Again, in this passage, Euripides sees the “unschooled” status of the people as being a major problem for mass participation in politics. But he also links it to time itself, and besides suggesting that leisure time is required for education, he hints that more time is needed to devote to political matters, as in the case of the “poor farmer.” So it seems he is also suggesting professional politicians are a viable solution to this inherent problem manifesting in democracies. The status of the people, and the absence of both leisure time and education, leaves the democratic system in fragile condition.

            Another criticism is that conditions fostering demagoguery prevail in democracies. Euripides is very clear as to why the demagogue is particular to democracies. “Truly the better sort count it no healthy sign when the worthless man obtains a reputation[425] by beguiling with words the populace, though before he was nothing.” (Euripides, The Suppliants, 420-425, 425-30) The demagogue uses persuasive speech to deceive the people, who, because they are unschooled, are all the easier to manipulate. Such men are worthless because they trade upon certain traits, such as personality, persuasive speech, and popular passions and hold no standing, wealth, or virtue. The demagogue is one to take advantage of whatever is dear to his audience, and thus displays little personal integrity: “no one there puffs up citizens with specious words, and for his own advantage twists them this way or that, one moment dear to them and lavish of his favors, [415] the next harmful to all; and yet by fresh calumnies of others he hides his former failures and escapes punishment.” (Euripides, The Suppliants, 410-415, 415-420) Usually, those who take advantage of the people are roguish in nature, and have a past filled with “former failures.” The demagogue can have a dangerous, predatory effect on the functioning of a democracy, as often the demagogue, if successful, can become a tyrant or at the very least create political turmoil. These dangers, then, confront a democracy, which is plagued on the one hand with rulers who are uneducated and busy, and on the other with individuals capable of using specious words to manipulate popular sentiments for personal power.

Aristophanes, the Athenian playwright, comes out strongly against democracy in his satire The Ecclesiazusae. The story is set around the female Praxagora and a band of women who plot to participate in politics. Soon, however, their wish is indeed granted and Praxagora decrees that women are to enjoy all the same privileges as the men, as all is to be held in common. In this play, the vaunted Athenian democratic principle of equality is turned upside down and made to look ridiculous. Aristophanes also has his characters give examples of problems appearing in democracies. For Aristophanes, democracy is an easy target for criticism.

In The Ecclesiazusae, the very reason that democracy is championed amongst the Greeks becomes a point of comedy, as the principle of equality is extended to outlandish lengths to include women and sex. Praxagora, the wife of an Athenian politician, suggests that equality be given to all in order to create the perfect state. “I want all to have a share of everything and all property to be in common; there will no longer be rich or poor…I intend that there shall only be one and the same condition of life for all.”(Aristophanes, The Ecclesiazusae, 590) But Praxagora does not merely suggest that all possessions and wealth should be held in common so that all enjoy “the same condition.” Her suggestion also includes sex, and she stipulates that “The ugly[women] will follow the handsomest into the public places after supper and see to it that the law, which forbids the women to sleep with the big, handsome men before having satisfied the ugly shrimps, is complied with.” (Aristophanes, The Ecclesiazusae, 650) The reverse is also forced on the men. Later, the horrid reality that Praxagora has created becomes evident when a young man is forced to spend his time frolicking with one old hag after another. (Aristophanes, The Ecclesiazusae, 970) The point behind this satire is that equality, when it is extended beyond social norms and boundaries, loses all of its luster. It is possible Aristophanes wished to force his audience to reconsider the appeal of equality and whether it truly was a principle that was achievable or even worth achieving. Egalitarianism, one of the pillars of democracy, is challenged and made to look foolish through plot and actions rather than overt criticism.

Criticisms of democracy also appear in Aristophanes’s dialogue. The Athenian democracy is given certain attributes which display its corruption, such as being home to criminals, law-breakers, and liars, and characterized by poverty, frivolous court proceedings, and disenfranchised people. For example, Praxagora says of the Athenian democracy:[560] “None will dare now to do shameless deeds, to give false testimony or lay informations.”… [565]“There will be no more thieves, nor envious people, no more rags nor misery, no more abuse and no more prosecutions and law-suits.” (Aristophanes, The Ecclesiazusae, 560-565) The problems Praxagora discusses are ones that Aristophanes must have believed were highly evident. The passage includes references to social ills that manifest in democracies, and although Aristophanes never tries to explain their causes, it is safe to assume these references are critical. He also cites problems with politics when Praxagora discusses with First Woman how men allegedly drink in the assembly, which is why “their decrees breathe drunkenness and madness.”(Aristophanes, Ecclesiazusae, 150) In this case, it is likely this is just more satire, but it can be interpreted to show a disregard for the arbitrary nature of law and even a possible criticism of the political system and how it is conducted. Regardless, Aristophanes was quick to criticize democracy and make reference to any social ills that appeared in the system.

In Plato’s Republic, the democracy is fraught with a particular ill. Five forms of cities exist, he proposes, which correspond to the five parts of the soul. Plato discusses democracy in the context of his arrangement of the best to worst forms of government in Book VIII. He believes a timocracy, where the spirit part of the soul corresponds to the government, is the best city after the kallipolis. Next comes the oligarchy, the democracy, and finally, the worst form, the tyranny, where the ruler holds both unnecessary appetites and lawlessness. Plato’s conception of a democracy is based on the freedom inherent to such a government. Diversity and multiplicity, the great consequences of freedom, lead to a society where the unnecessary appetites rule. Thus, a democracy is one of the worst forms of government because it corresponds to the worst and most base part of the human soul.

The freedom existing in a democracy leaves conditions which keep the people in pursuit of their unnecessary desires. The democracy is viewed as the most beautiful of the cities, as its “multicolored” nature is attractive to all. (Republic 557e) As freedom is commonplace, models for all things abound, including even a “supermarket of constitutions.”(Republic, 557d) Tolerance is also a quality of a democracy, as such a city is “lacking in small-mindedness.”(Republic, 558b) However, such a city, one which “lacks rulers but not variety,” where multiplicity and diversity are supreme, has a very negative impact on the conduct of the people. Plato discusses this problem in the analogy of the young man: “And so he lives on, yielding day by day to the desire at hand…There’s neither order nor necessity in his life, but he calls it pleasant, free, and blessedly happy, and he follows it for as long as he lives.”(Republic, 561d) The people living in a democracy, therefore, display no purpose in their choices, following whatever whim drives them to drink heavily the one day or engage in philosophy the next. They are ruled by the unnecessary appetites, and there is no rationality or order in how they conduct their lives. These are all results of legal equality and the democratic man as a microcosm of the democratic city: the man is complicated, full of all sorts of characters, and full of many models of constitutions and ways of living. (Republic, 561e) The emphasis on variety is only possible because of freedom and equality, as the rulers hold equality above all else and as the people are made of all types, all types are allowed free rein. Thus, the hallmarks of a democracy, freedom and equality, result in a marketplace of ideas, people, and forms and this leads to an unnecessary relationship with the most base of desires.

Plato’s account of democracy divulges insight into most facets of the system. People living in democracies, both in ancient Athens and in the modern world, truly live their lives without order or necessity when freedom is allowed. For example, in the modern world, outside of work, most people live their lives for what could be considered frivolous pursuits. Leisure activities like sports, gambling, and entertainment are the most popular forms of excursion. Endeavors such as philosophy or rhetoric are not popular except for with a very small minority. It is also obvious that order and necessity are absent when an individual is allowed free rein unless one exercises the strongest self restraint and self discipline. Also, multiplicity characterizes democracies more than any other quality, due to the presence of freedom. This also can be applied to a modern democracy like the United States. A diversity of ideas, people, and forms indeed exist in the U.S., and values and perspectives resonate stronger towards engaging a multiplicity of experience and views rather than any single form. Thus, it is highly obvious from even the modern perspective that Plato was correct in his views of democracy, and his insights concerning multiplicity indeed correlate to the modern world, and likely any system of democracy.

            Plato’s criticisms of democracy also are more complete than those of the other authors. When Plato contends that democracies are subject to the unnecessary desires, he is making an argument at different levels based upon characteristics of democracy, as shown above. Plato gives numerous examples of why he believes democracy has a diverse character where fulfillment of desires in absolute freedom from moderation prevails, and ties his observations into the mechanism of the five souls and their correspondence to the five cities. His argument is more convincing than those offered by Euripides, Herodotus, or Aristophanes, as the latter give passing reference to the negative characteristics of democracy. Plato offers many examples of how a democratic city is diverse, from its marketplace of constitutions to the free rein the young men enjoy in their disorderly choice of activities and occupations. He also shows how this freedom and diversity allows for the people to indulge themselves in their filthiest desires. Neither Herodotus, Euripides, or Aristophanes proves this much when discussing the matter of demagoguery or the importance of education. None of these authors take the time to give as much detail as Plato does. Furthermore, Plato ties the characteristics of democracy to one of the five parts of the soul. Obviously, Plato’s argument takes the most care, attention to detail, and complexity.

            Commonalities also exist amongst the four authors, and again, Plato’s work goes beyond mere observation and proposes a novelty, that the evils characterized by multiplicity belong to a hierarchy of the soul. All four authors find that equality, freedom, and diversity are characteristics of a democracy. Both Euripides and Herodotus agree that demagoguery is likely to occur in a democracy, and Herodotus and Plato see the instability that eventually corrupts the democracy as resulting in tyranny. The role of education is important, again, for Herodotus, Euripides, and Plato. But distinguishing Plato from the others is his conception of the ideal state and how the different systems of rule correspond to prescribed parts of the soul. This argument, while definitely having its flaws, is far more novel and unique than anything the other authors tried when it comes to describing the negative aspects of democracies. For Herodotus, Euripides, and Aristophanes, the description of the system seems to suffice and there is no clear break with all of the positives associated with democracy. Plato, however, breaks completely from democracy, while acknowledging that it is the place most suited for dialectics. He believes that the democracy is so evil that it is only outdone in wickedness by a tyranny. The democracy, he also contends, corresponds to the lowest part of the soul, all of which views are novel.

            For Herodotus, education and stability were most lacking in a democracy. Euripides held that democracies were fertile grounds for attracting demagogues, and education and leisure time are necessary in coming to an adequate administration of the state. Aristophanes implicitly criticizes the very reason democracy is championed, and shows that it is foolish to uphold the egalitarian ideal. Therefore, as I have argued, Plato’s criticism of democracy is the most compelling. This is because his insights are applicable in any democratic system and his argument is rationally carried out.