Plato’s rejection of Athenian politics

In his alleged Seventh Letter, Plato recounts his three visits to Sicily at the court of Dionysius, the tyrannical ruler of Syracuse and his vain efforts to change his political views. However, before embarking on his first sea-journey, Plato casts his mind back to the period of the Thirty Tyrants and notes that:

‘When I considered all this, the more closely I studied the politicians and the laws and customs of the day, and the older I grew, the more difficult it seemed to me to govern rightly. Nothing could be done without trustworthy friends and supporters; and these were not easy to come by in an age which had abandoned its traditional moral code but found it impossibly difficult to create a new one. At the same time law and morality were deteriorating at an alarming rate, with the result that though I had been full of eagerness for a political career, the sight of all this chaos made me giddy, and though I never stopped thinking how things might be improved and the [Athenian] constitution reformed, I postponed action, waiting for a favourable opportunity. Finally, I came to the conclusion that all existing states were badly governed and that their constitutions were incapable of reform without drastic treatment and a great deal of luck. I was forced, in fact, to the belief that the only hope of finding justice for society or for the individual lay in true philosophy, and that mankind will have no respite from trouble until either real philosophers gain political power or politicians become some miracle true philosophers.’ [quoted by Desmond Lee in his Translator’s Introduction to the Penguin edition of The Republic.]

Although Plato’s final comment may be apocryphal, it certainly reflects the outspoken ambition of its author and for this reason, it has become the most widely accepted summary of his political project. If we are to demonstrate some kind of objectivity regarding Plato’s views of Athenian politics, we must look at three distinct considerations:

1) Born an aristocrat, Plato naturally believed in the superior qualities of physical courage as well as moral excellence associated with his social class. After all, ‘aristocracy’ is derived from the word ‘aristos’, meaning ‘best’ and ‘kratos’, meaning ‘power’. To Plato, the citizen of Athens, it went without saying that only a social elite was capable of running the city-state in the most efficient and just manner.

2) Plato had ambivalent views about Athenian democracy, due to his philosophical education but also his first-hand experience of its inner contradictions and limitations:
a) On the one hand, Socrates’ philosophical method of enquiry emphasizes the importance of rational judgment and the cultivation of a personal morality, theoretically in keeping with the democratic participation expected of every Athenian male citizen. There is no doubt, whatsoever, that Plato admired Socrates’ moral integrity and democratic leanings, despite his mentor’s occasional spats at the inevitable dysfunctions of the Athenian democratic regime.
b) On the other hand, Plato generally condemned what he regarded as nothing less than the rule of the mob and the priority given to the political choices made by the majority of the community which, in Plato’s opinion, translated into the worst possible decisions about good government and the most suitable management of public affairs.
3) Despite the myth circulated by his critics that Plato was a great admirer of Sparta and wished for a military dictatorship in Athens, the Seventh Letter, along with his treatment of the various possible political régimes in Book VIII and IX of ‘The Republic’, clearly highlights his late disillusionment about any viable system of government, apart from an ‘ideal’ philosophers’ republic.

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