28 January 2010

Articles: Wolff's (Plato's) argument that democracy is irrational

The Royal Institute of Philosophy's journal "Think" has published a string of three articles of possible interest (hard to say as I can't get access to them without paying $45/£30 each – for 4, 6, and 7 pages, respectively, that is!).

Most recently, they published "Reply to Wolff, Plato, Smith, Churchill and Aristotle on Democracy" by Timothy Childers (8 [22], June 2009: pp. 93-9):


Abstract: "Fraser Smith (THINK 16) argues that Plato's argument against democracy as reconstructed by Jonathon [sic] Wolff is flawed because in a 'modern' democracy the people do not rule, but instead elect officials subject to a system of checks and balances. Smith's conception of democracy is much like Churchill's (and Popper's). I will argue that Smith's reply does not address Wolff and Plato's argument. I will then point out that Aristotle replied to Plato's argument in an appealing – and strikingly modern – fashion. Aristotle, I conclude, did justify to at least some degree democracy, and hence did address Plato's argument."

Timothy Childers is a member of the Institute of Logic of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Prague.

The article by Fraser W. Smith that Childers refers to is "A Short Reply to Wolff's (Plato's) Argument that Democracy is Irrational" (6 [16], December 2008: pp. 49-52):


Abstract: "Wolff suggests by way of the following argument (adapted by Wolff from Plato's Republic) that democracy appears to be irrational. Here is the argument given: 1) Ruling is a skill. 2) It is rational to leave the exercise of skills to experts [sic] 3) In a democracy the people rule. 4) The people are not experts. Therefore: 5) Democracy is irrational."

Fraser W. Smith's affiliation is not mentioned by the journal.

The original article by Jonathan Wolff is titled "Are We Good Enough for Democracy?" (1 [2], September 2002: pp. 29-34):


Abstract: "Is democracy a good thing? Most of us think so. And yet, as Jonathan Wolff here explains, Plato thought democracy was a very bad idea. If you favour democracy (and I'm guessing you do), then your challenge is to explain what, if anything, is wrong with Plato's argument. So can you?"

The arguments in that article were taken from Wolff's book "Introduction to Political Philosophy" (Oxford University Press, 1996), chapter 3 "Who Should Rule?", section "Plato against democracy"
(pp. 66-77 in the revised edition of 2006):


Excerpts (2006 edition): "On the latter understanding, then, democracy is mob rule: the rule of the rabble, the vulgar, the unwashed, the unfit. But this insult to democracy is a mere preliminary to Plato's main anti-democratic arguments. His basic weapon is the so-called 'craft analogy'. The point is very simple. If you were ill, and wanted advice on your health, you would go to an expert – the doctor. [...] The last thing you would do is to assemble a crowd, and ask them to vote on the correct remedy. The health of the state is a matter of no less importance than the health of any given individual. [...]

"If the people are allowed to decide they will be swayed by those who speak loudest and with most conviction [...]. Meanwhile, those who are truly skilled [...] will be ignored. [...] Ruling, like medicine, navigation, or even farming, is a skill. [...] Just as medicine should be left to the experts, and a medical training only given to those most suited, so should ruling, and a training to rule. [...] Plato's argument against democracy seems devastating. If ruling is a skill, and a skill that can only be attained by the few, then democracy seems plainly absurd or irrational. [...]

"[Plato's experts, the philosopher-kings,] agree to rule, not for the intrinsic or external rewards of the role, but because they would otherwise find themselves ruled by others. Rather than allow other people – worse still, all other people – to rule, they grudgingly accept this necessary duty."

Jonathan Wolff is Professor of Philosophy at University College London.

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