Victor Nuovo: Revolution of the masses
Editor’s note: This is the 13th in a series of essays or reflections about the Republic, a book written two and a half millennia ago by the great philosopher Plato.
The attitude of oligarchic rulers toward the masses they rule is condescension. This is not a knowing attitude. It is like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. The object viewed is diminished, demeaned and mistaken for something small and insignificant, nearly invisible, when in fact it is real and full-bodied. Condescension is self-aggrandizement. It is narcissistic, and it is dangerous to the viewer. It could prove fatal. For among the oppressed masses, there are more than a few with strength and cunning; Socrates likens them to drones with stingers.
The revolution of the masses that Socrates describes is more like the French and Russian revolutions than the American, although it is probably best to make no historical comparison. Socrates describes its occurrence as sudden. And what emerges is something wonderfully varied, like a lovely many-colored fabric. He calls democracy “the fairest of all regimes,” like “a garment of many colors, embroidered with all kinds of hues … decked and diversified with all shades of color,” a rainbow coalition.
The revolution causes a sudden eruption of freedom and creative expression, which adds vitality to all the manifold parts of the newly emerged democratic society. It is a rebirth of freedom, and its product is not one but many regimes crowded into one.
We must be clear what Socrates means here. The United States of America is a manifold of regimes, of governments embedded in governments: neighborhoods embedded in towns, towns in counties, counties in states, and states in the federal government, and in between there are other parts like school boards, judicial bodies and regulatory commissions. This is not what is meant here. Rather Socrates means a variety of communities and societies and groups as well as families and tribes, each with their own interests and purposes, some of them open, others closed, all internally governed in different ways and exercising different degrees of control over their members.
Their harmony is like that of the rainbow. Together they are the cause of the beauty and vitality that Socrates praises, but they are also the cause of disorder. The task that faces the rulers of a democratic state is to fashion a law or constitution that achieves a just and lasting unity among diversity, a more but probably never perfect union.
However much Socrates may have admired democracy, he also worried about its stability, because he perceived tendencies in it towards anarchy, communal conflict and, finally, civil war, which brings about its sudden fall. The death throe of a democracy presents the opportunity for a charismatic leader to seize power. This leader is more likely gifted, highly intelligent, but poorly educated, not a philosopher king enamored with justice. His soul is restless to fulfill a fantasy. His ruling principle is self-aggrandizement; his methods are ruthless. He’s probably mad, and a fatalist, which only makes him bolder and gives him greater power to charm and terrorize, for it is an ability to do both that increases his effectiveness.
Recall that Plato believed that when intelligence is left uneducated, the likely result social evil. The world has witnessed the rise and fall of such a madman in the last century, a perpetrator of the worst evil, cruel and ruthless in his ways, but there have been and still are others, less potent, but also more enduring. They are all around us, waiting for an opportunity.
It is arguable that our own Constitution is a safeguard against such excess and that our nation will long endure. I hope so. I believe it is our best bet. But we must stick to Plato’s script, and consider seriously what he says, for it is insightful. Democracies like ours may not decline suddenly, but the same causes that worried Plato should worry us. At the very least, it should make us ever mindful of our Constitution and the rule of law and of the labor that is requisite to maintain them. And we must have regard to how we educate our children and our young adults and make sure that we are doing the best.
We have come almost to the end of the journey into Plato’s Platonism. There still remain these questions: Which is the best regime, and which is the best soul, and which is the happiest? You can guess Plato’s answers, but we must to consider not only what he concluded, but why? Here is my summary and interpretation of what Plato said.
Recall that the soul consists of three parts or powers: a thinking part, an active part, and a desiring part. The perfection of the soul occurs when intelligence uses its powers to discover reality and to determine what is best, when the passionate part becomes resolute to realize it, and desire provides motivation. The oligarchic soul, however, is governed by uncontrollable selfish desire and sustained by self-deception.
The democratic soul is anarchic, subject to manifold desires and false enthusiasms; it is fickle and inconstant. The public sphere is of little help to it. Democratic political and social discourse is more often hype than truthful talk; the media more often than not are deceitful, self promoting, comforting audiences with illusions and preening them with false compliments; the market place of ideas does not produce truth but a bewildering plethora of rival opinions, counterfeits, noisy slogans, slick sermons, sentimental slop, and suchlike.
But the soul of a tyrant is worst of all. It is false and evil, governed by a megalomaniacal desire and self-serving enthusiasm that is finally self-destructive.
When intelligence rules, the soul and the state are happy. This is the principle of Platonism. Is Platonism intellectual elitism? Perhaps, but it need not be. The intelligence is put first, because when properly directed, when it is well-educated, it is brought near to the source of all real value, which, as it happens, is also the source of truth and of being.
This isn’t elitism, rather it is putting first things first. When the mind looks upon the Idea of the Good, all curiosity is satisfied, the passions are fulfilled, and desires made content. This is the promise of Platonism. It seems like a religion, but it is supposed to be philosophy. If Platonism were true, there would be no need for religion.