Plato’s Critique of Democracy Holds True

Plato’s Republic is about the search for the nature of justice, and this pursuit leads its participants to consider the constitution of the truly just society. In his discussion of the merits of the various systems of government that fall short of the ideal, Plato says the following of democracy (which is the second worst in his list):

“Think of the considerateness of the city, its entire superiority to trifles, its disregard of all those things we spoke of so proudly when we were founding our [ideal] city; we said that, except from altogether extraordinary natures, no one could turn out a good man unless his earliest years were given to noble games, and he gave himself wholly to noble pursuits. Is it not sublime how this city tramples all such things under foot, and is suprememly indifferent as to what life a man has led before he enters politics? If only he asserts his zeal for the multitude, it is ready to honour him.” (Pg. 254, The Republic, Translation by Lindsay, 1954, London: JM Dent & Sons)

How chillingly true this is of our South African government, moving (as it seems to be) by degree to tyranny. Plato advocated education in seemingly ‘useless’ fields such as ethics, philosophy and astronomy as good for their own sake. For us, education is a means to an end, and nothing more. If it has no practical outcome, it has no place in education. In our government, the moral life of a politician has little relevance to his ability to govern; our law is content to swear in a leader so long as he or she has not spent more than a year in jail, and they hope to soon lower the bar even further. By and large, politicians show disregard for questions of right and wrong, justice and the good.

Worse still, we have growing support for the likes of Julius Malema, who is either thoroughly psychotic or stupid. He spews out talk of violent revolutions and killing… oops, that word wasn’t well received… eliminating the ‘counter-revolutionaries’, seemingly without any understanding of what these things mean, either conceptually or to civil society.

So, if Plato is right and democracy yields a colourful but morally weak society, then South Africa is the ultimate exemplar of how far that weakness can extend. In fact, if Malema continues to be regarded as a leader, or if Jacob Zuma is anything like ‘Mini-Me’ Malema, then South Africa is hell-bent on tyranny.


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