My Two Cents: Democracy’s checkered past

A growing number of voting and non-voting Americans are fed up with the loud cries of liberals and conservatives, battling over which party is the true champion of democracy. A concerned majority is asking why so many serious political problems remain unaddressed or are addressed so ineptly.

The spotlight has been turned on the evils of socialism, now recognized as a genuine threat to our governmental system. And yet the threat looms larger than ever despite this scrutiny, because the very warning signs that announce its arrival are not recognized for what they really are.

Plato’s observations
The philosopher Plato would not find this state of affairs surprising. He predicted over 2,350 years ago precisely what parasites would invade the body politic to gnaw silently on the vitals of democracy.

Plato lived in Athens, Greece during a time period very similar to our own. His classic work The Republic contains his vision of the ideal city-state. Although Rome would not fall for another 850 years, democracy in Athens was already in trouble in Plato’s day. And his analysis of the transmutation of governments from their original state to other diluted, even dangerous, forms is at work in this country today.

Some of his observations could be termed prophetic if history didn’t show he was describing an actual process unfolding in his own lifetime. Plato described the Grecian democracy of his day as a form of government:
• introduced by a revolt of the poor, following oligarchical rule by the upper classes, (similar to the monarchical parliamentary systems in Europe prior to the American Revolution. One author claims that over the past 260 years, only 68 different families have produced nearly all the American presidents.)
• having an established constitution
• granting its citizens every freedom to do as they please
• full of variety and disorder (diversity)
• dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike

Plato discourses with Socrates
Plato engages Socrates and his companions in a long discourse about the effects of miserly, wealthy, (upper class or oligarchical), parents on youth, and how this excessive restriction of money creates in youth a yearning for freedoms (democracy) of all kinds, encouraging financial irresponsibility.

Basically, the philosopher Socrates says this only follows a pre-determined pattern, because “The excessive increase of anything often causes a reaction in the opposite direction... above all, in forms of government.” The extreme “factions” of both the liberal and conservative camps, then, could easily defeat the purposes of those parties, if this principle can be said to apply across the board.   

The points made in this discourse between the two philosophers will be examined next week in part two.


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