Plato on Democracy

Plato was an immensely influential ancient Greek philosopher who lived in Athens in the 4th century BCE. He is considered the founder of the first institution of higher learning in the Western world, the Academy of Athens, where he taught Aristotle and influenced countless other philosophers and thinkers. Plato had a profound impact on philosophy, mathematics, politics, art, and literature. His writings on politics, including The Republic, are regarded as some of the most influential works ever written on the theory of government. Plato addressed fundamental political questions such as: What is justice? What is the ideal state? How can we achieve a just society?Through his Socratic dialogues and philosophical inquiries, Plato provided groundbreaking ideas on the role and responsibilities of government, the relationship between rulers and the ruled, the value of knowledge, and the importance of reason and wisdom in leadership. He discussed forms of government and critiqued democracy, laying the foundations for political philosophy as a discipline. Plato’s political theories have sparked debate and discussion for over 2000 years. His stature as one of the most brilliant and innovative thinkers in human history makes his political philosophy essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the enduring questions of politics, ethics, and the search for justice in society. This background provides context on why Plato remains such an authoritative voice on moral and political questions today.

Early Life and Education

Plato was born around 428-427 BC in Athens, Greece. His real name was Aristocles, and Plato was a nickname given to him by his wrestling coach due to his broad shoulders. Plato came from an aristocratic and influential family. His father, Ariston, was said to have traced his lineage back to the early kings of Athens. His mother, Perictione, was from a similarly distinguished family. Much is not known about Plato’s early life and education. It has been given that Plato belonged to a noble family, and thus he would have received a traditional Greek education. This education emphasized on physical training, grammar, music, poetry, and rhetoric. According to the historians’ interpretation of Plato’s later works, it is assumed that the philosopher was engaged in the subjects of politics, ethics, and mathematics from his early years. Such a classical education was useful and helped him to formulate the philosophies as an adult. Some reports claim that Plato also learnt under the philosopher Cratylus while he was still young. Cratylus was one of the most important Heraclitean doctrines that influenced Plato about change and the role of a philosopher as a social critic. Although Plato later was to repudiate most of Cratylus’ teachings, the early encounter with it undeniably shaped the development of his thought.

Socrates’ Influence on Plato

Plato’s political theories were shaped by the profound influence of his teacher Socrates. Socrates was a teacher and a friend of Plato who was a young man in Athens at that time. The trial and execution of Socrates in 399 BC had a great influence on him. Socrates himself did not write down his teachings, but Plato tried to give his teacher immortality through his famous dialogues where Socrates is the main hero. Plato depicted Socrates as a philosopher, who was interested in wisdom, proceeding with dialogues and confronting assumptions to find truth and virtue. Socrates’ method of inquiring critically about commonly held opinions is the basis for Plato’s dialectic method. Socrates’ absolute devotion to truth and justice no matter the cost to his life was very highly valued by Plato. Plato’s philosophical orientation and his notion of philosophers as rulers were much influenced by Socrates’ conduct. Plato was very much inspired by his beloved teacher and was determined to further the philosophy and the Socratic thoughts by establishing a school for philosophy. Socrates’ influence is, however, evident in Plato’s conviction of the pursuit of wisdom, promotion of virtue, and the practice of challenging and examining the commonly held truths. Plato was a follower of his mentor in a way that he created a unique philosophy of a state which is ruled by philosopher-kings.

Plato’s Academy

In 387 BC, Plato founded one of the earliest organized schools in Western civilization, called the Academy, just outside the city walls of Athens. The Academy was established on a plot of land that had belonged to the Athenian hero Academus.  Plato’s school operated until AD 529, nearly 1,000 years, and was a training ground for future philosophers, mathematicians, and statesmen. The Academy stressed mathematics and dialectical reasoning as well as philosophy, and Plato tried to create an environment amenable to philosophical research and free discussion.  Plato adopted the pedagogy of knowledge through dialogue and debate, encouraging his students to examine philosophical principles by considering the perspectives of others. Plato himself was the head of the Academy until his death at age 80. Subsequent leaders of the Academy after Plato included his nephew Speusippus and the mathematician Theon of Smyrna. The Academy’s reputation for mathematical achievements owed much to Theaetetus, who developed theorems that would inform Euclid’s later work. Eudoxus of Cnidus, the astronomer, studied at the Academy, and Aristotle began his two decades of association with Plato as a student there.  The Academy endured for nearly 1,000 years before being closed down during Emperor Justinian’s reign in 529 AD with the rest of the pagan schools. The period during which Plato’s Academy operated is often referred to as the “Golden Age” of Athenian philosophy. The Academy’s remarkable longevity demonstrates the respect accorded to Plato’s school and its enduring legacy as a leading institution of learning in the ancient world.

Plato’s Notable Works

Plato produced a large body of writing covering a wide range of topics from justice and politics to ontology and epistemology. His most influential works include:

– The Republic: Considered Plato’s most famous work, The Republic (c. 380 BCE) centers on a discussion of the ideal state and conceptions of justice, the good life, education, and the nature of reality. The dialogue takes the form of a debate between Socrates and several interlocutors. Key ideas include the allegory of the cave, the analogy of the divided line, the myth of Er at the end, and Plato’s theory of forms.

– The Laws: Plato’s final and longest dialogue, The Laws (c. 360 BCE), lays out principles for an ideal system of government and laws intended for a planned colony. It takes a more practical approach than The Republic but still aims to identify what norms and rules best promote justice and virtue in a state.

– Phaedo: Depicting Socrates’ death, Phaedo (c. 380 BCE) contains Plato’s advocacy of the immortality of the soul. It includes Socrates’ final discussions on the theory of forms and the nature of the afterlife.

– Symposium: A dialogue on the nature of love, attraction, and desire, Symposium (c. 385–370 BCE) features each guest giving an encomium praising Love. Socrates puts forward the idea that love begins with attraction to a beautiful body but can become an intellectual love focused on virtue, truth, and wisdom.

– Apology: Providing an account of Socrates’ trial in 399 BCE, Apology (c. 399–389 BCE) records his self-defense against charges of impiety and corrupting the youth. It offers insight into Socrates’ values and steadfast commitment to examining life no matter the cost. 

– Crito: The dialogue Crito (c. 399–389 BCE) depicts a conversation between Socrates and his wealthy friend Crito in Socrates’ prison cell, where Crito attempts to persuade Socrates to escape execution. Socrates argues that living an unjust life would contradict his teachings.

– Meno: Meno (c. 380 BCE) grapples with how knowledge and virtue are acquired. In the dialogue, Socrates demonstrates his method of questioning beliefs to a student named Meno. This features the famous paradox that one cannot search for what one does not know.

These works pioneered groundbreaking ideas in philosophy and politics that influenced civilization for centuries. Plato’s dialogues remain quintessential examples of philosophical inquiry and have stood the test of time as masterpieces of world literature.

Plato’s Philosophical Views

Plato’s most renowned philosophical ideas include his theory of forms, allegory of the cave, concept of the immortal soul, and the tripartite division of the soul. The theory of forms postulates that the physical world we see is but an imitation of the more perfect and eternal world of ideas or forms. For instance, we refer to all of the objects we call “chair” as the physical forms of Chair. The allegory of the cave liken’s a human condition to that of prisoners, who watch shadows cast on the wall of the cave, without knowing the true reality that exists outside the cave. Plato asserted that the human soul is eternal and coexistent with the eternal realm of forms. Before the incarnation of the soul, it lives in the spiritual world in its perfect form. While on earth, it interacts with an imperfect corporeal body. On the death, the soul returns to the spiritual world. Plato is said to have divided the human soul into the three parts: reason, spirit, and appetite. Reason seeks for the truth and knowledge. Spirit is what inspires our feelings and ambitions. Appetite is what we have for basic desires and lusts. The best person is one who somehow manages to do all three at the same time. In Plato’s view, society also finds its perfect functioning when it mirrors this tripartite structure.

Why Plato Hated Democracy

Plato’s works unveil the depths of political theory and the organizing of the society. At the core of the book is his criticism of democracy and his suggestion that the government should be ruled by philosopher-kings. In the book The Republic, Plato studied different types of governments and came to the conclusion that democracy was not a good system and it was destined to fail. He thought that people’s rule would cause chaos and tyranny because the inexperienced masses will elect politicians who would only satisfy their base desires instead of governing with wisdom. In contrast to this, Plato proposed that the government of the state should be governed by a special class of rulers he called “philosopher-kings” – people who are keen on truth and wisdom. These ideal rulers who would be chosen and trained from their youth to be society’s guardians would make rational decisions instead of being influenced by popular passions. The philosopher-kings were the ruling body of Plato’s ideal state, which he named Kallipolis. Kallipolis was the name of the city that Plato envisaged as a republic based on justice. The philosopher-kings, the ruling class, would govern the state wisely, while the workers, soldiers, and traders, in the lower classes, would each perform their own roles. According to Plato, harmony and order would be achieved through this structure. The ideal state was intended to be the ideal place to help the people in it to pursue truth and virtue above all things. From the times of Plato, who had a deep distrust of democratic mob rule and advocated enlightened absolutism under the philosopher-kings, to the present, his criticism has been raised by generations. Nevertheless, his Dialogues have been regarded as truly seminal in the history of political philosophy.

Plato’s Objections to Democracy

Plato was a very strong critic of Athenian democracy and thought it had fatal faults which made it an unacceptable form of government. Several of his main objections are outlined below:

  • People are not skilled enough to rule -Plato said that the majority of people do not have the required education, wisdom, and training to make the necessary political decisions. He thought that the art of governance was a skill that ought to be acquired via training and that people in general were not in possession of this skill. Plato felt that people were too busy with their own private interests and pleasures to be able to make the right judgement on what is good for the common good. 
  • Democracies can lead to tyranny – Plato warned that democracies can go down the road of anarchy and tyranny. He reasoned that demagogues with charisma could use rhetoric to incite crowds and take over the power. The absence of a balance of power between the will of the majority and the rule of law leads to a situation where an irrational mob could take away individual liberties and elect a dictator.
  • Privileges can corrupt leaders – Plato knew that democracies had no restrictions on who could rule. The wealthy elites or those who are power hungry can easily get elected by resorting to demagoguery and bribery. There was no standard for leadership, so corruption was destined to happen. The quest for wealth, power, and privileges can result in democracy leaders becoming tyrants.

According to Plato, the democracy system with its weak control mechanisms was a defect, not a strength. He held that people were not rational and self-interested, so placing them in power was a formula for disaster. These objections helped to create his conviction that democracy was an unjust type of government.

Plato’s Preferred Political System

Plato proposed a political system under which an elite group of philosophical rulers who are rational make decisions. He thought a just society cannot have a loose division of social classes and a tight control by the ruling class. Plato believed that the ideal state should be ruled by philosopher-kings, who are the most intelligent and most suitable to rule. Those enlightened leaders would be chosen from the guardians (the intellectual elite) who had to go through years of training to be able to rule using reason and wisdom. This society would have a hierarchical caste system with three categories: philosopher-kings as rulers, auxiliaries as the enforces of order, and producers as the working class. The lower class had no say in the government and were expected to follow the rulers’ orders obediently. Mobility between the classes would be banned. Plato too was for the strict control of the population by the elites. The best scenario would impose censorship on arts, literatures, dramas, and music to limit the transmission of thoughts that were against the social order and the authority of the philosopher-kings. The activities and the behaviors of all the citizens would be regulated strictly. The system depended on the auxiliaries who acted through intimidation and force to keep the lower classes in place. Plato thought that only a society that is organized and led according to this authoritarian principle would be able to produce perfect order and harmony. He considered the rational mind of the philosopher-kings as the only one able to decide what was just and good. Plato looked upon his recommended political system as the supreme model of government.

Criticisms of Plato’s Political Views

Plato’s political philosophy has been criticized for being far-fetched and leading to totalitarianism. Some of the main criticisms are:

  • Unrealistic utopian vision – To the majority Plato’s republic of philosopher-kings is just an unrealizable utopia that will never come true. In his conception of a perfectly just society where everyone is in a proper place and has a role to play, he is far removed from the human nature and the real world politics.
  • Against freedoms and individual rights -Plato’s republic gives little right and freedom of individuals. The rulers have unlimited authority and the society is classified into different classes. There is no much freedom in the types of work, style of living, or disagreement with the ruling class. This takes away the fundamental freedoms that are recognized today as a basic right.
  • Could lead to totalitarianism – The degree of state rule and elimination of opposition and democracy in Plato’s republic may create the path to despotism and totalitarian rule. Philosophers-kings are endowed absolute power. The society could be easily transformed into a dictatorship if there is no democracy and dissension. There will be no way for reform.

As Plato’s politics theoretically contained excellent thoughts on justice, excellence, and order in the society, his specific vision, however, has been considered flawed. In the absence of personal freedoms and the rulers’ imposition of their own vision of the ideal, justice can be undermined and tyranny could be a result. The balance between the elements of Plato’s philosophy and individual liberty should be maintained in the political systems.

Plato’s Enduring Influence

Plato’s writings and concepts have very much affected the Western philosophy and thought. His most widely known theory, the Theory of Forms, says that the material world we observe is just a “shadow” of an upper realm of ideal forms. This dualistic ontology had a profound impact on Western philosophy’s understanding of the distinction between appearance and reality. The ethical and political thought in Plato’s writings such as the Republic forms the basis of Western political philosophy. He presented some of the most influential critiques of democracy by claiming that rule by philosopher-kings whose education is in philosophy and reason is better. Though debatable, Plato’s political theory developed the basic ideas of the ideal state and social contract theory for Western political philosophy. The Plato’s Academy in Athens became the basis for the whole Western education system and his Socratic dialogue, questioning method is still the foundation of modern pedagogy. Neoplatonism followed after his death and it was instrumental in the development of early Christian thinkers with the doctrine of immortality of the soul. From a wider perspective, Plato proved the capability of philosophy to discuss questions about ethics, politics, aesthetics, and epistemology, which have been debated by the Western world ever since. He introduced philosophy to the world through his elegant dialogues and keen observation of the human condition. Plato set the course for philosophy for millennia. Although in the present world, his ideas are still valid and increasingly define the issues of our time.


Plato is undoubtedly one of the greatest philosophers of all times as he was the founder of the Academy in Athens and left many valuable writings on philosophy, politics, and ethics. He has left his mark on Western philosophy and science, influencing them greatly. Plato challenged the prevailing opinion on government, value of democracy, and ethical truths. He was not a fan of democracy, but never proposed a plan for it in any detail. The best known one of his works, The Republic, describes an imaginary city-state ruled by philosopher-kings. Other works like Symposium looked into love and Euthyphro focused on piety and moral principles. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave was a metaphor, which was used to illustrate his Theory of Forms, which was that the essence of objects in the world are eternal unchanging Forms, of which reality is but a shadow. He thought that the wisdom and ethics should be dominant over the desire and subjectivity. His dialogues used to motivate and create critical thinking and understanding of justice, virtue, courage, and other eternal truths. Plato was the founder of the first institution of higher education in the western world and he educated politicians and scientists for generations. His studies on how to live ethically, what your purpose is, and the role of the government challenged traditional beliefs. Criticism of his contempt for democracy was the beginning of an attempt to discern differences in political systems. However, his ageless insights about human nature, objective truth, and the meaning of just society made Plato one the greatest philosophers ever. The relevance of his work remains as deep today as it was then.