All across the ages, people have always searched for reasons to distrust governments based on democracy. It is no secret that societies from the west have placed a supreme value on democracy, but this has not always been the case. In fact, a few of history’s greatest thinkers had some very strong things to say against democracy. And there are certainly critiques that others have to consider because of their source.
Great Thinkers Opposed to Democracy
In his famous book, The Republic, Plato discusses a time when Socrates was lecturing about the functions of an ideal state. He comes to a point where he asked an associate who would be most appropriate to manage a voyage at sea. Socrates gave the associate two choices to choose from, either a random passenger, or an experienced captain. When the associate obviously chooses the captain, Socrates then release a metaphor to the state by asking why would to let just anybody manage the ship of the state. This is when he proposes that a totalitarian government is the ideal state because rulers have been trained for decades on how to execute absolute power.
We can find the many objections of Socrates against democratic governments in several other works too. He often praised the monarchy of Sparta because they were well managed, and several writings indicate how he lamented how so few societies were capable of grasping the value of these types of governments. Obviously, the issue that Socrates has with democracies is he does not believe that the general populous is capable of selecting a worthy leader.
However, Socrates is not the only great thinker who criticized the intelligence of the general voting population within a democratic government. In later portions of his Republic, Plato implies that democracy is actually one of the later phases during the decline of an ideal state. In fact, he believed that situations under democracy would get so bad that the general population would eventually seek a dictator to save them. This was actually one of the bigger ideas from Plato, believing that democracies end up with tyrants in the end. Another great thinker, Aristotle, considered democracy as a failed state of rule by the multitudes.
The notion that democracy has flaws also continued into later stages including even more liberal thinkers. Voltaire, who was known to support almost all liberal freedoms of thought and speech once told Catharine the Great of Russia , “Almost nothing great has ever been done in the world except by the genius and firmness of a single man combating the prejudices of the multitude1”. In fact, his liberal beliefs was virtually the complete opposite of democracy.
The Ancient Version of Democracy
Today, it is most important to realize that the democracy that was practiced in ancient Athens was far different than the type that is used today. In fact, most of us today would most likely be very uncomfortable with the direct democracy that they practiced. For instance, just twenty percent of the general population was enfranchised at any given time, with all of those being free white males that were over 18 years old who had parents that were also citizens.
And then there were public offices that required a minimum level of wealth requirement. The quorum of the Assembly was at least 6000 citizens, the reason for this was to increase attendance. Slaves with red-dyed ropes would actually herd up people there and anyone that had red dye on their clothing would receive a heavy fine. A lot of the public positions in government was held by citizens that were randomly selected.