Does democracy necessarily rest on relativism? The origins of the debate: Protagoras and Plato

You will forgive me if I start, anachronistically, with a quote which belongs to a much later time than  the authors I shall be dealing with. As I hope to show, it is not out of place because it identifies  perfectly the problem and enables me to scatter light on the path I intend to follow. In the Gospel of  John, in his confrontation with the Pharisees, Jesus says: “And you will know the truth and the truth  will set you free” (John 8:32). Regardless of our religious persuasion, it is undeniable that Jesus was a  great religious and political innovator as well as an effective speaker. Here he touched upon an issue I  intend to examine, only from a political perspective of course (for the religious part I shall be ready in a  few decades), namely the political import and the practical effect of truth; more specifically, whether  truth does in fact set us free or, on the contrary, freedom rests precisely on the absence of truth. That is  to say that a strong philosophical, metaphysical, religious concept of truth inevitably interferes with our  freedom and should therefore be banned from the political arena in a liberal democratic State. This  latter position has been vociferously maintained by many liberal thinkers in the XXth century, especially  in the aftermath of the defeat of Fascism and during the Cold War. But the ghosts of relativism and  ‘liberal neutrality’ are still haunting philosophical and political debates all around the world.  

Emblematic, in this respect, is the position of the Austrian legal philosopher Hans Kelsen who,  in his Foundations of Democracy (which appeared in English in Ethics in 1955) maintained the existence of  a correlation between authoritarianism and strong concepts of truth on the one hand and democracy  and weak concepts of truth on the other. He went so far as to say: 

“It is just within epistemology and theory of values that the antagonism between philosophical  absolutism and philosophical relativism has its seat, which –as I shall try to show-is analogous to the  antagonism between autocracy and democracy as they represent political absolutism, on the one hand,  and political relativism, on the other, respectively”. 

Kelsen wrote his reflections on democracy not long after the end of World War Two and amidst the  Cold War: it is, thus, no matter of chance that he devotes a long section to scrutinize and chastise the  soviet notion of democracy, which , in his opinion, is a perversion of both the word and of the form. Kelsen, however, was not alone in his qualms about the impossible co-existence of truth and liberty.  Hannah Arendt rejects the notion of truth itself in politics as “despotic” and precluding debate, which  is the essence of political life. John Rawls, the author of the most refined and successful recent version  of political liberalism, states that “Advancing claims about truth is, then, needlessly divisive: it  undermines public reason and conflicts with the equal standing in public, political arguments that  democracy promises”.

Many scholars interested in ancient political thought –not only classicists but also political theorists have expressed similar views and have considered the Sophists, and especially Protagoras, the defenders of individualistic, democratic values; (a notable example is Eric Havelock’s The liberal temper in Greek  politics, 1957); whereas Plato has been portrayed as maintaining an objective notion of truth which  would lead to an autocratic government of ‘those who know’, whose positive or negative aspects are  duly emphasized by interpreters according to their ideological options. Thus, Kelsen’s considerations  and his dichotomy Relative truth/democracy vs. Absolute truth/autocracy are not less interesting today,  when relativism is again at the centre of the philosophical and political agenda, examined and pilloried  by such different interpreters as the conservative Pope Benedict XVI and the radical philosopher  Martha Nussbaum.  

If we look back at the origins, at the theoretical “foundations of democracy”, we may observe that the  first consistent relativist thinker in the Western tradition of philosophy, the sophist Protagoras, is also a  stern supporter of democracy, as it appears from his personal involvement in some aspects of Pericles’  policy (such as his participation in the Pan-Hellenic settlement of Thurii) as well as from literary  evidence (such as the Great Myth he tells in Plato’s Protagoras). Conversely, we may observe that  Protagoras’ arch-enemy and nemesis (in the theoretical field), Plato, believes in the existence of a solid,  objective truth behind the unstable appearances caught by our senses; interestingly enough, Plato is also  a strong critic of democracy, to which he prefers an aristocratic government ruled by ‘those who know’.  Is this evidence enough to conclude that Protagoras’ support for democracy was based on his  relativism, or is his political stance based on other considerations? Similarly, is Plato’s belief in the truth  of the idea of Good the ground for his anti-democratic, authoritarian political views? More generally, is  there a causal relationship between epistemological conception and political option? Does democracy  really require a ‘weak’ notion of truth while belief in the possibility of attaining objective Truth  inevitably leads to an autocratic power option? Does God, and religion, play any part in all this? I have  the impression that the answer to these questions, notwithstanding the deceitful appearances, will be  surprising.  

Let’s start from the very beginning, from where democracy’s long journey began. It is  traditional in political theory to bestow on Cleisthenes the honour of being the creator of the first  democratic government at Athens, in the year 508 BCE (although the very word demokratia appears  only later). I will focus only on one of the many interesting details of the context of democracy’s birth:  Cleisthenes appears to be the winner of a power competition which takes place after the expulsion  from Athens of the tyrant Hippias and his family. The event that set things in motion, the murder of  Hippias’ brother Hipparchus, was celebrated in a famous song as delivering Athens free (from the  tyrant) and making her isonomikous. Freedom is identified with isonomia, equality before the law, an  equality that, it will soon be added, includes equal possibility to speak (isegoria) and possibility to speak  up your mind about any topic (parrhesia). This is obviously a strong concept of freedom, a “positive  concept of liberty” –if we wish to use Isaiah Berlin’s terminology. It is not just freedom from the  tyrants but also liberty to do something, namely to participate in the political process.  

The two great fifth-century historians, Herodotus and Thucydides, are totally persuaded that freedom  brings power and greatness and build their narratives around this persuasion. Herodotus links Athens’  growing power to the chase of the tyrants and, famously, interprets the Greek victory over the Persians as a victory of freedom over servitude. Thucydides is, if possible, even more interesting, none the less because it is certainly against him, and his depiction of democracy, that Plato builds his own pejorative image of democracy. Even a cursory glance at Thucydides’ work shows that he believed in the  possibility of attaining historical truth about men’s actions in the past, and especially the recent past. In  a methodological passage Thucydides laments men’s lack of accuracy in general when it comes to  ascertain events of the past; and elsewhere he is even more specific against some other historians. 

Then, if we look at Pericles’ laud of the merits of the now well-established democracy at Athens, as it  appears in Thucydides’ Funeral Speech, we observe that the freedom enjoyed by the Athenian citizen is  seen as the foundation for the power of the city, which is displayed in her imperial force. These are all  famous passages and I hope that their beauty overcomes that sense of familiarity that notoriously  breeds contempt. 

“I shall begin with our ancestors: it is both just and proper that they should have the honour of the first  mention on an occasion like the present. They dwelt in the country without break in the succession  from generation to generation, and handed it down free to the present time by their valour. And if  our more remote ancestors deserve praise, much more do our own fathers, who added to their  inheritance the empire which we now possess, and spared no pains to be able to leave their acquisitions  to us of the present generation. Lastly, there are few parts of our dominions that have not been  augmented by those of us here, who are still more or less in the vigour of life; while the mother country  has been furnished by us with everything that can enable her to depend on her own resources whether  for war or for peace. That part of our history which tells of the military achievements which gave us  our several possessions, or of the ready valour with which either we or our fathers stemmed the tide of  Hellenic or foreign aggression, is a theme too familiar to my hearers for me to dilate on, and I shall  therefore pass it by. But what was the road by which we reached our position, what the form of  government under which our greatness grew, what the national habits out of which it sprang; these are  questions which I may try to solve before I proceed to my panegyric upon these men; since I think this  to be a subject upon which on the present occasion a speaker may properly dwell, and to which the  whole assemblage, whether citizens or foreigners, may listen with advantage”. 

Athenian exceptionalism? “Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighbouring states; we are  rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favours the many instead of the  few; this is why it is called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their  private differences; if no social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class  considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is  able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition”. Pericles then adds that freedom to live the way each citizen prefers is the outcome of the constitution: this is one of the basic  values of Athenian democracy. 

Another special feature of the Athenian way of doing politics is its openness: “we throw open our city  to the world”. This rebuff is aimed at Sparta and every oligarchical regime, accused of doing politics in  a covert way in order to fool the people (same accusation in the Melian dialogue). Democracy is the  obverse of arcana imperii and secretive politics.  

Among the many characterizing features of Athenian regime, Pericles singles out one: “our ordinary citizens, though occupied with the pursuit of industry, are still fair judges of public  matters (tà politikà me endeos gnonai); for, unlike any other nation, regarding him who takes no part in  these duties not as unambitious but as useless, we Athenians are able to judge at all events if we cannot  originate, and instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling-block in the way of action, we think it an  indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all. Again, in our enterprises we present the singular  spectacle of daring and deliberation, each carried to its highest point, and both united in the same  persons; although usually decision is the fruit of ignorance, hesitation of reflection”. The logismos brings  decision to the Athenians. 

He then famously concludes that “Athens is the school of Greece. […] And that this is no mere boast  thrown out for the occasion, but plain matter of fact, the power of the state acquired by these habits 

proves. For Athens alone of her contemporaries is found when tested to be greater than her  reputation, and alone gives no occasion to her assailants to blush at the antagonist by whom they have  been worsted, or to her subjects to question her title by merit to rule. Rather, the admiration of the  present and succeeding ages will be ours, since we have not left our power without witness, but have  shown it by mighty proofs; and far from needing a Homer for our panegyrist, or other of his craft  whose verses might charm for the moment only for the impression which they gave to melt at the  touch of fact, we have forced every sea and land to be the highway of our daring, and everywhere,  whether for evil or for good, have left imperishable monuments behind us”. 

Pericles is persuaded that freedom to participate in government and in the discussions that precede  decision is the foundation of Athenian power. Underlying this view is the conception that every citizen  is able to give his contribution to the decision-making process in virtue of his singular, peculiar  knowledge and competence. This implies that in democracy all citizens are on an equal footing, they are  politically equal. In Josh Ober’s phrasing, knowledge is dispersed, and deliberation among the vastest  amount of people is the best way to arrive at the ‘true’ solution of a practical problem, namely the  optimal solution. Democracy is, in this perspective, the most efficient regime in that it enables the  dispersed knowledge to become manifest and help to find ‘the truth of the matter’, the best course of  action. All citizens are equal in deliberation without regard to their social station. We should note that  this equality of political capacity among citizens that is presupposed in democracy is also confirmed per  contrarium by the Melian Dialogue: there the Athenian envoys object to the Melians that it is only among  equals that it is possible to speak of justice –or to deliberate in general, we may add.  

In Pericles’ view democracy is ‘truly’ the best form of government; he has no doubt about it: the  greatness and power of the city testify it and materially support his words. He therefore does not  believe in a ‘weak’ notion of truth nor do all the supporters of democracy: democratic institutions and  democratic practices show that democratic leaders believe in the truth of certain fundamental values  such as freedom to participate in government and equality of speech. They also believe that these  values are the foundation of the greatness of the democratic regime.  

Let’s now turn to Protagoras, a famous sophist, relativist a supporter of democracy. He started by  discarding the notion of the importance of the divine for human affairs, which he did in the famous  opening lines of his work On the Gods

“Concerning the gods, I cannot verify that they exist or that they do not exist nor what their shape is;  for many are the obstacles that prevent our knowledge: not only the obscurity [of the problem] but also  the brevity of human life.” (DK80 B4) 

This is a profession of agnosticism, an admission of the limitations of the human mind and of human  life. It is not atheistic: atheism is philosophically unsophisticated, unworthy of such a thinker as  Protagoras, for it maintains that we can attain the truth about God: God does not exist (and in some  versions God does not exist but is evil!). God is an article of faith and his existence cannot be argued  for or against. In Protagorean terms, the existence of the gods cannot be verified and any truth is  necessary human; man is the measure of all things and the gods are silent –as Cynthia Farrar effectively  put it. Any knowledge, value or political action must therefore rest on purely human standards: the  gods abandon the city, they don’t care about human beings and they can’t be taken as models. Nor can  any system of morality be built upon the premise of their existence; or non-existence. 

It remains a mystery to me what could have followed such a dramatic (and drastic) opening statement,  to enable Protagoras to write an entire book…

“Man is the measure of all things: of the things which are, that they are, and of the things which are  not, that they are not.” (DK80 B1) 

There are many extraordinarily interesting features about this famous statement. One is directly linked  to Protagoras’ persuasion about the gods: man is the measure “of things that are not, that they are not”. Man is the measure also of non-existence. Human beings must make decisions at their own risk, about  the non-existence of the gods, for instance; and, as Pascal would put it, if God does exist, I would not  like to be in your shoes…  

When we read it on the background of Plato’s Theaetetus, Protagoras’ statement reveals that truth is  relative to each percipient subject, so that the Truth does not exist, but rather there are as many truths  as there are percipient beings. In Socrates’ faithful paraphrase: “as each thing appears to me, so it is for  me, and as it appears to you, so it is for you –you and I each being a man” (152a). There is thus an  identification of phantasia, aisthesis and episteme. Consistently with his belief in the impossibility of knowing the gods, Protagoras maintains that our knowledge is limited to the phenomenal realm. He  argues for an empiricist approach and is not a sceptic, because he believes that every sensation is true  for those who experience it: it is only knowledge of substance that is precluded to human beings.  Again, he is not an absolute subjectivist (he believes there is an objective reality, which is known by  men only through their subjective experience) nor an idealist: reality is not created by men nor is it a  world of ideas; esse non est percipi.  

A typical way to refute relativism is to point out that it is self-refuting (and self-defeating). This line of  attack was already tried in antiquity by Plato and Aristotle. The former, in the Theaetetus, shows that if  we mean seriously that “everything is true”, then also the obverse “nothing is true” is true and with it  Protagoras’ theory; the latter, in the Metaphysics, disposes even more quickly of Protagoras because he  thinks that Protagoras’ saying entails a rejection of the principle of non-contradiction: the result is that  the search for truth would become like “chasing a flying bird” and, in the end, we don’t have time to  spend with such people as the relativists because they are obviously not serious. In modern times, we  could maintain that the cultural relativist who believes that all values are equivalent for their supporters,  inside their cultures, entails the right for cannibals to eat relativists! And some malicious cultural  chauvinist could point out that even French deconstructionists à la Foucault prefer oysters and  champagne to fried locusts and the comfort of the Bay Area to the slums of Phnom Penh. Nobody in  actuality lives like a relativist! 

Let’s see how Protagoras replies to these charges. In the ‘Apology of Protagoras’ the sophist reiterates  his position on knowledge, and then adds some elements which combine his epistemological view with  a moral and political stance. He argues that 

1. “Each one of us –the single individual- is the measure both of what is and of what is not”; then  he adds  

2. “But there are countless differences between men for just this very reason, that different things  both are and appear to be to different subjects”; 

3. Some of these semblances (phantasmata, representations) are “better” (beltio) than others,  although in no way “truer” (alethestera) –as some maintain out of ignorance (167b). Each person is the judge (krites: 160c) of what is relatively to himself and therefore no-one judges what  is false: epistemological relativism is unavoidable but has practical limits, because some opinions are  better, more useful than others, although not truer: from the realm of knowledge and theory we have  shifted almost imperceptibly to that of practice. It is in this realm of practice that the existence of

wisdom and of wise men can be maintained: “the man I call wise is the man who can change the  appearances –the man who in any case where bad things both appear and are for one of us, works a  change and makes good things appear and be for him” (166d). The wise man, identified with the  sophist, operates as a physician, turning bad states of mind (or the soul) in better states, which enable  his listeners and students to have better perceptions, using words instead of drugs: he cannot persuade  people they are wrong (because there is no right or wrong as far as truth is concerned) but he can make  them change attitude (hexis), thus moulding good citizens.  

Protagoras’ very wording reveals a shift from the realm of knowledge (theoria, aletheia) to that of practice  (beltio). There certainly exists wisdom (sophia) and the wise man (sophos aner) but they are relative to the  domain of practice. Therefore, we ought to be accurate: when we face contrasting, and contradictory,  views we must not say that someone is wiser than someone else, because knowledge is perception,  which is always true for the percipient subject; likewise, when we face moral disagreement we cannot  say that someone is right and someone else is wrong, for their beliefs are true for them. Instead, we  must operate a change from a condition (hexis) to another, because a healthy condition is better than  illness. This is why the sophist works like a physician, because he does not try to persuade the ill person  that what he perceives as cold is in fact warm; instead, he tries to heal him, to change his condition, his  bodily state. This is the civilizing mission of the sophist and the all-important role of education for  human beings: it changes (metaballein, repeated many times) the disposition of a human being, so that  something that appears (and is) bad seems (and is) good (166d). Education (paideia) transforms man,  making him change from a worse to a better disposition; the analogy with the physician also reveals  that the sophist is a wise man and deserves to be paid for his service. For it is the sophist, through his  educational role, who creates ‘civilized’ men and rhetoricians, who in turn persuade the city to adopt  the most useful laws for the citizens: 

“Whatever in any city is regarded as just and admirable is just and admirable, in that city and for so long  as that convention maintains itself; but the wise man replaces each pernicious convention by a  wholesome one, making this both be and seem just.” (Theaetetus 167c) 

Protagoras thus identifies what is just (dikaion) with what is legal (nomimon) and is the first author who  attributes a leading social function to the educated man and, accordingly, an educational role to the  sophist. This position is in line with the one that emerges from the Protagoras, where the sophist  maintains the possibility to teach virtue in the beginning of the dialogue and in the conclusion  establishes a divergence of arête and episteme, a position that is antithetical to Socrates’ ethical  intellectualism. We may conclude that Protagoras argued for four, connected, doctrines: 

1. At the foundation lies a theological agnosticism: there is no connection between the human and the  divine realm; the gods, whatever we may think about their existence, are not interested in  human transactions and we cannot draw inspiration from them; there is nothing we can say  about the destiny of the human soul in a possible afterlife so the divine cannot be the  foundation of morality.  

2. If there is no absolute we can refer to, no eternal substance, we can’t but fall back on an  epistemological relativism. Every opinion is true because man, each single man, is the measure of  everything relative to himself. 

3. From these premises an ethical pragmatism and consequentialism follow: some judgments are better  than others –although not truer-, i.e. have better practical results or consequences. 4. Also political conventionalism and legal positivism follow: there is no univocal definition of justice,  but rather every city adopts the institutions it deems most suitable to create virtuous citizens;  virtue itself, just like the law, accordingly changes from city to city.

I believe that the importance Protagoras attributed to the kairos is definitively connected to this  position: the right chance, the opportune moment must be judged by each single man, and he will be  able to judge best if he has been correctly educated.  

There is no truth or general rule in politics as well as in life because on every topic two opposing  arguments can be advanced: the choice, the decision between competing truths rests with each man and  in this resides both the greatness and the tragedy of human life. However, cities and human beings can  live with that; if correctness, orthotes, is the problem, the sophist and the educated man are the solution.  For judging from his experience, the sophist can suggest to a city the most convenient political  arrangements in order to mould good citizens. Again, in so doing, the sophist acts as a physician, who  studies the symptoms of an illness as well as the constitution of the patient and adapts the treatment to  the circumstances: there is no general rule; rather the “judgement resides in perception” of the single  case, as we read in [Hippocrates] De antique medicina 9. The physician is guided by an un-stated, obvious  premise: health is better than disease. Likewise, to keep up the analogy, the sophist has seen that civil  strife is like an ailment in the body politic and he will resort to his technique to prevent its insurgence  inside a city. Harmony, homonoia, political friendship constitutes the natural, healthy condition of the  city. Stasis, turmoil, faction conflict disrupts this harmony and the sophist’s task is to restore the order  inside the community. 

One might object, in a Platonic fashion, that Protagoras leaves us devoid of a firm standard, a solid  foundation, for the validity of our moral values and political arrangements: there is no objective,  universal foundation behind them. But Protagoras, a self-described technician, would retort “So what?  It works!” –which is a perfectly appropriate answer for the expert of any epoch who does not have any  pretension of universal knowledge and works in the realm of practice. And this is exactly why in  matters of practical importance we trust the expert –be it a general, a sailor or a physician- although we  all entertain our ideas about strategy, voyaging and diets.  

It is noteworthy in this context that the Old Oligarch attributes to the Athenian rabble wisdom enough  to not engage in those activities or holding those magistracies which imply specialized knowledge and  could result in harm to the people: “These they leave in the hands of the most capable” (dynatotatoi). 

And here comes the Platonic objection, based on the difference between what-is-good and what appears-to-be-good: they both motivate us to act, and, for instance, in the practical realm we may recur  to a medicine man or a healer instead of a physician when we are sick. The medicine man and the  physician are two kinds of experts, in the same field, in different cultures. The truth of their expertise is  unassailable within each culture; but a modern pupil of Protagoras would argue that in practice  physicians heal more people than medicine men (and this is still the case even in certain parts of Italy  very much rumoured of lately!)  

One may wonder what this all amounts to in the practical realm. We may look again at Plato’s Protagoras to find a tentative answer. Here the sophist offers to his listeners the choice of a delightful myth or a  rational argument and opts for delivering a beautiful mythical narration in order to be more  entertaining. The choice of myth over logos is prompted by the convivial atmosphere in Callias’ house  but Protagoras could as well have recurred to his logical and argumentative skills. He is able to charm  and persuade at the same time, a marvellous display of the skills he may use in his profession: his duty  is not only to be right (always a tricky notion with a relativist) but also, and above all, to be effective.  He tells Socrates that his job is to teach prudence in affairs private as well as public; listening to him, 

Socrates will learn to set his own house in order in the best way, and he will be able to speak and act for  the best in the affairs of the State. Socrates interprets this as meaning that Protagoras teaches the art of  politics, and that he promises to make men good citizens. Let’s also remember that the question at issue  between Protagoras and Socrates is whether virtue can be taught and the sophist’s position is that 

human beings are by nature endowed with the potentiality for virtue but this has to be cultivated  through education. The conclusion of the myth is that all men are by nature endowed with the two qualities, or virtues, of ‘respect’ and ‘justice’ which make them ‘political beings’, apt to rule and to be  ruled; as a consequence, democracy is the most ‘natural’ and most efficient form of government because it reflects in its laws and institutions that equality of capacity that exists in nature: it does not  exclude any citizen endowed with political art (politikè techne) from participating in politics. This is the  kind of ‘truth’, or rather vision, that Protagoras can consistently claim to belong to his baggage of  expertise; this knowledge, which issues from his experience as a man-of-the-world, can be serviceable  to political entities. Experience –he may argue effectively- shows that a democratic city is more  powerful and its citizens are happier than in any other political arrangement. He could have stated, just  like Thucydides, that the city’s power is the proof of the goodness of the Athenian constitutional  system. Or, to look at a contemporary debate, a Protagorean author may argue that it does not matter  whether “human rights” are objectively true or rather an invention of Western society. “The truth does  not explain much” –he might retort, quoting Nancy Cartwright. What is important is the result: they  work! Citizens of democratic states that respect human rights are happier and the states are more  prosperous and powerful, as it is testified by obvious evidence: people flee other states to come here!  This is the ‘truth’ of the matter.  

Notwithstanding Plato, and notwithstanding many Platonic interpreters, there does not seem to be a  contradiction between democracy and a strong concept of truth nor are they mutually exclusive.  

Let’s now turn to Plato, let’s examine what is the actual foundation for his criticism of democracy and  for his preference for an aristocratic regime, or rather a philosophical aristocracy. Beforehand, however,  let me remind you that Plato struggled all his life with Protagoras’s thought (as is testified by his final  answer, which we find in his last work, the Laws, where he states that “God is for us the best measure  of all things”); and that he builds his perfect city in deliberate opposition to Thucydides’ portrayal of  democracy. And I wish to add another word of caution: Plato is not just a critic of democracy but of  all existing forms of government of his time: he is no oligarch; he does not prefer the few to the many  per se. All existing regimes are flawed –some more, some less: there is a hierarchy- because they all show  the prevalence of one part of the population over the other; there is no harmony, no unity in them.  That harmony and unity that characterises Plato’s perfect city and sets it apart from all others.  

We may start with a visual aid: if we take a panoramic look at the whole of the Republic, it strikes us that  the most conspicuous absence in Plato’s ideal city is the lack of an agorà, of a meeting place where to  deliberate, a sign that public deliberation by the people is not viewed as conducive to the best decisions.  These are taken by those who know, who are inevitably very few because knowledge is by Plato 

conceived as a difficult ascent from a reign of appearances to which we have been habituated since  birth and for which we may even have developed a form of attachment: the usual humdrum everyday  life has its comforting features: we don’t have to sail perilous seas and we can predict fairly well what is  going to happen. Regularities are reassuring and there is a sophia also in the cave (516c), albeit a  degraded one.  

Central role of the Allegory of the Cave in the Republic.  

1. The sophia in the cave is illusion, as are the honours that accompany it. Plato agrees with  Protagoras: if we judge by what appears to our senses, the result is a world characterized by  change and instability. We should therefore distrust our senses and rely on our reason. 

2. Wisdom and knowledge are the result of an ascent that starts in violence (bia) and works only  for very few because it is difficult. 494a: it is impossible for the multitude to be philosophic.  

The masses cannot have access to knowledge: they are not only unable to; they are also  uninterested in embarking in the long journey that takes from familiar to unknown shores. Cfr.  491b. This creates a hierarchy of knowledge, an aristocracy of virtue not a traditional aristocracy  of blood. Democracy bestows equality to equal and unequal people alike (558c); there is liberty  (eleutheria), freedom of speech (parrhesia) and licence (exousia) for everyone to enjoy 557b.  criticism of election by lot. The insistence on equality brings ‘formlessness’ according to  Saxonhouse, democracy lacks capacity to categorize and discriminate. 

3. Only God knows the truth (516b) and the path to truth is reversed: not down from God  through the poet to all mankind/hearers; but up from the bottom, each person for himself. 4. Truth is ‘erotic’, it appeals to the philosopher, who is described as the “lover of truth” (501d).  However, as we learn from the Symposium, eros is a desire, a longing for what we do not possess:  we are neither wise nor completely ignorant. Plato’s ‘truth’ is then less monolithical than we  usually suppose. Evidence also from the Politicus 300a, where existing laws, put down by  experts, can be revised by those who possess “political science”. Acquisition of knowledge can  replace existing knowledge. Neither Socrates nor Plato were in fact enemies of the ‘open  society’. Since Grote and Mill, we are well aware that Socrates used the weapon of elenchos in  order to question the ‘unchallenged truths’, or opinions, of his fellow-citizens; and the dialectic  method proceeds by testing assumptions and hypotheses until we reach a firm truth. 5. Truth is of the essence for those who want to act wisely in private as well as in public matters  (517c). But there are dangers in the truth coming from those who live in opinion.  6. The truth-tellers are derided, scorned for their apparent lack of vision and often killed (517a). it  seems that abandoning the cave is done individual by individual through the techne tes periagoghes (518d).  

The perfect city is built according to the truth discovered by the philosopher. In the Politicus the Eleatic  Stranger talks about the “imitation of the truth”, the constitutions that imitate the true one. Plato  remarks often that “it is by virtue of its smallest class and minutest part of itself, and the wisdom that  resides therein, in the part which takes the lead and rules, that a city established on principles of nature  would be wise as a whole. And as it appears [429a] these are by nature the fewest, the class to which it  pertains to partake of the knowledge which alone of all forms of knowledge deserves the name of  wisdom.” 

Knowledge of what is good for the city and for your fellow citizens does not come from debate among  people equally endowed with political virtue. It stems from knowledge of the ‘idea of Good’, which is  grasped with difficulty, by very few people and entails a replacement of the ordinary world we live in.  Plato, like Gorgias, believes that we cannot communicate ‘being’, nor truth; it has to be grasped  individually (Socratic method that elicits truth out of a single individual).  The goal of the city becomes one for all citizens: using a common virtue (sophrosyne) to create harmony.  Making people happy according to the level of happiness they can attain (421a-c). Paradox: the  knowledge of truth allows the possessors to tell lies, albeit noble lies. Plato distinguishes between  “noble lie” and “true lie”; the latter is a condition of ignorance in the soul typical of those who live in a  world of illusion and lies; the former is told by those who actually know the truth and are allowed to lie  for political reasons. Indeed a ‘noble lie’ rests at the very foundation of the Platonic perfect city. There  are ‘noble lies’ even in the kallipolis because it is a human city, not a city of gods. Plato too recurs to the  medical analogy: the statesman is like a physician who can dispense lies like medicines according to the 

needs. God, on the other hand, does not lie. We should assimilate ourselves to God as much as we  can, knowing that the Gods exists, they care about human beings and they will reward the just and  punish the unjust (Rep. X).  

This is in fact one of the most delicate points, namely the notion of God and its role in Plato’s thought. 1) In the background we have to recall that Socrates was sentenced to death for not believing in the  gods of the city (among other accusations). He spoke of his daimon. 

2) In Plato’s dialogues all the traditional Olympic gods are mentioned and, even when their portrait is  questioned (as in the Republic), their existence is never questioned. 

3) Plato appears to believe in the existence of a God as reason in the universe. The Demiurge puts  order into the world and interferes in history. In the Republic we hear that “nothing imperfect can be the  measure of anything”; and in the Laws we learn that “God is for us the best measure of all things”. Notwithstanding appearances, Plato seems to advocate religious tolerance or at least require only  conformism.  

Possible objection: Laws X and provisions against atheism. But John Locke too believed that atheists  should not be tolerated.  

My conclusion is that Protagoras and Pericles, as portrayed by Thucydides, both believed in a strong  concept of truth, they believed that the Athenian democratic system was truly the best and most natural  way of conducting human affairs and the most conducive to creating good and happy citizens as well as  a powerful city. Their defence of democracy is based on a pragmatic notion of truth and on the belief  that deliberation among equal individuals is conducive to the best knowledge of what to do. Plato, on  the other hand, is a critic of democracy because he believes that ordinary people are unqualified to  make political judgments for they do not have access to real knowledge. He believes that human beings  are by nature, and then by education, unequal and debate among them is therefore useless and even  dangerous. It is a false antithesis between strong and weak notions of truth. The real alternative is  between truth accessible to everybody and truth accessible only to few; between a view of knowledge as  dispersed among citizens and a view of knowledge as the sole possession of one or very few persons  who struggled to achieve it and are, by that very possession, set apart from their fellow human beings.  A view of human nature as equally endowed with the virtues that enable someone to do political  activity and an anti-egalitarian view of human nature, according to which men are born unequally  endowed for politics. Accordingly, these authors present different views on the role of deliberation,  albeit among educated people, to arrive at the best political decisions: for Pericles and Protagoras is  essential, for Plato is useless. 

“The problem with democracy –James Bryce wrote to A.V. Dicey- is to assume that every man has an  opinion”. Plato would have consented and wryly added “And when they do, most of the times it is the  wrong one!”.

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