As this dystopian election campaign has unfolded, my mind keeps being tugged by a passage in Plato’s Republic. It has unsettled — even surprised — me from the moment I first read it in graduate school. The passage is from the part of the dialogue where Socrates and his friends are talking about the nature of different political systems, how they change over time, and how one can slowly evolve into another. And Socrates seemed pretty clear on one sobering point: that “tyranny is probably established out of no other regime than democracy.” What did Plato mean by that? Democracy, for him, I discovered, was a political system of maximal freedom and equality, where every lifestyle is allowed and public offices are filled by a lottery. And the longer a democracy lasted, Plato argued, the more democratic it would become. Its freedoms would multiply; its equality spread. Deference to any sort of authority would wither; tolerance of any kind of inequality would come under intense threat; and multiculturalism and sexual freedom would create a city or a country like “a many-colored cloak decorated in all hues.”Now, this is a particular understanding of Plato. It's Sullivan saying what Plato means. Sullivan, of course studied Plato in graduate school with Harvey Mansfield (at Harvard) and what Sullivan writes above is an understanding that comes from that -- the Straussian -- school. As in, this is what Plato was really (esoterically) trying to get at.
This rainbow-flag polity, Plato argues, is, for many people, the fairest of regimes. The freedom in that democracy has to be experienced to be believed — with shame and privilege in particular emerging over time as anathema. But it is inherently unstable. As the authority of elites fades, as Establishment values cede to popular ones, views and identities can become so magnificently diverse as to be mutually uncomprehending. And when all the barriers to equality, formal and informal, have been removed; when everyone is equal; when elites are despised and full license is established to do “whatever one wants,” you arrive at what might be called late-stage democracy. There is no kowtowing to authority here, let alone to political experience or expertise.
The very rich come under attack, as inequality becomes increasingly intolerable. Patriarchy is also dismantled: “We almost forgot to mention the extent of the law of equality and of freedom in the relations of women with men and men with women.” Family hierarchies are inverted: “A father habituates himself to be like his child and fear his sons, and a son habituates himself to be like his father and to have no shame before or fear of his parents.” In classrooms, “as the teacher ... is frightened of the pupils and fawns on them, so the students make light of their teachers.” Animals are regarded as equal to humans; the rich mingle freely with the poor in the streets and try to blend in. The foreigner is equal to the citizen.
And it is when a democracy has ripened as fully as this, Plato argues, that a would-be tyrant will often seize his moment. ...
Such a reading is quite contentious. It may be correct. But it's not without its controversy. From an article in the Boston Globe:
Thomas Fleming, editor of the ... journal Chronicles [notes]:''Exoteric Straussians are taught to repeat mantras about democracy, liberty, and republican government which the inner-circle Straussians don't appear to hold to. One of Allan Bloom's students told me that Professor Bloom had taught them that Plato was just an American-style democrat. This is just absurd. Plato taught the rule of a tiny elite, which is what the Straussians actually believe.''I'm feeling the "Plato was an American-style democrat" notion in Sullivan's piece. Here is one place where Sullivan I think gets Plato and America partially wrong:
Part of American democracy’s stability is owed to the fact that the Founding Fathers had read their Plato. To guard our democracy from the tyranny of the majority and the passions of the mob, they constructed large, hefty barriers between the popular will and the exercise of power.The second sentence is accurate. The first sentence needs to be unpacked. Did the Founding Fathers read Plato? Sure. But it's almost certainly not the case that they understood him the way Sullivan and the Straussians do. We could substitute "Plato" for "Hobbes." As in "[p]art of American democracy’s stability is owed to the fact that the Founding Fathers had read their Hobbes."
The Founding Fathers tended to cite both Plato and Hobbes negatively. They cited Locke positively; they cited a great deal of Ancient Roman Stoic types positively. And even though the Ancient Greek influence on the American Founding was not nearly as evident as the Ancient Roman influence, they tended to cite Aristotle positively.
The Straussians have notably posited that Locke's teachings were esoterically Hobbesian. So if Hobbes influenced the American Founding it was because his teachings were smuggled in by Locke.
Likewise if Plato had any kind of influence on the American Founding it was because some other ancient philosopher whom they respected -- i.e., Aristotle, Socrates -- smuggled Plato's message in as well.