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Plato, Hegel, and Democracy

  • Thom Brooks (a1)


Nearly every major philosophy, from Plato to Hegel and beyond, has argued that democracy is an inferior form of government, at best. Yet, virtually every contemporary political philosophy working today endorses democracy in one variety or another. Should we conclude then that the traditional canon is meaningless for helping us theorise about a just state? In this paper, I will take up the criticisms and positive proposals of two such canonical figures in political philosophy: Plato and Hegel. At first glance, each is rather disdainful, if not outright hostile, to democracy. This is also how both have been represented traditionally. However, if we look behind the reasons for their rejection of (Athenian) democracy and the reasons behind their alternatives to democracy, I believe we can uncover a new theory of government that does two things. First, it maps onto the so-called Schumpeterian tradition of elite theories of democracy quite well. Second, perhaps surprisingly, it actually provides an improved justification for democratic government as we practice it today than rival theories of democracy. Thus, not only are Plato and Hegel not enemies of modern democratic thought after all, but each is actually quite useful for helping us develop democratic theory in a positive, not negative, manner.



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1 For example, Ian Shapiro writes: ‘Authoritarian rulers seldom reject democracy outright. Instead they argue that their people are not ready for democracy ‘Yet’, that their systems are more democratic than they appear, or that the opposition is corrupt and antidemocratic — perhaps the stooge of a foreign power’, and ‘[t]he democratic idea is close to nonnegotiable in today's world’ ( Shapiro, Ian, The State of Democratic Theory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), p. 1.).

2 See Popper, Karl R., The Open Society and Its Enemies, Vol. II: The High Tide of Prophecy: Hegel, Marx, and the Aflermath, 5th ed. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966), pp. 1, 34, 22 . See ibid., p. 47 and Haym, Rudolf, Hegel und seine Zeit (Berlin, 1857), pp. 357–91.

3 Russell, Bertrand, A History of Western Philosophy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1945), p. 742 .

4 Russell, , A History of Western Philosophy, p. 105

5 See Knox, T. M., ‘Hegel and Prussianism’, in Kaufmann, Walter (ed.), Hegel's Political Philosophy (New York: Atherton Press, 1970), pp. 1329 . See also Avineri, Shlomo, Hegel's Theory of the Modern State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), pp. 185–89.

6 See Avineri, , Hegel's Theory of the Modem State, p. 187 ; Hardimon, Michael O., Hegel's Social Philosophy: The Project of Reconciliation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 215 ; Hicks, Steven V., International Law and the Possibility of a Just World Order: An Essay on Hegel's Universalism (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1999), p. 173 ; Hook, Sidney, ‘Hegel and His Apologists’, in Kaufmann, Walter (ed.), Hegel's Political Philosophy, p. 90 ; Knowles, Dudley, Hegel and the Philosophy of Right (London: Routledge, 2002), p. 327 ; Levin, Michael and Williams, Howard, ‘Inherited Power and Popular Representation: A Tension in Hegel's Political Theory’, Political Studies 35 (1987), p. 114 ; Pelczynski, Z. A., ‘The Hegelian Conception of the State’, in Pelczynski, Z. A. (ed.), Hegel's Political Philosophy: Problems and Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971), p. 25 ; Rauch, Leo, ‘Hegel, Spirit, and Polities’, in Solomon, Robert C. and Higgins, Kathleen M. (eds.), The Age of German Idealism (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 285 ; Reybum, Hugh A, The Ethical Theory of Hegel: A Study of the Philosophy of Right (Oxford: Clarendon, 1921), p. 252 ; Smith, Steven B., Hegel's Critique of Liberalism: Rights in Contexts (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), p. 152 ; and Tunick, Mark, “Hegel's Justification of Hereditary Monarchy’, History of Political Thought 12 (1991), p. 482 .

7 On the ‘true’ and ‘healthy’ city, see Plato, Republic 369c–373a and my Knowledge and Power in Plato's Political Thought’, International journal of Philosophical Studies 14 (2006), pp. 5177 . All Plato quotations come from Plato, , Complete Works, edited by Cooper, John M. (Indianapolis: Hacked, 1997).

8 See Plato, Euthydemus 291c–292c; Plato, , Republic 426d, 477d–e; Plato, , Statesman 292c, e, 308e, 311c .

9 Klosko, George, The Development of Plato's Political Thought (New York: Methuen, 1986), p. 172 .

10 On the difference between Plato's Republic and his Law, see Brisson, Luc, ‘Ethics and Politics in Plato's Laws ’, Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 28 (2005), pp. 93121 .

11 Plato, , Laws 693d–e; see Plato, , Eighth Letter 353d–e. Emphasis added.

12 See Plato, , Laws 823a .

13 See Plato, , Laws 755c–d, 756a–b.

14 See Plato, , Laws 752d–754e, 755a–c.

15 Plato, , Laws 751b .

16 See Hegel, G. W. F., Elements of the Philosophy of Right, edited by Wood, Allen W., translated by Nisbett, H. B. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), §273, R [hereafter, PR]. I shall put to one side whether or not the monarch is the dominant partner here as my argument does not depend on it. That said, I do argue elsewhere that the monarch is more powerful than his ministers. (See my Hegel's Political Philosophy: A Systematic Reading of the Philosophy of Right (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007) and my “No Rubber Stamp: Hegel's Constitutional Monarch’, History of Political Thought (2007), forthcoming.)

17 See Hegel, PR, §273R.

18 This is a point missed surprisingly often, but noted well by Ilting. (See Ilting, K.-H., ‘The Structure of the Hegel's Philosophy of Right ’, in Pelczynski, Z. A. (ed.), Hegel's Political Philosophy, pp. 103–4.)

19 Plato, , Republic 557b, 560e . See ibid., 572d–e and Annas, Julia, An Introduction to Plato's Republic (Oxford: Clarendon, 1981), p. 300 .

20 See Beiser, Frederick, Hegel (London: Routledge, 2005), p. 252 .

21 See Plato, , Republic 562b–c.

22 Plato, , Republic 557e558a .

23 Hegel, PR, §290A. See ibid., §§273R, 274, A, 276, 278R, 290A, 302 and Hegel, G. W. F., Lectures on Natural Right and Political Science: The First Philosophy of Right, translated by Michael, J. Stewart and Hodgson, Peter C. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), §167R (hereafter, ‘LNR’).

24 Hegel, LNR, §148R.

25 Hegel, PR, §303R.

26 Of course, for Hegel, the particular shape a people's political community ought to take is the rational structure of the free will in ‘the system of right’, as set out in the Philosophy of Right. (See Hegel, PR, §4A.)

27 Plato, , Republic 558c .

28 Hegel, LNR,§135R.

29 See Brooks, , ‘Knowledge and Power in Plato's Political Thought’, pp. 5777 .

30 See Hegel, LNR, §§129R, 130R.

31 Hegel, PR, §279R.

32 Hegel claims that any state, whether monarchy, aristocracy, or democracy, must always have ‘an individual at its head […] for all actions and all actuality are initiated and implemented by a leader as the decisive unit’ (Hegel, PR, §279R).

33 Hegel, PR, §279R (emphasis given).

34 On group rights, see Jones, Peter, ‘Group Rights and Group Oppression’, Journal of Political Philosophy 7 (1999), pp. 353–77.

35 Hegel, PR, §§281R, 301R.

36 See Plato, , Republic 561b–c and Hegel, PR, §273R. Also see Irwin, Terence H., Plato's Moral Theory: The Early and Middle Dialogues (Oxford: Clarendon, 1977), p. 229 .

37 Plato, , Gorgias 517b.

38 Plato, , Republic 586a–b.

39 Plato, , Phaedo 99b . See Plato, , Republic 520c–d.

40 Plato says: ‘And so he [i.e., the democrat] lives, always surrendering rule over himself to whichever desire comes along, as if it were chosen by lot. And when that is satisfied, he surrenders the rule to another, not disdaining any but satisfying them all equally’ ( Plato, , Republic 561b ).

41 Plato, , Republic 559d561c .

42 Hegel, PR, §281R (emphasis given). See Hegel, LNR, §129R.

43 See Hegel, PR, §310R.

44 Plato, , Philebus 48c49a .

45 See Plato, , Gorgias 457c–d.

46 Hegel, PR, §279A.

47 Schumpeter, Joseph A., Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (New York, 1942), pp. 284–85.

48 Hegel, PR, §311R.

49 See Hegel, PR, §281.

50 Knowles, Dudley, Hegel and the Philosophy of Right (London: Routledge, 2002), pp. 335–36.

51 Aristotle, Politics in his The Complete Works of Aristotle, vol. II, ed. Jonathan Barnes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984),1273b5–6 [Book II].

52 See Plato, , Republic 558c .

53 Hegel, PR, §301R.

54 See Hegel, PR, §308R.

55 Plato says that justice is ‘doing one's own work and not meddling with what isn't one's own’ (Republic 433a-b, 441e). On technē, see Reeve, C. D. C., Philosopher-Kings: The Argument of Plato's Republic (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988).

56 See Plato, , Euthydemus 291c–92c; Plato, , Republic 426d, 477d–e; and Plato, , Statesman 292c .

57 Plato, , Statesman 297b–c. See Plato, , Republic 494a .

58 Plato, , Theaetetus 170a–b.

59 See Plato, , Statesman 266e .

60 See Vlastos, Gregory, ‘The Historical Socrates and Athenian Democracy’, Political Theory 11 (1983), p. 503 ; and Wakefield, Robin, ‘Introduction’, in Plato, , Republic, translated by Wakefield, R. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. xxv . This agrees with Reeve that, for Plato, ‘[p]roper political rule is proper psychic rule’ ( Reeve, , Philosopher-Kings, p. 262 ).

61 Plato, , Republic 347c–d, 412d–e.

62 See my ‘Knowledge and Power in Plato's Political Thought’.

63 Plato, , Republic 472e473a .

64 Plato, , Republic 473c–d. See ibid., 499a–d.

65 Plato, , Republic 499d (emphasis given). See ibid., 502b–c, 540d.

66 Plato, , Republic 592a–h.

67 Plato, , Phaedo 62b .

68 Plato, , Republic 500c–d.

69 Plato, , Republic 590c .

70 Plato, , Republic 546a–b.

71 Plato, , Republic 546a–e. See Jenks, Rod, ‘The Machinery of the Collapse: On Republic VIII’, History of Political Thought 25 (2002), pp. 2129 .

72 See Plato, , Laws 693d–e.

73 Plato, , Laws 756e, 701e, 693d-e. Plato's ‘moderate authoritarianism’ has much in common with the notion of ‘sceptical authoritarianism’ I have defended elsewhere (see my Defence of Sceptical Authoritarianism’, Politics 22 (2002), pp. 152–62).

74 See Plato, , Republic 462c .

75 Plato, , Republic 557e–558a, 560b .

76 Plato, , Republic 562c–d (emphasis added).

77 Plato, , Laws 693d–e.

78 See Hegel, LNR, §138 and Hegel, PR, §§275, 279–80, 283. ‘Die firstliche Gewalt’ may also be translated as ‘the princely power’.

79 See Hegel, LNR, §144R and Hegel, PR, §296.

80 See Hegel, PR, §296.

81 Hegel, LNR, §144R.

82 For example, see Hegel, G. W. F., Die Philosophie des Rechts: Die Mitschriften Wannenmann (Heidelberg 1817–1818) und Homeyer (Berlin 1818–1819), edited by Ilting, K.-H. (Stuttgart Klett-Cotta Verlag, 1983), pp. 166–67 (reprinted in Wood's editorial note to §283 in Hegel, PR, p. 466).

83 See Hegel, LNR, §140 and Hegel, PR, §283.

84 See Hegel PR, §292.

85 See Hegel, PR, §329.

86 Hegel, LNR, §140, R.

87 Hegel, LNR, §140R. Elsewhere, Hegel adds that in addition to ‘the executive civil servants’ there are also “higher consultative bodies' which ‘necessarily work together in groups, and they converge in their supreme heads who are in touch with the monarch himself (Hegel, PR, §289). Hegel suggests that these ‘higher consultative bodies’ are ‘corporations’ (see Hegel, PR, §289R).

88 See Hegel, PR, §294R.

89 See Hegel, PR, §§263A, 278R.

90 Hardimon, , Hegel's Social Philosophy, p. 219 .

91 Hegel, PR, §288.

92 See Hegel, PR, §288.

93 Perhaps the reason why the Estates cannot propose legislation is due to Hegel's view that particular interests should be harmonised with the universal — and not the other way around. Thus, the Estates (representing particularity) need only confirm their agreement or disagreement with proposals brought before them by the universal class, the cabinet ministers (see Hegel, PR, §261R).

94 See Hegel, PR, §265.

95 Hegel, PR, §265A.

96 See Hegel, PR, §268A and Green, T. H., Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation and Other Writings, edited by Harris, Paul and Morrow, John (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. 89106 [§§113-36].

97 Hegel, PR, §274A.

98 Hegel, PR, §281A.

99 See Plato, , Laws 823a .

100 Plato, , Aldbiades 114b .

101 Plato, , Gorgias 513e .

102 See Plato, , Aldbiades 117c–e, 135a–b; Plato, , Republic 341c, 488a489b ; Plato, , Seventh Letter 351d ; Plato, , Statesman 296e–297b, e, 299a–e. See also Plato, , Laws 639b; Plato, , Phaedrus 246a247c .

103 Plato, , Republic 489a .

104 For a different viewpoint, see Irwin, on ‘Platonic Love and Platonic Justice’ in Irwin, Terence H., Plato's Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 311–13.

105 The ‘present situation’ is that Socrates has been condemned to die by the newly installed Athenian democracy (see Plato, Apology 38c and Plato, , Crito 43a44d ).

106 Plato, , Crito 44c–d.

107 Plato, , Second Letter 312 . See Plato, , Seventh Letter 325d–e.

108 See Plato, , Republic 498d499a .

109 Hardimon, , Hegel's Social Philosophy, p. 215 (emphasis added). Whilst Hegel is quite clear that the monarch is meant to act as a clear restraint on the powers of the bureaucracy, it is unclear how effective the monarch can be (see Hegel, PR, §§295A, 297). After all, the bureaucrats seem to have sole control over the education of future members, who form the pool of potential ministers. There is no check on their education or suitability for office beyond the monarch's decision to appoint or remove members of this pool of potential ministers.

110 Wood, Allen W., ‘Introduction’, in Hegel, , PR, p. xxiv .

111 See Wolff, Jonathan, An Introduction to Political Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 75, 77 .

112 Dahl, Robert A., On Democracy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), pp. 7071 (emphasis given).

113 Dahl, Robert A., Democracy and Its Critics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991).

114 On jury nullification, see my A Defence of Jury Nullification’, Res Publica 10 (2004), pp. 401–23; my On Jury Nullification’, Archiv für Rechts- und Sozialphilosophie 97 (2005), pp. 169–75; and, more generally, my The Right to Trial by Jury’, Journal of Applied Philosophy 21 (2004), pp. 197212 and my The Future of the Right to Trial by Jury’, Philosophy Today 17 (2003), pp. 24 .

115 See Hegel, LNR, §140 and Franco, , Hegel's Philosophy of Freedom, p. 317 .

116 See Hegel, LNR, §149R: ‘Legislative proposals must therefore emanate from the sovereign […] the initiative for laws rests essentially with the power of the sovereign’.

117 See Hegel, LNR, §140.

118 See Hegel, PR, §284. It is important to note that this does not suggest that the relevant minister is responsible for getting the monarch to agree with him on what should become law, as this passage is equally suggestive that ministers may be held accountable if they fail to convince the monarch to avoid moving forward with a bill proposal.

119 Hegel, LNR, §149R.

120 Hegel, PR, §§297, R, 315A. See Hegel, LNR, §154R.

121 Hegel, LNR, §145R.

122 Although many Hegel scholars believe Hegel was mistaken on this point, such as Andrew Chitty in personal correspondence, I disagree with this view (see my Hegel's Political Philosophy).

123 See Christiano, Thomas, The Rule of the Many (Boulder: Westview Press, 1996) and Christiano, Thomas, ‘An Argument for Egalitarian Justice and Against the Levelling Down Objection’, in Campbell, Joseph, O'Rourke, Michael, and Silverstein, Harry, eds., Social Justice and the Law (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), pp. 4165 .

124 See Estlund, David, ‘Beyond Fairness and Deliberation: The Epistemic Dimension of Democratic Authority’, in Bohman, James and Rehg, William (eds.), Deliberative Democracy (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997). For an opposing view, see Richardson, Henry S., Democratic Autonomy: Public Reasoning About the Ends of Policy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

125 I owe this choice phrase to Fabian Freyenhagen.

126 See Hegel, PR, §272A.

127 I readily grant that the justifications offered for this position differ between Hegel and Schumpeter and thank Andrew Chitty for this point.

128 See my ‘A Defence of Sceptical Authoritarianism’.

129 See Gordon, Stacy B., ‘All Votes Are Not Created Equal: Campaign Contributions and Critical Votes’, Journal of Politics 63 (2001), pp. 249–69.

130 Christiano, Thomas, ‘Knowledge and Power in the Justification of Democracy’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 79 (2001), pp. 198217 .

131 See my Can We Justify Political Inequality?Archiv für Rechts- und Sozialphilosophie 89 (2003), pp. 426–38.

132 Talisse, Robert, ‘Dilemmas of Public Reason: Pluralism, Polarization, and Instability’, in Brooks, Thom and Freyenhagen, Fabian (eds.), The Legacy of John Rawls (London: Continuum, 2005), pp. 107123 .

133 Hibbing, John R. and Theiss-Morse, Elizabeth, Stealth Democracy: Americans' Beliefs about How Government Should Work (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 227 .

134 By looking at their criticisms of democracy, we can bracket more controversial issues pertaining to the many nuances of their full, considered alternatives and, thus, avoid getting bogged down in questions about the usefulness or applicability of Hegel's conception of the will or worries pertaining to the ‘metaphysics’ of Plato and Hegel.

135 This article was presented at annual meetings of the Hegel Society of Great Britain in Oxford, the Global Studies Association in Newcastle, and the Classical Association in Newcastle, as well as at the Department of Politics at the University of Newcastle. The article has benefited significantly from these audiences, including most especially Karin de Boer, Sarah Francis, Tim Kelsall, Graham Long, Ali Mandipour, David Merrill, Ian O'Flynn, Vicky Roupa, Heather Widdows, Kathryn Wilkinson, and, not least, extensive comments by Andrew Chitty, Fabian Freyenhagen, Stephen Houlgate, Richard Mullender, and Bob Stern.

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Plato, Hegel, and Democracy

  • Thom Brooks (a1)


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