Peter Jones

Enemies of the people

The Greek writer at the roots of much modern political snobbery

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Hardly a week goes by without someone applauding Thomas Carlyle’s objection to democracy: ‘I do not believe in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.’ In other words, infinitely wise politicians should tell the unenlightened mob what to think, not vice versa. Such feelings have been common ever since the Athenians invented direct democracy in 508 BC, which lasted till 323 BC and handed to citizens in the assembly (the dêmos) the power to decide all Athenian policy.

One anonymous writer described the dêmos as ‘ignorant, ill-disciplined and immoral’, ascribing it to their ‘poverty and lack of education’. The philosopher Plato thought a state could be well governed only by Platonic philosophers. The historian Thucydides rated oligarchies less liable to revolution. Aristotle agreed that monarchy would be the best of all, if only someone of the required standard could be found.

So much for contemporary intellectual rumblings from the side-lines. It was the Romans who turned it into fake news. They venerated Greek cultural achievements but felt there was something dodgy about the dêmos. Cato the Elder took up the theme of the corrupt, dissolute Greek, and Cicero elaborated it, characterising the dêmos as an inflamed mob.

It was Plutarch, a prolific Greek writer of the 2nd century AD with a great admiration for Roman stability, who really put the boot in. His Parallel Lives of Famous Greeks and Romans commonly characterised the Greek dêmos as ‘animals’ — unreasoning, unruly, volatile and degenerate and determined out of envy to strike down any great leader. Influential beyond any other classical author, Plutarch dominated discussions in the West about the best form of government from the 16th to 19th centuries. His idea that rule by a dêmos could be nothing but mob rule became the kneejerk position, and still is.

In the howls about mob rule, however, Switzerland, virtually a direct democracy for some 600 years, somehow never features. Animals, obviously.