What would Plato do?

It wasn’t enought for President Obama to claim the endorsement of Judaism, Christianity and Islam for his policies of class warfare in his National Prayer Breakfast speech this past week. Obama also cited Plato as stating a version of the Golden Rule supporting his policies. Where’d he get that Idea? Apparently from a statement made by Socrates in The Republic, but no version of the Golden Rule lends support to the vast expansion of government powers that Obama claims are derived from it.

Except in letters of questionable authenticity, Plato’s writings never speak in Plato’s own voice. His writings are dialogic plays that require close analysis and interpretation. Citing a statement from Plato’s writings for a particular proposition is like citing Shakespeare’s writings for the proposition that life is meaningless. Watching the fate of Socrates in the Athenian democracy, however, Plato was witness to the injustice to which democracy is prone. See Plato’s Apology of Socrates.

Classical political philosophy has guidance to offer even if it doesn’t have the bearing Obama imputes to it. The classic political philosophers were of course aware of Obama’s type; one variation of his type appears in Plato’s dialogues in the personage of Alicibiades. His is a type that thrives in a democracy, but the classic political philosophers thought that the type made democracy unworkable.

The classic political philosophers found democracy to be a threat to property as well as to life. Given that citizens of lesser means always outnumber the rich, they held that government based on majority rule was untenable if not absurd. They were of the view that it would lead to organized theft from the wealthy by the democratic masses. Aristotle observed in The Politics, for example: “If the majority distributes among itself the things of a minority, it is evident that it will destroy the city.”

The Founders of the United States were deep students of politics and history, and they shared Aristotle’s concern. Up through their time, history had shown all known democracies to be “incompatible with personal security or the rights of property.” James Madison and his colleagues held that the “first object of government” was to protect the rights of property.

They understood the protection of property rights to be bound up with freedom itself. “In a word,” Madison explained, “as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights….” The Founders thus incorporated numerous provisions of the Constitution and Bill of Rights to protect the property rights of citizens from the power of the government. They meant to prove that democracy could be made compatible with freedom and the rights of property if the powers of the government were distributed among competing branches of government acting as checks upon each other and if those powers were limited by the Constitution.

Let us pray. Let us pray that we don’t prove them wrong. (Adapted from previous posts.)


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