In ancient Athens, two political parties—or social classes—vied for power: the oligarchs and the democrats. The oligarchs sought to establish a state in which only wealthy property owners could vote and hold public office, while the democrats insisted that all male citizens have the same rights. Aristotle summarized these competing approaches to government in Politics, writing, “An oligarchy is said to be that in which the few and the wealthy rule, and a democracy that in which the many and the poor are the rulers.”
For most of the fifth and fourth centuries BC, Athens was a democracy. While the oligarchs only succeeded twice in establishing rule by the few over the many (in 411 and 404 BC), the struggle between these two forces was long, contentious, and occasionally bloody.
Plato (427–347 BC), who is often described as the greatest Western philosopher, grew deeply disillusioned by the political conditions in his home city of Athens. Though tempted to turn his back on politics, Plato applied his considerable mental faculties to the problem of government in his most famous work, Republic.
Plato had no faith in the rule of the rich; but neither was he confident in the ability of ordinary citizens to participate in the affairs of government. Plato observed that the oligarchs were driven by their own interests and during their short-lived regimes they demonstrated to what length they would go to defend the advantages of the few against the majority. However, the rule by the many wasn’t the solution, according to Plato, because the uninformed masses were too easily swayed by the emotional and deceptive rhetoric of ambitious politicians.
In Plato’s mind, the only solution to this dilemma was to place government in the hands of the philosopher, those who had a cultivated sense of self-discipline by means of advanced reasoning abilities, i.e., Plato’s philosopher-king. Plato, who trusted ultimately in human reason, believed that without the self-discipline imposed by superior reason a person would easily fall into self-destructive gluttony or be carried away by foolish emotions and thoughtless ambitions. From a Christian point of view, we certainly value the gift of reason; however, Plato’s reasoning powers were focused inward on the human mind in search of answers, whereas we would argue that true truth can only be discovered by the application of human reason to God’s revelation.
Nonetheless, Plato’s concern over the inability of the uninformed to adequately participate in the governance of the nation holds some truth. James Madison, a prominent founding father, asserted that “a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.” John Adams offered even greater clarity into the nature of this knowledge when he wrote, “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. … Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” (Emphasis mine.) In other words, it is moral knowledge informed by religion that best serves to restrain destructive human passions and enlighten the electorate, thus rendering them better equipped for governing themselves. Given the recent decline of this moral knowledge, the question must be asked: Have we grown unfit for democracy?
While Plato argued that philosophical knowledge was the restraining factor in our appetites and desires, history has demonstrated that it is moral knowledge that best serves to restrain our selfish interests. As to the source of this moral knowledge, Boston College professor Peter Kreeft observes, “The fact is no society has ever yet existed that has successfully built its knowledge of morality on any basis other than religion” (Peter Kreeft, How to Win the Culture War [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002], 51).
Unbridled by true religion and the moral knowledge that follows, the current political season reveals that the majority of Americans may have finally succumbed to self–destructive gluttony. Thus their choice on Tuesday may represent what Plato feared: that the masses, uninformed by [moral] reason, have been easily swayed by the emotional and deceptive rhetoric of ambitious politicians.
The fundamental differences in the current presidential race are, in my estimation, these. On the one hand, there are those who believe moral issues are preeminent and that government should play a limited role in our lives. These are those that hold to a free constitutional republic. We appear to be in the minority. On the other hand, there are those who increasingly look to government as the solution to every societal ill and as a source of personal unmerited benefit, i.e., a socialist democracy similar to what we see in Western Europe. These appear to be, for the first time, in the majority. I would suggest that the latter come perilously close to those of whom Benjamin Franklin warned when he wrote, “When the people find they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic.”
There is only one solution to this dilemma if this nation is to have any future. It is not political education nor is it even moral education, but rather religious education—and that being of the Christian religion. It is from this foundation alone that free societies arose to produce unparalleled prosperity, relieve human suffering, and establish human dignity.
To be clear, this religious education is not merely of an academic nature, but should be of an incarnational nature. C. S. Lewis offers a proper description of this difference and its affect when he writes:
A Christian society is not going to arrive until most of us really want it; and we are not going to want it until we become fully Christian. I may repeat “do as you would be done” till I am black in the face, but I cannot learn to carry it out till I love my neighbor as myself; and I cannot learn to love my neighbor as myself till I learn to love God; and I cannot learn to love God except by learning to obey Him. And so … we are driven on to something more inward—driven on from social matters to religious matters.
So today we cast our votes and tomorrow—regardless of the outcome—let us return once again to religious matters; the higher calling of Christ.