American Thinker | Ed Kaitz | Feb. 16, 2009
Back in 1959 the philosopher Eric Hoffer had this to say about Americans and America: “For those who want to be left alone to realize their capacities and talents this is an ideal country.”
That was then. This is now. Flash forward fifty years to the election of Barack Obama and a hard left leaning Democrat Congress. What Americans want today, apparently, is a government that has no intention of leaving any of us alone.
How could Hoffer have been so wrong about America? Why did America change so quickly? Can a free people willingly choose servitude? Is it possible for democracies to become tyrannies? How?
The answers to these questions were famously addressed in a few pages tucked within the greatest masterpiece of the classical world: Plato’s Republic. On the surface, and to most reviewers of Plato’s writings, the Republic is a dialogue on justice and on what constitutes the just society. But to careful readers the deeper theme of the Republic is the nature of education and the relationship between education and the survival of the state. In fact, the Republic is essentially the story of how a man (Socrates) condemned to death for “corrupting” the youth of Athens gives to posterity the most precious gift of all: the love of wisdom.
In the Republic, two young men, Glaucon and Adeimantus, accompany the much older Socrates on a journey of discovery into the nature of the individual soul and its connection to the harmony of the state. During the course of their adventure, as the two disciples demonstrate greater maturity and self-control, they are gradually exposed to deeper and more complex teachings regarding the relationship between virtue, self-sufficiency, and happiness. In short, the boys begin to realize that justice and happiness in a community rests upon the moral condition of its citizens. This is what Socrates meant when he said: “The state is man writ large.”
Near the end of the Republic Socrates decides to drive this point home by showing Adeimantus what happens to a regime when its parents and educators neglect the proper moral education of its children. In the course of this chilling illustration Adeimantus comes to discover a dark and ominous secret: without proper moral conditioning a regime’s “defining principle” will be the source of its ultimate destruction. For democracy, that defining principle is freedom. According to Socrates, freedom makes a democracy but freedom also eventually breaks a democracy.
For Socrates, democracy’s “insatiable desire for freedom and neglect of other things” end up putting it “in need of a dictatorship.” The short version of his theory is that the combination of freedom and poor education in a democracy render the citizens incapable of mastering their impulses and deferring gratification. The reckless pursuit of freedom leads the citizens to raze moral barriers, deny traditional authority, and abandon established methods of education. Eventually, this uninhibited quest for personal freedom forces the public to welcome the tyrant. Says Socrates: “Extreme freedom can’t be expected to lead to anything but a change to extreme slavery, whether for a private individual or for a city.”
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