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Democratic Vistas: Reflections on the Life of American Democracy

Democratic Vistas: Reflections on the Life of American Democracy

by Jedediah Purdy

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In this thought-provoking collection, leading scholars explore democracy in the United States from a sweeping variety of perspectives. A dozen contributors consider the nature and prospects of democracy as it relates to the American experience—free markets, religion, family life, the Cold War, higher education, and more. These probing essays bring American


In this thought-provoking collection, leading scholars explore democracy in the United States from a sweeping variety of perspectives. A dozen contributors consider the nature and prospects of democracy as it relates to the American experience—free markets, religion, family life, the Cold War, higher education, and more. These probing essays bring American democracy into fresh focus, complete with its idealism, its moral greatness, its disappointments, and its contradictions.

Based on DeVane lectures delivered at Yale University, these writings examine large themes and ask important questions: Why do democratic societies, and the United States in particular, tolerate profound economic inequality? Has the United States ever been truly democratic? How has democratic aspiration influenced the development of practices as diverse as education, religious worship, and family life? With deep insights and lively discussion, the authors expand our understanding of what democracy has meant in the past, how it functions now, and what its course may be in the future.

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Democratic Vistas


Yale University Press

Copyright © 2004 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-10256-7

Chapter One

The Democratic Soul


The first great work of political philosophy in the long tradition of Western thought has come down to us in its original Greek, almost perfectly preserved through twenty-five centuries of transmission. This by itself is a miracle of sorts, given the library of works, composed by authors writing in periods much closer to our own, that have disappeared completely or been corrupted beyond repair. And the feeling that there is something miraculous about the preservation of this text must deepen when one considers that it not only contains the first organized examination of many of the most basic questions of political life, but treats them with a depth of understanding that has never been surpassed, and a stylistic genius that remains the standard by which all philosophical compositions are judged. I am speaking, of course, of Plato's Republic, the miraculously wise and beautiful book with which the tradition of Western political philosophy starts.

The Republic is still the book that a student of political philosophy is most likely to encounter at the beginning of his or her study of the field, and its central arguments and images-themyth of the cave, the image of the sun, the proposal to abolish family life, the argument for philosopher-kings-remain required knowledge for anyone who wants to grasp, even in a basic way, the main lines of Western political thought. Even today, a young person reading Plato's Republic for the first time, at such vast distance from the time and circumstances of its creation, is bound to be impressed by its arguments, perhaps even persuaded by them, and to be moved by its unforgettable images.

But there is one feature of the Republic that no modern student can accept, and that must cause the thoughtful reader to reconsider, and in the end, I believe, to reject, the central premise on which its entire argument is based. I have in mind the harsh assessment that Socrates and his companions offer of democratic government and of the way of life associated with it.

Most of the Republic is devoted to an examination of the conditions under which the very best kind of political regime might emerge and to a description of its features. Having completed this part of their inquiry, Socrates and his friends turn, toward the end of the Republic, to an exploration of four less good regimes, concluding with the rule of the tyrant, the worst regime of all. In this descent from the best regime to the worst one, democracy comes next to last, after timocracy (which distributes authority on the basis of honor) and oligarchy (rule by the rich). In Socrates' view, only tyranny is less attractive than democracy and farther from the best political scheme.

With rare exceptions, modern readers of the Republic start with a view of democracy sharply different from Socrates' own. For them-for us-democracy is not the next-to-worst system of government but the very best, the one we most respect and to which we owe our deepest allegiance. To be sure, we often disagree about the exact meaning of democracy and the soundest methods for achieving its ends. We do not all share the same conception of democracy or the same idea of how best to secure it. But our disagreements are family quarrels among those who embrace the basic principles of liberty, equality, and tolerance on which every form of democratic rule is based. In this broad sense, we are all democrats today, and Socrates' ironic skewering of these principles, and of the democratic way of life that rests on them, cannot help but offend the modern reader who admires the very things that Socrates mocks.

It is possible, of course, to put brackets around the passage in question, to treat Socrates' antidemocratic views as an aristocratic prejudice that has little or nothing to do with the main arguments of the Republic, and in this way to contain the damage the passage does to the credibility of the work as a whole. But this is not an adequate response, nor can it achieve its goal of containment. For if one asks, with any seriousness at all, where we and Socrates differ in our views of democracy, the answer is bound to call into question not just this one passage but the most fundamental assumption on which the entire argument of the Republic is based.

What we value about democracy, above all else, is its commitment to the individual. This is a commitment that Socrates does not-and I believe cannot-share. And those who endorse the value of individuality, as we modern democrats all do, must also reject the methodological premise on which Plato's Republic is founded: the claim that political order is the analogue and product of psychological order, that order at the level of the city both reflects and derives from order at the level of the soul. The truly individual soul cannot be an orderly soul, in the sense in which Socrates understood this idea. For democrats, who affirm the value of the individual, the greatest challenge of political philosophy is therefore to explain how political order can be derived from psychological disorder, from souls whose individuality makes them disorderly in a deep and defining way-an explanation that cannot be found within the framework of Plato's Republic. The history of post-Platonic political thought, inspired and shaped by the tradition of religious belief from which our democratic commitment to individuality derives, is the history of the search for such an explanation.

This is all, of course, much too compressed, and in need of further elaboration. Let me start by describing more carefully the assumed connection between political and psychological order on which the argument of the Republic is based.

Plato's Republic is an extended conversation among Socrates and a small group of friends regarding two questions: First, what does it mean for a person to be just? And, second, is it better to be just or merely to appear so? Early in the conversation, Socrates proposes that he and his companions shift their inquiry to a larger stage and consider the meaning and value of justice not in the soul of a single person but in the constitution of a whole city instead. Socrates observes that their investigation of justice in the soul is a difficult one, even for those, as he puts it, "who see sharply." He then makes the following famous remark. "If someone had ordered men who don't see very sharply to read little letters from afar and then someone had the thought that the same letters are somewhere else also, but bigger and in a bigger place, I suppose it would look like a godsend to be able to consider the little ones after having read these first, if, of course, they do happen to be the same." The bigger place that Socrates has in mind is the city, a political association composed of many individuals. Socrates proposes that he and his friends first examine the nature of justice in cities, where this quality is displayed on a larger scale and is easier to see, and then, using the justice of cities as a model, return to their original inquiry into the justice of souls, where the essential character of justice, though appearing in smaller letters, is presumed to be the same.

This presumption itself is never tested, even though Socrates introduces it in an explicitly conditional form. In a conversation that subjects so many other hypotheses to rigorous examination, this one is never exposed to critical review. No one ever asks whether justice in cities really is the same thing, writ large, as justice in individual souls. The structural identity of political and psychological justice, of justice at the level of cities and souls, is simply taken for granted, and from the point in book 2 where it is first introduced, until the end of the Republic, the assumption of this identity remains the unchallenged premise on which the entire argument of Plato's masterwork is based. Indeed, when Socrates and his friends return to the subject of individual justice midway through book 4, Socrates asks the others whether "it isn't quite necessary" for them "to agree that the very same forms and dispositions that are in the city" are in the souls of each of us as well, and then answers his own question by asserting that it would be "ridiculous" to think otherwise. In that uncontested judgment we may discern the foundation of Plato's Republic and the limits of its author's intellectual world, indeed, as I shall suggest, the limits of Greek thought generally.

As the argument of the Republic unfolds, the relationship between political and psychological justice proves to be even closer than first appears. Not only does the justice of souls look like that of cities. Not only do these two species of justice conform to the same pattern or idea-to use one of the most potent words in the lexicon of Greek philosophy. In the end, Socrates insists, a city can be just only if there is justice in the souls of its individual members, and vice versa. Political justice and psychological justice are not merely alike in form. Each is also, he argues, a condition of the other's existence, a cause of its coming into being.

At the beginning of his description of the four defective regimes, the ones that are less good than the truly just city whose origin and character are the subject of the central books of the Republic, Socrates observes that to each of these four regimes there corresponds a particular type of character or soul, and in the discussion that follows he moves methodically from an analysis of each regime's political constitution to an examination of the character type associated with it. As the reader quickly discovers, however, the relationship between city and soul in these four defective regimes is not a static one. It is not a relation of mere resemblance. It is a doubly dynamic, causal relation as well, each system of rule originating in the emergence of a new character type that demands political recognition, the attainment of which in turn establishes that character type as a norm, as the model to which souls in the new regime are expected to conform.

This same doubly dynamic relation of city to soul, so vividly displayed in the genesis and transformation of the four inferior regimes that Socrates dissects in books 8 and 9 of the Republic, also exists in the best city, where true justice prevails at both the political and psychological levels.

For a city to be truly just, Socrates says, its members must accept their proper places in the civic order, each one practicing the single function for which, in Socrates' words, "his nature [makes] him naturally most fit." A regime is just, on Socrates' view, only when the individuals who compose it "mind their own business" and refrain from meddling in the exercise of functions properly assigned to others, and when, as a result, the supervision and direction of those performing lower functions in the city remain in the control of those who by nature are equipped to guide and direct them.

But for the members of a political association to acknowledge their proper places within it and to accept the hierarchy of supervision this implies, their own individual souls must be in order. The parts of their souls must themselves be in their proper places, each performing its function in a hierarchy of command and without interfering in the business of the others-a condition we are told, at the end of book 4, that constitutes the true meaning of psychological justice. Only if a person's soul is internally so ordered, only if he does not let the different parts of his soul "meddle with each other" but seeks instead to keep them in their proper relation of subordination, only if he is in this sense inwardly just, will he be disposed to mind what Socrates calls "his external business," and to accept his place in the city to which he belongs, thereby contributing to the establishment of a regime of political justice, which on Socrates' view not only looks like its psychological counterpart but is produced by it as well. And the reverse is equally true. For in order to establish that internal order within the souls of its citizens that constitutes their justice as individuals, a city must deliberately cultivate, through myths and other devices, the belief in a natural hierarchy of command and the acceptance of one's proper place within it that for Socrates is the essence of justice in cities and souls alike. So in the best city too, as well as in the four defective ones, the kind of order that exists at the level of the individual not only resembles the order that characterizes the political community itself but is also a cause of its coming into being and vice versa, the order of cities and souls conforming to the same idea and dynamically producing each other.

With this as background, let us return to the passage in book 8 in which Socrates portrays democracy as the next-to-worst regime and examine his reasons for doing so.

The democratic city that Socrates describes is marked by two features, by the freedom of its citizens and by their attachment to the principle of equality, which they interpret to mean that the many different pursuits of those living in the city cannot be ranked according to their natural dignity or value. The democratic city, Socrates says, is "full of freedom and free speech." Its citizens have license to do as they wish, choosing those activities that happen, for whatever reason, to please them at the moment. All different ways of life, from the sordid to the sublime, flourish in the democratic city, which from the point of view of its citizens looks, in Socrates' words, like "a general store" that contains every imaginable pattern for living. Some choose one pattern, others another, and for a time at least adopt it as a guide, though most move restlessly from activity to activity, pursuing different pleasures with impatient curiosity. Socrates describes the life of the democratic citizen in the following way. "He lives along day by day," Socrates says, "gratifying the desires that occur to him, at one time drinking and listening to the flute, at another downing water and reducing; now practicing gymnastic, and again idling and neglecting everything; and sometimes spending his time as though he were occupied with philosophy. Often he engages in politics and, jumping up, says and does whatever chances to come to him; and if he ever admires any soldiers, he turns in that direction; and if it's money-makers, in that one."

In the mind of the democratic citizen, of the "all-various" man as Socrates calls him, "full of the greatest number of dispositions," no distinctions of inherent worth exist among these different pursuits. He does not divide the desires that motivate them into the "necessary" and the "unnecessary," the beneficial and destructive. He considers them all equally legitimate and worthy of pursuit, and he rejects the idea that they can be ranked in some definitive order of value. Above all, he believes in freedom and equality. These are the principles that guide his life, that define the soul of the democratic citizen, and they are reflected in the constitution of his city, where slaves and masters, men and women, children and adults, teachers and students all behave as equals, and the rulers are chosen by lot-the only method, we are led to conclude, that does not entail the acknowledgment of a rank order among those selected. How much this portrait looks like us! Do we not believe, passionately, in the very things that define the democratic way of life, in freedom and equality? Are we not devoted to the idea that each of us must be free to choose the life that seems to him or her the best? Are we not profoundly sympathetic to the claim that there can be no fixed and authoritative ranking of these choices according to the degree to which they approach the one true conception of how human beings should live? Are the lives we live not strikingly like the one that Socrates caricatures as the democratic norm: full of restless energy and insatiable curiosity, devoted to a multitude of heterogeneous pursuits-to music and drinking and dieting and exercise and politics and study-that form no overall pattern?


Excerpted from Democratic Vistas Copyright © 2004 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Jedediah Purdy is a graduate of Yale Law School and the author of Being America: Liberty, Commerce, and Violence in an American World and For Common Things: Irony, Trust and Commitment in America Today.

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