Anders Dahl Sørensen
Thesis: Plato and Democratic Expertise
Perhaps the most fundamental, as well as the most truly Socratic, of Plato’s many objections to democracy as a political regime is what he sees as its inherent inability to accommodate true political expertise. In a democratic assembly, after all, every citizen, regardless of background or training, is allowed to step forward as an adviser on questions of state, and decision on even the most vital of such questions is reached by such unscientific means as that of simple majority approval. Expertise, by implication, is denied the throne of political authority that, Plato firmly believed, rightfully belongs to it. On board the HMS Democracy, he complains in a famous and powerful metaphor, the fate of the true expert navigator is that of unhappy idleness and utter marginalisation.
Still today, the perceived force of this criticism of democracy often seems to be matched only by the discomfort with which readers contemplate Plato’s political alternatives. However, his original objection hangs on a crucial assumption that he himself was, in fact, much more ready to discuss than many of his modern, professedly democratic, counter-parts within political philosophy. This is the assumption that democracy is fundamentally incompatible with a rule by political expertise. In a number of dialogues, such as the Gorgias, the Protagoras, and the Statesman, Plato takes up, discusses, and attempts to refute different ways in which we might conceive of something like a ‘democratic’ political techne. In all of these the underlying question is: can a democratic regime ever be understood as rule by political expertise? What would this imply for the notions of ‘expertise’ and of ‘rule by the people’ themselves?
Although these discussions go to the heart of Plato’s political thought and the stakes are correspondingly high, the subject has received remarkably little attention. In my dissertation I attempt to take the first steps towards a comprehensive treatment.
Key words: Plato, the Sophists, political philosophy, democracy, (social) epistemology, rhetoric, Greek political history