Plato on Democracy, Tyranny, and the Ideal State

In any Greek city, there are perhaps no more than fifty good draught-players, and certainly not as many kings. —Plato, Statesman

In one of Plato’s books, the philosopher Protagoras tells a genesis story. Once upon a time, the gods moulded the animals by blending earth with fire, and asked Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus to equip each animal with its proper qualities. Taking care to prevent the extinction of any animal, Epimetheus assigned strength to some, quickness to others, wings, claws, hoofs, pelts, and hides. But by the time he got round to human beings, he had nothing left to give them. Finding human beings naked and unarmed, Prometheus gave them fire and the mechanical arts, which he stole from the gods Athena and Hephaestus. Unfortunately, Prometheus did not give them political wisdom, and so they lived in scattered isolation, at the mercy of wild animals. Each time they tried to come together for safety, they treated one another so badly that they once again dispersed.

As human beings shared in the divine nature, they gave worship to the gods. Zeus, the chief of the gods, took pity on them and asked his messenger Hermes to send them reverence and justice. Hermes asked Zeus how he should distribute these virtues: should he give them, as for the arts, to a favoured few only, or should he give them to all?

‘To all,’ said Zeus; I should like them all to have a share; for cities cannot exist, if a few only share in the virtues, as in the arts. And further, make a law by my order, that he who has no part in reverence and justice shall be put to death, for he is a plague of the state.

At the Battle of Aegospotami in 405 BC, the last major battle of the Peloponnesian War, the Spartans captured the Athenian fleet. The ship carrying the news of the defeat arrived in the Athenian port of Piraeus at night, and, in the words of the historian Xenophon,

…one man passed it on to another, and a sound of wailing arose and extended first from Piraeus, then along the long walls until it reached the city. That night no one slept. They mourned for the lost, but more still for their own fate.

Mercifully, Sparta resisted calls to execute every Athenian man, sell every woman and child into slavery, and turn the site of the city into pastureland—as it had once done to the city of Plataea. However, Athens had to agree to Sparta’s terms of surrender and became a Spartan territory under Spartan control. Sparta suspended the political institutions that had been the pride and symbol of Athenian sovereignty, determined that Athens should be ruled by a pro-Spartan oligarchy, and sealed the appointment of the so-called Thirty Tyrants.

As they blamed the democrats for their defeat, the Athenians initially lent their support to the Thirty; but the oligarchy proved so brutal and oppressive as to alienate all but its most fanatic supporters. After the democratic forces in exile defeated the oligarchic forces and the allied Spartan garrison, Sparta reluctantly restored a limited form of democracy to Athens.

After the death of his uncle Critias, the first and the worst of the Thirty, Plato once again contemplated a career in politics. At first, the restraint and moderation of the restored democracy led him to believe that he could find his place in the ecclesia (the Athenian assembly), but the trial and death of his teacher Socrates put paid to any fragile illusions that he might have entertained about Athenian politics. In any case, after the fall of the Thirty, his name had turned from asset into liability: he had lost all his political friends and allies, and his background, politics, and association with Socrates all sat uncomfortably with the mood of the times.

Like Plato, Socrates had once considered becoming a politician, but his inner voice had dissuaded him from doing so on the grounds that he would soon have been killed and made of no good to anyone. At his trial, he sought to explain his lack of public involvement to the five hundred jurors:

For I am certain, O men of Athens, that if I had engaged in politics, I should have perished long ago and done no good either to you or to myself. And don’t be offended at my telling you the truth: for the truth is that no man who goes to war with you or any other multitude, honestly struggling against the commission of unrighteousness and wrong in the state, will save his life; he who will really fight for the right, if he would live even for a little while, must have a private station and not a public one.

Having experienced the limits of both tyranny and democracy, Plato sought to devise another and better system of government. In the Republic, which have been nothing more than a thought experiment, he conceived of an ideal state ruled by a small number of people selected, after close observation and rigorous testing, from a highly educated elite.

These so-called guardians would not hold any private property. Instead, they would live together in housing provided by the state, and receive from the citizens no more than their daily sustenance. In spite, or because, of these deprivations, the guardians would be the happiest of men. Were a guardian become ‘infatuated with some youthful conceit of happiness’ and seek to appropriate the state to himself, he would have to ‘learn how wisely Hesiod spoke, when he said, ‘half is more than the whole.’

For Plato, if a person is to give good advice on the highest affairs of state, he or she must have expertise in justice, which is a part of virtue and self-knowledge. The person who rushes into politics without having found self-knowledge falls into error and makes himself and everyone else miserable. He who is not wise cannot be happy, and it is better for such a person to be commanded by a superior in wisdom.

The tyrant, who is the most unjust of people, is also the unhappiest. The tyrant is constantly overcome by lawless desires which lead him to commit all manner of heinous act. His soul is full of disorder and regret, and is incapable of doing what it truly desires. The life of the political tyrant is even more wretched than that of the private tyrant, first, because the political tyrant is in a better position to feed his desires, and, second, because he is everywhere surrounded and watched by his enemies, and becomes at first their prisoner and at last their victim.

The best and most just of all rulers are those who are most reluctant to govern, while the worst and most unjust those who are most eager. Therefore, if the state is to be well ordered, it must offer another and better life than that of ruler, for only then will they rule who are truly rich, not in silver and gold, but in virtue and wisdom, which are the true blessings of life. And the only life that looks down upon the life of political ambition is that of true philosophy.

The ideal state is an aristocracy in which rule is exercised by one or more distinguished people. Unfortunately, owing to human nature, the ideal state is unstable and liable to degenerate into timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and, finally, tyranny. States are not made of oak and rock, but of people, and so come to resemble the people that they are made of. Aristocracies are made of just and good people; timocracies of proud and honour-loving people; oligarchies of misers and money-makers; democracies of people who are overcome by unnecessary desires; and tyrannies of people who are overcome by harmful desires.

Plato provides a detailed account of the degeneration of the state from aristocracy to tyranny via timocracy, oligarchy, and democracy. Democracy in particular arises from the revolt of the disenfranchised in an oligarchy. The state is ‘full of freedom and frankness’ and every citizen is able to live as he pleases.

These and other kindred characteristics are proper to democracy, which is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike.

However, citizens are overcome by so many unnecessary desires that they are ever spending and never producing, and are ‘void of all accomplishments and fair pursuits and true words.’ As a result, the state is ruled by people who are unfit to rule.

In a later book, the Statesman, Plato contends that there are three forms of government other than true government: monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy. Each of these further divides into two according to the criteria of voluntary and involuntary, poverty and riches, and law and lawlessness. Monarchy divides into royalty and tyranny, oligarchy divides into aristocracy and plutocracy, and democracy may be with or without law.

In ideal circumstances, the king rules above the law, because the law is an ignorant tyrant who ‘does not perfectly comprehend what is noblest and most just for all, and therefore cannot enforce what is best’. The differences of man and actions, and the endless irregular movements of human things, do not admit of any universal and simple rule, and no art can lay down a rule which will last for all time.

So why make laws at all? The trainer has a general rule of diet and exercise that is suited to the constitutions of the majority, and the same is true of the lawgiver, who cannot ‘sit at every man’s side all through his life’. As only very few people are able to attain to the science of government, the general political principle is to assert the inviolability of the law, which, though not ideal, is second best, and best for the imperfect condition of man.

If the multitudes decided to regulate the arts and sciences and to indict anyone who sought to upset the status quo, ‘all the arts would utterly perish, and could never be recovered… And human life, which is bad enough already, would then become utterly unbearable.’ However, things would be even worse if the multitudes appointed as guardian of the law someone who was both ignorant and interested, and who sought to pervert the law. If a guardian or some other person tried to improve the law, he would be acting in the spirit of the lawgiver, but lawgivers are few and far between, and in their absence the next best thing is to obey the law and preserve customs and traditions.

Given this, which of the six forms of government other than true government is the least bad? The government of one is the best and the worst, the government of few is less good and less bad, and the government of many is the least good and the least bad. In other words, democracy is the worst of all lawful governments, and the best of all lawless ones, ‘in every respect weak and unable to do any great good or any great evil’. The rulers in all six states, unless they be wise, are mere maintainers of idols, and no better than imitators and sophists.

What would Plato have to say about today’s democracies? Perhaps that their laws must underwrite sufficient safeguards, or repositories of true aristocracy, to prevent and arrest the rise of an eventual tyrant.

Neel Burton is author of Plato’s Shadow and Plato: Letters to my Son.

Find Neel Burton on Twitter and Facebook.

The Meaning of Madness Goodreads Giveaway

https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/191277-the-meaning-of-madness

MoM 2e Cover

What is Super-Sanity?

Self-deception is the price that we pay for our sanity.

This self-deception holds us together by shielding us from truths that threaten to undermine our sense of self, or ego integrity. A person on the verge of ego disintegration makes frenzied use of self-deceptive ego defences. The resulting loss of perspective or change in function can in itself count as mental disorder, while the ultimate capitulation of the ego defences leads in particular into the depressive position.

By removing us from fearsome truths, ego defences not only blind us to those truths and thus to reality, but also confuse and constrict our thinking. Their partial or temporary failure can lead to a range of psychological disturbances including anxiety, anger, irritability, insomnia, and nightmares. The more they are challenged, the more exaggerated, compulsive, and inflexible they become. The person is reduced in scope and ability, with little left of the capacities for consciousness, spontaneity, and intimacy that define, elevate, and glorify the human condition.

A vicious cycle takes hold: the more constrained a person becomes, the less he is able to reason; and the less he is able to reason, the less he is able to overcome his constraints. For the philosopher Aristotle, the distinctive function of human beings is to reason, and, therefore, the happiness of human beings is to lead a life of reason. Reason begets freedom, and freedom begets reason, and both together beget knowledge of the truth, which is wisdom, which is the highest happiness.

Once, upon being asked to name the most beautiful of all things, the philosopher Diogenes the Cynic replied parrhesia, which means ‘free speech’ or ‘full expression’. Diogenes used to stroll through Athens in broad daylight brandishing an ignited lamp. Whenever curious people stopped to ask what he was doing, he would reply, ‘I am just looking for a human being.’

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Diogenes looking for a human being.

Self-deception, which is often rooted in the unconscious or semi-conscious fear of falling short of familial and societal standards, and in the fear of death, is a defining part of our human nature. By recognising its various forms in ourselves and reflecting upon them, we may be able to disarm them and, even, in some cases, to employ and enjoy them. This self-knowledge, which I call super- or hyper-sanity, opens up a whole new world before us, rich in beauty, subtlety, and connection, and frees us not only to take the best out of it, but also to give it back the best of ourselves, and, in so doing, to fulfil our potential as human beings.

Reasoning is but one route to self-knowledge or hyper-sanity. The other route—more painful, destructive, and uncertain—is mental disorder, or ‘madness’, which involves the failure or complete breakdown of the ego defences. Unlike medical, or physical, disorders, mental disorders are not just problems. If successfully navigated, they can also present opportunities. Simply acknowledging this can empower people to heal themselves and, much more than that, to grow from their experiences. At the same time, mental disorders should not be romanticised or left unattended simply because they may or may not predispose to problem solving, personal development, or creativity. Rather than being medicalised or romanticised, mental disorders, or mental dis-eases, should be understood as nothing less or more than what they are, a cry from our deepest human nature.

Both mental disorder and hyper-sanity place us outside society, making us seem ‘mad’ to the mainstream. Both attract scorn and derision, but whereas mental disorder is distressing and disabling, hyper-sanity is liberating and empowering.

Ultimately, standing out is the price we pay for being outstanding.

Phenomenology as a Cure for Depression and Anxiety

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Phenomena derives from the Greek meaning ‘things that appear’, and phenomenology can be defined as the direct examination and description of phenomena as they are consciously experienced.

Pioneered by philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), phenomenology involves paying attention to objects and their relations so that they begin to reveal themselves, not as we take them to be, but as they truly appear to the naked human consciousness, shorn of superimposed theories, preconceptions, abstractions, interpretations, and emotional associations.

Unlike many other philosophical approaches, phenomenology is not a theory or set of theories, but a formal method for accessing bare human experience as it unfolds, moment by moment. It enables us to study not only the phenomena themselves, but also, by extension, the very structures of human experience and consciousness.

Phenomenology is not quite the same as mindfulness. Mindfulness, which derives from Buddhist spiritual practice, aims at increasing our awareness and acceptance of incoming thoughts and feelings, and so the flexibility or fluidity of our responses, which become less like unconscious reactions and more like conscious reflections. In contrast, phenomenology is more explicitly outward-looking.

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In the early 20th century, psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) brought the method of phenomenology into the field of clinical psychiatry to describe and delineate the symptoms of mental disorder. This so-called descriptive psychopathology created something of a scientific basis for the practice of psychiatry, with Jaspers emphasising that symptoms of mental disorder should be diagnosed according to their form rather than their content. This means, for example, that a belief is a delusion not because it is deemed implausible by a person in a position of authority, but because it conforms to the definition, or phenomenology, of a delusion, that is, ‘a strongly held belief that is not amenable to logic or persuasion and that is out of keeping with its holder’s background or culture.’

Unfortunately, Jaspers and others rather overlooked or underplayed phenomenology’s healing and protective potentials. Potentially phenomenological endeavours such as writing, drawing, gardening, bird watching, and wine tasting remove us from our tired and tortured heads and return us to the world that we came from, reconnecting us with something much greater and higher than our personal problems and preoccupations. Phenomenology can, quite literally, bring us back to life. In The Philosophy of Existence (1938), Jaspers himself described it as ‘a thinking that, in knowing, reminds me, awakens me, brings me to myself, transforms me’. To describe is to know, to know is to understand, and to understand is to own, to enjoy, and even, to some degree, control. Like mindfulness, phenomenology is a balm not only for depression and anxiety, but also for boredom, loneliness, greed. selfishness, apathy, alienations, and any number of human ills.

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Magnificent Hummingbird (Male), Santa Rita Lodge, Madera Canyon, Near Green Valley, Arizona

If that were not enough, phenomenological practice also offers a number of other benefits and advantages. Wine tasters, for example, often say that wine blind tasting enables them to:

  • set a standard of objectivity,
  • test, stretch, and develop their senses,
  • apply their judgement,
  • recall old memories,
  • compare their analysis with that of their peers,
  • discuss the wine and learn about it, and about wine in general,
  • forge meaningful human relationships, and
  • imbibe the wine with the respect and consideration that it deserves.

In refining their senses and aesthetic judgement, wine tasters become much more conscious of the richness not only of wine but also of other potentially complex beverages such as tea, coffee, and spirits, and, by extension, the aromas and flavours in food, the scents in the air, and the play of light in the world.

For life is consciousness, and consciousness is life.

A Gourmand’s Guide to the Passionate Life

Review of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions by Prof Peter Toohey, author of Jealousy and Boredom: A Lively History

Review article (redirects to Psychology Today)

The Problems of Psychiatry

Is the medicalization of human suffering doing more harm than good?

‘Mental disorder’ is difficult to define.

Generally speaking, mental disorders are conditions that involve either loss of contact with reality or distress and impairment. These experiences lie on a continuum of normal human experience, and so it is impossible to define the precise point at which they become pathological.

What’s more, concepts such as borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia, and depression listed in classifications of mental disorders may not map onto any real or distinct disease entities. Even if they do, the symptoms and clinical manifestations that define them are open to subjective judgement and interpretation.

In an attempt to address these problems, classifications of mental disorders such as DSM-5 and ICD-10 adopt a ‘menu of symptoms’ approach, and rigidly define each symptom in technical terms that are often far removed from a person’s felt experience. This encourages mental health professionals to focus too narrowly on validating and treating an abstract diagnosis, and not enough on the person’s distress, its context, and its significance or meaning.

Despite using complex aetiological models, mental health professionals tend to overlook that a person’s felt experience often has a meaning in and of itself, even if it is broad, complex, or hard to fathom. By being helped to discover this meaning, the person may be able to identify and address the source of his distress, and so to make a faster, more complete, and more durable recovery. Beyond even this, he may gain important insights into himself, and a more refined and nuanced perspective over his life and life in general. These are rare and precious opportunities, and not to be squandered.

A more fundamental problem with labelling human distress and deviance as mental disorder is that it reduces a complex, important, and distinct part of human life to nothing more than a biological illness or defect, not to be processed or understood, or in some cases even embraced, but to be ‘treated’ and ‘cured’ by any means possible—often with drugs that may be doing much more harm than good. This biological reductiveness, along with the stigma that it attracts, shapes the person’s interpretation and experience of his distress or deviance, and, ultimately, his relation to himself, to others, and to the world.

Moreover, to call out every difference and deviance as mental disorder is also to circumscribe normality and define sanity, not as tranquillity or possibility, which are the products of the wisdom that is being denied, but as conformity, placidity, and a kind of mediocrity.

The evolution of the status of homosexuality in the classifications of mental disorders highlights that concepts of mental disorder can be little more than social constructs that change as society changes. PTSD, anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, depression, and deliberate self-harm (non-suicidal self-injury) can all be understood as cultural syndromes. Yet, for being in the DSM and ICD, they are usually seen, and largely legitimized, as biological and therefore universal expressions of human distress.

Other pressing problems with the prevalent medical model is that it encourages false epidemics, most glaringly in depression, bipolar disorder, and ADHD. Data from the US National Health Interview Survey indicate that, in 2012, 13.5% (about 1 in 7) of boys aged 3-17 had been diagnosed with ADHD, up from 8.3% in 1997. It also encourages the wholesale exportation of Western mental disorders and Western accounts of mental disorder. Taken together, this is leading to a pandemic of Western disease categories and treatments, while undermining the variety and richness of the human experience.

For example, in her recent book, Depression in Japan, anthropologist Junko Kitanaka writes that, until relatively recently, depression (utsubyō) had remained largely unknown to the lay population of Japan. Between 1999 and 2008, the number of people diagnosed with depression more than doubled as psychiatrists and pharmaceutical companies urged people to re-interpret their distress in terms of depression. Depression, says Kitanaka, is now one of the most frequently cited reasons for taking sick leave, and has been ‘transformed from a rare disease to one of the most talked about illnesses in recent Japanese history’.

Many critics question the scientific evidence underpinning such a robust biological paradigm and call for a radical rethink of mental disorders, not as detached disease processes that can be cut up into diagnostic labels, but as subjective and meaningful experiences grounded in personal and larger sociocultural narratives.

Unlike ‘mere’ medical or physical disorders, mental disorders are not just problems. If successfully navigated, they can also present opportunities. Simply acknowledging this can empower people to heal themselves and, much more than that, to grow from their experiences.

Psychiatric Imperialism: Exporting Western Mental Disorders

Generally speaking, culture-specific, or culture-bound, syndromes are mental disturbances that only find expression in certain cultures or ethnic groups, and that are not comfortably accommodated by Western psychiatric classifications such as the DSM and ICD. DSM-IV defined them as ‘recurrent, locality-specific patterns of aberrant behavior and troubling experience…’

One example of a culture-bound syndrome is dhat, which is seen in men from South Asia, and involves sudden anxiety about loss of semen in the urine, whitish discoloration of the urine, and sexual dysfunction, combined with feelings of weakness and exhaustion. The syndrome may originate in the Hindu belief that it takes forty drops of blood to create a drop of bone marrow, and forty drops of bone marrow to create a drop of semen, and thus that semen is a concentrated essence of life.

DSM-5, published in 2013, replaces the notion of culture-bound syndromes with three ‘cultural concepts of distress’: cultural syndromes, cultural idioms of distress, and cultural explanations for distress. Rather than merely listing specific cultural syndromes, DSM-5 adopts a broader approach to cultural issues, and acknowledges that all mental disorders, including DSM disorders, can be culturally shaped.

However, some DSM disorders are, it seems, much more culturally shaped than others. For instance, PTSD, anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, depression, and deliberate self-harm (non-suicidal self-injury) can all be understood as cultural syndromes. Yet, for being in the DSM, they are usually seen, and largely legitimized, as biological and therefore universal expressions of human distress.

Thus, one criticism of classifications of mental disorders such as DSM and ICD is that, arm in arm with pharmaceutical companies, they encourage the wholesale exportation of Western mental disorders, and, more than that, the wholesale exportation of Western accounts of mental disorder, Western approaches to mental disorder, and, ultimately, Western values such as biologism, individualism, and the medicalization of distress and deviance.

In her recent book, Depression in Japan, anthropologist Junko Kitanaka writes that, until relatively recently, depression (utsubyō) had remained largely unknown to the lay population of Japan. Between 1999 and 2008, the number of people diagnosed with depression more than doubled as psychiatrists and pharmaceutical companies urged people to re-interpret their distress in terms of depression. Depression, says Kitanaka, is now one of the most frequently cited reasons for taking sick leave, and has been ‘transformed from a rare disease to one of the most talked about illnesses in recent Japanese history’.

In Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche, journalist Ethan Watters shows how psychiatric imperialism is leading to a pandemic of Western disease categories and treatments. Watters argues that changing a culture’s ideas about mental disorder actually changes that culture’s disorders, and depletes the store of local beliefs and customs which, in many cases, provided better answers to people’s problems than antidepressants and anti-psychotics. For Watters, the most devastating consequence of our impact on other cultures is not our golden arches, but the bulldozing of the human psyche itself.

He writes:

Looking at ourselves through the eyes of those living in places where human tragedy is still embedded in complex religious and cultural narratives, we get a glimpse of our modern selves as a deeply insecure and fearful people. We are investing our great wealth in researching and treating this disorder because we have rather suddenly lost other belief systems that once gave meaning and context to our suffering.

Distressed people are subconsciously driven to externalize their suffering, partly to make it more manageable, and partly so that it can be recognized and legitimized. According to medical historian Edward Shorter, our culture’s beliefs and narratives about illness provide us with a limited number of templates or models of illness by which to externalize our distress. If authorities such as psychiatrists and celebrities appear to endorse or condone a new template such as ADHD or deliberate self-harm, the template enters into our culture’s ‘symptom pool’ and the condition starts to spread. At the same time, tired templates seep out of the symptom pool, which may explain why conditions such as ‘hysteria’ and catatonic schizophrenia (schizophrenia dominated by extreme agitation or immobility and odd mannerisms and posturing) have become so rare.

The incidence of bulimia nervosa rose in 1992, the year in which journalist Andrew Morton exposed Princess Diana’s ‘secret disease’, and peaked in 1995, when she revealed her eating disorder to the public. It began to decline in 1997, the year of her tragic death. This synchronology suggests that Princess Diana’s status and glamour combined with intense press coverage of her bulimia and bulimia in general led to an increase in the incidence of the disorder.

An alternative explanation is that Princess Diana’s example encouraged people to come forward and admit to their eating disorder. By the same token, it could have been that the Japanese had always suffered from depression, but had been hiding it, or had not had a template by which to recognize or externalize it. The danger for us psychiatrists and health professionals when treating people with mental disorder is to treat the template without addressing or even acknowledging the very real distress that lies beneath.

Adapted from the new edition of The Meaning of Madness.

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