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Voting for the Guardians: Election, Lottery, and Moderated Democracy in Plato’s Laws

Jeremy Reid

San Francisco State University

Consider the following ways of appointing political officials. Firstly, officials could be selected by random lottery, as most officials were in Athens; secondly, officials could be elected by majority vote, as generals were in Athens and as most of our officials are now; thirdly, officials could be appointed by recognized authorities, as is done with Supreme Court Justices, and as Plato suggests in the Statesman (Lane 2013). On the orthodox reading of his political philosophy, Plato is an anti-democratic epistocrat; thus the Republic and Statesman are unsurprising in giving the demos no power to appoint political officials.

This paper argues that Plato paints a very different picture of the relationship between popular sovereignty and the appointment of public office-holders in the Laws, and suggests that Plato there proposes an ingenious new way of allocating political power. Contrary to what might be expected, Plato never uses expert appointment exclusively as a method for selecting officials, and in fact in almost all cases officials are appointed on the basis of some combination of the three methods listed above. Thus we ought to study the various election mechanisms in Magnesia more closely, and consider what they reveal about Plato’s attitude towards democracy and the ways in which existing democratic methods of appointment might be improved. Given that some voices in political theory are calling for an increased democratization of our politics and the use of random lottery (Landemore 2017), while others are calling for a restriction of democratic voting (Bell 2016; Brennan 2017), a more nuanced proposal from one of democracy’s most famous critics may provide an unexpected tertium quid

On the analysis offered here, one of Plato’s goals in the Laws is to moderate democracy, adopting some of its core institutions while adding institutional safeguards to stop it from becoming excessive (Reid 2020). The election mechanisms exemplify this. In the first place, most candidates for office must be nominated and sometimes nominees can be removed if the candidate is thought to be objectionable; this can be seen as a nod to the principle from the Republic that the best rulers do not desire power but rather rule out of duty. Secondly, the nominees then go through stages of elections, where Plato expects the citizens to vote for candidates on the basis of their excellences (interestingly, Plato thinks that people are reliable at identifying virtue in others); this incorporates the Aristotelian analysis of voting, namely that is meritocratic. Thirdly, the final appointments are usually determined by random lottery; this incorporates the standard democratic method of appointment and provides an important safeguard against corruption, those seeking power for personal gain, and the influence of demagogues. Finally, with rare exception, offices are not held by a single individual but rather act as a committee; this counteracts the tendency for concentrated power to corrupt even the best individuals.

In sum, then, by paying closer attention to the details of the elections that Plato provides, we can see a sophisticated and genuinely clever re-working of Athenian democracy.

Session/Panel Title

New Perspectives on Plato’s Internal Critique of the Athenian Politeia

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