Christ answers our historic kairos moment

  • November 3, 2022

People in the modern Western world are often shocked when they read Plato’s Republic and see the great philosopher criticizing democracy as one of the lowest forms of governing society. For Plato, democracy and tyranny (the lowest form) are as one with the tyrant merely the most self-centred type of ruler. 

For us, democracy is unquestionably the highest form of government. It embodies human equality and gives freedom to all to pursue their chosen goals in life. We cannot imagine a better form of government. Plato is labelled as a proponent of dictatorship since he regards an aristocracy of an educated elite as the best form of governance.

Plato, however, is a cannier observer of human motivation than he is often given credit for. His aristocracy of philosophers is composed of women and men who undergo a decades-long process of moral and intellectual education, who own no property and who live a simple communal existence. Those chosen to be among the elite are the very people who least want to hold high office and who must be conscripted to the task. They’re not in it for themselves. Plato is aware how the desire for money and power corrupts even the best-trained, most ethical people.

He sees democracy as the home of a freedom which inspires unruly desires. The people covet things which are not in their best interest, and life in the polis is chaotic, descending into criminality. The tyrant is the ruler whose appetites are the most untamed and who voraciously grabs everything within reach for himself.

Plato wrote two millennia before Adam Smith, the philosophical founder of modern capitalism. While the classical tradition saw insatiable desire as a source of frustration, unhappiness and instability, Smith viewed it as the driving force for economic expansion and technological progress. Free market economies required democracy to flourish. Indeed, authoritarian countries have been unsuccessful in introducing flourishing market economies.

Our tendency in the West has been to see democracy as egalitarian and protective of human rights. Yet after more than 200 years of democratic rule, inequality and racism remain widespread. One ought to question the extent to which democracy is the true parent of human dignity. Its greatest success has been to provide more comfortable lifestyles for much of the population. But tied as it is to the encouragement of insatiable desire, democracy and free markets have been the root of many social ills of our society, not least of which is climate change.

One factor eroding social stability is the decline of religion. Many want religion to disappear, but its ethical component helps people keep their desires in check. Democratic theory emphasizes the importance of democratic institutions which provide order and due process while ignoring the reality that successful democracy requires a strong ethical foundation.

What are we to do? Surely, we ought to defend democracy from anarchic forces which undermine it. Even if it were desirable, it is unrealistic to believe that societies will ever be ruled by the aristocracies Plato touted. At the same time, we ought to be realistic about the driving forces in our society — insatiable desire, massive corporations beyond the oversight of any nation state, governments which attempt to control culture, a premium on technological expertise and a decline in education in the humanities. 

We are at a kairos point in history, a point where the world is on the verge of radical change whether we like it or not. Christians can withdraw from society into supposedly pure communities which preserve the light while darkness rules. Or we can engage in a dialogue to re-form society in the light of the Gospel.

The best we have to offer is Catholic social teaching. That teaching does not endorse any form of government. But it does lay down principles — the common good, that all have an equal right to the goods of creation, emphasis on the value of local communities, solidarity, participation and values such as truth, freedom and justice. This teaching is founded, not on the principle of individual autonomy, but on the way of selfless love. 

Catholic social teaching, unlike Plato, does not provide a blueprint for an ideal society. What it does offer are principles that will balance personal autonomy with social responsibility. Society can and will muddle forward, but it ought to do so with principles which actually do enhance human dignity. Jesus would like that, Plato perhaps not so much.

(Glen Argan writes his online column Epiphany at 

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