Professor Dunning and his colleague Justin Kruger suggest that people do not possess the wisdom needed to sustain democracy. But this isn’t news. Socrates indirectly suggested the same thing in ancient Athens when he taught that the democracy of his day was riddled with ignorance and self-delusion. What Socrates found in ancient Athens can be found in modern America. The Athenians believed they were wise, and believed they had found the best system. It wasn’t long before they were ruined, their country defeated by foreign enemies and convulsed by civil war.
What happened to Athenian democracy? The conservative way was overthrown by rampant innovation. Old structures were replaced with fluid, mobile opinions (i.e., democracy). Aristocratic leaders were replaced by demagogues. A similar transformation has occurred in American life, only on a more massive scale, with innovation threatening the most basic social structures. Everything has been transformed today, and nothing is what it once was. If we have conservatives in today’s society, they have almost nothing left to conserve. The licentiousness of the multitude is the supreme law, so that freedom no longer means freedom from an oppressive government. Rather, it is the freedom to behave in a manner that requires greater and greater government involvement; more and more government intervention – from family courts to health care.
In ancient Athens the licentiousness of the people was more narrowly focused in terms of lust for power. The Athenians built an empire and extracted money from other states. The desire for more power, more wealth and more conquest led to the fatal invasion of Sicily in which the cream of the Athenian Army was destroyed. This is not surprising, since mediocre men rose to generalship. Some Athenian leaders were demagogues, some proved to be traitors, but most were overmatched by circumstances. Compare now the situation of American democracy. Here the licentiousness of the people is more hedonistically focused. The Americans have built an empire by defending the free world against totalitarian threats (Nazism, Communism, radical Islam, etc.). Instead of extracting money from other states, the Americans have worked out an arrangement whereby they export their inflation. This allows a high standard of living on the basis of a “service economy,” with manufacturing jobs disappearing year to year. Under this arrangement, mediocre men have been elected to the U.S. presidency. Some have been demagogues. None are equal to the crisis.
The gadfly who sticks a pin into the overinflated saviors of the hour, who openly assails the prevailing notions as false, makes little headway. Socrates was condemned to death by his fellow Athenians because he had questioned and tested the best men of his day, and found they were deluded. The story of how he came to this path is rather interesting. The Delphic Oracle had said there was no one wiser than Socrates, and because of this Socrates set out to prove the Oracle wrong. He went in search of someone wiser than himself. “I went to one who had the reputation for wisdom, and observed him,” said Socrates at his trial. It was a prominent politician, with many friends. “When I began to talk with him,” Socrates continued, “I could not help thinking that he wasn’t really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and wiser still by himself; and I went and tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise, the consequence was that he hated me.” Such was the unfortunate outcome for Socrates.
Today we have researchers confirming what Socrates discovered 2500 years ago. Professor David Dunning (mentioned above) and his colleague Justin Kruger have discovered something called the Dunning-Kruger effect. As it happens, there is “a cognitive bias in which the unskilled suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average.” Even more interesting, “Actual competence may weaken self-confidence, as competent individuals may falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding.” The example of Socrates adds a further dimension: being competent, he could not believe he was the wisest man. After all, he knew himself to be ignorant. Yet the wisdom of all others he encountered proved to be nonsense. If he was wiser than others, it was only because he was not deluded by false wisdom.
The modesty of intelligent men is of this type. The more they know, the more they are humbled by their ignorance. The ancient Athenian politicians and voters, like the modern American politicians and voters, rarely notice their own ignorance. Today’s politicians present their ideas and the ignorant multitude sits in judgment. “Democracy substitutes election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few,” said George Bernard Shaw. Sadly, it would be more correct to say that democracy more and more signifies the appointment of the corrupt few by the incompetent many.
After Socrates received his death sentence, he asked for a favor which we should take to heart:
When my sons are grown up, I would ask you, O my friends, to punish them; and would have you trouble them, as I have troubled you, if they seem to care about riches, or anything more than about virtue, or if they pretend to be something when they are really nothing – then reprove them, as I have reproved you, for not caring about that for which they ought to care, and for thinking they are something when they are really nothing.