Plato On Idiots and Ignorance

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“If you don’t vote, you will be governed by idiots.”

The quote is a variation of the quote most often attributed to Plato, ubiquitous on the internet: “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics, is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.” The source is The Republic, (Book 1, 346-347), where Plato makes the point that if good, honorable, intelligent men do not to wish to serve in government, then they will be punished by being ruled by those who are bad, dishonorable, and dumb. The actual sentence is: “But the chief penalty is to be governed by someone worse if a man will not himself hold office and rule.” There are many other variants of this famous quotation. Among them is this one crafted by poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson that appears in Society and Solitude (1870): “Plato says that the punishment which the wise suffer who refuse to take part in the government, is, to live under the government of worse men.”

“A man may truly say that ignorance is a third case of crimes. Ignorance, however, may be conveniently divided… into two sorts: There is simple ignorance, which is the source of lighter offenses, and double ignorance, which is accompanied by a conceit of wisdom; and he who is under the influence of the latter fancies that he knows all about matters of which he knows nothing. This second kind of ignorance, when possessed of power and strength, will be… the source of great and monstrous crimes…”

A number of websites mistakenly attribute this quotation to Aristotle (384-322 BC), a famous Greek philosopher, who was a student of Plato. However this quotation was written by Plato; it is found in The Dialogues of Plato, Volume 4, (1895) translated by B. Jewett, professor of Greek, University of Oxford. Plato (428-348 BC). Plato was a student of the classical Greek philosopher Socrates (470-399 BC). Plato and Socrates are considered the founders of Western philosophy — their ideas and concepts have shaped Western civilization for centuries. We know of Socrates’ teachings through Plato’s writings (The Dialogues) that employ the Socratic method: the deep exploration of topics through endless questioning.

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For further reading:
The Dialogues of Plato by Plato
The Republic by Plato

3 thoughts on “Plato On Idiots and Ignorance

    • Hi Ed. I appreciate curiosity and critical thinking — two of the most important tools to living in the modern world. Sure the web provides a tsunami of information, but you need to know how to use it, otherwise you drown. One of the biggest problems we face, and the election results confirm this, is that people need to stop getting their news from social media that is filtered and manipulated. Reading primary sources is very important if you want to get objective information and then consider and make your own decision. As Socrates wrote, and I have accepted as my motto: the unexamined life is not worth living. Cheers. Alex

      • I agree, Alex. I was a political analyst (mostly international affairs, specifically Asia, focused mostly on China) for many years; and you are right, primary sources are paramount.

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