We are used to thinking very highly of democracy, and by extension, of Ancient Athens, the civilisation that gave rise to it. The Parthenon has become almost a byword for democratic values, which is why so many leaders of democracies like to be photographed among its ruins.
In the dialogues of Plato, the founding father of Greek Philosophy Socrates is portrayed as hugely pessimistic about the whole business of democracy. In Book Six of The Republic, Plato describes Socrates falling into conversation with a character called Adeimantus and trying to get him to see the flaws of democracy by comparing a society to a ship. If you were heading out on a journey by sea, asks Socrates, who would you ideally want deciding who was in charge of the vessel? Just anyone or people educated in the rules and demands of seafaring?
The latter of course, says Adeimantus, so why then, responds Socrates, do we keep thinking that any person should be fit to judge who should be a ruler of a country? Socrates’s point is that voting in an election is a skill, not a random intuition. And like any skill, it needs to be taught systematically to people. Letting the citizenry vote without an education is as irresponsible as putting them in charge of a trireme sailing to Samos in a storm.
Socrates was to have first hand, catastrophic experience of the foolishness of voters. In 399 BC, the philosopher was put on trial on trumped up charges of corrupting the youth of Athens. A jury of 500 Athenians was invited to weigh up the case and decided by a narrow margin that the philosopher was guilty. He was put to death by hemlock in a process which is, for thinking people, every bit as tragic as Jesus’s condemnation has been for Christians.