A lost Platonic dialogue has shed light on the puzzling historical episode known as ΒΡΕΞΙΤ, in which the citizens of the city-state Athens in the European south, known to many today as the “cradle of democracy”, voted in favour of withdrawing from the Hellenic world. Extracts of the dialogue attributed to the Classical philosopher Plato (circa 428-348 BC) were found among the crumpled newspaper cushioning a “Macedonian” gold wreath reportedly found under a pensioner’s bed in Somerset, which recently sold at auction for £14,000 (at the time equivalent to just over $20,000, now worth approximately a couple of good laying chickens of no specific breed, and rapidly depreciating). The authenticity of the wreath has been questioned, however the Plato fragment is said to “bear all the hallmarks” of a lost work. Extracts are published for the first time below:
“Some have said that it was a mistake to give a voice to the people on matters of serious consequence, because they lack the judgement to make correct decisions. This is not my quarrel. To the contrary, I hold that it is good and just for well-born Athenians to resolve their petty disputes and pursue to their personal ambitions by calling on the unenlightened hoi polloi to take on the burden of responsibility. For in addition to removing from the wise the labour of having to do the “hard shit”, this allows for the flourishing of the art of demagoguery [lit. that of leading the people], which will be counted as one of the great gifts of this glorious city of ours to the world.
In future generations, true followers for my political vision will rightly make this primitive practice of consulting the people directly obsolete, such that they will need to invent new names for it in their own tongue, and exercise it only in exceptional circumstances. For now, we call it “democracy”.
My quarrel with our system of democracy is that for too long we have been too soft on our women, our slaves and our metics [resident aliens], so that they no longer know their place, while the rightful citizens of Athens, male and Athenian born, feel threatened in their own polis.
For too long we have delegated decisions on serious matters of state to untransparent and undemocratic processes like the Oracle of Delphi and the machinations of the faceless priesthood in the distant Delian League.
For too long we have allowed the riches of our silver mines to be used to undertake foolish wars and build costly temples, roads and bridges in foreign lands, in cities which arrogantly refuse to pay us our rightful tribute.
The citizens who have cast their vote for ΒΡΕΞΙΤ have simply acknowledged that they need to be led by decent chaps (καλὸς κἀγαθός types), fine graduates of my Academy, classical scholars with the wisdom to make this city great again, and never to be enticed by delusions of empire into disastrous and costly foreign expeditions, like their predecessors.
I believe that those in favour of ΒΡΕΞΙΤ are right to propose an Antipodean-style points system for metics, combined with a Hyperborean trading model. I also hold that it would be a mistake to put a limit on the number of slaves. Slaves and metics, along with the unpaid labour of women, are what make it possible for our citizens to keep their fingernails clean by not engaging in manual labour, and to devote themselves directly to matters of state, in between travelling to support the Athenian sporting prowess in their noble defeats in the numerous Panhellenic Games.”
“Those citizens who etched “Metics Go Home” on the metope of the Temple of Xenios Zeus [Hospitable Zeus, patron of hospitality and guests and avenger of wrongs done to strangers] were merely adapting the customary and legitimate practice of ostracism writ large, voting to expel those who have abused our hospitality, without trial or debate.”
For more nuanced discussions of the fallacy of the “too much democracy” argument in response to the UK’s EU referendum, we direct you to Matt Taibi’s article about Brexit in Rolling Stone Magazine. More on the uses and abuses of Plato in contemporary political analysis can be found in the recent debate about the ascendancy of Donal Trump an others in the Los Angeles Review of Books. For a direct insight into the realities of the first democracy, red in tooth and claw, you can read our earlier post on the evidence of lynchings and mass executions in the early days of Athens. It is not clear which campaign, Brexit or Bremain, Plato would actually side with. Being the original reactionary, he would probably be happy with either, given that they were both led by what we would now call “elites”. I suspect he would have a soft spot for Boris Johnson given his veneration for the Classics.
IMAGES: “The School of Athens” by Raphael; Ostrakon (voting sherd) bearing the name of Kimon, son of Miltiades, a fifth century BC Athenian general, victor of the Battle of Salamis and commander of the Delian League forces, who was exiled (ostracised) from Athens for ten years (via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 2.5).