On Comfort and Freedom

In my “Impolitic Reflections,” I noted Plato’s antagonism toward democracy, rooted in his presumption that the majority of men will always have appetitive natures, and therefore be unfit to direct a city that wishes to be just and wise. For this reason, I explained, he has his Socrates argue that in founding a good city, “you would never place any of its decision-making authority in the hands of the innately and irreversibly appetitive majority.”

In response, I received an e-mail from a regular and serious reader, which included this rumination:

Yet, the insatiably malleable cannot escape their own infantile delusions.  

They have no interest in self-interest as they believe it. Incapable as they are to comprehend that paradox… They are content. They have comfort. They will be protected by… the State.  

To which I reply as follows. 

Yes, the danger of placing authority in the hands of the comfort-seeking majority is not that they will carry out great evils — directly. Rather, the danger is that in the name of comfort and the avoidance of “stress,” they will be suckers for the first (and second and third) conman who comes down the road offering to make all their worries disappear. That, in fact, was exactly Plato’s objection to democracy. It leads to demagoguery, and from there to tyranny.

My good reader highlights the central issue, however. Comfort. Paradoxically, the great irrational majority of mankind, the appetitive class to use Plato’s term, almost always reduces itself, in the end, to the appetite for comfort and ease. After all their natural agitation and waywardness, they will settle upon pain-avoidance and perpetual security as the essential goals of life. That is the great threat their rule (i.e., democracy) represents: They will sell their souls to anyone who convinces them he has a comfortable, painless existence to offer them, if only they will throw their collective support behind him.

What modern political thought and practice teach us, above all, is that the desire for comfort, the lust for painlessness, is the appetite that inevitably determines the fortunes of popular or “representative” regimes, and no amount of Enlightenment fantasy to the contrary can change that universal human truth. 

Freedom, both political and spiritual, is in large measure the right to be uncomfortable. But how many people wish for that, or would fight to defend it?

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