The Occupy Wall Street movement has defied the prognostications of critics who thought that this seemingly disparate, disorganized and hygienically challenged grunge-gathering would be nothing more than a passing protest fad. Yet now into its second month, it shows no signs of slowing down and has instead exploded into the unpredictable and rarefied realm of "international phenomenon" as literally hundreds of "Occupy" spawns have splintered off nationally and around the world.
So what's at play here? Why are more and more people—some actually over 40 and wearing suits—feeling compelled to participate in this authentic grass-roots movement? Clearly there are more than just hacky-sacking, drum-playing retro hippies involved (although there seems to be no shortage of those), but we're seeing more and more people with actual jobs and/or adult responsibilities lend themselves to the, well, occupation.
Interestingly, that other highly vocal political grass-roots movement from the right-side of the political dial known as the Tea Party has gone to great lengths to distance itself from the Occupy crowd. But, political orientation, musical preferences and fashion-sense aside, are they really so different? They're both mad-as-hell-and-not-going-to-take-it-anymore; both feel that a large monolithic institution has grown monstrously out-of-control (Government-as-Big Brother for the Tea Partiers and Greed-Is-Good-Big Banking and Corporate America for the Occupy crowd); and, finally, both are so passionate about their beliefs that they feel compelled to participate collectively in the expression of their discontent.
My question: Are the Occupy Wall Streeters—and the Tea Partiers, for that matter—fulfilling some sort of noble civic responsibility in participating in their respective demonstrations? Are the Occupiers, odiferous as some of them may be, meaningfully engaged in our democracy and in our political process in a way that would make the real founding fathers of our political system—the ancient Greeks—proud? In short, what would Plato, the man who literally wrote the book, "The Republic," say about our friends gathered in Zucotti Park?
Interestingly, Plato was a fan of the 1 percent, but just not the 1 percent that the Occupiers revile. Plato believed that the 1 percent ruling class shouldn't be determined by the number of zeroes in a bank account but, instead, by the amount of wisdom that a person possessed. In his "Republic," Plato rejects the notion of an oligarchy/plutocracy (a rule by a small minority who are rich) and felt that this economic divide would lead to class warfare as the poor would eventually overthrow the rich and create a democracy.
So far, so good; this seems in step with the Occupy mission statement. Unfortunately, Plato then warns that this mob-like democracy can become drunk with freedom, which can then lead to a tyrannical take-over by a despot. Not so good.
That's where the Philosopher Kings come in. Although a decided minority, they can use their wisdom and benevolence to make just and right decicions for the society. I know, it sounds a bit elitist, but what do we call it in our own system when we say that we want to elect "the best of the best?" The best of the best are, by definition, the elite. But don't we want the best, most thoughtful people making the important choices of a society?
If we were to be honest, we would have to admit that we've never been a pure democracy in the true sense of the word where, American Idol-style, everyone at home votes for what they would want to see happen in their governemnet. Instead, we've always been a representative Republic, wherein we elect leaders to make those decisions on our behalf. So why not select enlightened and wise Philosopher King types of leaders rather than the used car salesmen that are currently running the show?
Regardless of whichever political system is in place, Plato clearly valued reflective thinking and an engagement with the political process. This was reflected in Socrates' famous "The unexamined life is not worth living."
But Socrates, Plato's mentor, also respected the social order. When unfairly sentenced to death in a changing political climate, and when given the opportunity to escape, he chose to abide by the rules of the game. Socrates strongly believed in the notion of civic virtue and demonstrated that his personal integrity meant more to him than even his own life; to escape and exile himself would go against this sense of civic duty and his principle of abiding by whatever Athens decreed—even when it seemed wrong.
The result? He drank the hemlock. And he spent the last day of his life discussing philosophy as he had a very timely discussion about the immortality of the soul with his two close friends, Cebes and Timias.
So what would Plato say about the Occupy Wall Street movement? I think he might be enthused about their civic engagement; and perhaps a bit disappointed with those who have demonstrated a lack of character and civility while participating in the all-important civic and political process.