[W]ould he not provoke laughter, and would it not be said of him that he had returned from his journey aloft with his eyes ruined and that it was not worth while even to attempt the ascent? And if it were possible to lay hands on and to kill the man who tried to release them and lead them up, would they not kill him2?” “They certainly would,” he said.--Republic, 517a.
The one who is virtuous in truth--namely, the one who, when he rules them, determines their actions and directs them toward happiness--is not made a ruler by them [in a democratic city]. If he chances to rule them, he is soon deposed or killed, or his rulership is disturbed and challenged...However, it is more possible and easier for the virtuous cities and the rulership of the virtuous to emerge from the necessary and democratic cities than from the other [ignorant] cities. Al-Farabi, Political Regime 117 (p. 88 in the Butterworth translation).
One way to understand the twentieth century is that after the collapse of Weimar and the Third Republic, and the near collapse of the US in the early 1930s, liberal democracies have experimented starting with the New Deal, with increasing stealth rule by experts and meritocratic technocrats while allowing peaceful regime change among competitive (monied) elites through mass elections. This system is near collapse because in the aftermath of the great financial recession, the system's capacity for adaptation (to technological disruption, immigration, ecological change) is being overstretched.
Within the status quo, the strongest winds (in the wake of Citizens United vs FEC) blow either toward increasing the olicharchic power of the monied classes; or (among the electorates) toward (Presidential) strong men that can protect and promote shared identity (the two are compatible because the strong men may be very wealthy), but there is no reason to expect such strong men to be friends of justice or truth even by accident. By contrast, among the justice loving intelligentsia, who mistake the cause (immoral policy) for the effect (ignorant electorates), we find the addicted gamblers who wish to double-down on expert rule by limiting the franchise in various ways and, thereby, euthanize democratic life one moral argument at a time.
Is there then no way out from our predicament?
The deadly conclusion of the Cave allegory can be treated as both Socrates's admission that the transition problem -- [recall], that is [recall also here and here] how to how to create the best political organization with a population raised under bad institutions (or worse, that is, bad breeding) -- is insolvable and also, thereby, that in politics opinion and not truth rules. Madison, writing in defense of a representative, that is, aristocratic version of democracy during a revolutionary transition, concedes the point (and thereby echoes Adam Smith):
If it be true that all governments rest on opinion, it is no less true that the strength of opinion in each individual, and its practical influence on his conduct, depend much on the number which he supposes to have entertained the same opinion. The reason of man, like man himself is timid and cautious, when left alone; and acquires firmness and confidence, in proportion to the number with which it is associated. When the examples, which fortify opinion, are antient as well as numerous, they are known to have a double effect. In a nation of philosophers, this consideration ought to be disregarded. A reverence for the laws, would be sufficiently inculcated by the voice of an enlightened reason. But a nation of philosophers is as little to be expected as the philosophical race of kings wished for by Plato. And in every other nation, the most rational government will not find it a superfluous advantage, to have the prejudices of the community on its side. Madison (1788) Federalist 49.
Opinion and prejudice cannot be removed entirely from democratic life. The best that can be done is to have these promote reason. This is the Platonic understanding of religion. Madison follows Plato (Laws) in understanding the rule of law as a second best means to facilitate the rule of reason absent philosopher-kings. This has a predictable conservative consequence already known to Al-Farabi (who was probably unknown to Madison, but who did influence Spinoza [perhaps via Ibn Rushd] and, thereby, all kinds of 18th century thinkers), who also advocates the rule of law absent philosopher-kings. In fact, while Al-Farabi allows philosopher-kings to be radical innovators and contextualist about how the best city ought to be ruled (recall also this), absent philosophical rule, the law (derived from a philosopher-king) should exhibit a strong status quo bias and be treated with reverence (see, especially, paragraph 82, on p. 70 of the Butterworth translation of the Political Regime).*
But unlike Plato and Madison, Al-Farabi seems to insist that a virtuous city is possible and that it can arise from a democratic city by which Al-Farabi seems to mean that the citizens directly vote for their ruler or president (akin to elected kingship/generalship) without mediating institutions. This rule is based on the good opinion of the citizens, and ongoing bargaining between ruler and evolving coalitions. Despite his Platonism, Al-Farabi portrays the democratic city in attractive fashion as a cosmopolitan, multicultural, multi-ethnic commercial polity, where a relativistic, mutual tolerance rules, in which the arts and sciences can thrive (alongside the vices) in a private capacity: "it is like an embroidered garment replete with colored figures and dyes." (par. 115, p. 87)
Yet, as we have seen, Al-Farabi is adamant that (i) a virtuous city can emerge from a democratic city, but that (ii) it cannot be turned to a city in which truth and virtue rule. Al-Farabi's text does not explain how (i) and (ii) can be made compatible. It's clear that in Al-Farabi the lack of proper (mass) education in virtue (and perhaps a proper eugenic project) is a barrier to (ii), but that one cannot expect proper education until the transition problem is solved.**
But it strikes me there are two ways in which (i-ii) can be made to cohere with each other in Al-Farabi's scheme: first, virtue rules indirectly by stealth. This is, in fact, part of Plato's second-best 'solution' (e.g., the Nocturnal Council) in the Laws. But I see no hints of this in Al-Farabi's Political Regime (Al-Farabi knew the Laws).
Second, another option would be to start what the ancients would have called a colony. In particular, such a colony would be founded by a charismatic leader who understands true or civic religion. For, as we have seen in Al-Farabi true religion, or civic religion, really serves two purposes: (a) generate flourishing for members of the just/virtuous polity and (b) move from a misguided status quo to an optimal political outcome. (So, in time (b) precedes (a).) Al-Farabi is explicit that that a true leader understands how to use true religion in (b). The model is, thus, more akin to Moses and Muhammad (leaving the commercial town of Mecca for Medina).+ Crucially, Al-Farabi does not advocate noble lies. Civic religion is (recall) truth-apt.
Perhaps, one day space will be colonized and we can re-imagine a new founding. For now, we have to deal with our democratic way of life. Civic religion (which can include elements of what we call religion and what we call science) is a means to bring people to the truth without expecting everybody to be philosophers. It is a means toward a leveling up to the best of everybody's capacities. The symbols and images promoted by a true religion play a central role in facilitating some unity toward truth and justice in political multiplicities.
This idea of a collective, civil religion oriented toward truth and justice must be saved from those like David Brooks who invoke it to stifle dissent and to promote symbolic unity and solidarity as such. The young athletes that take a knee in the name of justice show that they understand the power of images, rituals, and symbolism. A democratic collective becomes better than its individuals if it can renew this civil religion toward justice (as an ideal). This is done not through mindless and criticism-free repetition, but through spirited debates in the spirit of mutual forbearance. Such forbearance does not come naturally, of course, unless we recognize the fragility of our way of life.
*I am ignoring here the complication of what to do with unjust laws in Al-Farabi's scheme.
+Joseph Smith is a more recent example.